Category Archives: Books

Yanis Varoufakis – The Global Minotaur

The Global Minotaur

Yanis VaroufakisThe Global Minotaur (3rd Edition, Zed Books 2015)


Yanis Varoufakis originally wrote The Global Minotaur in 2011, and then revised and expanded it for a 2013 edition (reprinted again in 2015). It is a full-length book treatment of a topic he introduced (with co-author Joseph Halevi) in a 2003 journal article of the same name.  He later became internationally known because of his brief time a Greek minster of finance for the Syriza party in 2015, before resigning in the run-up to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ betrayal of the Greek voters’ referendum that rejected creditor blackmailing.

The Global Minotaur is a book whose primary strengths are its brevity and readability.  Varoufakis adopts metaphors from ancient Greek mythology to explain concepts about the political economy of the post-WWII period through the ~2007 financial crash. The metaphors end up being quite durable and useful.  The book presents itself as a novel analysis, but there are really few if any new insights here.  The book’s history of the Bretton Woods system (what Varoufakis calls the “Global Plan”) can also be found in any number of other economic history books.  This discussion tells of the international negotiations that took place after WWII to re-establish a gold standard for currency convertibility between nations, and the various geopolitical aspirations of the handful of nations involved in setting up the system, as well as the special favoritism shown to Germany and Japan in the system that emerged.  Varoufakis laments the rejection of John Maynard Keynes‘ proposal for an International Currency Union system based on a neutral bancor currency in favor of the U.S.-imposed Bretton Woods system.  When the chronology reaches the collapse of the Bretton Woods system during the Vietnam War era, a new international economic system emerged that Varoufakis dubs the “Global Minotaur”, in reference to a mythical beast of Crete to which ancient city-states paid tribute in exchange for a kind of regulated stability.  Similarly, the emergent “Global Minotaur” system involved the United States acting as the trusted center of the global economy.  Varoufakis describes four “charismas” of this “Global Minotaur”: (1) the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency and the currency in which energy is denominated (sometimes called “petrodollars” by others); (2) rising global energy costs (from which the U.S. was shielded through the “petrodollar” paradigm); (3) devalued and cheapened labor; and (4) America’s geopolitical might used in the service of corporate and financial interests.  In a sense these four “charismas” are kind of the economic pillars of the so-called “neoliberal” era.  The central story is about how the Global Minotaur came and went.  It arrived when the United States unilaterally terminated the Bretton Woods international economic system when President Nixon took the United States off the gold standard in 1971, turning the United States’ debt and trade deficits into weapons of sorts that kept other countries subordinate the U.S. economy (though somewhat confusingly, Varoufakis sometimes refers to the Global Minotaur coming into its own only in the early 1980s during the Thatcher/Reagan era, which is really more a matter of degree).  Varoufakis’ analytical framework discusses these events in reference to a “global surplus recycling mechanism” between surplus and deficit nations (this topic is discussed further below).

As others have already pointed out, the “Global Minotaur” metaphor describes a phenomenon that Michael Hudson first described in his groundbreaking book Super Imperialism (1972) many decades before.  Varoufakis never cites Hudson, which is a bit odd.  Anyway, Hudson’s book is much more in-depth and better supported with evidence, but it is also a much more difficult read.   Hudson tends to explain the “Global Minotaur” scenario as more of a tense standoff.  The United States coordinated a system in which it acted as the center of the global economy and any country wishing to challenge its economic hegemony — Hudson emphasizes factors akin to Varoufakis’ four “charismas” — must be willing to suffer either (or both) a military intervention (possibly covert) or a short-term economic collapse.  To move away from this system required a sort of partial suicide.  The U.S. wager held for decades.  Almost no foreign political leaders were willing to suffer the short term consequences to escape the U.S. dominated system in the long term.

When The Global Minotaur‘s historical account reaches the ~2007 financial crash, Varoufakis provides a summary of the official response, which amounted to unconditional bailouts of the bankrupt financial institutions coupled with punishing austerity for the most vulnerable.  His term for this period of global rule by bankrupt banks “bankruptocracy”.  The old “Global Minotaur” system no longer worked, but seemingly every attempt was made to keep the wounded, bleeding beast limping along.  There are many, many other books available about this period, with more detail and juicier exposes of the unbelievable malfeasance of the government officials and and bankers, but what Varoufakis brings to the table is a crisp, clear narrative that balances accounts of interrelated events in different nations.  He then concludes the newer editions with a brief update on the post-crash world.  The added material includes some informative graphs that emphasize how the old paradigm no longer holds.  He is sharply critical of Germany’s self-serving and rather viscous stance toward the rest of the European Union, forcing the most indebted EU states to bail out its banks.  His boldest prediction is that China’s strategy is not quite sufficient, which has been borne out since 2013, but he holds out hope that China will devise some kind of new “Global Plan” or alternative Bretton Woods system.

