Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

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.

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.

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].

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”.

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.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara – The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries

Ernesto “Che” GuevaraThe Motorcycle Diaries (Verso 1995)

The Motorcycle Diaries is a book based on a diary that Ernesto “Che” Guevara kept while on a lengthy journey through South American in 1951 and 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado.  Guevara was 23 when he began the more than six-month trip, and was still in medical school (in his native Argentina) at the time.  These aren’t raw diary entries, but are eloquently re-written vignettes based on the diary notes.  The prose is excellent, poetic even.  Guevara comes across as a more compelling version of beat writer Jack Kerouac, with more of a sense of purpose and minus the narcissism of Kerouac.  There are a few comments here and there about politics and political economy, but for the most part this is just an engaging coming-of-age travelogue about two bohemian vagabonds getting to know a wider world and its people.  Tennessee Williams‘ character Blanche duBois has the famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  That more or less perfectly describes Guevara and Granado’s approach to their expedition, as they lacked sufficient funds and provisions and therefore begged, connived, and (sometimes) worked for food, shelter, rides, and other provisions much of the time.  Guevara has a keen eye for character and motivations as he describes the people he encounters.  He also acknowledges the undercurrent of decadence in the trip.  Some editions of the book reprint part of a 1960 speech Guevara gave that nicely adds context to how the expedition shaped his own character, and also contextualizing how such experiences are the sort of thing that are socially necessary in shedding goals that involve striving for individual recognition in favor of advancing common dignity.  After his assassination, Jean-Paul Sartre would famously describe Guevara as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.”  And as Thomas Sankara said about Che in a speech October 8, 1987 commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Che’s assassination, a week before Sankara too was assassinated, that Che “turned his back on the easy road in order, on the contrary, to assert himself as a man of the people, a man who makes common cause with the people, a man who makes common cause with the suffering of others.”  He added, “Finally, let us remember Che simply as an embodiment of eternal romanticism, of fresh and invigorating youth, and at the same time of the clear-sightedness, wisdom, and devotion that only profound men, men with heart, can possess.”  One can get a glimpse of why Sartre and Sankara, and so many others, said these things by starting with The Motorcycle Diaries, which sounds out a portrait of an imperfect human being trying to be better.

Elaine Brown – The Condemnation of Little B

The Condemnation of Little B

Elaine BrownThe Condemnation of Little B (Beacon Press 2002)

More than 15 years ago, Elaine Brown wrote a wonderful book named The Condemnation of Little B.  It is both a sympathetic tale of Michel Lewis, known as “Little B,” who — when he was barely a teenager — was tried as an adult and convicted for a murder he most certainly did not commit, and a larger story of “New Age Racism” that explains why Little B’s individual story is, unfortunately, not all that unique.

The thrust of Brown’s analysis is conveyed by the way she recounts the prosecutor’s closing statement in Little B’s trial, which she says ended “with a dramatic flourish that revealed what the case against Little B was really about, about accommodating a powerful racist political socioeconomic agenda that at once invented and condemned black boys as superpredators.”  (p. 336).  This is part of the “New Age Racism” she describes, which is but an extension of old-fashioned racism:

“More than a century after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, more than 130 years since the legal end of slavery, the black communities of the United States effectively formed a third world enclave of subcitizens within the confines of this richest nation in the world.  Indeed, among the richest nations in the world, the United States, as the richest, maintained the highest poverty rate, with blacks at the bottom.”  (p. 355).

Brown’s scope is sweeping.  She manages to balance a sort of fast-paced “true crime” courtroom drama with a broader social science analysis of societal tends, as well as injecting the story of her own involvement investigating the case — while making that merely a framework to tell the story in an engaging way, without being a distraction from the real substance of the book.  The book opens with a tale of how Brown became aware of Little B and the dominant media narrative about him, which leads into an explanation of how her research ended up debunking that narrative.  She returns to Little B’s trial at the end of the book.  Throughout, it is as if she repeatedly asks, “Qui bono? [to whose benefit?],” in analyzing Little B’s situation and the actions of all the players involved.

