World Philosophy Day 2017

STEM The Tide: The Revolution Will not Be Digitized
Remarks on the Occasion of World Philosophy Day 2017
Villain’s Beastro,
Windsor, ON

1. There can be no question of skepticism about the results of three hundred years of scientific research. The issue is not whether material nature can be understood by the scientific method. Rather, the question is whether human beings and our societies and cultures are reducible to material nature, its elements, forces, and laws.

2. There can also be no question of retreating to idealist dreams of a spiritual other-world and divine origins. Not only do they presuppose what would need to be explained: how god created the world and what reason there would be for souls to become embodied, they also abstract from the limitations and challenges that make life as finite, mortal being difficult.

3. Hence the philosophical object is the specific historical materiality of human beings, the way our individual and collective lives are at once biological and social, physical and symbolic, framed by objective forces that are nevertheless subject to interpretation and change. Grasping this specificity adequately is not only a philosophical problem: it organizes the whole field of the humanities. What is uniquely philosophical is the task of making the case, against reductionism on the one hand and idealism on the other, of the synthetic, bio-social nature of human beings.

4. Our biology both links us together in mutual need and allows us to think as separate individuals. We are drawn together and pulled apart; the meaning and value of our lives are at once collective political problems and individual existential problems. We build together and dread our deaths alone.

5. Our finitude can be lived religiously or philosophically, or it can be ignored scientifically. If religious belief cannot solve the problems of existential anxiety, the dread of uncertainty, the eventual reality of failure and loss, when it is honest it at least acknowledges them as the source of the need to question the silent heavens. “Let man, coming back to himself, consider what he is in comparison with what is; let him consider himself as lost in this out of the way corner of nature; and from this little cell he finds himself lodged … let him learn to appreciate at their true worth the world, the kingdoms, the cities, and himself. What is man within the infinite?” (Pascal, Thought 13).

6. Science makes the same mistake as the dogmas it claims to overturn. In reality a historical and dialectical accumulation of partial understandings, science oversteps its competency as soon as it weighs in on ultimate issues. The absurdity of thinking that there is an algorithmic solution to ultimate questions is as overt as the belief in a literal creation of the universe in 6 days.

7. Choice is not algorithmic but normative: what can cruel or kind, tender or ruthless mean to a machine? They are felt and cognized realties, machine intelligence is artificial because it is not a feeling intelligence aware of itself and its responsibilities.

8. Ultimate questions are those which human beings have perennially posed, in all reflective cultures: Life, death, purpose, love, hate, sex, creation, destruction, knowledge, ignorance, future, the part and the whole, the self and its community, justice, freedom.

9. Philosophy as the public exercise of foundational questioning lives now as it has always lived, nourished by these ultimate questions. Human beings apart from these ultimate questions are protein awaiting recycling. Feeling the essential importance and value of our existence depends upon being confronted with these questions. We do not reason our way to these questions as a computer grinds out solutions. They are just there one day: alone on a bus, walking in a field, looking into your lover’s eyes, alone and suicidal, deliriously happy but knowing it cannot last. “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. … But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.10).

10. Cut off from these ultimate questions philosophy is reduced to a loose connection of technocratic specialities that must live and die by their contribution to instrumental knowledge. In the competition between empirical disciplines and philosophy over the instrumental value of knowledge, philosophy cannot win over the long term. It will eventually be absorbed by the empirical disciplines. If it wants a future, it must confront those disciplines with the limits of their competence.

11. Those limits are: the values by which we live and ought to live, the interior life of imagination and thought, the purpose and meaning of existence, in all of their historical complexity and contradiction.

12. Once we open up this field of questions there is always the possibility that the best conclusion is nihilism: that there are no universal values, that inner life and the affections and attachments it helps us form are chimeras, that life has no purpose. Living only really begins where confrontation with the non-necessity of continuing to live has been thought through and felt.

13. Everyone must think down to this level below which there is no going deeper on their own and for themselves. The value of the history of philosophy is not to unburden each individual of the need to work down to that absolute floor. “The task of becoming subjective, then, may be presumed to be the highest task, and one that is proposed to every human being.” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 146). If any philosopher could answer fundamental questions once and for all, they would have been the last philosopher. Like Virgil leading Dante through Hades, the history of philosophy is a guide that lets us see what we need to see, but not an answer book.

14. Hence, the public value of philosophy today is that it keeps these questions alive for the whole community, in circumstances in which our politics, our culture, and our science wants to ignore them or pretend they can be answered by pointing to a chemical sequence or a string of numbers. It forces us to think the specificity of the human as an existential, historical, social, symbolic, and political reality.

15. While this task is not the preserve of an expert culture of academic philosophers, academic philosophers find their public justification as teachers of disciplined and rigorous ways of posing these questions, as interpreters of the history of answers, as creators of answers demanded by our own time, and as exemplars of the dignity of argument and reasoned defence of positions, against violence on the one hand and the dogmatism of quantifiable results on the other.

What is Academic Freedom?

Like all liberal rights, academic freedom cuts both ways politically.  Much of the controversy that it engenders is a function of one side wanting to claim as its exclusive property a right that by its very nature is two-sided.  The growth of the  alt-right in the wake of Trump’s election and the return of arguments over political correctness (first time tragedy, second time farce) to North American campuses has made a public issue of what in less fraught times would be studiously ignored by everyone outside of academia.

In Canada, the main fault line today is the University of Toronto, and in particular Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson’s one man campaign against pronouns.  Cloaking himself in the mantle of “science,”  he has argued that there are no biological or social grounds for using genderless pronouns when referring to trans people, and has accused his opponents of violating academic freedom in their critical responses to his position.  Recently, he has upped the ante.  Building on his popularity as an alt-right icon, he has promised to start a web site to expose left-wing “cult”  classes on campus.  As he told CBC radio:

“We’re going to start with a website in the next month and a half that will be designed to help students and parents identify post-modern content in courses so that they can avoid them,” he told CTV’s Your Morning in August.

“I’m hoping that over about a five-year period a concerted effort could be made to knock the enrolment down in postmodern neo-Marxist cult classes by 75 per cent across the West. So our plan initially is to cut off the supply to the people that are running the indoctrination cults.”

[Colleagues at the University of Toronto are alarmed.  Not only is this a gross failure of collegiality– we are supposed to criticize each other but not call each other names and try to destroy one another’s classes– but they are also worried– legitimately– that in the ionized political atmosphere that prevails today, being singled out on this website could make them the targets of violence.  I will leave these legitimate concerns to one side and use the example as a lens to examine the real meaning and value of academic freedom].

So, parents, before you start worrying that your child will go to U of T and come home next Thanksgiving in saffron robes singing hymns to Lord Krishna, let me decode Prof. Peterson’s invective.  “Post-modern”  was a term that was au courant when I was graduate student, more than 20 years ago.  Today, um, not so much.  “Neo-marxist” is even older.  Its referent– if it ever really had one– would be figures like Herbert Marcuse who, in the 1960s, tried to re-formulate Marx’s critique of capitalism to account for the ways in which the working class had been absorbed into the system.  So his terms of abuse are a bit out of date,  but hey, he is a psychologist and not a practitioner of the dark arts of Anthropology or English literature (two disciplines which have, according to the good doctor, been taken over by cult leaders).

What actually troubles him is that some disciplines have the temerity to challenge the authority of empirical science,  to expose its historical entanglements with very unscientific hierarchies of power, and to defend interpretive approaches to the problem of truth that take into account self-understanding, context, culture, and history.  In other words, students in these classes have the opportunity to think critically– the very opposite of cultish indoctrination.

Supporters of Peterson will say that academic freedom gives him the right to expose what he regards as unscientific dogma; his critics can rejoin that academic freedom gives them the right to teach methods and content critical of the western canon and natural science.  The truth is that academic freedom gives both sides the right (subject to key limitations that I will discuss below) to make whatever arguments they think need making.  Like the right to free speech, academic freedom is a formal right that protects the expression, in an academic context, of politically opposed positions.  Attempts to capture it by either the left or the right will always fail, because it protects expression, not content.

In order to understand academic freedom as well as its real value and importance, it is important that we not treat it as an abstract value but as a collective agreement right.  Academic freedom does not appear in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  While it might usefully be thought of as a species of free speech, the only documents that formally assert it and are able to protect it are faculty collective agreements (and, sometimes, University Senate by-laws).  Here are the relevant clauses from the Collective agreement between my Faculty Association and the administration of the University of Windsor:

10:01  The fundamental purpose of the University and its unique contribution is the search for new knowledge and the free dissemination of what is known. Academic freedom in universities is essential to both these purposes in the teaching function of the University as well as in its scholarship, research, and creative work.

10:02  Each member shall be free in the choice and pursuit of research consistent with the objectives and purposes of the University and in the publication of the results, subject only to the normally expected level of performance of her/his other duties and responsibilities.

10:03  Each member shall have freedom of discussion.  However, in the exercise of this freedom in the classroom, reasonable restraint shall be used in introducing matters unrelated to her/his subject.  The University shall not require conformity to any religious beliefs, doctrines or practices.

10:04 The University shall not impose supervision or other restraints upon, nor will it assume responsibility for, what is said or written by a member acting as a private citizen.  However, as a person of learning she/he shall exercise good judgment and shall make it clear that she/he is not acting as a spokesperson for the University.

