Sunday, January 15, 2017

Comfortably Back in Opposition

A new spectre is haunting the American progressive media-sphere: Trumpism. At least a thousand gallons of ink have been spilled warning us, preparing us, defining for us what this shifting, ephemeral threat could mean. Yet underlying this daily barrage of doomsday scenarios (Nazis in the streets, police rounding up protestors, Mc Carthyite hearings, etc) one senses a profound relief, a joy even, to finally be back in opposition. No more having to support a bunch of crappy programs (like the ACA), or policies (like drone strikes)Now we can really protest! March and carry banners, ( certainly no lack of slogans)give heartfelt speeches in support of all the programs and policies we hope to save from the reactionary onslaught. The landscapes and little children! Democracy itself in peril! Lions and tigers and bears and Rex Tillerson, oh my!

The dudes name is Rex, I mean c'mon, square jawed, graying at the temples, manly and yet thoughtful, a walking Viagra ad,if Delillo or Pynchon were to write this character into a novel, in their most post-modern, literary ironic spoof, they could barely get away with Rex. So who names their kid Rex? And who would you rather have on your team growing up, Steve over there with the glasses- or Rex. Yeah. So be afraid, be very afraid. Michelle is out and Melania in.

Getting back to Trumpism, really? because we needed a new "ism" to hate?; what parts of the brain does it attack? Will I know it when I see it? I remember Bush though I don't recall Bushism, but maybe that was just what we called "stupidity". As in, has anybody found those weapons of mass destruction yet? What? Trump is a liar? His cabinet is all Big Money boys? I'm shocked! This is totally unprecedented!

The problem for me is one of age. I have seen this movie too many times and it just doesn't entertain anymore. How long can you actually ride a merry-go-round and not notice that the scenery is eerily familiar. Despite all the breathless claims that "this is unlike anything we have ever seen before" I still have this Groundhog Day feeling, disturbing at first but quickly sliding into under-whelmed boredom.

Yeah, if only Hillary or Bernie or Jill got more votes. But since they didn't, now we can be against stuff. Against the wall, and against the registry and against the cabinet picks and the generals. Against hate and discrimination and sexism and xenophobia. Damn, I feel better already!

Just don't ask me how we ever get off the merry-go-round.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Life Enrichment

I attended a panel discussion about the Standing Rock Protection (not protest) the other night, and it was painful. Following a brief description of the sacred nature of the action by a (white settler) professor in Native American studies, the four panelists described their various experiences while visiting the camp. The common thread was personal growth, enlightenment and transcendence, much like those who travel to Sedona Arizona might describe their 'personal journey'. The one native on the panel could speak with authenticity about a re-connection to cultural roots but even there it was a story of dislocation and alienation (joining the military and going to Iraq, PTSD, and isolation, etc..) within a damaged culture and individual and the return of a prodigal son. There was lots of emphasis placed on the fact that so many veterans were drawn in, wounded warriors, who might find a certain redemption and grace through immersion into "the sacred".

If I sound cynical it is because I know this audience and their collective yearning for a New Age, non-confrontational way to "accept the Universe" and "be the change they want to see". As opposed to fighting for it. So a gathering with teepees by a river where they simply listen and absorb ancient wisdom from aboriginal people, not unlike the expensive meditation retreats they frequent, is the perfect anti-dote to the chaos of The Political. Oneness and Unity and prayer. Tribal connectivity. There is simplicity as well in the "Water is Life" meme; no mention of climate catastrophe, no deep structural analysis with all its nuance and contingency,no talk of democracy or The Left. Any struggle is reduced to one between the coarse "material" realm and the ethereal "spiritual", between affect and intellect. In this sense it is binary thinking, the setting up of a dichotomy, specifically anti-dialectical, ironically the very "Western" schism they claim to reject.

