Category Archives: capitalism

Red-baiting as the cliff approaches

We draw closer to another imperialist war and as the global economy creaks beneath our feet, red-baiting is again back in fashion.

We are to believe there is no choice between ISIS and Obama.  There is no choice between abject poverty and crushing student loans. No choice between the burka and the bikini. In a culture where choice is worshipped as part of holy agency, holy self-value and atomization, the choices presented to us are rather bare bones – we will have neoliberalism or we will have death. “There is no alternative.” And don’t speak, don’t even think, about seizing the means of production.

In the clip above, released by the US State Department, we have a strange comparison. On the left, we have communism, and on the right, ISIS. The title is “Destruction of Holy Sites”.

At first blush, this might seem rather nonsensical. The two historical and geographic contexts presented to us in the video are completely different. Did the United States and its allies fund communism, for one? But then to examine the context of the propaganda: does communism have a strong history or a foothold in the Arab world? Well, the answer here is yes. Red groups and red money has shaped much of the policies of the region. Today, red groups are making some of the strongest gains against the rag-tag lot of foreign takfiris styling themselves after the sahaba who also call themselves Dawlat Islameeya, the Islamic State. These revolutionaries don’t accept the idea that the barbarity seen mounted on the spikes of the Raqqa’s city centre is homegrown, a natural conclusion to the horrific chapter of American occupation. They don’t accept the idea that this is a tribal spat, an ethnic power struggle. No, they see it as part of class war, as foreign imperialism making a play.

And so a false equivalency is generated to guide those who would otherwise gravitate towards pointing the finger (rightly) at American and Zionist designs on the region, away from a politics of liberation and towards capitalist enclosure.

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I’m a red. The people dearest to me in this life are reds. I have immense respect for Mao Tse-Tung, who liberated the Chinese people not only from imperialism, but also from poverty. Maoism inspired millions of people worldwide to struggle towards their own liberation. And I don’t recall Maoists in China kidnapping women and putting heads on spikes, but perhaps this is a part of the story Maz might not want to discuss. Regardless, back to the context – really? Are reds in a position of power as ISIS is? Can we fairly compare the two? Or is this is a smear against reds in the same tradition as the US State Department video mentioned earlier.

Likewise in Ferguson, Missouri, where we again find the horrified whisper regarding “outside agitators”, a civil rights-era slur against those who struggled for the liberation of oppressed nations in the United States. Now, to be fair and give credit where credit is due, the civil rights movement was certainly supported by communists in the United States and abroad. More importantly, it would be a tragedy and crime to erase incredible leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis and most of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense – all reds. But where are they now? Is the RCP secretly getting paid by a Soviet Union that no longer exists? Back to the context! While this smear of “outside agitators” was used against the civil rights movements as a dog whistle for communists, and as it is used today for reds and anarchists, it’s also an exercise in mystification, in red-baiting and in smearing the ideology of socialism as something ‘foreign’ to the people.

Stalinist (or Baathist) is just another term used to defame reds – mainly those who are against imperialist war in Syria. Even as Libya writhes in agony after a NATO war that left the African country with the highest HDI and best public infrastructure in smoldering ruin, to suggest you are against such further aggression will earn you the title of ‘Stalinist.’ And again, to give credit where credit is due, the USSR under Stalin did annihilate the Nazis and liberate most of Europe. But to be called a Stalinist (or even Baathist) by someone who is most certainly not a red is to be smeared, and is unambiguously used to discipline other reds and pinks to shy away from speaking out against NATO intervention in Syria for fear of being a secret Stalinist, whatever that word even means outside Cold War hysterics.

All of these things aside, why now? Why the recent spike in red-baiting? From Arabic-language State Department videos comparing ISIS to communists to VICE “journalists” denouncing Stalin like they’re lifelong members of the fourth international, there seems to be a resurgence on the periphery of some sort of – and I can only call it preventative – red scare. The language of being a red is gone – now you are either a radical or a barbaric Stalinist. Radicals can shill for bombing Libya, radicals can produce ‘ironic’ racist burlesque minstrel shows, radicals represent the underclass and everyone who disagrees with them are now comparable to mercenaries who crucify people (including reds) in public squares in Syria.

So what danger on the horizon, then, from reds?

