Out Like a Lamb: Day 16: Pink, Blue, Black, and Red

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As we draw close to the end of Out Like a Lamb, my thoughts turn to some more urgent and serious matters. I am talking, of course, about revolutionary left politics. By its nature, these politics have a universal scope within my life. I would be a fundamentally different person without my commitment to revolutionary politics.

Despite how obscure and general that sounds, I want to make sure that I communicate exactly how immediate these politics are. Ultimately, as arcane and contested anti-capitalist politics can appear, they emerge from the most elemental parts of life. This post will address where my revolutionary politics intersect with trans and queer issues, so it won’t cover anything. But, well, we have to start somewhere.

At its most basic level, communism is about removing every barrier between people and the resources they need to thrive. Capitalism is one system that acts as a barrier, since it bars people from accessing the goods they need if they don’t fit a very narrow profile of a “productive citizen.” It drains all the joy from work since it coerces people into jobs. It also treats people as mere factors in a machine, as a means to an end. States, as guarantors of private property and the locus of violence and conformity, enable capitalism to function while also disciplining those who are deemed, for any reason, socially undesirable. Whatever rights people have under a state are conditional and subject to being revoked at any time the state finds convenient. Fundamentally, people should be really enabled to make their own choices, to associate with whomever they choose, and to make collective decisions about issues they are concerned with.

This is why commitments to autonomy/anarchy and communism are mutually beneficial to each other. This is especially true, I think, for me as a trans and queer person. Under the current Canadian capitalist state, my right to express the way I want to, to do the work I want to without fear of exclusion and personal injury, are all at the mercy of the state. Political parties use us as a tool to gain leverage over people and to promote imperialist politics (save the gays by invading x country!) and promote tourism (especially in my home city).

Ultimately, trans people under capitalism are at the whims of doctors and a profit-gouging pharmaceutical industry who, again, don’t see us as fully human but rather as means to an end. Consumer products for trans people specifically are often expensive or inaccessible, and if they were made accessible under the current system they would continue to be used to forge a false trans “community.” In this case, it would be a community of consumers. But our worth as people, as ecological, physical beings in relation to each other, is not in our usefulness to one person or another but rather is intrinsic to us, just as it is for all other living things.

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Cover of a great zine  I can recommend heartily about this issue.

Revolution does not imply the ultimate resolution of all these problems, but rather a commitment in a particular direction. It is a method of looking at the world and a means to realize a more desirable, better world. It is necessary, unfortunately, because reforms are always recaptured by the system, as necessary as they might be. We can’t just get by surviving on scraps that other people give us forever. If trans people want to see a world where we can have a more fulfilling and less anxious life, with much less possibility of losing all of our gains, social and political revolution are what we need. Revolution is food, it’s hormones, it’s clothing we enjoy and want, its a beginning to healing rifts in our communities, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s creating a more healthful way for human beings to act within nature.

These are the ifs and needs that animate me when I think about revolution. Capitalism is a major support for transphobia, underwriting the sense that we are unnatural, that we cannot form “real” families, that we are useless to society, a “drain.” It’s far from the only barrier to our self-liberation as individuals and groups, but it forms the basic logic within which other oppressions weave and strike. Without capital, with our own autonomy, it becomes possible to build the worlds of solidarity and happiness we imagine.

Next three posts will be:

March 28: A post about femme things! Femme is a curious form of identifying yourself, and, I would say, not all that well understood. Bit of a history lesson before moving onto my own personal business.

March 29: About body image issues and ways that I try to sculpt the way I look for other people.

March 30: About my body itself, its permeability, the way I inhabit my environment, all that good stuff.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Against Fear, Against Hope

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“It follows from the definition of these emotions, that there can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope”

–Baruch Spinoza, Ethics  (Project Gutenberg)

Trans people’s fears are near, named, sure as battery acid. Clocking, trans panic, side effects, anaesthesia, Mum, Dad, the ex, the camera, the old book of photos, Dr. So-and-so down at the shrink’s office. For good measure,we can add Donald Trump’s name to that list. Not one of my conversations with trans and even cis queer people since the 8th has carried on a steady pace. They fibrillate, that is, they tremble like a failing heart. Everyone feels the fear. We feel it alone, and we feel it together, that electrical shiver. Everyone I know is going to one protest or another, icing friends who voted for the mockery of flesh, urging their companions to get name changes before what we know will be a long winter sets in.

My agenda here is neither to diffuse this fear nor to stoke anger. I would be a fool for trying the first, and our righteous anger hasn’t yet dimmed enough to need stoking. Instead, I want to present a map that will provide my friends and comrades a very, very cursory understanding of our present situation. We don’t need the people Spinoza calls prophets, who manipulate fear and hope. We starve for Confidence, that sense of assurance that our bodies are capable, that we can throttle our nightmare and shake some truth out of it! Trans people, especially our black and indigenous kin, are told every step they take is out of line, that all we can count on is our own disposability. This is true regardless of who sits in the White House. When drawing up this map, I want to rely on truths like this, reminding myself and the rest of us that we are hell-bent on the destruction of a machine that passes from thief to thief. It is this process of inheritance, of the birth and rebirth of death in the form of capitalism, that we have to kill.