As should be clear,  the main purpose of academic freedom is not to protect marginalized political positions of whatever ideological stripe, but rather to ensure that research and teaching are unconstrained by administrative, economic, or political power.  The relevant contrast is not between left and right, but between truth and power:  academic freedom is necessary because the discovery of truths depends upon the free exercise of intellect, including its critical exercise against any and all authorities who would try to block the dissemination of certain truths that undermine their legitimacy.

The main threat to academic freedom is university administrations themselves, and the social, political, and economic forces that batter at the walls of the university demanding that research and teaching serve their interests.  That said, academic freedom itself protects Marxist economists and business professors, radical feminists and defenders of traditional marriage, nationalist historians of the First World War and post-colonial critics of imperialism.  So long as there are competing political positions in society they will be represented in academia.  All attempts of one side or the other to use academic freedom to de-legitimate the other side contradict the very value to which they appeal.

That said, there are two very good reasons for social critics to defend academic freedom even though it also protects the right of their opponents to attack them.   First of all, alt-right fantasies aside, the university is not ruled by neo-marxist cultists.  Boards of Governors are stuffed with business people, and senior administrators increasingly identify their role with that of a CEO.  While there are a few dogmatic leftists teaching, there are no neo-marxist cultists running universities.  Ordinary market forces are a much bigger threat to the existence of Anthropology and English Literature than Peterson’s website will ever be.  The totalitarian drum beat of jobs, jobs. jobs, abetted by administrators who design budgets that de-fund the arts and humanities (as well as basic research in the sciences)  in favour of commodifiable research, are rapidly shifting the university away from social criticism and toward conformity with money imperatives.  Academic freedom can be an important value basis for the critique of institutional degeneration.

Second, the left has to learn how to win arguments again.  We need to convince opponents that the world is wrong and stop being satisfied with patting each other on the back for our moral purity.  That means a willingness to engage the intellectual enemy and prove that we have more coherent and comprehensive understandings of the world, that we can expose their contradictions and one-sided constructions, and that we have a convincing program that can build multi-faceted majority support.

The only real and legitimate constraint on academic freedom is the truth that our research and teaching ought to serve.  Where there are contrary positions, both cannot be true, but to decide between them generally requires argument.  Argument is not ad hominem insult; criticism is not dogmatic rejection of whole fields of social and cultural research.  Moreover, truth is not the preserve of the natural sciences.  To be sure, natural scientific understanding of the elements and laws of material reality are of essential importance, both as intrinsically valuable achievements of the human mind, and also as essential contributors to collective health and well-being.  But science does not exist in a Platonic realm of ideas free from political and economic power.  Nor are the laws of material nature sufficient to understand human history, society, and culture.  There is no value free way to study values, and no way to fully understand human history, society, and culture without studying values.  That ensures that there will be disagreement.  Academic freedom is essential to ensuring that those disagreements are resolved by superior evidence, reasons, and argument, and not by campaigns to de-legitimate those disciplines with the historical competence to compile, evaluate, and articulate the evidence.

Democracy, Religion, and Cultural Difference

Anyone who has been to Montreal will have seen the giant crucifix, shining as a beacon unto the lost, on top of Mount Royal.  It is not a public geometry lesson, not an art installation, it is a very large and very obvious religious symbol, testimony to the outsized role that the Catholic Church has played in Quebec’s history.  France’s revolution of 1789 did not instill “secularism”  at the heart of la nouvelle France but hived it off from history as a bastion of ancien regime Catholic power.  Quebec’s embrace of secularism took place during the Quiet Revolution, some two hundred years after the original.

Yet, even after the happy rejection of Church power over daily life, the giant cross still shines every night from the highest point of the city.  Notre Dame Cathedral has not been turned into a Temple of Reason, nor L’Oratoire St. Joseph expropriated by the nearby Université de Montreal to house its science faculty.

If  Quebec is now the national bastion of “religious neutrality”  and “secularism,”  then I submit that the cross should be removed and the two great monuments to Catholic power and the credulity of true believers re-purposed.  Believing that an old priest can cure the afflicted is surely at least as great a threat to democratic and scientific values as a relatively few women covering  their faces in public in obedience to certain minority strains of Islam.

But it is only these women who will be obligated to conform to government dress code.  Sorry-  I forgot that worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sunglasses and members of the Sacred Order of Balaclava Wearers will also be be forced to partially disrobe before they can take the bus.  Not a word have I heard about priests in collars or nuns in habits.  Do these overt signs of religious authority not violate the supposed principle of “religious neutrality?”

The face! There is something about the face.  What is it?  According to Phillipe Couillard, Premier of Quebec, democracy requires face to face encounters.  “Public services should be given with an open face,” he said. “Why? Not because of religion but because of issues related to communication, safety, and identification. It’s the characteristic of any society that when we talk to each other I see your face, you see mine. This is something that is very distinct from religion.”  If this claim is true, that the bill is about safety and identification, why does the bill include the phrase “religious neutrality” at all?  “Bill 62’s … English title is “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies.”  Yet, the only supposedly religious garment the act would ban are the variety of face coverings worn by some Muslim women.

Hence it is clear and indisputable that whatever the framers’ intentions, its only effect will be to further stigmatize and demonize Islam and in particular Muslim women.  Ostensibly, the law derives from the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on cultural accommodation in Quebec, although the co-chairs, sociologist Gérard Bouchard and Philosopher Charles Taylor have criticized it.  As have the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition Avenir Québec, but in their case for not going far enough.

Although there can be little doubt about the real implications of the law, can one not argue that the value of liberal-democratic equality demands it?  On the surface, religious-cultural traditions that demand any mandatory form of dress for women seem themselves stigmatizing and oppressive.  If a tradition is rooted in patriarchal power over women, then it is hardly compatible with the idea of democratic equality, in which every member of the polity is assumed free to choose their political and religious beliefs, as well as the way they will present themselves in public.  If the tradition to which the woman belongs requires her to cover her face, and imposes sanctions if she does not, then her power to choose is compromised, and she is oppressed.  A law that opposes that tradition therefore opposes oppression, and should thus be defensible on grounds of liberal-democratic equality.

This argument has some merit.  It rests on the Enlightenment view of religion as irrational superstition.  It rejects pure tolerance in favour of critical evaluation of traditions on the basis of universal human interests in freedom of self-presentation.  Values which claim the authority of history but are manifestly rooted in rationally indefensible hierarchies of power are judged illegitimate. The public realm is treated as a space for the harmonious interplay of differences, but only legitimate differences, ones that do not depend upon the marginalization and domination of others. In its liberal-feminist form, it rejects all  paternalistic arguments that women must conceal themselves from the male gaze for their own good.

As I have argued in more detail in past posts, (How do You Like the End of the Enlightenment Now? February 22nd, 2017)) the so-called age of “post-truth”  politics that we find ourselves has had the one salutary effect of reminding us of the political importance of these Enlightenment values.  Frightening displays of far right violence have been encouraged by false historical narratives and empirically untrue social theory (e.g., that the Confederacy was the legitimate product of honourable Southern culture, or that immigrants “steal”  “our”  jobs).  In the face of false and invidious ideologies, a dose of truth is most necessary  (as are reminders about the  value of liberal-democratic equality in the face of far right, exclusionary violence).

However, choice and liberal-democratic equality produce sometimes paradoxical results.  When they do, contextual political intelligence is required to decide the paradox in favour of one or the other doxa in tension.  Contrary to the expectations of radical Enlightenment critics of religion like the Baron d’Holbach, one of the first openly atheist philosophers and a determined anti-clericalist, whose System de nature mocks the hypocrisy of priests and demolishes all “proofs”  of the existence of God, history has proven that religious belief is not rooted in rationality, and is therefore impervious to rational-empirical criticism.  As Feuerbach and Marx understood, religious belief stems from deeper felt needs:  to belong, to feel loved, to feel protected in a world that exposes us on every side to uncaring deprivation and violence.

While I would argue that it is the community that believers form that satisfies the needs (if they are in fact satisfied) and not the always absent, other-world God, this need is a powerful social bonding force.  While the belief in a caring and protective other-world being is irrational, superstitious, and sure to be disappointed by the void which death no doubt is, the demand that the need be satisfied is rational, in the sense of essentially important for a good human life.  I have tried to provide a secular-materialist explanation of this need and how it might be satisfied outside of religious systems elsewhere. (See Can Only Religion Save UsThe European Legacy:  Towards New Paradigms, 15:1, 2010).  So long as billions of people reject my argument and maintain their religious cultures, democratic societies are going to have to contend with the existence of communities some of whose members choose to belong even though the choice entails commitments which, on the surface, seem to limit their own rights in oppressive ways.

Here we have a paradox of self-determination and choice: rational people choosing to follow irrational belief systems to live in ways that appear oppressive from an abstract liberal-democratic perspective.  Laws like Quebec’s Bill 62 claim to want to resolve the paradox in favour of abstract liberal-democratic equality.   Given the reality and the power of peoples’ religious commitments, and the value of satisfying the needs for belonging and love that these commitments serve, this and similar laws end up being more oppressive and paternalistic than the practices they try to eliminate.

