Landon Frim & Harrison Fluss – Steven Pinker: False Friend of the Enlightenment

Link to a review by Landon Frim & Harrison Fluss of Steven Pinker‘s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018):

“Steven Pinker: False Friend of the Enlightenment”


This is a great tear-down of Pinker’s thinking, which is problematic because of how basically insipid it is as mere status quo boosterism.

Bonus links: Review of The Great Leveler and Review of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History and Slavoj Žižek On Political Struggle and Review of Making Money

Bonus quote:

“in the analysis of ideology, it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.”

Rex Butler, “What Is a Master-Signifier”

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 formally took the United States off the gold standard in 1971 (informally since 1968, but Varoufakis does not mention that), 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 is “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 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 along with members of the MMT school of thought).  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.  For a fuller marxist explanation of more basic economic theory and relevant historical factors (up through the 1970s at least), Ernest Mandel‘s writings might make a useful supplement — especially his paper “The Driving Forces of Imperialism” published in Spheres of Influence in the Age of Imperialism (1972).

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 financial doctrines, 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.  Mandel’s writings, for instance, develop these issues more thoroughly, allowing for a recognition that what Varoufakis calls a “global surplus recycling mechanism” is really just an anti-imperialist stance, and such anti-imperialism is merely utopian unless it forms part of a broader anti-capitalist stance because imperialism (as a monopolistic heightening of uneven and combined development/underdevelopment and unequal exchange) is an inherent tendency of capitalism (as explained by Rudolf Hilferding et al).

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 have 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 creates a slim opening for 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.  And Ernest Mandel, as mentioned above, also has written on similar topics in a an earlier era. Hudson and Keen are best described as left-populists while Mandel was a marxist.

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.

Angela Nagle – Kill All Normies | Review

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

Angela NagleKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (zero Books 2017)

Angela Nagle has written a rather important book on the rise of the so-called “alt-right” and its online origins and activities, including its ascendancy in more conventional corporate mass media (termed the “alt-light”).  First, let me state a few of my reservations about the book.  It is short.  I would call it a “hot take” on the topic, meant to be a topical history of recent and still ongoing events.  As such, the book’s brevity and concision sometimes lead to prose that can feel a bit cluttered.  Passing references to terms like “Gramscian” and “Overton window”, plus cursory references to any number of theorists and academics by name, might not be immediately understandable to some.  And, of course, her minimal descriptions of various online forums and the companies operating them might baffle readers who have never spent time on those sites (or any like them), especially reading the book in hindsight.  Being so short, the book also doesn’t touch on certain related topics like the law enforcement response — or lack thereof to the extremist (if not outright terroristic) tactics of the alt-right.  As others have noted, better copyediting, sourcing, and the addition of an index would help too.  But all these are minor complaints.  Nagle’s analysis is pretty much spot-on.  Even if her references/sources are passing ones in the text, rather than explicit citations, she is pretty well-versed in theory and late 20th Century history and that comes through in the book.  She relies on the likes of Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed, Jr., Mark Fisher, Pierre Bourdieu, and others to ground her analysis.  If there is a crux to her overall argument, it is probably this:

“It is sometimes said that the right won the economic war and the left won the culture war.  And as political theorist Walter Benn Michaels has argued, it is the recognition of identity that has triumphed over economic equality as the organizing principle of the Anglo-American liberal left and of mainstream discourse more broadly.

“In full agreement with him, I would also argue that the most recent rise of the online right is evidence of the triumph of the identity politics of the right and of the co-opting (but nevertheless the triumph) of 60s left styles of transgression and counterculture.  The libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony and ultimately the nihilism that the left was once accused of by the right actually characterized the movement [of the alt-light].”  (p. 57)

This explanation of how the political right co-opted the “transgressive” style of the political left is perhaps the central achievement of the book.  She explains how the alt-right try to create an isolated community through the use of elitist insider knowledge plus cruelty and bullying — she wonderfully analogizes this to exclusionary musical subcultures (another unmentioned example might be the tactics of “hoarders”, which, surprisingly, have parallels with the ideas of leftists like Jean Genet, who wrote in Journal du voleur [The Thief’s Journal]: “Repudiating the virtues of your world, criminals hopelessly agree to organize a forbidden universe. They agree to live in it. The air there is nauseating: they can breathe it.”).  But here it is worth paying close attention to her terminology because “Anglo-American liberal left” is really a reference to “left neoliberals” or “progressive neoliberals” (or even the “pseudo-left” or “Fukuyama left”), which is to say the left-ish wing of center-right liberalism, not the “left” as in communists, anarchists, and anarcho-syndicalists.  At points in the book she draws out this distinction by differentiating the “materialist” left from the “liberal” left — though this could have been made more consistently clear.

