Thursday, January 31, 2013

What Are Some Things That Could Be Done? (Leninism in the Age of Social Media, Part 3)

Even though the crisis in the British SWP is what goaded me to begin writing this much overdue series, I am trying to stay focused and not get distracted by that growing imbroglio. I will link to the U.S. ISO's statement on the controversy as something that deserves comment by people who have experience both inside that organization and with attempting to work with them from the outside--and I have both--but I will not be the one to make that commentary. Not just yet, at least.

To get constructive, we need to discuss the changes in human social relationships that have been induced by the technological changes in question. Any political praxis that does not come to grips with those changes would not, in fact, be political at all, but anachronistic hobbyism comparable to Renaissance Faires. Making no claim to exhaustiveness, here are a few changes that come readily to my mind as requiring changes in left practice:

  • Secrecy is over. Privacy was nice while we had it, but it's gone. Even before Facebook began monetizing personal data and propagating the self-interested ideology of "real names only," it was possible for anyone with sufficient computing power and motivation would be able, through IP address lookups and the like, be able to identify the putatively anonymous on the web. It is safe to assume that any sufficiently large and wealthy state has sufficient computing power, and if you as an activist are doing anything worthwhile, that will give them motivation enough to identify you. Effective online identity cloaking is a must for certain activists: e.g., those who live under states that make a routine practice of torture, or in the U.S., those trying to unionize their workplaces. But because it now deviates from the norm, when taken as an option it carries risks, reducing an activist's ability to create and shape his or her own reputation on a global stage and impinging upon perceptions of their integrity and normalcy. Almost, the most commonly used forms of online security are ineffective for the purposes they are meant to serve, while carrying all the disadvantages of secrecy. "Security culture" becomes security theater, and most often the type of play is farce.
  • Speed matters more than accuracy. Corrections can be made in seconds, but you can never regain an opportunity you missed by remaining silent.
  • Everyone you know is a potential spokesperson. For better or for worse. If someone who is perceived as being close to a particular grouping has a significant online presence, then the statements he or she makes in the heat of the moment matter far more than official statements published in due course on the official website with the imprimatur of the Central Committee, regardless of whether he or she is an official "member" or "sympathizer" or "supporter" or what have you. I have seen groups that don't get this handle it in exactly the wrong way, placing de facto gag orders on those who are closest to the organization and most likely to understand its approach--and thus leaving their views to be, in effect, represented to the public by amateurish fans.
  • The "correct line" is most likely to emerge through dialogue. Actually, this was always true, and the statements to this effect by Trotsky especially are some of the most overlooked nuggets of brilliance in the history of political literature. The difference is that when Trotsky wrote in the 1930s about political groupings being "engaged in dialogue with the working class," he was mostly speaking metaphorically. It is not the organization per se that would engage in dialogue with the class as such, but individual organizers, propagandists and agitators engaged in dialogue with co-workers, relatives, friends, neighbors and the occasional letter-writer. Those same dialogues can continue to take place through different media, but now can be sped up, aggregated and continually refined. The dialogue is no longer a series of metaphorical solos, but a real, interlaced polyphony.
  • The hardest thing is not to gain attention, but to hold it. We no longer face a scarcity of the means of communication; what has become scarce instead is human attention. This can be particularly challenging for radicals, since we face the challenge of demystifying the whole assemblage of social relations which our audience has been trained to take for granted; "tl;dr" is the last thing you want to see. The challenge has led some radical theorists to urge radicals to turn away from the "communicative capitalism" of social media. Historically, though, the Marxist attitude toward capitalism's baleful effects has been to try and move forward and through them. The scarcity of attention means a partial inversion of the relationship between propaganda and agitation presented in What Is to Be Done? In that, propaganda had to precede agitation in Russia in order to cohere a core of conscious Marxists, who would then go out and carry out agitation at the factory gates. Now propaganda and agitation must reinforce one another in a continuous stream, such that someone whose attention is seized by an agitational appeal may be drawn in to considering the more complicated questions of what kind of future they would like to see.
  • Propaganda and agitation can no longer be distinguished from one another by audience size, but only by the complexity of ideas to be presented. Even if only 0.01% of Twitter users might eventually click-through to read an essay about communism, that's still tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Figuring out what your audience is ready to hear can easily be tested: By saying what you mean. Like the point about dialogue, this is something I've always believed to be true, even though it cuts against the grain of established traditions of duplicity in certain corners of the left. Again, though, it is magnified when technical boundaries to response and dialogue are reduced or removed.

There is a further point that I need to make, though, about the basis on which these shifts can take place. At the time that Lenin wrote What Is To Be Done?, the RSDLP which was taking shape was part of an international composed of mass parties. Several of those parties had in their ranks theorists who were working to advance a Marxist understanding of human social development on the basis of newly emergent phenomena and new data. Thus he could write as if theory was a tertiary concern of the party, somewhere behind organization, propaganda and agitation, because he believed the Germans (especially Kautsky) were taking care of it for him. That was a view that shifted, clearly.