When it comes to oppression we must always listen to the voices of those who appear to be oppressed.  If Muslim women who cover their faces say that they choose to do so because they do not want to be ostracized from their communities, then those of us who do not share those beliefs, indeed, even those who regard them as both irrational and oppressive, need to listen.  Self-determination, the most essential democratic value, means that people can choose paths that might not be fully consistent with liberal-democratic conceptions of equality, but which cannot be uprooted without destroying the all-important democratic commitment to coherently inclusive social institutions.  If there are groups who will not abandon certain practices which are in tension with some aspect of liberal-democratic equality, but which otherwise leave members free to change their mind and reject the practices at some future point, then the policy most consistent with democratic equality and freedom is to leave the people free to choose, trusting that they are capable, as mature, rational adults, of understanding what they are doing and accepting of the consequences.

That said, there is always room for argument:  No group, religious or otherwise, has the right not to be criticized, and has a duty to respond the criticisms.  If some members find their group’s answer lacking, eventually they will choose to leave, as many millions of people in Quebec chose to leave the Catholic Church to build a new secular Quebec.  No one compelled them to do so, they decided collectively that they wanted a different avenir for Quebec.  Unless we think Muslim women are a species apart, incapable of changing their individual and collective future for themselves, then we have to conclude, with Trudeau the elder, that the state has no more right to rifle through the closets of the nation than to police what goes on in its bedrooms.

Readings: David Camfield: We Can Do Better

In We Can Do Better:  Ideas for Changing Society, David Camfield presents his “reconstructed historical materialism”  as the theoretical key to practical social transformation.  It is both concise and wide-ranging, but never becomes so dense that it ceases to be accessible to non-experts.  Camfield avoids academic jargon and pecayune analysis in favour of readable prose and familiar, effective examples.  At the same time, the book engages with complex philosophical problems and challenging impediments to socialist political organization with enough sophistication to engage the attention of academics and seasoned activists.  Philosophically, his reconstructed historical materialism retains the core strength of the original theory while providing novel solutions to older problems of misinterpretations like economism and mechanical theories of historical causality.  By stressing collective agency as the driving force of history, Camfield’s reconstruction prepares the ground for a new politics of struggle from below in which class, race, and sex-gender are intertwined rather than set against one another.  Camfield thus manages to develop a theory which coherently informs practice, and theorizes a practice that could plausibly produce the sorts of unified and global movements that progress towards socialism will require.

In the first part of the four part book Camfield examines three alternatives to historical materialist explanation:  idealism, biological determinism, and neo-liberal market fundamentalism.  According to the first, history is driven by ideal entities of some sort:  divine will, Platonic forms, or values that exist independently of the people who hold them.  According to the second, social history is determined by natural history.  Humanity’s genetic structure essentially programs certain forms of behaviour which recur in different forms in different societies.  According to the third, human beings are programmed to compete, which means that history is dominated by various forms of market relationships.  Capitalism is the final form of society because it perfects and universalises market relationships. Hence, it is both in accord with our competititve nature and the most efficient and just way of utilizing resources.

Camfield shows that each of these alternative explanations  fails as a coherent explanation of historical development and social dynamics.  Idealists beg the question, asserting that ideas determine historical development but unable to explain how the ideas arise in the first place.  Biological determinists have an account of where ideas come from, but their mechanistic and reductionist explanations cannot account for how a more or less identical genetic code can give rise to wildly different societies, cultures, and symbolic beliefs.  Market fundamentalism provides sound explanations of prototypical behaviour in capitalism, but cannot explain the dispositions, property forms, and social relationships that typified earlier egalitarian, non-market societies, nor the various forms of cooperation that underlie all forms of social life.  Of course people compete, but cooperation, not competition underlies all forms of society, because it is a presupposition of life itself.  The shared problem of all three approaches is thus that they reify and falsely universalise one aspect of human nature and society.

The great strength of historical materialism is that it exposes the problem of reification.  Reification refers to the process of turning a complex human practice or belief into an independent entity and then positing it as the cause of the practice.  Marx’s critique of reification has its roots in Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion.  Feuerbach argued that our idea of God is a reified projection of our own essential powers. Just as human beings are really the origin of the idea of God, so too are we the creators of economic value and the agents whose collective activity shapes the ideas according to which we act. Historical materialism can therefore do what none of the alternatives can:  explain the role of ideas, genes, and markets in historical context without according them independent existence and agency.

Camfield’s reconstruction of historical materialism is the content of Part Two.  He begins– as Marx’s original did– with the natural history of humanity.  We are  a mammallian species with definite needs which  force us to interact productively with the natural environment.  However, given our evolved neural architecture and social interdependence, we have developed forms of thought and communication that allow us to create what no other species can create:  a social-symbolic universe out of the giveness of nature.  History is thus always two-sided, a dialectical interaction between material production and symbolic explanatory reconstruction-justification of material production.  Ideas and values are thus interwoven with life-sustaining labour.  “Because humans create cultures, our context is never just a physical location.  It is always a cultural setting too.  The circumstances in which we find ourselves include ways of making sense of the world, giving it meaning and placing values on things. … Such ideas matter, but we must not make the idealist error of treating ideas as if they exist separately from people.”(p. 29)

We must certainly avoid the error of mechanical reductionism, but we also need to solve a trickier problem, (which Camfield’s reconstruction can help us solve, although I did not find myself convinced that the job is fully accomplished here), about the relationship between the ultimate material foundations of social life– reproductive and productive labour– and the histories of ideas, values, identities, and behaviours that develop out of those underlying processes.  The problem for historical materialism is how much relative weight to assign to natural as opposed to cultural factors in our explanation of individual behaviour and belief.  As an example, consider Camfield’s discussion of gender.  He quotes Connell in support of the view that gender “is not an expression of biology, nor a fixed dichotomy in human life or character.  It is a pattern in our social arrangements, and in the everyday activities and patterns which those arrangements cover.”(37) On this view biology determines our sex, but gender is a cultural product which is not determined  by our biological sex characteristics.  While it is true-  as the creation of a variety of trans identities prove– that sex does not mechanically determine gender identity, does this mean that biological sex plays no role?  Are male and female irrelevant to the ways in which gender has been constructed across cultural time and space?

The point is not to argue that biology determines gender identity, or anything at all in any mechanical sense.  At the same time we have to avoid cutting culture off completely from natural and biological bases.  In the 1960’s the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro (in On Materialism) warned against the naive optimism of culturalist interpretations of historical materialism which ignored the way in which our bodies and their infirmities act as frames that limit human possibility.  More recently, ecofeminists (for example, Ariel Sallehin Ecofeminism as Politics) have argued that women’s biology makes it possible for them to valorize nurturing relationships in a more profound way than men.  They do not thereby claim that women’s biology mechanically causes them to be nurturing, or that men cannot learn to be so, but they do argue for a closer relationship between biology and behaviour than Camfield seems to want to allow.  Camfield may not be wrong in his arguments, but there is more discussion to be had about this difficult issue than he is able to explore here.

Nevertheless, his stated position, read charitably, is the right one to take.  He argues that while productive and reproductive labour are foundational for human life and function as frames outside of which political, or religious, or artistic history could not exist, none of the forms those institutions and practices take are directly, mechanically determined by the economic structure, but have to be explained by concrete analysis of actual historical development.  Thus, from the fact that any capitalist society must exploit labour and create a political-legal structure that justifies and enforces it, no one can predict what state and legal form, beyond the generic necessity to justify and protect the exploitation of labour, any society will adopt.  Capitalism can be fascist or liberal-democratic, liberal-democrats can be nationalists or cosmopolitans; the law can enshrine formal equality between the sexes and gay marriage or it can enforce a sexual division of labour and demonize gays and lesbians.  The function of law is consistent, we can say, while is content differs given different traditions of struggle.

In this view, the key to understanding historical materialism is the dialectical relationship between context (the result of past activity) and action (interventions into the given reality which produce changes in it and generate a new context).  Camfield consistently affirms the agency of people:  we reflect, argue, and then act, and those actions are not, strictly speaking, predictable, but give rise to patterns from which we can learn if we study them. However, while the argument he wants and for the most part does make is dialectical and affirms human collective agency as the primary driver of history, there are moments where a more mechanical argument creeps in.

Take his unfortunate claim (which he derives from John Berger)  that “traditional Western European oil painting … is a “distinctively capitalist kind of culture.”(55).  This assertion seems to me like saying that  calculus is a distinctively capitalist kind of mathematics.  My point is not that art is an autonomous zone unaffected by social and economic forces.  There are social reasons why most known artists prior to the twentieth century were men, and we cannot explain art markets unless we understand how capitalism commodifies everything.  At the same time, art has its own history which a complete understanding of its value to human life has to examine, and which is not served well by overly general claims such as the one that Camfield makes.  From that sort of mechanical and generic claim no one can say whether “traditional” painting will take the form of Carravagio or El Greco, Rembrandt or Breughal the Elder, Gericault or Courbet, nor account for what is of permanent aesthetic value in them.  Clearly, any adequate historical materialist understanding of painting is going to have to actually study the history of painting as a practice, in the different contexts in which it developed, and include the aesthetic debates between artists as they continually pushed traditions in new directions.  Of course, these debates take place in a historical and political context, but they have an internal history too, and historical materialists, if they want to have anything to say about the practice, have to study the internal history and not just the social situation of artists.  The same would hold true of science, or religion, and other cultural-symbolic human practices.

