Tom Townsend: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.
-Metropolitan, 1990 (dir. Whit Stillman)
On Sunday 16th September, Doug Henwood posted this on his facebook page: A “very young anarchist pseudo-celebrity” was charging a speaking fee of $5,000 - not including travel and expenses. He then revealed their identity - Malcolm Harris, 23 year-old senior editor of The New Inquiry. Within four days, Henwood apologised for posting the details as Rachel Rosenfelt, Harris’ TNI boss and Lavin Agency Speakers Bureau employee, demanded a full retraction for the slight upon her name. Harris had also been at the receiving end of a hit-piece from Mark Ames, and both Harris and Rosenfelt were in receipt of a good deal of sympathy from an apparent broad majority of the audience of this debacle. So far, so banal - this seems to be nothing more than a luminary of the left’s old guard hurling vile attacks at one of its young bloods. But what if this is a symptom of something bigger and more problematic, both at the journal Harris and Rosenfelt run, and within the left itself?
First though, let us examine what happened in more detail.
The saga really began with Doug Henwood’s linking of this email:
Here is the info that Rachel Rosenfelt of the The Lavin Agency sent me re: Malcolm Harris the 22 yr old who has been involved in the vanguard of this movement from the beginning. his speaking fees are $5000 plus travel expenses. A little out of our price range! She wouldn't even quote me a price for Charles Ferguson
Begin forwarded message:
From: Rachel Rosenfelt <rrose...@thelavinagency.com>
Date: October 25, 2011 1:04:42 PM PDT
Subject: Malcolm Harris
It was great chatting with you yesterday! Here's the write up on Malcolm Harris:
Malcolm Harris is one of the most talked about young writers today. He has been on the vanguard of the #occupywallstreet movement well before day one of the Zuccotti part encampment began. His social media savvy and tactics flips the equation when it comes to the so-called influence of media on the youth. With Malcolm Harris at the helm, we are witnessing a new media movement where it's the youth that's influencing-- and manipulating-- the mainstream media to enact what has become a global uprising of youth demanding the change that was promised to them in 2008.
He speaks for $5,000, not including travel and accommodations. Let me know if you have any futher questions.
The thread immediately exploded, with a combination of incredulity at the fee quoted, confusion as to who Malcolm Harris actually was, and curiosity as to why this $5,000 fee was actually a problem at all.
This isn’t Henwood’s first encounter with Harris, by the way. Recently Henwood took issue with Harris’s remarks comparing the education system to the prison system, given they took place mid-CTU strike. Additionally, earlier this year Harris made a particularly mature intervention in a dispute between Henwood and David Graeber, tweeting
Henwood gave what is indubitably a reasonable response, with
So, clearly there is no love lost between these two.
By this point, the issue had taken on a life of its own. On Tuesday 18th September, Mark Ames posted an article (http://www.nsfwcorp.com/dispatch/malcolm-harris) at NSFW Corp, where he took Harris as a synecdoche for Occupy, denounced his mercenary approach, and apparently disavowed all anarchists.
That night, Harris was on the defensive, tweeting:
And the next day, Rachel Rosenfelt herself weighed in, commenting on Henwood’s original post:
Not long after, Henwood posted:
I must say that I really regret having circulated the MH speaking fee gossip. I didn't want to drag Rachel Rosenfelt's name through the mud and I don't want people drawing grand conclusions about anarchism either. Sorry. A bad mistake.
This reaction was all quite strange though - four minutes after the Harris tweet quoted above, he also said:
Apparently Harris did actually know about the pitch, at the very least. Given $5,000 was possibly at stake, it would seem remiss if his roommate didn’t at least inform him of that too. Additionally, a PDF of promotional material produced by Lavin about Harris was posted, which has now apparently been deleted. Luckily, Google’s cache is less forgiving, and I can provide both a grainy screenshot of the flyer, and a better screenshot of the text:
NSFW Corp’s Paul Carr wrote a short piece noting all of these inconsistencies, but this ended up being ignored by most of those involved or following the affair in favour of this piece by Jacobin’s founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara in In These Times.
