A different kind of Marxist

 

To be a Leninist today is to be an anachronism. So why Marxism? What even is Marxism?

To be a Marxist today is to recognize the structural violence of the global economic system and to want to change it. The problem, however, is the same is in our time as it was in Vladimir Lenin’s time- What is to be Done?

Many today are fed up with the democratic system, and believe it can never deliver the promises of a better society. They believe that without changing the fundamentals of the economic system, our society will perpetuate inequality and violence. It is tempting therefore to view the entire concept of democracy itself as suspect, a bourgeois ideal, and nothing more.

It is this Marxian orthodoxy of the 19th century that we should reject, along with the concept of the dictatorship of the proleteriat. We must own up to the fact that the legacy of 20th century communism was one of abject failure.

The pundits on Fox News like to say the “Left” are dictator apologists, from Nicolas Maduro to King Jong Un, while forgetting to mention that the US currently backs dictatorial regimes and war criminals around the world such as the Saudi kingdom and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. It is tempting to go the route of “naive realpolitik” and believe, like Henry Kissinger does, that democracy is just a word, and believe that the ideal of democracy is in practice unattainable, because the majority of society can decide to democratically oppress the minority, as was the case in Hitler’s Germany.

Therefore, I have to argue against some of the claims made by Zizek himself in his book Did Someone Say Totalitarianism? Zizek is admirable for pointing out the hypocrisy of the West, particularly America, in claiming to support freedom and democracy, while maintaining always that 20th century communism was a miserable failure. However, in this book, he makes to many concessions to actually-existing socialism, such as the argument that the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe lived a decent life except for lack of political freedom, etc. Of course I am somewhat oversimplifying his argument here, but I find it strange that Zizek seems to oscillate between outright defense of the Soviet Union and Maoist China and complete and total anti-Stalinism. This article he wrote on Tibet illustrates what is wrong with his conception of the reality under actually-existing socialism:

http://zizek.uk/tibet-dream-and-reality/

In this article, Zizek repeats the old adage that Tibet was a feudal economy probably better off under China anyway, and that most of the violence that occurred in Tibet derived from Tibetans themselves. This falls in line with his narrative that one should stay away from Orientalism and “dreams of utopia” if we want to get closer to the truth.

The reality is much more complicated. This empirically false statement exemplifies what is wrong with Zizek’s critique:

“The Cultural Revolution which ravaged the Tibetan monasteries in the 1960s was not imported by the Chinese. Fewer than a hundred of the Red Guards came to Tibet with the revolution, and the young mobs burning the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan”.

It is sad to see Zizek himself fall to such obvious Maoist propaganda, when he see is so deft in seeing through Stalinist propaganda. Elsewhere, Zizek is critical of Mao Zedong, and believes its problematic to view “Eastern communism” or “Latin American communism” or Third World communism in general in a kind of fetishized way. Therefore, it is doubly surprising he didn’t fact-check this story, also given his consistent critiques of the Khmer Rouge, another Communist regime that oppressed and committed genocide against a majority Buddhist populous.

The reality is, as actual scholars of Tibetan history have pointed out time and again, that most of the monasteries were destroyed directly by the PLA during the initial invasion, as demonstrated by forensic evidence from the mass graves. It is here worth quoting Tsering Shakya, author of “Blood in the Snows”, at length for the actual historical evidence:

Wang’s assertion that most of the destruction in Tibet took place during the Cultural Revolution also fails to tally with the historical record. As he himself admits, the monasteries and temples had been emptied long before, and ‘the PLA had bombed them as it re-established control’ after the 1959 Rebellion. In fact, the destruction of religious sites in Eastern Tibet—outside the TAR—had begun in 1956, under the guise of suppressing local uprisings in Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan. In May 1962, the Panchen Rinpoche submitted a long memorandum to the Party Central Committee, detailing the terrible failures of Chinese government policies throughout the entire Tibetan region. Two passages prove categorically that much of Tibet’s cultural heritage had already been destroyed. The Panchen Rinpoche writes:

Our Han cadres produced a plan, our Tibetan cadres mobilized, and some people among the activists who did not understand reason played the part of executors of the plan. They usurped the name of the masses, they put on the mask [mianju] of the masses, and stirred up a great flood of waves to eliminate statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas [reliquaries]. They burned countless statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas, threw them into the water, threw them onto the ground, broke them and melted them. Recklessly, they carried out a wild and hasty [fengxiang chuangru] destruction of monasteries, halls, ‘mani’ walls and stupas, and stole many ornaments from the statues and precious things from the stupas.

Referring only to the area within the boundaries of the TAR when he speaks of ‘Tibet’—the situation was probably worse in other Tibetan districts—the Panchen Rinpoche goes on:

Before democratic reform, there were more than 2,500 large, medium and small monasteries in Tibet. After democratic reform, only 70 or so monasteries were kept in existence by the government. This was a reduction of more than 97 per cent. Because there were no people living in most of the monasteries, there was no-one to look after their Great Prayer Halls [da jing tang] and other divine halls, or the lodgings of the monks. There was great damage and destruction, both by man and otherwise, and they were reduced to the point of collapse, or beyond. [2]

This memorandum to the Central Committee was written four years before the Cultural Revolution.

