Category Archives: Books

Nancy MacLean – The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

Link to an interview of Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains (2017), conducted by Nick Licata:

“The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”


MacLean’s position should be problematized (i.e., critiqued from the left), which leads to criticisms of some specific things she says in the interview.  Domenico Losurdo‘s War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (as well as his Liberalism: A Counter-History) are the touchstones for this criticism.  Most of MacLean’s position is about defending the New Deal.   But she defends the New Deal from a position “within” it, which is to say she appears to agree with the “radical reactionary” libertarians in assuming an anti-communist position.  Isn’t it obvious that the way to oppose, in her words, the agenda of the Buchanan/Koch agenda of the supremacy of private property rights is to eliminate private property altogether?  It is fairly well-established now that the New Deal was only possible as part of an anti-communist agenda, as a conservative compromise to avoid communist government rule.  MacLean at one point jokes that she is not really a conservative, but Losurdo’s books suggest that perhaps she really is conservative, because political liberalism has more in common with the political right than the political left.  She seems to assume that the New Deal was a self-sustaining coalition, which, historically, it was manifestly not — the New Deal was sustained only as a largely unprincipled anti-communist compromise that required at least the threat of communism to sustain itself.  So when she praises, for instance, the recent student anti-gun march, she rejects the pro-gun position universally adopted by the leading figures of the political left (something explained principally by her anti-communist stance).  Also, she bemoans the “identity politics” vs “class” debate, though it is actually an important one because no legitimate politics can overcome class divisions by maintaining an “identity politics” framework, which is necessarily dependent upon maintaining class or class-like divisions of some sort as part of a liberal politics of exclusion.  MacLean’s history of the political right’s own tactics in the the United States in the second half of the 20th Century is nonetheless useful in many ways, and should be read alongside Isaac William Martin‘s Rich People’s Movements, Losurdo’s books, Fredric Jameson‘s An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (which advocates precisely the opposite of the Koch plan to privatize the Veteran’s Administration), and the work of Slavoj Žižek (perhaps starting with Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Captialism).

Jacques Attali – Bruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music]

Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16)

Jacques AttaliBruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16] (Brian Massumi trans., University of Minnesota Press 1985 [1977])

Jacques Attali’s Bruits [Noise] was first published in French in 1977, then in English translation in 1985.  It presents a long-term history of musical development, based on Attali’s novel theory of distinct stages of historical development in music.

As historiography, this bears much resemblance to other characteristically French stuff from back in the day as Henri Lefebvre‘s Critique of Everyday Life.  The focus on music as an expression of power also ends up placing this in a vaguely similar place as Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction.  Additionally, the reliance on stages that structure the political economy of music also bears some similarity to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as well as the “world-systems” school of thought that includes the likes of Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi.

Attali’s focus on political economics is welcomed, from the standpoint of being something so often overlooked in these sorts of histories (there are some exceptions of course).  On the other hand, despite later becoming an economic minister in the French Mitterand administration, Attali’s economic insights here are fairly superficial.  That is to say there are occasional quotations and citations, but this is more or less a work of pure theory that spends no significant effort gathering sufficient empirical evidence to test the theory.  Moreover, this sort of historiography is naturally very selective, ending up quite obviously Euro-centric (the few token non-European references just confirm this bias).  The repeated metaphors and analogies to religious practice — “rituals” especially — are also not nearly as profound as Attali apparently thought them, though his meaning is clear enough that his chosen terminology is not crucial.  Despite a few minor errors (like quoting John Cage talking about “furniture music” when Cage was just paraphrasing Erik Satie), and a somewhat polemical tone, Attali offers many insights, mostly through his framework — sentence-for sentence, Bourdieu’s Distinction is packed with way more insights than Attali manages.

Attali still offers a lot of very appealing — if still empirically unsupported — assertions.  One great one is his claim that in the 20th Century (“repeating”), the success of particular music is dependent primarily (but not solely) upon it attracting marketing support to generate demand for it.  Doesn’t that just seem intuitively correct in the commercial context?  He also states the following little gems:

“To my way of thinking, music appears in myth as an affirmation that society is possible.  That is the essential thing.  Its order simulates the social order, and its dissonance express marginalities.”  (p. 29).

“Noise only produces order if it can concentrate a new sacrificial crisis at a singular point, in a catastrophe, in order to transcend the old violence and recreate a system of differences on another level of organization.  *** In other words, catastrophe is inscribed in order, just as crisis is inscribed in development.  There is no order that does not contain disorder within itself, and undoubtedly there is no disorder incapable of creating order.  This covers the dynamics of codes .  There remains the question of the succession of noises and orders, and their interferences.”  (p. 34).

With respect to the period of “repeating”, he also says:

“Music has thus become a strategic consumption, an essential mode of sociality for all those who feel themselves powerless before the monologue of the great  institutions.  It is also, therefore, an extremely effective exploration of the past, at a time when the present no longer answers to everyone’s needs.” (p. 100).