However, for the most part Camfield avoids the error of mechanical determinism and provides as clear and accessible demonstration of what it means to think dialectically about society as one could hope to read.  There is no mystery to dialectical thought.  At root, all it really means is that one sees history as a process driven forward by struggles between opposed social forces.  Marx argued that the fundamental forms of opposition are between productive and appropriating classes.  Camfield does not alter this Marxist fundamental, but in Part Three makes clear, in a way that Marx occasionally noted but most often only implied, that the members of classes are not sexless and raceless abstractions but real people with definite sex, sexual, gender, and racial identities, with wider or narrow ranges of ability, with or without religious beliefs, and that all of these factors play into the contours of political struggle.

The real strength of Camfield’s book, its major contribution, is to provide a new theoretical and in practical  synthesis of the efforts of a number of thinkers over the past twenty years to develop a model of class struggle that is adequate to the real complexity of the working class:  the fact that most workers are non-white women, that class exploitation also exploits existing racial and gender hierarchies and any other means of dividing the working class that it can find or invent; that, therefore, anti-racist struggle, for example, is not some “extra”  outside of the main class struggle, but is class struggle, because white supremacy has been essential to capitalism from the beginning, and that the same can be said for patriarchy and struggles against all sorts of oppression.

Thus, if one wants to revive the old Marxist slogan that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, one must remember that this self-emancipation is not only from the capitalists, but also from sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on.  “The goal of a self-governing society could only be reached through a process controlled by the great majority of people acting in their own interests.  All the way along, such a transition would have to be a process of self-emancipation.  No minority, such as a party or armed force, could be a substitute for the democratically self-organized majority.”(126)  When we combine this principle with the concrete explanation that Camfield gives in the third part of the book of the ways in which class exploitation, patriarchy, and white supremacy have intertwined in the history of capitalism, we are presented with a hopeful program for movement building which respects the contextual need for autonomous organizing within a non-dogmatic commitment to ultimately unified struggle.

Camfield’s hopeful politics is never naive but honest about the real challenges this politics faces.  He concludes Part Three with a chapter whose title faces the problem squarely:  “Why isn’t There More Revolt.”  He answers the question with admirable candor:  “Because the working class has become more decomposed, collective action by workers to address their problems does not see very credible … ordinary people have become more prone to directing their anger against other people who suffer social inequality in one way or another.  Muslims, migrants, poor people, foreigners, women, people who face racism, Indigenous peoples– the victims of scapegoating are many and varied.”(107)  How far we travelled away from Marx’s belief that the dynamics of capitalism would themselves produce working class consciousness and that all workers would realize that they “have no country”  and that all that they have to lose in revolution “is their chains!”

False theory is false theory and it has to be rejected no matter who formulates it.  At the same time, one worries that Camfield is holding on to the goal of the theory– an ultimately unified movement against capitalism– without replacing the materialist foundation which provided the explanation of why that unity would happen.  What we have seen in the two major waves of revolt provoked by the 2008 crisis of capitalism, the Arab Spring and Occupy, is not ultimate unification but sudden mass mobilization followed by fragmentation and division,  The door was thus opened to reaction and repression.  This opposition was not only structural, as between Islamists and liberals in the Arab Spring, but also divided all variety of subfactions in Occupy whose members all shared broadly similar goals of resistance and anti-capitalism.

That division is worrying because it seems to suggest that the left faces a problem first identified by John Rawls with regard to liberal society in general:  that unanimity is impossible because of the fact of reasonable pluralism.  In modernity, Rawls argued, where people are educated and allowed to speak, they will do so, and they will disagree, and nothing can ever overcome the fact of disagreement about political issues.  The ease with which anyone can broadcast their voice on social media today has amplified the problem–if we want to call it a problem– of pluralism.  Marx’s structural theory of class consciousness could be read as one way of solving this problem:  capitalist crisis will awaken different workers to their shared objective interests.  I agree with Marx and Camfield that there are objective interests, but the facts from the most recent round of struggles suggest that these interests will always be interpreted differently by different groups, which means that the moment of unity may not arrive.

Or it could mean that it will arrive in a different form than the one that Marx expected.  The fact of reasonable pluralism on the left seems to rule out the possibility of reviving vanguard party building, and that is not bad, given its obvious failures.  At the same time, it poses a problem that the left has not thought through fully enough:  how does a unified movement allow the expression of different interpretations of objective interests and remain coherently unified?  Where there is a disagreement about particular momentary demands the problem is easy enough to solve:  take a vote and majority rules.  But when it is over deeper questions like the relative weight of different histories of oppression, for example, with the question of whether white members can adequately comprehend their own privilege, or whether Islamic dress codes are compatible with women’s liberation, final answers that will prove satisfying to all members might be more difficult to attain.

I would have liked to have seen more reflection on this sort of problem, because I think Camfield’s reconstruction might yield important insights about how it can be addressed.  He does not go far enough along that road here.  However, theory, like practice, is open-ended, and I look forward to further developments of his productive reconstruction of historical materialism and socialist practice.

Canadian History X

Fortunately for potential citizens, I lack ego on the scale that would make me want to name an imaginary city or country after myself.  Noonanville?  Noonania?  The “oo”  sound encourages comedic exaggeration.  Others would not take the city or country seriously, undermining the self-esteem of the citizens.  I couldn’t bear their shame.

Sadly, others lack my humility.  The history of colonialism is a history of expropriation and violence, but also of renaming.  Europeans relied upon the doctrine of terra nullis (empty land) to justify their colonies, in bold contradiction of the obvious fact that there were people and civilizations already here, in the “new” world.  The new world soon began to spawn “new”  European names:  New France, New England, and within them, settlements that took their names from European cities (Halifax, London) or the names of colonial military and civic leaders (Brockville, Amherstburgh).

Names confer identity.  When a place is identified by its European name, the implication (if not always the explicit intention of the user) is that there was nothing of value there before colonization. When it happens in that manner, naming is a form of cultural erasure.  That fact explains why anti-colonial struggles always involve de-naming and re-naming.  Zimbabwe was re-named Rhodesia after Cecil “I would colonize the stars if I could”  Rhodes; the victorious ZANU-PF forces de-named it and returned to Zimbabwe.  We used to call the islands off the coast of British Columbia the Queen Charlottes.  Today they are more properly referred to as Haida Gwaii.  Half of the Northwest Territories became Nunavut in 1999.

Re-naming happens for other reasons too.  Port Arthur and Fort William merged to become Thunder Bay.  Ruling powers and dominant languages change, leading to changes of name: “Istanbul was Constantinople,”  They Might Be Giants sang, “and even old New York was once New Amstersdam.” The point:  naming is political and historical, names change as history and politics change.  Re-naming is not a particularly rare event.

Intensifying debates over the legacy of Canadian colonialism are exposing uncomfortable truths about the racist beliefs of key figures from our history.  These debates have led some to argue that places and institutions named after these figure be re-named.  The mere suggestion has  provoked outrage from the guardians of the nation’s morals and Britishness.   When an Ontario teacher’s union voted to demand that Sir John A. MacDonald’s name be removed from Ontario public schools because he supported residential schools, a thousand sermons about the greatness of the country he founded were launched.  “Yes yes, he was a racist, yes yes, he supported the planned destruction of indigenous cultures and languages in the residential schools, but look at the country he helped found:  Beauty, eh!.  And besides, everyone had those racist beliefs at the time.  Water under the bridge people, lets move on.”

It takes awhile for the national debate to make its way down the 401 to our little Windsor-Essex peninsula, but it arrived with a crash last weekend, when, in a double-barrelled editorial attack, stalwart local reactionaries Lloyd Brown-John and Gord Henderson vilified as “historical revisionists”  those who demanded that the town of Amherstburgh (named after British General Jeffrey Amherst)  be re-named, in light of revelations that he wanted to exterminate the indigenous population by spreading small pox amongst them.    I want to carefully examine the three central arguments that they advance:  a)  that the demand to change names amounts to “historical revisionism,” b) that indigenous warriors were also violent and committed atrocities, (turn about is fair play, in essence), and c)  that people are “products of their times,” those times were racist, therefore everyone was a racist.

Historical Revisionism?

Let us deal with the charge of historical revisionism first.  Henderson writes that politicians should “tell these historical revisionists to take a hike.”  The substance of his editorial is a discussion with Parks Canada historian Ronald J. Dale, who argues that Amherst never advocated genocide against indigenous people as a whole, but only directed targeted vengence against specific tribes who had risen against the British is 1763. For the sake of argument, I will take Dale’s position as veridical. Even if critics are wrong about the details, they are not, as Henderson implies, historical revisionists.  Historical revisionists re-write history to suit an ideological agenda.  Most often the re-writing involves denying that known state crimes ever happened.  What is at issue here is not re-writing history but an argument over the extent and meaning of Amherst’s and other British and Canadian politicians’ policies towards indigenous people.  The issue is not whether the crimes happened,  but whether they amount to genocide or genocidal intent.

