Kaepernick’s Protest Goes Right to the Heart of American Nationalism

At first glance, meaning a week of media uproar, I dismissed Colin Kaepernick’s mild protest of standing up for the singing of the national anthem as unimportant. The patriotic among us would denounce his disrespect of the flag, the agitators and progressive among us would back him up for his right to protest, and the whole thing would blow over. It may well eventually do just that, but the issue had a stickiness to it that lingered on longer than I had expected. Perhaps I am just to close to the center of the discussion in the California Bay Area, perhaps the mainstream media was attracted to a heated debate about a patriotic symbol (the patriotic symbol?) during the lead up to the 2016 election, perhaps forcing the talking heads of the sports commentators to make a statement on the issue fueled the fire for longer (considering how much football Americans watch), but perhaps this simple refusal to stand was a brilliant move to catalyze a movement to change America to its core. Just maybe this simple act of of protest cuts through the sort of media hype that seizes on a hot-button issue like a pack of ravenous wolves and has nestled its way into the heart of the national consciousness.

After a blithe facebook post in which I do as I usually do and point out bias in the mainstream media and try to convince my friends to stop paying attention (and we do pay for our attention with ads, lost etiquette in our personal arguments, etc.), I was surprised to find replies from people I know that suggested that they had taken deep offense. How could the simple non-gesture of remaining seated provoke such outrage? It shouldn’t have been so shocking though, and I had a bit of an epiphany followed by a face-palm because I had just gotten through a book on Nationalism by Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities.

When you publicly disrespect the flag, a great number of people are going to react angrily because nations are the basic unit of the people in powerful… nations around the world. I find it difficult to type without conflating the nation of America and the people of the USA. After all, the preamble to the constitution of the United States of America begins with “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…”, with the assignees claiming to literally be the people. They signed as the people not yet formed until that act of constitutional adoption passed, which they authored. Their authority to speak as the people and at once form the people is a kind of simultaneous enactment that typifies the logic of nationalism: the people and the nation are one, a unity. The people of America are the nation and they are represented by the government, just as any other nations claim to represent their people in sometimes different, non-republican ways (I could also say countries but who makes a clear distinction between the two anymore?).

Regardless of whether the reader is a devout nationalist or not, the nation has become the organizational unit of politics and we are all subjects of the nation. The force of its symbols and rhetoric are the dominant forces on the planet. The ideological spectrum is largely set within the national discussion and that discussion is a rather singular one that situates the beliefs of its subjects within that spectrum; even if one attempts to take one’s beliefs outside of that spectrum, they will find a place for it and slap an ‘-ism’ on it. In law one has certain rights and privileges as a ‘national citizen’ and to become a stateless person is to understand the gravity of these commitments. As a mark of attachment and as a mode of self-identification, the nation and its citizens reigns supreme.

A nation has a number of defining characteristics and clearly differs from the feudal states of the medieval period, but the flag its single is most unifying symbol. These simply designed rectangles that wave in the wind hold a symbolic power: the power and respect of the nation. To disrespect that symbol is to bring down a disgrace upon the nation in the eyes of a great deal of nationals because that symbol is equated with the nation as a whole. The flag of a nation signifies the most basic belief of a contemporary body politic. That belief has been understood and deployed as a method of mass persuasion in a number of ways and at various key junctures in history. Most people stand and give respect to the symbols of the nation as a force of habit, with a few loudly defending their sanctity and a few others willing to burn them in disgust – the zealous outliers. One way or another, national symbols are an entry point into a conversation that has the farthest reaches and to maneuver oneself in relation to those symbols in word and deed produces some of the greatest impact. That there is a “national discussion” so easily referred to and which so many public figures feel compelled to speak within indicates the influence such words and deeds have. It is one of the hallmarks of nations that there be newsprint conducted in a single language that people can potentially follow and participate in: a current national discussion.

When Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the singing of the national anthem, the response from the patriots was that he should not disrespect the flag and all that it stands for. Without yet going into the content of what the flag stands for (i.e. enumerating what a nation is and is not) it is worth pointing out that the flag is revered sanctified by what it represents not for the bare symbol waving all by itself. The flag is the supreme national symbol, it is the medium through which we know that other people who we cannot quite see or know in their personal distinction, people we will probably never talk to, will still feel unified with us and we them. The flag is the device that bridges the gulf of anonymity between people who still have the same political status as a citizen, a shared connection to the territory and the institutions therein. By showing disrespect during the star-spangled banner, Kaepernick can be seen as severing that bond of national attachment by sitting while almost everyone else is standing – a decision with such small physical stakes yet provoking such a strong reaction that it attests to the power of the symbol. The public perception is that everyone else is watching the same flag, having the same feelings, posing in the same fashion, and generally united in thought and action regarding the national symbol.

The sentiments evoked by participants with this scene can be quite overwhelming, and it is no accident that national symbols accompany mass events with the numbers of people present reaching heights vastly exceeding in everyday life. The power and force of a massive crowd is immediately apparent to anyone within one, with an individual’s sense of physical and mental autonomy challenged by the common sights, sounds, smells, arrangement of the locale, and often collective movements that sweep one up into them. All of these forces come into play in the instilling of a national consciousness through national symbols and ceremony that, if conducted properly, can reinforce the beliefs that come along with it. The belief in the nation are what the individual carries along with them after the event is over and reenter the stream of daily life; the power of nationalism is most visibly and affectively pronounced in the symbolic crowd control of these mass events. Taking on that stage and publicly breaking the norm of the crowd is actually one of the most potent forms of protest and so is a rather brilliant. Add to that the historical high of professional sports watching, media involvement with social media apps, and a chatty commentator class that loves an angry debate and you’ve got a perfect storm.

Once you see (if only for a moment) that national symbols are a kind of crowd control writ large and internalized by a critical threshold of people, withdrawing one’s involvement in its ritual of allegiance has a way of forcing people on a very wide spectrum to ask some fundamental questions. If the flag is thought to be unconditionally respected and never questioned, as some will inevitably be led to believe, then the content of the nation and the condition of the people of the nation is irrelevant. The people could suffer to the point of utter destitution and total exhaustion, the infrastructure could be in collapse, and the constitution could be blatantly ignored by those wielding the most power but the flag and would still demand respect. This is of course absurd. In a nation that contradicts its own fundamental tenets and does not allow its people to make decisions of any political significance, allegiance to the flag would take on the form of a totalitarian rule that would maintain the obedience of the masses while shoring up the power of the rulers. The content that the flag stands in for would become irrelevant and the symbol itself would be reduced an empty shell of dogmatic adherence. This is a logical extreme but the arguments coming out against Kaepernick’s protest have nothing to do with the content of his grievances, nor does anyone try to maintain a position that he shouldn’t be allowed to protest peacefully (freedom of speech being the single most important bit of content in the nation); the very persistent, loud, and often angry criticism is directed at his method, the effect it has on the political landscape/national psyche, and respect. Nobody would say that he doesn’t have the right to protest or that there aren’t legitimate concerns that he is voicing, the debate is about form, respect, and etiquette. In other words, people’s feelings are hurt and they don’t want the distress and injustice wrought within the nation to spread to its form in the flag. The image of the flag demands to be clean and virtuous, even when the real people are suffering or the nation’s ideals are not being realized.

It is within this dark gap between the content and the form, between the real situation people are living through and the image of the nation’s symbols, that Kaepernick’s protest tactic shines out. Nobody can deny that his tactic is unsound or illegitimate but he is denounced anyway, nobody can deny that he is expressing grievances adequately but he is denounced anyway, nobody can get him to stop and go back to conformity with ceremonial behavior but he is denounced anyway. The reactive patriots are caught in a bind. As a symbolic protest, it is a perfect place to occupy because it reveals the content-less and purely emotional arguments coming from the other side. He is inducing everyone to either react in a blind rage for witnessing such disrespect or reflect on whether the nation’s ideals are actually being met when looking at the symbol. If the symbol is never to be disrespected, then there is nothing to stop the slippery slope down to totalitarianism. If the symbol is open to criticism, then American symbols will now at least partially invoke the injustice and lack of freedom it tries to cover up – with all of those crowd sentiments and increased media activity coming along for the ride.

On the other hand, it became easy to understand why people were shocked and worried by the action when it began to spread. When the national symbol is openly flaunted, with more and more people choosing to not participate in the ceremony or do so in a dissenting manner, the feeling of unification dies down – the spell is broken. That fall-back level of collective belief and those tingly feelings one gets in a unified crowd (especially as a child) suddenly feel under attack. Aside from the individual affects that are threatened, the level of commitment and confidence people have in the nation to exert its influence on other nations diminishes. When one’s house is not in order, in becomes vulnerable to external threat. The planet being governed largely by nations as the basic subjects of action and international bodies composed of them, to see a tear in the fabric of the nation and those bonds loosened will project a weakening nation. So Kaepernick’s protest has ripple effects that are predictable and he feels that those effects are worth risking for the sake of his grievances within the nation.

The whole episode has the makings of a tragic-comedy, where the actions of the dissenting commentators are only making matters worse. The more the issue is discussed, the more Kaepernick and protesters who feel his way will gain, due to the purely emotional nature of the reaction. It is the American love an on-screen feud that keeps this thing going; the more the public hears about Colin Kaepernick not standing up for the national anthem, the more patriotism will take a hit. Should the division create a clean split and set even more people on the path of reactionary patriotism, it would be another case of the mainstream media fomenting reactionary nationalism on empty ideological grounds. One need only mention the billions of dollars worth of free advertising space that the large corporate media stations gave to Donald Trump in the presidential primary races to see how that works. They determine the spectrum of ideological positions to be had within the nation and guard the boundaries of what counts for mainstream positions, reaching the broad national audience that they do. If they would stop talking about it, then it would stop riling-up people into unquestioning patriotism. The sooner staged conversation rooms in front of the camera stop talking about Colin Kaepernick, the less angry people will become about him – regardless of what anyone believes about the rightness of his actions.

But the statement that Kaepernick is making is consciously striking for a division within the nation for his own reasons. The reaction on the extreme patriotic side is predictable, his gesture is relatively small, and the media is stoking the flames – yes, these are all factors in the episode. But his reasons for protesting are justifiable and the national divisions which he supposedly kicked-off are already latent. Athletes have been coming up with ways to support Black Lives Matter activists and actions against unpunished police murders for a few years now and have done so with some success. Nothing strikes a cord like disrespecting the premier national symbol in a very large crowd as a star-athlete (he is a star athlete and shouldn’t be on the bench right now, but I’ll save that rant for the end. I am a 49ers fan after all) though: he is on the “national stage.”

When policemen are repeatedly shown on video to kill black men without any good reason and are allowed to go free, something is wrong on a national level. When policemen get paid leave after using their firearms to kill the citizens they are supposedly protecting and one factors in the long and thick history of racism in America, one is left feeling like justice is two-tiered. And it isn’t even solely a racial issue when you broaden the scope: the financial sector routinely gets away with crime and reaps huge salary rewards for it, broke cities have local governments fleecing their citizens with all sorts of fees to stay afloat, and Kaepernick’s own words are good enough for the presidential election:

“I think the two presidential candidates that we currently have also represent the issues that we have in this country right now. You have Hillary who’s called black teens or black kids super predators. You have Donald Trump who is openly racist. We have a presidential candidate who deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me. Because if that was any other person, you’d be in prison. So what is this country really standing for?”

So what we have is a nation that is already fractured between its rich and its poor, between the people thrown out of their houses to pay for the mistakes that mega-banks brought down the economy with, between a poor people desperately in need of jobs and investment getting gunned-down by officers standing above the law they themselves enforce, between an unpredictable demagogue-bigot and a missile-firing oligarch who is also above the law. What we have is a nation already divided. In this kind of situation the way has already been left open for riots, extreme nationalism relying purely on emotional attachment to empty symbols, and a mainstream media that happily shows it all to us to boost their ratings.  To stop this undesirable outcome, the principles invoked by the flag and other symbols need to be reflected in the realities of the nation.

With this in mind, we should thank Colin Kaepernick for raising the alarm bells and forcing viewers of some of the most watched television programming in football to reconsider just how much the ideals of American society are reflected in its present form. A two-tiered law system, predatory banking system, and a permanent, invasive surveillance system are precisely the things that the founders of the American nation tried to prevent. A cool, calm, and collected explanation for why he is exercising his right of free speech and a basic understanding of what the national symbols represent (vs. their sanctity) would do everyone a favor right now.

Some of the best commentary on the issue has come from military veterans in the #VeteransForKaepernick hashtag: [The Intercept: VeteransForKaepernick]

And for some fun lite reading on the media farce like only a local beat writer can do, read Ray Ratto: [Kaepernick Controversy: America Reaches New Levels of Insanity]

Now for what I’ve been waiting for all along:

Colin Kaepernick is easily the best choice for the starting 49ers quarterback in 2016. He has already proved that he is a Superbowl caliber quarterback who can a lead a team deep into the playoffs, as he did back in 2012 and 2013. He electrified the league when he came in with his ridiculous speed and strong arm. He has one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback in the league, right up their with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. He continued to get better with his accuracy and pocket-presence throughout his career and deserves none of the blame for the team troubles of 2014 and 2015. In the former they lost some games that were very close and very winnable but still went 8 and 8 – sometimes a playoff worthy record but not that year. That year was also a franchise record-setting year for sacks, which are largely the fault of the offensive line, so he had to play under immense stress. Here is a run down of why they underperformed: [What Went Wrong for the San Francisco 49ers in the 2014 Season]. It’s hard for a QB to play well when a) all the players around you don’t care, let in pass rushers, and drop balls b) the offensive coordinator simplifies the offense and c) the coaches limit your running abilities and don’t design plays that complement your talent. Also, the league came down heavy on the 49ers defense and threw penalty flag after penalty flag for offenses that were went unpunished in previous years; the NFL had an image problem and it sent a message that year that it would be protecting its players health more now. I felt the 49ers took the brunt of this policy change, but I’m also biased.

After that year, 2015 was a throw away year in which everyone and their mother knew that head coach Jim Tomsula was a one-year fill-in for the next long term head coach the 49ers would acquire later. The team was a total mess, with a huge chunk of its personnel leaving or retiring to get away from the front office disaster that resulted from the falling-out of the widely successful and popular head coach Jim Harbaugh and team owner Jed York. Everyone in San Francisco, most of the Bay Area and a good deal of American football fans knows that Jed York is the spoiled brat of a team owner and is responsible for the teams plummet to the bottom of the league. None of this is Kaep’s fault.

This year they are starting Blaine Gabbert, an unsuccessful quarterback who had bad years with a bad team in Jacksonville. He came in last year mid-season and was sub-par, but the team wanted to give him a chance during a throw-away year and Kaepernick also eventually got injured. Kaep is now healthy and has a far greater history of success in the league. Those read-option sweeps that the 49ers have been running to get first downs and extend drives (until the opponent’s defense makes the adjustment and forces Gabbert to try and throw the ball down field, which he can’t do reliably enough) would be far better suited for Kaepernick’s abilities. He runs way faster and has far more agility for those and other types of plays coming out of Chip Kelly’s “hurry-up offense”. He also has a stronger, more accurate arm to trump Gabbert’s ground balls he kept throwing in games 1-3. Gabbert is a competent game manager and can beat bad teams, but the 49ers want to get into the playoffs and maybe even win some of those games.

The only way they are going to do that is with Colin Kaepernick as their starting QB. This means his protest will continue gaining media attention, especially when he is inserted into a game early on or starts. Ditto for if he becomes successful or fails, because everyone in the nation will be either with or against him. The 49ers might just keep him sitting to avoid paying any more of his contract next year, but that would be another move that would paint Jed York as a team saboteur for those paying attention. The local media and the team must necessarily stand behind their starter, but the constant stories about it is only a sign that the conversation about Gabbert’s replacement is being had.

The Students for a Democratic Society and the Legacy of the New Left

During his introductory remarks to a panel at the recent People’s Summit, Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! drew comparisons between popular political mobilizations on the left today with those of the sixties. [Juan Gonzalez to the Bernie or Bust Movement: Don’t Repeat the Mistakes in 1968 that Elected Nixon] (Short clip) The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were the exemplary institution of the new left and their efforts are generally thought to be the beginning of a shift in leftist political tactics. They sought to reinvigorate citizen political action and conducted new experiments in democratic organization, bringing many invigorated young people into political consciousness and helping create the political tumult of the sixties. Gonzalez explicitly referenced this movement when he compares them to the Bernie Sanders campaign, hoping that we will learn the lessons provided by their attempt and, what Gonzalez believes to be, their failure. But who were these people and what moved them to play such a role in politics? Was their upstart institution and the ideas that formed it a failure upon which we can blame the election of Richard Nixon as Gonzalez claims? Is the implied conclusion that #BernieOrBust supporters should fall in line with the establishment left and a neoliberal Hillary Clinton justified and have we actually gained anything from the radical “participatory democracy” philosophy of the SDS?

In attempting to answer these big questions, I want to share a reading of James Miller’s Democracy Is in the Streets so that we may come to an understanding about what it is that moves these “grassroots movements.” There seems to be wide consensus, even if tacit, that the Bernie Sanders supporters comprise a “Movement” as opposed to a typical campaign. This could be a result of the striking similarity of his campaign rhetoric and the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street, with the unmistakable popular excitement common to both. Though I’m skeptical of this word usage for a presidential campaign, the more important issue lies (and everyone seems to be jumping in on the opportunity, from Jill Stein to Donald Trump) in what to do now with the “grassroots support” and “energized populism” that Sanders was able to rouse now that it seems he will not get the Democratic Party nomination. Juan Gonzalez wishes to speak to this mass of people by saying not to repeat the mistakes of the past, which he believes the SDS embodies.

The most memorable of SDS demonstrations culminated in a spectacular event that landed on live television for a large audience to see: police rushing into the crowd and beating protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968. The democrats would lose the presidential election to the Republican Nixon and at the highest levels of American politics (and, by virtue of being the dominant global power, politics around the world) the left would be fighting a defensive battle against the ascending neoliberalism all the way up to the present. This is what most people will remember and ever since we’ve had to live with a commonsense split between upstart idealistic youngsters and the establishment realists who are supposedly doing the political dirty work of protecting the gains made for labor and the welfare state. On this model, a constant upsurge of fresh young radicals feeds the machine of progressive politics, though relations between both sides are often bitter. This is, of course, the view from the center looking out at the periphery: the state-thinking political strategist would see popular mobilizations as a reserve to tap for its own purposes. If we are to understand these popular mobilizations, we had best treat them and they’re ideas on their own and not what just what they can do for the Democratic Party. So the two big questions I would like to pursue here are: how to interpret the phenomenon of the Student’s for a Democratic Society with respect to the present and what within the legacy of New Left is there to positively retain and what to avoid?

Writing about or speaking to a movement as a whole in broad strokes has dangers of its own. After all, we should not fall into the trap of preaching to a mass of people for the sake of furthering our own agenda without understanding why we feel we can talk to this mass of people in the first place. That is, determining what has shaped this force into a single group that we can designate a ‘movement’ should come before telling them how to behave. Taking a look at the specific history of the SDS brings us to the beginning of a new discourse that still lives on today thanks to the vitality its participants displayed and the wide proliferation of their terms and slogans. Although having a great impact on political thought among a wide range of individuals during its heyday, the SDS has largely been forgotten. It lives on in the memory of those who participated (for those who are still alive) but what was learned, accomplished, or simply expressed in their words and deeds is by-and-large left for the next generation of democratically-inspired youngsters to repeat. Every new generation throws a style and flavor of its own on popular movement-building against capitalism and imperialism on the left, but the resilience of these dominant and dominating trends is partially due to just that: new generations hitting the same roadblocks and breaking down, if in their own unique way. If there is in fact a continuity of the left, as the extreme and unparalleled influence of parent’s political beliefs on their children attests (and even leans toward the left with young people) [Gallup], then this continuity is in a rut when we can’t reach an agreement about the lessons of previous experiments in democracy. Argument and debate can be empowering and productive exercises for sure; leveling criticism at each other and challenging erroneous assumptions instead of relying on tradition as a crutch to fall back on is part of what makes the left worth fighting for in the first place. To prepare the way for the emergence of the new, upon which the left thrives, a new generation of struggle should actually be new, not the mere rhythmic heart-beat of upsurges and lulls.