The disciplining is remarkable – Steve Salaita is fired from a tenured position over his views on Gaza, and an unknown but certainly existing number of academics switch off their profiles, put everything to private. Reds are doxed – their address, their phone numbers, their emails, their boss’s info are posted to the internet along with their designation as DANGEROUS COMMUNISTS and they suddenly disappear. Public campaigns from neocons against leftist magazines that publish anti-imperialist articles. Visits from FBI agents with dossiers triggered by what exactly – maybe it was a tweet? Julian Assange locked in the Ecuadorian Embassy for how many years now? Chelsea Manning in solitary confinement. No wonder people go under pseudonyms – the environment is once again getting dangerous for those who don’t think imperialism or capitalism is such a hot idea.

Consider that much of this red-baiting is in response to a growing, powerful war hysteria. It’s undeniable – a comrade of mine in the states observed it’s worse than the rhetoric in 2002. Ukraine must be protected from Putin’s hordes, Syria must be protected from tyrant Assad, and Iraq must be protected from themselves and their barbarian savages. The drums are beating louder and louder, while the working class of the world stands war weary and exploited to the extreme. The most powerful challenge to capitalism in the history of the world emerged out of the first World War. Impoverished millions sent to die on the front line, and while it may not be our boys off to fight in the trenches this time, a world war that echoes the motivations and methods of 1914 will cause damage and pain such as we’ve never seen. In a global economy where billions are underserved, unemployed or barely working, this war can only be won under a red banner. Indeed, now more than ever, the spectre of working class revolution strikes terror into the hearts of the barricaded ruling class. This is why they persist in their handwringing about Stalinists and Maoists – because the moment of truth is approaching once again, and both Stalin and Mao have never been friends of global capitalist hegemony. A revolution that seizes the means of production is not something that is built overnight, as history teaches us, but we need to start on the foundations of such a project as soon as possible. Their anxiety is a cue for us to intensify in our efforts.

This is why they are resurrecting red-baiting, why they are looking nervously over their shoulders for the communist menace to arise. This is why it’s worth it for them to try and entrap the youth on a micro-level, atomize us further, discombobulate our senses and teach us not to trust what is real and what we know to be true in a material sense. Capitalism has produced its own grave diggers, and they are handed a shovel while being told to go support yet another imperialist war.

Nobody Politics

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You may learn in time that “activism” and militancy is the highest stage of alienation.

Do you really think it matters whether you “oppose” imperialism or not. Your yelling and “loud” opposition is utterly ineffectual and impotent.

She’s a bit too “enthusiastic“. I think she’s slightly over-estimating her self-importance and that of those she associates with.

What is a troll? Accused of anonymity and distasteful disagreement, a troll is a nobody. Nobodies inhabit the earth in billions, just numbers on a census, silenced from debate and discourse. A troll is a nobody who goes against what good nobodies are supposed to be doing: acquiescing, marching behind somebodies, those unique souls imbued with a sense of authority by the powers that be. This class of somebodies include tenured professors, experts, pundits, image-conscious journalists, celebrities and politicians.

I laughed when Professor Rechtenwald left the above paternalist comments on my recent essay on the urgent necessity of anti-imperialism. I currently pay for a shared studio with vermin on a street where people are murdered, I make $15 an hour as a temp in New York; no one has to tell me I’m alienated. I do not disagree that militancy and activism are results of alienation. Word on the street is that this is how revolutionaries live: cut off from all sorts of things, certainly from the teat of NYU positions. But his comments got me thinking about unimportant nobodies versus very important somebodies, and I’d like to make some comments about nobody politics.

As much as anyone wants to beat up on Stalin and Mao for “cults of personality”, we have a strange blind spot towards our utterly bizarre celebrity culture.

Celebrity is a gorgeous date for neoliberalism. The cult of the individual manifests itself as worshiping the individual traits of those we have never met or spoken with. We need to see cellulite, we need to read interviews, we need to breathlessly pour over family photos of intimate gatherings on their timelines. This cult of celebrity is encouraged by and exists for the purposes of capitalism. Celebrities mean celebrity endorsements, of course, but they also foster a sense of individual worship. The difference between Stalin and an American celebrity is that Stalin was seen as the embodiment of the Soviet Union and its values, while we love our celebrity because of her individual qualities, namely her saucy attitude, sizzling hot fashion sense, and her performances for us – be they on stage or on Instagram. Stalin never posed for centerfolds, he never gave out fashion tips or spoke about his family and personal relationships at length. He was a portrait, a ghost of an actual individual, an iconic face that meant nothing to most of us on an individual scale.