The book astutely notes how Judith Butler’s style of politically correct (historicist) identity politics (which Nagle associates with the web site Tumblr) has been a principal target of the alt-right in this culture war (which she associates with sites like 4chan).  Nagle points out how contemporary identity politics tends to involve a classic neoliberal maneuver of creating “scarcity” of virtue, as a way of making virtue signaling (trigger warnings, no-platforming anti-free speech crusades, call-out culture, public demonstrations of sensitivity, etc.) a commodity of sorts; specifically, making signs of virtue into “cultural capital” — adopting a term derived from Bourdieu.  She makes a case for how the identity politics crowd are basically a bunch of ineffectual narcissists, unwilling or unable to actually fight the political right because they are both committed to depoliticized passivity and are overwhelmed by constantly striving to distinguish themselves from the historical left.  Here she is more or less tacitly in line with Domenico Losurdo’s critique of liberalism as a politics of exclusion as well as Alain Badiou’s views about the fate of contemporary girls (and boys). Of course, she is also quite clear on the alt-right’s more explicit desire to annihilate its opponents and its rejection of liberal depoliticalization (following Carl Schmitt).  There is an old saying about bringing a knife to a gun fight, and Nagle contextualizes how, metaphorically, the (neo)liberal left is (irrationally and stupidly) bringing only a white handkerchief to waive in a political gunfight.

In a later interview she said, “Ruthless competitive individualism is being applied to the romantic and private realm and it’s deeply anti-social.”  Describing the “manosphere” (online anti-feminist subcultures) in this book, she echoes the French concept of ressentiment.  She writes:

“I think [F. Roger Devlin (the alt-right writer, white nationalist, men’s rights activist, and anti-feminist)] is getting to the central issue driving this kind of reactionary sexual politics, perhaps even the central personal motivation behind the entire turn to the far right among young men.  The sexual revolution that started the decline of lifelong marriage has produced great freedom from the shackles of loveless marriage and selfless duty to the family for both men and women.  But this ever-extended adolescence has also brought with it the rise of adult childlessness and a steep sexual hierarchy.  Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order.  Their own anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in this hierarchy is precisely what has produced their hard-line rhetoric about asserting hierarchy in the world politically when it comes to women and non-whites.  The pain of relentless rejection has festered in these forums and allowed them to be the masters of the cruel natural hierarchies that bring them so much humiliation.” (pp. 97-98).

Lest the import of the last quoted sentence be lost, she is saying that the (male) alt-right are masters of experiencing pain and rejection and humiliation and they turn that mastery into a cudgel to batter other groups with — in a profoundly regressive and loathsome way.  It is these sorts of observations that make the book so worthwhile.  The most direct parallel to Nagle’s position is probably Jean-Paul Sartre‘s line of argument in Réflexions sur la question juive [The Anti-Semite and The Jew], where he argued:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. ***

The anti-Semite has no illusions about what he is. He considers himself an average man, modestly average, basically mediocre. There is no example of an anti-Semite’s claiming individual superiority over the Jews. But you must not think that he is ashamed of his mediocrity; he takes pleasure in it; I will even assert that he has chosen it. This man fears every kind of solitariness, that of the genius as much as that of the murderer; he is the man of the crowd. However small his stature, he takes every precaution to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find himself face to face with himself. He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone. The phrase, ‘I hate the Jews,’ is one that is uttered in chorus; in pronouncing it, one attaches himself to a tradition and community –- the tradition and community of the mediocre.

“We must remember that a man is not necessarily humble or even modest because he has consented to mediocrity. On the contrary, there is a passionate pride among the mediocre, and anti-Semitism is an attempt to give value to mediocrity as such, to create an elite of the ordinary.