It is easy to see why the latter piece was seized upon - it is a classic in the genre of “excuse a particular misdemeanour by drawing the problem as a general trend and as such cast the incident as an inevitability”. However, Sunkara isn’t wrong that this indeed a part of a general trend - but he limits himself by failing to examine it as a trend that exists more broadly than in just the conduct of certain writers. Rather, it is something that exists more at the level of institutions such as The New Inquiry, and in the way these publications are embedded in the discourse of the left.
As such, I’d now like to examine (using The New Inquiry as a convenient example) what this trend is, how it is not a new thing - having existed for at least a century - and why now, given this long life, it is particularly dangerous.
Leftwing intellectualism and the bourgeois cult of words
The New Inquiry began, in Rachel Rosenfelt’s own words, “as a shared Tumblr blog in 2009”. She goes on to describe the motivation behind it: “We weren’t thinking of it as a magazine back then: it was more of a tactic to establish a community-driven creative outlet that wasn’t available to us in our post-collegiate lives. I can’t speak for either of them, but in my case, pouring my energy into TNI fulfilled my need for intellectual and creative stimulation beyond wage work.” (http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/post/24379332024/an-interview-with-the-new-inquirys-rachel-rosenfelt). All very commendable stuff - after all, any escape from the alienation of wage labour is to be welcomed, isn’t it?
However, the conception of this particular “tactic” was not to last. The following section of this interview is worth quoting in full, as it provides a supremely honest glimpse of what TNI’s evolution has been, and what role it regards itself as playing:
“We were experimenting with the platform for a while before the formative moment struck. I was reading through the archive of Scott McLemee, when I came across a prescient piece he wrote called “After the Last Intellectuals.” This was a few years after the article’s publication, and in the intervening time we had experienced an economic crash, the contraction of the university system, the death of print, and the rise of new media. The institutions that Russell Jacoby describes in his book The Last Intellectuals — mass media, mainstream publishing, the academy, all the places which had come to employ and therefore absorb a category we had once known as the public intellectual — had atrophied across the board. As a result, the would-be academicians, editors, copy writers and advertising cronies who would once have been absorbed into those institutions suddenly constituted a surplus population.
I also realized that the most original thinkers among this new population were never very well-assimilated into cultural institutions to begin with: they weren’t the kind you’d meet at a publishing party But these same people who had managed to carve out an independent platform for their for themselves online, and this sudden change in the paradigm actually put them at a distinct advantage. The crazies, the loose cannons, the pseudonymous hermit, the girl shouting on a blogspot soapbox: these were the new voices on the cutting edge of culture and I made it my business to bring them together.
we began to think of The New Inquiry as more of a movement than a magazine — and we still do. I set out to connect with the already established extra-institutional writers and artists that I most admired, as well as discover strong emerging voices that hadn’t yet found a platform to enable their development. It’s sort of a Bad News Bears montage genesis story: me searching the crevices of New York and the Internet to bring together the rag-tag group of misfits who would eventually coalesce into a real team. The salon we run in New York gives my editors and contributors a space to connect as people rather than bylines and form a real, concrete community, for which there is no substitute.”
Just as the rapacity of global capitalism has created a surplus population of eastern India’s Adivasis, driving them into the arms of the Maoist Naxalite rebellion, so too did it create a surplus population of New York’s upper-middle and upper class humanities graduates. No longer able to slide into the usual pathways of academia, publishing, or academic publishing, the very real prospect of proletarianisation (or at least having to get a job that paid an hourly wage) left Rosenfelt and many others with the terrifying future of never having opportunities beyond dinner parties and similar to demonstrate that they had, in fact, read The Waste Land at university. Even more terrifying, the possibility that the public intellectual might die out entirely was growing increasingly concrete.
However, this was to be solved by the resourcefulness of Rosenfelt (and by others at n+1, and similar journals). She decided to create a virtue out of necessity, noting that the most exciting and original intellectuals all seem to have a liminal existence with regard to the academic and literary establishments. As such, the enforced outsider status of those who founded and contribute to TNI would be nothing less than fertile soil from which to harvest essential and provocative commentary.