Varoufakis is good at getting to the point about the ambitions that drive the international economic landscape, from a truly international perspective.  He has described himself as an “erratic marxist”.  What this really means is that he blends post-keynesian economics with a marxist insistence on political questions of domination and exploitation and the interconnectedness of oppositional deadlocks.  So, for instance, he tends to explain economic crises in terms of both the marxist notion of an objective/structural lack of expected profit returns to producers and the keynesian notions of a lack of aggregate consumer demand and investor confidence.  Probably the biggest benefit of his overall approach is that he foregrounds questions of ideology, and is great at bluntly stating the ideological grounding for the actions of the global financial elites.  His cavalier attitude also breaks him free of orthodox marxists’ typical ignorance of finance and monetary policy matters (despite the existence of Marx‘s posthumous Capital Vol. III; this is a topic Hudson has discussed at length).  And yet there is also a certain sloppiness to his theoretical framework as well, as he adopts certain marxist critiques of capitalism while rejecting most marxist goals/solutions in a way that certainly seems “erratic” and haphazard — there is no categorical rejection of private property, capital accumulation or markets expressed in these pages, just reformist improvements in the functioning of a global capitalist system.

This is an important and valuable book, and hopefully it continues to be read by people who feel they know little or nothing about international economics.  Even as of this writing in 2018, the book is still extremely relevant.  But given this book’s importance, it is worth pointing out some of Varoufakis’ assumptions and perspectives that limit some of his analysis and, especially, his policy recommendations.

First off, for all his admirable attempts to highlight the fundamentally political nature of global financal doctrines a technical rules and mechanisms, Varoufakis could have stood to explain the political foundations of his emphasis on surplus recycling mechanisms.  He tends to present this in a technocratic way, explaining how having such a mechanism produces better results than when such a mechanism is missing.  But it is precisely at this point that the political aspect is most acute.  “Better” results are always subjective and political.  Allow me to explain.  Varoufakis emphasizes that when one country (or even region within a country) has a “surplus”, such as by producing more goods than that country consumes, another will tend to have a “deficit”, and there is a need to balance out these surpluses and deficits.  There is a wealth distribution, “welfare” aspect to this, although Varoufakis mostly argues in a technocratic keynesian vein that it is in the economic self-interest of the “surplus” countries to create effective demand for their goods by addressing the deficits abroad (by “recycling” surpluses there).  He does not address the position of anyone on the far right who seeks to maintain surplus and deficit statuses to induce a crash, in order to cement permanent hierarchies and drive some people to abject destitution, death, or whatever else they “deserve”.  Nor does he adopt the purely marxist notion of the basic immorality underlying these uneven levels of development and production — it is not clear how his vaunted surplus recycling mechanism would apply to a communist/socialist economy, if at all.

Second, Varoufakis may call himself an “erratic marxist” but he unquestionable supports a global market-based system of capitalism.  Where this comes to a head is his rather uncritical insistence throughout the book that a functioning global economy requires growth.  Both marxist economists (even orthodox ones) and the so-called ecological economics school (Herman Daly et al.) have called this paradigm into question, given the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet.  Varoufakis acknowledges the problem of global climate change and planetary ecological collapse in passing, but never ties those consequences to their roots in economic theory (the same theories he advances in this book).  Reviewers who have pointed out this issue are spot on.