More often than not, on the grand scale, exactly whose face we’re kicking in doesn’t matter so much, right?

I’ll begin, as all life did, with the earth. Before November 8 capitalism was slowly killing us. For trans people in imperialist countries, “our” states were assaulting Lumad, Oceti Šakowiŋ, Afghans, Okinawans, Brazilian peasants, Hondurans, our own urban proletarians for profit. Imperialists and capitalists don’t just decapitate mountains to look for coal. The people in Flint were denied clean water in the middle of the Great Lakes. The Dakota Access Pipeline and its brood multiplied and continue to multiply. Unfortunately, we white middle class “greens” retreated into nihilism––or into the organic food section, whichever was closer. We somehow imagined that we could cure the Earth without the workers and indigenous and racialized people whose islands were sinking and whose water was corrupted! Hope is our accomplice: we hold out the vague wish that some techno-paradise will emerge like a God to save us. Before November 8, maybe we had some hope left that the “good king” could lead us back to the Great Valley or the Promised Land. Unfortunately, our liberal kin seem to be difficult to teach on this matter.

In essence, capitalism is doing what it must to survive: grow, exploit more and more resources and people, blind itself to everything except profit. If you can be profitable, you are valuable. If not, not. How long can we live with a cancer like capitalism that sees us and all our living and nonliving companions on this Earth as nothing more than means to its own growth?

Even the “good” Obama did nothing to prevent this. The “good” king expanded base building in Africa, deportations, and resource extraction backed up by drones, cops, and liberal newspapers. These political-electoral-criminal machines our liberal trans kin trusted keep crushing them underfoot. Let’s learn from this. Forget the trite fantasy stories, because we know that in real life the “good king” never changes anything for the vast majority who are oppressed and exploited. Capitalism has many faces, beautiful and ugly, and the crucial thing is to see the thing in its monstrous entirety rather than be distracted by a pretty façade.

But we’re already tired! How does recounting all these terrible, huge processes give us Confidence?  So things were bad before and keep being bad! Is that Confidence?

Of course not! But a traveller cannot be sure of their path unless they have a map made as truthfully and accurately as possible. A surgeon can’t remove a tumour unless they know with confidence the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue. Just the same, we have the need to lash out. If we are lashing out in the dark, without the sure knowledge of who our enemies and friends are or where we’re going, how do we know we won’t hurt the ones we need to join with and help the ones we’re trying to destroy? Confidence is the knowledge that we are capable of victory. It’s not the blind optimism that says we will win for sure. It’s the calm resolve that imperialism and capitalism are fragile and that we can and must bring them down. Even if we don’t know the future, we know what we need and we know what we have to do to get it. This is the knowledge, the love that will sustain us at times like this when all our traditional comforts (for those who had them at all) are being eroded.

It can’t sustain us by itself, of course. We all need to belong to strong, revolutionary organizations that can nourish us and sharpen our work. Confidence is not something we can have alone, since individuals are frightfully weak and unsure beings. We have confidence in and through our comrades. Communism means taking the knowledge that all of us have accumulated through experimentation and practice and transforming that knowledge into a means of actually destroying the source of our greatest sickness.

If we try to do anything of this scale alone, our defeats will push us into surrender and Despair. But with Confidence to keep us level-headed through victories and resilient to failures, we can start to build a movement that can actually abolish capitalism, the living nightmare. Watch for organizations and parties doing good work in your area, learn voraciously, always be vigilant. Especially us, trans people. We know something about uncomfortable transitions, planning for the long term, and relying on a network of mutual supporters instead of uncaring parents or the state. Our tasks are urgent and the times are desperate, but with a razor-sharp understanding and the Confidence of strong organizations that we will help build, we need not rely on hopes.

William Hinton: Fanshen (Part 1)

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Few books could hope to share the dramatic background and meticulous field research of Fanshen. Published in 1966, thirteen years after Hinton, on returning from serving the people in China, ran headlong into the Red Scare, losing all of his notes to customs officials. After a short time, he found himself blacklisted from working in the United States, forcing him to earn a living as a farmer on land he inherited from his mother. Regardless, he managed to retrieve his documents and, from those detailed scratchings, produced a book that is indispensable to anyone trying to understand the background, methods, and successes of the early Chinese Revolution.