In a foreword to the English translation, Fredric Jameson emphasizes how Attali draws from the marxist notion of (economic) base and (cultural) superstructure, but makes a novel argument about music (in the superstructure) prophetically anticipating changes in the economic base. This is precisely the opposite of what Michael Denning‘s book Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution does — and, for me, that was the weakest part of Denning’s book. Denning scrounges around to make his argument that the musical revolution of the early (pre-Depression) electrical microphone era was uniquely tied to the economies of global “port cities”. Denning there insists on the orthodox marxist position of the base determining the superstructure. Because he is wedded to that theoretical framework, it leads him to make some characterizations with pretty flimsy evidence — he never convinced me that port cities played any unique role, though his Noise Uprising book is still very interesting despite that limitation.

Bruits [Noise] is certainly an important statement, one that anyone contemplating the history and economics of music should grapple with in some form, in the same way as with Roland BarthesCritique et vérité [Criticism and Truth].

Alejandro Jodorowsky – The Finger and the Moon

The finger and the Moon" Zen Teachings and Koans

Alejandro JodorowskyThe Finger and the Moon: Zen Teachings and Koans [Le Doigt et la Lune
Histoires zen] (Alberto Tiburcio Urquiola trans.; Inner Traditions 2016 [1997])

In this book, filmmaker/poet/mime/comics author/etc. Alejandro Jodorowsky (Jodo) explores zen buddhism from a perspective heavily influenced by psychoanalysis.  He had met rinzai zen monk Ejo Takata in Mexico City long ago.  The historical background of how Jodo met Takata (and various other spiritual gurus, shamans and folk healers) is found in his other book The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El Topo [El Maestro y Las Magas].  The Finger and the Moon reproduces traditional zen koans and some haiku, and then follows them with analysis.  Much of the analysis appears to be derived from — or at least heavily informed by — other published sources of “traditional” answers/interpretations.  Zen purists of course howl about how it is anti-zen to offer intellectual analyses of zen koans and such.  Humbug.  To me, the great value of this book is precisely that it steps outside of what zen (and its adherents) argues for itself (i.e., from a self-interested perspective), and tries to introduce some outside perspective.  Of course, Jodo is absolutely a proponent of zen teachings.  But he is willing to contemplate other ways of knowledge.

There are two points that, for me, help put zen buddhism into context:  social constructs and beautiful soul syndrome.

First, let me explain what I mean by “social constructs”.  Essentially this refers to the existence of three categories of knowledge.  First, there are “objective facts”.  This category includes scientifically-measurable things, like the mass of a paperclip.  Second, there are “purely subjective” things.  This category includes arbitrary individual thoughts, feelings, and the like, such as selecting a favorite color.  Third, there are “social constructs”.  This category includes social systems and institutions that are established by groups of people and not reducible to one individual’s arbitrary choices, such as laws, language, and the like.

How do social constructs relate to zen buddhism?  Well, at least as Jodo explains it, the practice amounts to a rejection of social constructs, on an individual basis.  In other words, adherents are encouraged to recognize social constructs as arbitrary and beyond their individual control, and are further encouraged to attach no significance to them.  This is buddhist “detachment”.  So for, example, zen traditions utilize koans and often the traditional answers reject the use of language (intellect).  This is at least partly because language is a social construct.

But is it really a good thing that people reject social constructs entirely and permanently?  Put another way, if social constructs are totally rejected, are there still problematic “objective facts” and/or “purely subjective” things?  First some examples from popular culture.

In a season eight (2018) episode of the TV show Portlandia, there is a comedy sketch in which a woman living in an apartment building has concerns about a neighbor across the hall.  She hears loud noises, and suspects foul play.  But the neighbor smiles and assures her everything is fine.  Then one day, her suspicions are confirmed.  The police arrive to arrest the neighbor.  He is a serial killer.  But the neighbor smiles and explains to the police that he is just being true to himself.  So the police shrug and leave him be (advising the woman that she should probably move)!  The point here is, of course, that individual subjective perspectives cannot be given free reign in any sort of society anyone would want to live in (and society does exist, contrary to what Margaret Thatcher has said).

Another example is the film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring, in which a main character is a buddhist monk.  A commentary on the film by philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains how the categories of “social constructs” and “purely subjective” things are related (reflexive):

“In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel wrote that evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Does Kim Ki-duk’s film not provide a perfect case of this insight? Evil is not just man’s possessive lust; evil is also the very detached gaze of the monk, which perceives possessive lust as evil. This is what, in philosophy, we call reflexivity: the standpoint from which we condemn a state of things can be itself part of this state of things.”

This ties in somewhat with the problems that some zen monasteries have with sexual abuse and the like.  And it is a bit like the Portlandia sketch:  it is possible — and necessary — to put a larger box around individual subjective thoughts and feelings, because they are reflexive and partly socially determined.

Taking the Hegelian critique of zen further, again drawing from Phenomenology of Spirit, we arrive at the concept of the “beautiful soul syndrome”.  It is a problem of certain people claiming to stand apart from evil, as a strategy for asserting a particular kind of social standing.  Žižek explains it this way:

“They play the Beautiful Soul, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it: they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority.”

But Jodo’s book offers excellent explanations of how “true” enlightenment goes beyond this.  Instead, he says, “When the self ceases to exist, the world exists.”  This is more like psychoanalysis, which is mostly about coming to terms with one’s own mortality.  I don’t think he means that in a literal or nihilistic way, but as a recognition of the arbitrariness of pure subjectivity — this is elaborated in his other book The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography.  So he writes extensively here about how people should accept their circumstances and avoid seeking power and superiority.  He also candidly suggests that he has not reached enlightenment, and questions whether anyone really has.  He makes no claim to being a “beautiful soul” standing apart from the corrupted world, but acknowledges his part in an imperfect reality.