Third, Varoufakis goes a bit light on his exploration of the role of the U.S. military in the global paradigm he describes.  Without a doubt, he identifies quite explicitly and astutely that the U.S. military enforces its economic interests.  In fact, his explicit reference to a state of continual warfare waged by the United States since WWII is a crucial pillar of his analysis.  But, on the other hand, these references are somewhat cursory and lack supporting evidence and an explanatory background, which has raised the ire of detractors and apologists for the status quo.  Of course, informed readers will recognize that there is plenty of support for these points about U.S. militarism available elsewhere.  For instance, William Blum‘s books like Killing Hope document these U.S. imperialist adventures of the post-WWII era, as do works by Michael Parenti and many others.  Michael Hudson also frequently ties actions like the U.S.-sponsored coup in Ukraine to U.S. cold war and new cold war imperialism, including the sponsorship and promotion of “color revolutions”.  And even popular writers tend to emphasize the U.S. military role in the Pinochet coup in Chile as a classic example of imposing U.S. economic interests through military force, even if its involvement is indirect and has the sheen of plausible deniability.

Lastly, Varoufakis is a little sloppy in presenting evidence.  This book could stand to have many more endnotes for sources, and and stricter adherence to the contents of cited sources.  For instance, he misquotes President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex” term, calling it instead the “military-industrial establishment”.  Also, the occasional reference to funding budget deficits runs a bit askew of principles established by Modern Monetary Theory.  While some of the gloss is understandable as a trade-off for making the book short and accessible, sometimes though, like with the Eisenhower (mis-)quote, it seems to reveal a cavalier approach to research.  He could have stood to include more footnotes to further sources to allow readers the opportunity to seek out further information.  Granted, Varoufakis is mostly correct, but the sloppiness and thin use of citation allows detractors to ignore the main substance of his arguments.

This excellent book has found a solid audience through numerous reprints, and deservedly so.  So much of the discussions of international business, finance and geopolitics that the news media presents in a confused and disconnected way comes into sharp focus when considered in light of the economic history Varoufakis’ recounts here.  The “erratic” nature of some of his theories and recommendations might be off-putting to hardliners, but at the same time Varoufakis is writing in a much different geopolitical climate than a hundred years ago when the political left had enough of a base to actually seize control of multiple countries.  So he tends to advocate for a sort of new “New Deal”.  This kind of political “realism” leads to a few reformist compromises, less than fully satisfactory near-term prospects, and a bit of self-aggrandizement, but none of this undermines the basic value of the book.  Anyone interested in this topic would do well to also read some of Michael Hudson’s books, such as Super Imperialism, Trade, Development and Foreign Debt (an impressive, if dry, discussion of how “free trade” ideology promises economic convergence between states while actually leading to polarization/inequality — Varoufakis tacitly adopts a similar perspective), and The Bubble and Beyond (discussing the post-2007 crash era from a historical perspective stretching back to ancient Mesopotamia).  Steve Keen‘s writings may also provide a resource for anyone seeking to better understand some further context for Varoufakis’ generalized economic stances.  Varoufakis continues to write and speak internationally, maintaining his own web site and participating in the DiEM25 (“Democracy in Europe Movement 2025”) organization he co-founded.

Valerie Wilmer – As Serious As Your Life

As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz

Valerie WilmerAs Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (Allison and Busby 1977)


Val Wilmer is a journalist who photographed and wrote about the “new jazz” also known as “free jazz”, etc.  Her 1977 book As Serious As Your Life (revised and reprinted numerous times, with various alternate subtitles) remains one of the better-known histories of the musical movement.  Much of the book consists of chapter-length treatments of particular musicians, plus a few chapters on specific issues or theories.  The book captures the various attempts to forge and hold together a community of shared values mediated by this music.  While the biographical portraits sometimes verge on hagiography, the book as a whole benefits from well-researched quotes from performers themselves.  In fact, this book is an invaluable source of first-hand quotations from practitioners of this type of music during its heyday.  Figures like Bill Dixon, Clifford Thornton, and Rafael Garrett, for instance, offer extremely wise views on the music business and the practice of jazz.  And Wilmer deserves much credit for offering up a range of perspectives, often confused and contradictory, to allow readers to appreciate the multifaceted interests and objectives of those involved in the “new jazz” movement.

As the work of a journalist, though, this suffers from all the usual handicaps.  Among those is a certain theoretical weakness, drawing conclusions from unstated assumptions rather than providing any clear explanation of the analytical framework that led to those conclusions.  Well, at times it is perhaps less a weakness than a disingenuousness, what might be summed up as ideology masquerading as a critique of ideology.  Actually, as will be seen, As Serious As Your Life might be seen as an early example of so-called “left neoliberalism” that first emerged in the 1970s.