What reason did Uncle Sam have for treating Hinton with such trepidation and roughness? Fanshen is not a complete account of his doings in post-WWII China, but it does lay out a compelling rap sheet. While working as an English teacher in a Communist-controlled Liberated Area in Northern China, Hinton volunteered to travel to a nearby village to participate and learn from the land reform process overturning the long-established feudal order in the Chinese countryside. The village’s name was Long Bow

The necessity of land redistribution in the Chinese rural zones is a remote topic to people who live in the long-industrialized West. Accustomed to meeting their needs through cash payments and used to thinking of farms as dull filler on road trips rather than the backbone my entire culture, I was grateful for the visceral descriptions of pre-Revolutionary peasant life in the opening chapters of Fanshen. In essence, peasant life under the rule of feudal landlords was as far from primitivist paradise as one could imagine. In its long cycles, the rural life of the poor was static, bound closely to climates, weather, and entrenched social helplessness. What mostly defined peasant life in the day-to-day, however, was complete insecurity, where tragedy was the scar tissue of each and every waking moment. Hinton’s vivid writing injects flesh and blood into these harrowing stories:

“The following are only a few incidents culled at random from the life stories of peasants with whom I talked:

  • There were three famine years in a row. The whole family went out to beg for things to eat. In Chichang City conditions were very bad.Many mothers threw their newborn children into the river…We had to sell our eldest daughter…
  • During the famine we ate leaves…I went out to the hills to get leaves and there were people fighting each other over the leaves on the trees. My little sister starved to death. My brother’s wife couldn’t bear the hunger and ran away and never came back. My cousin was forced to become a landlord’s concubine.”

Fanshen (2008), 42-43.

Even in just this book, there are horror stories that far exceed the ones I cited. As the author later argues, the worst part about this life, worse than the bloodsucking landlords who routinely put peasants into intractable debt, was the hopelessness of change. Every person in the rural areas who owned no land and had to labour on behalf of others rather than for themselves and their community was a half-person, someone whose real potential and intelligence were smothered in mud and wasteful toil. And all to serve the appetites of a social system that was rapidly decaying and spiralling into chaos. This was the central issue of land reform: how to unleash the immense power of this mass of humanity and the land on which they lived and concentrate it into a mass movement for revolution. This truly was a struggle for life and death, politics at its sharpest and most brutal.

The Communist Party of China (CPC from now on) outlined a policy roughly encapsulated by the slogan “Land to the Tillers.” Landlords and wealthier peasants, who lived off of rents the exploited labour of their fellow human beings, would be expropriated. The seized land and property would be distributed to all of the landless and land-poor peasants in the villages until they could become self-sufficient. Hinton’s book enters after the initial assault on feudal land ownership was already well in progress. For eight months, he lived in the village of Long Bow, labouring during the day and attending day and night political meetings. In unwavering and compelling prose, which makes the book a surprisingly quick read for a 600-page tome, he describes the painful process of political awakening and the redress of wrongs in Long Bow. A central part of that process was the internal reform of the Communists attempting to lead the charge for a new China, and their own psychological and political awakenings.

The next post will describe that process in more detail, and attempt to sum up the true virtues of Fanshen: its unblinking and protracted analysis of the political process of revolution at the lowest and most practical level, and the messiness of implementing grand policies of revolution in a tiny village. It’s an instructive book for anyone interested in Chinese history or the dynamics of any agrarian revolution––and to a lesser extent revolution in general.

Reference Archive of Note: Wilson Centre Digital Archive

Thanks to a post by fellow blogger Workers’ Dreadnought, I stumbled onto the online collections of the Wilson Centre Digital Archive, which appears to contain conversations about and by communists of many stripes and nationalities. All those who are interested in the history of global communism, particularly in Asia in the middle of the 20th century, ought to take a look at its holdings. I’ve linked to some of the more fascinating sections below. Enjoy.

Bandung Conference

Cultural Revolution in China

Conversations with Mao Zedong

Iran-Soviet Relations

Japan and the Korean Peninsula

JMP: The Communist Necessity

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“The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of the Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

JMP’s The Communist Necessity is a fine example of what we can call agitational literature. Cast as both a polemic against fragmentary post-Cold War political practice and as what the author whimsically calls a “prolegomena to any future radical theory,” the book’s primary rallying cry is for a new return to a scientific revolutionary theory that can bring communism into being. In other words, it’s a work of creative destruction as well as an almost literal call to arms. After marking down some preliminary evaluations of the book, I want to use the book to pose questions about the value of historical interpretation as practiced professionally and its potential alliance with historical theory and the practice of historical materialism. Primarily, I want to ask professional history writing the same questions Althusser posed to philosophy in Lenin and Philosophy: in the wake and now the shadow of the new science of history, what is the role of historical narrative writing in the communist project? First, however, we need to establish the book’s precise relationship to history in order to orient the remarks concerning that grand, dusty discipline.

The book’s title is a play on Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis and Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon, recent works that have made the name communism respectable and even fashionable again in certain academic circles. JMP does not, however, want communism to make a return in name only, and so foregrounds the concept of necessity throughout the book. To briefly elaborate, he argues we should not idealize communism or fix it as a mythic and distant narrative. Rather, the concept of communism should be articulated as a demand, a collective human need generated, as he says, by the logic of capitalism itself.⁠1 This is a crucial point, since it establishes a firm link between radical theory and a notion of social-historical development that produces structural problems that need to be resolved. And, of course, being a consistent materialist, JMP does not neglect to tell us that these problems cannot be resolved in thought alone but in the practice of history, in its conscious remaking through politics.