Though, on the other hand, Jodo rejects certain tenets of psychoanalysis too.  Jodo goes on and on about happiness, though psychoanalysis rejects this.

“In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we officially desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we really do not want.”

The larger point here, which is not very well drawn in Jodo’s book, is that detachment from social constructs is never permanent.  But attempts at detachment, and perhaps temporary detachment, allow both the individual recognition of attachments to social constructs and — most importantly — a choice of attachments to social constructs.  Such choice is not always (or even usually) a happy one.  It is difficult.  In zen, the tendency is to detach from certain social constructs while bracketing out others from the field of view, leaving them in place but immunized from scrutiny.  Moreover, in “A Definition of Zen,” a master repeats the same definition as the disciple, but it is different because the master is “enlightened” while the disciple is not.  It is interesting to look at this from the standpoint of sociology.  In the book Language & Symbolic PowerPierre Bourdieu discusses the hypothetical christening of a new ship, in which a town mayor was to read a speech and break a bottle of champagne on the ship’s hull.  What if, before the planned event, a random person sneaks up and reads script for the mayor’s speech and breaks the champagne bottle on the ship’s hull?  Is the ship christened, or does the other person lack the symbolic authority to do so?  What does “enlightenment” mean from this perspective?  Is it just a social position of symbolic power? One that zen “masters” seek to immunize from scrutiny?  Some of this might also be critiqued from the standpoint of Fredric Jameson‘s notion of the “vanishing mediator”, with the sort of real, authentic master being one who disappears.

Injecting the perspective of psychoanalysis (or sociology, or whatever) helps to bring back into view the disavowed social constructs on which zen practice relies.  Even if Jodo stops short of drawing all these conclusions, his book suggests asking these sorts of questions and offers meaningful attempts to problematize the tacit assumptions of zen practice.  For instance, for one of the last koans in the book, “Tchau-Tcheu Tests an Old Woman,” he explains how even zen “masters” were male chauvinists who offered sexist “teachings” when supposedly “enlightened”.

The discourse of the master supposedly declined over the 20th Century. Jodo seeks a revival, but in a reformulated way.  In fact, as a “guide” to leadership, this book probably belongs up there with stuff like F.G. Bailey‘s Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership, a good biography of Lenin (plus his writings), and ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War.  This book does a lot to highlight unusual techniques and the limits of some leadership styles — if one reads closely and between the lines, that is.  Its strength in that regard is that it is not trying to be a book on leadership!

Anyone demanding a purist zen book will be disappointed (though, of course, such expectations are anti-zen).  But readers seeking to uncover wisdom for themselves may find some valuable tools and assistance here.

Jodi Dean – Crowds and Party

Crowds and Party

Jodi Dean Crowds and Party (Verso 2016)

Jodi Dean’s book Crowds and Party deals with the more or less long-standing battle within the political left between communist and anarchist tendencies (including autonomism, etc.), and she offers her thoughts on recent trends in the anarchist direction embodied in Occupy Wall Street and similar protest movements.  As “Lefty” Hooligan put it (in “Anarchist Purges Anarchist; No News at 11,” MaximumRocknRoll, issue #375, Aug. 2014):

“Post-left anarchism categorically rejects the Left, from the social democracy and Marxism-Leninism of the Old Left to the Maoism and Third Worldism of the New Communist Movement that devolved from the New Left, as well as any anarchism that is in the least bit influenced by the Left. This is not merely a refusal of the Left’s ideological content, but of its organizational forms as well, from meetings run by Robert’s Rules of Order to various kinds of party-building.  But nothing unites post-left anarchism beyond this negation, leaving a disparate gaggle of personalities . . . .”

Responding to this situation, and approvingly citing Ellen Meiksins Wood‘s critique of “left realism”, Dean posits that anarchist tendencies are ineffectual and recommends a return to Marxist-Leninism — updated to reflect current contexts of course, and with recognition of past errors.  This means going beyond crowds to actual political parties that can hold power. Staughton Lynd has written in somewhat similar terms, quoting Victor Serge saying that anarchism is about “idealistic aspiration” but anarchist thinking is impractical and anarchists lack any answer to the question of power.  Part of Dean’s argument focuses on how “Marxists” have over time, but especially in the neoliberal era and since the overthrow of the USSR, explicitly or tacitly substituted anarchist tenets for Marxist-Leninist ones.  She writes:

“Some on the Left—autonomists, insurrectionists, anarchists, and libertarian communists—so embrace the energy unleashed by the crowd that they mistake an opening, an opportunity, for an end.  They imagine the goal of politics as the proliferation of multiplicities, potentialities, differences.  The unleashing of the playful, carnivalesque, and spontaneous is taken to indicate political success, as if duration were but a multiplication of moments rather than itself a qualitative change.  For the fantasists of politics as beautiful moment, any interpretation of a crowd event is to-be-contested because of its unavoidable incompleteness, its partiality.  They forget, or disavow, the fact that the non-all character of the people is the irreducible condition of struggle.  And so they treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention.”  (p. 125).