The first thing that strikes the eyes upon working through James Miller’s book is that Tom Hayden, Steve Max, Sharon Jeffrey, Al Haber, and the rest of the main actors that made up the Students for a Democratic Society had an intellectual (or spiritual) leader for their organization. They all read and discussed C Wright Mills’ work and used his terminology to orient themselves and their political beliefs. Mills was a famous writer for his time and I have seen copies of his most well-known book The Power Elite floating around, but his ideas would not survive into college curriculum or speak to any further generations the way it did for members of SDS. He was more of a populist rhetorician than a systematic intellectual and his firebrand style of writing struck a cord with his target audience. “Mills gambled is academic reputation to reach a larger audience,” writes Miller, “and in one sense, he won: Listen Yankee, his polemical defense of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, sold more than 400,000 copies as a Ballantine paperback.” (p.86) Though inspiring, Mills would not provide a plan of action, only the imperative to act – with democracy in mind. He reached a wide audience and won the hearts of the young and motivated, but the primary term that he positively promoted and the SDS repeated as their credo (or closest thing they had to a credo) was a rather vague one in “participatory democracy.” Citizens are implored to become engaged with politics at a face-to-face level, get organized, and become aware of the greater structures in authoritative politics but like Kant’s categorical imperative, the content was left undefined. There wasn’t a proposed vision for a democratic society or a systematic account of how such a society would operate, only a sense of urgency in creating one by actively working to achieve it. This doesn’t stop a number of values from shining forth in his and the SDS’s writings; what it does is place an emotional demand inside of confused concepts. After all, drawing a large group of committed individuals together with similar beliefs might be impressive, while the ends of such a collective effort stop with the impression itself only to disintegrate. The question always lingers: what do we want? What’s the end game? The answer ‘Participatory Democracy’ would prove to be too unspecific to keep the organization together beyond the sixties.

Mills, via Miller, did speak about an idea in his earlier work that could operate as either an end or a skeleton with which to run an organization. A ‘primary public’ was a concept that allowed individuals to meet with each other and form collective opinions that would then give them a stronger voice. This was an idea from earlier in Mills’ career (dug up by James Miller’s acute research) that was a response to a study done in one mid-sized Illinois city about public opinion and its under-representation. In light of this study, “Mills concluded that “primary publics” – face-to-face groups of friends – actively responded to opinions expressed in the mass media, rejecting some, modifying others, arriving at their own, independent views through the give-and-take of “person-to-person discussion” (p.84) were a model for the enactment and spread of this idea. If the infrastructure and funding for renting out space had been spearheaded by a large organization like the SDS, we might have places where groups of friends could meet and mingle with other groups to unify their voices in a new form of media.

However, it was the theoretical frame for these empirical observations – and not the sanguine conclusions, which he subsequently modified – that Mills would return to repeatedly in his later works. In order to clarify the difference between opinions shaped by the mass media and those formed through face-to-face interactions, Mills defined two ideal types: the “mass ideal-type of ‘public’ in a mass society” and, by way of contrast, “the primary publics” typical of “the simpler democratic society.” (p.84)

The tension between two ideal types in ‘primary publics’ and ‘mass society’ would become Mills’ emphasis in his subsequent writing and would have a greater influence on the SDS. Achieving a politics with more presence (the oft repeated “face-to-face”) as opposed to the distance between the majority of citizens and the decisions made in government is the clear goal, a goal that seems to think it will be reached once people are brought together in simple act of becoming “present.”

In providing a distinction that could be repeated by the students off the top of their head, Mills armed the nascent group with a sense of righteousness and also gave them an enemy to harangue. “In The Power Elite, by describing in detail the trends in modern America toward “manipulated consent” and then reminding his readers of the lost ideal of face-to-face freedom, Mills made outrage easy.” (p.86) The simple act of getting together could be seen as at once liberating and a challenge to the system. In defeating the mass type of coerced complacency, people could hold a meeting and discuss politics with each other to defeat it. The very act of appearing would be its own reward, the means and ends of participatory democracy: “Freedom is an endless meeting,” read a pamphlet in the mid-sixties. But was this freedom limited to being a mere expression of anger in the way the government was run? Miller’s assessment of Mills’ conceptual personae:

“To rouse his audience, he was prepared to sacrifice subtlety, nuance, the patient evaluation of contradictory evidence – in short, the virtues of dispassionate scholarship. His carefully cultivated image – the powerless intellectual as populist outlaw – masked an unresolved tension between an emotional sense of outrage and the conviction, inherited from the pragmatists, that reason ought properly to control man’s destiny. He epitomized a politics of theatrical fury and mythomanic fervor, of high moral seriousness, savage social criticism and peculiarly blinkered self-righteousness.” (p.89)

One might wonder what’s wrong with being passionate about one’s political convictions. While an undeniable utility exists in stirring up a readership, an intellectual can offer more in terms of direction should they become widely influential. As an author moving many individuals into action, Mills had the rare opportunity to become that intellectual leader. As a writer producing books that had a resounding authoritative assurance behind them, the injection of passionate urgency into his readers/followers in the absence of a clear vision cuts away the real complexity of the powers at play when he could be dissecting them. The call becomes louder, the rage increases, but what ties together the inspired readers is nothing but the shared experience of reading the same book and being strongly affected by it. The courage for one’s convictions is glaring, but the conviction itself cannot persist or be reproduced from one group of friends/activists to another. Individuals would complain of the “in-group” phenomenon whereby everyone who had read Mills could speak with each other smoothly but alienate everyone else. In short, the common bond of the New Left would be the shear emotion of anger – a shared dissatisfaction with the predicament of mass society in contrast to the ideal-type of the “primary public,” which nobody had any experience of beyond the reading of a few books.

The emphasis Mills would put into his canonical works rested on the tension between these two ideal types rather than a constructive idea that could be put into practice or a systematic argument for answering why pure face-to-face democracy was superior to mass society. This made his work less endearing to American intellectual culture in the way that Camus’ work would become required reading in France (and elsewhere) and so perpetuate the existential movement, or Dewey’s lengthy tombs would preserve pragmatism. This very same dilemma would unfold within the SDS itself when it faced the problem of either transitioning to an institutional organization with chapters and a headquarters or remaining diffuse. As I already remarked, the SDS would fade away as an institution but its patterns of behavior in fomenting tense commitment to challenging power as such would survive within the New Left. At a critical juncture when it had broken through into the mass media and received many letters asking for membership or literature, nobody was there to process the mail. In the spirit of uprooting the bureaucratic mentality and elitism within the movement, nobody could be counted on to accomplish banal yet necessary tasks. “Elitism was routed, but virtually no mail was processed.” (p.244)

The SDS was built up in the early sixties mainly by the efforts of Tom Hayden and Al Haber. Haber would secure funding from The League of Industrial Democracy (LID), while Hayden would tour the country and forge connections with SNCC, demonstrate in McComb, Mississippi, and hone his writing skill as an activist-journalist. They would forge connections with existing activist groups on campuses across the country, scour university lists and slowly build up a following by talking with individuals face-to-face – as according to their principals.

Using his core list as “an acupuncture map of the body politic,” Haber made the rounds of the different campuses, often with Tom Hayden at his side. “It was custom politics,” says Haber. “I would say to them that what you want to do requires interacting with other people in other places who are doing the same thing you’re doing, people who are doing related things, people who have some connection with a tradition that goes way back in America to 1905, people who are in touch with intellectual currents around the world, people who are writers, who have worked and looked at the situation that you’re dealing with. Get in touch with these other people who are making history relevant; see that you are allied in a task. That will make your writing better, it will make the world you want better. You need an organization for that” – an organization like SDS.” (p.71)

The SDS was then an ur-organization for student radicals that brought disparate student groups together under one national name and coordinated actions. As the organization grew, its members decided that they needed to forge a document that would elaborate on who they were and what they wanted. The Port Huron Statement would be the results of a collective effort at making a declaration of principles for the SDS and would become the first major work of the New Left. Fifty-nine people would come to Port Huron Michigan and stay for three days of deliberation, break-out sessions, and group editing. The finished product is a 43 page monument and it took exhaustive work to complete, but what not everyone knows is that Tom Hayden wrote a series of draft notes that were sent out to members before the convergence. Hayden was the SDS’s star writer and it was his vision that prompted the creation of the document, everyone else edited and refined his draft notes for the manifesto. The writings of a speech that Hayden gave in Ann Arbor Michigan called ‘Student Social Action’ had been circulated just recently in pamphlet form and his language was speaking to a great number of people within SDS.

Other members of the SDS like Steve Max were critical of Hayden’s bookish style. ““I had never gone to college,” explains Max,

We saw a very concrete series of tasks and never quite understood what Hayden and these guys were talking about. You had to know all these books. We didn’t understand that very often it was the courses that students were taking and the books they were reading, by Mills or one of those people, that first started them thinking about politics…”” (p.103)

The talk coming out of this group was very abstract and spoke for their entire generation but sounded like their favorite author C Wright Mills – an author who not everyone had read and didn’t offer a quick and easy theory to digest. Added to that criticism was the uneasiness of their money source at LID for not being anti-communist enough or “soft on communism.” Michael Harrington would also attend the Port Huron meeting and clash with Hayden and Haber over de-emphasizing workers over students and not heeding the lessons of LID’s experience with communist infiltrators seeking to take over their organization. Though Harrington would regret coming down so hard on this group (p.135), his alarmism over the influence of communists over an ambiguously defined group of budding young political activists would be prophetic:

Ignorant of history many of them defiantly remained. And seven years later the organization that they had struggled to set on an ecumenical and open-minded footing would pay the price. In 1969, after several dizzying years of anarchic grass-roots growth and increasingly arcane bickering over strategy among a new generation of leaders who were far more contemptuous of the past than the founding generation, SDS was successfully infiltrated and captured by the Progressive Labor Party – a disciplined cadre of self-styled Marxist-Leninists.” (p.139)

The debate between the LID traditionalists, primarily through the voice of the relatively older Harrington at age 34, and the younger SDS members would continue on after the finalizing of the document. While the students were fresh off of the glowing experience of completing the statement after intense discussion, drunk on the prospect of making history in initiating a mass movement on a supposedly solid footing, LID was furious and “summoned the SDS leadership in New York to an emergency meeting” (p.127) soon after. They wrestled over the lack of a forceful denunciation of the Soviet Union, which LID believed the Port Huron Statement did not contain forcefully enough. Hayden defended himself by saying that they had in fact rejected Communism but then added that America’s general attitude towards it was an overreaction. Without much experience dealing with Communists, which in fact were not powerful on campuses and didn’t exert much influence, Hayden thought that such a defiantly oppositional stance towards Communism would be too restrictive to their experiments in democracy and bolster the persecuting Cold Warriors in the US. “What we want to do is find a way to end the Cold War and increase democracy in the U.S. and we think the two are related. We advocate universal controlled disarmament, foreign-policy initiatives in strengthening of international organization, trying to do what will create political rather than military foreign policy in the U.S. and Soviet Union.” (p.128) Without much experience with the tactics and ideological furor with which a Communist party acted, Hayden and the rest of SDS wanted a peaceful reconciliation with the Soviets on the grand national level and to be able to absorb some of the more humane aspects of communal organizing.

Hayden and Haber left the meeting but were called back for another meeting, this time with more veteran trade unionists. Harrington charged SDS again with being soft on Communism and “united frontism. He accused SDS of committing the venal political sin of

““accepting reds to your meeting… You knew this would send LID through the roof. This issue was settled on the left ten or twenty years ago – and that you could countenance any united frontism now is inconceivable…” And so it went on for two grueling hours. Hayden and Haber were soft on Communism. Ferocious in their criticism of America, they were willing simply to tap the Soviets on the wrist.” (p.131)

The SDS regrouped and held a meeting in which they contemplating leaving LID, but chose to revise key parts of the manifesto instead – just the kind of rapprochement they were advocating for the Cold War. This proved to be enough and both old and young radical leftists chilled out.

In James Miller’s view, the League of Industrial Democracy had been too harsh on the young group. After all,

[a] year later, President Kennedy himself reopened the public debate over Communism and the Cold War by saying, in his famous American University speech in June of 1968, “Let us reexamine out attitude toward the Soviet Union.” By the mid-sixties, it was difficult to read the revised Port Huron Statement and to find in it anything radically different from the positions shared by many mainstream politicians… The blind passion of Harrington’s anti-Communism, by contrast, soon came to seem like an atavism – even to Harrington himself.” (p.135)

However, the SDS was eventually infiltrated by the Marxist-Leninists already mentioned, even in the very same decade. Wouldn’t this suggest that more not less pressure to prevent Communist thinking and ideology from filtering into the organization would have been advisable? The lessons of these Old Left movements could have been passed down to these New Left actors much more effectively but the transition from new to old went by way of an angry shouting match instead. The SDS would harden its skin against such emotionally charged attacks by the old guard and this helped sharpen the generational divide. “At some point, though, the debate had ceased to be about principles, and had become instead a struggle over the autonomy of the younger generation.” (p.138, emphasis added) Had the older group been softer on youth curiosity, the New Left might not have strayed so far away from the Old and the follies of outdated ideologies might not have reasserted themselves in such a scattered manner. Such an episode highlights the lack of continuity amongst the left in general and how raw emotion would come to define the modus operandi of non-institutional progressive-democratic politics.

In the spirit of allowing this new group of political actors to speak for themselves instead of speaking to this raw mass of people, some space will need to be provided for understanding their own concepts and vocabulary. What stands out is the term ‘participatory democracy’: “It became a catchword – used over and over again, to recruit, to convert, to convince.” (p.142) But what did it mean? In Miller’s estimation, determining a precise meaning to ‘participatory democracy’ “leads into a labyrinth.” Like movements to come following the New Left trajectory, ‘participatory democracy’ was a way of eluding a standard definition – one’s actions performed during the effort of participation would come to stand in for the meaning of the term. While an inviting and uplifting concept, the content was left vacant and you the actor (which was usually first the reader) would be left to fill it in. Miller decided it has three qualities:

As a catchword, “participatory democracy” is remarkable for its resonance – its multiple layers of implied meaning… its elasticity – the ease with which it could be stretched to cover a wide variety of different political situations; and its instability – a volatility caused, in part, by its range of different possible meanings and the implicit contradictions they contained.” (p.142)

This helps clarify the deployment of the word; it seemed to be able to do anything so long as it found energetic subjects to cling to. Democracy was already a hallmark of established American politics and used by mainstream politicians including a major party, so there was no risk of reaching a dearth of young bodies to become turned on to it. And who wouldn’t wish to participate in democracy anyways? It is practically baked right into the concept of democracy itself, unless one does not view themselves as part of the people who would be doing the ruling (over themselves) or wish not to participate in their own rule (and so would not believe in democracy). As a concept it could draw new people into a discussion about what actions to take and hold a near undeniable appeal, but it could not provide any direction, any instruction (such as a parent or teacher might give) for what actions would be desirable or how to behave once undertaken. It was like a force of gravity that merely kept wandering comets in orbit without determining their internal composition or flight path.

This effect was intended by the SDS. They didn’t want to be the arbiters of decision-making but merely bring invigorated people into political prominence and say “go.” “To this extent, the ambiguity surrounding participatory democracy in The Port Huron Statement was deliberate: more than an empty slogan but less than a formal doctrine, it was an open invitation to embark on a shared adventure of political discovery.” (p.143) But this open-ended aspect of ‘participatory democracy’ is also deceptive because there are obvious political persuasions of the individuals in SDS, not to mention the entire Unionist, anti-Capitalist background of their financial supporters LID. Seen from this vantage point, the slogans of the manifesto were an ingenious way for building up a following of students, charging them up with political zeal, and unleashing them into actions that would benefit the working class that they would likely very soon join. As appetizing as this sounds, with their indeterminate concept and their autonomy to freely devise the targets of their actions, the SDS could not maintain an enduring institutional presence beyond the exuberance that such a concept could gather. Adding to that is the fact that they were billing themselves as the latest incarnation of an entire tradition that they would claim and send a charge through. Seen from this vantage point, the championing of ‘participatory democracy’ by the SDS was like playing with dangerous fireworks inside of a house. Without the means and will to perpetuate the kind of energy that they meant to inject into politics, such energy could crash and burn the house down in a kind of ‘burnout’ that wouldn’t be constrained to one’s private dejection, no matter how quietly one went out.

Miller interviewed the key members of the SDS in writing his book and many of them placed their organization with a socialist trajectory. Speaking on the meaning of ‘participatory democracy’, Bob Ross said, “[o]ur problem was to find a way to talk about socialism in an American accent”, Richard Flacks said, “[i]t meant an exciting transformation of the meaning of socialism”, and Steve Max said, “[i]t didn’t strike those of us who had more of a formal socialist orientation that it was really the key thing.” And so Miller asks,

[w]as participatory democracy a euphemism for socialism or an exciting transformation of the socialist idea? Was it an epiphenomenon of more fundamental social realities that would arise in due course once some form of socialism had replaced capitalism? Or was it a new form of political organization distinct from and irreducible to any form of economic organization?… Would it focus new attention on political procedures, as a response, in part, to the tendency of socialist and Communist parties to develop into centralized bureaucracies? Or would such a theory emphasize “authenticity” and action, and explore the means by which human beings summoned the will to resist the blind onrush of events and, against all odds, managed to seize control of their lives and make history?” (p.145)

Of course, these questions could not be definitively answered by participatory democracy or the SDS, making them a kind of flurry of rhetorical questions that demonstrates what was left neglected by the upstart organization. But this doesn’t stop Miller from turning to the tendencies in the writings of their most influential member Tom Hayden:

there is a constant tension between civic republicanism on the one had and existentialism on the other: when he follows Mills and his own teacher Arnold Kaufman, he depicts a world of orderly face-to-face discussion among responsible citizens; when he follows Camus and his own enthusiasm for the daring politics of direct action, he depicts a world of clashing wills and romantic heroes, mastering fate thought the hard assertion of personality. It is by no means evident that these images can be reconciled. The will to act can easily be sapped by endless debate. And thoughtful discussion is rarely advanced though heroics.

This tension in Hayden’s thinking suggests that the notion of participatory democracy involves not one, but two distinct political visions: the first is of a face-to-face community of friends sharing interests in common; the second is of an experimental collective, embarking on a high-risk effort to test the limits of democracy in modern life.” (p.146)

What Hayden was doing in his writings for the SDS was mixing these two opposing ideas for structuring human relationships without knowing it. One was a Quaker idea of small community members who both know each other and share the same belief structure, making decisions consensually in a direct-democracy of “rule-by-consensus”, and the other was a “kind of anarchism. Spurning all fixed doctrines and forms they exulted in discovery, improvisation, the drama of unpredictable innovation.” (p.147) This tension continue on unresolved but there lingers a characteristically philosophical motive in Miller’s analysis itself (he’s written extensively about philosophers as a historian after all) to get rid of the conceptual tension and exclude the middle. Could we not ask whether this tension need be resolved or whether it could continue on in a kind of tenuous energy generator for this rapidly growing ‘movement’? Heroes and rhetorical leaders could do the work of attracting new recruits and speaking loudly to the public, while the consensus rules could tighten up the ship and keep those individuals accountable to the larger group. As two tendencies within a single movement, they might complement each other rather than being oppositional and in need of reconciliation. The problem rises, however, when these two different attitudes, one warm and orderly and the other edgy and daring, are not capable of checking each others extremities and spiraling off in their own direction. That this tension is visible in both the behavioral and the literary aspect of SDS goes to show that, even for a group of self-styled intellectuals coming off the writing of a grand manifesto, a conceptual synthesis that could restrain and reinforce the opposites was missing. At least some sort of understanding of the two extremes at play within one’s own organization must be highlighted, so that the split does not drive a wedge through organization and wreck it before anyone knows what hit them.