Movementism appears in the book as one model of how that transformation should be carried out. In brief, movementists are those who theorize revolutionary politics as the work of an ideologically disunited aggregate of interest groups and popular movements.⁠2 It mostly functions as a general term for any anti-capitalist group that rejects ambitions for state power or the vanguard party, an instrument for seizing control of the state. In the author’s interpretation, this chaotic fragmentation and ineffectiveness is partly attributable to theories that neglect communism as a necessity. Rather, Badiou, Dean, and others participate in “language idealism,” fanciful theorizing that remains speculative because it is not rooted in the necessities already embedded in history. These discussions are worthy of close attention despite their polemical character because they provide an unflinching, if incomplete, articulation of the need for a new return to a unifying project. From the perspective of a newly politicized Marxist like me, it’s apparent that the bewildering array of social movements active in my city have had little success in opposing the monolithic power of capital, which continues to reshape the world according to its own designs.

These ideas touch on a similar vein as that of David Harvey’s Rebel Cities, where the venerable British geographer discusses the urban spatial context for many of these scattered movements and their apparent failure to stitch together a common, effective program and implement it. JMP does not speak in such concrete terms about these movements and the particular temporal and spatial reasons they might have emerged in the way they did. In short, though the history of movementism we find in The Communist Necessity is certainly one of failure, the same is true of the New Communists of the 1970s.

JMP largely evaluates the failures of the movementists according to their lack of a revolutionary theory. This, in turn, he explains by invoking the privileged status of labor aristocrats and student social activist populations in the centres of capitalism. The necessity of communism appears in a more obscure fashion further from the burning edges of the capitalist world where accumulation by dispossession is the norm and large armed movements like the Naxalites and Nepalese Maoists, among others, have shaken bourgeois power over large territories. The book does not go into the problems of the built environment or the nature of the modern city, wherein most of these new urban movements have found their home. Instead, the book remains at a fairly abstract level, rightly criticizing vague and toothless theories but offering little material explanation for why they arose and why the author believes they may be on their way out in favor of a New New Communist Movement that can unite the hard core of the proletariat with other mass movements to produce a revolution in North America.

One peculiar passage illustrates some of the difficulties I have as a historian with the language of historical necessity and how it’s elucidated here. For most of the book, necessity is a kind of unbending reality to which politics has to conform. Recognizing it is the key to producing real advances in the science of history and furthering its revolutionary goals. Yet in evaluating the New Communist Movement, JMP writes,

“Although many of these anti-revisionist militants were once trained in the discourse of the New Left…they attempted to discard the limitations of this discourse in the face of revolutionary necessity. Thus, when judged against the standard of revolution, the New Communist Movement should be considered significant, though also limited by historical necessity.”⁠3

Here the ambiguities of the word “necessity,” the tension between the mechanical and the more historically useful definitions of the word, come into conflict. Though the author makes special efforts to ensure that necessity does not entail inevitability, he also appears to be ascribing hard limits on the New Communist Movement’s ability to achieve revolution. Whereas a recognition of revolutionary necessity provoked these anti-revisionists to surpass the mainstream and academic New Left, historical necessity constrained them. Not to split hairs too much, but this provokes a number of problems we need to pose in order to understand how historical science establishes itself in continuity-rupture with the theory from which it launches its investigations and experiments. What historical necessities constrained the New Left that enabled the New Communists? What is the importance of theory in potentially transforming necessity from an encumbrance into a means of furthering revolution? On the one hand, it seems, necessity operates as a historical choice––revolution or death––and the logical subsequent questions we have to ask about constructing socialist societies on the rubble of capitalist ones. In the second instance, it appears to represent a hard historical limitation on human agency. Given that JMP has elsewhere articulated a need for a dialectic of continuity and rupture with past theories and practices, and with Marx’s quote about the masses making history but not on their own terms, I think this tension is a necessary albeit dangerous one, and it would have been prudent to spend more time discussing this question in the book.

Overall, The Communist Necessity is a promising beginning for a Maoist philosopher, even if it’s difficult at this moment to speak of a Maoist philosophy in the West. It contains for the reader a pressing summary of the left’s failures in the last two decades, gets some distance toward an interpretation of this failure, and moves boldly to propose how to change this. One of the best ways the book does this is in introducing to a wider audience the stratagic writings of the PCR-RCP in Canada, a promising fledgling Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party that has been expanding its party and mass presence through the last eight to ten years or so. If communism is to gain a material foothold among the masses as a necessity, rather than merely among dreamers and philosophers as a horizon or hypothesis to be tested, it needs to creatively engage with new articulations of Marx’s revolutionary science wherever they might be found. As an attempt to recapture the heritage of Marx and instrumentalize it for revolutionary purposes, however incomplete, this is a fine book. I hope that upcoming manuscripts from JMP and other Maoist intellectuals will continue to clarify and elaborate on some of the ideas presented here, given the grave situation of international capitalism throughout the world.