For sure, our present ruler in the United States indulges in this celebrity, playing to memes or appearing on ironic hipster webisodes. But mainly, we eat up our information from the New York Times op-ed pages. We are told how to think about things by columnists that indoctrinate us with capitalism’s smokescreens and lies, revealing just as much about themselves in the process. These are important people. This pundit class that gets asked to speak and sign autographs are very important people. Their opinions are considered authoritative and valid. They must be smarter, more hardworking than all of us. They must have access to different, better information. After all, they are there for a reason, no?

Much of the authority bestowed on us by capitalism correlates to our socio-economic status and relationship to the means of production. Law makers, politicians, professors, millionaires – by and large these actors come from a certain class, and are generally white and male. What then, of the other voices we see represented  – who are they meant to appeal to? Like the indigene begging for NATO intervention, feminists incessantly speaking about sex work, the person of color arguing that we are in a post-racial society: celebrity pundits must also appeal to power.

I wrote on this about a year back. I wrote about American radicalism and the sacrifices that had to be offered to count yourself among the likes of Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, John Brown, Bill Haywood, and others. I wrote that the person embraced and encouraged along by the imperialist machine would be suspect, because being an actual radical can be fatal. There are dead workers buried all over this country from crushed strikes that are testimony, among others in unmarked graves. But now there are radicals who promote Pussy Riot, who cheer on the bombing of Libya, who hustle hard for imperialism, who endorse products. Radicals who make lots of money on the stock market and buy brownstones (oh, maybe they give some of their money away, but probably not to the Naxalites). These people also happen to be Somebodies. They are pulled in towards the heart of Empire and so are rewarded not just with wealth and power, but also a platform to speak from. This is somebody politics.

But let’s talk about nobody politics. On the other end of the spectrum, we have those who are hungry, those who are poor and frustrated. These are nobodies. These are the alienated. They are the ones who die under NATO bombs. They are the ones vaccinated without giving informed consent, their signatures forged. These are the youth, the people of color, the poor. They are nobodies. Their voices are seen as insignificant.  Their opposition to imperialism and capitalism is, as Professor Rechtenwald tells me, meaningless, utterly ineffectual and impotent. The militant activists are alienated, not important.  Nobody politics are for nobodies. Somebody politics are for somebodies. So, if you’re a nobody, why not try shilling somebody politics for a change? It may even result in a respite from the alienation, may help one bootstrap their way into a book deal or high-paying job.

Or not. As the numbers tell us, opportunity for youth, people of color, and other oppressed communities is nonexistent compared to the exciting lives of our favorite celebrities. They jet around the world on company money, endorse products for easy cash, and spend an awful lot of time reinforcing to us how empire is blameless and there’s really no other way that things could be. You get the freelance journalists hustling for a staff position. You get the academics hustling for a book deal. You get a lot of hustle from lawmakers, artists – in fact let’s just call then “somebodies” – for just straight-up payoffs and bribes.

Meanwhile, the nobodies hustle for rent, debt, and hospital bills. In fact, the more of a nobody they are, the more they owe, the more they “hustle”. The nobodies hate capitalism. The nobodies hate imperialism. The nobodies hate racism, the nobodies hate sexism. The nobodies hate poverty. They hate hustling. Nobodies want free housing, education, healthcare, food and guaranteed employment. They hide their faces or don’t speak up because they know what they want goes against what those in power want for them. If they are too loud with their discontent, there is a crackdown, minute pressure points in society the people in power can press, releasing spurts of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and mass incarceration. The somebodies know how to shut nobodies like me up – that’s how they stay in power.

So I laughed when Professor Rechtenwald tried to do me a favor and remind me how unimportant I am. Yes, professor: I have bed bugs, rats, a low-paying temp job, tens of thousands in debt, and unstable access to healthcare. Everything in my life serves to remind me of my unimportance, my alienation. I get it. I’m a nobody. And I live on a street in a neighborhood full of nobodies. A city and country, a world full of nobodies. I write under a pseudonym and I hide my face, among other reasons, because there really is nothing so special about me. I’m not important. Not much unique. I’m just one of many gunning for your class, gender, sexual, and racial privilege with my politics, which I have decided to speak up about. I’m not a celebrity, not quirky and sexy and talented and nodding along with empire, I’m a nobody. Now, move along. We’re talking nobody politics with other nobodies.