There is no need to resort to the kind of cheap psychological analysis Wang adduces to explain why Tibetans turned against the sacred symbols of their religion during the Cultural Revolution. The real reasons are far more straightforward. One of these lay in the Party’s need to restrict the inter-factional struggle in an area which, as we have seen, was highly sensitive militarily. As soon as things looked like getting out of hand the Central Committee issued an order that, in these zones, the struggle should not be formulated as a fight between the ‘two lines’. Such conflict was thus essentially confined to the towns, especially Lhasa. The result was that, in most rural areas of Tibet, the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution was shifted away from the battle between the two factions and directed instead towards an attack on tradition, under the call to smash ‘The Four Olds’. In this effort, no stone was left unturned. The Red Guards may not have entered far into the countryside but CCP rule penetrated every crevice of the vast Himalayan landscape. The Party’s hegemony was so deeply entrenched at this time that even the way a peasant slept was said to indicate ideological orientation—someone who lay with their head towards the west was accused of turning away from Chairman Mao, since he was ‘the Sun that rises in the East’. One of the crimes of which the Panchen Rinpoche was accused during his trial by Red Guards in Beijing was of having anti-Party and reactionary dreams. (The Red Guards here, it should be noted, were not Tibetans but Chinese students.)

 

It is Zizek who here demonstrates his own implicit bias against traditional societies, believing the only thing about Tibetan society that is true was that it was a virtual hell on Earth. This is obviously a different kind of Orientalism, but Zizek, in his infinite wisdom about how we should dispel all illusions, has obviously never talked with an actual survivor of the Tibetan diaspora, or talked with actual Tibetan scholars.

It is inconceivable to him that the Dalai Lama legitimately inspires people around the world, or that Buddhist spirituality is deeply felt by believers and native Tibetans. He can only conceive of it in gross orthodox Marxist sense of “false consciousness”.

So the question continues to be, still, why Marxism?

If Marxism can embrace a truly non-violent spirit, and forget its ideology of “the ends justifying the means”, then maybe true structural violence can be eliminated in a peaceful way. Given Zizek’s embrace of redefining Marxism, revolution, and old Marxist lexicon, it is surprising and painful that he does not apply the same standard to Maoist China. 20th century communism failed to protect ethnic minorities, failed to protect political freedom, and in general failed to deliver to the utopia of equality it promised. If we are to change our economic system for the betterment of humanity, we must not allow demagogues and strongmen to lead us down the road of repressive regimes like the USSR, North Korea, and China, where currently they have almost abandoned any pretense of creating economic equality. I continue to argue Tibet is the theoretical cornerstone of realizing the problem with 20th century Communism.

 

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We do not need a spiritual ecology- we need a political ecology

A spiritualized, Buddhistic ecology is attractive to the Western mind that fetishizes Eastern religion. Bhutan in particular comes to mind in promoting this new ideology of “Gross National Happiness”, which unfortunately comes at the expense of ethnic minorities such as the Lhotshampa. However, it is not that this spiritual ecology isn’t a good idea- it is the character of this spiritual ecology that is the question. I will use my own fieldwork in Bhutan to argue for a political ecology approach. We must, in analyzing the policies of South Asian nations like Bhutan, go beyond state ideology and get to the actual policy prescriptions, community practices, and complex ecological and societal landscape that exists on the ground.

In this article, I will not be providing many references to scholarly articles, but I am basing my argument on my fieldwork and knowledge of the scholastic literature about Bhutan found in sources such as the Journal of Bhutan Studies and work by Bhutanese researchers at the Ugyen Wangchuk Institute of Conservation and Environment, the primary national research center for the environment, where I did my research in 2013.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan currently guarantees that its national forest cover remain at 75% to protect biodiversity and the natural heritage of the country. However, this progressive policy, while in contrast to Western nations that continually exploit their own remaining national parks and wild areas, is partially due to pure inertia- the landscape of Bhutan is notoriously mountainous, and some parts of Bhutan are very essentially inaccessible. The primary economic motivating factor in preserving biodiversity in Bhutan is to promote ecotourism and ensure the continued sustainability of industries such as logging and hydroelectric power. That being said, it is not as if the logging that does take place is 100% sustainable- actual figures are hard to come by, but during my time in Bhutan, I noticed that large swaths of forest had been granted by the government to logging companies to provide timber for construction in the growing capital city of Thimphu. This rapid urbanization is exacerbated by the rapid migration from rural areas by young people who want to escape a life of farming. In addition, the hydroelectric power which provides the main source of electricity for Bhutan is not without its ecological effects: by damming up entire rivers, hydroelectric plants affect the riverine by negatively impacting aquatic biodiversity levels and disrupting fish migration patterns. Some studies have been directly done by UWICE on the ecological effects of dams, but during 2013 the focus of research was on community forestry, and my team of students were sent to assess the impact of recently enacted community forestry policies on communities and the environment.

I was on the socioeconomic team of the assessment of community forestry in the Chumey geog or district. The results of our interviews and observations were multifaceted as to the results of these policies, but a broad picture emerged during my stay. Community forestry was an attempt by the government of Bhutan to decentralize power and return some power to the communities in terms of their own forests after the forests were nationalized in the 1970s. However the boundaries of the community forests around the agricultural villages were still small and did not represent the extent of forest available to the villagers prior to the 1970s. In addition, my inquiries about dying traditional agricultural practices with local villagers revealed that villagers felt the insistence by the government on demarcating land for forests and agricultural land contrasted with traditional practices of shifting agriculture or sokshing, which is now illegal under Bhutanese law. Finding a small amount of literature on sokshing or Bhutanese shifting agriculture, I tried to find more evidence of what research into traditional management practices could bring to the Bhutanese people.