This is a great tragedy for the left which somehow appears to have never been satisfactorily addressed. By allowing newcomers to leap into what they believed to be novel political organizing, while running into the same dead ends as those before them, the SDS opened up the space for old ideologies to reassert themselves by offering the theoretical rigor that the SDS left absent. The force of the theoretical rhetoric led participants into thinking that a new movement was upon them with new developments in social organization, while, as demonstrated by the SDS itself when it was infiltrated by Marxist-Leninists, these youngsters ironically gave an opening for the old and obsolete to reassert itself:

But Hayden’s disingenuousness at this critical juncture in the formation of the New Left would prove intellectual disastrous in the long run. It left the false impression of historical precedent and helped, as we shall see, to thicken rather than dispel the conceptual fog of rhetoric surrounding democracy. It fostered the illusion that fundamental issues of political theory had been addressed, and settled, when in fact matters of principle had scarcely been touched. It prompted the brightest young thinkers on the left in the years that followed to concentrate on strategy and economics and social issues, while the broader political vision of participatory democracy went largely unexamined. Because the vision was never codified and clarified and passed on as a formal doctrine of democracy, no shared approach to grappling with objections and difficulties was handed down. The final goal was left obscure. There was no emerging theoretical tradition to orient thinking and keep young activists from wandering up the same blind alleys over and over again, no clearly defined principles to forestall fundamental disagreements about what democracy ideally meant.” (p.152, emphasis added)

In an intellectual sense at least, the New Left would become a kind of staging ground for ideologies to continue their old debates. This was a new brand of old styles of thinking that in practice comes closest to anarchist direct action and creating a chaotic and shockingly spectacular scene to challenge authority. This “conceptual fog” would be the novelty, “democratically” giving any speaker the ability to turn any claim to political legitimacy on its head and claim to be doing politics. But wasn’t democracy already elaborated on by the likes of Rousseau and de Tocqueville? And weren’t these students merely asserting their right to engage with what has already been established? The furor over the lack of democracy in America was a hallmark of the SDS, so even though they lacked a clear vision of their own they made their antagonism to the present political structure abundantly clear. They held onto the tension of criticism without an alternative; the results would be a number of new tactics that would keep old ideas resurfacing and activist groups distanced from each other in their slices of the spectrum.

As a strategy of being within the left but autonomously so and champions of democracy but in a radical vs establishment version, SDS held onto a tension both within its theoretical position and outwardly in relation to the politics of the past. The conventional understanding was that by pushing democracy to a radical extreme, they would pull the rest of political spectrum with them – as if politics were a rope in a tug-of-war and one needed to do was tug harder on your end. This strategy only works when there is coordination within the left or right camp and at least an unspoken agreement to support the other more extreme side with which one shares a common base. Too much autonomy would cut the rope off and fracture what little solidarity was amongst the side as a whole. The strategy of agitation was and still is good at attracting attention, especially in the age of mass media, but the heat of militaristic marching and so forth could become too hot to handle. To unhesitatingly decry the liberal establishment yet attempt to draw it closer to you would end up backfiring: “It was never clear why, apart from succumbing to a fit of conscience, the liberal elite should promote experiments and reforms that were explicitly intended to diminish its power.” (p.182) In a negotiation, especially from an organization with mailing lists and planning meetings, one must make concessions and not just make threats.

It’s a point that could weigh heavily on the mind some 40-50 years after the fact. In decade after decade of neoliberal gains and worker wages and rights diminishing, even from policies enacted by the establishment democratic party, the unpatched rift with young radicals and the institutional left is suddenly glaringly obvious. All too often do we hear of idealistic young people making the rushed leap into politics, the crash of disappointment, and the embarrassment at looking back on the whole episode. In the face of discontented citizens’ groups organized on a consensus-style basis, much of what is called the culture-wars have been won by the left, while US imperialism and enshrining of corporate interests at the expense of workers harden their march within the halls of power relatively unabated. While it would be an exaggeration and plainly dishonest to lay the blame on the New Left and the SDS entirely, the reserve of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist seeking a way into politics all too often get spun around in old ideological quarrels, that is, when they haven’t managed to let the voice of anger break through into the mass media. Most of college campus organizing today is relegated to removing individuals from office in keeping with the antagonistic heritage that has become the now “establishment” posture of the new left; that plus winning space within the university for consensus experiments in “safe spaces.” How many people who have entered an organization of this kind with high hopes and dedication, only to quietly filter back into the status quo we’ll never exactly know.

Returning to the tension between the bravado of radical statements and the rule-by-consensus organization, we can see where these two tendencies developed in the course of the SDS movement. On the daring existential side, we can see the police riot that made a splash on television screens across the country with protesters chanting “the whole world is watching!” This interpretation of direct action was the more aggressive version than, say, setting up a protest camp without establishing lines of communication to city officials, and the marchers were by no means passive victims. One of the more illuminating parts of reading Democracy Is in the Streets is that a number of marches, rallies, and gatherings had taken place during the 3-day long convention and a malicious rapport had been established by the demonstrators with the police. Demonstrators had thrown rocks, bottles, and taunts at the cops who shouted back in return. “Fuck pigs, oink, oink!” were met with “Kill the Commies!”

““What had happened outwardly,” wrote one participant, “was that a bunch of people had gotten pushed around by a bunch of cops… But inwardly, what had happened to a lot of people… was that they had understood somehow that they were locked into this thing with the cops (and there was even a sense that it was a kind of drama – though a real drama), and that this was the beginning of it and that it was going to go on and get worse and be very ugly.”” (p.299-300)

There would be three more days of this for a total of four days and nights of skirmishes. On the night of day three, “the street fighting occurred on schedule, yielding 93 arrests, 9 damaged police vehicles and 7 injured policemen.” (p.301) The following day would be the televised attack, the culmination of half a week of aggressive protest near the DNC in Chicago.

And the saturated coverage on television had brought the existence of the New Left inescapably to the attention of all America.

But what had America seen? Was a crowd helplessly chanting in the midst of a police riot the image of participatory democracy? Was street fighting the seed of “a people’s movement”? Was this really what a generation’s moral revulsion against the Vietnam War and idealistic quest for “a democracy of individual participation” had come down to?” (p.305)

At this point the romantic-existential side of the schizophrenic movement shone forth and all of the drum-beating rhetoric of radical commitment had been unleashed in full view of the pubic. Locked in a kind of non-militaristic street battle, the marchers were taken over by the deterritorialized war marching urge but it was the purist anti-authoritarian rhetoric that had got them there. An historic event it would turnout to be, but the case could be made that the left has been in retreat ever since. It is this spectacle that allows someone like Juan Gonzalez to draw the conclusion that the country should hold its nose and vote for Hillary Clinton instead of pursue an alternative.

And then a year later, after the SDS had been infiltrated by the Leninists, a group of ultra-radical individuals formed an organization of their own called The Weather Underground. The Weathermen would go on to perform the Che Guevara-style guerrilla warfare in American cities by blowing up buildings and sending clandestine radio messages.

on the night of October 8, 1969, Hayden had addressed the Weathermen as they prepared to launch their first surprise guerrilla attack, again in Chicago. Armed with helmets, baseball bats and apparently bottomless reserves of arrogance and self-loathing, the Weathermen had assembled after nightfall in Lincoln Park, nerving themselves to smash through their bourgeois inhibitions and “tear pig city apart” in a “national action” they called “The Days of Rage.

Hayden had debated joining them.” (p.311)

I don’t need to write much more about were this would go, except that the overt assumption of violence as a tactic is mostly characteristic of an organization fresh out of ideas, grasping onto the last easiest method to assert a power that it knows itself to be losing: “the growing violence of the movement was defensive, reactive, without constructive purpose.” (p.306) Violence as a political tactic can surely win you power, but to call it a Pyrrhic victory for a group dedicated to an expansion and invigoration of democracy would be an understatement. Some revolutionaries will insist on using violence as merely a means to achieve power, from which they can rule much better than those ruling so in the present, but the track record of these instances is in the modern era is abysmal.

On the consensus side of the SDS tension there was far more success. Sharon Jeffrey would spearhead a breakout organization called the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) that would create experiments in communal-style living arrangements beginning in Cleveland. Aiming at the poor, underrepresented ghettos in major American cities she and other members of the SDS would spread the kind of participatory democracy that they had kind-of-sort-of envisioned. Meetings drew on for hours and many just could keep up with the patience needed for allowing every single person to vocally express their opinions on each topic before they moved on or decided on anything. However, out of these experiments would grow second-wave feminism and a more inclusive form of running meetings that many would come to view as more empowering than any other before it. Adopted from the small communities (in an indisputable use of the word ‘community’) of Quakers, rule-by-consensus in these ERAP groups put in an immense amount of effort into ensuring that all participants had a voice in the decisions made.

This form of organizing would survive and offer an immediate way for inspired newcomers to form themselves and make decisions. As a process for a small group of people who think alike, consensus-based rule is a new idea for the left, albeit one borrowed from another community. After the ERAP project fell apart, this form of organization would live on.

In the decades to come, experiments in participatory democracy would be launched by thousands of young people in dozens of different situations. Health clinics, law communes, free schools, feminist collectives, underground newspapers, drug-crisis centers, food co-opts, radical theater troupes – all would try their hand at direct democracy and rule-by-consensus, sometimes ingenuity and a surprising degree of success, sometimes with great difficulty and ultimately failure, but always with idealism and a sense of high hope. For countless young people, the political adventure called the New Left was just beginning. (p.216-217)

With such a diverse set of groups enacting consensus-based decision-making processes it would be wrongheaded to evaluate the idea singularly. The case of the SDS demonstrates the intense strain it puts on participants but also a high sense of accomplishment and degree ownership over the results. In Cleveland, ERAP taught neighborhoods (in spite of serious mental barriers) the inner working of local government, fostered local leaders, and in Newark organized successful rent strikes. (p.211) For an organization swelling with members though, this would create problems in burnout and cliquish behavior. The long meetings became a bigger burden than some could bear and the emphasis on direct experience within the meetings (a mystical ideal of “presence” and the reality of the community) made reproducing this model beyond those already actively participating near impossible. Taking notes and ensuring transparency to the greater SDS is extremely difficult in a meeting where free expression diverts the topics constantly. This requires a high level of dedication that is hard to maintain for the few organizers tasked with it, especially when removed from the highly-charged meetings where the decisions are made. On top of this, many were getting worried about the “elite—isolation—in-groupism… community can also be defined in terms of who is in and who is out.” So here is a tension that remains within the consensus model with respect to building a larger organization: the tendency to limit itself to a small group of those present at meetings (to those with the time and energy to spare) and the burnout that comes with keeping such a group transparent and accountable. It doesn’t surprise me that such a model is most successful in smaller groups who don’t have to answer to a greater institution.

So here we have some of the key traits of the New Left as displayed in their early stage through the Students for a Democratic Society. Their legacy still largely lives on today, together with their unresolved tensions and habits of conduct. While the term “participatory democracy” hasn’t survived as a rallying cry, democracy itself is still an unquestioned ideal and on the lips of every politician. While many are rightfully seeking a way to further their influence in the political decisions made beyond mere voting for representatives, experiments in encouraging democratic participation have mixed results. Building lasting institutions within the student movements has proven difficult and some might eschew the idea of an enduring institution altogether, opting instead for periodic moments of protest, issue-specific demonstrations, or waiting for revolutionary situations from which to cease power quickly. The common traits of the New Left have largely left a blank space with two extremes tendencies that organizations habitually fall into: aggressive/revolutionary rhetoric that whips-up marchers to fight against the police or target power-centers and the downsized consensus model that keeps organizations small, despite heightening the sense of friendship. At their best, mass actions avoid these extremes and a balance of power between the two keeps an even keel. Still, organizing for the long haul in the modern world entails institutions that persist beyond individual/clique interest and excitement.

The difference between mass movements and institutions does not need to be an either/or proposition. There is a strange kind of symbiotic relationship between the grassroots organizing that breaks through into the national consciousness with the force that gradualist institutions never could and the politics of authority that retains its power over the long term, trying its hand at altering government from the inside. No doubt, the relationship is tenuous when many will reject collaboration with the other side and call the absorption of popular mobilization’s rhetoric or tactics “capture” or “co-optation.” On the other hand, people can easily get fed up with the futility of strict adherence to principles of democracy that go so far as to take away all manifestations of power imbalances and/or result in tribalist confrontation with modern forces of authority. That there is a division that persists need not be a purely negative development: it is more helpful to view this division as the reemergence of human relations from the pre-modern world, if only briefly. Negotiating between this rift becomes paramount when disintegration and frustration risk a complete flight into conservative reverence for authority or the escape from politics altogether.

As it turns out, Tom Hayden, for all his tough talk about total commitment and the boldness to challenge the status quo, held contacts within the Democratic Party and had very practical things to say about winning votes and so forth: “In his writing he frequently reiterated the need for daring, boldness, courage and risk-taking; yet he hedged his own political bets, keeping lines of communication open to mainstream reform Democrats well after he had embraced the image of the guerrilla warrior.” (p.272) As a flamboyant writer who roused his readers into action, Hayden became a figurehead who was able to gain the ear of some prominent politicians. He spoke with the governor of Newark during their week-long riots that had seen looting mobs and an occupying national guard shooting at buildings. They tried to hash out a solution to the turmoil and Hayden’s delegitimizing mentality he had worked up over the years seemed to work: the next day New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes withdrew the national guard and the riots ended. They were very polite to each other and “aimed at persuasion”, but taking the hardline against the paramilitary force occupying the city netted the better negotiating position (p.275). Such a proposition for the functioning of a radical institution like the SDS sounds appetizing. It establishes a line of communication between autonomous groups and the centers of power in a way that would let both sides (and the people at large) reap the benefits. A similar positive result could be seen in Cleveland when ERAP taught whole neighborhoods how local government works and produced community leaders.

Nevertheless, the revolutionary furor that swept across the globe would overtake the SDS and push it back into the old ideological mode. From the successes of the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara’s popularity to the moral outrage over the atrocities in the Vietnam War to the cultural explosion of the sixties, the tide would turn against collaboration. The SDS had

veered sharply away from its original commitment to nonsectarian radicalism. For more than a year, SDS had been the target of a takeover attempted by the Progressive Labor Party, a Marxist-Leninist cadre of Maoists. With its disciplined, puritanical style and dogmatic commitment to create a dictatorship of the proletariat in America, the Progressive Labor faction stood against most of what once had defined the New Left as new. The Party’s show of revolutionary rigor nevertheless had a profound impact on the intellectual climate within SDS. “Sitting in an SDS gathering,” complained two veterans, had become “a hellish agony,” with “intellectualization and parliamentary manipulation” replacing “a sharing of experiences and consensus decision-making.” This was putting it mildly.” (p.285)

One could argue it was the intellectual vacuity of their “participatory democracy” non-credo slogan that paved the way for this kind of reassertion of the same problems that plagued the Old Left. Equally point to global developments and the heady feeling that a new era was coming and the time was ripe for world-wide revolution, which is beyond the scope of the SDS. These moments of world-historic opportunity will surely rise again and if the outcome is to truly be new then we must learn from the what was new and fresh in the New Left and what was a straight up failure.  Without education, each new generation will have to learn the same lessons of the previous one and get caught in a cycle of long-term impotence.

In the summation of Paul Booth (one of the few SDS organizers who tried and failed to solidify it into a “permanent institution” as it rose to popularity):

““The direct-action model for political influence was about speaking truth to power,” he says. “It was a theory that you could be influential because your thoughts were good and right, and you made the necessary sacrifices to get to a podium to speak. We didn’t start out with very good ideas about strategy, in part because the pacifist–direct-action people who influenced us weren’t into strategy, they were into witness. And then there were the academic influences, and they weren’t into strategy because they weren’t into activity. Unfortunately, the Old Left didn’t influence us: we viewed them as intellectually bankrupt. But they were the only people in the society who knew what mass action was, who knew what a mass organization was or how you worked in one.””

We can see the problem being one primarily of continuity between generations. To not repeat the same mistakes, the Left must now learn not just from the Old but the New Left as well – trying again at the New.  The point becomes, from the long-view of processes, to not let the passion of democracy vanish after a generation assimilates into modern society but let them share their experiences with the next.  The point becomes to avoid a situation like this: [Democrats will Learn all of the Wrong Lessons from Brush with Bernie], which in turn leads to a public so disillusioned about democratic change that it will turn to any ideological savior in the spotlight.


Miller, James, Democracy Is in the Streets. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, New York, 1988.

The Function of Violence

Hannah Arendt has a short book called On Violence that appears to be the closest thing she ever wrote to a pamphlet or zine for mass distribution. In the middle of the book is a glossary of sorts for some key concepts that get thrown around in political discourse haphazardly: power, strength, force, authority, and violence. I understand her desire to set the matters straight on these words’ meaning as an attempt to prevent political actors, people willing to take meaningful and directed political action, from falling into ideologically sterile beliefs or patterns of behavior that would disable that political action from taking effect.

She begins, and this is significant, with an assessment of the political landscape during the cold war era and the mentality confronting a generation of people having grown up in a time when the world itself could vanish at any moment. This situation brought the high politics of international relations into the consciousness of common people in a way that only climate change could now, with the affect largely drawing on fear. The Berlin Wall was still up and the narrative of two competing superpowers with opposing and irreconcilable modes of governing still prevailed and the capitalist west was set apart from the communist east. Mutually assured destruction of every human world (in her own sense of the word ‘world’) had become the culmination of a century of technological innovation in war-making and previously unthinkable slaughter. A single decision by a group of men in identical suits sitting in a dark room that the public has never seen could end everything. It was in this setting that Arendt sets about to enable her readers to think, to traverse the conceptual landscape of political and economic philosophy that constitutes the heritage bequeathed to us and find a way forward.

After setting the historical stage, we get some treatments of some political trends including the fantasy of unending progress and economic growth, the function of war in politics, and the effect of Marxism on revolutionary thought. But I would prefer to dive right into her glossary of terms to come to grips with their specific deployment. Each of these five terms has a unique meaning and they never seem to form some kind of order or hierarchy, so it is important that we grasp each on its own.

First, in her own words:

Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say that someone is “in power” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name…

Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular, an individual entity; it is the property inherent in an object or person and belongs to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other things or persons, but is essentially independent of them….

Force… should be reserved, in terminological language, for the “forces of nature” or the “force of circumstances”… that is, to indicate the energy released by physical of social movements.

Authority[‘s]… hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed… To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.

Violence, finally as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designated and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it.” (p44-46)

So, power only exists in human plurality, such that some have the ability to reorganize the community taken as a whole and have more freedom to act on it than others. The existence of power necessitates inequality in a group of people, or the reverse. Strength is an attribute of an individual, with some people being physically stronger than others by fact of nature or training. Strength is a physical property of a body. Force is relational and between bodies, a rather mechanistic term that’s close to ‘energy.’ Force can be imposed on others by acting together and doesn’t necessarily mean the enactment of blunt trauma. Authority seems the most cultural and least natural of the five, with it largely being the result of rituals and positions held by a person but within institutions. Neither force nor violence nor even strength should be required to maintain authority, and when those means are called upon to keep authority it is a sign that that authority is diminishing. Violence is a tool. Like technology, violence is implemented by someone and against another for a purpose. In other words, violence is only ever a means to an end and never an end in itself.

And there we have it. These terms are the common expression of thought in times of political uncertainty, that is, when authority is crumbling or power is breaking down. In the situation of a rebellion, war, or revolution (or the mass protest that always raise their prospect), we are suddenly thrown into an assortment of forces that require navigation through. Her point is that we have no easy path which shows itself immediately upon attaching oneself to any of these terms, whatever destination one may believe themselves to be traveling toward. The only consistent privilege Arendt ever seems to give is for a situation in which political action remains possible, the term ‘action’ being something with a specific meaning which I will explain later.