The thing is, I have been a "water protector" for many decades and know how the role is constructed with built-in bureaucratic, regulatory barriers to systemic change. One begins by accepting the framework of "capitalist democracy" and its inherent power relations. "Safe standards" are those which "balance" the protection of health with profit and investment property.
It is exactly the "realism" promoted by 350 Missoula when they claim there will "never be one climactic, ultimate victory but instead a steady one-by-one rejection of proposals", in other words an endless chain of camps fighting an endless supply of brush fires.

At the meeting we were asked to put our questions for the panel on 3x5 cards but I just had to leave. How does localized water protection turn into the necessary generalized rejection and revolt? Where is power located and how is it confronted and de-legitimized? If society is currently organized by market relations, what takes their place? If everything is sacred, is nothing then sacred?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Guess Who

See if you can guess who this quote is from, Michael Moore, Thom Hartman or Steve Bannon?

"Middle-class taxpayers, people that are working-class people, right, people making incomes under $50,000 and $60,000, it was the burden of those taxpayers, right, that bailed out the elites. And let’s think about it for a second. Here’s how capitalism metastasized, is that all the burdens put on the working-class people who get none of the upside. All of the upside goes to the crony capitalists."

It could have come from the "People's Mic" at Occupy Missoula but actually it is Trump's special advisor and Breitbart News impressario Steve Bannon. What intrigues me is the overlap between this Tea Party intellectual and "progressives" on this issue of Crony Capitalism. I can imagine Bill Moyers interviewing Bannon and nodding along. In a panel discussion at the Vatican back in 2014, Bannon lashed out against the "greed of the investment banks", against so-called conservatives "binding with corporatists" and the fact that no one from the financial sector has gone to jail for the global economic collapse of 2007-8. Sound familiar? It should because it is the same line we heard from Michael Moore, Rachael Maddow, Thom Hartman, and that ilk. Remember Sarah Palin back in 2011, calling out the crony capitalism of "connections and government bailouts...and influence peddling and corporate welfare"? Though they never identify it as such, it is "progressive neoliberalism" (see Nancy Fraser in Dissent Magazine) that these New Conservatives have united against.

Capitalism is frequently described with an attached adjective, be it "late" or "corporate" or "predatory". That addition often indicates a desire to either reform or scrap capitalism altogether. So that when Bannon speaks of the "crisis of crony capitalism" he is referring to what he perceives as a turning away from a glorious, if wholly imagined, past, a previous period of efficient, just, victorious capitalism based on an "enlightened...underlying moral and spiritual foundation of Judeo-Christian belief." Here he is thinking of World War II production and the post-war settlement of labor peace that followed, which he calls "Pax Americana". This nostalgia is remarkably similar to that of progressives who look to those decades, as well as the period of the New Deal, as models for what could be. But of course this is magical thinking for both.

Here is Bannon from the same conference- this time channeling Chris Hedges- criticizing Objectivist precepts which: "...make people commodities and objectify people, use them..under the rubric of 'personal freedom'". Trumps new advisor went so far as to call for a cap on wealth creation and distribution, something not even Bernie, much less Clinton, ever dared to say. He believes his own alt-right/international Tea Party to be part of a "global, center-right populist movement..of working men and women... that is tired of being dictated the party of Davos." Almost Naomi Klein if you ignore the center-right part. They are fine being dictated to by The Market, I guess, maybe because the Market is close to God (or is God!).

The irony- of course there is always the irony of a post-ironic age- is that all these "revolutionaries" also worship at the Tomb of Reagan, who, along with Thatcher, put a dramatic end to the Golden Age they so celebrate by crushing unions, continuing Volker's deflationary monetary policy, gutting social provision and lowering taxes on the rich. Their appeals to an amorphous working/middle classes mash-up put "traditional values" and nationalist pride front and center and tuck the Hayekian economics into the fine print. If Sarah Palin could memorize the mantra of "free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and risk", the struggling folks of the rust-belt can absorb the bumper-sticker version and trust a virile, flame-throwing leader to work out the details. Tying this proposed "new settlement" to Judeo-Christian prosperity gospel is a brilliant touch, adding affect, an emotional, even tactile connection, in a way the Left never seems to.

