Thursday, April 28, 2011

Zizek Says: Wage Theoretical Class War Now!

“First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,” Slavoj Zizek, 2009
This is one of Zizek’s shorter books - he goes light on the Lacan/Freud and the Hegel/Kant. His books are sort of seminars, where the professor rambles around the stage for hours, riffing on various ideas, and you get your gold pan out and glean for nuggets. However, sometimes he goes back to Philosophy 5.0:

“Badiou’s ‘subtraction,” like Hegel’s Aufhbung, contains three different layers of meaning: (1) to withdraw, disconnect; (2) to reduce the complexity of the situation to its minimal difference; (3) to destroy the existing order.   As in Hegel, the solution is not to differentiate the three meanings (eventually proposing a specific term for each of them), but to grasp subtraction as the unity of its three dimensions: one should withdraw from being immersed in a situation in such a way that the withdrawal  renders visible the ‘minimal difference” sustaining the situation’s multiplicity, and thereby causes its disintegration, just as the withdrawal of a single card from a house of cards causes the collapse of the entire edifice.”

OK, you can stop laughing now. I think that could have been said in a simpler manner, but we are not philosophers.

This book actually builds to a somewhat unique proposition, which is not always normal for a Zizek book. That we act “As If” (Zizek always capitalizes the Important parts…) economic and environmental collapse were Actually going to happen, and not act ‘as if’ we had time to watch it happen.   You know, the famous phrase, ‘Well, let’s wait and see."  The paralysis of the will afflicting the Left in most parts of the advanced capitalist nations (and most impoverished ones, but not all) is a prime enemy. Zizek proposes what could be termed a communist / ‘voluntarist’ solution, or perhaps a far-seeing solution – to advocate, plan and propose as if these developing situations are NOT mirages.  Communists are children of the future, not children of the present (as are the liberals) and not children of the past (as are the conservatives.)  And as such, they have a unique ability to see forward. In other words, the people who understand that these events will occur, and actually understand they are already occurring, will be the ones who survive.

As Michael Ruppert says in the film “Collapse” about the people on a ship like the Titanic: There are three kinds of people on this ship:  1, the deer-in-the-headlights crowd; 2, the let’s do something to save ourselves crowd; 3, and the ‘nothings going to happen, so lets have a Martini’ crowd.  The bourgeoisie and the Right are in the last group.  The helpless liberals, centrists and apoliticals are in the first group.  Because liberals don’t actually believe that the economy or the environment ARE going to significantly change.  Most rooted, proletarian people are in the middle group.  And that is the group that will take action.

Zizek puts it this way, “Critical Leftists have hitherto only succeeded in soiling those in power; whereas the real point is to castrate them…” and “Liberal-democratic moralistic blackmail is over…our side no longer has to go on apologizing.  The other side had better start.” Zizek instead advocates a ruthless undermining of bourgeois ideology, which is the majority of this book. He quotes Marx about the ‘historicism’ of bourgeois ideology, which posits all other social systems as limited and historical, while capital will last forever. Zizek points out that capitalism ‘de-totalizes meaning’ – meaning it renders critical thought useless, and instead celebrates ‘efficiency’ alone.  Another Zizek: “Who needs direct repression when you can convince the chicken to walk right into the slaughter-house?” (Apologies to the meat-eaters.)  The ‘self-propelling circulation of Capital is the ultimate REAL in human life,’ according to him, and ‘money’ now the fifth element, after fire, water, earth and air.  Zizek: The ‘denial of ideology only provides the …proof that we are more than ever embedded in ideology.’

Of course, the key question is, what are the limits of ideology? And ultimately, there are no ‘limits’ - only a counter-ideology based on reality.   Zizek believes that advocacy of Communism is on the agenda, not ‘socialism’ (which he now no longer believes reflects the ‘lower phase of communism’) or liberal democracy, which has failed.  He discusses Berlusconi as the ultimate capitalist bourgeois-democratic fraud who yet retains power, and the parallel commodification of environmental or social concerns as safety valves.