Dean refers to “crowds” in reference to uprisings and outbursts like Occupy Wall Street.  She looks to crowd theorists like Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind), Sigmund Freud (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego), and Elias Canetti (Crowds and Power), but explores the limits of crowds in addition to their potentials and other positive attributes.  She notes how Canetti identifies crowds with what psychoanalysis calls “desire”, that is, providing direction and growth toward a fundamentally unattainable goal (i.e., a desire to desire).  Her engagement with past “crowd theorists” makes up some of the best parts of her book.

Following the likes of Slavoj Žižek and Bruno Bosteels, Dean sees the contemporary problem of the Left as being how to transform the state itself, not to abandon or merely seize it.  She insists, “What matters for us here and now is the galvanization of such a communist will.”  (p. 150).  She offers an extended critique of John Holloway‘s Change the World Without Taking Power to make this pointCuriously, she never engages Žižek’s The Fragile Absolute, which deals with the origins of communist universalist thinking in christianity and explores the problem of institutionalizing those concepts in the foundations of the christian church.  It would have been interesting to read Dean’s take on that book, which explores a topic directly related to the central topics of Crowds and Party.  

Dean emphasizes the idea of the political party as a “gap”.  “The party operates as the support for the subject of communism by holding open the gap between the people and their setting in capitalism.”  (p. 206).  She continues:

“One might object that contemporary decentered, federated, and interlinked states are not in anyone’s hands and therefore cannot be seized.  This objection, however, implicitly endorses a liberal technocratic view of the state.  It proceeds as if the system of laws and assumptions on which states are based are nothing more than neutral protocols.  The classic communist ideal of the dictatorship of the proletariat confronts this lie directly.  The liberal state is in actuality the dictatorship of capital.  Its premises ensure that the benefit of the doubt, ‘common sense,’ falls on the side of capitalism, that what feels like the right decision is the one that confirms the bourgeois mindset: protect private property, preserve individual liberties, promote trade and commerce.  The goal of taking control of the state takes aim at this underlying level of laws, practices, and expectations, targeting common sense to make it the sense for and of the common.

“Capitalists will not voluntarily reorganize processes of accumulation so as to put an end to proletarianization.  They will not simply hand over control and ownership of the means of production.  States will not just stop oppressing, arresting, and imprisoning those who resist them.  Such fundamental changes will only come about through political struggle, carried out internationally.  A Left that eschews organizing for power will remain powerless.  This is why we are talking about the party again.”  (p. 207).

To take one rather arbitrary example from after Crowds and Party was published, Andreas Malm wrote an essay entitled “Time to Pull the Plugs” about the problem of and solutions to impending ecological catastrophe.  While presenting a useful present history of the state of ecological collapse, Malm asserts that Naomi Klein is a “radical thinker” who calls for “revolt” (Dean has elsewhere critiqued precisely this characterization of Klein; Dean believes Klein is precisely not radical — she accepts capitalism so long as it is not “neoliberal” capitalism), and offers cursory, conclusory dismissals of calls to end capitalism as untenable, unrealistic, reckless, etc.  It is precisely the likes of Malm that Dean rails against, because, just like “third way” liberals, they concede too much to achieve anything.  In short, people like Malm abandon the “communist will”, but in doing so refuse to acknowledge the defeatist implications of doing so.

There are a few unconvincing parts of the book.  When Dean attempts to offer new (re)interpretations of certain concepts, she mostly fails to establish these, or at least, the necessity of her reinterpretations.  Among those is her concept (actually developed prior to this book) of “communicative capitalism”.  She notes that others already have different terms for very similar concepts.  Her term is not as intuitive as some others.  She seems to be “branding” her own theory (even though she criticizes “personal branding” in general).  Frankly, she explains “communicative capitalism” better elsewhere.  Another weak spot is where she tries to offer an explanation for the rise of individualism by the 1970s.  She relies on Michel Foucault to argue that the “individual” is a limiting state created as part of social discipline.  In this, she cites Foucault to view “discipline” in a purely negative sense, as something always bad.  But some counter-examples show how “discipline” can actually forge collectives.  One such example is the Boxer Rebellion in China (admitted, a topic for which there is relatively little in-depth treatment in English).  Another is the musician Sun Ra‘s Arkestra.  Sun Ra took in former drug addicts and gang members into his musical group, and emphasized “discipline” as a way to forge a collective musical project.  Paulo Freire has emphasized, too, how discipline can enhance intuitive learning while still promoting the sort of freedom that concerns Dean.  Self-discipline is something that requires no “capital” and therefore, in at least these (counter-)examples, the poor can use it to strengthen themselves, but also to build solidarity “from below”.  Dean’s arguments for why individualism arose in recent history is unconvincing, but it is largely a distraction from her main arguments — she does establish that individualism became a dominant perspective in America, and why that was the case is at best secondary to her main theses.  For that matter, later in her book she approvingly cites communist party discipline as a way to develop learning and growth, in a way that echoes Freire.  So, her invocation of “discipline” seems to leave some loose threads.  And to the extent that the summary above unfairly characterizes here arguments about “discipline” it may well be because her argument is hard to follow.