Revolution in Snowpiercer (2013)

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Snowpiercer (2013) is a film about revolution. The year is 2040. Global warming and man’s solution to it has caused the eradication of the human species. The only life remaining on earth is on a train that circles the earth once per year. The train is a closed ecosystem that contains the last remnants of humanity, contained in its ugliest manifestation. At the front of the train, the conductor, the worshipped “Wilford” keeps the engine running. Further back are the scenic aquariums and greenhouses, perfect classrooms, dance halls, and sleeping cars. After the water treatment, barracks and prison cars comes the caboose. A group of people live in the “tail car” as hanger-ons, refugees who did not freeze to death in the sudden eradication of the planet. They live in squalor and eat protein blocks, and their children are taken away. They seem to exist at the pleasure of those caught sunning themselves near the front. Sometimes they are recruited to go to the front to serve the more privileged of the species. Of course, the people in the tail car are plotting revolution.

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In fact, the film basically starts with this revolution. After briefly seeing the brutality of their conditions, we are tossed rather quickly into what happens when the tail car inhabitants realize that their guards have no bullets to shoot them with. They spring a Korean man and his daughter (though a Korean film, about 80% of the movie is in English) to help with the doors between cars. Along the way, they discover the indoctrination other inhabitants, including the soldiers, go through. They discover that their protein blocks were actually liquefied cockroaches. They drop like flies in front of a car full of axe-wielding police. Still, the people push forward. Awed by the sights of the front cars, they suddenly sit down for sushi, which they are informed is only eaten twice per year to preserve the delicate balance of life in the ecosystem of the train. This they hear after exactly 74% of them are targeted for execution to preserve the same balance.

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I don’t really want to spoil the plot, because I think it’s a rather enjoyable film, visually stunning with decent acting and directing. That’s rare enough these days. This means you should stop reading here if you want to be surprised. Onward, I’ll say that despite heavy losses, the revolution makes it to the front of the train car and has to contend with the same challenges revolutions in this life face. The leader of the revolution is persuaded to take over operation of the delicate balance, as his compatriots are killed. It’s only when the girl peels up a panel in the floor, dream-like, that we see the children gone missing from the tail car are being used as replacement parts in the machines themselves.

Before our hero can change his mind, the train derails, completely oblivious of the greater ethical questions of man’s governance, killing all inside but the girl and one of the stolen children. Despite being told all their lives that they would freeze to death immediately upon leaving the safety of the closed ecosystem on the train, both children emerge from the train in fur coats, spying a polar bear in the distance. Life is possible on the outside.

From an ecological perspective, this film rings true as effective propaganda. The ridiculousness of considering revolution as a way of changing the way the world works while at the same time heading towards complete disaster comes through loud and clear, especially because so much of the “changes” we see just happen to be more of the same, if not in more cynical packaging. The only solution, it seems, is to overthrow the entire system, not simply to get someone from the tailcar into power. A system where something like Soylent exists to solve “world hunger”, where there will always be hidden slaves behind panels, is not a system I think needs to be sustained. The film does a good part in making this point as well. In our future world, things end because we were unwilling to change the economy to prevent global warming. We tried to find a workaround and ended up ruining everything. Will this be how things are? Yikes! We all deserve to get off the train, not just change the conductor.

How I See Victory Day (as an American)

Red salute to the millions who died in the fight against fascism! Tragically, it seems there are more martyrs to come.

Emboldened by US backing of their newly-installed government in Kiev, fascists brutally murdered at least forty anti-fascists in Odessa this last week. The response should have been unequivocal – ¡No pasarán! – but immediately following the tragedy, the spin machine was kicked into full gear. Who could say who actually killed the protesters? Who could say they did not kill themselves with piano wire? And here comes the anti-communist “Left” squad with truncheons, beating back people who mourn the death of these martyrs with their famous slogan: Neither Moscow nor DC.

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Positioning the United States, which is undoubtably at the helm of our planetary slide into darkness, as a comparable threat to Russia, encircled on all sides by the American war machine, is laughable, if not actively malicious.  According the latest SIPRI report on military expenditures, The United States spent $640 billion on “defense” in 2013, while Russia, with its conscripted military, spent a little more than 13% of what the US did.

But to frame this tragedy as a conflict between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian forces is to buy into the idea that Ukraine is standing bravely, on wobbly fawn’s legs, against the giant monster of Russia. Another way to frame the debate would be that a US funded coup brought a fascist, pro-austerity government into power in Kiev, and mobs of brownshirts are mopping up localized resistance against the fascists in parts of East Ukraine, going as far as to torture and burn them alive. If the Russian government is offering assistance to these  antifascists, among them communists, then shouldn’t we as antifascists even be a bit glad? And yet…

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see: https://twitter.com/keithgessen/statuses/462609427930308608

Even if there were anti-government protesters – *cough* excuse me, I mean to say Pro-Russians – shooting at pro-government protesters – *cough* excuse me, I mean to say Pro-Ukraines* – does this excuse the butcher of 40 armless civilians and then the arrest of hundreds more? I missed the numbers of those killed outside of the House of Labor that day… how many were there?