I found that UWICE has already had a renewed interest in protecting sacred natural sites. Sacred natural sites, or SNS, are local landmarks such as springs or entire forests that, by virtue of local beliefs that such sacred sites should not be disturbed, act as a de facto biological cornerstone for the environment. These sites are areas of the forest that are not cut down by default, by the villagers own volition. Anthropological studies from other contexts reveal that such beliefs may act as a unconscious reinforcement mechanism to insure a stable and sustainable environment, for instance with Native American beliefs about not overfishing or using every part of an animal to eat. When I talked to Bhutanese people about these sites, they were very eager to talk to me about these old tales. While on a hiking trip, news that I was interested in such things carried ahead of me, and a villager in a remote location gestured to me the location of one of these sacred sites where a spirit was said to dwell. Despite the fact that many people I talked to didn’t speak English, they enjoyed telling me about their culture, their beliefs in spirits of the mountains and rivers, guardians such as Kibu Lungtsen, a guardian who was depicted on the wall of a monastery near the village I studied. His dwelling was considered to be on a nearby mountain.

In addition, I uncovered a connection between these beliefs and the folklore regarding the Buddhist saint Longchen Rabjampa, the 14th century Tibetan teacher who journeyed to Bhutan and founded many monasteries throughout the country. Longchenpa was said to have purified the surrounding area of evil spirits and located the source of water for the nearby village, a sacred spring which is still venerated to this day.

Sacred landscapes abound in Bhutan, and are associated with the distinct local beliefs, history, and traditions of each area. This is the true spiritual ecology of Bhutan, not the manufactured government ideology of Gross National Happiness. What I found in Bhutan was a distinctly local, spiritual kind of relationship to the environment, one bound up with ideas about ones ancestors, Buddhist teachings, and guardian spirits. I did not hear anyone but government officials talk about Gross National Happiness, especially among rural villagers.

Instead, the villagers conveyed to me their desire for progress. One man told me about how his life was much easier now that he had a gas powered plow. Another told me how the paved road brought in more trade. Some told me they missed some things about the old days, but just as many told me they liked their life how it is right now.

I can’t help but think that this kind of balance between the modern and tradition is beginning to break down in Bhutan. Already rapid urbanization is leaving rural villages mostly populated by elderly people who do not have enough help with manual labor. The government does not place high priority on agricultural education, and the social prestige of farmers is, well, absent. All the young people I talked to want to become government workers, doctors, and professionals- not farmers. I conveyed this to some older people, and they largely agreed with me that the old Bhutan is dying.

In conclusion, the rich natural wonders of Bhutan, its vast forests and rushing mountain rivers, may be threatened by forces outside the control of standard conservation. Through a political ecology lens, we can begin to see the effect of generational changes to the landscape, such as the emergence of cash crop farming, pressures on local geography, urbanization, and unsustainable logging, in addition to government policies out of step with the reality of living a rural life in the remote Himalayas. Governments that are concerned about sustainability and economic viability of rural peasant economies should not prioritize the environment over people. Attempts to ameliorate both situations at once, like promoting ecotourism ventures, in my view, do not work as a long term strategy, and strategies such as PES schemes only put the ecological fate of landscapes in the hands of the market.

Both ecoutourism and PES schemes were proposed in the case of the village we studied. In both cases, I was the dissenting voice to the government panel. I argued for the continued viability of some traditional management strategies. My argument fell on deaf ears of some government officials that I found were heavily prejudiced against “uneducated peasants”. Not everyone I talked to felt this way, but I was very discouraged by the response among the Bhutanese elite.

Image may contain: sky, tree, grass, plant, outdoor and nature

Meanwhile, the respect for the environment lives on in Bhutanese folk tradition. Above is a water driven prayer wheel, built above a stream, said to bring good fortune and blessing at every turning of the wheel. Spring water from prayer wheels such as these is said to be holy.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, tree, outdoor and nature

Meanwhile the government has developed a variety of environmental protection strategies, such as the one in the picture above. Behind me is a tree nursery, 0.16 hectares, an experimental venture in reforestation.

Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, nature and water

As you can see in this picture, even urbanizing locations such as this town in Bumthang are surrounded by essentially untouched mountains.

This is just a general overview of the political ecology of Bhutan, which is complex and would take years of proper study to elucidate, which I endeavor to do hopefully during my anthropological career in the future.

For now, tashi delek and stay tuned for future posts about Bhutan!

 

 

My thoughts on the Rolling Stones “top 100 songwriters” list

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-songwriters#chrissie-hynde

 

Now I know what you are going to say, why even deal with something like this? These top 100 lists are so biased. Hold. There is a lot to agree with in this list. But I’m going to discuss my thoughts on the list, what I think is wrong about it, objectively, and then my subjective music opinions about what I think should’ve been included, what should be higher on the list, etc. Honestly, I think a lot of the fundamentals of this list are actually accurate. It gives an accurate portrayal of who  are the biggest and most influential popular songwriters of the 20th century on.

So obviously, the first problem is that its limited to the 20th century onward. Let’s give them a pass for that one- you can’t name any good songwriters of the 1800s either. And no, Beethoven doesn’t count- a composer isn’t a songwriter, we are talking about popular or folk music, not orchestral or classical music. But then again, there is absolutely no jazz artists included, not even people that wrote lyrics like Duke Ellington, but I understand that’s kind of a different genre of music.

My biggest objective problem with the list is that its designed for the English speaking world. This list will be entirely different for the readers in Latin America. There’s not even an attempt to include Spanish speaking artists. No Buena Vista Social Club, no Manu Chao, and (a crime against humanity) no Victor Jara!

Victor Jara siempre!

Victor Jara was the Bob Dylan of Latin America. He had as much social and political influence, if not more so, during the tumultuous 60s and 70s in Chile, and in all of Latin America. He was also an ardent communist, so don’t expect to include him on anything anytime soon.

But the biggest problem is that its an American/Western bias, probably because its an American magazine. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if Rolling Stone called it “The Rock and Roll top 100 songwriters” but they include Kanye West!! So at this point we’re including rap and reggae, why not Spanish music?