Also, the last chapter reads like the “Lifetime Movie” of the book, as Dean seeks to unearth historical examples to illustrate how a communist party can act on an emotional level.  It is a strange chapter that seems directed to an entirely different audience than the preceding chapters.  While the last chapter certainly expands on the theoretical approach of the rest of the book, it also threatens to drift into historical irrelevancy, because Dean doesn’t try to connect the historical examples to any kind of contemporary relevance.  Instead, the examples are meant to historically bolster her theoretical principles, while, in a way, some undermine her theory that the party is of contemporary importance by lacking clear contemporary relevance (for instance, how many workers today live in “company towns” and are sons of sharecroppers?).

Reviewing Alfie Bown’s book Enjoying It – Candy Crush and Capitalism, Joe Kennedy wrote:

“‘Our ideas surrounding the enjoyment of critical theory and political resistance lead to the celebrated identity of the radical, which is another way of being a subject that suits capitalism’. In other words, the inclusive, absorptive nature of capitalism, which needs to bring everything within the scope of its mechanics of commodification, means that the radical is yet one more demographic to be sold to, another identity which can only find its expression through consumer preference. If this seems far-fetched, follow the twitter account of left-leaning London publishers Verso, who frequently retweet photographs sent in by satisfied customers of the piles of Marx (and assorted modern Marxist thinkers) which have just landed on their doormats.”

He refers to the very same London publisher of Dean’s Crowds and Party.  There is a risk in getting caught up in the “identity of the radical”, but Dean has, I think, gotten past those concerns, illustrating positive uses for such a collective identity.

Still, Dean’s vision of a communist party certainly runs against other conceptions of communism generally.  After all, Friedrich Engelspersonal motto was “take it easy.”  Dean’s reliance on Žižek runs up against this too.  Dean seems to endorse something close to a Stalinist total mobilization, though this hardly seems like the sort of ideal likely to attract many adherents.  Of course, there remains a difference between a communist society and a communist party, but this distinction is a potential sticking point for how persuasive Dean’s approach will (or will not) be to potential party members.

Anyway, Dean’s book presents a number of opportunities for further research.  For example, in a number of places the way she describes party activity bears a striking resemblance to pro-capitalist “business guru” advisers’ writings.  She describes the contents of the Communist Party of the United States’ Party Organizer publication in the 1930s, and highlights how it “expresses the pressure of the relentless injunction to do more[.]”  (p. 194).  This compares closely to the concept of a “big hairy audacious goal” of business consultants Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (in their discredited book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies).  Elsewhere, Dean states,” “Without the party, there is no body capable of remembering, learning, and responding.”  (p. 260).  This sounds very close to the dubious business organizations concept of Peter Senge‘s The Fifth Discipline, which posits that organizations (rather than the people in them) can learn and retain knowledge.  Of course, certain noted communists have at various times suggested that capitalist management practices should be adopted and adapted to communist ends where appropriate, so perhaps these parallels aren’t totally odd.  But they present opportunities for elaboration, at least in a comparative sense.

Crowds and Party, measured by how many good ideas it presents is a great success.  Measured by readability or consistency, it stumbles, due to the extensive academic jargon and sometimes cluttered prose, and because whole sections of the book are throwaways.  All together, it is a worthy and important piece of analysis that probably could have benefited from a bit further revision and refinement.  In short, people like Lenin successfully refuted the anarchists a century ago, and once all the historical revisionism is stripped away, the anarchists are still wrong for all the same reasons.  So, if readers step away with anything concrete, it hopefully is a desire to read (or re-read) Lenin‘s The State and Revolution with the understanding that it still presents the most relevant formulation of left politics a hundred years later, and, for good measure, Žižek’s recent Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (arguably his most readable and relevant recent book) — even Domenico Losurdo‘s War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century.  It is also relevant to note that Dean is active in the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), so anyone located in the United States who is enthusiastic about what she has written here should perhaps investigate that political party.  Dean certainly has a better bead on effective left politics than other commentators.

Moshe Lewin – The Soviet Century

The Soviet Century

Moshe LewinThe Soviet Century (Verso 2005)

Moshe Lewin was one of the great historians of the former Soviet Union writing in English.  He actually lived in the Soviet Union for a time, working on a collective farm and later in the Soviet Army, eventually ending up in the West in academic positions.  His breakthrough book in the late 1960s was the superb Lenin’s Last Struggle (first published in French), which here he confirms was on the right track but which formerly secret documents now show did not go far enough in establishing how much Lenin despised Stalin and his political ambitions.  What separates Lewin from so many other English-language historians is that he approaches the Soviet government, and its attempts to realize the “communist hypothesis” (Alain Badiou‘s term), in a sympathetic yet critical light.  Mostly that takes the form of accepting the original Bolshevik objective in founding the USSR, together with rather commonplace statistical measures and evaluations against the government’s own internal objectives, and asking how well the government operated against those sorts of metrics, in context, without dwelling on the insentience that Bolshevik objectives were and are normatively wrong.  As Lewin puts it near the end of this book:

“Reflection on the USSR has been marred — and still is — by two frequent errors . . . .  The first is to take anti-communism for a study of the Soviet Union.  The second — a consequence of the first — consists in ‘Stalinizing’ the whole Soviet phenomenon, as if it had been one giant gulag from beginning to end.

“Anti-communism (and its offshoots) is not historical scholarship: it is ideology masquerading as such.”