But for socialists, those who aspire to instill change in our world, who believe the system is fundamentally unjust and stacked against the world’s oppressed supermajority, the insistence on condemning “both imperialisms” is clearly an excuse to do nothing. A cop-out.

Warning flags go up when one hears the following: Yes, but isn’t Putin bad? You’re not saying you’re a “Putin-understander” are you? Saddam did gas his own children. Ghadaffi was leaning towards market reforms, wasn’t he? Iran makes its women wear hijab. It’s not purely socialist. Etc. Chances are these are people who cannot be arsed into marching to support the people being lynched in Ukraine. And if they were, well, they’d feel compelled to hand out flyers while marching explaining that yes, Putin is bad too. When you give credence to the imperialist narrative, you give people excuses not to act. What’s the point? Both sides are clearly in the wrong, and the offender bears the brunt of the barbarity.

This is false propaganda. The American fantasy of a hulking bloodthirsty Russia must be dispelled. Let the Russian left worry about Putin. The American left should be worrying about their own president, their own two-party mock democracy, the oppressed nations of African Americans and the Native Americans, the shadow, superexploited workforce they call “illegal”. And, more pressingly, the billions under surveillance, millions under occupation, drones butchering children, and yes, tax money going into the hands of fascists in Ukraine, who make molotov cocktails and strangle pregnant women to death.

There are fascists marching in Ukraine now. They are doing better than that, they have been installed and recognized by NATO and her allies. They are emboldened. They are firing on their own civilians who march for Victory Day, the day commemorating the unquantifiable sacrifice made by the Soviet Union in smashing Nazi Germany. Forty million killed as USA and UK sat back on their hands and watched, intentionally hoping the two would cull each other’s numbers. When the Ukrainian people hope to beat back the tide of austerity and god knows what else, they are labelled “Pro-Russian”. When they object to an unelected government on a “suicide mission” to strip the population of its last shreds of prosperity, must we allege they are on Russian payroll? Can we not guess that the Ukranian people, themselves having lost millions to Nazi aggression, know the cost is too high without “Russian agents” telling them about it?

So, on this Victory Day I try and remember all the people still fighting fascism today just as much as those who died fighting. As an American, I look to my own heroes and seek to emulate them in my struggle. And this means, as an American, being uncompromising and unwavering in my denouncement of our imperialist aggression abroad.

“narcotic earnestness” and the exclusion of working class people

from Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) by Chris Marker

Two articles were published this week that featured similar takes on the emotional side of the socialist equation. Doug Henwood said he found the magazine-publishing left in Brooklyn encouraging because it offers an “intellectual seriousness without a narcotic earnestness”. Owen Jones wrote for the Independent saying that there’s nothing “personal” about socialism. What do they define as narcotic earnestness, as personal? Imagine a civil rights movement told to make racism “not personal”, telling people to settle down and see things logically for a change. Where’s the heart in it?

I suspect this lack of heart comes because of a distance from the idea. It’s no coincidence that people who are not workers, who have sometimes never even been workers, peddle these viewpoints of emotional disconnect and masculine affect. We would laugh off a white male who tries to tell us that feminism or anti-racism aren’t personal issues. A white male clearly has much less at stake in the fight against misogyny and racism than a woman of color. It would be no surprise to us if he could approach the situation without emotion – after all, what has he ever felt in his bones on the matter? So when a member of the privileged classes says that socialism is nothing personal, that narcotic earnestness is something to look down one’s nose at, we should have a similar reaction.

I believe that the reason the “new left” is pushed in the direction of academic dryness, blocked ears and inaction is precisely because those privileged classes, who have quite a different stake in the discussion, are the ones currently steering it. It’s a small, closed circle that is described by the New Statesmen as basically, “the wunderkind socialists of Brooklyn”. Workers are not included in this new left except as statistics and dehumanizing, baseless assumptions. Workers should be at the forefront of overthrowing capitalism, because they are the only ones who can do it. Those on the left who say “the left is dead” are, more often than not, those who benefit most as a class from the death of the left.