Compared to the literary output of the Second International at its pre-World War I peak, or of the Communist International in the brief period before the imposition of Stalinist ideological uniformity, very little of what is published today as Marxist theory (political, social, economic) or historical investigations measures up, either qualitatively or quantitatively. Extant generations of radicals need to be retrained so as to be able to contribute, to whatever extent they can, great or small, to a scientific discourse on human social development--as Marx and Engels once did in criticizing bourgeois political economy, and as Luxemburg did to Kautsky in her political and economic writings. Not with vituperation (though it's sometimes fun to read, and write), appeals to authority and emotional references to the imagined programmatic consequences of theoretical findings, but with facts, figures and logical analysis. Theoretical questions can and should be addressed iteratively, by seeing how well competing hypotheses fit facts, not by selecting facts to fit one's pet ideology. Theoretical questions can not be settled by majority vote (though they can and at times should be tabled by majority vote), nor by the number advanced degrees held by those adhering to a particular stance.

So here's my modest proposal: Instead of the innumerable sects-of-few and burnt-out sects-of-one that comprise the left in most countries, a single party dedicated to the proposition of "the self-emancipation of the working class through political means." Each of the words in that phrase is potentially subject to debate over its meaning: That's fine, I look forward to that debate. Through such a debate we could regain the theoretical clarity and vigor our movement has lacked for a century. Such a party would of necessity be international; its scientific name would be the "Communist Party," but unfortunately in the U.S. that name is being squatted on by a particularly slavish appendage of the Democratic Party, and it is associated with a wide variety of historical betrayals in every country of the world--so different names and should be found.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Things You Can Create: Anthology Blog Hop

The eBook speculative fiction anthology Things You Can Create is now available for purchase on Smashwords.

Readers of this blog can also get a coupon to purchase the anthology for 1/3 off. Go to https://www.smashwords.com/dashboard/coupons/create/273281 and use coupon code LL29S (not case sensitive) during checkout.

The following is my contribution to the "blog hop" by authors whose stories appear in the anthology:

1. What is the title of your story?

One-Sided

2. Describe your story in 1 sentence.

There is a twist, but not in the ending.

3. Where did you get the idea for this story?

This is the first short story that I have written in my adult life that did not make me want to curl up and die of embarrassment. Prior to its writing, my wife and I had been driving around a suburban neighborhood, near a place where I was considering taking a job. The drive was making it clear that neither of us would be happy living there, and as we often do when we are uncomfortable, we were cheering each other up with jokes. Some of my jokes were mathematical in nature. And I was engaged in some well-timed reading of Raymond Carver. I told my wife that this could be a story, and she challenged me to write it. The idea took shape in the midst of its writing.

4. If your story were optioned for film, what actors would play the main characters and why?

Bear in mind, as you read my response, that the last time I went to see a film in a theater was more than six years ago. Also, if this story were optioned as a film, it would have to be some 15-minute student thesis project, or one of those short films that fill programming gaps at festivals. The actor portraying Anton would need to come across as intelligent, but a bit manic, and be able to do accents convincingly. To convey that Lila is a school librarian soon to become a stay-at-home mother, she would need to diverge somewhat from Hollywood conventions of beauty, since film as a genre traffics in visual stereotypes--but still be beautiful, so that audience members could visually perceive that Anton is lucky to be with her. She would have to be talented enough to convey rapid emotional changes and silent trains of thought with hardly any words. I think Adrien Brody and Anne Hathaway could pull it off, but I can't imagine either of them signing up for a student thesis film.

5. Who are your favorite writers? Why?

Were I to answer this question as it has been asked, I would have to say "It depends on my mood," my stock response to all questions about my favorite anything. So instead I will answer this question as if I had been asked, "If you were stranded on a desert island with the collected works of three writers, which would you want them to be?" My answer to that would be: Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. As to why, it would be because I could read their works, again and again, always finding new things to contemplate, without triggering nostalgia for the world I have lost. In the case of Beckett, it would either put in me in the right frame of mind to curtail the solitary ordeal by drowning myself in the sea, or worse yet, to indefinitely delay that drowning and thereby to gain the strength to endure.

6. What else about this story will enthrall readers?

I would be rather disappointed if any readers were enthralled by my story. I don't set out to enthrall, that is, to enslave, to bind a reader to the yoke of a narrative and set them to work rowing the galleon along for me. I prefer it if readers resist the story point by point, only to find themselves at the end of it wondering, "What the heck was that?", and thinking about it. No, I don't think this story does that even one-hundredth as well as the works of the writers I referred to above. What I aim to do is not to transport the reader into another world, but to transfigure how the reader sees the world he or she is in, and thereby to understand it better.