To that end, Lewin occasionally reminds readers how anti-communist detractors are often quick to criticize the Soviet Union while at the same time overlooking similar if not worse occurrences in other countries.  Such a decontextualized approach he likens to propaganda.

Lewin does not resort to hagiography or fawning praise for the former Soviet Union.  He does hew pretty close to the Lenin/Trotsky analysis of the new nation’s prospects for becoming socialist (which in turn drew from various non-Bolshevik commentators of the day), describing Stalinism as “agrarian despotism” that rebuilt many aspects of the failed tsarist system, and the post-Stalin period as “bureaucratic absolutism”.  As Lenin and Trotsky both believed that it would take a long time and much effort to actually reach socialism, Lewin looks back and finds that socialist objectives were never achieved (though such conclusions can be taken too far, suggesting an impossible purity).  But he is ready to credit many advances in industrialization, literacy and education, feminism, science, life expectancy, and so on, plus a critical role in the defeat of Nazism.  He laments how some scholars have omitted the decline in many of these measures after the fall of the Soviet Union — he likens the immediate post-Soviet economy to a “mafia” capitalism, something that he suggests materialized in part because there was already a kind of privatization of the commons underway in the late Soviet era proper.

The book is not a chronological history, but rather is more of a collection of essays on various topics.  This fits in the category of reflective history, cutting across subspecies of universal, pragmatic, critical and fragmentary methodologies, following Hegel‘s taxonomy in Reason in History.  What emerges here is a useful portrait of the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of the state, and how those elements rose and fell, and engaged in internal fields of struggle with other social elements.  The segments on Stalinism make for difficult reading, given the gruesome nature of arbitrary persecutions that involved massive waves of executions and institutionalized slavery via the gulag system.  And yet, Lewin admirably traces the both the rise and fall of Stalinism, and some of its lingering effects.

There is an enlightening segment tracing the careers of various post-Stalin politburo members (i.e., the top leaders).  Lewin shines in some of these portraits, drawing on a host of memoirs from these figures and the people working around them, as well as from reports made public only decades later.  He skips past many of these politicians as hapless fools, and focuses only on those with wits about them.  Khrushchev is the first of them.  He was a kind of country-bumpkin of sorts, who did numerous admirable things leavened with politically naive mistakes.  It was Khrushchev who dismantled the gulag system and instituted reforms of the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB that operated the gulags) and the state’s dependence on the economics of gulag slave labor.  And yet, he was ousted and the incoming Brezhnev regime was neo-Stalinist in some respects, setting the stage for overall decline based on a tendency to corruption (including, in Stalinist style, blaming all mistakes on the lower rungs but taking all credit at the top) and ineffectiveness (epitomized by surrounding the general secretary with mostly dumb, non-threatening, and self-interested loyalists).  For comparative purposes, the Khrushchev era offers useful examples for how the dismantling of corrupt and discriminatory policing structures in other countries, like the United States, might proceed, and the challenges those efforts will face during the inevitable pushback by those invested in the status quo.  Andropov is the most interesting figure chronicled (I admit to being unfamiliar with him until this book).  A former head of the KGB, he was well-informed about the unvarnished facts of the state’s decline and inefficiency, and encouraged free communication in his office, thereby developing new theories and rapport with officials who reported to him.  This is surprising, in that he was seen as part of the conservative Brezhnev block and headed the KGB — although he was a liberalizer when it came to internal political repression via the KGB.  Although Andropov died too quickly to achieve anything of significance once he assumed the position of general secretary, Lewin ponders what a vaguely Leninist but quite radical restructuring of the state under Andropov might have accomplished to avoid the entire state’s collapse a decade later (mostly likely a sort of New Economic Policy [NEP] part two).

Another memorable passage is Lewin’s takedown of the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  He says, “Solzhenitsyn considered himself the depository of higher values inherited from Russia’s distant past[,] *** [a] fine writer, but politically inept and with a highly inflated sense of his own importance . . . .”  He considered him a dubious source of information on the gulag system, quoting extensively Vladimir Lakshin, of the literary magazine Novyi Mir, an outspoken contemporary Soviet critic of Solzhenitsyn.  Lewin also suggests that Solzhenitsyn was a bit of a fraud in the way he criticized the gulag system after it was essentially dismantled, without ever explicitly noting that the gulag system was already a relic of the past.  He sees Solzhenitsyn as finding notoriety principally via anti-communists who didn’t question his underlying anti-democratic impulses.  These are biting criticisms, and worth reading for anyone who might otherwise rely on Solzhenitsyn.

Lewin is a fine writer and historian, drawing mostly from secondary sources with a scrupulous eye for their shortcomings and biases.  This is still “eat your vegetables” sort of reading, though well worth it in terms of revealing a lot of information that was previously secret during the Soviet era and most certainly presenting a view of the former Soviet Union not regularly taught (or even suggested) in Western schools.  It would have been nice had Lewin included a few more topics, such as more about the arts, and some sort of discussion about ecology (in a country whose government basically destroyed the Aral Sea).  But no matter.  Historians have a tough task, in that mere collections of isolated facts serve no purpose, and meaningful histories tend to require the application of theory from sociology, political science, and even, in the case of sketches of important personages, psychoanalysis.  Lewin proves adept in many of those areas, even if he occasionally stumbles by suggesting that it is possible for historical analysis to step outside of ideology and be “objective”.