This picture of the intellectual does, however, miss something. These model “outsiders” after whom Rosenfelt and co. model themselves are really nothing of the sort; only from within the extremely rarefied space of bourgeois intellectual production do they appear as such. Camille Paglia, Slavoj Žižek or pre-9/11 Christopher Hitchens might appear (or have once appeared) as heretics to Rosenfelt and her fellow New York Review of Books subscribers - but to us plebs, they all still seem to be one indistinguishable blancmange of literary fora and salons. There might be disagreements, some ideas regarded as unfashionable or downright dangerous, but to a greater or lesser extent they all have degrees from Ivy League universities or private liberal arts colleges, they’re all largely white, and they all get commissions from the right magazines. Rosenfelt’s project isn’t so much extra-institutional as an attempt to create another institution that is part of the same networks and circuits of intellectual production. The “crazies” she talks about are inevitably “crazy” within well-trod and easily-defined parameters - you are unlikely to encounter a disciple of Davids Icke or Duke within the pages of TNI. The “community” being created is little more than an appendage of the larger community of the East Coast intellectual elite, the A. O. Scott Crèche For Redundant Pretension.
Their pages, their contributors, and the events they hold drip with this desperation for acceptance. The New York Times ran a fairly nauseating profile of the TNI coterie in November 2011, which, while admittedly somewhat inflicted on them, stinks of entitlement and cargo-cult intellectualism. Take this:
"My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything."
‘We’re reading about “failed revolutions” tonight,’ Ms. Rosenfelt reminded the crowd. She started with a passage from ‘To the Finland Station,’ ‘in which Edmund Wilson couches the inevitable failure of Marxism in Edmund Wilson’s idea of the national and ethnic identity of Marx.’
The room exploded in vaudeville-style hoots.
Continuing around the circle, Ms. Fitzgerald, the would-be magazine writer, read from ‘The Cantos,’ by Ezra Pound. Mr. Osterweil, the frustrated novelist, read from Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle.’ Tim Barker, a junior at Columbia, awkwardly admitted that he, too, had chosen a reading from Debord.
Truly, a group of people willing to read daringly outside the mainstream; and what better food for bullshit than Ezra Pound’s impenetrable Cantos, often regarded as not much more than anti-Semitic obscurantism. Debord’s inevitable appearance is hardly worth mentioning.
Also mentioned in the NYT article is a marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s experimental novel The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, which was held in December 2011. This perhaps represents an apotheosis of TNI’s aestheticisation of radical politics. Their account of the event is here and it is worth examining further to demonstrate more of the extremely problematic qualities of TNI.
They give only a couple of brief nods to the actual political content of this work, such as the mordantly nonsensical observation that “with its openly pro-Communist perspective, [Mao] reads something like C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins in miniature”. Otherwise, there is significantly more excitement at the radicalism posed by the form and style of the work itself - “Mao’s lasting contribution to American literature was the realization that in the United States, riven by inequality, infused with consumerist libido, and saturated in media, such ecstatic bricolage is the art that most resembles lived experience and, therefore, is the artistic method most capable of changing it”. I am sure that we can all see the effect avant-garde writing has had on lived experience - with every novel published that rejects traditional notions of narrative, structures of material oppression crumble before our very eyes.
This isn’t to say the political context of the novel is ignored entirely - they are careful to note archly that “Mao is evidence that whatever chain of misunderstandings led American youth to identify with the Red Guards, what counted was the world-historic unleashing of transformative energy that this imaginary alliance made possible.” Quite what Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers (who were, let us remember, probably the most significant Mao-influenced group America has had) would make of this idea of a “chain of misunderstandings” can only really be left to the imagination.
My favourite paragraph comes at the end:
Mao was a harbinger of this postmodern future but is also its remedy. Against the age of enforced hedonism, Mao affirms the arduousness of artistic and political struggle and the superior value of pleasures harder won. Against the false democracy of consumer-created content, Mao affirms the communization of culture. Against the neutralizing instantaneity of digital consumerism and electoral polling, Mao affirms that which is eternally new.
