Reform or Revolution: Do we need a Third Party?

According to Marxist-Leninists, only direct action and hostile revolution from below can accomplish the goals of socialism (defined according to orthodox ML terms). I disregard this tactical strategy as feasible in America. Anyone who wants real change should realize that electoral politics and seizing power this way is the main way to achieve change outside of real grassroots mobilization like strike action.

But the real “reformist” debate is whether America needs a third party or not. And there is a good case to be made that America, despite the upsurge of support for progressive takeover of the Democratic Party, needs long-term to completely reform the two party system. This is because it is simply too difficult to reform the Democratic Party, with its superdelegates and ties to corporate PACs, to be reformed in a meaningful way. I believe it can be done- the Progressive Caucus is already the largest caucus in the Democratic Party. But real meaningful change in policy can only occur by completely redefining the policies of the entire party, or by taking that momentum and forming a Third Party.

There will come a time in American electoral politics where the decision to support a progressive/socialist electoral party will come. It may be 10 years, it may be 20 years, but it will come. For now, I believe the right strategy is hostile takeover of the Democratic Party. Long-term, I believe it is third party formation, regardless of potential splits of the liberal vote. Sea changes are occurring in people’s viewpoints and demographics that I believe will eventually result in complete electoral reform and the transformation of America’s electoral politics into a true parliamentary democracy with well over 3 major parties. The sooner this starts to happen the better.

Too much attention I believe is given to the tactics debate on the Left. At the end of the day, whether you as a progressive voted for the “lesser of two evils” against Trump or voted third party in 2016, or even didn’t vote out of disgust, doesn’t mean much to me, but its important that the discourse started in the first place. Far from personalizing the politics of it, one should recognize that members of the Left of all stripes were divided on this difficult question. Now, our long-term horizon in the rapidly changing face of American politics post-Bernie Sanders and post-Trump should accommodate new developments, particularly when it comes to strategic support of democratic socialist candidates.

If you count yourself as a radical Leftist, let me address you as someone who shares your commitments theoretically and politically. One should realize the historical window of opportunity that is taking place politically and tactically support democratic socialist candidates even if you believe their politics are not radical enough. This is because I believe too many people in my generation have quickly become enamored with socialism through disillusion with our system and in haste have disregarded the real possibilities for bettering people’s lives through electoral politics. A true “revolution” is under way that can only be described as unprecedented in the US: our backwards and reactionary politics are finally being challenged in a genuine movement for change. From foreign policy to universal healthcare and education, these polices are desperately needed now, not in a hypothetical future under a revolutionary government.

However, to members of the DSA and progressive movement, I believe the radical Left needs to be given greater a voice in the movement when it comes to policy. It is true that historically the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. There is a reason to be skeptical of electoral politics when there is no public financing of elections. The policy platform of the DSA and other democratic socialist groups needs to be pushed even further left to accommodate policies such as complete redress of imperialism and the scaling back of America’s military by a huge margin. Part of the reason why no social programs like Medicare for All are able to be pursued right now is that the government’s finances are apportioned to extremely wasteful military spending.

https://www.dsausa.org/where_we_stand#global

The DSA, while it generally has a very progressive agenda, still uses vague language like “major cuts in military spending” along with rhetoric around imperialism, I have yet to find a policy document that gives a number. The fear is that using a number like this will either pidgeonhole the party into a definite number or expose them to attacks by members of the opposite side. Well, I for one, and many Americans, want a number. What about 50%? 60%? Any number you can possibly think of that is “too high” may surprise you given the exorbitant historical amount of waste in the DoD.

The domestic priorities of an organization like the DSA I believe are mostly right on the mark and have wide popular support. Things like Medicare for All are outlined in almost painstaking detail in terms of facts and figures. However, when it comes to how much we will shrink the military budget, this seems to be the “unconscious” of the democratic socialist movement. Addressing something that directly, as something that can actually be changed instead of theoretical terms like “imperialism” seem to be almost impossible. Using words like “climate change” and “transitioning to a green energy economy” seem to be equally likely nowadays, but using words like “getting rid of oil subsidies” seem to be too “wonky”. Follow the money, always follow the money.

I believe a broad combination of strategies will eventually transition the US into a modern welfare state that is on par with the rest of the developed world. We should realize the immense struggle that is ahead of us relative to much of Europe. We should also realize that there are challenges that have only just begun: the climate crisis being one of them. To those of you that currently reflexively vote Democrat, I challenge you to keep an open mind in the years ahead. “The times they are a changin’ “

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The commodification of emotion and its paradoxical authenticity: An anime review

Music is the most dangerous thing on the planet. As Zizek has recognized, music can be a powerful ideological tool to mobilize armies, to inspire patriotism, but also to give hope to those who need it. It often helps people through horrible periods in their life.