Incidentally, that is how Samuel Delaney described the function of science fiction in his essays collected in Starboard Wine, but before I read those essays, I naively thought that was what one ought to expect of all fiction. I still think that, less naively now.

7. What are you working on, now?

Holding down a full-time job as a grant writer and research administrator, while trying to be a decent father to my daughter and husband to my wife.

In terms of writing, I usually have several things going at once: In the 15 months since I first wrote One-Sided, I have written 15 stories that I consider to be complete. Two of those have been published: This one, and Moose Season in The Big Click. Most of the rest are currently submitted and pending consideration with various publications. Some are in the realm of speculative fiction, others crime fiction, and some appear to adhere to the conventions of literary realism. Others are just bizarre. My aim for this year is to get enough of these stories published that I can make a credible pitch to agents or publishers for a collection.

There are several more stories I am working on that are either incomplete or in need of significant editing. I take those up as the mood takes me.

I also have two ideas for novels, but both are in very preliminary stages. One is to try and take inspiration from the epic dysfunctionality of the Tomaras family, and tell a story that is neither tell-all nor lightly "fictionalized" memoir. I'm not sure where I'm going with that yet, only that the moirai will figure heavily in it. For the other idea--a kind of Cloud Atlas-y thing involving Benedict Spinoza--I at least have a working title (From the Point of View of Eternity), but I won't be able to do any serious writing on it until I have time and money for a trip to the Netherlands. I need to be able to smell the canals.

When I'm not making progress with fiction, I have been sporadically working at translations of pieces by the early 20th century Yiddish poet Yosl Grinshpan.

For previous entries in the Things You Can Create blog hop, please visit:

For today's other entry, please visit Michelle Markey Butler's blog.

If you've bought the anthology and read One-Sided, please feel free to leave your comments about it--positive or negative, but please keep it constructive--here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Toward a Politics of Urgency: Leninism in the Age of Social Media, Part 2

Within the last two decades, we have seen two significant technical changes in the forces of production, either of which alone should have been sufficient to compel a historical materialist re-examination of all inherited strategies, tactics, organizational methods and truisms of working-class radicalism:
  1. A dramatic transformation in the means and pace of communication, by way of information technology, and
  2. The emerging scientific consensus that industrial sources of greenhouse gases will transform or have already transformed the Holocene climate from that in which human civilization came to be(as summarized in Bill McKibben's eaarth and my discussion of it).

That I am not aware of any attempts to address these developments that do not either default into an argument for business as usual or abandon the central hypothesis of Marxism--that is, the potential revolutionary agency of the working class--is cause for great concern. It may well be that there are examples that I am just not aware of, whether because of language barriers, or recent health problems, or the fact that there is just not enough time in the day. I have no particular pride of authorship in the notion that these facts need to change how those who claim the banner of communist revolution go about their business. I would prefer not to be alone in that perception, and therefore encourage readers to post examples of individuals, groupings or texts that they believe have made attempts worthy of consideration.

To carry on doing the same thing year in and year out regardless of results, particularly when facing the threat of a relapse into barbarism, fits Einstein's definition of insanity, not scientific socialism--and Einstein knew more than a bit about science (and less, but still some, about socialism). The particular "something" that I have in mind is the attempt to build propaganda groups along democratic centralist lines. This is not something I am absolutely opposed to: I hypothesize that it was historically necessary for a certain period, from about 1933 until some time in the late 1990s, certainly no later than 2000. I was engaged in the continued effort to create such a group, in various ways, for most of my adult life--well beyond the point at which I now believe it to have been outlived. (If I ever have to look my daughter in eye and apologize to her for something, it will be for having expended so much of my intellect and energy in a method of trying to transform the world that had been outlived. Many of us have apologies to make to future generations.)

The concept of a democratic centralist propaganda group emerged in the Trotskyist movement in the course of the 1930s, as an ad hoc response to a situation brought on by the Stalinist counterrevolution. (It is not unique to the Trotskyist tradition--similar developments and groupings, albeit with a different nomenclature, can be found in the ultra-left and Maoist milieus at various points.) It was a situation defined by scarcity: scarcity of cadres, scarcity of experience, and scarcity of means of communication. With the few remaining cadres with direct experience of the Russian Revolution, the post-World War I European outbreaks and the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 getting destroyed, physically or psychologically, by fascism, Stalinism and war, it was perhaps inevitable that the few remaining survivors (including Trotsky himself) would carry an immense authority. Trotsky's correspondence from this period shows him trying (and at times failing) to walk a delicate balance between allowing his comrades the chances to learn from their own mistakes and asserting his authority to try and prevent them. After all, he was operating under a similar shadow of urgency, that of recognizing the impending catastrophe of the next World War and, like Cassandra, being believed by hardly anyone.