In the middle part of the book, she covers the politicians who grandstand about being “tough on crime” while being fully aware of the racially discriminatory purpose and effect of the policies they enact behind a wall of public denial and feigned ignorance.  She covers the police and prison functionaries who viciously enforce degrading policies, careful not to question their own moral culpability in the process.  She discusses how courts have failed to uphold principles of universal justice, for instance, ruling that plea bargains for witnesses are shielded from laws against bribing witnesses that on on their face would make prosecutors dealing them out felons.  She discusses prosecutors repaying political supporters by engaging in witch hunts and duplicitous prosecutions — she even tells an anecdote about calling a prosecutor duplicitous to his face.  She critiques journalists of the so-called “fourth estate” who act as “an extension of the powerful” (p. 37) and who promote narratives that are contrary to fact but bolster the policies of ruling elites — others have called this a “propaganda model”.  She calls out many who benefited from past affirmative action programs only to now kick the ladder away and deny others the benefits they themselves received.  She also discusses how the United States’ “founding fathers” were unrepentant slave owners.  In short, she portrays the larger context for how Little B’s story is the natural and intended consequence of the interrelated institutions of government, law enforcement, and society that today make up the politically dominant neoliberal program, itself a product of a top-down reassertion of power.  And she names names.  She never blinks in calling out by name the particular actors in Little B’s saga, or those on a regional or national level, even historical figures, who have acted to maintain systems of (racial) oppression.

The person who comes in her sights for the most criticism is undoubtedly former President Bill Clinton.  There is a wealth of information here about Clinton’s duplicity, not only betraying campaign promises but ushering in the “New Age Racism” that Brown describes as a return to the Plessy v. Ferguson era.  Central to this is the Clinton crime bill of 1994, which greatly expanded incarceration rates, predominantly among blacks, introduced severe mandatory sentencing, increased prison and law enforcement spending, and was an ignoble model for similarly severe state laws, combined with Clinton and Al Gore‘s legislative push (again an inspiration to states) to “end welfare as we know it.”  For that matter this trend was just a continuing part of what Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers called a “Right Turn” in American politics.  It is summed up well by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu‘s metaphor of “the left hand and the right hand of the state” — with the “left hand” social welfare programs starved of funds and the “right hand” (really, more of a right fist) coercive police and military institutions expanded — a metaphor explored in depth in by Loïc Wacquant‘s Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, and echoing the “Pyrrhic Defeat” theory of Jeffrey Reiman‘s The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Katherine Beckett‘s Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics, etc.

Brown’s research is astute and reliable.  As one example, she even mentions government involvement in promoting drug trafficking in a way that acknowledges the still under-publicized and under-taught history of such activities.  She also peers into the so-called “prison-industrial complex” to explain how private for-profit prisons need a supply of prisoners, and how manufacturing companies exploit forced convict labor.  She peppers statistics throughout the book to support her arguments, without ever becoming bogged down in them.  This is how readers know that during the 1990s, there was a 465.5% increase in the number of blacks imprisoned for drugs!  (p. 352).  And, at that, mostly for victimless nonviolent drug charges.

While much of her general historical analysis relies on Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States, a central part of her discussion of the “New Age Racism” of the people directly and indirectly involved in Little B’s case leans on Malcolm X‘s parable about the “field negro” and the “house negro”.  (See pp. 209-212).  Brown adopts the parallel terminology “New Age House Negros” — the contemporary version of Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s “Uncle Tom” character.  Norman Kelley coined the derisive term The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome to describe the same phenomenon.  This is very much the same concept that political economist Ruy Mauro Marini noted (the same year Malcolm X was assassinated) in relation to a “sub-imperialism” that involved peripheral economies (like the Brazilian junta) collaborating actively with the imperialist expansion of core economies (like the United States), assuming in that expansion the position of a key nation.  It is also something Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, mentioned in his speech at the United Nations on October 4, 1984.  For these “New Age House Negros” — Brown names people like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, William Julius Wilson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others in this ignoble role — they are accepting personal benefits in exchange for betraying the larger cause of racial justice on a society-wide basis.  It is worth quoting Brown at length here:

“More than merely advocating and sanctioning government policies that contributed to and maintained the wretched state of ghettoized and millions of other poor blacks, there had now come to be a new crop of Negros who, positioned to actually influence the outcome of government activity, were actively undermining the cause of improving the lot of blacks in America.  Although their positions had been purchased with black blood in more than one hundred years of struggle, these new Negroes had become collaborators in a scheme that was imprisoning and further impoverishing more and more blacks.  Given the moribund state of independent efforts by blacks for freedom, government policies and programs still represented the sole resort of blacks for redress and remedy for past harm, the sole relief and hope for the millions of Little Bs.”  (p. 220).