If there is a problem of revisionism it does not lie on the side of the critics, but with those who constructed the ten cent tour version of Canadian history that is typically taught in secondary school.  It consists of little more than Confederation, Vimy Ridge, and the repatriation of the Constitution.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for the inclusion of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit perspectives on Canadian history, and that is what we are getting with criticism of figures like MacDonald and Amherst.  That is not revisionism but just better history that is more inclusive of the perspectives of those who were also actively involved  (First Nation’s people, the Métis, and Inuit), but from whom we have rarely heard.

2) Savages, not Saints?

The second problem concerns Brown-John’s claim that indigenous people were also violent, also committed atrocities, and that their contemporary supporters are trying to paper over this truth by putting all the blame on colonists and colonial authorities like Amherst.  He writes: “What I find fascinating about some of the contemporary opposition to names of historic figures is that often those promoting the change are remarkably selective about their own interpretations of historical records.”  He then adds some lurid detail to support the main claim:  “To some extent, Indigenous people were mercenaries and were allies as long as there were rewards.  After one British defeat, for example, a dozen or so British captives were turned over to French Indigenous tribes at Quebec City. One of the British captives was boiled alive and the other captives were forced to eat his remains.”  One can agree with Brown-John’s historical claim (indigenous people employed violence)  without having to accept the political implication he wants us to draw (that therefore criticism of colonial authorities is one-sided and ideological).  Had there been no colonial project, there would have been no mercenary alliances, because there would have been no need for any of the First Nations to ally with one or the other major colonial powers as a means to maintain what land and autonomy they could.  Nor would there have been massacres of settlers had there been no settlers.  The violence that arises in resistance to invasion is morally distinct from the violence that arises from invasion.  If someone storms your house, the law recognizes your right to protect yourself.  It would be better if we lived on a planet where one could peacefully persuade the  invader to leave, but that is not this planet, as Brown-John well-knows.  We might moralistically lament all violence, but the job of historians is to understand it.  Clearly, indigenous violence towards colonialists was caused by colonialism:  had their lands not been stolen, there would have been no armed struggle against it.

3)  But Mom, Everyone is Doing It!

The final argument against the critics is the claim that what they call racist crimes are not really racist crimes, because everyone at the time shared the belief that indigenous people were dangerous savages.  People are products of the time, the argument runs, and it is anachronistic to judge them on the basis of more morally enlightened contemporary sensibilities.  Henderson quotes Dale again in support of this position: “Dale, in an interview, said the 18th century was an incredibly brutal period, by our standards.  To modern eyes these were all terrible people. But that was the temper of the times.”  The first thing that must be said in response is that although it is true in general that those were brutal times, every historical period contains opposition and contradiction.  Thus, while the prevailing ideology equated indigenous people with savages, it is not true that this view was universally shared.  From the beginning there were European critics of the colonial doctrine that the colonized were subhuman and thus without rights or moral standing.

The first such critic that I know of was Francesco de Vitoria, a Spanish Jesuit who argued against the dominant justification of the conquest of the New World.  Drawing on Aquinas’ view of natural law, (a law ‘written’ by God which directed each species towards the means of its own survival and flourishing) Vitoria argued against the dominant defense of colonialism.  Instead, he maintained that since the indigenous people were human, they were created by God as self-governing agents.  He thus rejected the view that indigenous people were incapable of self-government– natural slaves with which the Europeans could do as they please.  It is true that he then found other ways to justify colonialism. (See the discussion in Annabel S. Brett, Changes of State, p. 14) Nevertheless, his defense of the humanity of indigenous people puts paid to the myth that all Europeans took positions that were mechanically determined by “the temper of the times.”

More decisive challenges would arise in France.  In the 18th century, Condorcet, Diderot, and the Abbe Raynal would all condemn French and English colonialism and call for its revolutionary overthrow, and French sailors arriving in the 1790’s what is today Haiti helped inspire Toussaint L’Ouverture to lead just such a revolution, the first successful anti-colonial uprising in history.  (See C.L.R. James’ unmatched history of that revolution, Black Jacobins, for the detailed account of the complex relationship between the French Revolution and anti-colonial struggle). So it is completely untrue to say “everyone thought like that.”  Everyone did not think like that, and the ideas needed to construct solidarity, rather than domination, existed.

The deeper problem concerns the principle that this one-sided and inadequate view of history is supposed to support.  If we say “people are functions of the social and historical context, they just believe whatever was believed at the time”  it becomes impossible to explain how those beliefs arose.  Societies are not just given artifacts, they are the products of the combined activity–including thought– of the people who live within them.  There is no “society”  on one hand and “individuals”  on the other, the latter programmed by the former somehow to believe according to the “temper of the times.”

Marx understood this point very well.  Confronting this mechanical materialist philosophy in the 1840’s he responded that “the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing … forgets that it is men who make circumstances.”  (Third Thesis on Feuerbach).  His point is that the historical times (their “temper”) are not fixed and given realities external to the activity and beliefs of people but are the product of social interaction.  These interactions give rise to institutions and forces that must be justified.  The justifications do influence people’s consciousness, but we are still agents even as we are shaped by historical context:  we are capable of changing our ideas and our circumstances.  Thus, to dismiss racist attitudes as “a product of the times”  fails to explain why the times were racist.

The most important issue here is not the moral blameworthiness of individuals like Amherst in the abstract, but understanding the forces that structure society and belief systems.  Why would Amherst and others believe that the First Nations were savages who needed to be suppressed?  The answer “that was the way things were”  is not an answer, because the question asks why things were the way they were.  People like Amherst thought the Natives were savages because they stood in the way of a colonial project that they were trying to administer.  This fact is crucial to understanding the attitudes that guided their action.  I agree that there is little to be gained from abstract criticisms of long dead people, but the political criticism of colonialism is of a different order.  It exposes to view the real forces that drove European expansion across the world from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.  Amherst and others had to justify the drive for territory and resources, and they accomplished this task by reducing the people who originally lived in those territories to the status of mere things to be removed.  As the brilliant critic of colonialism Aimé Césair wrote in his short classic Discours sur la colonialisme:  “Colonisation =  chosification.” (colonisation equals thingification, p. 23).  Since this process continues today in other forms, it is crucial that we understand its history.  If, in the process of understanding this history some are moved to demand that colonial names be changed, we should understand the demand as an attempt to respect the living and change the future, not to moralistically condemn the dead and re-write history.

Summing Up

Still, I do not think that changing names on its own accomplishes much of real political or social value.  Opinion within indigenous communities is mixed (Murry Sinclair argued against removing MacDonald’s name, urging instead that it be used to spur a more complex understanding of Canadian historical realities).  I think the best way forward lies in listening to the complex array of indigenous voices and using the ideas that emerge as the centre around which political argument develops and as the leading edge of practice.  As I was reminded recently when reading a collection of essays  by the American historian David Roediger, solidarity is risky.  Allies can unwittingly substitute their own voices for the voices that most need hearing:  those of the historically oppressed group.  We stand in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at a critical moment where the complex and contradictory history of Canada is being re-thought.  This re-thinking opens the possibility for radical change to address the on-going harms caused by the history of colonization.  The worst outcome would be that this deeper and longer-term project gets sidelined or silenced by moralizing criticism on the one hand and apologies for colonial violence that they provoke in response on the other.

I Can’t Stand Up For Kneeling Down

The highly cultured amongst us sometimes sneer at sport.  I have never understood why. Athletic excellence is better regarded on analogy with artistic beauty.  Like dance, athletic expression involves supreme physical discipline, economy of gesture, singular concentration, and breathtaking control over the body, all realized with electric speed or terrifying power.  Sports are competitive, it is true, and there is an instrumental purpose– winning– that art transcends, but the art world is hardly free of competitive dynamics and is every bit as much integrated into market relations as sports.

It is true, on the other hand, that art tends to value and cultivate the idiosyncratic and iconoclastic, while sports– especially team sports–  are schools of hyper-masculinity and conformity (women’s sports increasingly mirror men’s in these regards).  So it was more than surprising last Sunday to see over 200 players in that most militaristic and jingoisitic of sports– American football– rise up by refusing to stand for the national anthem.  The players were responding to President Trump’s racist attack on the trend toward kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem.  In a speech in the always racially progressive state of Alabama, he demanded that owners fire any “son of a bitch”  who refused to stand for the anthem.

The movement began last year with then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.   Responding to police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson Missouri, as well as the longer history of racism in America, Kaepernick argued that he would no longer stand for the anthem of a country that “oppresses black people.”  His was a mostly lonely protest until last Sunday.

Even though the NFL is dominated by African American athletes and has suffered for most of its history from a clear division of racial labour (the “thinking”  position of quarterback was reserved until very recently for white players), there has been little in the way of politicized protest.  Jim Brown in the 1960’s was a notable exception.  The intensification of official racist pronouncements streaming from the White House since the election of Trump is rapidly changing this quietude.  It is spreading, too.  Arguably the biggest sports star in North America today, Lebron James, has been the most vocal critic of Trump, dismissing him as a “bum” .  He was responding to Trump’s attacks on The Golden State Warriors, last year’s NBA champions, and their star forward, Steph Curry, who have refused to visit the White House, as the champions of all four major sports leagues typically do.