I take it that Arendt’s book is primarily aimed at Maoists of her era and other revolutionary Marxists searching for the right strategy to realize their political dreams, some of which having momentarily settled on violence as the cure-all. If only enough people are convinced that the true form of power is the violence inherent in the system (so the rationale goes), then a counter-violent force will coalesce and a revolution can take place, with power transferring from the capitalist to the socialists. The violence of capitalism is all around us and if we don’t push back with the most radical political action they can conceive, then capitalist violence will continue, say the fired-up communists. But as we receive from Arendt, the lesson here is that power and violence are not the same thing, nor does violence compose the power bloc entirely (like a collection of atoms compose an object). This is the ideological error of materialism that has survived in many forms since the dawn of philosophy, but gained a popular traction on the left since the Marxists took over the theoretical high ground on the left sometime in the late nineteenth century.

The materialist temptation is to reduce these list of terms to one term and place that one term at the ground, holding up all of the others. The mechanical nature of force, its near-equation with energy, allows it a place in the realm beyond or underneath the human and its community. With force as our basic concept hiding behind all of the others we can dawn the lab-coat and appear as a scientist that devises strictly neutral laws of nature. Armed with a materialistic ideology (a word, ‘ideology’ that can be used anytime you here someone repeat the same concepts over and over again, seeking to explain all of your ideas within the terminology of their own), we gain in prestige or mass appeal what we loose in strategic assessment of a political arrangement. Violence or the threat of potential violence is not the only force running through the field of power and keeping people in power.

Authority does not require fear but can be won in persuasion and/or skillful maneuvering, although no more convincing at all is needed when achieved. Authority is even here defined as a lack of coercion, such that one can gain authority only by seeming to be worthy of trust, believability, etc. and not merely relying on force. When such violent measures are resorted to, one in power suddenly looks naked in that power: one loses authority and draws the contempt of the people that such power is being exerted on. Authority is lost and power looks isolated, cut off from the support and respect which it required in order to achieve that power. No doubt, power can still be maintained without authority and the standards that authority “rests on” may shift to the point where authority is lost to part of a constituency but not all, but power ruling over people (or simply manipulating them to act someway instead of another) can’t survive long without authority and its accompanied respectability and admiration.

The point Arendt is making goes to her political predicament and (if the situation of the cold war is not so far away from the situation now in America) ours: we cannot just rely on an escalation of confrontation to win political power. Those who insist on this kind of brute materialist analysis wouldn’t know what to do with the power they had won if they had been gift-wrapped it and not had to fight for it at all. And there are such groups, typically anarchists, who have brought the radical left discourse to this point (Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, and the rest of the smorgasbord that make up ultra-radicals). It is only logical that anarchists would be willing to go this far because, aside from their not total but very common ideological materialism, they claim to be a force entirely concerned with counter or anti-power. Communists, on the other hand, are all-too-willing to use whatever tools available to gain power in the fight against capitalism and anarchists, despite their fierce historical opposition to them, open the way for the seizure of power by the next-most organized authority ready to jump at the opportunity. The historical and linguistic similarities between these two traditions are the undeniable heritage of anti-capitalism and left-Hegelianism in Europe, disputes aside.

Power and authority does not disappear when you evacuate the current factions, parties, or institutions holding power of their force or their means of implementing violence. This is the materialist fallacy of treating force and violence as coextensive with trauma and the infliction of pain; forces are not atoms nor are they the relations between the atoms holding them together, such that reorganizing them into a different shape will also eliminate power. People organized effectively will “give off” a force that can alter, suspend, or overthrow power, but the potential for this force to exude itself only exists when people are compelled to resist or disobey. Power falls apart and leaves in its death a vacuum when a critical threshold of people lose confidence, respect, or consent towards those in power, or, in other words, when power loses its authority and must resort to violence. What makes presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald trump so popular now in the internet age of finance capitalism is the large number of people who disapprove of their leaders but are suddenly feeling the effects of their horrendous leadership leading up to and after the financial collapse and subsequent bailout of corrupted money institutions. The revelations that the massive outgrowth of technologies surrounding the internet has been accompanied by a massive surveillance and loss of media-ted freedom has also contributed to a spiteful, though atomized response. With these actions the American government has lost authority, so that the most popular presidential candidates across the political spectrum can call for drastic action and use revolutionary rhetoric. The amount of authority still remaining can be quantified by polls and surveys only imperfectly.

The moment that many people are waiting for now, the great event that hope turns toward to reverse its fortunes, is here defined as the moment when power has completely lost its authority and when the violence becomes overt and visible. The time of the event, the time of kairos, the outpouring of activity that subverts all power and ushers in ‘the new’ could very easily get caught in this stage of violence in the waning hours of power’s grip. If all the preparation that is made is military in style, then it will be too easy for those insisting on violence as a means for revolution to lose the authority they falsely believed they never needed anyways and be crushed. Violent action taken against a power actually has the ability to become ensnared into a game that feeds such a power, diminishing and devoid of authority though it may be, with ample justification for its own police or domestic violence. Or otherwise, as Arendt puts it,

“Disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation: and even then, when power is already in the street, some group of men prepared for such an eventuality is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility.” (p49)

Staying at this level of street fighting and becoming fixated on the enemy in proximity opens up the way for a change in power, but who or what group plucks that power out of the streets and convinces the people that they are worthy of positions of authority is uncertain. This opening up of possible regime change intensifies the situation and raises the excitement level, but only those prepared to grab and hold onto power will come out with it. A second look into the revolutions of Egypt from 2011 and the current civil war in Syria exemplify the dangers of prolonged street fighting can take on a state, from within and without.

In times like these, power is effectively lost when its command structure disintegrates. The giving and accepting of commands is a major component for the instrumental use of violence, and must be presupposed by those with power in order that they maintain their power. But a power that has lost authority increases the likelihood that those receiving the commands will falter. Commands are like contracts that people believe will be honored but can only make referrals to laws, force, and character when they come to collect; when the structures that ensure such contracts or commands have lost the respect of the people, everything can change in a “flash.”

“In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always held absolute; but this superiority lasts only as long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is, as long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to use their weapons. When this is no longer the case, the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, but the arms themselves change hands – sometimes, as in the Hungarian revolution, within a few hours.” (p48)

These moments of power-loss bring about the prospect for a new form of government, where new ideas are given a space and new constitutions can be drawn up. None of these things can happen if the arms once used to repress peoples continue to remain with the government and their users obey commands. When the thrust of one’s political activity is reduced to violence mixed with some vague notions about ideal human life (or some exact notions about how to run an economy from 150 years ago), the authority of the existing power is reinforced not challenged and the potential for a new power will remain untapped. The public opinion of a people becomes the ultimate arbiter in these instances.

“The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience – to laws, to rulers, to institutions – is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.” (p49)

This “support and consent” is not so easily detectable but it is easily observable in daily life. When or where the threshold is crossed from acquiescence to rebellion is not definable in an analytic way but becomes apparent in a mass event, a non-localized disobedience. In other words, a small group of people is not going to incite an insurrection but can seize power once that general disobedience and loss of authority has taken place. A situation of major power-loss and potential transition is a mass phenomenon that the great majority takes part in. Without this vast critical majority, any revolutionary practice is powerless, and this lack of power (just like with regimes losing their power by losing their authority) is what leads them to turn towards violence.

And power itself is not even won through war-like victories, where one force overcomes another and so seizes power. Gaining and keeping power is a group phenomenon that should not be confused with one army conquering another army. “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow.” The violence that power deploys where it sees fit is but its instrument for maintaining that power it won not from battles but from acting and organizing itself prior to its seizure of power. When power is attempted to be gained by violent means, what we get is not a power but a terrifying obedience of people like they were soldiers or enemies. Violence: its commands, its obedience, and its fear are not suited for rule of a government in the same way as power is, which is where we get the totalitarian rule of terror.

“Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it is power…

Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost… To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” (p53)

The confusion of violence’s alliance with power for another principle, namely, that power is nothing but a control of violence, leads us down a troubling path – one that extents the operations of violence even further than the street battles within which violence takes place. The organization of violence and the organization of government are two separate creatures that ally with each other for their own mutual survival; a violence having completely severed itself from power and overtaken it can rule only according to its own organizational axioms. When everything looks like either an enemy or a subordinate to direct with the force of fear, government is transformed into rule by terror. Ignoring power’s cooperative operation and its legitimacy in the eyes of those it rules could be disastrous. To ignore the need for a plan within the designs of the powerful and a method for running the government once power is attained is to create a power vacuum that is too easily filled by violence.

“Terror is not the same as violence; it is, rather, the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control. It has often been noticed that the effectiveness of terror depends almost entirely on the degree of social atomization… The decisive different between totalitarian domination, based on terror, and tyrannies and dictatorships, established by violence, is that the former turns not only against its enemies but against its friends and supporters as well, being afraid of all power, even the power of its friends. The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to devour its own children, when yesterday’s executioner becomes today’s victim. And this is also the moment when power disappears entirely.” (p55)

This situation of totalitarian terror is one that few will remember at the time of writing, 2016, or could. It comes to us like a relic in a time where capitalist power has outlasted its internal and geopolitical opponents but also as perennial justification for the capitalist powers. But it could also come to us as a reminder how quickly things can disintegrate into cycles of violence and terror if we hold onto materialistic notions of the identity of power and force – or at least their difference being only one of degree.

So, violence and force are not the same as power and power is not composed of accumulation of forces or a mere monopoly on violence.

“To sum it up: it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.” (p56)

Power only relies on violence as a means to keep that power, but is not its essence. When power is kept in possession solely through the use of violence, people tend not tolerate such a power and it loses authority. In those situations when the authority of power is lost, commands are disobeyed and changes in power become possible, or at least more likely. As violence rages on and conquers all of its enemies, it turns the power of government into terror. A power won not through violence but through acting together in concert, forming a strategic plan and proclaiming themselves in public, is a power capable of legitimate rule by general consent of the governed. Such consent, Arendt will argue, is not the mere result of coercion or an acquiescence; the minds of the people are given more agency than they would have as mere subjects of a sovereign.

“This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as non-violence; to speak of non-violent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” (p56)

Somewhere early on in a political action, which Arendt defines as necessarily being an initiative that starts something new, the old debate rears its ugly head and a decision will have to be made on the ready-made and easy-to-use media template: “Are you violent or non-violent?”. The decision is a forced decision in Arendt’s terminology because the use of violence in an instrumental means to an ends does not exist in the civilian resisting violence and fighting back. Such resistance or reactive counter-attack against the organized and instrumental violence of the police or military has no clear instrumental use but the mere expression of outrage. The hastily labeled “violent protester” or the emblazoned headlines of “protest turns violent” are abuses of the word; violence is only a tool, a means to an ends, and to charge protesters of being an organized force explicitly deploying violence to seek some end is to vastly overestimate their force.

The word is being used here as a media device to discredit an action and bolster the authority for a power. The selective deployment of the word instills confusion in the reader and makes the whole affair look like a skirmish where neither force is to blame and it was another instance of natural forces colliding against each other. Two violent forces that await a victor and the defeated. In actuality, someone or some powerful group decided that a political action challenged their authority and put their power at risk, so they made use of the violence at their disposal. Without a power backing it, such counter violence is ensnared into the trap that the dominant power has set for it, unable to overcome it by force. “Politically speaking, the point is that loss of power becomes a temptation to substitute violence for power…” (p54)

No doubt, some will be inclined to provoke this violence: a kind of drawing out of the violence into public for the purpose of depleting a power’s authority in the eyes of the population. This often goes by the name “non-violent direct action” and has shown its effectiveness in various political campaigns, especially since the advent of mass media to make visible to the rest of the public the use of violence by a power. While effective, the label is misleading and a semantic impasse has developed where the strategy’s authority has grown so large that the media has borrowed its own terminology and selectively deploys its opposite. Like falling into the trap of street battling with a more powerful force, taking sides on this issue has become a means for reducing a popular force through division. But, again, this is a forced choice largely imposed by the forces of the media and internalized by its readers/viewers. Taking the extreme side too quickly produces the ideological weapon of “propaganda by the deed” which hopes to incite further act of violence in a less organized fashion (it hasn’t ever worked) and those led into the ideological error of valorizing violence as I have been addressing throughout this essay. Unleashing this violence, one that obeys commands (else it remains impotent) can be very effective at achieving its goals. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

What Arendt can teach us with this small book is that power is never achieved this way, at least not for long and not without much regret when all is said and done.  What holds up power is more than violence and defeating power with little more than a superior force using violence is no means for creating a new power.  There is more involved in the complicity of a people for a particular power than fear of violence.  This makes the struggle for authority and the general consent of the people a more important battleground than the streets, especially for the intellectually minded.


Arendt, Hannah. On Violence.  Harcourt Books, 1970.

Socialism and/or Populism in America

Both Socialism and Populism have been invoked during Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign run and this has led to no small amount of conceptual confusion among the American people – myself included.  His rhetoric and record as a senator has been overwhelmingly anti-Wall Street, pro-worker, and, well, popular, so when I heard the label “Socialist” coming from the more conservative side from the mainstream media I thought it was another scare-tactic and then embraced it as a possible cure for our neoliberal malaise of debt-fueled Superimperialism [Michael Hudson’s latest on US Neoliberal Empire].  His brand of Socialism isn’t the type that conservatives would have you believe though, many avowed Socialists have even distanced themselves from Sanders.  It came as somewhat of a surprise, but more of a moment of clarity, when Douglas Edwards (@SebastosPublius) tweeted to me that he is not in fact a Socialist but still demands support from the left in the way he steers the conversation in the media away from compromise with wealthy financiers and corporate giants embedded within the political process [How Wall Street Is Burning Democracy].

Bernie Sanders is not a Socialist because Socialism means state ownership of the means of production, the effective nationalization of industry and seizure of the capital, materials, and distribution for a government operating in the name of “the people”, and that is not his platform.

On Bernie as a Socialistic Democrat, or Democratic Socialist (or whatever):

“the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this:

I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.” [Source]

This makes Bernie Sanders definitively not a Socialist – and he shouldn’t be.  While the battle against the interest of the super-wealthy is just and necessary on our imperiled planet, Socialism never figured out a way of preventing the shoring up of power within a single party after the revolutions they helped accelerate. This consolidation of massive power within a single party is in no way democratic, which is why ‘democratic socialism’ is the term that the Sanders campaign has settled on.  These ghosts are too easily conjured up by reactionary apologists for Capitalism and American Imperial supremacy; the problem is that the wrong tradition of thought is being drawn on.   It would be a sad state of affairs if Bernie Sanders were defeated over a single label that he doesn’t even own.  Perhaps the only recourse for anti-capitalist, humanists, and those fighting for the interests of the great many, when it comes to imagining a just society in economic and political terms, in the recent past has been Socialism.


To be clear here, Socialism is and has been a theoretical framework that challenges Capitalism and seeks to solve its horrendous consequences by reappropriating the wealth, factories, products, etc. and redistributing it.  It is not the content of Socialism that people are demanding however, its main strength is in giving people a discourse with which to locate the main actors that are creating so much misery.  It is this appeal that has gotten people excited about electing a Socialist president (albeit in a lighter form [Bernie Sanders’ New Deal Socialism]).  However, there is another tradition of economic thought that fits in better with Sanders’ aspirations and the 99%’s as well, the only downside is that it has been suppressed from our cultural memory.

The other big word that is seeing a revived by Sanders’ campaign is “Populism”.  This word invokes a tradition that precedes Socialism as a body of thought and rallying cry by a few decades in the late nineteenth century – to those who know about it.  For a brief time, southern, mid-west, and many northern farmers in the wake of the Civil War were embroiled in a political insurrection against the dominant interests of the financial class in the east and the politicians they controlled.  Overburdened by a system called “crop-lien” and without recourse to anything but the two parties who wouldn’t listen to them, they got creative and formed their own party based on their own ideas for how the money system should work.  In fact, throughout the entire nineteenth century, and even late eighteenth century, the newly formed United States of America wrestled with itself over how the money system should work, who would benefit the most from it, and what, in general, it’s money would be.  In contrast to the Socialists, whose body of thought came from figures like Saint-Simon and was taken up and refined by the Proudhon’s and Marx’s in Europe, the Populists grew organically by burgeoning farmer-activists and American monetary theorists whose ideas didn’t stick in quite the same way.  Rather than talking about “the means of production” or “the proletarian working class” (these terms gained in significance and explanatory power during the era of mass industrialization, which had only just gotten underway in the era of Populism), they talked about money more openly as farmers with an urgent need for credit.  The image of the “independent farmer” of Thomas Jefferson’s vision was closer to people’s self-identification and they called economic crises “money shortages,” due in large part to the failure of the much reviled banks.

The Greenback Party argued a strong case for a more flexible currency that was not controlled by debt-wielding banks and their “gold-backed” banknotes and they preceded the Populists, who accepted their critique and broadened it to a larger swath of Americans. This by-and-large forgotten body of thought and history is far better suited for Bernie’s campaign to invoke.  Not only is populism “made-in-America” but it has a penetrating critique and solution for how to deal with the vice-grip that bankers and investors hold on the greater population in terms of both politics and, via their debt-money, economics.  There is no better place to look for a solution to what to do after Sander’s “political revolution” than America’s own history, coming straight from the masses of early American farmers themselves and the proposal for a money system that galvanized them.

The Sanders campaign has rightfully taken up the anti-Wall Street sentiment that has swept through the nation because they are the ones standing most directly in the way of meaningful change.  Lack of access to cheap credit and the reliance on bankers as the producers of money-for-debt are (I would argue) the single biggest barrier to altering business as usual and healing the planet of its growing fever [James Hansen’s latest report on Climate Change].  The greater left neglects the most crucial aspect of economics (money) by remaining within the entrenched mindset of materialist political economy (rooted in the works of David Ricardo, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Marx) and the Socialists who derived much of the fundamental tenets of their thought from.  Heck, if a modern day politician starting talking about Greenbackism and reforming the money system in the way that Americans used to, it could completely change the political landscape in a time when both political parties and their congress people are reviled by a great majority of the population but [Poll Ratings], for lack of a popular base and a robust third party organization, are unable to see beyond.  This is the political climate in which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have risen through parties that do not want them to win but enjoy far more support among their base than any other candidate they could groom.

Having heard a bit about the Populists and their monetary reform crusade, I picked up one of its brief histories by Lawrence Goodwyn on a tip from and activist friend.  I would highly recommend giving it a read, for Goodwyn gives a detailed account of a grassroots movement and explains what we would call the monetary theory that they relied on to save them from their destitution.  In what follows I would like to give an even more brief summary of the Populists, focusing on the systematic machinations of early American money and how they would have changed it had they been successful.

[Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment. Oxford University Press, 1978 (link)]

The Populist Party rode to major success in the elections of early 1890’s that shook up the GOP, at the time as the Democrats controlling the South, forcing the Democratic Party to absorb them through political trickery or become fractured.  They got William Jennings Bryant to run for president for the Dems on a platform of monetary reform, but their message had been water-down to merely expanding the money supply with silver bullion instead of releasing the nation’s money from the grip of bankers entirely.  Silver would become the wedge that split the Populist Party and their radical (by our standards) monetary theory that would have released money from the illusion of a metallic backing.  Originally, the Populists wanted to bring back the Greenbacks that President Lincoln had issued to finance the Civil War without the help of banker’s high interest loans (25-35% – a nearly impossible sum to repay on such a large principle) and to allow credit to flow into the cooperative exchanges that the farmers had established to get better prices for their crops.  Nothing else they wanted or could create could work when the eastern financier elites and the merchant bulk supply purchasers they were in league with could simply choose not to do business with them until their cooperatives were broken apart and the purchasing prices lowered.  The farmers, journalists and movement organizers of the populists knew this through experience and strategy meetings: the only way to put a stop to their desperate poverty was to reform the money system and wrest the production of money from the hands of wealthy financiers.  It was a battle so vitally important to the soul of America that the victor was not satisfied with controlling the levers of money with their banks but insisted on destroying the very memory of the battle and the ideas they employed for fear of their resurrection.  Think that’s too strong?  Read the Hazard Circular written by the London financial capitalists for their American counterparts meant specifically to obscure the money question in politics and divide the population against itself before they figure it out. [The History of the Hazard Circular]


The “Greenback” United States Note

The major constraining force acting immediately on the farmers of America after the Civil War was the above mentioned “crop-lien” system.  It was by-and-large this system that kept farmers poor, disempowered, and sent many fleeing out west or into the cities to escape their debts.  Merchant supply houses controlled credit in the rural towns by lending out tools and materials needed to start a small farm.  The amount due to the creditors very often exceeded what farmers were able to gain from the crops they produced on their land at the harvest.  The problem was interest, and its accrual crushed indebted farmers:

“Acted out at as thousand merchant counters in the South after the Civil War, these scenes were so ubiquitous that to describe one is to convey a sense of them all.  The farmer, his eyes downcast, and his hat sometimes literally in his hand, approached the merchant with a list of his needs..  The man behind the counter consulted a ledger, and after a mumbled exchange, moved to his shelves to select the goods that would satisfy at least a  part of his customer’s wants.  Rarely did the farmer receive the range of items or even the quantity of one item he had requested.  No money changed hands; the merchant merely made brief notations in his ledger. Two weeks or a  month later, the farmer would return, the consultation would recur, the mumbled exchange and the careful selection of goods would ensue, and new additions would be noted in the ledger.  From early spring to late fall the ritual would be enacted until, at “settlin’-up” time, the farmer and the merchant would meet at the local cotton gin, where the fruits of a year’s toil would be ginned, bagged, tied, weighed, and sold.  At that moment, the farmer would learn what his cotton had brought.  The merchant, who had possessed title to the crop even before the farmer had planted it, then consulted his ledger for a final time.  The accumulated debt for the year, he informed the farmer, exceeded the income received from the cotton crop. The farmer had failed in his efforts to “pay out” – he still owed the merchant a remaining balance for the supplies “furnished” on credit during the year.  The “furnishing merchant” would then announce his intention to carry the farmer through the winter on a new account, the later merely having to sign a note mortgaging to the merchant the next year’s crop.  The lien signed, the farmer, empty-handed, climbed into his wagon and drove home, knowing that for the second or fifth or fifteenth year he had not paid out.

Such was the crop-lien system.  It constituted a new and debasing method of economic organization that took its specific form from the devastation of the Civil War and from the collapse of the economic structure of Southern society which had resulted from the war… The South had become, in the words of one historian, a “giant pawn shop.”

The furnishing merchants, able to get most of their goods on consignment from competing Northern mercantile houses, bought supplies and “furnished them on credit to farmers, taking a lien on the farmer’s crop for security.  Farmers learned that the interest they were paying on everything they consumed limited their lives in a new and terrible way; the rates imposed were frequently well in excess of 100 percent annually, sometimes over 200 percent.  The system had subtle ramifications which made this mountain of interest possible.  At the heart of the process was a simple two-price system for all items – one price for cash customers and a second and higher price for credit customers.” (p.21-22)

This crop-lien system was the mechanism that suppressed farmers and kept them “dirt poor.”  It was the ability to charge a higher rate for customers buying on credit and their control over access to the tools and materials that the farmers needed that allowed the merchants to gouge their debtors with a near endless cycle of repayment.  Under these desperate circumstances, farmers began to organize.

Populist Part ticket

The farmers of the South formed an alliance in 1878 and slowly encouraged other counties and states to form their own “suballiances” locally.  Two innovations helped pick up momentum for the Farmer’s Alliance: the consolidation of the farmer’s crop into a single storehouse that would then sell to the merchants collectively at a higher price instead of individually, and a traveling lecture circuit that would arrive at community centers (churches) and educate the farmers on how the new method of ‘bulking’ would help them.  The lecture circuit would double as a uniting force between the suballiances and it gave them a venue to promote the idea of Greenback money and a new idea coming from the Populist Farmers Alliance movement called the “sub-treasury plan.”

Before jumping into the substance of these ideas and how they would reverse the farmers fortunes, as well as the nature and production of money in America, a brief history of the Greenback dollar will help set the scene and give some context for why so many Americans demanded monetary reform.  For besides the lack of access to cheap credit, farmers were fetching a smaller price for their goods on the market simply from the change in value of the currency.  The Eastern financial class – those wealthy bondholders – wanted to ensure their government bonds had the highest value, regardless of how much of a burden this put on the rest of the country via a shrinking supply of money.  Goodwyn summarizes complicated money policy and competing interests very well and is worth quoting again at length:

“In technical language that millions of Americans would try to comprehend over the next two generations, “specie payments” had been “suspended.”  Two months after the Treasury ceased paying coin for its obligations, Congress, under relentless wartime spending pressure, authorized the issuance of “legal tender treasury notes” to cover obligations.  Because of the color of their ink, the notes soon became known as “greenbacks.”  By the end of the war some $450 million of these treasury notes were in circulation, having contributed to wartime inflation, greater commercial liquidity, and prosperity.

In orthodox financial circles favoring “gold monometallism” the postwar problem was one of ending “suspension’ and achieving “resumption” by retiring the greenbacks and returning to a redeemable currency of hard money.  The currency “contraction” that necessarily would follow might be painful for various members of the society, especially debtors, but only as the painful cleaning of a wound was essential to ultimate health.  At the heart of the banker’s approach was an understanding of gold and silver money not as a medium of exchange, but as a commodity that had “intrinsic value.”…

However, bankers and other creditor-bondholders had a more specific motive for specie resumption.  The currency had depreciated steadily during the war, and, having purchased government bonds then, they, understandably, looked forward to the windfall profits to be made from redeeming their holdings in gold valued at the prewar level.  A governmental decision to begin paying coin for its obligations would mean that, though the Civil War had been fought with fifty-cent dollars, the cost would be paid in one-hundred-cent dollars.  The nation’s taxpayer would pay the difference to the banking community holding the bonds.  Bankers marshaled a number of moral imperatives to support their case.  They argued that they had supported the war effort – albeit with depreciated money – by buying government securities on the assumption that the postwar dollar would be returned to “par.”… Bondholders and the Eastern financial community – the two terms were more or less interchangeable – further argued that resumption would encourage saving, investment, and economic growth by assuring holders of capital that the dollar would have “long-term stability.”  The country would be placed on a “sound” footing  Finally, the banker’s case was patriotic: the nation’s honor was at stake.

Some practical difficulties intruded, however.  A return to hard money could only be accomplished in one of two ways – both quite harmful to a great number of Americans.  The first was to raise taxes and then employ the proceeds to redeem wartime bonds and to retire greenbacks from circulation.  This, of course, would contract the economy abruptly, driving prices down, but also depressing business severely and increasing unemployment, perhaps to socially dangerous levels… Any immediate attempt to “resume specie payments” would have quickly exhausted the nation’s gold supply through an unfavorable balance of trade.

The second method of contracting the currency spread the resulting economic pain over a longer period of time.  The government could merely hold the supply of money at existing levels while the population and the economy of the nation expanded, thus forcing general price levels down to a point where it was no longer profitable to redeem paper dollars in gold to finance imports.  In due course, this is what happened.

To the nation’s farmers, contraction was a mass tragedy which eventually led to the Populist revolt.” (p.10-13)

The main cause for the lack of money available to the people and their resulting plight was the interests of the wealthy bondholders.  These people bought these bonds from the government with the hopes of receiving a good return on their investment after the war.  After all, the North could have lost the war and those bonds, as a result, would be useless without a government to pay them.  But they could have received a return on their money at a depreciated value, while the rest of the economy would have performed far better in an environment where money was more abundant and expanded along with the expansion of commerce in general.  Instead they used their resources to obtain the maximum value of their bonds and then buy up greenbacks and destroy them, phasing them out of existence and retaining control of the issuance of money within the banks.  The common interest of this stratum of society, together with their high education, vast wealth, and leisure time, allowed them to out-maneuver a vast majority only a few of which could understand what was happening to them.

USA Civil War Bond

While the bondholders got the most out of their bonds, the resulting contraction of the economy would drive down the price of the goods that the many farmers were selling, like cotton.  Simply selling one’s goods in American dollars brought a smaller return thanks to the contraction of money.  The farmers didn’t have much money in savings accounts, their money came to them at the harvest time when the purchasers came to town.  A contracted money supply means less money spread out to cover over greater commercial activity.  So, if you had money, it appreciated; if you had to sell goods to earn money to then buy other goods (or settle debts), the price at which you had to sell was lower.

The Populists would change this situation by mobilizing their lecturers to explain just how these financiers were diminishing the value of their crops by contracting the money supply.  They would also promote a solution that would give them hope for democratic control over the money system in their sub-treasury idea, which seized on the existing memory of the greenback and the latent power of the government to issue its own currency and spend it into existence instead of borrow it from banks.  The crux of the matter went to the very heart of what money is.  One could even say it went to the heart of how America would be run as a country, with economic democracy (via control of money supply and its issue) or economic oligarchy.  The bankers wanted their “sound money” (gold-backed banknotes issued by their fractional reserve method) and the Populists wanted “flexible money” that would come into existence by the government’s own initiative and be more plentiful.

“The debtor philosophy offered another way of stabilizing prices.  By reducing the content of the dollar to one-half its prewar figure, the nation could have simply accepted the fact that the currency had lost one-half of its purchasing power, frankly and rather painlessly acknowledging that currency devaluation had taken place during the war.  Granted that such a solution would remove the windfall profits that bondholders anticipated from the return of the old standard, it also avoided the multiple hazards to the rest of society implicit in the objectives of “sound money” bankers.

To greenbackers, the case for a fiat currency was completely persuasive because the nation needed an expanding monetary system to keep up with population growth and commercial expansion.  Greenbacks were “the people’s currency, elastic, cheap and inexportable, based on the entire wealth of the country.”  As this study of American populism reveals, the greenback cause was a many-faceted phenomenon, sometimes put forward in arguments which were opportunist and ephemeral, but more frequently presented in a coherent analysis that attained a level of advanced social criticism.

Whatever the short-run economic equities, the greenback critique of American finance capitalism – should it ever gain a mass popular following – constituted a political issue of the first magnitude.” (p.12-13)

So it didn’t take long for the disgruntled farmers to realize that their difficulties in production under the crop-lien system were connected to the system of money production itself.  Their crops were fetching a lower price than they should have if the money supply had grown with the growth of the economy.  On top of that, the furnishing merchants controlled the books by which farmers’ debts were calculated, charging usurious interest rates on their loaned out materials.  This kept farmers in a gigantic territory oppressed by monetary policy and the creditors who provided them with what they needed, only at high interest.  Solutions existed, but without a method to organize and act in concert the farmers were at the mercy of their creditors.

The Farmers Alliance changed this with their army of lecturers and suballiance system that gave the lecturers a place to travel to speak with and listen to the farmers.  Together they created a movement culture that successfully brought people a sense of their own worth in common and instilled hope for a new system that would benefit them.  They began the process of bulking their cotton together in large storehouses to get their higher prices and even allowed farmers to take out credit from these exchanges secured on future crops.  Bringing their crops together in these storehouses gave suballiances a direct benefit to their cooperative efforts, but the constant antagonism from the wealthy merchants seeking a lower price kept their existence tenuous.  They remained too small to help enough of the population and in order to expand they needed credit.  It was in this situation that Charles Macune introduced his idea of the “sub-treasury” monetary system, an idea that could link the cooperative storehouse bulking practice with the flexible, non-metallic currency idea of Greenbackism.

“In arguing for changed relations between “different classes,” Macune suggested a conscious raising of the stakes above those being gambled in the cooperative movement.  Macune’s plan called for federal warehouses to be erected in every county in the nation that annually yielded over $500,000 worth of agricultural produce. In these “sub-treasuries,” farmers could store their crops to await higher prices before selling.  They were to be permitted to borrow up to 80 per cent of the local market price upon storage, and could sell their sub-treasury “certificates of deposit” at the prevailing market price at at time of year.  Farmers were to pay interest at the rate of 2 per cent per annum, plus small changes for grading, storage, and insurance.  Wheat, corn, oats, barley, rye, rice, tobacco, cotton, wool, and sugar were included under the marketing program.

The plan carried far-reaching ramifications for the farmer, the nation’s monetary system, and the citizenry as a whole….  In effect, Macune had replaced the high-interest crop-mortgage of the furnishing merchant with a plan that mortgaged the crop of to the federal government at low interest.  It thus provided the farmer with the means to escape, at long last, the clutches of the advancing man and recover a measure of control over his own life.  For the farmers of the South, both black and white, the sub-treasury plan was revolutionary.” (p.109-110)

It was an ambitious plan, to say the least.  It was an appeal for the country’s money to be injected into the farmer’s local exchange directly, instead of through a bank intermediary that got to lend out its gold-backed banknotes.  The treasury would issue greenback dollar bills and lend them to the cooperative exchanges on the future market value of the crops that were stored in their warehouses.  No longer would there be a lack of credit flowing to farmers who produced real goods but couldn’t fetch a decent price for them.  The money system would be brought under democratic control in the sub-treasury plan, with a large portion of the supply of money determined by farmer’s needs instead of entirely controlled by who banks believed was a worthy investment.  Small farmers were left out of bank lending and without an injection of money directly from the source of money minting and printing, the government, they were left to the pawn-shops of furnishing merchants – unbanked and without access to cheap, non-usurious credit.

The Farmers' alliance history and agricultural digest

Charles Macune

“The status that the sub-treasury plan came to have in reform ranks is revealing.  For, to put the matter as quietly as possible, Macune’s plan was democratic.  Or, to put it in archaic political terminology, it was breathtakingly radical.  Under the sub-treasury, the power of private moneylenders to decide who “qualified” for crop loans and who did not would have been ended.  The contracted currency, the twenty-five year decline in volume and prices, would have ended in one abrupt – and democratic – restructuring.  The prosperity levels of 1865 would have been reclaimed in one inflationary – and democratic – swoop.  Most important of all, the sub-treasury addressed a  problem that has largely defeated twentieth-century reformers, namely the mal-distribution of income within American society.  By removing some of the more exploitative features embedded in the inherited monetary system, the sub-treasury would have achieved substantive redistribution of income from creditors to debtors.  Put simply, a more democratic monetary system would have produced a more democratic sharing of the nation’s total economic production.” (p.301-302)

Based on these ideas, the insurgent farmers from the American South and Mid-West formed the Populist Party and wrote The Omaha Platform that would outline the central tenets of their political aspirations.  [Source]  With the success of many of their campaigns to get congressmen, governors elected to office under their party, the Democrats took notice and set to co-opt their message and support base.  They pushed the idea of re-monetizing silver (which had already been the currency standard in America from 1792 until the Civil War [Coinage Act of 1792]), an idea that would not have structurally changed the flow of money in the country but only expanded it.  Even with the added support coming from the recently absorbed Populist Party, the Democrats lost the big election of 1896 to the Republican McKinley.

After the Party fell apart, more banking crises would erupt as they had been in the previous decade.  An especially bad banking crisis occurred in 1907 and set the stage for the secretly concocted Federal Reserve Act.  The Fed would not solve the problem of periodic bank failures and depressions, but would strengthen the biggest bank’s interests structurally.  Nobody has been able to move congress to enact reform of the money system democratically, though the Populists and the ingenious sub-treasury plan came the closest to anything outside of the existential threat of war to making it happen.  They had a vision, a base of voters and organizers, and a culture that could be legitimately laid claim to.  Their ideas strongly resonated with a huge number of Americans but through cooptation, smears in the newspapers, and an expensive and unprecedented election campaign, so grand and effective that it would set the standard for all subsequent presidential campaigns, the Populists were defeated.  The patriotic flag-waving supporters of McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryant with a gushing of campaign money to squash even the Democrats’ weak idea of monetary reform: a bimetallic standard that would have still kept the bankers at the levers of money production.

It is far too late to get someone like Bernie Sanders to switch gears and start talking about what would seem like an obscure history lesson in democratic movements.  Any lessons taken from the Populist Party and their struggle would have to be superimposed on the body of thought that is more familiar to everyone than to try and start from scratch.  The ideas of the Greenback and Populist Parties are close to another more modern body of thought called Sovereign Money spearheaded by Joseph Huber [website] and Positive Money [website] in the UK.  The point within the context of a President Bernie Sanders prospect is that we should be talking about (he should get us to talk about) socializing money, not all the industry in the country, but the money system.  Socialize money!  Don’t socialize the means of production, socialize the means of producing money!  This would not require nationalizing the big banks but removing their ability to control the money supply and how they are allowed to allocate it through issuing Federal Reserve Notes instead of United States Notes and collecting interest on nearly all the money in circulation.  We could give everyone the option of having a bank account at the Federal Reserve: our very own “sub-treasury system” for a modern economy.

The challenges that face organizing for a major Socialist reform/revolution have been well documented in our precarious gig-economy. [Gig Workers Need the Power to Organize] One simple fix to the money system would relieve great pain around the world by removing the ‘too-big-to-fail’ status of mega-banks within the economy and allowing the ultra-rich to loose money on their bad bets instead of ruining enter countries. [Greece: Austerity for the Bankers]  This question of who would control the money was once the single biggest issue on the minds of the American people, spurring the largest of social movements and riots. [Read: William Hogeland’s Founding Finance] The only problem is that we have forgotten this heritage and the textbooks won’t point students in the right direction.  An unfortunate historical fact is that we have few images of the Populists and their deeds to draw on, making it difficult to imagine their movement.

As an alternative to the mainstream histories of great statesmen and classical economists, Socialism is only a good start.  Throw in some financial literacy, a good theory of money [Read: Geoffrey Ingham’s The Nature of Money], and a President unrestrained by financier-capitalists and politics might start to get exciting again.

Until then, one-quarter the country will getting gouged by payday lenders, check-cashers, and their creditors in general, [Financial Services for the Unbanked] [25% of Americans have negative net worth]and over half of the country will not be able to raise $400 dollars at any given time without going into debt or selling their possessions. [Fed Report]

Coming_Money_Trust 1912

Saturday Night Socialism

I attended a speaker series in Oakland last Saturday and saw avowed Socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, Chris Hedges, and Richmond progressive city council member Gayle McGlaughlin (who spoke in exactly the opposite order). What I didn’t realize from reading the posters strewn about Oakland is that it was put on by a new party (I think) called the Socialist Alternative [http://www.socialistalternative.org/about/]. It had the look and feel of a new party and perhaps will become a force but it was rather surprising to see a big organization (or at least an organization with big plans) appear in my region for a fairly big leftist event without my foreknowledge of its existence. Maybe I’ve grown slightly out of touch, but this experience had some teachable moments that go a long way to demonstrate the political deadlock and new hope that we are living through at the moment in terms getting to a moment of transformation in the most powerful country on earth.

There is no doubt in my mind that Socialists are getting bigger and bolder in their actions since Bernie Sanders has gained so much popularity recently, which is due to his decision to run a few months ago, which is in turn due to an assessment of the dissatisfaction with politics in the US brought on by… Yet, especially in Chris Hedges’ speech, the posturing against Bernie was direct and adamant – Bernie was like ghost haunting the baptists-church-become-temporary-leftist-venue in the way he was being denounced. During the question and answer period, someone had the courage to ask (with audible fear-induced voice-cracking) about infighting among the left and the inability for relatively closely allied, say “~80% agreement” vs near-zero percent agreement with fully captured capitalist politicians, to say any kind words or offer endorsement. Instead of giving a little and saying that Sen. Sanders has helped push Socialism into the national spotlight, which directly benefits the organizers of the event, or has a few important planks in his platform, Hedges blasted Sanders for his support for Israel and said something to the tune of his aggressive foreign policy fundamentally discrediting him – with some morally infused rhetoric befitting the venue.  It wouldn’t be the first time Hedges has intervened to drive a condemning wedge into an upstart popular group [Chris Hedges debates Crimethinc on Black Bloc Tactics].  It is as if a battle for the *soul of the left has to accompany every surge of power.