Zizek also opposes Muslim movements that seem ‘anti-imperialist’ (and are seen that way by certain Leftists) because they ultimately oppose Enlightenment values, and celebrate obscurantism and repression.  Yet at the same time, they can reflect class tensions, absent an active Left (which has been mostly killed…) such as in Afghanistan.  In this context he highlights anti-religious Middle-Eastern movements, like the Qarmatians, a Bahraini secular, communist group that seized the Black Stone from Mecca, signaling the end of the “Law” many years ago.  Their rise was precipitated by a slave rebellion in the Basra marshes by the Zanji – 500,000 slaves over 15 years - that preached the radical egalitarianism of the Kharijites in the face of Islamic slave ideology.

Zizek understands that Obama will become “Bush with a Human Face,” but nevertheless does not denigrate the excitement of millions upon his election, as if some kind of corner had been turned.  He also refers to Kant’s excitement concerning the French Revolution, and compares the two.  This excitement reflects the true liberationist feelings of the majority of people when tyrannies fall, as if a weight had fallen from the head of the human race.  Zizek goes back to his concentration on the Haitian revolution, which took the slogans of the French Revolution at good coin, and freed that island from colonialism and slavery in one fell swoop.  The Haitian rebel army sang the Marseilles upon the approach of Napoleon’s troops, thus flinging the revolutionary song into the face of the now counter-revolutionary force.  However, because the Haitians could not continue the revolution, a black landed-aristocracy grew up to control the island – an aristocracy which eventually made peace with French and then U.S. imperialism.

Zizek ends by again repeating that, “We are the ones we have been waiting for” and “There is no big Other to rely on” and “We must begin from the beginning’ again.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!

Red Frog, April 28, 2011

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The God That Failed

Death of the Liberal Class – Chris Hedges, 2010

Met a real Democratic Party ‘liberal’ lately? Do you think they care about poverty? Or war? Or foreclosures? Or unemployment? Or even the environment? Most of them are economically very comfortable, and their wallet speaks for itself. But they do spend a lot of time telling you how stupid the right-wingers are, and how Sarah Palin is a loser. Or Glenn Beck. Or any number of obvious targets. And how bad Islam is. And that is it. That is the extent of their 'outrage' and knowledge. It’s more about cultural politics than anything else - a mirror reflection of the religious right's focus on culture instead of essentials.

Chris Hedges is an enraged, former member of the liberal ‘class.’ He was the son of a protestant preacher, a Master of Divinity at Yale and a former long-time journalist for the NY Times. According to him, the liberal class are the journalists, professors, artists, religious clergy, labor union leaders and members of the Democratic Party who have betrayed the working class and the majority of the population, and have instead grown to love, or at least compromise with, the ‘free market.’ And in the process, sold their soul to the devil. His moment of truth was when he publicly opposed the Iraq War at a commencement address in 2003, and was fired from the Times for it.

Hedges wants to borrow parts of Marxism – without Marx, of course – to reinvigorate a moral, left opposition to corporate control. As he puts it: “We have to learn again to speak in the vocabulary Marx employed.” He should start with the title of his book. Hedges liberal 'class' is really a part of the American petit-bourgeoisie - the non-business owners, professional side.Hedges describes the present weakness of the liberal ‘class’ as similar to historical situations like Weimar Germany and pre-revolutionary, Checkovian Russia. To Hedges, capital needs a strong liberal class, but when that class disintegrates or becomes house-broken, capital’s worst elements are no longer internally restrained.

Hedge’s book is part of a trend attacking liberalism. 2006’s “Disappearance of the Liberal Intellectual,” by Eric Lott and 2006’s ‘Strange Death of the Liberal Intellectual,” essay by Tony Judt were predecessors. In a way, this book is the liberal’s “God That Failed.” Though it is odd that the term 'neo-liberalism' is not used in this book, I think Hedges is correct in seeing liberalism itself as the dead thing. Hedges always sides with small groups and heroic individuals (a la Camus) or intellectuals (Tillich, Neibur) as the main alternative to corporatism and fascism. He identifies the liberal slide into corporatism beginning with the First World War, a war which froze or destroyed the building populist, labor and socialist movements. The liberals enlisted on the side of Wilson’s ‘war to end all wars’ and the ‘war for democracy.’ As usual, these wars were couched in ‘humanitarian’ and ‘progressive’ slogans. And, as always, the liberals 'believed' them.