These aren’t just blanket accusations.  Brown goes into sufficient depth to identify precisely the positions publicly advocated, the benefits obtained, as well as contrasting examples for context.  The people she criticizes generally deny these things, naturally, but Brown’s evidence in each case is more than adequate to convincingly show that these individuals got ahead by participating — as privileged collaborators and exceptions — to social systems of (racial) oppression.  And she does that without leaning merely on a “Beautiful Soul” contradiction or the inadequate description of “tokenism”.  Her position ends up close to that of Adolph Reed, Jr.‘s essay, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public intellectual.”

A useful critique she offers in passing is of rapper Sean “P-Diddy” (formerly “Puff Daddy”) Combs, and the way his music’s message revolves around “a presumed conflict between the ‘player’ — a ghetto black who has gotten rich — and the resentment of the ‘player-hater’ — the black still stuck in the ghetto.”  (p. 240).  As a contrast, the TV show Good Times had a season two episode in 1975 called “The Debutante Ball” in which the protagonist Evans family, living in a public housing project, is confronted by the Robinson family, led by a father who became rich, left the ghetto, and wishes to sever all ties and connections to it — and hence does not want his daughter to attend a debutante ball with J.J. Evans, who is from the ghetto.  Unlike Puff Daddy/P. Diddy, who sides with the “player”, the Good Times episode has sympathies in the other direction, accusing the rich man (“player”) of forgetting where he came from and suggesting that he is being anti-social and betraying necessary black solidarity.  This regression is precisely the point Brown makes so well about “New Age Racism.”

When it comes to the discussion of Little B’s trial, Brown is critical of mistakes that his own lawyer made.  Actually, she felt that the senior defense attorney was ineffective and Little B would have been better served by his less experienced but more competent co-defense counsel.  In some instances, Brown has the benefit of hindsight.  Yet there were still some rather glaring errors and oversights made.  Those were compounded by a disinterested judge droning on in a monotone voice — something all too typical in criminal cases.  But Brown spends ample time on the prosecutor, who used “emotionalism to cover the barrenness of facts” in the state’s case.  (p. 327).  In other words, she calls her out for utilizing a psychological persuasion trick that lowers public opinion of lawyers in general:  like a magician using distraction to perform a sleight of hand illusion, the prosecutor makes an emotionally manipulative case that distracts from the cold impersonal evidence that leads to a different conclusion.  Partly for this reason, some other countries use professional jurors, who can become more familiar with both courtroom procedure and tenth rate lawyer tricks, to perhaps see beyond them.  For those interested, Brown does point a finger at the mostly likely murderer, a neighborhood drug dealer known as “Big E”, who avoided a life sentence on other charges as part of a deal with prosecutors to testify against Little B.