So, the #1 choice- Bob Dylan- do I agree? Yes, I do, I love Bob Dylan, and objectively he is that important. But personally, my #1 pick would be the #2 and #3 pics, together- Lennon and McCartney. Most people will say they weren’t as good poets as Bob Dylan, and the Beatles wouldn’t be what they were without Bob Dylan, etc.- but personally I just prefer the Beatles music because of the instrumentation.

The other huge problem with the list- Jay Z is above James Taylor. Before you call me a racist, just be honest with yourself- is Jay Z included on the list to “give one” to younger listeners and rap artists? To be inclusive? It seems like a cheap throwaway spot given to modern rap, coming out ahead of one of the best singer songwriters of the 70s, James Taylor. James fucking Taylor. I can only name one song by Jay Z that was big – “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”. That lyric is atrocious, his music is shit, and he’ll never be as good as Tupac. There I said it.

The list starts to go haywire after the inclusion of Jay Z, even though they gave him the #68 spot. Does popularity equal song writing objective greatness now? Apparently so in the later part of the list, where the criteria are seemingly thrown out the window. Of course Chuck Berry gets the #5 slot, but why, why on God’s green Earth, would you put Bjork on the list? She’s talented, but who listens to Bjork???

I’m going to be somewhat controversial with this one. Taylor Swift doesn’t deserve a spot in the top 100. Actually no modern contemporary artist should be included, out of fairness to artists that have already established an entire canon. This isn’t just because I don’t like modern pop music- but I swear to God if I look back in time at previous incarnations of this list I will find present bias, maybe the Backstreet Boys will pop up on the list in the 90s or Linkin Park (God forbid). Popularity should not equal musical greatness, especially given how the music industry works nowadays, where creative and good music is not given ANY airtime. Modern folk artists? Fuck that, the people want 24 karat magic! Have a cigar, you’re gonna go far!

Another pet peeve about the list- why no Pink Floyd- David Gilmour, etc. who are an objectively huge band? Why no Freddie Mercury??? That last omission is particularly strange coming from Rolling Stone.

“But Stephen, they can’t include everything”

Yes, but they can drop Taylor Swift, Jay Z, and the guy from Green Day. As far as popular late 90s-2000s rock music goes, Green Day was just one band among many, and just because they have a long history of performing doesn’t mean they should be in the TOP 100 ALL TIME @#)(!@#

Should Eminem be on the list? Actually, I’m biased when it comes to Eminem. Yes, he’s a contemporary artist, but he was a huge name in the 90s, a “Rap God” that stood above the players and actually got mainstream radio play. I like him a lot, and I don’t like much rap music, so I would include him. But for the love of God, you put Kanye West above Sam Cooke???????? That’s insulting, its insulting to older readers, its insulting honestly to the entire history of R&B and Soul, and just black music in America. Kanye West is the most overrated egostistical maniac on the planet, and he’s only had a couple big hits on mainstream radio. Sam Cooke on the other hand, is a legend.

Why the attempt to be inclusive with putting rap artists, in summary, but not any Latin American or Spanish music? It’s like Rolling Stone doesn’t want to alienate black readers, but simultaneously alienates the Hispanic audience. Very weird. Otherwise, as a top 100 of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and pop, Rolling Stone does a pretty good job.

But take Taylor Swift off, please.

 

When were the monasteries destroyed in Tibet?

Tibetan Buddhism – Struggling With Diffi·Cult Issues


I have to confess that I am not much familiar with the history of Tibet/China and that I am in a learning process. My interest mainly comes from a sense of justice I have for Tibetans and their sad situation.

Destruction of Kham monasteries. Destruction of Kham monasteries.The Tibet Mirror supplied the first and most detailed Tibetan news of events in
Kham and the destruction of the monasteries there. (Carole McGrahanan: Arrested Histories, 243.)The first drawings of the destruction of monasteries appeared in November 1956.(Image and information taken from Isrun Engelhardt – Tharchin’s One Man War with Mao [PDF], p. 190.) Recently during a discussion of members of an adult education center in Germany one man said, that it were the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) who destroyed the monasteries in Tibet. But one Tibetologist who was present corrected him and said that most of the monasteries were already…

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Against the Double Blackmail: Stalinism and Anarchism

In contemporary leftism, popularly and online, there seems to be only two poles, two possibilities, a kind of dualistic way of thinking without any synthesis or true dialecticism. For both of the aforementioned groups, Stalinists/Marxist-Leninists and Anarchists, if you are a Democratic Socialist you are a liberal, and if you are not a Democratic Socialist, then you must be in favor of complete violent revolution in the vein of a Marxist-Leninist. There is some truth to this, however when it comes to the actual polices favored by a Democratic Socialist (not a Social Democrat!) one can see how they don’t disagree with the Marxist-Leninist, but their philosophy for how to accomplish this differs.

The Marxist-Leninist will argue that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie can only be overtaken by the dictatorship of the proleteriat. This kind of orthodox Marxism belongs in the 19th century, as it opens the door wide open, obviously, for totalitarian regimes whose crimes outweigh the benefits they provide for the people. Sometimes, historically, these totalitarian regimes have drastically increased living standards, but nevertheless, what I will call the anarchist impulse, the impulse to distrust power in any form, whether corporate or state, or what one could call the libertarian socialist impulse, I believe is a good impulse, and keeps one from being so blinded in one’s hatred for capitalism that one is willing to overlook the obvious horrors of 20th century communism, horrors which I believe are so obvious, like the show trials under Stalin, that they don’t deserve debate anymore. See my posts on Tibet for more details.

However, theoretically, I also disagree with the idea that the only thing needed for a truly non-authoritarian liberating political movement and society is the non-existence of the state. One can find historical examples of “anarcho-communist” societies like Catalonia in the 1930s, which largely functioned, but here I will provide a genuine defense of Zizek’s theory he puts forward in “A Plea for Bureaucratic Socialism”.