Every chapter, and practically every page, documents some form of resentment and envy (although it should be noted that not all the subjects interviewed exhibit these qualities). This doesn’t seem to be precisely Wilmer’s intent. But this emerges from the book nonetheless.

In a September 1971 interview, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen remarked:

“If you achieve a certain independence in your work, you’re automatically attacked by all sides, last but not least by your own colleagues in the different countries.  It’s fairly difficult nowadays for composers in general, and in particular for younger composers, to get performances or teaching jobs.  And if someone like me has all his works regularly performed—very complicated works like Gruppen for three orchestras; Carré for four orchestras and choirs; or Mixtur, which requires a lot of electronic equipment, four sound engineers, another four persons playing the sine-wave generators, a lot of rehearsals—then there’s automatically a lot of jealousy.  And I can understand that feeling.  Then, there’s also another reaction coming from people who have a traditional musical education and are very much disturbed by what I do.”

Stockhausen uses the word “jealousy” here, but really he means “envy” in the sense of “resentment”.  He does posit a useful dichotomy of those who, as quasi-reactionary partisans oppose innovations or change, and those who nominally support a common project but raise objections based on envy or resentment.

Envy and resentment were pronounced factors in the “new jazz” movement, especially in relation to its limited commercial prospects.  Iain Anderson, in This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, noted:

“The narrowing audience for free improvisation illustrated experimental musicians’ growing difficulty in finding suitable venues and rewards consummate with their self-image as artists.  Many champions of free jazz began to view their lack of opportunity as a consequence of the music industry’s racial and economic structures, rather than the intrinsic value or resonance of their work.  These extra-musical developments soon interrupted and fractured the debate over modernist aesthetics, threatening the critical establishment’s prestige, credibility, and ability to mediate the position of jazz in American culture.”  (p. 75).

Wilmer is a “champion of free jazz” in this context.  Especially in her chapters that are topic-based essays not focused biography, she frames her narrative to bracket out these questions.  But Wilmer’s framing leaves her with little to support the idealized objectives of many free jazz practitioners (as quoted by Wilmer).  This shades into an endorsement of the “myth of meritocracy” that holds that all meritorious action should be (but isn’t) rewarded commensurately — and is an attempt to demystify the absence of a meritocracy.

To be more precise, Wilmer basically adopts the ideological position articulated by philosopher John Rawls, probably the leading 20th century philosopher of political liberalism.  Rawls insisted that envy and resentment were not intrinsic to the human condition, but were the byproduct of unjustifiable inequality.  But Rawls’ position has been criticized by the likes of Jean-Pierre Dupuy in an interesting and relevant way.  Dupuy insists that there are symbolic procedures (hierarchy itself, demystification, contingency, and complexity) that make acceptance of unequal social conditions tolerable, that is, that give the appearance of critique but really form a protective buffer around individuals to allow hierarchy to function instead of being an actual challenge to it at its foundations.

The role of envy is pronounced in the politics of the far right wing.  Recall former 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plea to avoid the “bitter politics of envy” — Romney of course espousing this to suggest that the poor should accept their lower social status without objection.  Another prime example is novelist Ayn Rand‘s work.  Her pseudo-philosophical concept of “objectivism” is nothing more than the allowance of some people to assert their self-perception/self-identification as “fact” that must be accepted and acted upon by others (while dodging the question of which people get to do this and which don’t, and why).  Unlike the far right, who seek to maintain and promote inequality but eliminate objections to it, centrist liberals tend to assume that envy and resentment would go away in a “just” society (contrary to the view of psychoanalysis, which posits that envy is part of human psychology and therefore would not go away).  The problem here is that the dubious assumptions of Rawlsian liberals cause them to fail to meaningfully distance themselves from odious monsters like Rand.  At bottom both simply try to “wish” away envy and resentment.  As a result, the centrist liberals simply draw a line of exclusion in their hierarchy slightly differently than the right-wing reactionaries — but they still draw those lines and show no sign of trying to eliminate them in the future either.  We end up with merely a slightly different “management” of the collective feelings of guilt over the differences between particular groups.  In this way, the sentiments of black nationalism espoused in this book are often not so far off from the right-wing populism of, say, country musician Merle Haggard in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Rather than see black nationalism as merely one intermediate step in a larger effort, it is seen as an endpoint — despite the resentment-induced contradiction that if black nationalism is desirable then why not white nationalism, or, more humorously, this leads to the satirical song about male chauvinist resentment “What About Men?” from the TV show Portlandia.