As with identity politics and political correctness, the Right has executed another ju jitsu move with crony capitalism. By exploiting feelings of victimhood and co-opting progressive strategy and language to build a coalition, they get some time in the sun. Because they so totally and completely mis-diagnose the crisis of capitalism, it will be fleeting, as all things are these days, when "all things solid melt into air", but it is fascinating to watch. Just banish greed and work hard and be good. Simple.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Convergence: How it Could Go Down

Someone (I'm too lazy to dig up citation) said "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism". Lots of people I know express a rational fear that any major systemic rupture will simply unleash anarchy,a Hollywood-enhanced vision of rednecks with guns out raiding the Hobbesian-each-against-all dystopia in some mad frenzy. Trumps election has, if anything, magnified this sense of potential victim-hood and violent upheaval. Without going all Rebecca Solnit on y'all, I dispute this notion of the nation's "balance of forces", and believe that while certainly dangerous, these prepper/survivalist types have managed to blow our perception of them way out of proportion. Nor do I think the vast majority of Trump voters, despite their arsenals, are as dangerous as all that. Of course this is just a guess with nothing empirical to back it up.

But let's imagine another end of capitalism: It is Springtime in America, all the "Not My President" protests and marches and failed vote recounts and inquiries into Russian hacking and electoral college challenges have come and gone. Trump has sworn on the Bible to uphold the Capitalist Constitution and cherry blossoms begin blooming in DC (three weeks early). Soon a steady stream of executive orders ooze from the White House, each undoing the well-intentioned-if-a-bit-late regulatory protections Obama put in place and further inflaming progressives (while filling the coffers of non-profits).

As the right-wing base fist pumps each tweet about "excellent new jobs" and corporate boards get ready to increase dividends and CEO salaries, confrontations break out between "water protectors" and cops at coal mines, fracking fields and oil refineries around the country. Until the Big Storm hits. One hurricane hits Houston and works its way slowly up the Gulf Coast destroying everything in its path, making Katrina and Sandy look like summer showers. Another one simultaneously hits Miami and heads up the eastern seaboard, wreaking devastation clear to DC. Because the government has been hollowed out ( or stranded at Trumps's golf course in Florida) there is no emergency response and tens of thousands perish.

The catastrophe swells the ranks of the climate justice movement with newly radicalized working class and middle class dissidents and calls are put out to converge on both Washington and Wall Street to force the phased closure of all coal fired power plants, end all shale gas and oil drilling as well as the import of tar sands. As the stock market begins to react, demands are made for State spending on new energy infrastructure, for carbon sequestration through massive reforestation and organic agriculture projects- all managed through local cooperatives and paid for by ( here is where it gets tricky) a tax on wealth? Deficit spending? War bonds perhaps? Scrip? What happens to the monetary system depends on how the descent is managed....anyway....

Understanding that it will be necessary to jettison Market-based incentives and institute planning in order to save the remaining sliver of democracy, liberal pundits, celebrities and politicians, pushed by massive popular movements, use the crash of the Finance and Insurance industries to call for a total re-structuring of the economy. Rather than panic ensuing, communities turn toward local networks of barter and small markets to trade necessities.

The climate change denying conservatives who have not been tarred and feathered (or worse) slink into anonymity along with fossil fuel execs. The administration, faced with the decision between ordering all-out violent repression and saving some personal assets,(and their lives) chooses the latter. Cops and soldiers see the writing on the wall and grab some tar. A Constitutional convention is convened.

A system of councils and assemblies is established along with new institutions and political structures. Why not? Ain't like the reactionaries got anything once the illusion is shattered.Inspired by this unlikely rebellion, populations around the globe (seeing oceans rise on their own shores) depose their own elites and put them to work weeding.