In response to an unprecedented situation, Trotsky and the Trotskyists innovated. Yet precisely because their claim to revolutionary leadership depended upon continuity with past revolutionary victories, they couched their innovation in a tactically necessary appeal to tradition. As already alluded to, the arguments which most people politically schooled in the Trotskyist tradition will use in favor of democratic centralism and propaganda groups derive, at varying removes, from Lenin's What Is to Be Done?. What is less often noted is that these two phenomena belong, in Lenin's presentation of the history of the RSDLP, to two distinct periods. The propaganda groups form an early stage in the party's development, in fact precede the party, and belong to a period of localism during which dissident intellectuals came into contact with rebellious, intelligent workers and attempted to come to terms with the theoretical and strategic debates between Marxism and Russian Populism. For Lenin by 1901, that period was definitively in the past, and now was the time for democratic centralism--not in matters of propaganda, which he follows Plekhanov in defining as the presentation of "many ideas to one or a few persons"--but in matters of action, tactics, and the then all-important question of who was to serve on the editorial board of a newspaper and how that newspaper would relate to the party's Central Committee. There are important historical and academic lessons to be drawn from the points made, by Lars T. Lih and others, about the extent to which Trotskyists and other putative Leninists have misinterpreted that book. That, by itself, does not invalidate a particular method of political organizing: Political movements, no less than nations, states and religions, must at times base themselves upon invented traditions. We, in recognizing it as invented, can feel free to re-invent it as needed to address the "burning questions of our movement".

Continuing the historical presentation, then, we come to the phenomenon--by no means universal among Trotskyist groupings, and used to such ignoble aims in the current scandal in the British SWP--of post-conference bans on factions. At least for anglophone organizations like the SWP that employ it, it derives from the 1939-40 faction fight between the U.S. SWP majority led by James P. Cannon and the minority led by Max Shachtman, and the (pardon the pun) Cannon-ical documents collected as The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. It is at this point that the scarcity of means of communication, felt so acutely by Trotsky, is elevated into a central point in the argument: Cannon appeals to the fatigue felt by the mimeograph machines and the people charged with operating them in the central office as a reason to put the debate to an end.

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of Cannon's approach today, it should go without saying that the argumentum ad mimeographicum has no place in politics today. When we consider the scarcities described above, we find that the scarcity of cadres and experience are if anything even more dire today than in the late 1930s, but the scarcity of communication is a thing of the past. (And this is not just a "first world problem." Here's a challenge: Find a population center without a single smart phone.) It is no longer communication and information that are scarce, but attention. When information on outbreaks of struggle pour in faster than the smartest member of the best-trained Central Committee can possibly assimilate, the conservatizing tendency of centralism that Rosa Luxemburg predicted (albeit a century too soon) comes decisively to the fore.

What, then, is to be done? Well, it was the depressing realization that I was neither Lenin nor Trotsky that was among the reasons I have, the last couple years, retreated to literature and private life. At this point, though, I think I have a mature enough sense of what I can contribute, and will do so, soon. (I know I promised more positive suggestions in this installment, but the historical presentation took longer than I expected, so I'm going to go ahead and publish this, and begin working on a Part 3.) In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts, whoever you may be, in the comments.

Friday, January 25, 2013

eaarth

Bill McKibben's eaarth is two books in one. The first book, consisting of the first two chapters, presents a rigorous, evidence-based argument enlivened by well-chosen anecdotes, in favor of the thesis that we have already passed certain critical thresholds of atmospheric carbon, triggered certain feedback loops, that mean we have fundamentally transformed the earth's climate from that in which human civilization arose and came to thrive. (Note also that this was published in 2010.)

That book is an indispensable political document that should be read by all.

From a parochial perspective, this thesis also implies that the traditional boundary between realist fiction and science fiction is obsolete. That fiction is most realistic which takes place in worlds that are unrecognizably strange. (One could make an argument that this is what literary modernists were grasping for a century ago in response to the mass industrialization that got us to this point. With rare and brilliant exceptions, however, they failed.) To approximate this synthesis, realist fiction would need to become more realistic--more Bangladeshi teenage girls walking hours every day to find potable water, working-class people of color seeking to escape the waters of Katrina or Sandy, or even Maine lobstermen trying to find a bearable market price for a bumper-catch of shedders, many fewer middle-aged professors pondering mortality and lusting after their students. And science fiction must become more scientific. I should thank McKibben for prompting me to write the sentences that describe what I attempt in my fiction.

More significantly, however, he provides a prod to my political thoughts. And that is by way of the second book, comprising the last two chapters, in which he sets forth his preferred responses, which in no way follow logically from the situation he describes.

He describes a situation in which sea levels will rise, and hundreds of millions of people will be displaced, most of them from what are already some of the poorest places on earth. And he proposes a devolution of political and economic power to the smallest possible units, creating additional boundaries in addition to those that already kill. He describes a global natural system that has been perturbed by human action in a complex manner, such that most of the impact stems from a minority of the population and a minority of nations. In response, he prescribes smallness and simplicity, setting up the Prisoner's Dilemma to be enacted ten-thousandfold.