Ultimately, Nagle is willing to recognize numerous problems with identity politics and is willing to concede that certain strains of feminism became co-opted by neoliberalism and/or have lost sight of egalitarian ideals of fairness and (at lest occasionally) succumbed to reductionist antagonism, intolerance, and dogmatism (or perhaps what has been called “gyno-pessimism”).  She still considers herself a feminist, though the term “post-feminist” might fit her position better.  If I were to sum up what makes her insights so significant, it is that she completely avoids the sort of “beautiful soul” grandstanding that seeks to merely use the loathsome cruelty of the alt-right to make a case for its own moral superiority, something that characterizes the Standard Liberal Response to this cultural/historical phenomenon.  Rather, she makes a genuine effort to try to understand the underlying grievances and motivations (e.g., desire for solidarity/community/a stable sense of place) that have fostered resentments, as well as to point out how the genuine (“materialist”) political left has been hollowed out leaving a kind of vacuum that has allowed obscene far-right characters to posit troubling “solutions” to these grievances without real opposition — something like the truism attributed to Walter Benjamin:  behind every rise of fascism lies a failed (left) revolution.  And this is an incredible important thesis.  Nagle is partly here a sympathetic critic of the political (“materialist”) left, recognizing that it has lost many key battles, is lacking in headcount, and has made some tactical and theoretical blunders, but she still believes that there is something worth saving and fighting for on the left that is fundamentally opposed to both the political right and the (left-liberal) political center — which too often bears responsibility for the conditions that have provoked the alt-right’s backlash.

Her conclusion seems like an important one:

“When we’ve reached a point where the idea of being edgy/countercultural/transgressive can place fascists in a position of moral superiority to regular people, we may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn countercultural ideals.” (p. 108).

Does this mean that even the intentionally crude (lo-fi) cultural tactics embodied in, say, musical artifacts like Alex Chilton’s 1979 album Like Flies on Sherbert, and scores of punk-era recordings, or later albums like Flipper’s Public Flipper Limited, Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted or the grungy nihilism of Nirvana’s Nevermind or their song “Rape Me” plotted the wrong course?  Or that Jean Genet’s writing and activism has some problematic limitations?  Perhaps.  In any event this is Nagle’s profound suggestion for the political left to reconsider (and improve) its tactics, which might not mean abandoning them completely so much as refining them to try to prevent misuse and misappropriation.

It does seem like the world needs more books like this that intervene in ongoing events from a left perspective before all the stakes are entirely clear and the dust has already settled.  Parts of her analysis won’t be easy to take but that is precisely because that analysis is so incisive.  Nagle has really highlighted key aspects of how the political left can and should win over people who would otherwise support, now or in the future, the political right, rather than simply labeling them a “basket of deplorables” or making simplistic and hypocritical criticisms of “toxic masculinity” (etc.) and then pursuing an exclusionary politics of toxic identitarianism that relies on constructing a huge portion of the population as an enemy.

Valerie Wilmer – As Serious As Your Life | Review

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 are quasi-reactionary partisans who substantively oppose innovations or change and those who nominally support a common project but instead 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, which merged rock with jazz, 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 fostering a mere exposure effect, 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 (see also Slavoj Žižek’s “Multiculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism”).  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.  Michaels’ 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” or the “pseudo-left”).

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/elementary concepts at length, and moves quickly through the statistics and science that support 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 (entirely petty) 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 (what others refer to as “university discourse”), 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.  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.  They 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 (as in “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”).  In a way, he may claim to be a socialist critiquing neoliberalism from outside it, but he still seems to occasionally rely on liberalism to make his arguments.  Indeed, the reference to “inequality” in the book’s subtitle is itself inconsistent with a socialist position.  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 structural/institutional 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” and Bejamin’s work more generally, as well as to 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 Mitterrand 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 — though, 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 Walter Benjamin, maoism, or perhaps even the way Frantz Fanon provided an explanation of how colonialism works and how it could be fought.  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).

In this sense she echoes something Frantz Fanon wrote decades earlier in Les Damnés de la Terre [The Wretched of the Earth]:

“the success of the struggle presupposes clear objectives, a definite methodology and above all the need for the mass of the people to realize that their unorganized efforts can only be a temporary dynamic.  You can hold out for three days—maybe even for three months—on the strength of the admixture of sheer resentment contained in the mass of the people; but you won’t win a national war, you’ll never overthrow the terrible enemy machine, and you won’t change human beings if you forget to raise the consciousness of the rank-and-file.  Neither stubborn courage nor fine slogans are enough.”

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 (admittedly, 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 (most 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 reactionary 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 this is just an alibi for conclusions already drawn up beforehand and independently.  He ends up not really questioning his theoretical assumptions, and instead dwells on action — in a way highly reminiscent of the discredited Alinsky Method.  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 reformism.  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 explicates 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 psychoanalysis 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, or in Antonio Gramsci‘s “critical marxism”.  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 critical 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 chauvinistic 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, taken together, 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, Rob Urie, 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.