This is the ending title song for the anime Attack on Titan, an “apocalyptic” show with genuine pathos and exciting plot and story development, one of the most popular anime television shows in the world that somewhat transcends the genre and approaches the level of, say, a Hiyao Miyazaki movie. And yet, it is vaguely reminiscent of corny monster movies. But there is something genuinely uncanny and unnerving about seeing building-sized cannibalistic humanoids devour the helpless population of a rural society armed only with cannons and primitive c. 18th century devices. Set it what looks like rural Bavaria or Germany, the show makes one wonder “what would I do in a situation where I fight or die? Would it take the easy path or fight for my life? Would I be strong enough?” There are some real dark turns in this show, its definitely for children.

http://www.wisecrack.co/shows/wisecrackedition/philosophy-of-attack-on-titan/

The link above explains how Attack on Titan may explore, directly or indirectly, philosophical themes from controversial Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt, leading some to claim the show as veiled endorsement of Japanese nationalism. I believe this is a misinterpretation. What the authors of the show seeks to address are partly themes of totalitarianism and how in dire situations it may be necessary, or how a created common enemy can unite a people. I also believe the show is simply about war and death.

A world war, a war of truly total proportions, is an existential threat that requires one to choose sides, and ultimately fight for one’s life and those of others. It is through an analysis of how power intersects with ordinary people’s decisions where we realize that people who do things that are evil felt as if they had no choice, even if they had one.

This is where commodification and authenticity come into play. The primary reference here, aside from Adorno and Heidegger, is oddly The Banality of Evil. Capitalism, in all its insidious, spreads its tentacles over the globe and creates a consumer culture that is not only totalizing- it is addicting. Video game addiction. Netflix binging. Don’t tell me if you are a leftist you haven’t done it.

And why bother moralizing? It’s fun! Pieces of art that are genuinely moving, even if they are engineered by a group of smart producers and marketers, are still moving. And that’s the problem. The evils of the market are kept in place ideologically by things that make us feel good. Big Macs. Coca-Cola. Chips.

In moderation, these are things that make us feel good. And they remain problematic because, in my view, these things eventually can consume us. Consumption-based society creates a society of couch potatoes, endless consumption. It is essentially the problematic of Infinite Jest.

When we long for a simpler time, in movies, in music, we forget that elements of mass culture and consumer society improves living standards around the world. But a total takeover is ultimately catastrophic to the psychic well-being of humanity.

We need to find a balance. A Middle Way. In our own habits and collectively.

If you are a Marxist: its OK if Hollywood made you cry. It’s OK if you like Coca-Cola. But ultimately, we should embark on something that looks less like the Jetsons and looks more like…well, the way things already are (to a certain extent).

High speed rail isn’t the answer to all of our problems. But modern convenience is a luxury that many would kill for.

It’s scary to think about, but in 50 years we will look back nostalgically on the temperature. Conservation is fundamentally…conservative. We have a right to feel a sense of entitlement of preserving that forest by your house, even the air we breathe.

The heroic struggle that is before us is principally an transformative one: it is a battle against ourselves. Can we create a new way of life that saves us and the planet? Let us continue to be inspired by the art and fantasy of the age. We can continue to daydream about being our favorite heroes: perhaps that is how we will get through the coming years, and have the courage to make the tough decisions.

Difference and Repetition: John Coltrane, modal music, and the value of musical preservation

Skip in the video to 1:15, and a 40s-style big band instrumental instantly transforms into a recognizable melody you may know from “Impressions” by John Coltrane. What is most fascinating is that the lineage of this tune first passed from Miles Davis’ copying of the chord progression of the middle section of the song, and only later did Davis’ former saxophonist partially copy the melody of “Pavanne” and speed it up. In this way, one of the most recognizable standards in jazz is not only a poetic mimesis or “hard bop” version of a modal piece, but the entire basis for the modal genre is based on a simple unassuming big band tune. In this way, one realizes that, to use Deleuzian language, from an existing strata, there are deterritorializations that moves “forwards and backwards at once” as Coltrane famously said.

This is just more evidence that the cliche that “all good music is stolen” may in actuality have a huge amount of truth. There is no such thing as pure innovation, and things that ultimately seem like “gifts” from a divine or deep source, but a product simply of culture.

But what gives “Impressions” that special something, could that be the spark of something else? Maybe we will never know.

I seem to have a strange attraction to music that is lushly chordal, and sometimes the simpler and more melancholy the better. To me, the real pioneers of modal music were the ancient makers of polyphonic chant, Leonin and Perotin, in the late 1100’s!

 

 

Perhaps the most profound and numinous of all things in the world of music is the simple chord that resonates and echoes into an empty chamber. What jazz did was find the soul in the groove, in the rhythm, but perhaps modal jazz was not an innovation, but rather a reterritorialization or appropriation of the Western canon, or the harmonic tradition itself. And yes, this song by Perotin is in Dorian, just like Impressions. There is something about the Dorian mode itself, beyond what any frail human can do with it. What Coltrane did with impressions was a combination of speed, groove, and ambiance. But the essentials of beauty in music come from harmony, the realm of the sacred, while the realm of rhythm has always (in the Western tradition) been the realm of the secular. Renaissance music was essentially a combination of the bard’s dance and sacred themes, and the most ancient precursors to the jazz quartet was the roving band of minstrels (coupled with the Gospel choir, a fusion of the African dance and, again, the harmonic Western tradition).