To illustrate my point, I will not even resort to the most dire situation--and one that McKibben himself cites several times in the first book, but not the second--that of Bangladesh, with 160 million of the world's poorest people in mortal danger. That would be too manipulative. Instead, let's go back to Greece. The summertime air pollution in Athens is notorious. Topography, climate, population density, overloaded infrastructure and a complete lack of political will to enforce even existing (inadequate) environmental regulations conspire to make the capital's atmosphere into an unbreathable aerosol of ozone and fine particulates. Now, in the midst of the economic crisis, the government following EU and IMF diktat has increased taxes on home heating oil and natural gas. How have everyday Greeks, at least 25% of whom are unemployed and, of those who are employed, likely have not received a paycheck in months, responded? Certainly not by tapping the country's immense geothermal resources, or tidal or wind or solar power, with all of which they could be blessed. That requires capital, a word that appears in McKibben's books only under such aliases as "sunk costs" or "business". Instead, people desperate for heat and unable to afford oil or gas have done what anyone in that situation would do: Break out their old, mothballed stoves and burn any piece of wood they can find--old furniture, the tree in the backyard, etc. Now the air in both Athens and Thessaloniki--Greece's second (and usually more livable) city--will choke you in winter as well.

That can't be good for the carbon footprint.

McKibben would no doubt say that part of his prescription involves the shrinking and de-urbanization of the cities, a return to rural life. And that is spontaneously underway in Greece, helped along by a strong, romantic attachment to the horio (village, country homeplace) in popular culture. But even assuming that a few million Athenians and Salonikans made their way back to the underpopulated horio, what would they do then? There's a comic novel to be written, by whoever the Greek version of T.C. Boyle might be, about the phenomenon.

What would 60,000 people stranded in Fort McMurray do to keep warm after the Great Devolution? Burn tar sands? That, more than the prospect of a few million Greeks chopping down fruit trees or bothering goats, should keep us all up at night.

Global problems require, at least as a first attempt, global solutions that transcend (i.e., abolish) the boundaries of nation-states. They require planning that takes into account multiple orders of effects within complex, non-linear, recursive systems, for several decades in advance. It requires decision-making processes based on the question "is this worth doing for the long-term preservation and improvement of human life?", not the question, "can a make a profit by going it?" There's a word for that: Communism.

McKibben dismisses Marx with a wave of the hand, but it's safe to bet that anyone who uses Khrushchev as an avatar of communism has never read volume III of Capital. And yes, I know that the ecological passages of that focus primarily on nitrogen fixing. But Marx died thirteen years before Svante Arrhenius formulated the greenhouse law, and Engels published Volume III two years before Arrhenius's work. Not to mention, nitrogen fixing is a significant concern of McKibben's as well, precisely because the use of industrial fertilizers is a significant source of atmospheric greenhouse gases. And "Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country" appears as early as the Communist Manifesto. Ecology is not incidental to Marx and Engels' conception of communism, but essential to it, precisely because, as good ex-Hegelians, they were accustomed to thinking rigorously about complex systems. McKibben throws up his hands about the very possibility of such thought, precisely because he remains within the narrow confines of a money economy that creates and reinforces, through the fetishization of human relationships, its impossibility.

Nonetheless, he is correct (up to a point) that existing ideologies need to shift in response to the new reality of "eaarth". To the extent that existing interpretations of Marxism do not base themselves upon rigorous scientific re-evaluation they have become ideologies.

One such ideology has been the ossification of Rosa Luxemburg's watchword and warning, "socialism or barbarism," into a description of two equidistant unimaginable futures. Even after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the far left grew complacent in capitalism's capacity to save itself from itself and pull back from its own worst excesses. Barbarism, in Luxemburg's sense, refers back again to the Manifesto, the "common ruin of the contending classes"--for Marx and Luxemburg both knew their Livy. That is, a situation where the capitalists, having been allowed to retain their power for too long due to the pusillanimity of the leaders of the proletariat, have destroyed the material conditions either for the continuance of their own system, or of anything better.

What the first part of eaarth shows us is that we are already well on our way to that state. Barbarism is no longer an abstract threat, but a state of affairs whose onset can be estimated, calculated, and placed within the projected lifetimes of most people now on the planet. And in the absence of organized and conscious revolutionary activity, we are much further from socialism than from barbarism. The response to that should not be despair, but urgency.

What is needed now is a politics of urgency. (Which brings me to the doorstep of the second part of my series on Leninism in the Age of Social Media, which I'll likely finish and post this weekend.)