Friday, December 9, 2016


I am actually something of an expert on lemonade but that is another story. This post is about taking the lemons of Trumpism and turning them into something thirst quenching and delicious. There is so much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth as each cabinet or advisory position gets announced, each General or uber-capitalist put in charge of some agency. That Trump and his team are masters of the new media landscape is indisputable, the Trump Show is ever present and ever lasting. The new narratives ( the fascist alt-righter, the crazy tweeter, the stealth Republican Establishment Insider, the Unpredictable One, etc..) are all amazing brands that have America on the edge of its seat, waiting breathlessly for the next installment. It is a brilliant production utilizing post-modern techniques while exploiting perfectly the shallowest concerns of the New Transactional Man, homo economicus. Hints of sex and violence and family pathology round out the irresistible Spectacle.

But I, along with Mr. Zizek, insist the opportunity, the "conditions of possibility" for radical change, have in fact never been brighter. Much brighter than they would have been had a Hillary or even a Bernie won. Clinton was death by attrition, doing just enough superficial reform to keep liberals happy, building sea walls instead of border walls. And Bernie would have led the left into a box canyon of denouncing "billionaires" while propping up GDP and consumption levels of "the middle class". But Trump will take us careening on a drunken midnight run through the pitch black night in a souped up speed boat. Hang on tight folks! Rocky shoals ahead!

At the moment "citizens" are still in shock so actions are lame, a march here, some banner waving there. No real strategic thinking yet. But the combined depravity of the Democrats and outlandish burlesque of Trumps "new administration" make the capitalist-democracy critique super accessible to anyone with even a slight left leaning. One need only point out how the one truly consistent, defining feature of all Trumps picks is rabid market fundamentalism,they are all ideologues for whom externalities simply don't/can't exist.

Except they do. Because physics doesn't care how much Milton Friedman you have read. The crisis of late capitalism is manifold but again I will insist that the most glaring contradiction is the one between capital and physics which manifests as climate change. This total market failure is also the most pressing and this is the Achilles Heel that could destroy liberal conservative ideology if "we" can seize the moment. It will not last and may not come again- so it is time to get crackin. Talk climate debt and carbon budget. Stop focusing on pipelines and look at investment and production. With reality upended, it's time to get Real.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Victory? Black Snake or Hydra

Looking for some novel way to become even less popular in your "progressive community"? Try being critical of the Standing Rock Sioux. On Sept. 13 I wrote:"I fear No DAPL is a step backwards (from Breakfree) to localized NIMBY actions with mixed messaging and no mention of systemic change. A movement that lurches from action camp to action camp, re-acting to each new fossil fuel proposal, is not building momentum."

I will be the first to admit I totally underestimated the ability of Standing Rock to draw crowds. The allure is a fascinating subject for another day. I will also admit there has been of late some messaging around systemic change, but it exists in direct tension with the main narratives around Water and Sovereignty. That said, taking the announcement by the Army Corp that they will consider re-routing the pipe as a victory affirms my earlier opinion. By not thinking strategically and playing by Regulatory State rules (EIS), the tribal leadership boxed themselves into a corner and all that time, money and effort will result in a moved pipe full of poisonous bitumen.These are things I can only say on this obscure unread blog because white sympathy, Trump trauma, etc. etc.

In his statement Sioux spokesperson Dave Archambault said they took their "stand against the pipeline in the name of protecting our water. We are not opposed to energy independence...and economic development." They made a huge point of not being labeled protesters, as though they had transcended mere protest, as though ceremony and prayer were far superior to political action, and all their white allies went along, "listening" for ancient wisdom and hoping the "deeper connection" to Mother Nature might somehow rub off. Springsteen and Neil Young and all the other green celebs can parachute in for some connection and the vets can show up for protection but where are they when black lives need some of that juice?