Notes:

1  JMP, The Communist Necessity, 28

2 Ibid, 9 and 65

3 Ibid, 119.

David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism

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David Harvey’s book attempts to contextualize and explain the ideology and practical work of neoliberalism as an attempt by the capitalist class to wrest wealth back from the working classes. The latter had, in the industrialized First World, fought hard and won several important concessions from capital, which, taken together, can be called a “social democratic consensus.” While labour’s victories were more extensive in Europe than in the United States, the period from the end of the 1940s through the middle of the 1970s saw the emergence of a collaboration between labour, capitalists, and an interventionist state that created more extensive welfare, health care, and other social provisions while overseeing an unprecedented rise in living standards even among the industrial working class.

After the end of the 1970s, when the First World shuddered in the wake of oil shocks, over-accumulation, and stagflation, new political forces took advantage of the situation and, rather than pressing for more complete state control over the economy, tore up the “social democratic consensus” and instituted a campaign to redistribute wealth and power back to the capitalist class. Since that time, wages for workers and the petty bourgeoisie have stagnated while the very wealthiest have become fabulously wealthy, and this process has only intensified over time.  Starting with some imperialist experiments in Chile (after the CIA engineered the leftist president Salvador Allende’s downfall), the United States and its allies restructured their economies around a policy of enriching the capitalist class at the expense of all others and intensifying their neocolonial exploitation of the Third World through IMF policies, “soft” power, and near constant military interventions.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism makes the above argument, in a nutshell, over the course of two hundred pages or so. He also dedicates chapters to the post-Mao degradation of China into an increasingly capitalist country and a proposed solution, more on which later. There are numerous illustrations, graphs, and charts to make his point, along with copious footnotes annoyingly squirreled away in the back of the book because popular readers are apparently terrified of them. His prose is lucid and direct, the book accessible, and its conclusions, in many ways, well-made. Though Harvey published the book before the financial crisis and the current, seemingly permanent, reduction of the workforce and austerity in wealthy countries, his description of the neoliberal consensus is still apt:

“Thirty years of neoliberal freedoms have…not only restored power to a narrowly defined capitalist class. They have also produced immense concentrations of corporate power in energy, the media, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and retailing…The freedom of the market that [U.S. president George W.] Bush proclaims as the high point of human aspiration turns out to be nothing more than the convenient means to spread corporate monopoly power and Coca Cola everywhere.”¹

One hardly needs to read a contemporary work like Harvey’s for such insights. One of the major problems with Harvey’s text is that it mistakes neoliberalism for the enemy when capitalism itself, whether in “social democratic” or neoliberal forms, is the basis of all of the ills he sees. Lenin scooped Harvey on many of his findings almost a century ago in his Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. For instance, Lenin writes:

“Finance capital, concentrated in a few hands and exercising a virtual monopoly, exacts enormous and ever-increasing profits…strengthens the domination of the financial oligarchy and levis tribute upon the whole of society for the benefit of the monopolists.”²

Though there are certain features of neoliberalism as a manifestation of capitalist statecraft, most notably its authoritarian hostility to even bourgeois parliamentary democracy, that are unique, it is not uniquely imperialist. Social democratic politics in the First World are also inevitably paid for with profits extracted from the imperial exterior or Third World. The difference is that discontent with the status quo is far sharper in imperialist countries under neoliberalism because the state uses nationalism and more overt coercion to control proletarian dissent, preferring sticks where Keynesians preferred carrots. Neoconservative politics, which were in vogue in America when Harvey published the book but have since waned in favour of an isolationist and populist rightism (i.e. the Tea Party and so-called “libertarians”) are here explained as the right-wing response to the dissolution of social cohesion under neoliberalism. That is fine as far as it goes, but Harvey makes the bizarre mistake of calling for the Left to develop its own morality discourse, when that probably represents a retreat in favour of the right.³

As usual with this kind of text, when the author jumps the gap between historical analysis as proposals for action, the book founders. Harvey’s solution is purely an appeal to return to social democracy and “popular rule,” or a “purer” form of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. He wants to break neoliberal ideology’s grip on ideas like “freedom,” shattering its associations with pure, unregulated finance capitalism and the degradations with which it is associated. I doubt that simply reestablishing the old regime is going to work. His plan is all about laying out “alternatives,” constructive a left discourse around “alternative” notions of human rights and freedom. He does not address the fundamental untenability of capitalism in general, the revolutionary idea that the working class–most of which is outside the First World–must liberate itself by force of arms. It’s a short chapter and a highly speculative one, but it need not have been. The legacy of Marxism is full of far more concrete and viable solutions to the problems of capitalism. Those solutions start with the end of capitalism and the construction of a socialist state which will unite the death of capitalism with the birth of a new horizon in human history, the establishment of communism. While I would recommend Harvey’s book as an often trenchant protest against the inhumanity of our current situation, I reject his proposed remedies outright. One might as well try to cure cancer with ibuprofen.