(Shamefully, the Pittsburgh Penguins, last year’s Stanley Cup Champions, led by Cole Harbour Nova Scotia’s Sidney Crosby, are still planning to attend their scheduled visit, wasting an opportunity to stand with their brothers in the NFL, not to mention a chance to give voice to the long history of oppression of Canada’s oldest African Canadian community in Crosby’s home province).

Why does this protest matter?  For three reasons.  First, Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was razor thin in the key battle ground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  He won the working class white vote in those states, but by tiny fractions.  For better or for worse, sports fans look at sports stars differently.  Recall one of the most politically telling moments of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where the white protagonist was confronted by his black customer who asks him how he can spout racial epithets and love Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson.  White people who cheer for black athletes can still be racists, but their love for their sports stars is an entry point for political argument against that racism, a basis in their own experience to challenge them to think about the coherence of their views.  If even a relative handful change their minds, Trump will not be back in 2020.

Second, the militancy of the movement is building.  Until now, Kaepernick has been isolated. Indeed, he has, literally and figuratively, been blacklisted and is without an NFL job.  On Sunday, The Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers both refused to take the field during the anthems.  The Steelers are an iconic team who embody the working class ethos that Trump pretends to honour.  Their fan base is exactly the demographic base that voted so narrowly for Trump.  Of even greater symbolic and political value, many players gave the Black Power salute, fists raised, instead of merely kneeling.  Symbols matter in politics.

Finally, the politicization of Black athletes, fed initially by movements like Black Lives Matter, has the potential to strengthen those movements by further radicalizing young people, giving them the inspiration from which the courage to confront the day to day racism of life in America and its deeper structural bases derives.  If even the wealthiest and most respected Black Americans feel racism’s sting, it is clear that its source is not just bad attitudes, but is rooted in the heart of American (and, more broadly, Western)  history.  Its solution will require widespread social change and not just education.

Of course, this movement, like all social movements, comes with its contradictions.  Once again it has provided a platform for the “good capitalist”  to pontificate.  Owners-  some of whom, like Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, are friends with Trump– have, predictably, defended their players’ right to protest.  Moreover, there are no saviours in politics, and a movement led by stars always runs the risk of overshadowing older movements with organic connections to oppressed communities.  Overcoming structural problems is a collective effort.  The media, by contrast, needs heroes, and they will ignore the more important street and community level activism in favour of air time for the famous, who they will portray as responsible yet committed, measured, yet determined, role models to temper the anger of more militant activists.   Anger alone cannot win, but it is crucial fuel.  This week’s protests are an encouraging sign of widening opposition, but they are not a substitute for community level organization.

Pub Poem


Can live without:

padded banquettes/gilded signs/

union jacks/football/

prints of mutton-chopped lords/fox hunters.

I come for worn hardwood

grooves

between bar and gents

and pints of bitter,

hard to get now,

being crowded out

by beards,

and over-hopped

craft beer.

 

Old guy at bar’s

eyes say: “Aye,

Its maker’s culture now, mate,

gettin’ too late for what you want.”

 

So far I have seen:

“authentic”

indonesian street food/jerusalem street food/

saigon street food/thai street food/

viet namese street food/mexican street food/

Have been to mexico/jerusalmen

ate  food

but no signs assured authenticity,

maybe because in jerusalem/mexico

street food sold on streets,

cheap,

not in

polished glass boites

at creative capitalism prices.

 

Worry my fun license at risk

for pointing this out.

 

He’s young

only has eye for

end game, so misses

the tiny tear

in her stocking

dot of white thigh

shows through

the run.

Sexiness in the subtleties,

Imagine

pressing finger into rip,

delighting in contrast

between flesh and fabric.

 

On train to Brighton,

Battersea power station

gutted,

being condo-ized,

emptied of history,

filled with money,

and authentic people

who need to be seen

and think

they are getting in on

the ground floor of something.

 

Must everything old

be wrong

and love of it nostalgia?

 

In Brighton, better pints,

warm oak panelling,

plaster ceiling

invites late afternoon drink,

and thinking.

Old people, pissed,

make naughty jokes,

laugh:  death one day closer,

one less thing to worry about.

 

Wandering through

hushed halls,

leading from Ain Ghazal’s

lime plaster eyes,

and pursed lips,

7200BCE,

to Giacommetti portraits,

brother and lovers,

seated,

awaiting the inevitable,

faces lost in grey,

save the eyes,

staring,

an aesthetic history

of dread and resoluteness.

 

40 years on,

last punk standing

sits in camden town pub,

sips guiness,

but all-consuming time

has last laugh.

Looks like

what it would sound like

to say:  “hep cat,”

or “daddy-o.”

 

Freedom:

no longer needing to be seen.

Getting old,

so I’ll drink old

 

Slainte!”

Freedom and Imagination, Art and Politics

We think of revolutions as essentially political events, but we should also see them as art, in two sense.  In the more familiar sense, every revolution throws old certainties into question and provides space for new forms of creative expression.   But in a deeper sense, revolutions are themselves creative acts in which the old world is cancelled and a new one created out of the collective imaginations of their protagonists, including those whose ideas and dreams were never considered relevant under the old order.  The oppressed and exploited have their moment to say and feel what they have not been allowed to say and feel, and their freedom to express these ideas informs the creation of new values and institutions:  a new world comes into being through the combined creative  power of ordinary people.  That revolutionary fervour subsides is not refutation of my claim that revolutions are not just political transformations but also collective creations which would not exist without human imagination.

Of all the powers of the human being, imagination is the most important.  Without the capacity to imagine we would not have the Bhagavad Gita, Carravagio’s The Passion of St. Matthew, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, or Philip Larkin’s Aubade.  We would also not have the French or Russian Revolutions, because without the capacity to think about a possible world in opposition to the actual radical, deliberate, conscious change would be impossible.  Of course, not everything about a revolution can be planned (just as an art work does not proceed mechanically from mind to reality without unforseen set backs and changes.  Nevertheless, the point is that our ability to create worlds in thought that do not yet exist in reality is the precondition of our creative power over the given natural and social world.

Every revolution also comes with its moment of idol smashing, but perhaps because they are periods of maximum confidence amongst the oppressed, typically the greatest works of the old regime are preserved.  The Bolsheviks did not burn down The Hermitage, because they understood that great art is not a function of its overt political content.  You do not have to be a Christian to shudder in front of Valezquez’s Crucifixion. It is not a documentary about the death of God, it is an allegory of human suffering, which everyone will have to face in her or his own way.  Lenin did not decry Tolstoy as an anachronistic Christian utopian, but celebrated him as the master novelist that he was, lamenting only that millions of Russians were ignorant even of his existence, because they could not read. “If his great works are really to be made the possession of all, a struggle must be waged against the system of society which condemns millions and scores of millions to ignorance, benightedness, drudgery, and poverty.”  (On Socialist Ideology and Culture, p. 60). The goal of any genuine revolution is to emancipate the imagination of the oppressed, both by making available to them the great works of the past, and by creating space for them to become creative agents for the first time.  When political confidence is high, enlightenment, not suppression of dissent, creation, not destruction,  free expression, not censorship, are the ruling values.

We are not in a period of high confidence.  The left, as broadly or narrowly as you want to draw it, has been on the defensive for four decades.  This has consequences at the level of culture.  Where historical ideas for a new world have been discredited, but the problems of this one remain all too clear, and no new mass mobilizing emancipatory vision has emerged, people pick small, symbolic fights and spend more time apologizing than imagining, arguing, and building.  If fear of giving offense impedes the growth of imagination, then there will never be a recovery of any left worth belonging to

The heritage of modern revolutions, from the English Revolution in the middle of the 17th century, through the French and Russian Revolutions, to the wave of anti-colonial revolutions following the Second World War, were not afraid of the symbols, the art, and the ideas of the past.  Their leaders understood how to interpret art, how to critically appropriate it as exemplary of what human beings can be when they are furnished with the material and the time to fashion worlds for themselves.  They understood that the point of overthrowing degrading social conditions was to enable more voices to sing, not to pre-regulate in the interests of an imaginary moral consensus what the lyrics must be.  Once wealth has been freed to serve fundamental needs and political institutions created that really allow the majority to participate in their determination of their own lives, then revolutions  have to be about widening the circle of creative subjects, valorizing experiments in living (Mill) and free associations between people, more pleasure, personal freedom, and fun.

Yet there has always lurked across the wide left a censorious, dour, moralistic, ascetic streak that becomes more pronounced in periods of weakness and defeat.  It is, sadly, the dominant voice in North America today, making the serious arguments it has to make against racism and other forms of oppression easy prey to right wing critics of political correctness.  A glaring case in point recently:  the attempt to prevent the airing of the HBO series Confederacy before a single episode has even been written.  Censoring unwritten scripts is analogous to imprisoning people for uncommitted crimes. It is absurd on the face of it, but worse, it lacks the capacity for critical appropriation that, when cultivated, opens up hidden fields of value beneath politically suspect content.

One might rejoin that this demand is no different than demanding that statues celebrating the confederacy be taken down.  However, there is no analogy between the two demands.  The political meaning of those statues is unambiguous:  most were erected in the 1950’s and 1960’s as an overt political response to the civil rights movement.  They are pure racist propaganda and not public art.  Taking them down is no different than taking down monuments to the Nazi’s or Stalin.   In other words, there is no political ambiguity about their meaning.  The same cannot be said about a work of imaginary history:  its political implications cannot be pre-determined.  Works of imagination create spaces for exploration; no one can say what they mean in advance, and thus no topic can be ruled out as taboo. If art cannot explore the dark, what can?