Always Mao, never Mao. Maybe they could take that as a slogan. It certainly sums up their total aestheticisation of politics.
Oh, and it’s probably worth looking at the photos of the event (sponsored by Google!) itself. You can find them here. My conservative estimate of the average attendee’s age is 43, and needless to say they all look extremely comfortable.
This is not to say all of this is some kind of new problem. The middle-class-and-up romanticist has been found in emancipatory politics for a very long, with the earliest obvious example being Gustave Flaubert’s attitude to the 1848 revolutions. The Youth International Party were perhaps the “best” exponent of this tendency in the 1960s and 1970s, being concerned primarily with smoking pot against the Vietnam War. Their response to the Kent State shootings was to hurl a cream pie at Ohio Governor James Rhodes, seven years later. TNI’s expounding on the liberatory potential of the experimental novel is just the Yippie idea of “pranking the system” dressed in tweed and made even less confrontational.
Nowadays, the intellectual bankruptcy of the Yippies is conventional wisdom. The later business success of Jerry Rubin is time and again dragged up as evidence of the support for the status quo supposedly immanent in the Yippies and the rest of the “New Left”. I would disagree; what demonstrates far better the essentially useless nature of these groups is all of the safely-tenured college professors who “stayed true to the cause”, having actually changed nothing. Barack Obama’s old friend Bill Ayers is a good example - the Weather Underground may smell more radical than the Yippies, but their focus on (literally) explosive spectaculars and such tactically essential actions as busting Timothy Leary out of prison reveal a romantic streak a mile wide. The fact that, in contrast to these professors, Black Panthers like Fred Hampton were murdered in their beds indicates to me that there was a deeper cleavage in the New Left than is now commonly assumed - a cleavage between the serious, and the tourists. In fact, I would go so far as to say that history has been rewritten and this idea of a single New Left is an invention. Two concurrent but separate movements for liberation (one primarily racial/economic, and the other primarily sexual/narcotic) have been conflated for various reasons, such as the primarily rhetorical support they lent each other. This cleavage still exists today, although modulated by the changes in conditions between now and then.
What is different today? The left is a withered corpse compared to the mid-20th century - in the USA back then there was a leftist establishment one could be “New” in comparison to. Those 60s-70s firebrands were born at a time when the CPUSA had 80,000 members, and even within the Democratic Party it was possible to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. McCarthyism did much to smash this, but the contemporary existence of attempts (however imperfect) by the dispossessed to wrest control of their destinies, particularly in China and the Third World, proved an irresistible inspiration. Since then the left has had to contend with the destruction or reversal of these attempts, and a vigorous retrenchment of the power of capital. The “establishment left” in the United States is basically limited to the unions now, who are almost universally in thrall to the Democratic Party.
We also live in very different times economically. In many Western countries, the 1970s were the peak of both the average standard of living and income equality. Today we face a crisis of capitalism on the scale of the Great Depression - and that crisis only ended with the Second World War’s bonfire of value. Such crises are for some reason taken as an opportunity for the left, as if the backdrop of immiseration provides an impetus for action, rather than a millstone around the necks of those it intends to emancipate. It is no coincidence that labour militancy tends to correlate with economic security and a lack of indebtedness. As it is, we are stretched out upon the rack of financial discipline.
An unusual aspect of this crisis is how it has deeply penetrated every strata of society, albeit in different ways. Rosenfelt is not actually wrong to characterise her and her wealthy intellectual ilk as “surplus population”, because they are - as part of this discipline being imposed currently, the academy is suffering a loss of income both from the government and from rich donors. The prolonged death of print media, although largely down to different causes, is destroying most of the old routes into publishing or journalism. As such, the characterisation of TNI or similar as venues of radical thought is entirely misguided. Their real role is twofold - firstly to throw some crumbs at those for whom the very integrity of their ego depends upon being read widely and considered intellectually serious, and secondly (and more importantly!) to provide a more substantial base of experience than disposable internships for those who want to enter academia, publishing, PR and so on. The fact that all these people feel dispossessed from their rightful social roles makes the glossy radicalism of TNI come naturally - just recall the NYT profile:
“This is my fantasy: a room full of books, people talking about books — it smells like books,” explained Ms. Chapman, the journal’s literary editor. “It’s the literary community that I had read about when I was younger. It’s Moveable Feast-type stuff.”