Perhaps Miles Davis and Coltrane went back to the hymnals for inspiration? It is clear that Coltrane found new spiritual territory on A Love Supreme, with its repetitive meditative themes. But here Coltrane found an entirely new territory- the Orient, the East, which has its own sacred trance-like tradition. In jazz, inspired creativity of several disparate cultures became one. Music that touches the ineffable or sacred, despite its “all too human” origins, if it reaches excellence in the individual bodies of humans who must perform it, all of the sudden “transcends” its station. The voices of choir members suddenly are “transubstantiated”. The transcendental dimension, far from being a Platonic dimension that can be accessed by Reason, or a divine realm accessed by faith or divine providence, is simply immanently transformed into something beautiful, through the process of differentiating and being faithful to what can only be called tradition.

What is truly incredible is the remarkable human process of cultural capture and dissemination, of transmission itself. The music of the world, now that we are becoming globalized, is now being cataloged, preserved, and a new generation of musicologists born. It is our shared human heritage. Far from something that only makes culture into a museum, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, along with regular members of society, take this shared wealth and keep it for future generations to enjoy. If it is divorced from its original context, we cannot continue to daydream and wax nostalgically about a dying past: we must do the slow and steady work of salvaging, of bringing up diamonds from the rough. So when Sonny Rollins said, when the latest John Coltrane “Lost Album” was unearthed, “its like finding a new room in the Great Pyramids”, he is not far from the truth. Rollins understands that Coltrane is part of America’s musical heritage, part of us. Without our history, our all too human, but our fascinating, noble, and beautiful history, we are nothing, we sacrifice the future.

 

Tales from Iceland: the savageness of nature

Finally the blog will live up to its name!

In my travels I frequently end up talking to tour guides and paying very close attention to what they say. I had an excellent guide through the Golden Circle (a circle of three important stops outside Reykjavik- Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall) whom I had an excellent conversation with. The guy’s name is Elvar (sic) on the Grayline Iceland Golden Circle classic tour. Great guy- Elvar if you are out there, you’re a good bloke! He had an extensive knowledge of Icelandic folklore and we had a great conversation about Icelandic culture, history, and folklore. Elvar expertly woves tales of the Ejill saga with the history of the drowning pool at Thingvellir, the law rock of the Alþingi, the war of the bishops, and of course- elves! Tourists to Iceland get no shortage of stories of elves.

If you go to Iceland, you have to do the Golden Circle tour, its incredible. We got to pet Icelandic horses and everything- and it wasn’t that expensive at all! Iceland is a travel gem- just don’t eat very much in Reykjavik! The prices are as gargantuan as the snow capped peaks. Go to the Bonus grocery stores if you are on a budget.

But back to the real reason I’m writing about Iceland: it’s culture. My guide very adeptly identified that religion for Icelanders is a complicated matter because they became Christian very late- around 1000 AD, and even still they retained much of their folk belief. For instance, the bishops had regular discussions about what to do in case of encountered a giant or troll!

That’s Iceland for you, still a relatively remote region of the world, despite its connection to the larger Scandinavian area. The rural areas of Iceland are very cut off- there are many small towns of less than 1000 people. There are still a few houses I saw tucked away all by themselves on the mountainside amidst vast tundra plains of rock and moss.

In this way, Iceland reminded me very much incidentally of Bhutan, another mountainous country in which they have many stories of nature spirits who inhabit the waters and rocks. If there’s anything I learned, its that Icelandic folk belief is almost “indigenous”, and certainly animist. Their connection to the earth is strong, as well as the sea, a mountainous island that is unique among the world’s landscapes and unique in its culture.

Iceland retains much of its ruggedness well into the 21st century. They’ve experienced a lot of deforestation, but most of it occurred during the first years of colonization a millennium ago. Power lines cross the otherwise empty landscape, but otherwise it is still mostly unspoiled. In this way, Iceland is not very much different from some areas of the Himalayas I encountered- the powerlines mark both with the sign of modernity, but retain much of its natural brilliancy. Let’s hope the conservation of Iceland’s natural splendor is taken as seriously by its people as its 100% renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. And lets hope tourism to Iceland does not explode out of proportion with what it the land is willing to bear.

The raw power of nature in Iceland is something that is still unstoppable. The volcanic activity is substantial: the largest single eruption in modern times occurred here in the 1700s, purportedly shooting lava plumes 1 km in height into the sky! Incredible. Nature here is still something feared and respected, and not just considered pretty or even worshiped as “mother earth”. No- Mother Earth truly is a bitch here! She was the mother of Þórr after all! In Iceland, waterfalls still rage, volcanoes roar, and you truly do feel the power and glory of unspoiled nature. 

See those glaciers on top of the mountain up there in the picture? They may not be there for long. Icelanders- if you truly are as connected with nature as you say you are, you must protect these natural treasures for everyone to come, especially the rightful owners of this land- yourselves! If anything, do it for selfish reasons! Nature can be savage, but now humanity can even fell the mighty glaciers that once covered this great land.