Left guardians of the nation’s virtue also make mistakes going the other way in time.  Last year, the student council at the University of Guelph apologized for playing Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side because they determined it was “transphobic.”  Their ignorance of history and cultural politics is as dismaying as it is laughable.  From the days of the Velvet Underground through to his solo career, Reed’s music explored- affirmatively, it is apparently necessary to add — the sexual underground of New York, while he himself moved in social circles that were gay and transpositive, pioneered sexual ambivalence and fluidity, and was friends and acquaintances with repressive-norm destroying gay artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe– not to mention transsexual rock musician Jane–formerly Wayne– County).  Yet, because young activists have zero understanding of history, they embarrass themselves by castigating an artistic defender of sexual freedom as an enemy.  In addition to their historical ignorance, they also display a shocking incapacity to appreciate humour, irony, and nuance, and a total inability to critically appropriate artistic meaning.  One shudders to think what they would have done had the film society wanted to show Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues.  

A much better example of how challenging and controversial content should be handled is given by the African American artist Glen Ligon.  I saw his retrospective at the Whitney a few years ago.  One of the pieces was a critical interrogation of Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book, (a work in which Mapplethorpe famously celebrated the nude black male form).  From his perspective as a gay man, the black male body represented the height of erotic and aesthetic  beauty.  But one could legitimately ask:  was not Mapplethorpe indulging in racial stereotypes?  Did he not trade on cliche’s about black male sexual prowess by choosing only models with smooth muscled  bodes and large penises? Ligon, as an artist and a black man, posed the problems, but he did not argue that we should burn The Black Book.  Instead, he interrogated its contradictions by posting the images along with commentary that challenged us to think through the ambiguity of the original work.

This approach provides a model for how we should think about controversial creations.  We cannot banish them but have to enter into them and think through their contradictions.  If we demand that art (or philosophy, or science for that matter) be free of contradictions, we are really asking that there be no art, philosophy, or science, for nothing that pushes the limits is free of contradictions.  Contradictions are the product of the given world being confronted with its limits, and that is what real art, philosophy, and science does.  We cannot move beyond the limits if we do not understand them.

When it comes to art in particular, we have to keep in mind that its meaning and value does not lie on the surface of its content.  You do not understand War and Peace if you know it is “about”  the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.  Crime and Punishment is not a crime novel. Any true work of art is a world into which the one experiencing it is inserted as an explorer in uncharted territory.  Any work of art whose meaning is transparent on the surface and univocal is condemned to a short life.  Art is not social work; its function is not to propose policy solutions to historical injustice.  Its role is to provoke and challenge the acceptable, but as art, not superficial social commentary.  The best art is ambiguous as to its full meaning, thus allowing endless exploration and interrogation.

I am tempted to say that really great art is not “about” anything, but that would be going too far.  What I mean is that no art that has any value at all is just a straightforward representation of a given world.  Art that merely and only represents is documentary, not art.  Art transforms the given, it does not mechanically reflect it.  Nineteenth century French realism was not about making paintings that looked exactly like the world, it was about elevating everyday subjects, contexts, and people to the dignity of what in the eighteenth century had been reserved to grand historical persons and events.  Art transforms and transfigures; it makes us think precisely about the problem of “representing”  a world, about what the limits of painting it, singing about it, composing poetry about it might be.  Each era will discover its own limits and push towards new ones, hopefully while preserving the best of the old.  The derivative does not need to be burned as it will disappear once the context that made it relevant has disappeared.

The progress of art, if one wants to put it like that, including progress in overcoming the power of cultural elites to decide who has the right to artistic voice, can only be advanced if we reject censorship in all its forms and celebrate the value of free human imagination. If a work is bad, criticize it.  Anything that strengthens the censor threatens critical voices and challenging work.  It is also wrong in itself, because reactionary and fearful.  Moreover, it is also conservative in implication, insisting as it does that all work must pass a pre-screening of self-appointed experts who assert, but in reality lack, the right to speak for everyone in matters of taste and enjoyment.

The Politics of Gestures

In the wake of the murder of an anti-fascist protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia, US President Trump doubled down on his support amongst white racists by casting a pox on both the houses in conflict that day.  By establishing an equivalence between fascists and anti-fascists, he obscured the deep political and moral differences in their platforms, and thus attempted to mitigate the magnitude of the crime committed.  While we are not used to seeing politicians so easily baited into losing their temper and undermining their scripted response, the content of Trump’s remarks should not be all that surprising.  He was elected by successfully following the historical script of US right-wing populist movements, which identify “the people” as productive white American men threatened by internal and external enemies:  radicalized minorities, aloof elites, immigrants, terrorists, etc.  The fascist marchers in Virginia are the outer political limits of this construction, a group that Trump cannot afford to marginalize completely.  Given the fact that he lost the popular vote and carried the key mid-western states by tiny minorities, he cannot afford to lose a single voter, no matter what their politics.  Hence he gambled that calling out leftist opponents would not cost him support, even if it did sound to his critics as if he was being soft on hard racism.  We will see whether his gamble pays off.

If Trump is going to fold his hand and lose, the liberal and socialist left are going to have to start playing much more skillful political poker than we have up to this point.  Once again, the liberal left sounds completely discombobulated by its distaste for Trump, while the socialist left runs the risk of chasing the news to find a short cut around the long term organizing and education that needs to happen if it is to become any kind of credible alternative.  Both groups need to keep firmly in mind just what Trump’s oft-maniacal behaviour so easily distracts from: that he and his racist supporters are the symptoms and not the disease.  The disease itself is complex and has both general dimensions and features specific to the US context.  Neither can be fully dealt with in a single election cycle.  What is certain is that unless there is a re-focusing of political critique and mobilization away from Trump’s buffoonery and the over-estimation of the systemic threat posed by white supremacists re-aligned with reality, the disease will not be cured.

White supremacist movements are as old as the United States, but they achieved a new prominence after the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan emerged in opposition to radical reconstruction ( the attempt of newly freed African Americans to determine their own social and economic horizons).  It has flared whenever African Americans have asserted themselves politically.  Trump is part of the cause of the re-emergence of overt white supremacist movements today, but the resentments and anxieties that drive it go deeper than Trump’s immigrant baiting and will not go away if he fails to get re-elected.  Overcoming them and the politics they generate will require a multiracial democratic movement so large it overwhelms and totally marginalizes the racists, and continued progress towards real integration and equality that undermines the separation and fear that feeds white racism.   That 150 years on from the Civil War this task remains to be accomplished emphasizes the magnitude of the problem.

Contrary to Trump’s liberal critics, singing hymns about American values and ‘bringing the nation together’  are not going to work.  White supremacism is a core value of American history, undergirding slavery, Manifest Destiny (that lead to the wars of extermination against American Indians) and Jim Crow segregation.  Like every history, America’s too is contradictory, and contains not only white supremacy but heroic and inspiring fight backs against it.  But America has never been racially unified and Trump is hardly the first white politician to exploit it for his purposes.  Of course, Trump himself should be called out and criticized, but obsessive parsing of his speeches and self-righteous tut-tutting about his boorishness has grown tiresome and accomplishes nothing.  He should be criticized for his politics, not his personality; the contradiction between his actual policies and the interests of the white workers who voted for him has to be the touchstone of everything the left says about him.

By the same reasoning, Nazi’s and Klansmen need to be confronted, preferably by massive numbers that emphasize to those racists who are capable of thought that they do not speak for white people; that they are not a courageous vanguard, but a fearful and misled minority.  At the same time, they are a minority, even of Trump voters, and an expression of social, economic, and political weakness, not strength.  Real social power is not dressed in Klan hoods but the blue suits and brown shoes of Wall Street.  The ruling class is only too happy to sip Bordeaux and watch the spectacle of confrontation between white supremacists and antifa protestors.  As important as challenge and confrontation is, it is not a politics that will build the type of mass mobilization a revitalized left needs.  There is a certain amount of adolescent vanguardism at work in the antifa movement that needs to be channeled in a different direction.  Again, fascists should not be given free reign to march through cities and intimidate African Americans and other demonized groups, but they are not about to launch a successful putsch.  We are not in the 1930s’ and an organized fascist  take over of America is not in the cards (if for no other reason that that there is no mass Communist movement as there was in Germany that the ruling class wants to get rid of).  Capitalism may be in crisis for the working class, but it is working just fine for the capitalists, who, as I said above, are happy to have what serious opponents there are focus on spectacular street confrontations rather than think up workable policy alternatives to austerity and longer term institutional alternatives to capitalism.

Hence the need to be wary of a degradation of left-wing tactics to a politics of gestures.  By ‘politics of gestures’  I mean a practice which confuses the symbolically offensive with the structurally exploitative and oppressive, and considers the removal of the symbolically offensive with real gains.  By no means does this claim mean that the symbolic is not important in social life or politics.  It is:  but as an expression of underlying systems of oppression which are not affected in any way by changes to language or public space.  One could remove every statue to the Confederacy and absolutely nothing would change about American history or the current lines of racial conflict and inequality.  That does not mean that the statues should not be removed; it means that the demand is important only as a mobilizing tool to draw wider numbers of people into a movement powerful enough to bring about social structural changes.