Kshama Sawant as well had to correct a questioner (falsely accusing the organizers of censorship in the most tense moment of the night mind you) that she dos not support Bernie Sanders. Her fight has been in Seattle over the raising of the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour (now) and against public sector budget cuts; although, to be fair, there are nods to feminism, anti-colonialism, occupy, and the rest of the gamut that comes out of the left. Sawant’s Socialist Alternative touts the grassroots in its organizational form, sighting how they do not accept money from corporations and rely on small(er) donations from individuals and local activists in their regional offices. They are principled far-leftists but it remains to be seen if they have enough organizational prowess to get good candidates elected without big money from corporations that will need a back scratching. It’s still in the infant stage and is trying to ride Sawant’s recent popularity, with a charismatic speaker still needed to collect donations from the crowd before the Q&A.

But make no mistake, the one who is putting Socialism on the map is Bernie Sanders. He is actually starting to look like the front-runner for the primary candidate of the Democratic Party, routinely filling in stadiums full of thousands of people who can sense the turning of the tide. By comparison, this event looked like a small contingent running behind a big parade saying both “hey, we belong too!” and “you’re doing it all wrong!” at the same time. And it is not that the Socailist Alternative is doing anything wrong on their own projects here, the fight for fifteen would go a great distance for working people and correct a great deal of poverty rotting out the empire from the inside. It’s the issue of infighting, dissension within the ranks that worries me more than any Donald Trump buggyman that the pool of undecided and uncommitted voters will come to their senses about come election time. The left has a habit of eating itself up with over-moralizing, holding it’s own figure heads up to a ridiculously high standard while shunning realpolitik. Bernie is striking a chord with the population who is ready for something new – he can win.

Having everyone fall in line behind him would be counterproductive though, a lively discussion and debate is crucial to attract those skeptics who are immediately turned off by strict adherence to slogans and mantras – especially after Obama’s empty rhetoric yielded almost nothing except ’not going to war with Iran’ (plus the war in whistleblowers, coddled banksters, etc.). Though much derided for his imperial stance, Bernie did not vote for the Iraq war and supported the Iran sanctions/nuclear deal, though he talks tough against Russia in the geopolitical freezing-cold war that the US absolutely must not win. Yeah this is bad news and a good time to interject into a political debate with your family and friends some geopolitical facts and strategy-motives behind America’s empire, but consider this: Bernie Sanders (the Socialist) Actually Is in a Position to Win. The US (and now the UK) can actually have socialists as the face of the nation and signify a major world politics that could a) transform the economy into sustainability and heal the earth’s fever, b) end the Wall Street free-lunch-parasite and the de facto exemption from the rule of law they enjoy, and c) prosecute cops and end the impunity they enjoy to kill black and brown people. The calculus that the Bernie campaign has performed says that he gets more votes and could actually become president if he doesn’t appear weak and unfit to be the commander in chief. This is how politics in America works, no matter how unsavory it tastes.

The kind of local, grassroots direct action can have the luxury of satisfying the moral demands that the most fierce radicals make on their organizations but things change when you jump up into the sphere of governing. These people apply reasoning far in advance, have a strict playbook on what can be said and done, and are willing to break promises and manipulate their constituents. These are things all politicians must be able to do to retain power. But anyone who has a political intelligence that extends beyond their moral suppositions and understands what it means to have and hold real power and influence across a gigantic region (which has major international ripple effects by being the most powerful nation on earth) has to feel excited at this development. Voting for and openly supporting a candidate, any candidate, is a relatively small thing in the big game of electoral politics and their are good reasons to take a principled stance against voting at all – there is so much more we could all do by organizing locally and engaging in direct action at a distance from the state and/or other sanctioned institutions. This is the kind of mentality that the Socialist Alternative wants to tap into and mobilize for its local battles in a nominally decentralized-yet-networked fashion (another ugly conglomeration of buzz-words, I know). But getting a card carrying Socialist elected to the POTUS isn’t just another battle, this is turning the tide of a war – the enemy being neoliberalism and neo-con hawks who would sooner see half of the population starved, homeless, and unemployed than have structural reforms to strip financiers and other mega-corporations from their aristocratic privilege.

The popular fervor this early in the electoral campaign is unprecedented but we have seen something like this before back in 2008. The only thing that ensures “we don’t get fooled again” will be the continued pressure that a more dispersed populism can enact on an elected Bernie without winding down. This is a kind of extended populism that Sanders encourages: [https://www.reddit.com/r/NeutralPolitics/comments/3jiiwn/bernie_sanders_mass_movements_and_political/]. So criticism and borderline infighting is part of what makes the left the left, as Gayle McGlaughlin put it so well during the Q&A. This is only my contribution to greater debate about how to actually win and achieve a left turn in politics: just support the guy, don’t let the critics obscure the fact that we are *this close* to actually empowering Socialism.

Compare this piece: Sandersphobia and Its Discontents
([http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/21/sandersphobia-and-its-discontents/] – “To be clear, this in no way constitutes a defense of Sanders’s position. Rather it is simply an analysis of the kind of brute force strategic calculation probably necessary for a candidate serious about winning to assemble the required coalition.”)
with this one: Don’t Get Berned Again! The Sanders Bribe
([http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/21/dont-get-berned-again-the-sanders-bribe/] – “So the question must be put. Is it moral to support a candidate to get some more goodies in return for the sacrifice of ever more lives by the US military machine? Or if this moral appeal does not move the Sanders supporters, then the prospect of a new World War with Russia and/or China should give them pause.”)
appearing right next to each other in counterpunch.

So is Bernie’s the kind of Socialism we want or just the illusion of Socialism? If we are still stuck in the revolutionary red-and-black occupy hangover (like the Solidarity group that had the usual table, t-shirts, amd Marxist literature for sale) then nothing will satisfy us. Only a colossal sacking of the White House and subsequent supermassive black hole of a power vacum would fit their idea of good political strategy. These people would never admit it, but having an Socialist president would be a boon to their efforts and advance their agenda as well. Some of us other leftists in the Bay Area though were attracted to this big holy Socialist assembly with the feeling of a collective nation-wide empowerment, only to find that the first order of business was killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But I suspect some of the more impression all in the audience were convinced that Bernie is just more of the same when there is a real opportunity here.

As for the very real worries about imperialism, consider this: could anyone become president by officially stating they want to make America geopolitically weaker? Sanders has already come out for diplomatic solutions in recent history, all that he has not done is denounced the war-machine that he will be at the helm of if he wins. For all of his disastrous policies, Obama should be (*cringes*) applauded for standing up to the warhawks and their five-year-plan-to-take-over-the-world when the Iran deal was hammered through. There, I said it. Nobody could survive Washington by bashing long-time allies on top of that. So now we have the Socialist Sanders looking like a real winner and there are problems with his base support because he is not a perfect pacifist saint? We have every reason to believe that all other candidates would keep up the hawkish imperialism internationally, but since Bernie doesn’t denounce using force he gets the cold-shoulder?

There is nothing preventing us from engaging in direct action, practicing consensus-based organizing, reading Marx and Proudhon, and feeling a bit more optimistic about the future because a Socialist is surging in the polls [http://www.salon.com/2015/09/15/the_big_secret_behind_bernie_sanders_surge_in_the_polls_partner/]. It’s even worth vocalizing – our revolutionary organizations and safe spaces could use a dose of realpolitik. It feels good and there is nothing to be ashamed of in optimism.

After the speeches I went to go see the new Mad Max movie, which (if you haven’t seen it) is a piercing dystopian portrayal of a climate change devastated land with a vital-resource hogging despot controlling the war machine with his bro-cult. It was a perfect contrast: what will it be America, Socialism or Barbasism?

The Forces of Nietzsche vs. the Humanity of Graeber: part II

The second essay of On the Genealogy of Morals begins tellingly as we immediately get a reflection on the act of promising, memory and forgetfulness. Before the topic of guilt, morality, the bite of conscience, and even the blunt trauma of punishment, Nietzsche writes:

“[t]o breed an animal with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? is it not the real problem regarding man? … Forgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression… a little quietness, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, to make room for new things, above all for the nobler functions and functionaries, for regulation foresight, premeditation… that is the purpose of active forgetfulness, which is like a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette: so that it will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present without forgetfulness… Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!” (GM,1).

The ownership of one’s future and the ingrained memory of oneself throughout the course of dynamic time are here the conditions of possibility for the contractual relationships in legal and business matters. The problem pinned down right at the outset of the essay is that of memory and forgetting – how could we have attained such complexity in economics and exchanging goods (as well as continually run into “the individualist” problem in theorizing) without first remaining stable inside of one’s person, one’s name? The problem of humanity in distinction with the rest of the earth animals is how we could come to be seen as the same over time, as individuals, when clearly we undergo changes, learn new tricks, and generally grow and decay in the course of our tumultuous lives. To fashion a memory and a running narrative along with it, closely connected to the body but not necessarily so, is the opening problem that leads us to guilt, bad conscience, and resentment but also the act of promising that brings us into the world of equivocal relationships and indebtedness. In forgetting, Nietzsche allows a moment of tranquility and respite amidst the maze of confusion surrounding business calculations, and the morality of debt. The act of forgetting, active forgetting, is a glimpse into the strong forces emerging from the bounds of the text, joyfully casting off the burden of duty towards one’s past.

What follows is gruesome. From here on, after section one, the second essay of The Genealogy of Morals will take the reader through a long narrative about the emergence of God and feeling of guilt (bad conscience) He brings along with him: a narrative that is mostly a parody of histories of morality that abounded in Nietzsche’s day and which he fought vigorously against. He plays along with the idea for twenty-or-so sections, interjecting every so often to remind us that violence, force, and subjugation are at the root of the order of things. As written above, when tracing a history and giving an account of how we arrived at the present composition of things there is an overwhelming tendency to project the order of the day backwards and export the common, victorious terms of one’s predominant discourse into the past. The contractual relationship viewed from both Nietzsche’s society and ours could not have had an origin in moral sentiments – this notion of reciprocity, the equivalence between two individuals itself is a moral notion and does not persist throughout all times. This would lead us to posit a universal standard across all cultures and societies without much evidence for the inner workings of these people’s or their environments, a standard essentially and undeniably conjoined with immoral and destructive institutions of harm (here the bourgeois, European imperial history and its systemic plundering). The demand to “right” a situation by bringing to a common level the relationship between disputing individuals is no pre-given; it takes a highly active and critical perspective shared by both Nietzsche and Graeber to wade through the axioms and assumptions lingering in the air of one’s culture to provide a counter-narrative.

There is a constant equivocation of origins with violence. Throughout the second essay, legal terminology is dotted with coarse words evoking brutal pain and torture: “it was in this sphere then, the sphere of legal obligations, that the moral conceptual world of “guilt,” “conscience,” “duty,” “sacredness of duty” had its origin: its beginnings were, like the beginnings of everything great on earth, soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time” (GM,6). The moral feelings that bind us to harmony have a perverse underside: the pain and trauma inscribed into the memory of the body directly. The origins of moral concepts have are in this passage legal issues and obligations, but just a few pages later he switches to the creditor/debtor business relationship:

“…the feeling of guilt, of personal obligation, had its origin, as we saw, in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship, that between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor: it was here that one person first encountered another person, that one person first measured himself against another.” (GM,8)

Bear in mind Nietzsche’s ambivalence concerning origins. This is the parody side of the essay, the one which Graeber correctly identifies as playing along with a bourgeois audience only to shock them with the necessary horrors that they would not have acknowledge in their elegant theories, sitting in the quiet rooms of study where they wrote their treatise. Seeking the origin of a phenomenon like morality or debt is only to mislead and confuse the reader, even when done rigorously and scientifically. To do so anyways would neglect an incomprehensible amount of forces vying for their subsistence and growth; the only way to avoid this is to play along with the attempts of others and use their reasoning against them in an ironic distance. The emphasis on violence, destruction, and assault is a ploy to link together those cool, calm, and collected observations into the essence of things with that which they forget: the forces we must tarry and battle with constantly. This excessive memory of secure individuals writing books, the memory that recollects so much of the fine details or holds an idea firmly and dearly throughout the wide length of their lives, is unable to perform the act of forgetting – an active forgetting. Origins reappear constantly in all ages (as we already posited with Nietzsche in part 1) and stick into the memory of its actors. Just consider the endless repetition of nationalist beginnings and their moments of triumph, their grand significance that lives on in the cultural memory. What bloody battles and rampant slaughter they leave out! Nearly every “great” historical moment has an obscene underside with violent undertones that we parse out for the sake of a comfortable narrative. The teaching of this narrative coupled with the mandatory schooling for a nation’s youth means a institutional replication of a memory of origins. The “grim realities of war” line that accompany these histories spotted with dates of wars gloss over the suffering and deep misery they bring to the people caught up in them.

Both Graeber and Nietzsche understand this, but morality is tricky; Graeber employs this unveiling technique in his great-grand historico-anthropological treatise of his own with disdain. The essential goodness of communities is always contrasted with the violence of the state and the violence of cold financial transaction. Nietzsche keeps a extremely acute eye on the subtleties of morality and develops a style that is critical of its inner-workings, all the while maintaining a creativity that is essentially positive and non-judgmental. Tellingly, the next chapter in *Debt after dealing with On the Genealogy of Morals is “A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations”, where a new theory of human relationships (the real question of foundations) and their grounding in humanity is asserted “from scratch”. In the next essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, the religious ascetic life is closely examined and the ascetic emerges not in shambles but transformed into a boiler-room of creativity in a hope for the “man of the future” that will overcome it. To merely denounce violence and take a moral stance against those things that Nietzsche makes abundantly clear that he despises would be to get caught up in the logic of that which plagues him so. Challenging Christianty by moralizing would not escape the moral logic he wishes to get rid of; to escape we cannot simply negate but must launch out from that which we are forced to endure. The vital energies that these abhorrent systems and logics have imbued in us are the places from which to transform ourselves and create something anew.

But the tension between these two writers can be heightened even further: Nietzsche takes shots at the anarchism that Graeber ascribes to for shrinking away from the power implicit in the will, the ever-expanding will that dominates and without remorse. Having come from the common place of brutality behind origins, the divergence is sharp:

“…the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.” (GM,12)

Breaching origins and causes does not bring us back to a baseline communism here; the disruption of origins and the deconstruction of treatise on the nature of economics, morality, and the like are themselves manifestations of a new interpretation taking shape, a new force burgeoning outward. Beneath or behind these origins and statements here lies a contested ground. On the one hand, there is the common decency of people together sharing; what is untouched by laws, contracts, and money; or Graeber’s communal humanity “refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom” (Debt,79). On the other hand, there are bare forces mixing and jockeying in a basically non-human contest for power. Ever the astute historian, Graeber will point to the dominant quality of societies to explain why hierarchies and embattled parties engage in struggle for power: heroic societies of honor and commercial societies with their markets have “slipped” into their respective class relations. The social arrangements are depicted as the cause for leading astray the basic, common, human element. These societies could only ever appear as aberrations – a mistake in the development from “the foundation of our humanity”.

What a great number of mistakes there have been throughout the coarse of humanity! A comprehensive collection of examples of the ways humanity has been corrupted by deviant social organizations would be staggering (a discussion on anti-civilization primitivism will have wait for now) and Graeber’s book does come off in many instances as a very long series of travesties staining a core humanity. One might wonder if man is more commonly conniving in its history and whether we should take Nietzsche’s opposite parody version of man as the “calculating animal” as more sound. Man for Nietzsche is something that must be overcome rather than retrieve from the immoral structures that have laid their “terrible claws” upon it; it is in this sense that what comes after man and the state must be more intense, more affirmative than what history has provided hitherto. But what of man’s pre-history? there pretender origins appears again! Historians surely select there topics according to their wishes and their social training (and so the values of a particular society are drawn out of them), as Nietzsche would agree. But could this not be explained as a force willing itself into the past to triumphantly assert its existence as either the culmination of the story or as its own hidden, untold greatness? How are we to think of pre-historical humans or even the neighboring species of chimpanzees from which we evolved but from the present moment in which we now conduct our research? The thought of “origins of the human” must dominate any look into pre-history considered by anthropology but not, for instance, biology or ecology – for ’human’ is right there in the name (anthro-) and therefore presupposes its common attributes. It becomes hard not to imagine the forces pushing back on these (perhaps non-human or not-yet-human) communities fearing for their survival and the solidarity born out of the difficulties of tribal-level reproduction.

The will expressed in Graeber is clearly a critical spirit actively preventing logics of domination imposing themselves all around it. Actively engaged in political organizing himself, his grand work has anchored many seeking another world (forcefully). A work like this is an extremely potent force, but one that can sink into moralisms that reintroduce an ideal into an otherwise brilliant work of historical anthropology. Take this passage for example:

“Sometimes people’s “abilities” and “needs” are grossly disproportionate. Genuine egalitarian societies are keenly aware of this and tend to develop elaborate safe-guards around the dangers of anyone – say, especially good hunters, in a hunting society – rising too far above themselves…
Communes or egalitarian collectives in the United States often face similar dilemmas, and they have come up with their own safeguards against creeping hierarchy. It’s not that the tendency for communism to slip into hierarchy is inevitable – societies like the Inuit have managed to fend it off for thousands of years – but rather, that one must always guard against it.” (Debt,115-116)

The activity of safeguarding an ideal is something that Graeber seems to be almost explicitly endorsing. Vigilance toward conformity is itself a powerful force: a reactive force that sees the actively dominant force pouring outside itself and quickly cuts it down (to employ Nietzsche-speak). “Keeping things commie” must entail checking the forces of growth that sprout up one at a time; a leveling force is required to counter act the repeated transgression. This seems to have functioned smoothly in a few societies on the earth – a few. The repetition of preserving a social form and actively preventing others from disrupting that form must be thought as just that: an active that is performed over and over again to keep it in place. The only thing that stops us from calling such a conformity oppressive at this point is by alerting people to the “fact” that our very essence as human is being threatened. The force of dogmatism functions in ways beyond that of simply the state, organized religion, the market, racism, and patriarchy. Keeping a lid on deviancy could be described this way, especially when an ideal is attempted to be held in one’s securely hand – trying to escape.

One could argue, on the contrary, that this Nietzschean force-philosophy is merely the product of a deranged man reared in a social environment of austerity and militancy. The question then would be if this reduction of the work to the surrounding society from which it came is not reemploying the idea of origins as a cause, whether the philosophy is over-determined by its time and place. This brings us to one of the big differences in their style: while the social forms determine the type expressions a culture will take in Graeber, a more intensive forces/power play is operating in Nietzsche. One observes the social-historical with more scientific research at his disposal, the other collapses nature and culture into a single plane of cosmic or planetary fluctuations of power. This seems a legitimate decision one must make regarding just how much one’s social structures define the possibilities and limitations of one’s imagination, and how much is dependent upon more physical forces of the earth/cosmos: a decision that cannot be merely spontaneous but must be a matter of degrees.

Moving along with expanding the tension between the two, Nietzsche makes his own attacks on the spirit of reactive safeguarding impulse very obvious:

“The democratic idiosyncrasy which opposes everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin an ugly word for an ugly thing) has permeated the realm of the spirit and disguised itself in the most spiritual forms to such a degree that today it has forced its way, has acquired the right to force its way into the strictest, apparently most objective sciences; indeed, it seems to me to have already taken charge of all physiology and theory of life – to the detriment of life, as goes without saying, since it has robbed it of a fundamental concept, that of activity.” (GM,12)

That hatred of rule in “misarchism”, its gaining entrance to science by acquiring the “right” is something despicable for the way in which it subverts the will to power – life’s penchant for activity. The “essence of life” for Nietzsche is primarily about (he will say later in the same paragraph) the “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions” (GM,12) during its brighter moments. But does the essence of anarchism necessarily run opposite of this active force? Do they not, and Graeber among them, work tirelessly at creating action-events by willing themselves ever forward against monumental odds and fighting oppression with a counter-force of their own – wherever it rears its ugly head? The impossible demands and slogans of direct action participants like “another world is possible” seem to perfectly suit Nietzsche’s criteria of making new interpretations and expanding the vitality of the scope of the imagination. This is undeniably so in the moments of contention with the state and its “terrible claws”, but also in the networking or solidarity building activity that “grows the movement”. What Nietzsche is railing against is not this em-powering work but the use of back-door strategies of obtaining rights and hearings from the big-bad state. When the tide is diminished and activity wanes, the reactive forces that get sucked into the comfortable subordination of the state or the marketplace machine are the type that are so deplorable. Appealing to dominant power’s inner-moral-feelings and accruing concessions is exactly the result of an approach that focuses on “rights” and the contractual relationship. The two writers considered here understand this very well: human rights and reciprocal fairness remain within a logic of ethical conduct that presupposes the religious institutions set up inside of the state/market form. This is the direct action strategy that Graeber endorses and practices: setting up alternative structures to the state/market model and then ignoring the state, standing guard against capital circulating through it (Capitalist-free zones). The difference is that Nietzsche resists the humanism that fits within that state-market-morality form as well, with Graeber retaining a primal humanity he believes exist apart from it. I add the primal to his more explicit humanism, considering the anthropological nature of his investigation into the common threads found in humanity as a whole and the basic congenial relatability he posits in it.