Before I cross that threshold, though, one final word on McKibben. It is not entirely out of the question that his vision of the future could come to pass. Should we cross over into Luxemburg's barbarism, McKibben's of simple lives led in small communities bound by ties of mutual aid may well be the best-case scenario. But even with his somewhat grudging acknowledgment of certain dangers, it is far from as pleasant a prospect as he seems to think. Consider the state of Vermont, where McKibben lives and to which he justifiably makes many references--it's a lovely place. Maine, where I live, is nearly as good a place to go as Vermont to ride out the apocalypse, and there likely are few better places in the world for such a purpose than our states. Surely, though, he's familiar with the word "flatlander," just as I am with the phrase "from away." There's another word to bear in mind here, xenos, foreigner, or more literally, "person from away," from the people who gave us the word xenophobia--yes, I'm talking about Greeks again. And who, in Greece, is most aggressively practicing mutual aid? You guessed it--Golden Dawn, handing out packages of staple foods, but "for Greeks only".

In that world, one's well-being will be a function of how close to the equator you are, how close to the shore, how well you fit and are respected by those who are your neighbors now, or would fit in and be respected by those who would be your neighbors in the places you need to flee. It is a prospect not of ten thousand Vermonts, but of several billion varieties of hell.

Discordia

When I was nine years old, my younger cousin Kyriakos, his mother (my aunt Sofia) and my Yiayia (grandmother) came to live with us for about a month. It was a strange and difficult month: We moved menorot to make space for the icons Yiayia had brought with her, and woke each Sunday to the smell of burning incense. Since the visit came in spring, Yiayia spent the duration of the Passover seders huddled upstairs in the room we had given her, bawling at the thought of her grandsons consigned to whatever type of perdition Greek Orthodox theology reserves to the Jews. Six-year-old Kyriakos revealed the prejudices to which he had been exposed. When my mother revealed to him that she, my brother and I were all Jews, he raised his hand as if to beat the devil out of her.

Later, as if to reassure himself that America was not some pit of vipers, he asked her if she was Nea Dhimokratia or PASOK--until recently, the two major parties in Greece. He found her explanation of the differences in America, and her avowed identity as a Democrat, reassuring, since Democrat--for etymological reasons well-known to adult readers--sounds much like the Greek word dhimokratia.

The alignment of my Greek relatives with the avowedly right-wing ND had nothing to do with their material conditions or the program of the party: They were broke, their only real asset Yiayia's increasingly dilapidated two-story house in a suburb of Athens. It was a function of inheritance: My Yiayia's status as a scion of an old family of prosperous Athenian merchants, and my Pappou's past as a fascist bully boy turned soldier turned cop turned anti-communist torturer turned barely legitimate business man. If the right gained power, someone in a family of that pedigree who remained loyal to its affiliation could expect a few favors with which to keep body and soul together. If that meant indoctrinating one's children into a world view that saw the Turks, Jews and communists bound up together in a conspiracy to keep true Hellenes down, that was the price.

It was thus that I did not truly understand the significance of the economic crisis that has been grinding away at Greece for six years now until I friended Kyriakos on Facebook--and realized that his political allegiances belonged to SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, a motley jumble of Eurocommunists, left social-democrats, Trotskyists and other assorted radicals. It meant that the inherited patronage networks which had kept a sclerotic, thoroughly corrupt elite in place for four decades since the overthrow of the Junta were beginning to crack up under the strain of the economic crisis.

Yet that elite remains in place, guarded in different ways by the armed force of their police, the demobilizing and disorganizing efforts of the union bureaucracies, and the brutality of fascist auxiliaries styling themselves "Golden Dawn". For the radicalization has not only been toward the left, and while SYRIZA may end up the most popular party in the next elections, it is near certain that Golden Dawn will place third, behind the zombified remains of Nea Dhimokratia. In the last elections, 40% of all police officers voted for Golden Dawn.

This is a statistic that is met with shock and alarm by many in the Anglophone left. Young radicals in English-speaking countries learn about fascism by reading Trotsky and Gramsci and then show, through their actions, that did not understand a word they read--shouting insults and slogans at hooded Klansmen or swastika-ed neo-Nazis through thick lines of armored police, or hysterically decrying every president from LBJ to GWB as "fascists," and sometimes both. Young radicals in most other countries of the world have their own confusions, but for them fascism is written into the peculiarities of their own family histories, not just books. Greece is no exception, nor is my family, and I have already mentioned Pappou. Even at two generations remove, fascism is written on my body in the shape of a character-giving bump on my nose, left by the fist of a father who never learned to control his inheritance of rage.

I therefore approached Discordia by Laurie Penny, with illustrations by Molly Crabapple, with skepticism. I barely feel like I can understand Greek politics, and I have studied it, can read the language, have family ties there, and follow all the right Twitter feeds. Could a journalist and illustrator without such connections make any sense of things at all?

Penny is a good journalist, with an excellent habit of mentioning telling details in an understated manner. The preface by Paul Mason compares her to Hunter S. Thompson, but this book has more in common with Homage to Catalonia or the The Road to Wigan Pier than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I'll give just one example.