There is no actually radical content here, it is play-acting as intellectuals by children raised on Wes Anderson movies and Whole Foods Organic Weed. Citing the arch-poseur Hemingway simply underlines this, seeing as he was doing nothing much different. That said, I doubt they are likely to ever be quite so inspired by For Whom The Bell Tolls.
This picture of TNI as mostly a springboard to PR success or similar is not just rhetoric based on resentment. TNI alumni brazenly move in that direction: Jennifer Bernstein, one of the three founders, is now working for Seattle marketing company 10 Bellevue. Publicist and TNI contributor Lauren Cerand lists them as one of her clients (http://laurencerand.com/projects/) - along with private equity firm Level Equity. Malcolm Harris peddles Malcolm Gladwell-esque cryptocapitalist nonsense about the communal future with Shareable, and paints himself as a PR genius for convincing the world in 2011 that Radiohead were going to play at Occupy Wall Street (not even an original idea - several months earlier in London the anonymous Deterritorial Support Group convinced enough people that Slavoj Žižek would make a joint appearance with Lady Gaga at Birkbeck that he had to issue a public denial).
By way of setting the stage for the next part, it is worth noting again the kind of background all these people come from. Malcolm Harris is from Palo Alto (median property value - $1.3m), and went to Palo Alto High School, which is something of a rarity in the United States, being a public school with an 11:1 pupil-teacher ratio. This is worth bearing in mind when he says things like this about the CTU strike:
Rachel Rosenfelt went to the private Columbia-affiliated Barnard College. Atossa Abrahamian was apparently educated as some kind of haute-bourgeois throwback, first being educated in Geneva and then attending Columbia University. Sarah Leonard went to Columbia too. My countrywoman Laurie Penny went to private boarding school Brighton College (she defensively notes in her TNI biography that she had a scholarship), and then went to Wadham College of Oxford University. Elizabeth Greenwood went to Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, MA (not quite beating Harris in the public school pupil-teacher ratio anomaly stakes, with a mere 16.6:1), then the (private, $21,000/year) University of San Francisco, and finally took an MFA at Columbia. This isn’t a cherry-picked selection, I am genuinely just listing all of the details that I could find about people listed here: http://thenewinquiry.com/about/, until I got too nauseated to continue. This isn’t a problem with having a wealthy background or going to an expensive school per se - the problem comes when this is the only background from which your contributors, particularly the less-established, originate. The idea that these publications are just daycare for bourgeois adult babies becomes more compelling by the moment.
So why is this important for the next section? I believe that the actual problem, as opposed to the trend, does not necessarily lie with these people. Their upbringings tell the story: they are raised in environments riddled with venality and the ethic of accumulation, and they were inculcated with very high expectations for their own lives and careers. No wonder they’re monetising the undying crap out of their disaffection! It’s how they were raised! They were bred to make money and claw their way up poles greasier than any of us could imagine! And none of this is hidden! I just looked up these people on Facebook!
No, the real problem lies in the acquiescence of the rest of the left when confronted with this, and the relative ease that these people can ride off the real work of others. People who are involved in making actual contributions to radical movements will, for some reason, jump at the chance to have their material appear in TNI or n+1 or whatever, and as such lend them a measure of legitimacy. Never mind that the actual political positions that the editorial staffs of these publications hold are usually vapid or incoherent or both - when they are able to hold events that attract figures with a little more gravity (like Doug Henwood or David Graeber), they become embedded in the production of the discourse that shapes where the left is going. The importance of these publications distorts priorities and promotes elitism.