Jeffrey Reiman – …And the Poor Get Prison

...And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice

Jeffrey Reiman…And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice (Allyn and Bacon, 1996)

Jeffrey Reiman’s …And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice is a 1996 edition of a book first published in 1979 and republished in revised editions through the eleventh edition in 2016 (most under the title The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice).  Paul Leighton became a co-author on later editions.  The book is intended primarily for use as a textbook for college-level criminal justice coursework.  But it remains readable for general audiences as well.  This review addresses an edition now over twenty years old, and does not compare either newer or older editions.

In short, this book presents an outstanding critique of the ideology behind American criminal justice, concluding that the system and its institutions are biased against the poor.  What is most commendable about the book is that it is structured in a logical and coherent way, it provides citations and evidence for every one of its arguments, and it responds to typical counter-arguments.  In other words, rather than a polemic that simply asserts its thesis without testing it, or attempting to side-step normative moral and political judgments by hiding behind technocratic language, the book attempts to ground and defend its positions in an explicitly materialist way.  While it would be fair to say that not every individual argument in the book is well-taken, be it due to outdated or incomplete statistical information or something else, the overwhelming majority of what is presented is supported by both coherent theory and some type of empirical data.

The normative positions taken by Reiman are ultimately defended on moral terms, rather than on a “mistaken facts” basis.  In other words, he does not fall back on the weak justification that things would change if only people knew what the facts really were.  The saying from the total quality improvement discipline, that every system is perfectly designed for the results it currently achieves, fits perfectly into Reiman’s analysis.  Indeed, he mentions teaching a class in which he asked his students a question: how would they design a criminal justice system so that it “would maintain and encourage a stable and visible ‘class’ of criminals.”  The students indicated that it would look pretty much like the current American criminal justice system.

As Alex S. Vitale writes in a more recent book, The End of Policing, “Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing.”  Reiman recognizes this too.  In this edition of his book, he alludes to this problem.  His goal is not to outline a specific political problem merely to justify addressing it in a particular predetermined way, but rather to detail the set of interrelated problems that justify a significant political intervention of some sort the particulars of which are not fully determined.

Reiman establishes a few points that should, now at least, be considered incontrovertible:

“1. Society fails to protect people from the crimes they fear by refusing to alleviate the poverty that breeds them . . .

“2. The criminal justice system fails to protect people from the most serious dangers by failing to define the dangerous acts of those who are well off as crimes . . . and by failing to enforce the law vigorously against the well-to-do when they commit acts that are defined as crimes . . .

“3. By virtue of these and other failures, the criminal justice system succeeds in creating the image that crime is almost exclusively the work of the poor, an image that serves the interests of the powerful . . . .”

In the details, Reiman admirably explains how bias in upstream aspects of criminal justice are more damaging than downstream ones.  For instance, legislation that exempts the actions of the rich from the definition of “crime” means that the rich never enter the criminal justice system in the first place, and sentencing fairness is therefore irrelevant to them.  While bias in downstream events like sentencing do matter, by that stage most of the rich have been filtered out of the system.  A key point here is prosecutorial discretion.  Reiman notes how it remains an opaque process rife with opportunities for bias that have been restricted in other areas.

There are a few flaws in this edition.  For instance, Reiman argues that his “Pyrrhic Defeat” theory is not a “conspiracy theory”.  But this is somewhat a strawman argument, with Reiman applying an unduly narrow criminal law definition of “conspiracy”.  It also overlooks a similar sort of middle-ground position like the “propaganda model” of mass media put forward by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, which emphasizes the reinforcement and reproduction of an ideological system while also suggesting causal intent, or the psychoanalytic concept of denial/disavowal/Verleugnung, in which denying something that affects an individual is actually a way of affirming what he or she is apparently denying.  Indeed, Reiman’s focus on the criminal justice system as such means he only discusses mass media complicity in passing, which seems like too little treatment.  Additionally, Reiman makes a conservative argument about gun control that is contrary (i.e., non-materialist) to his other arguments, and counterfactual.  More recent evidence suggests that banning firearms will not reduce murder or suicide, directly contradicting Reiman’s claims.  And lastly, Reiman concludes the book with some suggestions to make the criminal justice system minimally morally defensible.  What is interesting here is that Reiman abandons the materialistic critique that grounded the entire book to that point and instead justifies his policy recommendations based on an entirely different foundation, namely that of center-left liberalism.  He cites the likes of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.  While Reiman applies this approach because he seeks only to suggest the minimum necessary moral reforms, not the best possible reforms, his abrupt abandonment of a materialist philosophy renders the basis for these suggestions incompatible with his overall critique.  With the exception of of the “gun control” position, which is not defensible, everything else is sort of unobjectionable, even if it comes across as kind of arbitrary as presented.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book.  It makes an essential introduction to the operation of the American criminal justice system, and provides a durable critique of its most fundamental moral flaws.