In separate chapters, Hedges takes on the permanent war society promoted by the liberal class. He takes on journalists who merely reprint the statements of government officials and think tanks, and no longer report on facts; artists who have no interest other than providing entertainment; clergy who are too timid to speak against right-wing religion and war and have retreated into ‘contemplation;’ professors who focus on microscopic issues to avoid conflict; labor officials who cannot break with liberalism and have betrayed their members. And as he calls it the ‘worst of the bunch,’ the Democratic Party, which makes betrayal a standing requirement. He defends the pariahs of American society – courageous truth-tellers like Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, IF Stone, professors Richard Goldstone and Norman Finkelstein, journalist Sydney Schanberg and others. Hedges prefers intellectuals who not merely describe the world, but also the world’s contradictions. Of course, it has been said that the first duty of philosophy is the criticism of God and religion. And Hedges has a pronounced moral slant which looks for all the world like the musings of a former seminarian.

Downplaying Labor

Hedges, to my mind, generalizes frequently, and while hilariously correct in many instances, misses details that do not fit into his schema. Like labor. He says that the whole labor movement has been lost since 1948’s Taft-Hartley. And indeed, Taft-Hartley represented a severe counter-attack by capital against the brief spring in the 1930s. As did the anti-communist purges in the unions (and the Farmer-Labor Party), as well as the McCarthyite movement which accompanied it. The 1948 Progressive Party’s Henry Wallace campaign was the last gasp of that time. However, labor still held some kind of clout in American society until well into the 1970s. Labor’s second moment of political truth was really Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers – a seemingly skilled and white collar union. It’s third was Clinton’s passage of NAFTA. And its fourth is the present attack on public unions. In fact, it could be argued that labor activism in the 1970s lead to Reagan’s action (preceded by Jimmy Carter’s calling out the troops on the miners strike in 1978, thus signaling Democratic Party support for anti-labor measures…). The book, “Rebel Rank and File” chronicles the 1970s period of labor activism, mostly from below. Steve Early’s new book, “Labor’s Civil War” also covers this period, much of it inspired by activists from the left. So while Hedges wants to celebrate certain parts of the Marxism, he doesn’t seem to extend it to a thorough understanding of the working class movement.

Downplaying the Left

Hedges calls himself, at times, a socialist, of sorts. That is certainly commendable. In this book, however, he does not. He largely dismisses the 1960s-1970s new left’s concern with the working class, stereotyping the new left as a ‘mirage,’ as being only transient cultural rebels. Au contraire! Here is Hedges: “Only a few hundred radical Maoists, many of them living in communes in cities such as San Francisco, broke with SDS and took jobs in factories … but they were a tiny minority.” Other than this Life Magazine description of the left, he’s is definitely wrong. In SDS, one large section lead by Progressive Labor formed the “Worker Student Alliance” and encouraged students into the labor movement. After the split in SDS, every left grouping went into the factories, except the Weathermen. Black leftists went into the factories in Detroit and other cities. The SWP, an ostensibly Trotskyist formation, turned to labor a little later, and sent their cadre into the factories too. I know of no faction that did not, except the social democrats. This represented thousands and thousands of activists. But the ‘left’ as it exists seems to be a political opponent of Hedges, and therefore he has to minimize what it did. Certainly, ‘liberals’ and social-democrats were not going into factories. They were busy getting prestigious white-collar jobs and sucking on their wine glasses. They were busy blocking with the union leaders who had made their peace with capital. Hedges himself never clocked in at a factory – or even thought of it.

Downplaying the Mass Movement

Hedges does say we need to ‘…nurture, from the ground up, a social ethic, a new movement.” Hedges, like his other books, revisits the various progressive ‘stations of the cross’ – Thomas Merton, Deitrich Bonhofer, Father Berrigan and Dorothy Day – to illustrate what ‘true’ opposition to decaying capitalism means. However, he also talks about being like the ‘medieval monks,’ who had to preserve a ‘the moral culture’ for the future, in agricultural communities. Other than the obvious absurdity of in-grown theocrats carrying 'civilization' on their backs, Hedges here lays out a perspective of isolated communities creating fortresses of resistance. At the same time, Hedges says: “The fantasy of wide-spread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that – a fantasy.” He makes no mention of creating a new populist labor party to contest for power. Well, then, is the only role of a movement to hand out bowls of soup? Hedges, to his credit, does not disown self-defensive violence by classes and communities. However, he denounces Marx as ‘violent,’ as if defending yourself is not exactly what Marx advocated.