I believe there are good reasons for why this happens. This acceptance isn’t the result of a failure of personal responsibility, or the result of some kind of concerted confidence trick by these people. I think there are solid theoretical reasons in the current mode of leftist thinking that lead us to allowing all of this.
Why we permit the gentrification of the left
The fundamental difference between the dominant thinking in radical practice today, and the dominant thinking in radical practice half a century ago is the way they imagine the defeat of capitalism. The old leftism had primarily a negative approach - that is, the orientation was towards negating what currently existed. Capitalism was a thing that could be fought more or less on its own terms, you could win terrain (geographical or otherwise), defend it, and take more. The strategic and tactical focus was on what would do most to lead to a defeat of capitalist forces, in whatever form they took - whether a colonial government or a greedy factory owner. This model of conflict is at its most literal in, say, a guerilla war, but it applies to all possible terrains of class struggle. Concessions by capital and established strongholds of working class power, even if reformist or imperfect, were to be leveraged as much as they could towards a further defeat of capitalism.
Today is different. The talk is of “building” against capitalism. The Occupy movement is a good example: the superficial appearance it has of an attempt to negate certain logics of capital within a certain area is not what is actually occuring - more accurately Occupy is attempting to build a non-capitalist strata on top of a capitalist substrate, never really building a coherent challenge to capitalism. Witness the general respect for property law, the assiduous attempts to obtain permits, the regular appeals to constitutional principles and so on. These seem to go beyond just a tactical move - the priority is the camp’s longevity, above anything else.
This emphasis on building non-capitalist refuges is found elsewhere in radical practice too. Activist squatting is popular on the anarchist left, with the act of creating a zone of capitalist exclusion again made the priority above assessing what would be most useful to work towards their stated political aims, and doing that. Additionally, the model for a large section of the left for a long time has been the EZLN in Chiapas, Mexico. They are an excellent example of this trend: somehow the communisation of a place on (literal and figurative) terrain where capital is weak provides a model for resistance elsewhere, despite the fact that the EZLN is basically stagnant, relatively irrelevant to the rest of the Latin American left, and unable to spread any further. The town of Marinaleda in Spain has also recently become a fashionable example to hold up in Britain, with music journalist and pop-theorist Dan Hancox recently writing a book on the place. Ignored are the facts that Marinaleda’s population is stagnant, and that it is fortunately situated somewhere where profitable market gardening is possible. I’m sure it’s a lovely place to live, and it might even provide some useful ideas as to what kind of things we should build once the left holds a measure of hegemony - but that’s the easy part. It teaches us very little about how to achieve that hegemony in the first place.
There is also a more dangerous side to all of this. It seems that for many on the left, the abandonment of a negative approach to anti-capitalism has led all the way over to the view that the establishment of a post-capitalism will come as some kind of “natural” outgrowth of capitalist processes, or the development of processes that exist somehow beneath capitalism.
We can return to The New Inquiry for an example of this thinking: Nandita Badami’s September 20th article Thinking Objectively epitomises many of its worst aspects. It is an analysis of informal marketplaces in India, using the example of Mumbai’s chor bazaar - literally “market of stolen goods”, located next to a scrapyard and selling all manner of reused and repurposed objects. She works from the premise that capitalism “dreams, everywhere, of a society where everything is regulated, stocked, accounted for, and arranged – preferably mechanically”. As such, these marketplaces with their superficially disorganised stalls are “rich fields of alternate relationships between people and things that challenge dominant paradigms of capitalism and the dominant value scheme”. Because these people exist outside the parameters of capitalism that she creates, by not being employed in the “formal economy” of regimented industrial labour, somehow their reuse and exchange of otherwise waste objects becomes something external to the wider circuits of capitalism. She presents this as a kind of external system, a layer beneath capitalism that exists to absorb surplus people and objects. The problems are obvious: the situation these people are in is entirely down to capitalist processes, and the commodities they exchange, whether “waste” or not, were still produced through capitalist processes. Most of all, the dichotomy of “noncapitalist” “beautiful chaos” and capitalist formality is false: these markets are if anything more organised than the factory space, being that every stallholder will know what items they have in stock, how many, where they are, what they obtained them for, and what they think they can get for them. Contrast this to the computerised systems of stock control and labour regimentation in the factory: these exist as a desperate valve on the volcano of production that comes with social labour; the neat organisation is a rational veil on the insanity beneath.