Wilmer frequently frames the narrative of her book around a rather rigidly linear notion of (artistic) legitimacy.  (Following Dupuy, Wilmer here accepts hierarchy itself as an externally-imposed order independent of personal value).  She sees “free jazz” as unquestionably at the pinnacle of musical achievement and sophistication, at times indicating that it shares that position with Euro-classical music.  This leads, for instance, to complete derision of all forms of so-called jazz fusion, in ways that are often baffling.

Wilmer and some of her interviewees are right to point out that more marketing of the “free jazz” genre might have changed its prospects by creating demand and thereby leading to wider acceptance.  But those sorts of marketing decisions are basically political in nature.  Wilmer and some of her interviewees are hesitant to explicitly see them as such.  (Following Dupuy, there are numerous passages in Wilmer’s book that emphasize the contingency and complexity of the position of “free jazz” musicians as part of the accident of birth in an arbitrarily racist society with a complex and uncontrollable musical economy involving record labels, club owners, promoters, etc.).  All this reduces the “free jazz” movement to a kind of Ayn Rand-like universal (“just”?) capitalism, merely from an anti-racist entrepreneurial position.

So what is sorely lacking here is the recognition of something W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote long ago:

“[A]ll Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”

“Criteria of Negro Art” (1926).  Wilmer and her interviewees frequently depoliticize their cultural interventions, and further tend to absolve many of the quoted speakers from having to reevaluate the self-serving and self-defeating aspects of their positions.  In this respect, Wilmer’s book takes a very different view than Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz / Black Power (1971), which saw the “free jazz” movement as intimately linked to militant black political action in decolonization and anti-capitalist movements.  Carles and Comolli, like Du Bois, viewed “free jazz” as unabashedly partisan, though Wilmer recounts and indeed promotes a concealment of that partisanship that is ultimately unconvincing and, frankly, often deceptive. As Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks:

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek to know in what respect my race is superior or inferior to another race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master.

“I have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors.

“There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden.

***

“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.

“One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices.

“I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world.

“My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values.”

Wilmer is obviously writing from a very different perspective than Fanon.  But in this way, in hindsight at least, it can be seen how the free jazz movement fizzled and ultimately failed, by becoming an accomplice to the system it ostensibly fought against and surrendering the revolutionary premises that gave rise to it in the first instance — Anderson’s This Is Our Music is a very even-handed treatment of that transition.

As Serious As Your Life remains an invaluable resource and a book that anyone researching the “free jazz” genre will need to consult.  But, at the same time, readers should consider other relevant scholarship that throws the ideology of Wilmer’s book, and of the musicians she interviewed, into relief.

Summary of Dupuy on Social Hierarchy

“The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency. In La Marque du sacré, Jean-Pierre Dupuy conceives hierarchy as one of four procedures (‘dispositifs symboliques’) whose function is to make the relationship of superiority non-humiliating: hierarchy itself (an externally imposed order that allows me to experience my lower social status as independent of my inherent value); demystification (the ideological procedure which demonstrates that society is not a meritocracy but the product of objective social struggles, enabling me to avoid the painful conclusion that someone else’s superiority is the result of his merit and achievements); contingency (a similar mechanism, by which we come to understand that our position on the social scale depends on a natural and social lottery; the lucky ones are those born with the right genes in rich families); and complexity (uncontrollable forces have unpredictable consequences; for instance, the invisible hand of the market may lead to my failure and my neighbour’s success, even if I work much harder and am much more intelligent). Contrary to appearances, these mechanisms don’t contest or threaten hierarchy, but make it palatable, since ‘what triggers the turmoil of envy is the idea that the other deserves his good luck and not the opposite idea – which is the only one that can be openly expressed.’ Dupuy draws from this premise the conclusion that it is a great mistake to think that a reasonably just society which also perceives itself as just will be free of resentment: on the contrary, it is in such societies that those who occupy inferior positions will find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment.”

Slavoj Žižek, “The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie”

This is essentially a rejection of the liberal philosopher John Rawls‘ position, as articulated in A Theory of Justice.