Of course, this is the key question. Various people looking on the present reality either throw up their hands (party on!), advocate retreat into protected dugouts, or theorize about complete overthrow. Hedges, like most commentators outside the revolutionary left, tends to come down on the middle alternative. At any rate, his book is a welcome addition to the literature against the not-so-hidden enemy – liberalism / neo-liberalism. Capital has two main ideologies, and sometimes the whispers of 'friends' are more dangerous than the howling of overt enemies.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, April 17, 2011

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Play! See It Before Its Over:

“Oil! & The Jungle,” adapted from Upton Sinclair, directed by Kym Longhi and Karla Grotting, 2011

Theater in Minneapolis is mostly middle-class entertainments, exemplified by the Guthrie, or trivial hipster indulgences like the “Fringe Festival.” However, given we are the Number Two theater town in the U.S. by population, there are other choices, from Intermedia Arts shows to the productions of August Wilson at Penumbra or the Pillsbury Theater, or the left-originated Mixed Blood theater and Frank Theaters. Please add the University of Minnesota Theater to the list. Because labor and socialism almost never get their due.

This play is adapted from the text of Upton Sinclairs two best novels, “Oil” and “The Jungle.” (Both reviewed below) Anyone who has read The Jungle knows it is a completely unforgiving description of ethnic working class life in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Oil! is a more nuanced panorama of social life in California around the time of the First World War and after, centering on the budding oil industry there, from the point of view of the new oil elite. “There Will Be Blood,” the excellent film starring Daniel Day Lewis, was based on Oil!, but did not really follow the text.

This play is a monster, in its own way. Using violent motion, acrobatics, multi-media, music and song, dance, text, carefully-constructed balletic movement, Brechtian acting, satire and socialist politics, it creates a new visceral whole. Even if you have not read these books, the message is staring you in the face. The set itself is a facsimile of the class structure, with the rich above and the workers and poor below. The “Oil!” world squats over the “Jungle” world. Some people go up or down a few ladders occasionally, but the two worlds are definitely separated by distance, and only joined by … money. It is on the spiral ladder that the limited class interactions take place. The play links present events to Upton Sinclair’s past - oil wars, the CDO derivatives crisis, present unemployment, the housing foreclosure crisis, the BP oil disaster, the on-going buying of presidents and the continuing brutal treatment of animals and humans in slaughterhouses, making this play not a mere historical artifact. At one point, the Marxist agitator from the Oil/Jungle (probably Eugene Debs) says, “It is up to you.”

This play could not have been performed by an older group of actors and actresses, due to its physicality. It would only be at the University that you could find the youth, energy and numbers to make this real. The large ensemble is lead by talented seniors. One senior acts in two roles at once, as the “Dad” in Oil! (using a dummy), and also as Bunny, his son. Others play multiple roles, as well as singing. An excellent job is done by all.

Warning! If you suffer from depression, are easily overwhelmed, are hard of hearing, are squeamish or prudish, expect a linear story, or are conservative in your politics, this play might not be for you.

This play is sponsored by Mayday Books.

Last 4 shows – April 13, Wednesday@7:30 PM
April 14, Thursday@7:30 PM
April 15, Friday@8:00 PM
April 16, Saturday@8:00 PM
$10-$18. Call.

And I saw it at … Rarig Thrust Theatre on the U of M West Bank.
Red Frog, 4/11/2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

“Freedom’s just another word ...” for wasting time

“Freedom – A Novel,” by Jonathan Franzen, 2010

Reviewers gushed over it – Updike, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy! Book clubs, on-line and off, made it their centerpiece. It went to #1 on the NY Times sales list for weeks. It was hailed as the best book of the year, and perhaps for 10 years before that. Oprah selected it for her book club, christening it a ‘masterpiece’ - even after being insulted by Franzen for her embrace of his earlier book, ‘The Corrections.” It burned up Twitter. Obama was seen reading it, unlike the book "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” given him by Chavez. The literary establishment had found a book they almost all liked, which is significant in the world of cultural politics and the middle-class cultural spectacle.

