Friday, March 28, 2014

The Spectre Haunts

"Revolutions,” Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2014

Lewis Lapham wrote a piece in Salon this month called “Crowd Control,” which is also the ‘preamble’ to this magazine’s issue.  In it he posed the obvious fact – though not so obvious for most – that revolution is the monster hiding behind the curtain of modern life.  The 'spectre of revolution' haunts the world.  This is what the rich fear the most, across the globe.  They do not fear the tinkerers, the moderates, the ‘reasonable’ people, the reformists.  These people pose no threat – in fact most of them are already in bed with the rulers, and it is a big bed and cozy.  And pays well too, I hear.  Perhaps 10% of the population dwells there in advanced capitalist countries.  But the other 90%?  Not so much.   This 90% is a problem for the ruling class and cause them much heartburn.  Even the recent rash of billionaires whining about being 'put upon' is a sign that their 'style' is being cramped. 

Revolution is sometimes the only idea that gives people hope that something can actually change.  Living in a society totally dominated by the rich, who boss the class around every day, or leave many to rot in unemployment or poverty - for life?  And a state armed to the teeth standing behind them.  And no way this would ever change.  Sort of like being in a locked room with no exit. Sanity requires real ‘hope’ – and revolution is the ultimate hope of oppressed peoples.

It has been noted that Marxism is beginning to be taken seriously once again by ex-liberals and radical intellectuals after its ‘death’ due to the collapse of the USSR.  A premature death, evidently.  Marxism provides the best description of capitalism, and that is its initial attraction  Compounding this is the collapse of traditional liberalism – tracked in books like 2006’s “The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual,” by Eric Lott and 2010’s “Death of the Liberal Class,’ by Chris Hedges.  (reviewed below, use blog search box.)  Harpers recently featured an article, “Nothing Left,” by Adolph Reed, criticizing how the Democratic Party has limited the agenda of the left.  These are not typical conservative sources slamming liberals, but ex-liberal and intellectual analyses that track the confluence of ‘liberalism’ with corporate Amerika .  Liberalism is Marxism’s main enemy at this time on the so-called ‘left’ in the U.S.  Of course, many liberals don’t even know they actually aren’t on the left.  Call them thick.  In European countries actual Marxism’s enemy is social-democracy.  Social-democracy too has been implicated in the rise of neo-liberalism – in fact is another face for it, the Euro face.

What is so interesting is that Lapham dedicates a whole volume to various revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries writing on that subject.  They are pro-revolution, anti-revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, half-revolutionary and sometimes lost in place.  Lapham edited Harpers in the ‘80s, his family is San Francisco aristocracy and he’s a Yalie – so he is a bit of a class traitor.  But he’s mostly an aesthete of revolution – appreciating it for its edgy nature, and not from any commitment to the working class.  Trotsky, Ho Chi Minh, Rosa Luxemburg, Che Guevara, Emma Goldman, Subcomandante Marcos, Toussaint L’Overture, Karl & Friedrich, Mao Tse-Tung, Prodhon, David Graeber, Nachaev and Victor Serge are some of the open leftists in this heavy-paper collection, while people like Dostoevsky, Freud, Lord Byron, Jefferson, Vaclev Havel, Joan Didion, Albert Camus and a host of others write about the subject from their esoteric vantage points. Even Hitler gets a word in, so a magazine titled 'Revolutions' evidently can't tell revolution from its opposite. 

What Lapham has done here is shine a spotlight on a subject that the bourgeois press distorts or hides.  As one of the included charts shows, ‘political’ uprisings and rebellions have increased in the world to the point where the 20th Century saw a huge increase in revolts.  His chart stops at 2000, but events certainly didn’t.  By using these charts – others include scientific and technological ‘revolutions - he is referencing the ‘power law’ discovered in complexity and chaos theory.  I.e. every event happens, but in a mathematical relation to other events in its field – the larger, the less frequent, but still – occurring.  And if revolutions, revolts and rebellions become more frequent in various localities across the globe?  Quantity can turn into quality.  Well, that suggests that we are approaching … world revolution of some type.  This is what makes our billionaires and oligarchs sleepless. 

However, as we know, overthrowing a government is not necessarily progressive. Revolution is not another name for any political turmoil or overthrow, though its used in that way by the corporate press. The IMF/EU/US coup in Ukraine is an example of a revolt that will replace one ruler with another.  The overthrow of Morsi in Egypt by the Egyptian military, an event ok’d by the U.S., returns Egypt for the most part to the status quo. These two are political revolts based primarily on pro-European Ukrainian nationalism and Egyptian capitalist class power. But the underlying reality – and I think the real cause for these overthrows – is the economic and social decay of the capitalist systems underlying each country.  Any charting of these events must indicate in which direction they go in response to these economic crises – backwards or forwards – or perhaps sideways, containing both aspects. Yet both usher in totally new political conditions.

Social revolution is the deepest form of revolution, and charts like this normally don’t distinguish ‘depth’ in this sense.  At least not yet. 

Lapham is a clever and well-read fellow who loves his words perhaps more than anything else.  So being witty is essential.  He also desires to show off how erudite he is, which has to account for some of the selections in this volume.  His preamble, ‘Crowd Control” borrows from Marx by way of Thomas Frank and the Baffler on the ‘commodification of rebellion.’  Essentially, capital will sell you your rebellion for the price of a tattoo or a Che T-shirt.  So can the revolution be bought?  He never answers that question, but seems pessimistic.  He thinks most social rebellion in the U.S. is some kind of cultural lark, echoing Tom Wolfe.  He is attracted to isolated liberal intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil, but plays fair with Marx and Engels.  Because he has too at this point. While hostile to Marxism, he can no longer ignore it.

The edition is loaded with full color illustrations, is built on quality paper and contains many articles about social, political, intellectual and technocratic revolutions and revolts past and present that you probably have never read.  Some are direct, some not.  It makes its rather steep price worth it.  But whether you read it or not – be aware.  Something is happening here, and you might know what it is, Mr. Jones.  The sensitive radar antennae of the radical intellectuals is quivering.

Red Frog
March 28, 2014

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