Effectively, the traditionally Marxist aspirations of a fight with capitalism on “equal” terms (ie, as a system that can be destroyed by a strong proletariat) have been replaced by a different aim: because capitalism is now the limitless totality of the present, the future lies in things generated from “within”, where capital’s own processes break down and produce something different. Hence the idea that this crisis provides a serious opportunity: somehow the educational demonstration of capitalist irrationality and excess combined with a general sense of “weakening” capital will mean that, despite our immiseration, we will rise up and create something better.
This simply will not work. As mentioned above, the labour militancy and revolutionary ferment of the 1960s and 1970s was at the same time as world-historic levels of income equality. The Black Panthers were established against a backdrop of a burgeoning skilled black working class and a concerted effort against school segregation and redlining. As the drug war picked up through the 1980s and deindustrialisation began in earnest, this compounded hugely the effect of the FBI’s efforts against black militancy. The focus on sites of resistance producing a radical rupture is bizarre when if anything, the left is fighting a desperate rear-guard action as the last social-democratic institutions and structures are pulled apart.
This is not to say that social-democratic or reformist institutions are any real alternative - but it is lunacy to ignore the very real role they play in providing breathing space for genuine revolutionary alternatives. The effective end of social housing in the UK has massively changed the political landscape, as millions become beholden to mortgage payments. How could anyone imagine an event like the wildcat general strike of May 1968 in a context of endemic indebtedness?
Take the Strike Debt movement that has grown out of Occupy Wall Street. Far from attacking any of the underlying logic of today’s debt, or attempting to create a coherent strategy to assault what generates this debt in the first place, it merely provides a guide on how to “resist” this debt - as if this is much of an option for anyone with a family or without much housing security. They claim their aims are more radical - the creation of “the debtor” as a political subject, and a project to “create the conditions for widespread debt refusal” (http://www.salon.com/topic/strike_debt/), but this is no different to what I have described above, except the location is economic rather than physical. There is no resistance here except the local. Painting the debtor as the ultimate damned of the earth ignores the fact that in order to get in that debt, you need access to credit in the first place. Their ultimate proposal is a Jubilee: a forgiveness of all debt. Not a bad thing at all, but again, nowhere is the real logic of the capitalist system criticised - just a particular aspect of the financialised form dominant today. Worth noting too is what would be the worst possible outcome of this - a mass debt refusal leading to a vast transfer of property to financial institutions - after all, wasn’t the subprime crash merely an involuntary mass debt refusal? We could even see the reintroduction of debtors’ prison or indentured labour.
These are things that could be coped with if the campaign was situated within a broader movement that had developed a coherent political critique, and more importantly a coherent political practice. But it simply isn’t, instead being part of a melange of disparate and disorganised ideas and movements.
This is why it is relevant to our friends at TNI. Without a coherent movement against capitalism, rather than this weak heterogeneous movement for an alternative, people like this are able to operate simultaneously as (soi-disant) leaders of the movement - at least intellectually - and also as radical entrepreneurs out to make virtuous stacks of cash. The logic of capitalism remains unchallenged - it is ignored or escaped instead.
Hence the confused reaction of many to the outrage from some at Malcolm Harris’s speaking fee. It is somehow too much, or irrelevant, to expect activists to operate on a different logic or different ethical standard to the system as a whole, that people don’t need to be “saints”. I believe we should reject this entirely. There is nothing wrong with holding yourself and others to a higher standard, both due to the sheer corrupting effect of accepting the existing capitalist ethic, and as a matter of maintaining solidarity with the people you are fighting for.