Zizek’s theory seems at first to be a defense of a kind of neo-Stalinism, a centrally planned economy. However, this could be further from the case. Zizek recognizes the degree to which government institutions, and yes, that dreaded word bureaucracy, which is NOT the same as career politicians, are already necessary for the existence of advanced industrial society. Things that run perfectly smoothly today, things like the Post Office, or the NHS in Britain (before the spending cuts by the Tories), are all government administered. Could these institutions be “further democratized” under a Socialist government? Of course! The wealth of these companies could be more equally distributed. But one has to recognize that layers of unnecessary bureaucratic exist only when the profit motive is involved, or there has been a mistake in organization- the profit motive is not involved in the NHS, and thus they have fewer managers than a privately-run hospital. Administration costs are drastically cut under a socialized medicine system- everyone knows this, yet even Marxist economists like Richard Wolff are so enraptured with the idea of cooperatives that these simple macroeconomic/comparative facts seem lost on them.

So let me be perfectly clear- I’m not interested in a theoretical defense of anarchism, in the sense that it could “also provide the necessary means of organizing society, could provide power to houses, etc.” Without tax dollars collected by an efficient state, there are no highways, period. There won’t be volunteer armies building the roads and bridges, and neither will I volunteer for such a system. In this sense, Zizek’s defense of alienation serves as a necessary foil of contemporary Marxist or Leftist orthodoxy. The larger infrastructural/productive problems of society still linger in a society where everything is democratically-run- this is what the Soviet Union clearly saw.

The top down approach of the Soviet Union to production wasn’t the only problem that existed in the Soviet economy. The problem was primarily a “developmentality” where the State felt it had to rush industrial production as fast as possible, to the detriment of the rural population. As such it was industrialization, not bureaucracy, that was the Soviet Union’s main problem, aside from sheer corruption and the perpetration of political atrocities. It wasn’t the non-existence of competition that was the Soviet Union’s problem- it was Stalin’s desire to catch up with the West so fast that he didn’t care how many lives would be lost in the process. Critiques of socialist bureaucracy with the Soviet Union in mind are usually quite ahistorical and rely on a thesis that state planning itself is inherently the issue. While I can definitely agree that the state should not plan every aspect of the economy, this is not a coherent argument against any aspect of state socialization of the economy, for example, say oil production. Neither is the Venezuelan economy, which largely collapsed due to lack of foreign investment and the dip in oil prices caused by over-reliance on oil, causing massive hyperinflation.

Zizek is interested far more in getting concrete political gains HERE AND NOW then in the hypothetical speculation on what the future socialist society will look like. This kind of building of a utopia amounts to nothing in the end. Yet, one can understand that the defense of a stateless society IS just such a hypothetical speculation! We are nowhere close to, nor should we, abolish the state apparatus. Just because the State works against the people’s interests when certain parties are in power, doesn’t mean that is necessarily so. It’s just that the corporate stranglehold over real power makes such a change almost unimaginable.

Does that mean that change has to be forced violently? No, and here I disagree with Zizek in his defenses of Leninism. Global capitalism has a way of punishing democratic socialist regimes and revolutionary regimes. But if we are to take Zizek’s theories about internationalism seriously, one can see how, in order to beat the influence of something like the World Bank or the IMF, massive change on a global scale must occur. That change must occur first in the US, the epicenter of power. Only when true anti-imperialist and anti-free trade policies take root in the US can we begin to confront global capitalism. But this does not require some sort of infantile game about strategy and planning the armed revolution. The time for rebellion against the Czar is over. We do not live in that era. We must at the same time be faithful to our critique and struggle against the current economic system, recognize the exploitation that takes place, primarily in the Third World, and continue to try to dismantle the epicenters of global corporate power. In order to do that, a Red Tide, a movement like the Arab Spring, but much larger, must sweep the developed world, and finally carry it forward- peacefully and democratically. And it must not be allowed to backslide into demagoguery. But before that happens, concrete battles must be won, first against the liberal establishment, then on specific issues such as Medicare for All, ending the wars, ending monopolies, and climate change.

Finally, my defense of electoral politics is not a defense of establishment politics. I will never vote for another neoliberal politician, ever in my life, even to beat Donald Trump. We don’t have a choice anymore, considering the sorry state of the Democratic Party.

 

Normativity inside normativity…an endless spiral

My girlfriend commented recently that she thought the word “normie” that is now being used is itself mainstream. Is this endless navel gazing, or does this touch on a deeper point? Angela Nagle, a columnist at Jacobin Magazine, has put out a book called “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right”, and its that book idea or reference point that I’d like to discuss (spoiler: I haven’t read the book, just the synopsis). Interestingly enough, a leftist cultural commentator has to engage in the same “shock value” marketing tactics that her ideological foes do. As I will say time and time again, yes, I am a socialist. But here I want to make the case that engaging or diving into the “culture wars” that has become so commonplace, as Nagle argues, is itself counterproductive, because it itself is a part of the larger sphere of normativity.

Now, one could argue that this is Nagle’s project itself, that she is attempting an objective view of online media cultures both on the left and the right to reveal their relationship and how, in her view, the politically-correct Left enables the alt-right through “the author’s insistence on the culpability of the left in creating the vacuum in which the Alt-Right expanded.” While I actually share this opinion, I don’t want to engage in these kind of liberal-bashing polemics and critiques of safe-spaces. Why? Am I just being contrarian?