This is not to say the privileged classes who can afford to separate themselves so emotionally from socialism should be excluded entirely – far from it. But one should vigorously fight bourgeois ideas masquerading as “socialism” that spring from this source. If you cannot see the fight against capitalism as a fight to save your life, then you will never fight as hard. Without the inclusion of workers who have such a vital stake in overthrowing capitalism, the movement will remain on the pages of a magazine.

I happen to think that if there is such a thing as a “safe space” in this society, there should safe spaces on the left for people who are not bourgeois, people who come from working class backgrounds and people who are poor. I would like to see more workers’ journals, more workers’ panels. I believe that workers should be preferred recipients for writing and journalism grants. Workers are the ones who inevitably organize to accomplish socialism. After all, it is the people who have the most to lose who not only take socialism the most seriously, but also feel it the most personally. And workers know bullshit better than anybody; when you come around dispassionately speaking in a language meant to exclude them from things they care passionately about, they will turn their backs on you. Workers should be at the forefront of socialist ideology to defeat bourgeois ideas. Workers are the subject, not the object, of socialism.

Workers and the experiences of working people are erased daily in discourse on the left. They exist as statistics or as ignorant masses who need to be talked out of their own stupidity and shown “the way” by  wunderkind socialists of Brooklyn who (obviously) know more about capitalism than they do. It’s time to welcome workers into the discussion. They take socialism personally, they feel the blows on their bodies from capitalism daily. Most importantly, they bring the “narcotic earnestness” that pushes people into action.

Looking at what the average American worker consumes, very little of it represents their class interest. It is essential they be included in socialist discussions and organizing because they have the most to gain from socialism and because they can help articulate the heart in the theory.

I think the first step in this inclusion of workers should be for the rich to identify who they are on the left. I suggest a moneybag icon next to bylines of writers whose family wealth is more than $150,000. Doug Henwood, for example, attended Yale and makes his living as a financial advisor, yet is quoted in a story as offering authoritative views on this new left. There is nothing wrong with being born into money or having an advanced degree and speaking about leftism. It’s the “authoritative” part I take issue with. It’s the distance from the risk and reward and suggesting socialism isn’t personal, isn’t really about life or feelings, that poisons things. If one’s ideas aren’t bourgeois, there’s nothing to be afraid of by opening them up to challenge. If one can learn to speak to people simply and concisely, if one can listen well and not speak with condescension, then this is going to help. The art of self-criticism is lost on this generation of “new” leftists; we are terrified of critique or blacklisting ourselves out of academic institutions or publications. We tune out what we don’t want to hear, and hold tighter and more personally to our positions than we do to socialism. If we’re all on the same side, why the defensive posturing, why the lashing out?

There are two meanings of “taking it personally”, and one involves ego. A socialist should be eager to correct their ideological mistakes and take criticism from others. When criticism is painted as “trolling” and dismissed as “hysterical”, this is the ego talking. When the greatest stake you have in the conversation is whether or not you’re correct, then you have little to lose. The New Statesman article admits the socialist revival in Brooklyn seems to exist in the air, not in action, but fails to grasp that the lack of worker involvement, the beating heart of socialism, is why.

Dirty Wars (2013)

Jeremy Scahill gets out of the tank and walks with the locals 

Richard Rowley makes a good documentary – well shot, well narrated,  good storytelling – but there was something that kept nagging me throughout the showing. I finally put my finger on it near the end, when Jeremy Scahill was going over his revelations, his horror at how largely evil the world has become in the last 10 years. I remember being a bit of a smug huff at his crawling out of a tank in Afghanistan to explore the surroundings on his own, his anguish in facing a “boring” life back in Park Slope, all pretty normal for a documentary. Even the bloodied Somali corpses as props for Scahill to express appropriate disgust and horror is pretty par for course in an American documentary against an imperial backdrop. But what really had me was – really? What’s changed? Targeted assassinations,  kill lists, death squads, shadow proxy wars.. none of this is particularly new. Not even the part about extrajudically killing American citizens, either at home or abroad. I even asked the question to the panel at the end, maybe is the change something to do with the executive branch having more concentrated power? But this question was glazed over. Instead, we learn about how Scahill’s book (available for purchase by the concession stand) and this documentary were “piercing the veil” and how the New York Times calls it “riveting”. At one point, it was even compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was also credited with starting the Civil War, which is not only strange but a weird way of reading history.