There is lengthy disquisition in the middle about distrust of journalists in radical-left spaces that turns into a dialogue between Penny and Crabapple about how young women who dare to try and make an impact in the public sphere need a certain swagger. I found myself getting bored with it, wishing that Penny would get back to the discussion of Greece. And then Penny turned it back on me with a single sentence: "We attempt to define swagger as we see it, for the benefit of Yiannis [their roommate-cum-fixer], who has become our audience and isn't wholly comfortable about that." Reading that sentence, I formed mental images of every Greek man I had ever met--family, friends, friends of family, antagonists--who ever appeared uncomfortable at the mere fact of being audience to a woman. Then I remembered all the times I had been that Greek man. And then I realized that I was being that Greek man, and looked back on the chapter with a deeper appreciation. Everything you need to know about how Greek masculinity is performed as rhetorical mastery, as a re-enactment of Pericles on the proscenium, is there in that sentence, if you can figure out how to unpack it.

All told, Discordia succeeded in returning me to two spaces that feel to me like my childhood home--confusing, frightening and unhealthy but inescapable--Greece and the radical left. It succeeded so well, I could smell the cigarette smoke and triggered, psychosomatically, a little asthmatic wheeze.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Leninism in the Age of Social Media, Part 1

I have something in common with China MiƩville: Not only do we both write science fiction--he far more than I--but he and I both have a history of being active militants in far-left cadre organizations. There are differences, however, and they are important ones: He remains an open supporter of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, which may well be the largest such organization in an anglophone country. The group that I formerly was with--which I decline to name out of deference to the preferences of my former comrades--is in the U.S. and is very small. (Though until recently it had a literary output disproportionate in volume and seriousness to its size, to which I contributed somewhat, under a cloak of anonymity.) The small size of that group meant that I had no time or energy to pursue creative writing over and above that which I contributed as part of my militancy, whereas China--due in part to the SWP's size and advanced division of labor, but also to his own intellect and self-discipline--has made a name for his fiction even as he contributes to his party.

Over on the Lenin's Tomb blog, China is now speaking out about the crisis in the SWP, provoked by their botched handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a leading member of the party. In it, he states that "these are extraordinary times and require extraordinary measures." Because of the SWP's relative significance in Britain, and the extent to which it has served as a model for similar organizations around the world, China's contribution has prompted an urge to break my self-imposed silence and speak out about the way that slavish adherence to inherited models from another historical epoch have contributed to the far-left's failure to build upon an economic and political situation that should be conducive to the growth of its influence and significance.

In point of fact, much of what China describes as "extraordinary measures"--such as the call for the SWP to end its limitations on the formation of internal factions, or the creation of a regular internal bulletin--are routine in Leninist formations much smaller and with far fewer resources than the SWP. (And, contrary to the routinized slander with which the SWP and organizations like it seek to insulate their members from the rest of the far left, many such groupings are not at all "talk shops" but are active and interventionary in nature.) All that such reforms would accomplish would be to bring the SWP closer to the method of operation of the Russian Communist Party prior to the Tenth Party Congress of 1921, albeit at an absurdly reduced scale. What is genuinely "extraordinary" about China's pronouncement, and those of the Lenin's Tomb host Richard Seymour, is performative in nature--namely, the fact that it is being made at all, in a public forum. One suspects that they have done so knowing that their relative fame makes it difficult for the current SWP leadership to move against them--should either of them be expelled, anyone who cares at all about the SWP would know it immediately, and this would immediately deepen suspicion of the cover-up. Further, however, China makes an explicit call for SWP members lacking such protective coloration to take public stands against the leadership: "Members’ usual – and usually understandable and honourable – instincts to show discretion and to trust their leadership are not only inadequate, they are counterproductive. This leadership does not deserve our trust, and our discretion now only serves them."

What I submit is that the situation is not quite so extraordinary as China believes, and that what once was honorable and understandable behavior is now peculiar and bizarre.

Let us try to think about our present moment "science-fictionally," as Samuel Delaney might put it. In the year 2100--whether our descendants are en route to a classless society by then, or living in some rapidly warming dystopian hell--when those who are children today are dead or in their dotage, what will they find more scandalous? That Martin Smith raped members of his party, or that the far-left as a whole, in a period of massive uprisings in the Arab world, worldwide economic crisis, emerging worker militancy in China, etc., remained largely tangential to the proceedings--functioning for the most part either as cheerleaders or kibitzers, but either way, sidelined? What will they make of the pretenses to secrecy and discipline under which we operate, based on various ways of parsing a 112-year-old book about the importance of newspapers?

They will think it absurd.