Walter Benn Michaels – The Trouble With Diversity

The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

Walter Benn MichaelsThe Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (Metropolitan Books 2006)


Michael’s 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity landed quite a few jabs at the politics underlying “multiculturalism” and “diversity” initiatives.  In short, his argument is that “diversity” is really a cultural project that is fundamentally about depoliticizing economic issues.  This project is waged mostly by center-right liberals (who present themselves as the political “left”), but is endorsed in most respects by the reactionary right as well.  Michael’s complaint, therefore, is primarily that diversity initiatives are used to silence the political left, in a era in which the concept of genetic “races” has been scientifically disproved and — let us not forget — in the post-Soviet era of the so-called “end of history” in which the actual political left is supposedly defeated and irrelevant.  Michaels took much criticism (and praise too) for this book, which angered what he later came to term the “neoliberal left” — in reference to those who are part of the neoliberal center-right conservative block but don’t realize it (others call them “progressive neoliberals”).

The book is aimed at a general audience.  As such, Michaels mostly argues through analogy and example — Frantz Fanon‘s Black Skin, White Masks is a reasonable reference point.  He often explains basic concepts at length, and moves quickly through the statistics and science that supports his major premises.  Though his tone is cynical and somewhat condescending, the thing is it is hard to disagree with most of his points.  I, for one, was convinced by his argument against reparations.  I had long supported reparations, but Michaels has convinced me that reparations are basically reactionary as being mere restitution in a situation where more far-reaching solutions are needed — my only complaint being that he could have illustrated his point better with reference the seventh season episode of The Simpsons “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish,'” in which artwork stolen during WWII is returned to an arrogant and smug German aristocrat who is completely unsympathetic in the context of restitution.

While Michaels succeeds in destroying the depoliticized strategies of the neoliberals, critics are right to point out that he doesn’t suggest much in the way of alternatives.  At least, his consistently negative tone might be off-putting to some, because he never arrives at a negation of his negation.  For those readers, I heartily suggest reading Alain Badiou‘s (with Nicolas Truong) In Praise of Love [Elogie de l’amour].  Badiou explains in more positive terms what a society premised on universalist difference rather than identity would promote.

Another useful supplement (and corrective) to The Trouble With Diversity is Domenico Losurdo‘s Liberalism: A Counter-History, and its companion volume War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (and perhaps Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life).  While Michaels essentially argues that liberals are hypocritical, Losurdo elaborates on this point further, concluding that Liberalism has always been a politics of exclusion.  Liberals (including the currently hegemonic neoliberal order) simply engage in tactical debates over where the line of exclusion is drawn.  Michaels and Losurdo seem to be in agreement, but Losurdo’s highly academic book naturally offers a much deeper and theoretical argument than is in found in Michaels’ mass-market book.

Michaels has actually given some interesting interviews since the book was first published that are well worth reading.  The include “Walter Benn Michaels on How Liberals Still Love Diversity and Ignore Inequality” and “Let Them Eat Diversity.”  He has responded to his critics and stood his ground.  Adolph Reed, Jr. has helped Michaels carry these sorts of arguments too, and Reed’s various writings and interviews are also worth investigating for the curious.

My only lasting complaint about Michaels’ book is that his politics seem confused.  He describes himself as a socialist, yet he explicitly makes the effort to state his disagreement with some very foundational principles of the “communism hypothesis”, like equality of outcome.  In a way, he may claim to be a socialist critiquing neoliberalism from outside it, but he seems to occasionally rely on liberalism to make his arguments.  If the book spent more time explaining better alternatives to neoliberal “diversity” initiatives perhaps this confusion could have been resolved.  He also takes a very reductionist view of “class”, giving short shrift to theories about social hierarchies that take into account multiple forms of “capital”, like those of Pierre Bourdieu.

I do wish Michaels would write a sequel book, taking on things like “implicit bias” and other tactics of neoliberalism to individualize the problems of exploitation and reinforce market-based frameworks in the corporate world, the judicial system, and elsewhere. Though perhaps someone else has already written that book.  Even though The Trouble With Diversity was published more than a decade ago, it seems as relevant as ever — many have noted how Michaels’ argument explains much about the rise of Donald Trump as a politician and the mass support for a social democratic opposition candidate like Bernie Sanders in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

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 (and struggles for power) also ends up placing this in a vaguely similar place as Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction, as well as Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz/Black Power.  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 somewhat novel argument about music (in the superstructure) prophetically anticipating changes in the economic base — in this sense, Attali draws from maoism. 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.