Because I witness in my daily online interactions with actual leftist online communities how ideologies and culture wars are perpetuated and sustained. Factions emerge, ideological fights ensue. There are big divides between arguably Stalinist factions and anarcho-coms. The internet is a big place, and yes, socialists have their versions of 4chan. Its a hallmark of our generation. If the real point of this book is to gain attention to very problematic political dynamics going on in the country, how the alt-right connects to Donald Trump (as the media endlessly drones on about) then it should be done in a vigorous and anthropological manner, not a New York Times bestseller fashion.

“But won’t that alienate the type of people Nagle is trying to convince?”

I think that type of reasoning underestimates the extent to which ideological sub-communities truly are isolated. There is very little room for true convincing in our public discourse. Nagle is engaging in a sexy topic at the right time- I’m sure the deliberately inflammatory title will appeal to a certain segment of the population. Maybe she will convince some of them who were previously not left leaning to be left-leaning. But is this truly the way we should convince other people our cause is right- by appealing a misanthropic sentiment?

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen coffee mugs that say “I hate everything” or “Leave me alone”. It has now become commonplace, even normative, to be edgy and say one hates other people. This has been recognized by the corporate establishment and recuperated by the capitalist system in order to sell trendy merchandise. The sad part is, these types of products are only funny *to other people*, they are bought in order to be shared in the office, etc. therefore undermining any “real” claim to being a misanthrope. Of course, these are “ironic” joke products I’m talking about, but a simple google search of “I hate people coffee mug” getting 19 million hits reveals the extent of the cultural problem. Fashion can reproduce itself in a myriad of ways.

In a way, I’m writing this because I’m frustrated at the state of the political discourse in America. Its overly saturated with continual references to pop culture (see my previous blog posts on Pop politics here: https://amorinoblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/04/the-problem-with-pop-politics-articles/). One could generalize and call this phenomenon “pop politics”, and my argument is that the pop politics Nagle herself is so critical of, she simultaneously has to engage with and enter into a dialogue with. To be fair to the author, she may be using the title as an ironic reference that someone, possibly on the Right, said on 4chan, but my guess is that its completely “unironically ironic”. In other words, she really does hate normies. On a different level of irony, this is exactly the kind of hate-fueled rhetoric the alt-right is gaining traction with. Every political stripe has their share of insults and slogans: “libtard” “bootlicker”, etc. But perhaps we could get beyond a politics of hatred, even hatred of intolerance, because it still manifests as endless chatter. Now, I’m not advocating a naive liberalism or centrism of “why can’t we all just get along?” but it is interesting that centrists gain political capital by appealing to the divisive state of American political discourse. People are genuinely upset about the level of heatedness of the debate- what centrists fail to realize is that there are genuine things to be upset about (and consequently, non-genuine things as well). The whole landscape of American politics is so complex that sometimes I wish to escape it entirely. Another interesting tidbit is that this entire debate only  applies directly to America, but this isn’t explicitly said, it goes unnoticed on the cover of Nagle’s book or elsewhere. This is because place, for many Americans, is largely something unconscious I would argue, but that is for another post.

This reflection is also inspired by what Michel Foucault said about transgression and normativity, in that they are related to one another by an endless spiral. Nagle engages in that kind of dialectical thinking, but I would argue, does not escape the dialectic, and instead argues for a kind of “true transgression”. Instead, what one must do is forget the cultural war entirely, disengage, seek solitude…but America would not be able to do that. No, the Last Man, as Nietzsche would have it, has already penetrated so deep , its probably impossible. Hope for a truly emancipatory movement remains dim. One should not put faith in movements, always only critical engagement.

 

 

The implications of Obama’s immigration policies for socialist strategy

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hard-truths-about-obamas-deportation-priorities_us_58b3c9e7e4b0658fc20f979e

Above, I’ve linked to the article I will be talking about today. I am very encouraged to see this level of journalism coming out of the Huffington Post, although the contributor to the magazine is, somewhat unsurprisingly, an academic, namely a professor of history at Lewis and Clark college. The article reveals what I have been saying over and over- that the oft-quoted statistic that Obama deported “90% criminals” is a flat-out falsehood when you consider the fact that according to ICE and Department of Homeland Security statistics (their own statistics!) only in 2016 were 90% of interior deportations of those with a criminal record. This doesn’t count deportations at the border at all. As the article reveals, this also obscures what kinds of crimes were committed. Only 19% of 2014 deportations were of people with “violent or potentially violent” convictions. That is an appalling statistic. The war on immigrants has been going long before Trump.

Many people now know or at least have to acknowledge the record amount of deportations Obama made during his presidency, but they then try to obfuscate that fact with misleading statistics and the argument that Obama tried to “concentrate on deporting felons”. The fact is the majority of those deported who had criminal convictions were not felons, but the crimes committed had something to do with immigration violations. As always, the Obama administration is being disingenuous and actively fooling people into thinking they are humane and care about human rights. This is the case when it comes to drone strikes (which I did an entire statistical project on, and the amount of civilian casualties under the Obama administration that are recorded is a shocking statistic, but that’s another story).

We must, as Cornel West continues to vigorously and courageously argue, oppose the Obama administration’s narrative that they were allies and protectors of people of color. When it comes to immigrants, yes Obama did pass the DAPA and DACA exemptions, but their record when it comes to immigration and deportation is clear. When it comes to the record on indigenous rights, on the rights of Native Americans, we know what Obama did with the Keystone and DAPL pipelines (until the very last minute when it could be overturned by Trump). We know what Obama’s record overseas was, a continued policy of more and more war, a continuation of Bush era foreign policy with a “human face”. Obama is the black face of American Empire. Last but no least, Obama’s progress when it comes to the prison-industrial complex, private prisons, and mass incarceration (and police brutality!) was minimal. As always, the definition of liberal Obama-era policies are HALF MEASURES.