As Mao writes:

“Revolutions and revolutionary wars are inevitable in class society, and without them it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development and to overthrow the reactionary ruling classes and therefore impossible for the people to win political power.”⁴

Without wresting political power away from the bourgeoisie, the proletariat will be condemned to suffer exploitation.

Notes:

1. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2004), 38.

2. Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm

3. Roland Boer, “For an unethical and unmoral politics,” http://stalinsmoustache.org/2012/06/13/for-an-unethical-and-unmoral-politics/

4. Mao Zedong, “On Contradiction,” Selected Works, Vol. 1, 344.

Editor’s Note: Proletarian Feminism and Calvin College’s Anti-Choice Group

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Two weeks ago I published an article in my college’s student paper, Chimes. It was a personal intervention meant to give constructive advice to pro-choice students on campus as well as fortify their resolve in the midst of a hostile environment. The college and the church that puppeteers it are both committed to anti-choice politics, and in this environment the assumption is that everyone follows that political line. When my article proved that that was not the case, it touched off a minor firestorm on Facebook. “Respectable” people from here to Iowa derided me for writing the piece and attacked my editors at the paper for having the gall to publish it. Though the response was overwhelmingly negative in the comments section, I received thousands of Facebook “likes,” for whatever they’re worth, as well as much more meaningful personal “thank yous” from women on campus who had had abortions and others who were happy I stirred up the conservative hornets’ nest.

My article is linked here, and because of its brevity and overtly polemical tone should not be taken as a complete argument for a pro-choice position or anything like it. I would be more than willing to accept substantive criticisms, especially from sympathetic comrades. Among its many problems, it fails to address the fundamental theoretical basis of my argument, which stems from a class analysis of the situation. Divorced from a political party with which to affiliate and any practical basis for my analysis, I often slide into abstractions and at one point even use the dread word moral. I intended to use this as a provocation against reactionaries but accidentally implied that I believe that abstract morality has bearing on the situation. I repent for not emphasizing both the concrete nature of the oppression of women, particularly proletarian women. Because I am addressing an overwhelmingly anti-choice audience with the article, or at least ended up doing so, I did not put nearly enough emphasis on the way in which women were not all equally oppressed by anti-choice politics. Queer women, women from racial minorities, disabled women, and proletarian women are especially affected. This explains my accusation that pro-life morality assumes a primarily racist as well as misogynistic form when it becomes concrete, though this was misunderstood by most of the conservatives spewing bile at me.

While I do not want to get into the particulars of proletarian feminism as a developing political line–both because of my aforementioned lack of participation in practical work and a lack of space–I would like to refer readers to a few posts on the topic. Evaristo Marrero, writing for the estimable Maosoleum blog, summarizes some of the goals of proletarian feminism this way:

We need to reject patriarchal women’s emancipation, and struggle for proletarian feminism, for the reforms necessary under capitalism that weaken patriarchy, for the reforms necessary under socialism to overcome patriarchy, and for permanent cultural revolution until the overthrow of patriarchy.

Universal access to abortion is one of the requisite “reforms necessary under capitalism” that weakens the grip of patriarchy on women. Reactionary governments in numerous American states have imposed increasingly onerous restrictions on legal induced abortions, putting it out of reach for countless women for whom it is a necessity. Though the law protects abortions in theory, it is becoming more and more difficult for women–especially proletarian women, queer women, and women of oppressed racial groups–to gain access to basic services. The struggle against patriarchy must take an active character, and those of us on campus who oppose these restrictions as well as the “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” that spread vile misinformation and specifically target underserved groups must recognize that the boundaries of the college are not the edges of the world. Though the institution is privileged and denies the greater community access to its space and resources, this is no excuse to carry on practical work only inside the college. This is developing into a tangent on the unfortunate split between academic spaces and others–and between mental and manual labour as well–so I will get to the central point of this post, which is to criticize a response from the Calvin College Students for Life published in Chimes this week.

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The picture that appears above their response article’s online version. They look like a Mormon extended family.

This article, written by two women named Sarah Weiss and Laura Wheeler,  runs through the expected gamut of pro-life deceptions. While taking a conscious stand for “promoting the inherent dignity and value of all persons,” they apparently do so in an entirely abstract fashion. Their weak-tea humanism is all about supporting “all human life,” which they in their infinite grace extend to fetuses. This is all despite their political position which robs women of basic agency. Don’t worry, proletarian women! Students for Life (S4L) is not a “political activist group” but instead a place where people just assume control over your body is off the table while thinking fuzzy thoughts about you. Charming. Of course, the unstated fact here is that S4L doesn’t need to operated in a militant fashion, and can hide behind a privileged mask of civility, because the entire community as a whole already agrees with them. Anti-choice activism has hegemony. It is institutionalized in their churches, pressed forward by those who harass pregnant people walking into clinics, and is embodied in its purest form by murderers who spread death and fear so that quaint little groups like this don’t have to. It’s wonderful that privileged women and men in S4L will be so civil and polite. After all, the curtain of niceness that stifles meaningful debate at our college and in our community will protect them much better than it will those who stand in solidarity with the 1 in 3 women in our country who will get an abortion at some point. Religious idealism and abstractions run so thick in the article that I would have to parse word by word to get to it all, and maybe even ferret it out of the spaces. Suffice to say that their ruling class ideology and concrete position blinds them to the concrete reality of the situation.