Smith's actions, and those of his colleagues who have aided in the cover-up, are horrendous, and I wish Richard Seymour, China MiƩville and those of their comrades in the SWP who choose to "stay and fight" the best of luck. But, as I have already commented to Nick Mamatas in another venue, the SWP leadership is acting as if Gerry Healy never existed, and as if the internet does not exist. Their critics, to their credit, recognize the ridiculousness of both these delusions. But the shameful conduct of Smith et. al. is just one symptom of an outmoded praxis with all the revolutionary potential of cosplay. It would be a shame if all they thought of to replace them, however, were slightly more honorable means of carrying on steampunk dress-up parties.

(I have labeled this as part 1, and there will be a part 2, with some more constructive suggestions, but I am suffering some limitations in network access, so it may be some time before it is posted.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Prediction re: Cuomo's New Legislation

I predict that: By eviscerating doctor-patient confidentiality in mental health cases, the legislation that New York governor Andrew Cuomo just signed will result in more additional deaths, as a result of suicides (and occasional homicides) by people who otherwise would have sought treatment, than there are lives saved as a result of the firearms restrictions.

I really do not want to be proven right on this. Now that the law is in effect, however, New York State is in effect conducting an epidemiological experiment. There are proven methods of statistical analysis for comparing the suicide rate over the next few years with pre-2013 data and with other jurisdictions.

Now we just wait for the bodies to drop.

Like a Diamond in a Pie

I just had this experience that I suspect is commonplace among would-be writers:
Hmm... if they published this story in Kenyon Review, surely they'd be interested in my own much shorter / snappier / all-around more brilliant story in a similar style. Let me check my trusty Duotrope account....

La dee dah... loading... logging in... searching... here it is!

Damnit! Temporarily closed! Since when?

January 15th! But today's... [checks date and time on computer screen] January 16th!

[Smashes head on keyboard like Don Music from old Sesame Street episodes] I'll never get it right! Never! Never!

[calms down] OK, let's see who else.... [Starts clicking further on Duotrope, finds a lower-paying publication to try out instead.]

Monday, January 7, 2013

On a much lighter note

I've started a Tumblr called Yiddish Curses for People Who Think I'm a Shaygetz. Because Tomaras (from the Greek for "skinseller") did not become a traditional Jewish name until approximately 1977.

Stealing Time (Litmag Review)

Among the things that parents say all the time that non-parents find aggravating is that there is much about the experience of being a parent that cannot be intuited from the position of never-having-been-one. It is, nonetheless, demonstrably true.

One such experience that could only make sense to a parent (though not to all parents, certainly) would be paging through a commercial magazine geared toward parents and looking carefully at each page, even as one bemoans its sexism (e.g., the legerdemain by which Parenting can be subtitled "What Matters to Moms"), its heteronormativity, its propagation of middle-class cultural and consumption norms, its writing on a fifth-grade level, etc. After all, if one were to skip all that garbage, one could end up missing some nugget of information, parenting technique or must-have product without which one's child's pursuit of happiness would be lastingly impaired--and there is no greater anxiety, in certain households, than that.

It is perhaps that experience that helped give rise to Stealing Time: A Literary Magazine for Parents--a journal edited and published in that other Portland.

[Before I continue my review, I should offer full disclosure: I submitted a short story for their yet-to-be-published second issue--which was rejected--and am pondering submitting a poem for their third.]

Issue 1, Genesis, is a flawed but hopeful start. Too many of the pieces begin, "In the beginning...." There is little evidence of diversity among the contributor population, not just of those types specifically named in the submission guidelines--"single parents, queer parents, transgendered parents and parents of transgendered children, blended families, grandparents, families including children or parents with a special needs diagnosis, parents of children lost or deceased"--but others I would like to see as well--parents of color, parents who did not graduate from or even go to college, immigrant parents, children of immigrants who have become parents, abuse survivors who have become parents. More diversity of characterization and emotion would be welcome as well; the only story or essay that reveals transgression against conventional notions of what it means to love one's children is Rebecca Kelley's "Twenty-Seven Ways to Wear Your Baby," which ends up being one of the more compelling. (Though even there, elements of its appeal to me likely stemmed from the ways in which it referenced the Maya Wrap, the lactation consultant, the attachment parent, i.e. the mundane spoor of middle-class urban parenting in the early 21st century.) In terms of genre and style, the MFA voice is hegemonic.

Would a story that offered a sympathetic portrait of an abusive parent be accepted, if done well enough? Could a science fiction story that builds on a style of child-rearing very unlike the contemporary North American, like Ken Liu's "Mono no aware", find a home here? Would the next Tillie Olsen be able to steal enough time to make herself understood to the editors of Stealing Time? Time alone will tell. I hope so.

I am not writing it off because, in the end, I ended up reading more than 80% of the contributions attentively, from start to finish. That is, they were written well enough to pass the basic test of making me give a damn. That's a better record than most issues of such august journals as Tin House, AGNI or the Paris Review. Its appeal may not be as great to those in the literary universe who do not share that basic experience, but it is a worthy endeavor that I hope continues, develops and grows--much like a newborn baby.