It’s time to put an end to half-measures. It’s time to stop defending Obamacare, instead view it in light of what other countries actually have. It’s time to never vote for a neoliberal centrist Democrat ever again, in the primary OR in the general election. The time is NOW to send a message to Washington, enough with the corporatism, and enough with establishment politics. And its also time to put a name to what we want- democratic socialism. Yes, socialism, that dreaded word. Not Stalinism, but actual policies that redistribute wealth and put an end to American imperialist foreign policy. This intersection between economic and foreign policy is why immigration policy is so important, because illegal immigration is impacted primarily by the existence of horrible free trade policies like NAFTA which deregulates the market and floods foreign markets with cheap American goods, destabilizing Latin American economies and causing mass immigration crises. The immigration crisis in Europe is caused primarily by American empire in terms of our Middle East policy, a legacy of the Iraq War, and the immigration crisis here at home is primarily caused by Clinton era neoliberalism. This is a stark reality if you think about it, that many major problems in the world can be traced to American imperialism, but it makes sense when you look at the legacy of America in Guatemala, in Iran, in Indonesia, indeed everywhere. The legacy of the 20th century, the latter half of it, is the moral failure of American capitalism to deliver the promise of human rights, and it has continued to fail in the 21st century, and the “Hope and Change” promised by the Obama administration, something I sincerely wished for as a young 18 year old first time voter, failed to materialize. I was fooled by the smile of a politician once- never will I be fooled again. I am a proud socialist, and my heart belongs to the international movement of workers and people of all stripes against capitalist imperialist hegemony.

 

The Body Count: The Horrors of the 20th century through Fascism, Capitalism, and actually-existing socialism

https://info-buddhism.com/Body_Count-Mass_Death_in_Tibet-Elliot_Sperling.html

“Cultures of memory are organized by round numbers, intervals of ten; but somehow the remembrance of the dead is easier when the numbers are not round, when the final digit is not a zero … [I]t is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfman, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber … Each of the 21,892 Polish prisoners of war shot by the NKVD in 1940 was in the midst of life. The two at the end might be Dobiesław Jakubowicz, the father who dreamed about his daughter, and Adam Solski, the husband who wrote of his wedding ring on the day that the bullet entered his brain. The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.
Timothy Snyder, “Bloodlands”.

The article that I’d like to discuss today, “The Body Count” by Elliot Sperling, the late professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, starts out with a quote by Timothy Snyder that reminds me of the essentially Foucaultian thesis about the increasing dominance of state power over life and death of its subjects. I consider myself a socialist because I believe that anarchism is simply not politically feasible, however we should continue to ask the question: can the horrors of the 20th century repeat themselves? I will situate this question within the context of Foucaultian ideas of biopower, the unique history of Tibet in the 20th century, and the idea of modernity.

It is this question, which answered in a wrong way, gives us the continuation of US military industrial complex, the Orwellian state of perpetual war for perpetual peace. The conditions for the continuation of adventurist imperialism in the 21st century is just the continuation of the logic of capital from the 20th to the 21st centuries, unimpeded by the Communist takeovers in China and Russia, the anticolonial liberations in Africa, because humans in mass state regimes of Russia and China are still regarded as pawns in the grand historical struggle for a perfect world, as envisioned by either side. Granted, that the most brutal manifestation of biopolitcs in history, Nazi fascism, was largely defeated due to the sacrifice of individuals from the Communist Soviet Union under its most brutal realpolitik leader, Josef Stalin, but to attribute the death of fascism to the Soviet Union, the nation, and not to the people, relies on the idea that the Soviet Union leadership was uniquely suited to take on fascism because of technological capabilities made possible under Lenin and Stalin’s modernization. However, this relies on the thesis that modernization itself, in the sense of purely technological progress, is a justifiable end in itself, and is the primary driver behind gains in quality of life. This is the essential “developmentality” shared by 20th century communism and capitalism. In retrospect, Marxism, as it was developed by Marx, can be seen as a philosophical way to tame the brutalities of the Industrial Revolution, by taking the scientific advances made by society and socializing them, spreading their benefits to all. This relies on the thesis that even “primitive communist” societies (as Marxist materialists liked to call tribal societies) must inevitably be brought into the fore of the developed or industrialized world.

The history of Tibet in the 20th century offers us a unique chance to explore complex dynamics relating to global capitalism, anti-capitalist movements, state atrocities, and their relationship to non-modern peoples. The same could be said about what happened in Russian Siberia during the time of Lenin and Stalin, but the case of Tibet gives us a chance not only to put what happened in China in the 20th century into a more objective light, but also to put Tibet into the perspective of world history, from which Tibet becomes a battleground for ideas about what the proper society should be like.

First, the relevant quote by Michel Foucault:

“Outside the Western world, famine exists, on a greater scale than ever; and the biological risks confronting the species are perhaps greater, and certainly more serious, than before the birth of microbiology. But what might be called a society’s “threshold of modernity” has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies. For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence;
modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.”

Grand political schemes to save the world have so far ended in total and complete disaster, the result of which is more fodder for the existing authoritarian capitalist structures to present no viable alternative. Foucault situates this moment where politics places life into question for the whole of man with the advent of modernity. Foucault is not only referring here to capacity of states to total war, but also to the invention of nuclear weapons which place the entire human species at existential risk. The dangers facing humanity, in the perspective of the entire history of our species, has never been higher. One can only appreciate this fully if one knows the truth about the actual lifespans and lifestyles experienced by hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, which were in no way “nasty, brutish, and short”. Adorno and many others have realized- civilization itself poses its own existential risks, and unfortunately we can no longer turn back the clock.