Sickeningly, they even attempt to take a moral high road, once again demonstrating that this ruling morality serves the ruling class. “We are a group that not only promotes life but speaks life as well. We are, however, willing and in fact eager to discuss our views with anyone who is interested, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with our convictions,” they write. Perhaps we should give them a blue ribbon for magnanimity.

I would not even be addressing this if it did not concern me personally. My own article is nothing spectacular, and contains numerous errors and omissions I am working with some comrades to rectify. As a person in a privileged economic position, attending the same private college as these two writers, I am in no position to claim revolutionary vanguard status. My mistakes are many and my complicity in oppression is a fact. It will continue to be a fact until capitalism is overthrown and patriarchy extinguished through cultural revolution. At the same time, I hope it is clear that the vague and ethereal “love” practiced by S4L is nothing more than a screen for reactionary politics and should be criticized as such. Despite my imperfections, I hope I have offered a strong criticism of this group, and I hope to offer a reminder to my readers that, no matter what words they use, anti-choicers perpetuate the oppression of women as a class.

Links on Proletarian Feminism:

J. Moufawad Paul: “In Defense of Proletarian Feminism” and Radical or Proletarian Feminism

Evaristo Marrero: “A response to the NCP(OC): Gender Whateverism is not Proletarian Feminism”

Anuradha Ghandy: “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement” (more of a critique of liberal, radical, and Marxist feminism, but still highly informative)

Bourgeois Common Sense on Latin American Politics

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“the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental social group, a consent that arises ‘historically’ from the prestige (and hence the confidence) which the dominant group derives from its position and function in the mode of production.”

–Gramsci, Quaderni 4

Everyone has probably seen a political spectrum. These one-dimensional line segments proceed from right to left, with each political ideology given a niche somewhere along the line. Marxists are at the far left, liberal “moderates” are ceded the centre, and fascists have a lovely vacation home way over to the right. Spectra like this tend to convey the sense that political ideologies are all competing on something like an even playing field. Some spectra sprinkle in a bit of Cartesian pizzazz by adding another line (POLITICS! ADVENTURES IN THE SECOND DIMENSION!) and creating a nice field. All the same, these graphics effectively convey that the purportedly universal, rational, parliamentary system that reigns in most liberal capitalist countries, at least formally, functions by way of exclusion. Any form of political action that goes outside of the ballot box is condemned as illegitimate.

What is forgotten is that the current order had to use force to inaugurate itself, and that initial violence becomes customary violence–AKA the rule of law and its enforcement by police and military force–and suppressive “common sense.” Gramsci’s word for this kind of spontaneous consent to the present order that is generated by the ruling class is hegemony. This is an incisive word that has become unfortunately co-opted by postmodern discourse as a badge of shame for all exercises of coercion and power whatsoever. The proletariat forcibly appropriating the property of the bourgeoisie is placed on the same level as imperialist massacres and police repression. It’s all power, after all, and power, in postmodern discourse is always and everywhere bad. Without the force of arms and without being organized under a revolutionary party guided by revolutionary Marxist theory, there is no way to replace the hegemony of the bourgeoisie with that of the working class and of the people more broadly.

If you want to see hegemony in action, it suffices to look at a political spectrum that is somewhat less subtle than most:

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This image is far more blatant than most spectra, but the use of the terms “far right” or “radical,” as opposed to “moderate” creates a sense that radical solutions are never called for, that so-called “moderation” and politics by elitist committee are always beneficial for people’s freedom and well-being. In Canada and the United States, this mirrors the highly restrictive nature of the political system where a small number of parties, all of them capitalist of varying stripes, all of them representative of the exploiting classes, represent the only options for “legitimate politics.” Rather than being a straight line, a political spectrum according to bourgeois common sense should look like this:

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I got this blank bell curve from a site that claimed to know why “socialism will never work.” Not sure who the joke is on.