While Brown’s book is about as thorough and well grounded as could be hoped, there are a few minor points where it might be improved.  Brown frequently reproduces quotes using “[sic]” to highlight supposed errors.  In at least a few cases there are no errors to be found, and Brown comes across as trying to shame the quoted speakers/writers in an exceptionally petty way.  Cornell West gets dissed here, which may have been fair at the time of publication, but since Brown’s book was published West has changed his public positions in ways that would seemingly satisfy Brown.  She also comes close to taking a very reductionist stance on racism, nearly divorcing it from other factors like economics, though she always pulls back from falling into that trap — resoundingly so with an MLK quote that closes the book.  Still, much of her analysis of political ideology comes up a bit short in general, left mostly to implication, and might have been bolstered by citing to some other authors who have already developed similar lines of thinking.  Adolph Reed, Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels come to mind.  It also would have been interesting, if a digression, to have read Brown’s views on the argument that race is a social construct not supported by scientific genetics.  Anyway, back on point, in the middle part of the book Brown criticizes “Enlightenment” era thinkers in a somewhat slipshod way.  She lists many of the big names, and then criticizes most of them.  But, for instance, she never gets around to debunking Jean-Jacques Rousseau on her list, which is curious because most of the framework of her book rests on concepts that run through Rousseau one way or another.  It isn’t so much that her political/philosophical analysis is wrong as much as it is vague and undeveloped.  Domenico Losurdo‘s Liberalism: A Counter-History was published after Brown’s book, which is too bad because it fills in the holes in Brown’s analysis in a perfectly complementary way.  Losurdo argued that Liberalism is and always has been premised on the exclusion of some from enjoyment of its loudly self-professed support of freedoms and civil rights.  He details at length how Liberalism has always advocated freedom while seeing no contradiction in supporting slavery at the same time — this being an essential aspect of Liberalism and not a deviation from it.  Rather, Liberalism always places the maintenance of some form of social hierarchy, however softened or limited, above rights and freedoms.  That is why the freedom that Liberalism promotes most strongly is ultimately only that of the unimpeded movement of economic capital.  Brown is advocating for the universal applicability of personal freedom, seemingly free from the limits of hierarchy.  This underscores something that is never explicitly stated in Brown’s book: she is really criticizing neoliberalism (the dominant strain of Liberalism at the time) from the left through the lens of one particular person’s story and the context behind it.

In this light, Brown’s book presents Little B’s case as a situation not terribly unlike the so-called “Dreyfus Affair” in Third Republic France a hundred years previous (1894-1906), in which an article by Émile Zola run under the iconic headline, “J’accuse!” publicized how the Jewish military captain Alfred Dreyfus was framed by military commanders.  That case illustrates a political divide manifested through law enforcement and judicial proceedings.  The basic split is between, on the one hand, those who believe that every person is equally entitled to a fair trial and that the innocent should never be punished for crimes they did not commit, and, on the other hand, those who believe in maintaining social institutions and traditions even at the cost of throwing a few innocent people in prison once and a while.  The latter tend to evoke Plato‘s idea of a “noble lie” used by elites to sustain a society of their own design, and Kant‘s position that such lies must never be questioned or exposed or else the legal foundation of society will collapse.  In this way, the people who throw innocents in prison often sincerely believe that they are doing good, even if they lie, plant evidence, deny access to an attorney, etc., because they are preserving a system that is necessary in their eyes — denying or concealing the essentially political choice involved in selecting a particular system in the first instance that puts some in power over others.  Elaine Brown is of course on the former side, decrying the imprisonment and punishment of any innocent person, and, by extension, seeing corresponding change to existing social systems to equalize power relations as desperately needed and long overdue.  Another reviewer put it well by writing, “She is witheringly good at exposing the myths that allow power groups, both black and white, to exploit and crush the weak with a comparatively untroubled conscience — all more or less veiled versions of racism, ranging from Jefferson‘s theories on why blacks can’t write poetry to today’s trumpeted ‘new phenomenon’ of young, black male ‘Superpredators’ sprouting in our midst.”  Taking Losurdo’s analysis as a reference, this amounts to saying that the centrist neoliberals are, at a very fundamental level, actually more aligned with the conservative/reactionary right than they admit.

Brown does inject herself into the narrative, particularly in the very beginning and very end of the book.  It is clear she rejects the so-called journalistic “ethics” of “non-involvement”, which can be questioned on moral grounds as being far too convenient for journalists.  But her perspective adds to the story, and orients readers to the author’s perspective.

The Condemnation of Little B is a landmark.  Unlike trashy, novelistic “true crime” books like Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood, which epitomize an emotionalism that sidesteps the deeper moral questions about social constructs and institutions, Brown dissects and critiques those overlooked questions with surgical precision.  It is remarkably comprehensive, always defends the moral high ground, and is relentless in questioning the legitimacy of social power structures.  Hats off to Brown.

Michael Lewis, “Little B”, remains in prison:  http://freelittleb.com/