Looking back to Graeber’s Debt with this covert morality of primal humanism in mind, we’ll next come to some of the insightful findings of the ethnographic study and infuse Nietzsche’s emphasis on active forgetting and forces so as to refine Graeber’s anarchism.

The idea of a common communal humanity in baseline communism coursing throughout Debt is an alternative moral foundation to the ’rights’ discourse, which it ruthlessly uproots – particularly in in the chapter “Honor and Degradation: or, on the foundation of contemporary civilization”. Here we get definitions of slavery (“the ultimate form of being ripped from one’s contexts, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.”), and honor (“surplus dignity” p.168). These definitions are contestable. But the real clincher in this chapter that is worth spending the most time on is the discussion of how ancient civilizations and their discourses on legal and religious norms have persisted, coloring our own talk in the vast majority of the public realm. From the heroic societies like Greece and Rome that passed down their terminology and social structures underpinning them, we have received dilemmas that last to this day: property rights and, more generally, the idea of possessing rights at all. The ethical conundrums that rise from this (and these issues, it should be noted, arise in market and war based states) have defined entire subsequent traditions that make up both the convoluted system of laws that are supposed to mete out justice and the roots of patriarchy.

Here again the assertion of the nature of a society – it’s covering-over of communism with some selection of debt logics, equalization, hierarchies, and violence – produces a more-or-less well categorized type of people and set of issues with which the society must struggle to find solutions to. The social forms that overtake the community indicate the moral problems that take shape. Cultures of war and commerce tend to become confused and concerned by the rising indebtedness of large amounts of its population and the powerful individuals inside of it tend to feel threatened by money, taking drastic measures to make it publicly known that there honor is beyond the equivalences brought on by the universal value of money. Graeber argues convincingly (with plenty of footnotes and scientific backing) that the phenomenon of money and debt, together with the organized violence of the state and its warriors, prefigures the emergence of a tradition of ethics/morality found in the academies, the laws, and the religions – traditions whose base of words and ideas have persisted into our present day and have extended around much of the globe from the Mediterranean civilizations (namely, Rome).

In short, as trade began expanding in Greece, money became central to the daily life of the citizens of the cities. Aristocrats and warriors wanted to ensure that their estates were not subject to the equalizing power of money. So as “money introduced a democratization of desire” and everybody needed it for the basic necessities of life (p.190), one’s honor became a measure of how far one could keep themselves from the vile dictates of the marketplace. With the widespread appearance of coinage in a marketplace that seemed to envelope the entire society, making-do without recourse to commerce and trade became a status symbol. Rather than flaunting one’s wealth, the honor of the warrior was measured by how far he could distance himself from wealth in the eyes of his fellow citizens: “money, then, had passed from a measure of honor to a measure of everything that money was not. To suggest that a man’s honor could be bought with money would be a terrible insult -” (p.188). Eliminating risk and making a secure financial future for oneself ran counter to these warriors’ ideals. The extravagance of the wealthy is in stark opposition to “martial honor”: “A warrior’s honor is his willingness to play a game in which he stakes everything. His grandeur is directly proportional to how far he can fall.” (p.189). It was the mass market that sprang up in the Mediterranean cities along the coasts that made the circulation of money more fluid, spreading the equalizing transactions of minted coins for goods that occupied the previous system of credit and debt. The heroic warrior mentality had to morph into the struggle to remain above this ubiquity and to retain the cherished greatness that comes from the risk and victory of battle. This became keeping a tight hold on their house, lording over their property: “This extreme fear of dependency on others’ whims lies at the basis of the Greek obsession with the self-sufficient household.” (p.190). One could say that the warrior’s penchant for conquest and glory (codified by the honor and renown placed on him by his neighbors) was domesticated (quite literally) by money and markets, or even captured by the colonial machine.

Transitioning from Greece to Rome, property becomes the central theme of the complex laws that were drawn up in order to settle disputes in Ancient Rome. These basic concepts of property ownership have since been translated into the more idealistic notions of freedom, liberty, and rights as being “possessed” or “owned” by individuals from a legal-contractual point of view. The Roman Empire it seems most effectively conquered the world through its laws, for “Roman law has come to provide the language and conceptual underpinnings of legal and constitutional orders everywhere.” The hang-up of Roman law, its dilemma that caused difficulty in formulating particular laws was that “[i]n Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems.” Considering, as Graeber does, that property laws are not about people in relation to things but “an understanding or arrangement between people concerning things” (p.198), one can see how slavery fits in so easily in Rome: when the law is based on ownership of things in a society with much commerce and conquest, supposedly equal relationships with people can fall very quickly into master and slave.

“In creating a notion of dominium, then, and this creating the modern principle of absolute private property, what Roman jurists were doing first of all was taking a principle of domestic authority, of absolute power over people, defining some of those people (slaves) as things, and then extending the logic that originally applied to slaves to geese, chariots, barns, jewelry boxes, and so forth – that is, to every other sort of thing the law had to do with.” (p.201)

As the structures of the state and the markets that developed between and inside them became more stable in the empire that was Rome, the laws also became more important in clearly defining when and where someone could fall into slavery and what control the city had over the people. The house-hold became the place where the male citizen could exercise his dominance over everything within it. Graeber notes how ’dominate’ and ’domestic’ have the same root in the Latin ’domus’. It was in Imperial Rome then that property was inscribed in the laws as a *right that one *has, so as to provide the space where the citizen could still lord-over in a world dominated itself by the twin pincers of commercial exchange (coinage, profits, debts, etc.) and outright war.

This is the hidden underside of the noble and ideal notions that circulate (as if they had the currency of a coin) in the discourse of so many communities, cities, and nations to this day: owning one’s freedom, saying “I have rights” is a derivative of Roman property law that codified the transition from master to slave within the empire. To have rights or own liberties also means that one can sell them. We are free to give up our freedom so to speak; given the predominance of markets and the need to make money to stay afloat in necessities of life, this was bound to happen. When freedom takes on the characteristic of property and rights are owned, we presuppose the individual person – as isolated and naturally independent – and sort of commodify it, as if we could take this thing that we own (our freedom) and sell it, or buy someone else’s.

“At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty… to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society…” (p.210)

These concepts have worked their way into our collective consciousness by way of translated texts that could travel along the Roman-built roads and the continuity of the Christain Church afterwards. The ownership of rights and liberties as property of individuals extends from Rome to western Europe to the American colonies to the rhetoric of protesters seeking redress for the pain and torment inflicted by this model of imperial warfare. With increasingly efficient war machinery and the capture of territories by the creation of markets and indebted nations, the lexicon of those who resist is for the most part still colored by the Roman heritage of the colonizers. Demands and ideals for redress of grievances or assertions of autonomy take the form of already having the right to self-determination (at best) or seeking to gain rights and the respect from the greater countries (worse). Graeber will labor on and on about the violence behind this, as if the whole edifice was held together by the brute threat of beating people up or killing them at the bottom of it, or else the violence done by demanding equivalent repayment for one’s monied debts (perhaps with interest). He seems to want to constantly remind us of this in order to draw on our moral affectations, which he has provided a ground for in baseline communism. Appealing to these sentiments is a strategy that invokes a desire to be rid of the entire structure of civilization, states, and money so as to allow for the primitive-communistic allocation of needs to all in our closest proximity (tribe maybe). So, unearthing the origins of our tarnished present turns out to be an exercise in replacing them with new origins: those of humanity.

But what happened to the honor of the Greek warrior obsessed with remaining outside the money system? If we are not to overdetermine the behavior of these warriors by pointing to their society of origin, then we can say that they were a form (albeit a privileged form) of resistance to the logic of money and markets. The reverence for honor that develops in response to the rise of markets and the moral conundrums they produce could be described as a safeguarding of one’s greater force from the flattening out a population of people. The public displays of one’s non-monetary worth in extravagant gift-giving is here reactive to the burgeoning influence of money in their cities and towns; but as to the origins of the warrior ideal itself, we do not receive from Graeber any explanations besides “violence” – which is clearly meant to have shock value and offend the reader’s sensibilities. The state and the forced imposition of symmetry in repayment assume the entirety of the blame for the violence of war and the desire of the honor-bound.

We need not resort to a social-determinism to explain why cultures become violent. On the other hand, we cannot assert that people are violent “by nature”. This simple dichotomy of contingent social forms/natural certainty (nature/nurture or “social construction”/essence) is precisely the quagmire that Nietzsche helps us get over in casting off and poking-fun at the narrative of origins. An origin-story must be retold over and over again to the young student, molding the subject and its soft, sculptable body for it to survive the flow of time. An origin can only ever live on in the memory of a body-politic and the narrative it communicates to itself; to be *forced into remembering the violence of the origin, its obscene counterpart to the glossy coating, does not get us beyond the logic of states, debt, or ’human rights.’ Understanding the forces bearing down on these bodies-politic does. For instance, the harsh mountainous geology of Greece made cities more isolated from each other, its close geographic proximity to the Persian Empire, sticking out into a sea with a history of once established civilizations and favorable wind patterns, and, yes, the rise of coinage and markets all contributed as *forces to a heroic society of war (See John Protevi, ’Geophilosophy: War and Earth’ in *Life War Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences). But to take the origin-search this far would be to analyze so much detail as to take us out of the strictly social realm and into the earth-physical forces that always intermingle with the unique social structures of any given group of people. Nietzsche’s force-philosophy can’t take us their, for the advancement of the sciences had not allowed him to. But dissolving the attachment to origins rhetorically and reminding us to forget them so as to deal with what is in front of us in the near future is something at which Nietzsche was masterful. His diagnoses were restricted to the metaphors and scientific advancement of his time, but he could look past the symbols containing social currency and find other forces at work.

The alternative history of an idea we get from Graeber with the beginnings of human rights discourse in Roman property laws (and the domesticated warrior shrunk into his house, while the Empire expands) serves to reevaluate the entire progressivist terminology. The ideals that get in the way of a true communistic autonomy turn out to be the ones that get used by people supposedly on its side. Demanding rights isn’t a radical alternative to the existing order of things, but merely a demand for access to it: a seat at the table in global dominance. “Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn’t really have them in the first place.” (p.210). But it takes little more than a cover-to-cover reading of Debt to see that the alternative moral framework proposed is a primitive humanism, where periodic debt cancellation was normal in order to stave off deserting citizens and rebellious mobs. This does differ qualitatively from pretty much all of the dead-end strategies and rhetoric of contemporary (pseudo-)resistances to Capitalism, but it merely reverses the progressive faith in the future socialist state that tames Capitalism by growing bigger than it with a harkening back to a time of innocence. Rather than everyone gaining rights and owning a well-defined property/territory that separates them from an exploitative market or state military-force (aka the police), a community “before violence” asserts itself underneath the layers of intrusive social organization. The reversal is similar to Nietzsche’s “reevaluation of all values” but stops short at his search for “the overman” that would go beyond man. Essentially, if we strip down to the base(line) community, we would get to live out the goodness of each other’s company without any aggressiveness (just keep the exceptionally skilled one’s from gaining any distance!).

The progressivist humanism of rights accumulation differs from the primordial humanism of communization, but still remains a humanism. Lacking a nuanced understanding of the potential forces awaiting actualization, strategic maneuvering against something as powerful as the state or the market thought as totalized wholes relies on their negative moralization. We do not get beyond this moral framework (humanism) by singling out the violence of the state and the logic of debt and sticking all of the blame on them. This merely perpetuates the weak position of the pure, human resistor knocking at the great big castle doors of the corrupt state. A counter-power that frees itself from the grip of the state might not have to become conscious of itself as a force until the moment it faces real forceful opposition, but repeating the morality of the oppressors indefinitely will keep the counter-power to a limited scale. Movements must be able to grow and foster the expanding, aggressive impulse that marks a vital body.

While Graeber gives us the opposing ethic of the primal anarchist against the progressivist ethic of a more equitable, inclusive future, Nietzsche simply wouldn’t have made this distinction – he observed in the texts of revolutionaries manifested during his life a hatred of rule and a despising of what he thought to be most essential to the forces of life. Mutual aid, solidarity, and communal living can be incorporated into the Nietzschean affirmation of creative forces unkept by weakness and resentment, but today – I would contend – only as a movement or campaign. People are constantly asking each other about the next move, the next event during the course of struggle. How to keep moving on and whether the group is growing or dying, strengthening or weakening, or waxing or waning (if the previous two are too dramatic) is always being assessed by participants of a campaign or an emerging body with a political agenda.

Graeber perhaps too easily selects his own version of anarchism without picking out precisely what in anarchism remains philosophical-moralistically progressive. On the flip side, his access to vast historical records allows him to build a convincing argument about social-historical change from the (moral) ground up. Science itself, however, has a clearly visible progressivist streak that someone as sensitive to triumphalist narratives like he would do well to look into, that is, regarding an historical telos. The early revolutionary theorists of Europe were heavily influenced by Hegel and the progressive model historical change. A flow of history recorded in the archives and redeployed in massive (usually nationalistic) volumes made for a sentiment that the movement of time was getting better and better, eventually to reach an ideal state, or absence thereof. It is precisely this mixture of metaphysics (in the classic sense of causation and beginning/ends in nature; not physics) and history that Nietzsche could only bear with rage:

“The evolution of a thing, a custom, an organ is this by no means its progressus toward a goal, even less a logical progressus by the shortest route and with the smallest expenditure of force – but a succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions. The form is fluid, but the “meaning” is even more so.” (GM,12)

But Graeber does not take the progressivist stance of his predecessors. He believes his work to be proceeding along lines beyond that of classical anarchism, but doesn’t want to ascribe to anything but anarchism. Anarchism is only but a practice and kind of verb to him and he rejects to serious an affiliation with the classical figureheads of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. Recent work has been done by people like Todd May, Duanne Rousselle, and Saul Newman among others in mixing Nietzschean, post-Nietzschean, or postructuralist philosophy with anarchism in a body of literature provisionally titled “post-anarchism”. Graeber himself has written about the “new anarchists” and I think would benefit from engaging with post-anarchism. But anarchists often have a hard time getting over the French-wave of intellectual celebrity in the later part of the twentieth century and reading some damn Foucault. In fact, much of the general thrust of my argument can gleaned from his essay Nietzsche Genealogy History.

The reason for bringing all of this progressivism up is to remind us of some of the pretenses from which a great deal of the revolutionary action comes from and from which the massive work of anthropology in Debt doesn’t so much remain in line with as reverse. Debt does this by grounding itself and advocating a return to debt jubilee, but such an action of canceling all the debts could only be accomplished by a sovereign whose moral authority is robbed by a baseline communism. Is Graeber using a primitivism morality to try and convince a state authority to relieve the peasants, so that we could do it all all over again? Or is he demonstrating the necessity of a debt cancellation prophetically? I doubt it would be either of these; he is pointing the way towards resistance and I am trying to give it more oomph.

The force that would bring about something new must also forget the past of origins and be strong enough to do so, and perhaps must also be strong enough to create new origins.

Let’s return to Nietzsche. At the culmination of Nietzsche’s parody-narrative of debt and legal contracts as the origin of morals and guilt, we get the most odd twist of logic produced from carrying out a bad thought to its consequences. If debts are at the heart of ethics and business transactions are the first instance of men’s measurement against each other, the valuations found in Christianity and other similarly monotheistic religious doctrines must be too. As tribes advance to greater strength, each time more deeply indebted to their ancestors, to the gods, then finally to the ultimate God of pure credit for bestowing the whole universe (with a more personal touch), the debt becomes the heaviest burden imaginable – an all knowing, all seeing, all powerful whole to complement the hole in one’s soul. An individual’s relationship with such a being could only raise the stakes to epic proportions.

“…suddenly we stand before the paradoxical and horrifying expedient that afforded temporary relief for tormented humanity, that stroke of genius on the part of Christianity: God himself makes payment to himself for the guilt of mankind, God sacrifices himself for the guilt of mankind, God himself makes payment to himself, God as the only being who can redeem man form what has become up redeemable for man himself – the creditor sacrifices himself for his debtor, out of love (can one credit that?) out of love for his debtor!” (GM,21)

It is a truly ridiculous story in which God does all the accounting work for a weak and sinful lot of people. The great God-Creditor sacrifices his son to pay off a debt not to anyone else but to himself. As Graeber repeatedly notes, people actually would sell off their children onto slavery or otherwise to pay off debts, but this is no debtor paying back a loan, it is God paying back himself for someone else’s debts: the ineradicable sin of mortals. One cannot rid oneself of original sin, yet God sent his son to die for us anyways and rid Him (the great Creditor) of His (nonexistent) debts. Hence the precisely effective meme that spreads like a virus amongst people with anything resembling a market: “Jesus died for your sins.” The great creditor in the sky is said to have sacrificed his own son the way a debtor would, but only to pay himself back. All of us sinners remain in debt in essence but are unable to top God’s sacrifice – we remain infinitely in debt.

A good reader will focus on the immediately preceding section 22 and see that this is a fable and not the full picture of debt and morality. This talk of debt and credit has reached its limit and we must come down from heaven to meet the pangs of forces:

“You will have guessed what has really happened here, beneath all this: that the will to self-tormenting, that repressed cruelty of the animal-man made inward and scared back into himself, the creature imprisoned in the “state” so as to be tamed, who invented the bad conscience in order to hurt the more natural vent for this desire to hurt had been blocked – this man of the bad conscience has seized upon the presupposition of religion so as to drive his self-torture to its most gruesome pitch of severity and rigor. Guilt before God: this thought becomes an instrument of torture to him.”

The man of bad conscience that Nietzsche describes is not the debtor but the one kept from its own outward expression and the conquering impulse by training, punishment, fear, and the state. These techniques and formations are what prevent the will to life from its fulfillment; this is what is “really” going on here. The religious garb is a spiritual cover to feelings of internalized oppression:

“All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward – this is what I call the internalization of man: this it was that man first developed what later was called his “soul.”” (GM,16)

Nietzsche’s real is contrasted with Graeber’s real: the forces of internalization that scare and push back against the body vs. the foundations of our humanity in communal affection.

The extent to which a foundational humanism can be swallowed up by the forces of resentment that Nietzsche diagnosed is determined by the way such a humanism is deployed against the reprehensible systems and statues of the state, the pastorate, the corporations, etc. If they only work so as to reinforce the power relationship by taking hold of the moral logic of the master and attempting to use it against power (when it was perfected and deployed as an art of subjugation), then we will only get caught up in the same loops that plague the (human) “rights” discourse. Graeber can see through the contractual rights framework but not the humanism of the pastorate.