David Roediger – Class, Race, and Marxism

Class, Race and Marxism

David RoedigerClass, Race and Marxism (Verso 2017)

I found this book to be quite trivial.  It pulls together previous essays that Roediger has written with some new material, and focuses its attention on a selected history of pro- and anti-“identity politics” commentators, together with extensive personal anecdotes.  The book’s major fault is that its central premises are disingenuous.  Roediger claims in the introduction to have undertaken self-criticism.  But on close examination that is not exactly what he does.  Rather, he carefully frames his self-criticism in order to advance certain underlying ideological presuppositions, and to signal that he identifies with certain groups and not others.  He claims that he is investigating the need to engage in both theory and action.  Yet he ends up not really questioning his theoretical assumptions much, and dwells on action.  So, for instance, he opens the book with a mild critique of David Harvey, only to immediately signal that his disagreements with Harvey and a few others are really minor and constructive and that they are really on the same side — by which he means they can both support “identity politics” and craft/trade union social democracy.  He then mentions the anti-“identity politics” positions of Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr., dismissing them as “simplistic”, and, later in the book, also dismisses the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant and others’ similar views.  And yet, Roediger’s dismissal of these contrary positions actually reveals much more about his own simplistic frame of reference than it does to explicate the supposed flaws of these other thinkers.  For example, Roediger argues from the vantage point that craft/trade union advocacy is of crucial importance, that “Marxism” is about “class” identity rather than a universalism of shared antagonisms, that such groups tend to have substantially consistent/homogeneous internal cohesion, and, crucially, that “ideology” is not an important framework.  Accordingly, his overview of the anti-“identity politics” position (which he clearly rejects) omits any discussion of many of the most prominent recent advocates of that position: Jodi Dean, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Sharon Smith, etc. While many of these other thinkers rely on psychoanalysis, it is psychonalisis of an entirely different sort than what Roediger occasionally references.  This is significant.  It is possible to disagree with Roediger’s flavor of “class” consciousness and on that basis alone arrive at a different balance of class and race (and gender, etc.) concerns.  Much of the book explores a history of what amount to “tactical” considerations, without digging into deeper philosophical and theoretical underpinnings.  While some of Roedinger’s statements ring true, I tend to think a better and more far-reaching formulation of the theory and action dialectic that Roediger professes to apply in this book is stated by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for example.  Adolph Reed’s criticism of Roediger and his ilk (echoing Walter Benjamin), that they are part of “a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations[,]” seems spot on — hardly something “simplistic”.  This is evidenced by the extensive bloviating that Roediger puts forth about academic appointments and the trials and tribulations of various race-conscious academics seeking prestigious university positions.  This recalls “lean in” boardroom (neoliberal) feminism, or Maresi Starzman’s statement, “Even if precariously employed academics may be, in economic terms, best considered part of the working class, their interests are aligned with the aspiring middle and upper-middle classes. At the end of the day, academic desires — for a career, for status, or maybe for some fame — ensure that even the ‘lumpen professor’ remains a professor, cash strapped but with a solid middle-class habitus.  The result is a seeming paradox: an impoverished workforce deeply loyal to the exploitative structures it is embedded within . . . .”  It all gets very tedious.  I was left feeling that Roediger is furthering a debate in what I consider a cul-de-sac of increasingly irrelevant non-Marxist discourse that panders to craft/trade unions, the university appointment system, and defeatist sentiments that the “communist hypothesis” must be tempered if not rejected. While no doubt, “identity politics” has become hegemonic in academic departments of late, Roediger too easily relies on that hegemony to proffer very superficial criticisms of anti-identity politics positions.  But, again, this is essentially a critique of the ideology that Roediger adopts, and Roediger is careful to bracket out ideology from his purview.  He also makes some dubious characterizations of fact.  For instance, in the introduction he claims that police unions actually have very little power.  This is borderline laughable.  Take for instance Minnesota, where in around 2011 the police union succeeded in having state law modified to shield them from disciplinary investigations by citizen boards.  When Martin Gilens & Benjamin Page released their widely publicized study of the impact of ordinary citizens and unions on government policy, they concluded that unions, as interest groups typically aligned with ordinary citizen interests, have very little influence.  These examples tend to show that police unions have considerably more influence than other types of unions, calling Roediger’s claim into doubt.  In spite of his claim to be self-critical, he spends these pages mostly trying to rally allies to fend off criticism from the likes of Reed, Benn Michaels, and a host of others he doesn’t bother to cite — something that is fundamentally populist rather than Marxist, and is not a problem unique to Roediger.  It is rather hard to see how this book is of any interest to anyone other than the “opposition” academics specifically mentioned, to the extent that they might wish to rebut specific claims Roediger makes.  Though this book is best ignored.

Daniel Denvir – Donald Trump’s Reactionary Mind

Link to an interview with Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (2017), conducted by Daniel Denvir:

“Donald Trump’s Reactionary Mind”


Bonus links: Liberalism: A Counter History and War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and The Theory of the Leisure Class and “The Left Hand and the Right Hand of the State” and “Slavoj Žižek on Law” and “Slavoj Žižek on Political Struggle”

Notice that basically all of the key points that Robin makes in the interview have already been made by others, going back over a hundred years.  But Robin does simplify a lot of this, for better or worse.  His most dubious claim is that the reactionary project began at the time of the French revolution.  Historical figures/movements like the opponents of the Gracchi tend to indicate this stretches back to classical antiquity, though perhaps not in an unbroken chain.