But then, the scope was rather small. Even though the film describes 75 countries as suffering JSOC invasions and drone strikes, we are only presented with the theaters we understand a bit about already: Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. It was strange to me how Pakistan – being the main focus of these attacks – was somehow left out of the story. But either way, we are given “Islamic terrorism” and “drug cartels” as being the main reasons behind these attacks, with no broader scope as to the United State’s geopolitical and strategic capital interests. We get the feeling from the film that America needs to be doing something about these terrorist Muslims and drug lords, but perhaps it could be in a more humane way. After all, there is no dialectical relationship between the Taliban and the women and children slaughtered by Hellfire missiles. The link cannot exist because then we must see it also exists between Scahill, the Hellfire missiles being used to kill, and ourselves safe and sound in the IFC theater.

The finest part of the film is where a Somali general tells Scahill how Americans are the “masters of war” and “great teachers”. But the point is given in such a way where Americans watching have the chance to immediately settle back into the comfortable dichotomy of the Taliban vs. innocent Afghanis. Black and white, good guys and bad guys. No relationship, no history, just the sort of hogwash George Bush would hoot about on the radio. After all, we too must scramble to separate ourselves from responsibility. We too must be able, as Americans, to separate ourselves from our government – after all, we voted for Kerry in 2004 and did our part. In this film, there is no dialectical relationship between the people and power.  Surely there can be no connection between our relatively comfortable lives in the United States and children born without limbs in Fallujah – otherwise we really could do something about the violence done in our names.

It was a good documentary, as I said. It’s important that people know what’s going on, how the United States’s endless lust for war affects human beings all over the world. However it should not be understood as “groundbreaking” or something that will change the tide of politics forever in this country. Whipping out my checkbook or signing a petition is not going to stop America’s ravenous appetite for blood and gold. These sorts of things have always happened in American history, maybe not with so much executive power and technological gadgets, but the idea has remained the same for hundreds of years. The question elicited from the film shouldn’t be “what can I do?” but rather, “how does this happen?” Once we understand how the machine works, we can properly throw a wrench in the gears.

The other questions during the Q&A session were mainly concerned with calls to action, what is it that we can do? The questions sounded rather like the “we” meant a crowd of individuals as opposed to “we” the people. They brought up a journalist jailed in Yemen, petitions for his release as he was arrested while covering this story. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as well-off citizens nestled on the island of Manhattan, is there nothing more you can do than sign a petition? On your own? I guess not. In the theater, many of those watching the horrific catalog of violence wrecked by the American government probably voted for Barack Obama, the man whose voice on the phone actually demanded the Yemeni journalist’s imprisonment, the man whose order slaughters thousands of unnamed innocents. The viewer does not trust their own ability because she is limited by their view of the world where all one can do is sign a petition and vote the lesser of two villainous warmongers.

reality check: American radicalism

At the start of December 4th 1969, Fred Hampton was drugged by a FBI informant after teaching a political education course at a local church in Chicago. Later, when he was passed out, fourteen cops burst into his apartment and murdered him in his bed, next to his pregnant girlfriend. After two shots to the head to confirm his death, he was dragged into the hallway and left in a pool of blood. He was 21 years old.

Almost 100 years earlier, John Brown sat at his desk, waiting for execution at the age of 59. He wrote his last words to his wife. She was waiting nearby, but he was refused the right to spend the last night of his life with her, that refusal being the only time his stoic comportment threatened to break down. He had helped lead a militant uprising of enslaved people. He was hanged and then put in his coffin, noose still around his neck, and sent back north to be buried.

The list of American radicals who died in battle against a massive system of oppression is long and should be a source of pride for Americans who seek to follow a life fighting for economic and social justice. They were those who were expelled by the society they lived in because of their beliefs, because of the color of their skin, because of their sex, the list goes on. These were people willing to die for their beliefs. Even those who were possibly not ready still died sometimes. They were those whose death would perpetuate the American machine of oppression and pain.

What is a radical? A radical is a thorn in the side of what she opposes. The radical is pushed outward like a splinter under the skin. The radical accepts that she will live a life of lack unless she gives in and changes her mind. Even then, she might not make her way back into the fold. This is to be expected – a radical seeks to disrupt the reproduction of  oppression, not negotiate or change it warmly. As we edge closer to the abyss, as the planet itself threatens to crumble underneath our feet, those who would call themselves radicals must make a decision. Are they pleading or are they demanding? Are they negotiating or are they accusing?