The politics of gestures is problematic just because  symbols are powerful.  This power means that it easy to sidetrack debates which are really about racism and exploitation into debates about freedom of speech, expression, and “heritage.”  Passions run high, much heat is thrown off by the arguments, but, without most people noticing, the substantive collapses into the symbolic, a victory is declared, many people pack up their political tents and go home, satisfied that a major victory has been won, but the lives of the oppressed which were supposed to have benefited from the victory remain as they ever were.

Those lives can be changed for the better in the way they have always been changed for the better:  by cohesive, coherent, mass social movements that correctly understand where power lies, how it is organized and operates, and how it can be effectively challenged.  We are at a moment of intensifying social division and conflict but the left has not recovered from its long period of defeat and decline.  That Sanders was not red-baited into the sea, that Corbyn’s Labour Party made a dramatic comeback in the most recent UK election, that even mainstream economists are arguing that inequality is structurally caused by the dynamics of capitalism, that the colonial histories of the US and Canada are being seriously exposed and challenged, are all signs of hope.  But signs of hope and political power are different things.  We need the poetry of emancipatory visions, but we also need the prose of policies that people think will work in their short term interests, and plans that provide credible road maps to a different set of social institutions, value systems, and standards of economic success.  No movement which will be capable of those sorts of long term changes can afford to turn its back on the white workers amongst the 60 million voters who chose Trump.  Democratic politics– of which Marxism is a species– must assume that people are capable of change in response to changed experience and sound argument.  Both require time and patience.

Lessons From History IV: Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort

Government should come from us.  Now it comes at us with a propaganda machine in Washington that Hitler’s propaganda chief, Goebbels, would have  just envied.  We’ve got to put the country back in control of the owners.  And in plain Texas talk, its time to take out the trash and clean out the barn, or its going to be too late.

 

The day is not too distant when economic nationalism will triumph.  The … tidal wave of imports from Asia … [will take] down industries and [kill] jobs … there will arise a clamor from industry and labor for protection.  If that cry goes unheeded,, those who turn a stone face to American workers will be turned out of power.

 

We’re now one step closer to liberating our citizens from this Obamacare nightmare, and delivering great health care for the American people. We’re gonna do that too. And now tonight I’m back in the center of the American heartland, far away from the Washington swamp to spend time with thousands of true American patriots. [Chants of drain the swamp] We have spent the entire week celebrating with the hard working men and women who are helping us make America great again. I’m here this evening to cut through the fake news filter and to speak straight to the American people.[Chants of “drain the swamp” from arena].

Barns, swamps; shit, methane- yes Washington has stunk for sometime.   Goebbels, fake news, yes, the lies have never ceased.   Lost jobs and a bloated bureaucracy weighing down patriots who just want a hand up, not a hand out.  The glare of Trump’s narcissism has blinded us to history, but as the first two quotations remind (the first from Ross Perot, the second from Pat Buchanan) there is nothing new in Trump’s rhetorical appeals to internal corruption and external threat as means of consolidating hos own power.  The only difference is that he succeeded where Perot and Buchanan failed.  But his ideas have long vintage in the political history of the United States, a fact which comes through very clear in the brilliant history of right wing populism by Chip Berlet and Matthew M. Lyons.  Though published in 2000, Right Wing Populism in America:  Too Close for Comfort is required reading for anyone who wants to move beyond the vacuous whinging of CNN talk-bots and actually understand the reasons why a Trump could be elected, and what needs to be done to move beyond him.

Berlet and Lyons trace the history of right wing populism in America from Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 (in which a Virginia colonist mobilized a rebellion against the colonial  administration but which in practice was a pogrom against Native Americans) to the hard-right attack against Bill Clinton’s government at the end of the last millennium.  The history is compellingly told and frightening to read.  The conspiratorial, zealous, angry, xenophobic, racist, misogynist, anti-gay and lesbian, and always violent right-wing populist movements are “too close for comfort”  because they do not differ save in degree from the “acceptable” wing of the American right.  Trump is but the latest in a long line of American politicians going back to Andrew Jackson in the 1820’s who has mobilized white “productive”  Americans against “elites” accused of coddling “unproductive”  demonized others.  The demonized characters can change (American Indians to Blacks to Communists to sexual deviants to Islamic extremists)  but the formula is always the same:  manufacture a political identity by contrasting an ethically pure “American patriot”  against a threatening outgroup.

Trump fits the mold of what they call “right wing repressive populism”  perfectly:

We use the term repressive populist movement to describe a populist movement that combines antielite scapegoatting  … with efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power.  Repressive populist movements are fueled in large part by people’s grievances against their own oppression but they deflect popular discontent away from positive social change. … Right wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements …. A right wing populist movement … is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution.(p.5)

Barack Obama was not a revolutionary by any stretch, but he was Black and a reformer, and that was enough to mobilize the backlash that Trump channels.  At the same time, as Berlet and Lyons are at pains throughout the book to remind us, despite the oft-times outlandish and unsupportable claims made by populist leaders, the oppressed who vote for them are moved by real unmet needs (but only a vague or wrong-headed idea of the causes of their deprivation).  This point is of essential importance:  right-wing repressive populism cannot be overcome by demonizing its supporters as incorrigible racists, uneducated idiots, or backwoods oafs.  It can only be overcome by building a left wing alternative that listens, that provides a better explanation of the causes of deprivation, and that builds alliances amongst all oppressed groups on the basis of a convincing program for progressive social change.  At present, the Democratic party is very far form being able to meet this challenge. Instead of political reconstruction, it is looking to the deus ex machina of the Russia investigation to save it from its own defeat.  It will not work.

The attempt to stop Trump through Congressional investigation and legal intervention from above rather than patiently building a democratic movement from below is typical of American history.  In the 1930’s, in the midst of a growing fascist movement, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was founded.(pp.151-152)  Yes, this is the same Committee that, in the 1950’s would launch McCarthy’s ant-communist with hunts.  In the 1930’s  the Committee tried to substitute state power for popular anti-fascist mobilization, for fear that the latter would develop into left-wing opposition to capitalism. Instead of seeing fascism and communism as opposites, the committee saw them as twin “Un-American” dangers, and tried to stamp out the first without activating movements for the second. (p.152) Still, many anti-fascists understandably supported the committee, unwittingly feeding a monster that would eviscerate the American left in the 1950s.

The problem here is general and a propos of our current political moment.  The problem is “the false belief that the U.S. state apparatus can be trusted with repressive powers.  The laws, congressional probes, and political police that liberal anti-fascists hoped would be used against the Hard Right boomeranged forcefully against leftists, workers, people of color, gay men and lesbians.  Far from being the means to free the United States from hatred and fear, these institutions became tools to safeguard and reinforce systems of oppression.” (p. 173)  Today, the danger is two-fold.  On the one hand, the Mueller probe into alleged Russian interference in the election can reinforce domestic oppression.  On the other hand, it will encourage the same violent interventionist American foreign policy that Trump has questioned in the past and which a trillion dollar American military budget relies upon for justification.

The anti-Russian hysteria is already strengthening repressive forces masquerading as patriotic opposition to Trump.  Included in the latest sanctions bill is a threat against anyone accused by the US State Department of “engaging in transactions with the intelligence and defence sectors of the Russian federation.”  Well, you wonder, so what, I am not engaged in transactions with the Russian defense industry.  No, but when you then realize that the sanctions includes such outlets as RT News (accused of being a propaganda vehicle for the Russian government), the implications come more sharply into focus.  Well, so what, you say, maybe RT is nothing but a propaganda vehicle.  But then you dig further and find out that Google recently announced that it has created–  quelle surprise— an alogrithm to root out “fake news.”  But the “fake news” it is going to filter out (by not including links to the web sites that carry it)  just happen to be websites with a generally critical disposition towards the established structures of power, mostly left wing, but also including libertarian sites opposed to interventionist foreign policies.   Slippery slopes are not always fallacious.

The threats to the free dissemination of information are real, but not as destructive as the foreign policy implications of the Russian witchhunt.  Here the hypocrisy of American liberals, so shrill in condemning the still unproven Russian “meddling”  is stupefying.  Russia may or may not have meddled in the election, but they did not cause Trump’s victory. But we do know for certain that America under Obama did actively intervene to help the overthrow of Russian-allied Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, and hand picked his successor, Arseniy Yatseniuk)  This adventure has done nothing to advance the cause of democratic development in the Ukraine, but it has given new life to liberal interventionism.  As yet another new American “democracy development”  think-tank exposed by Glenn Greenwald proves once again, liberal interventionism is nothing more than American imperialism masquerading as democracy.  And that has domestic consequences for America as well.

Instead of creatively addressing the real problems of the white American working class, challenging the racism that is still too virulent within sections of it, inventing a platform that can advance the interests of working men and women of all colors, defending immigrants and combating xenophobia, political energies are wasted in a grand distraction that will make not one iota of difference to any working American’s life no matter how it ends, but does endanger the rest of the world as it flails around in anger at manufactured enemies and bogey-people.