For that reason, it took me awhile to stomach opening this 562-page book. But authors, above all, write for themselves, and hence are not passive participants. After all, a guy who insulted Oprah couldn’t be all bad.

It dawned on me that the title is not an accident. “Freedom” is a generic term at this point in history, and certainly the characters in this book do not use their ‘freedom’ well – nor, I suspect, does Franzen think Americans use their freedom well. The characters spend it on jealousy, depression, drinking, sex, money-grubbing, fame, stupid politics and one doozy of an ‘environmental’ plan that involves mountain-top removal. Sort of like Homer Simpson as a ‘green’ job worker.

This book is full of accurate satiric comments on various cultural habits of present times, and these comic moments form little oases that carry one through the book. Without them, I don’t know if I could have made it. “Freedom” has been described by some as ‘political.’ And indeed it reflects the politics of the 9/11 - Iraq war era well, as reflected in several households – a middle-class one, a working-class one, and a ‘hipster’ one. War and the environment take center stage. The book is first set in St. Paul on Ramsey Hill in the late 80s, and in Grand Rapids, in a motel and cabin, then trails to Washington D.C., New York and West Virginia, so the local references work the same way they work in the film, ‘Factotum” – giving us all the ability to name-check.

Walter Berglund, the main protagonist, grows up in a working-class/small businessman family, and flees its northern Minnesota crudity to become a political correct liberal. He marries a jock girl, Patty, from an upper-middle class family out of Westchester County, NY (where else?), and the tale of their bad marriage forms the emotional center of the book. Walter eventually comes up with a scheme to save the ‘cerulean warbler’ by strip-mining a chunk of West Virginia, which is then supposed to be ‘reclaimed’ for all time for the bird. Of course, this is a transparent sleight-of-hand by some oil man to cover his tracks. Walter is aided in this project by a beautiful young Bengali women, Lalitha, who he falls in love with as his marriage falls apart.

Walter and Patty have a son, Joey, who leaves the family home and moves next door with a working-class family so he can have sex with their passive daughter, Connie. Joey later comes up with his own cock-eyed scheme, as a 19-year-old, to sell rusted Eastern European truck parts to the U.S. government in Iraq. And succeeds! Joey is torn between the sexy airhead sister of his rich college roommate and his real connection with Connie and her family. Through the whole marriage, Walter’s friend Richard, a magnetic punk-rock musician, completes an emotional ‘triad’ with Patty and Walter. Richard goes on to some success as an alt-country musician, and then as a film scorer. The book is book-ended by ‘autobiographical’ soliloquies by Patty, explaining her life and her self. And ends with what I consider a parachuted ‘happy’ ending. How a book ends is testimony to an authors toughness and truth-telling, and here, Franzen show cowardice and dodges the bullet.

In this book the working-class is depicted for the most part as a bunch of loutish, right-wing, obdurate drunks. This is pretty typical for middle-class writers. Connie’s mother’s monster-pickup boyfriend cuts down almost every tree in their yard, for instance. The middle-class is shown as ultimately sensitive and kind, though misguided and inept. Richard, the bohemian, is supposed to be the ‘truth-teller’ (Richard makes Marxist noises every now and then…) and for the most part, he does that - though he is ultimately most concerned about his music career and his sexual conquests. However, in the end, every character is a comic/cosmic joke, given the overall war and environmental concerns that Franzen evidently has. And here, I think, is the ultimate point. No one is up to the task of dealing with what the system is ultimately doing. In essence, they are not using their freedom well.

Most reviewers wallow in the personal stories of this family, as if the meaning of this novel was purely intimate. It strikes me that Franzen is not exclusively 'that kind of writer' - but since this is the road to success in the U.S., perhaps he will become more like 'that kind of writer.' None of these people are exactly likable, or reliable, but they do strike you as people you might have met at one time. And that is what makes this book a little like a deep rabbit hole, from which you will enter on one end, and come up miles away, in another.

And I bought it at the independent bookstore, Cheap Books

Red Frog