More importantly, organisations and institutions should be held to that higher standard. This is because that is where the corrupting influence becomes most pernicious. A “site of resistance” should not be some passive physical location, but something much more active, reactive, and militant. The activities carried out should be universally oriented to an ultimate political aim (such as the destruction of capitalism), and it should be possible to demonstrate how a particular activity moves towards this. Herein lies my problem with what were essentially soup kitchens that Occupy sites the world over set up: feeding the homeless is a laudable aim, but you are not seizing your chance properly here if you’re just happy with that. The free breakfast program set up by the Black Panthers was not at all just because children in the ghetto were going hungry - it also included a comprehensive program of political education, it was based on the principle that militancy and resistance is much easier if you aren’t hungry, and it also massively increased the passive support they received from a neighbourhood’s population (were we only to live in a world where free breakfasts for children had just been defunded in a country like, let’s say, the UK, and so a prime opportunity to step in had just been created!). Without these, such a thing is just a noble drain on resources, time, and energy.
These salons and journals are nothing more than a less defensible and more bourgeois version of these soup kitchens; they betray a lethal lack of clarity and focus. We must radically reorient our practice, and get much more serious
What kind of concrete organisational form could this reorientation take?
A different approach to a radical movement
This is just one possibility among many. Radicals now seem entirely undogmatic theoretically - treating theorists and ideas like a spice rack - a pinch of Marx here, a spoonful of Adorno there - and yet are by and large entirely dogmatic organisationally. Any kind of hierarchy is anathema, consensus is king, and questioning this often leads very quickly to accusations of being some kind of Leninist dinosaur. I wish to turn this on its head: we should be dogmatic theoretically, in that we must have a well-defined ultimate aim that we agree upon (such as the destruction of capitalism and what that entails) for broadly similar reasons, and we should be undogmatic organisationally, taking “what works” as our guiding principle.
First, if your immediate instinct is to start a radical journal online, or something similar, don’t. Just don’t bother. You will have plenty of opportunities to write, and if you’re actually effective people will want to listen. There are far more important structures to create, ones which don’t simply provide placeholders for adjunct professorships or PR internships aimed at wealthy disaffected graduates of elite schools. You need to build structures that can support the participation of any potential revolutionary - regardless of age, wealth, sex, marital or family status, or anything else.
As such, the main support structures we see today on the left are pretty useless. On the one hand we the tendency epitomised by radical squats, which are fine if you’re young, single, and don’t mind an inherently insecure housing situation. On the other we have dinosaurs of vanguardism such as the ISO, where getting a full-time paid role is both difficult, as people tend never to let go of them, and also depends mostly on how well-regarded you are by the leadership. With this strict full-time/volunteer division, there also often ends up being a good deal of inflexibility, both organisationally and theoretically.
However, I believe there is some good to be extracted from the idea of a professional vanguard. The essential idea of a group of people who agree politically contributing money to pay for people to dedicate time to working to those political ends is not a bad one. Most criticisms of vanguardism depend more on the isolated and elitist nature of the full-time professional revolutionary, rather than the idea of professionalism itself.
A better way to combat this problem might be to make movement within hierarchies more fluid (that is, people can move up or down them easily, and moving down should not be regarded as a problem), and also to make the division between volunteer and professional more fluid. There are conditions now that perhaps make the latter easier - far more than in the past, the potential base for a movement of this sort is underemployed, whether by being employed on a temporary basis or in a part-time job. As such, employing members on a temporary or part-time basis is more viable. Training and gaining valuable experience is easier, a wider range of people can have input in how the organisation works, and people will have a better idea of what their strengths are if things start to get really serious.
This is really what the main problem is - if you are aiming to organise for revolution, then you need to make sure your organisation can possibly lead there, and if it does, that it can cope. Reliance on spontaneity is a complete dead-end, an uprising that has been organised and planned is no less “authentic” than one that arises seemingly at random - remember Occupy was planned, sort of, by Adbusters of all groups. Imagine what an organisation with an actually coherent ultimate aim and that is serious about its aims could do.This is a long way from smug floridity in literary fora, and the quicker we leave that behind, the better.
All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality, they are not so powerful. From a long-term point of view, it is not the reactionaries but the people who are powerful.
-Mao Zedong, from an interview with Anna Louise Strong, 1946