So where does this leave us? If something like a jubilee that Graeber suggest at the end of Debt is going to happen, then I think some of the intellectual work done by Nietzsche and his predecessors would be well taken by other anarchists and Debt Strikers. To put the active back into the name activist, those feelings of joy, empowerment, and expansion should take precedence over moralizing and the pining for the communistic purity of human decency. The strategy of appealing to a moral sense of community does indeed have a role to play, but it can only take one so far. In the ancient civilizations that Graeber would have us look back on and learn from, a great deal of people had to flee their homes en mass and, if that was not enough, form militias to sack the capitals to challenge their indebtedness and their banishment:

“The pastoral fringes, the deserts and steppes away from the river valleys, were the places to which displaced, indebted farmers fled. Resistance, in the ancient Middle East, was always less a politics of rebellion than a politics of exodus, of melting away with one’s flocks and families – often before both were taken away. There were always tribal peoples living on the fringes. During good times, they began to take to the cities; in hard times their numbers swelled with refugees – farmers who effectively became Enkidu once again. Then, periodically, they would create their own alliances and sweep back into the cities once again as conquerors.” (Debt, p.183)

We could always try and implore the sovereign to take pity on our destitution, but when they listen almost exclusively to financiers and the businesses that have ascended into their position as big market players, the chance of that working is going to be small. Politicians tend to make decisions based on the pressures surrounding them, the ones that got them into the position they are in and could remove them very soon. If we revert back to the early forms of civilization, then resisting debt would have to eventually take the form of a counter-force of people who feel as if they had no future – as if the only option available to them was too escape. However, to assemble a new body-politic with enough force and vitality to withstand the pressures from the established forced bearing down on it with its debt-inducing machines would be another option that skips the exodus altogether. The only escape would be right into the middle of the political by doing the most political thing one can do in times of crisis: assembling as a collective body in those places where public assembly could still happen. There we would find the force to back up the demand for debt cancellation.

Which isn’t to say that such a force would be explicitly a collection of debtors or take the fulfillment of a particular demand against debt as goal. People have their critiques against the refusal of repayment, and the reciprocal-contractual morality of the market weighs heavily on the people as subjects. Both Nietzsche and Graeber are in agreement here. The new community of people that springs forth from that assembly in all of its force and vivacity is also something whose relevance and power is hard for anyone to disagree on. But, in attempts to make more than merely a semantic point, that body will need to recognize itself as a force to be reckoned with at some point and not just a rekindling of a humanity long lost on a social atmosphere permeated by the immoral, unjust, or otherwise hated prospect of war and financial solvency.

When people are organized (however loosely) together horizontally in these common places, what is produced is no mere static entity but a vibrant body that cannot help itself from expanding and growing large. The emergent body cannot be separated from its force – the power and ability the body has in influencing surrounding forces. A major and perhaps defining feature of such a body is the potential to act out of its own vitality as well as reproduce itself. The attributes of such a body are always context specific, but the immediacy of a rupture in the fabric of power relations is felt throughout all bodies affected.

Running through Nietzsche’s essay we have found that the memory calling upon the individual to keep tabs on oneself and keep account of its contractual affairs with others is not only a laughable way to speak of morality but pernicious. When taken to its extreme, it displays the weakness of the line of reasoning and the weakness it induces in creating the person of “bad conscience” or resentful one who cannot express their emotions outwardly, keeping them harbored so as to let them fester and render one more or less impotent. The priest of the church and the confession booth work on the subjection of of the individual so as to “force” a retreat back inside of itself. In the realistic-forceful take on morality, the symbols of worship and the ideas of “original sin” are merely the surface of a more docile population of self-regulating bodies. This same morality is taken up by Graeber although in a primal humanist manner in his baseline communism. Such a “baseline” suggests that no debt burden or criminal act could fall below it, for we are all humans at the bottom line.

More important than discovering a steady foundation for humanity, a collective political body must actualize itself as a force to rework the financial and political constraints on us as individuals. Casting off the memories burned into us through institutional training and actively forgetting the past rather than bringing us back to them (here as moral foundations) would be mark of strength.

Dodging Vampires

Mark Fisher has done radicals a service by writing this thoughtful piece: Exiting the Vampire Castle.

He begins with a blunt statement and fuses the personal with the political in a way that is honest and engaging. Recounting a horrifying experience with twitter and a cheerful one at a rally headlined by a mainstream leftist political figure, we are introduced to his thought process in an emotional-affective way that is bound to evoke memories of events and heated conversations the reader has more than likely had themselves. The visceral reaction to his main enemy in the piece is fear: the “moralizing left” labels and dismisses its selected opponents in an outrage that he sees as counterproductive to the left’s own goals. Before getting into the analysis and appraisal of ‘the left’, morality, identity politics, and class, I’d first like to note the importance of mixing affects with the greater political game of positioning, aligning, and advising from an academic. He does a good job of making the reader feel the affect permeating the social field – the desperation, disdain, and dejection afflicting anti-capitalists searching for a way to combat this beast. More importantly than tightly argued essay is the proactive or inactive feeling that comes off of it upon reading (when the value of taking action is considered above guiding one on a given path) and is all-too-often ignored in political writing. Being sincere about how another’s words and deeds affect oneself produces an air of openness that is only challenging to negative attitudes. It is easy to get lost in a web of criticisms and forget the more important task of radical organizing and alliance building. This kind of criticism aimed at other anti-capitalists can get sour fast and is probably the least “critical” action one can engage in if done in the spirit of resentment (snide moralizing vs. constructive dialogue).

What Fisher gets right is the harmful and de-spiriting sentiments that comes from the aptly termed ‘moral left’. The twitterstorms that railed against certain figures on the left came off on him as a crowd-sourced-bullying that kept him from participating. I don’t even know what the content of these twitterstorms were about but I believe him when he says the effects were silencing and depressing. An angry outburst can be uplifting and even empowering – when the right target is picked out. And there ain’t nothing wrong with catharsis. It is when the expression reeks of resentiment that the alarm bells should go off. When internalized hatred festers and grows without a means to overcome the obstacle in its way or create something new, we get resentiment. At its worst, resentiment fetishizes its weak position and drags everything around down in a spiral of self-destruction. This is perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from reading Nietzsche.

Though a reclusive philosopher relentlessly attacking every facet of European culture and not strictly a revolutionary anti-capitalist himself, Nietzsche’s emphasis on health, vitality, strength of will has enraptured rebels since his death. His confrontational stance towards morality and all that hinders the growth of the body – its ability to act and achieve ever greater feats – has spurred scholars, youths, artists, and free-thinkers to dig deeper into the forces at work beyond symbolic attachments and fixed identities. One could say he went much farther than the revolutionaries of his time in uprooting the foundational values of colonial empire, remaining a source to draw one’s theoretical arsenal from. Emma Goldman found much to like about Nietzsche, despite his crude misogyny.

In present political games, positionings, and movements, the affective/vital is far too neglected. The general tone and comportment of individuals is not only telling of their own state but a larger collective sentiment based on the limits of their ability to act (as artificial or illusory as those limits may be). As a body not of individuals but masses, forces – ‘the movement’, however defined – the expressions that pop up in large part reflect the environment that conditions it. The ruthless bickering that often passes for legitimate critique is little more a distressed outcry of impotence. It is when this distress loops backward into the body that we get the resentment Nietzsche so despised. The church perfected these techniques of internal repression like the confessional and in so doing created new values that ensnared whole peoples under their control. Good and bad becomes good and evil, whole worlds of pure goodness and pure evil were created that “infinitized” our affections and locked people inside their minds. As Foucault has elucidated in his history of sexuality series, practices, techniques, disciplines, and regiments ingrained in social rearing all accompanied these ideas. The question now becomes: “what are the techniques that instill a biting negativity in us?”

Fisher gives us an image to play with here that sticks out: the Vampires’ Castle. Sucking the life out of its subjects and enslaving them apathetic dejection, the Vampire stalls an active body and weighs it down with imperatives to “break free”, “be yourself”, and “go forth.” The rebelious individual, who believes in freedom and maintains a supposedly self-styled edginess, is the real victim of the Vampire. While never so easily identifiable, Vampires trap bodies inside a soul with purportedly profound critiques meant to help but stifle directed action. Vampires could be media advertisers, reactive critics merely latching onto a project to foreclose on its potential for emancipation, or any other nay-sayers draining the force from a movement. An amalgam of the “priest”, the “academic-pedant”, and the “hipster”, the vampire latches onto what is politically new and intriguing only to tie it up nicely, put a stamp on it, then toss it away. They discourage curiosity infused excitement. Now it seems they have a castle.

The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? The solution was already there – in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Now, here it is …

One can imagine a gothic cathedral towering like a mountain over surrounding neighborhoods… only covered with brightly lit billboards urging subjects to consume. That last bit is a projection of my own gripes (for a funny take on the media parasites blocking collective action that is definitely not resentful, check out Lee Camp’s rant).

Criticism has a very pointed power behind it that can be used positively or negatively. Constructive critique comes off as strategic, whereas negative critique condemns makes people feel awful for even giving it a go. A collaboration of the kind Fisher desires in a Left, based on class unity and solidarity, demands analysis/commentary that carries an affect of provocation *in the right direction*. This positive/negative qualification of critique is a fine line to straddle, but when anti-capitalists are putting each other down from their computer chairs and no current projects are suggested, something is wrong. Of course, there are irresolvable differences of the kind typified in the Communist/Anarchist debate about state power and the ethics of resistance. But these ideological differences are exasperated when rebels handle their dismay over being weak compared to the Neoliberal apologists for Capital by saving their vicious attacks for each other. This anger without a place to go, circling its way back from where it came, prevents alliances against a more powerful foe. One can learn from Foucault’s practice of not engaging in polemics: Polemics, Politics, and Problematization.

How does all of this affective-based criticism vs. the Vampires’ Castle relate to identity politics? The worry is that focusing on identity, establishing a safe ground in one’s identity from which to launch criticism, feeds right into the logic employed by the Vampires’ Castle and we are left with disparate camps clearly marked by race, gender, or privilege fighting with each other (passive-aggressively) instead of taking on the Capitalists in a joint collaboration. Many would argue that the left needs a clear-cut identity and everyone needs to get on board to actually overthrow Capitalism and save us from the terror that is neoliberalism. Much of leftist discourse is relegated to this question of “who are we?” plus “look how awful conservatives are!”. Fisher argues for class as being the rallying cry which will unite and challenge the capitalist system most effectively, but (as I will eventually argue) class can fall into similar problems of identification. Also, the top-down hierarchy of unions, which the working class people traditionally look to for organization, fails to tap into the potential energy of the social field. I understand the benefits that can come from a mix of horizontal and vertical like the kind Fisher found in the assembly kicked off by Owen Jones: this is perhaps an example of the rhizomatic alliance making that would be constructive. Unions, however, for the longest time have subverted popular rage to the benefit of only their membership. Such exclusivity occurs when groups crystallize and encode subjects – again, not necessarily a negative thing. This is the larger issue of identity based organizing and even, simply, discourse.

A black person in America does not have to demonstrate to anyone the effects of living in a racist society and the oppression that they feel on their body. That it is lived and felt is enough to warrant outrage and action. Organizing around this common experience of being harassed, over-policed, under-payed and excluded is of an immediate necessity and a matter of empowerment. The positive benefits of organizing based on race are clear. The same goes for gender and anyone else feeling the effects of the most comprehensive imperial force the planet has yet seen. The only problem as I see it is when identities and the organizations representing those identities get in the way of an even further empowerment in-between these assemblages. Not knowing when to welcome and share resources and strategies is a hindrance. Organization only based on common affects excludes a great swath of people that would like to chip in. Those without that shared feeling still have something to offer. When these people arrive, one slip can tip the delicate scales of a conversation on identity slightly in the wrong direction and have disastrous consequences for personal and collective relationships.

The interaction between identities would ideally pivot around the kinds of help individuals and collectives could offer each other. The principal of mutual aid can be a guiding light here. When a preexisting organization cannot accommodate a different identity than its own, help can still be offered and support can still be given. It is a matter of what we can do for each other. This is diametrically opposed to using one’s status as an assault on another’s. The degree of oppression, the amount of privilege, should be a way to inform each other on what each other can do in the greater struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Checking one’s status (and another’s) is undoubtedly useful in gathering the best from each identity and swiftly casting off the Vampires sucking out our capabilities with the bite of guilt. One can retain their identity in whatever amount of privilege it has or oppression it faces so long as a common enemy (to come along side-by-side with the common affect) to connect with others: the Capitalist, the Imperialist. We now have a shared feeling, the common affect, on one hand, and the mutual support, the common enemy, on the other.

The big problem is not so much the ground-up organizing around identity, but the entrapments of continual privilege discourse.

For more on these issues and some of the dead ends of privilege politics, see The Problem with Privilege by Andrea Smith.

Here the problem is put very well: announcing one’s privilege just doesn’t help. A person reflecting on their status as privileged performs the same logic of the colonist they seek to be rid of. It turns the white person into a confessing subject in front of the brown (in this case) people, encasing them in their identities. To be sure, acknowledging one’s privilege has led to greater and more considerate engagement; then it is time to get on with the project together, or else wander off in reflections of “who am I really?” The privilege discourse helps set the scene and should stop there before it gets into elaborate confessionals. The confessional is the technique that helped Christian empires conquer the Earth and it will continue to conquer-by-division if it is all we have to talk about.

A perfect example of pluralism of identity in politics is found in this study done by James Owens Occupy Wall St.’s Precarious Pluralism. He found that there has been a divide between predominantly white and affluent (that is, secure) activists and poorer people of color in the focus organization. It is the white affluent activists that attempt to build mass protests and build large-scale actions while poorer people organize around single-issue campaigns. Clearly there are narrower issues that affect poor communities much more directly, making it easier to come together around a shared experience of anger. The affluent turn to their more established organizations and networking capabilities to build something big. These are differences observed for the sake of bringing to light the powers and abilities of separate groups rather than set one against the other in combative opposition.

The study was not done randomly and only selected a few groups and projects from New York City, so the results can hardly be universal. But the gist of the report is proactive: with a plurality of identities out there in the observed world, who is doing what? And, how can each compliment the other? Differences in identity can be respected if identity based organizing is a necessity and our contrasting powers can be mutually exchanged. This is something like the spirit of mutual aid and pluralism wedded together.

Another case in point is the Stuart Brand interview that went viral: http://youtu.be/3YR4CseY9pk.

Mark Fisher again nails the ridiculousness of the responses on the left to Brand’s exciting call for a revolution on a mainstream television program. He was passionate, articulate, and matched his suited host word for word beautifully. Yet, what kind of a reaction do we get from leftists? Brand’s “branding” as a misogynist or a power-grabbing leader of a revolution – like he was Lenin or something. A call for a revolution that makes its way into a mainstream audience is something to cherish – but anti-capitalists sure do love to replay old historical narratives. A leak in the spectacle allows people from outside the milieu an opportunity to speak about a politics beyond the canned, lose-lose party politics that is force-fed down our throats by the corporate media. Yeah, he works for MTV. Yeah, he’s a celebrity. Yeah, he’s talking about a revolution. Is this an opportunity to speak openly about radical alternatives to politics-as-usual or drown ourselves in the same old ironical half-critiques? This is an opportunity, so use it wisely. The “not-my-leader” and “rich-white-man privilege” refrains have their time and place and are not catch-alls.


But things get even more interesting. Further on down the piece, Mark Fisher goes after what he terms the “neo-anarchist position”. With some quick psychologizing, neo-anarchists are pegged as “depressed” and “overwhelmingly young”. They do little more than online commenting, protesting, and occupying instead of the tough labor organizing work that “real anarchists” do. Neo-anarchists are without the grit that labor organizers have to get their hands dirty in the mainstream and prefer to be dismissive and ironic. But the weakness of this characterization is obvious: if neo-anarchists aren’t doing the proper work for the coming revolution, it is because they are young and inexperienced. Nobody has taught them how to “organize the prols” like the great figures of the past – “kids these days… Am I right?” As my old anarcho-hippie friend always tells me, there is no institutional memory with radicals and it hurts. Every generation needs to relearn street politics and basic organizing skills while the cops are ten steps ahead each time. Perhaps if unions and other labor organizations had found a way to pass on their wisdom, we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with. I suspect that Fisher is fishing for help from a young and energized audience to breath some life into labor organizations that have done little more than contract after the Reagan/Thatcher assault. He could just only have access to this new anarchist milieu via the internet himself… But I also suspect that the centralized union structure prevents such adaptability. If more community outreach had been sought out instead of clutching to what waning power the unions had, there could at least be a thin network to link generations of activists together.

The problem does not lie with the recently politicized, online youth. In America, the left has done very little to combat neoliberalism in recent history and now is fully consumed by it. Anyone who does not tow the party line is “left” aside if they aren’t going to garner any votes. Outside of party politics, radical labor organizations have done even worse at recruiting young people and staying up on the latest cultural shifts. It is those with knowledge and experience who have the onus to pass that on to the bright-eyed “fuck the system” youngsters. This lack of networks and meshworks has got radicals wondering why they are even identifying with the left at all anymore. I just pulled this essay from an online search and it is at the least tight and coherent: Post-Left Anarchy. I’ve never even read Bob Black, but if alliances are going to be salvaged between these divergences, we’re going to have to do better than just telling kids to read Marx.

My concern and critique of Fisher and Brand is the adherence to a politics that squarely places class in the center of the struggle, and ‘the left’ as the explicit milieu from which to build that class unity upon (moving towards the center, in a strictly visual sense). Instead of looking to rebuild that good-old proletarian army, I think the greater emphasis should be on milieus and a more diffuse blending of the many, diverse identities already in existence. The more interesting and empowering theoretical work comes from going over and beyond class as the standard of analysis. Something new emerges when the right place is taken and the willing players enter. The kind of enjoyment and indisputable positivity of gathering in the pleasure of each other’s company is the common affect that occupy channeled into a potent force. It was spontaneous (with do respect to the early organizers’ choices), had revolutionary potential, and was both local and global. Hell, if you didn’t like the name just call it something else in your city (Occupy Oakland almost switched to ‘Decolonize Oakland’). The greater point I’m trying to make here is the act of commoning in public is what must be fought for rather than who is going to be the revolutionary agent.

Fisher writes: “The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.” What better example of the former do we have recently than the people who came out and occupied their city centers and refused to make demands or take a single message? What stronger force can we reasonably expect in the present/near future than when we retook public space for a short time, and built something so big and so fast that the White House ordered they all be cleared at once out of fear of their own people? Every mayor of an occupied city (that’s all the big ones) was summoned by the Capitol to conference call, and all of the camps were cleared in less than a week. [link]

Unity has never really been my thing. Gathering the masses into a single force inevitably means there will be a representation of the mass to an other. It comes from above rather than as an event. The argument always seems to pivot around who will ‘represent the working class’ and gets consumed by squabbling. Or worse, allegiances solidify and back-stabbing occurs. Even if we got beyond that stage, the NSA would be so quickly on top of this grand union it would be over before it started. The power imbalances are so staggering now and the American military so ruthless in pursuing any dissent that any working class organization seeking a revolution would be rendered impotent or broken up immediately. Neither of these option is the obvious favorite, but nothing else is either.

Fisher gave a great critique of the traps of identity politics but then reintroduces his own familiar one: class. Am I missing something here, or is this not an identity itself? Why make a fuss over identity politics only to harken back to times “when the working class was the working class” and the lines were clearly drawn between proletariat, bourgeoisie, and capitalist?

The thing about milieus is that they are malleable, adaptable, and will not go away – so long as there is any shred of human sociability left in culture. Sure, they aren’t all radical nor impervious to infiltration, but a careful attunement towards milieus accounts for the ebb and flow of social movements. Together with existing networks and alliance making, a powerful machine can be built in the likes of the occupy movement without the central bureaucracy and the threat of corruption. Occupy might not reemerge step for step with how it occurred in late 2011/early 2012, but I believe that the blueprint is there. A bigger, tighter activist network plus a growing population of the poor won’t lay dormant for long.

The performance of gathering in public, of assembling in public space and occupying the commons can happen in a powerful way while simultaneously remaining diffuse. This is an instance of a Deleuzian multiplicity: to be a force of destratification while not losing consistency. Everything linguistic about the Occupy movement can be reworked: the important thing is the common affect of a public assembly, what the spirit (minimally) of the 1st Amendment is all about. It’s all about the Common Notion.

For more on Mark Fisher’s politics, check out his article on Accelerationism. Then check out anarchist without content’s critique of Accelerationsim (how’s that for a Neo-Anarchist blogger’s name).