Industrial civilization also affords many benefits, or rather, informational society: all the information we could ever imagine at our fingertips at the press of a button, as well as all the entertainment. This comes steeply at a price: at the price of the exploitation of the whole mass of the Third World who live under the yoke of poverty and corrupt regimes, who are forced to be proleterianized, disenfranchised, and form the new global class of wage slaves. They work producing our iPhones, computers, in the mines of the Congo, in the factories of Asia. This is the face of violence in the 21st century.

Thus, partially counter to what Slavoj Zizek’s thesis in Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?, that the idea of totalitarianism is only set up as a foil to justify capitalist regimes claims to democracy and therefore to “liberate the oppressed nations”, one should realize that this idea of “liberation” of allegedly oppressed nations, i.e the logic of colonialism carried over to the 20th century, was also perpetrated by non-capitalist states. Here, one must move to an analysis of Maoism in the 20th century.

Maoism sought to eliminate some of the biases of orthodox Marxism in which the agricultural labor force, the peasantry of Asia, could not be liberated without first industrializing. Mao Tse Tung took a different approach- industrialization should be pursued hand in hand with agricultural development and the liberation of the peasantry from the hands of the ruling landlord classes. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks rose to power within the context of the struggle against a feudal monarchy, the Chinese Communist Party rose to power within the context of the anti-imperial struggle against Japan. These historical dynamics cannot be ignored or denied. However, as the Great Leap Forward is a testament to, grand experiments on the scale of Maoist agrarian communism led to the largest loss of life in the 20th century- larger than even the deaths attributable to the Holocaust.

This is the why the idea of the Body Count matters. There is a Body Count to any horrific event of any scale- the Holocaust, World War II, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. However, any kind of post hoc rationalization of “acceptable losses” is part of the logic of biopolitics. It is this ends justify the means logic that created the brutalities experienced by regimes that tried to get out of cycles of violence and exploitation. Granted, there are justifiable violent struggles- the war against Nazism and fascist totalitarianism  being the most obvious- but this logic is endlessly extended by those who see violence as the only answer to the worlds problems, rather than an extension of the logic of using people as cannon fodder. Not all biopolitical tragedies have capitalism at their root, or class. This could be considered an obvious statement to make for some, but to imagine that the logic of capitalism is in all consuming Evil, in such a Manichean way, misses the important complexities and contradictions within the existing system, such as how an entire ancient race of people can be wholly slaughtered, their culture brutalized, all in the name of ending feudalism. I am referring of course to Tibet, where there is ample evidence, despite the faulty body count figure of 1.2 million dead in the 20th century, of massacre after massacre by the PLA.

This plays into the question of what is considered a genocide, and the obviously horribly controversial and political dimension of this. However, it may be that what happened in Tibet was not a “genocide”- perhaps the term genocide does not apply to Tibet, or the liberal use of the term genocide in “cultural genocide”. There is obvious political connotations to calling the bombing of Hiroshima an “act of war”, a “war crime” (the preferred terminology by serious people), or a genocide. However, to get lost in issues of semantics misses the real point of the tragedy of Tibet- that many people were slaughtered wholesale by the military. What I am referring to, in detail, is largely before the Cultural Revolution even took place. So, thus, is the Great Leap Forward a genocide? Under the strict definition of the term, no, because the Great Leap Forward was not engineered for the purpose of killing a specific group of people. It was the result of drastic mismanagement, government neglect, and policies which encouraged ludicrous lack of disregard for human life in the name of fast progress. The tragedy of 20th century communism was that it was motivated by the genuine desire to help entire mass of the population, through state engineering.

Thus, it calls into question the very necessity of the need to engineer society on a mass level and the totalitarian undertones this implies. However, I’m not advocating hands-off laissez faire economics- the state and capitalism are both the culprits of exploitation, not just “crony capitalism”. My thesis is that modernization and the colonial mentality is the other motivating historical driver in this process. One must never forget that colonialism was not only motivated by the desire to exploit the wealth and labor of the colonies- it was also the way to civilize the lower races, to bring them into the fold of modernity and Progress. These beliefs are still prevalent in society, even among so-called advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples and anthropologists.

By looking at the historical drivers behind the colonization of indigenous peoples, as well as other traditional societies around the world who fall under the broader definition of indigenous, including the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Tibet and Southeast Asia, we see that the cultural logic of biopower plays out in the dimension of Cold War Tibet.

As a final note, I’d like to see a brief word on the value of testimonial. Testimonial and the spoken word are often the only thing we have when reliable statistics and hard evidence of atrocities are scant. It is a testament to the enduring valuing of scientific logocentrism that eye-witness accounts by real victims are not believed. This tool was used by Rios-Montt and the Guatemalan government to deny witnesses of the massacres- simply call them liars and propagandists. Therefore, the pro-government regime of truth is maintained. The burden should always be on power and the State to provide proof of its innocence or culpability. To accept the Party line, the state line, always comes with a potential for abuse of the truth. This is why Foucault said that truth is a product of power, because sociologically speaking, what people accept as true is a product of power dynamics. Thus, I’ll end with a harrowing quote by a witness to the massacres in Tibet, which should be appreciated not only for its essential veracity, but for the measured way in which the speaker tries to convey his experience to the world. The devil is always in the details.

“As we rode alongside the river, we began to smell something rotten … A little further on, the bodies of dead men lay scattered on both sides of the river. They were naked and dark blue … I had lost my fear of dead bodies. Further on were the bodies of many dead children lying alone, and mothers and children holding each other. In that area altogether there were around twenty six or seven corpses. Looking at their hair one could see that most of them were women and children … There was a higher and a lower shelf on the mountainside … Father and Lochu were sitting on the higher shelf. “Oh, the Protector bear witness!” everyone said when we got there, so great was our amazement. The ground was completely covered by the corpses of men, women, monks, yaks and horses… Wherever I looked there was death …”