This also morphed into a struggle over sovereignty and autonomy and disputed treaty obligations. Muddy territory on numerous levels. Did the white man conquer the aboriginal nations or did they reach a settlement? Do Natives want all the "un-ceded" land back, and will that happen through the courts? You can look up maps from the 1851 and 1864 treaties (Fort Laramie) and you can walk the Dakotas looking for "sacred sites" but mostly what you will find is shopping malls and fast food franchises, churches and liquor stores, Cabellas outlets and truckstops. And wind. Lots of wind.

Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network also took on a spokesperson role (through some process?) and he tried to straddle the divide between moderate tribal leadership and more radical elements, saying: "We cannot stop until this pipeline is completely and utterly defeated and our water AND CLIMATE are safe." Tom Goldtooth (unclear if this is same as Dallas?) is unafraid to mention capitalism and system change but Archambault said everybody could "return home". The giddy progressive media, desperate for SOME good news, used phrases like "overcome one of the most powerful political and economic forces in the world" and claimed the Standing Rock Sioux "got the justice they deserved." But Canadian PM Trudeau just OK'd the Kinder Morgan pipeline to the BC coast and expansion of the Enbridge Line 3 to US midwest. So the hydra just keeps growing new snakes. Shouldn't we be trying to cut off the head?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Just Listen

The standard, post-election "progressive" meme is that liberals need to listen to the working class, to really hear their grievances and not make assumptions about racism, sexism or xenophobia. I find this to be an especially subtle form of condescension. Liberals can feel righteous about accepting blame and redeem themselves by taking a little extra time out of their busy schedules to hear what the proles have been trying desperately to get across. And workers can't just be wrong; no, due to their innate "common sense" and "historical duty" they, like Native Americans, are intuitively wise and those grievances valid. The only problem is they lack the ability to articulate this wisdom. So we must listen harder. The racism, sexism, xenophobia etc.. is just a result of progressives not listening. I say bullshit.

As a laborer who has done plenty of listening, I have bad news. The "working class" is mostly clueless. It is not just a case of being ignored, nor even a disempowered inarticulation that is the problem. They just generally have no historical knowledge, mis-recognize their own interests and lie buried beneath tons of ideological rubble. So you can listen, sure, listen and scratch your head, and probe the bizarre logics (if you dare) but you will find cognitive dissonance, circular reasoning, contradiction and ignorance with every utterance. And let them be to blame. It is their fault. They can own it and not be patted on the head with sympathetic cooing. Guess what, there were no "weapons of mass destruction". Own your blunder.

The "working class" fucked up the labor movement and sold their souls for a few shiny trinkets and a seat at the Smart People's table. Oops. Now unionists are brandishing fancy new slogans that reflect all their innovative thinking, slogans like "Don't Mourn, Organize!" And the reason I put working class in scare quotes is because the categorical performativity of this word is hollowed out. As subjectivity or identity it is reduced to some income level or vague cultural cues that I defy anyone to list coherently. This is their fault as well. They succumbed and lost the class struggle and this is the new reality that is being ignored (or denied or disavowed or mis-recognized or...)Remember, the cops at Standing Rock or shooting unarmed black folk are "working class". Those pumping tar sands around the planet are "working class". Or possibly "middle class"? if they have some college and make a certain amount of money? And go to certain restaurants? Whatever.

So these are the folks Bernie Sanders and the Democrats and the labor unions want to bring back into the fold, the same folks a smarmy actor like Ronald Reagan lured away and a smooth Negro like Obama lured back and now a pathological comedian like Trump lured away again. "Come to our tent" say the smiling faces, "we have shinier trinkets, better jobs, bigger televisions, faster cars." Welcome back. We missed you.

Am I saying the left should not bother to try to organize folks who work for a living into a radical movement? No. I'm saying rather than making promises you can't keep ( New pickup in every garage!) try treating them like adults. Calling them out on the massive gaps in their arguments. They don't like history or science or math? Too bad. Dignify them by holding them to the same rigorous standard you hold any grown person and confront them straight on, as practice for the day we have real politics in a real democracy. You show people respect they might show you some.