When I was a little girl, I learned about my great-grandfather, shipped over from the old country as a child and sold to a mining company in Montana. He grew up to become an IWW organizer and was beaten, threatened and blacklisted. Blacklisted was the first radical word I learned. To be blacklisted is a heavy thing for sure, and my grandfather grew up in crushing poverty. My great-grandmother begged for food. No one offered him a warm hand because he was a thorn in the side of capitalism, because he demanded that workers have the right to the means of production and to the fruits of their labor. The labor movement was fighting for an eight-hour day. Now, as the eight-hour day slips through our fingers, today’s self-proclaimed radicals write television reviews for major American newspapers and hold court at academic conferences.

They claim they are interested in building a party – but where is the phone number? How do I get involved? Is it a party that will vote Democrat? The academics – and I am an academic, considering my education – fight over semantics and whether or not pornography is ethical. Meanwhile, people all over the country are ready for more. They are ready for disruption. Sectors of this generation see the ability to reproduce themselves being eroded away. Nearly seven million Americans are under correctional supervision. Schools are being closed. Poison is being poured in our lakes and rivers, in our oceans and all over our land. Be sure – this will not hold. It’s not sustainable. But the people in power will try every trick in the book to sustain themselves.

We’ve seen it before. We talk about women as if their biggest problem is what sort of clothes they’re wearing. We talk about race as if we have the first black president. Now the very term “radical” – a comforting dogwhistle nowadays for sleepy anticapitalists – is being appropriated, subsumed into the project of class reproduction. When you broadcast your opinions and find it thrilling that major media outlets have brought you on board, you need to consider your part to play in the reproduction of class. Do you make a living on your radicalism? Do you want to? My beloved once told me: “I want to be a low-level Soviet bureaucrat, but you live the life you have, not the life you want.”

There is nothing wrong with carving out a corner and trying to feed yourself. It is quite another project you are envisioning, however, when book deals with no outlines line up and event coordinators begin to court you. When you imagine a new party, one that appeals to the so-called masses through the capitalist propaganda machine, you must be very careful. When you start getting printed in the New York Times and Washington Post, when you see your face staring back at you as the primary photo accompanying a story, you must be even more careful. A story about you is not a story of the system of oppression that cracks skulls every day in this country.

When your critics become your trolls, this is because you somehow think your points are correct because you have more of a space to speak. You forget how you got this page space, you forget why it was given to you. You (yes, you dear reader!) are part of this machine now. The skin is not pushing you outwards, it is pulling you in towards its organs. Close your eyes and imagine what is is like to have paid staffers, then wonder why so many Black Panthers were sleeping in the same apartment that tragic night in Chicago. When you yell down that someone is a troll because they have less twitter followers than you, remember that you are calling yourself a radical and placing yourself in a pantheon of radicals who gave their lives to end capitalism. Wonder then, why Fred Hampton wasn’t published in the New York Times.

Slavoj Zizek is honest when he says that he thinks there must be a vanguard party because he himself wants nothing to do with struggle, with politics. He wants to be a boring man with a boring life somewhere. Who then, will execute the ideas of those who proclaim to be on the vanguard of the Left today – who are the radicals? Do they exist? The Left Forum is this weekend in New York, and Verso, the leading publisher of leftist books, sent out invitations to their after-party. Have we ever seen such a crowd of communists who are so willing and able to rationalize away their own inaction? Watch them drink cocktails and discuss the importance of this or that idea, watch them rally around positions like it’s some sort of game. I went to an ISO meeting in Brooklyn and met fund managers, people in advertising. We must look at the way that these “radical” ideas should shape our lives. What worth does a bunch of words on paper have when there is no one that is willing to put their thoughts into action? What do these “writers” even think of their own ideas when they do not even inspire themselves to make the necessary sacrifices, adopt the necessary discipline? Here we suddenly find shivering cowards, insisting that they are caught up in their everyday lives too much to put a shoulder to the wheel and push.

Overthrowing capitalism is about sacrifice and discipline. When we fantasize class revolution or wars against Nazis, we fancy ourselves willing to give our lives to the cause. Yet when it comes to choosing paths in our lives, we hesitate in committing fully to our positions. It becomes about this or that obligation, the desire and right, we bark defensively, to lead a normal boring life. Tough shit, comrade! If even Marx shivered in poverty while shoveling what money he had into failed revolutionary causes then surely you puffing up about twitter followers, an appearance on television or in the pages of a society magazine is nothing to brag about. If people like John Brown were willing to put their head in a noose, if strikers willing to be shot in the streets for demanding eight-hour workdays, if tens of millions of Soviets died fighting the Nazis, isn’t steering clear of a lifetime of normalcy and comfort the least you can do?