 

I was reminded of this listening to a lecture on the politics of Latin America today. The instructor, a widely-traveled Christian who at least affects interest in justice and social concerns and has all the requisite credentials, divided Latin American politics into “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” Of course, some Marxists–the ones who follow the revisionist social-democratic line of gradualism and peaceful collaboration with the bourgeoisie instead of revolution–are perfectly legitimate. Guerrillas and people’s wars, however, were characterized in the same extralegal category as drug cartels and paramilitary death squads. Forgive me for being somewhat irritated by grouping armed expressions of mass democracy with criminality, murder, and corruption. I was reminded of Mao Zedong’s famous aphorism that “politics grows out of the barrel of a gun.” This is not a repudiation of politics by peaceful means. Of course, any Marxist party worth its name will participate in legal organizing, demonstrations, and propaganda. Lenin did not reject above-ground activity in the Bolshevik Party, maintaining that the party needed to keep a dialectical tension between legal and illegal activity, never abandoning the goal or the means of revolution but keeping a public profile to make its aims clear to the masses.

We must understand, however, that any political order can only survive given the threat and, in situations of crisis, the actuality of military force. States, even pacifist bourgeois states like Japan, are born into the world through violence, and the only way to work toward a classless society is through violent revolution. Most of us in the developed West do not live in contexts where people’s war is on the immediate agenda, but to reject any weapon in the struggle against the nightmarish capitalist order is despicable. Part of the struggle, of course, needs to be against such ingrained “common sense” notions of politics. Supporting the efforts of all countries oppressed by imperialism to free themselves, including by violent means, is prerequisite for a consistent and effective Marxist praxis.

The Return of Patronage and Responses to the Economic Crisis of Mass Art

Before reading my commentary below, please read the original article, which is an intriguing read of the current situation in mass art markets.

Whenever I read something about the economics of supporting artists after the online vortex (polar vortex’s seventh cousin) sucked all the profits out of music. So it is with this short post. There are a couple of points I would like to make.

1. The relationship between the capitalist “contract” between artists and corporations before digital tools made mass copying and distribution of information possible has more similarities to the current situation than differences. In both cases, artists get a tiny percentage of what their art is worth in terms of exchange value. Of course, in the age of mass media thinking in terms of a single “artist” being solely responsible for a work is ridiculous. At the same time, I bet if you added up the total wages of all the creative workers at, say, Disney, it wouldn’t amount to much compared to the company built on their work. After all, Disney is a profit-making enterprise in the process of carefully constructing both a legal system and a stable of massively popular media licenses to secure its profits from now to the Rise of the Machines. They don’t operate for the benefit of their creative and industrial workforce. The Internet did not change that. Corporations still fleece artists with exploitative contracts (like all businesses), but the difference is that the revenues they are collecting have contracted. Well, in the case of the music and publishing industries, at least. Buying art, any kind of mass art, is only going to have a limited impact on the welfare of the artist.

2. Piracy is a problem, but its solution is not going to be found in preaching sermons about practicing “love of neighbor” by buying records instead of downloading them or ripping CDs from friends. You can make people feel guilty, but not guilty enough that they won’t act in their own self-interest. And if piracy is easier and higher-quality than legal options (which is generally the case, especially in music).

There are a few plausible solutions, and they all either attempt to restrain access and reestablish corporate control over the scarcity of the art (which is key to the value of easily reproducible products like music files) or attempt to unshackle the welfare of artists from how much stuff they sell. Three of those solutions are what I’ll call the neoliberal approach, the social-democratic approach, and the communist approach.

The neoliberal approach is to use the coercive power of the state to extend copyright terms, crack down harder on offenders, and make it easier for companies to control their product. Disney is at the forefront of this kind of response, being legendary for being militantly litigious and employing colossal lobbying resources to make their ownership of marketable characters and properties almost endless. This is the current policy being pursed by the United States government, giving the corporate masters of mass media almost everything they have asked for. Under this regime, if it works, artists will be paid more because the industry is able to extract more money from audiences.

One social democratic approach would be to establish a basic minimum income. It would be a considerable boon to artists everywhere if all of their basic needs were taken care of and the state played a strong role in ensuring that, no matter what kind of work you are best at, you can be as productive as possible without the overriding fear associated with a free market. I’m not aware of any places where this approach is being taken. Also note that it’s a macroeconomic policy change, rather than a targeted approach. It would benefit all of society’s workers rather than just a single industry. Of course, it is also far less likely because it would require a politically conscious and indefatigable mass movement to enact it. In North America, it would have to defeat a popular distrust in state intervention in the economy, or democratic management of “their” money.

The communist approach would be similar to the social-democratic approach but move beyond welfare state interventions to eliminating the foundations of capitalism and building a truly just society on top of it. Here, artists, and all people, would be able to pursues their own productive work without the restrictions of capital bearing down on them. In a classless society, artistic work can be no different than other forms of work, and the general level of culture in such a society would be greatly advanced because it would unleash creativity and expression without money getting in the way. This is not to say that artists could do anything they dreamt of, and indeed some kinds of art would probably cease to exist, but the world would be overall richer. I support this path, which can only be achieved with the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a dictatorship of the workers transitioning toward fully classless society. It is the widest, most powerful, and most difficult objective to achieve, but to me is the ultimate goal, the only way that artists would truly be valued as intrinsic to social health and not parasites or dispensable, often troublesome elements.