Monday, March 31, 2014

The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

How often do you read a book that changes your mind about something on which you had a settled opinion? Until reading Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, I felt fairly certain in my opinion that the War of 1812 was the last war fought by the U.S. government against a foreign government for politically progressive ends. (The first, and only other, being the Revolutionary War.) I had not researched it closely, but based the view on a general sentiment of small-r republicanism, some scant familiarity with events on the Canadian front (where invading U.S. troops had support from Quebecois patriots, upon which the Americans were too militarily and politically inept to capitalize), and the lingering effects of the formation of U.S. nationalist mythologies on how history is usually taught. ("Impressment, grr!") Thanks to Taylor's book, I've concluded instead that the war was reactionary on both sides, fought by the British to secure their command of the high seas in service to the growth of their empire, while cementing the white supremacist foundations of the emerging national identity of the United States.

That is not to say that the pretexts for the war were wholly without merit on the U.S. side. Were one an Irish-born laborer or sailor who had migrated to the U.S. and taken naturalized citizenship, vulnerable to being impressed at sea by one's former colonizers or even hanged by them as a "traitor," the fight would be nearly irresistible. But the Virginian slaves who fled to His Majesty's warships, helped British forces navigate the waterways and terrain of the Chesapeake region, and in many cases donned the red coats of the Colonial Marines, had no less imperative to fight, perhaps more. By focusing on the Virginian front, Taylor uncovers a story of how members of an oppressed people used a collision between great powers to force an immediate improvement in their situation, by passing from slavery to freedom.

Still less is it to say, however, that Britain attempted to wage a "revolutionary war" to free the slaves, as the Union under Lincoln later (reluctantly) did to win the Civil War. They did no such thing, and had no such intentions, despite the romantic dreams of a few low-ranking British officers. (These figures deserve to be less obscure than they have become, and some, such as Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Armbrister, earned a place in the same martyrology as Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and John Brown.) One would have to be appallingly naive to believe that the same British Empire that was conquering India, allying with the Russian Tsar to crush the last smoldering embers of the French Revolution, clinging to its own plantation colonies in the West Indies, and doing most of the work of maintaining the naval blockade of Haiti, would do any such thing--even if it had abolished slavery on its native soil and was suppressing the slave trade on the high seas. The actions of the British naval officers who encouraged, freed, and armed the runaway slaves were opportunistic in motivation and extent.

What this book also did for me, though, was provide an additional piece in the puzzle of the role of the Black Atlantic in the rise of capitalism in the early 19th century. Among white decision-makers on both sides, British and American, one finds repeated, horrified, even panicked references to "St. Domingue," i.e., Haiti. If Marx and Engels were right that by 1848 the "specter of communism" was haunting Europe, then in the slave ports and plantations of the Americas there was already, more than three decades before, another specter (or the same specter in a different guise?), with the name of Dessalines.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Rare is the academic history book that is so compellingly readable: I finished its 400+ pages in about 4 days. It moves seamlessly between the military history of the Chesapeake campaign, the social history of the "slave neighborhoods" of adjoining estates, the stories of particular slaveholding families who embody the contradictions of the early white man's republic, commercial history of the tobacco market, and the high politics of states at war.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Life after Slush: On Dashiell Hammett's Posthumous Stories

The recently published collection of previously unpublished or uncollected Dashiell Hammett stories, The Hunter and Other Stories, is a must-read for anyone who cares about the form and history of the short story. Whether or not it is a must-buy depends on whether or not one is a Hammett completist. Anyone who is not can likely benefit from it through the library of their choice.

Several of the stories included would be refreshing if they found their way into any of a number of contemporary anthologies. Unfortunately, my favorite of the lot, "Faith," does not qualify for the next edition of Best American Mystery Stories, for though it did not appear in Hammett's lifetime, it had already been published in an Otto Penzler anthology in 2007. Very well: At the very least, I hope "An Inch and a Half of Glory," an insightful dissection of a life ruined by its high point, is under consideration for some collection or another, where it can get the attention of a reader who otherwise might have dismissed Hammett as a pulp-and-film writer.

As the commentaries by editors Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett make clear, many of these stories were the result of the author's failed attempts to crack into the "slicks," the higher-class, higher-paying magazines printed on glossy paper and aimed at a middle-class audience with aspirations to higher things. Whether Hammett's pre-existing reputation as a writer for the pulps, or the elements of deprivation and depravity in the stories themselves, doomed them to the slush-piles is hard to say. The near-total demise of the slicks since then, along with the reputations of the often second-rate writers they turned to as mainstays, may be cause for schadenfreude, but for a short story writer seeking an outlet, schadenfreude never paid the bills.

The collection itself shows why there will never be another writer like Hammett. Not because he was some one-in-a-trillion genius--his flashes of insight and felicitous sentences never rise to quite that level--but because his career exemplifies a transformation in the commercial apparatus of writing in the United States. The later a story was written, and thus the further into his Hollywood career he wrote it, the less the characters sound like real human beings speaking in a keenly observed idiolect, and more like actors delivering dialogue in a movie adaptation of Hammett's own stories. The difference between Hammett and later generations of writers (e.g. Ray Bradbury) who got involved with Hollywood is that one can see the difference between the early templates and the later stereotypes. Hammett helped to create the clichés which future generations would either adapt to, or struggle to free themselves from.

Consider "Faith": Written in 1926, it would not have sat well with the Popular Front milieu with which Hammett engaged in later life. The authorial voice is certainly in sympathy with the milieu of "migratory workingmen" which it describes, but it refers to them, from the beginning, as "simple men." One of the two protagonists, Wobbly organizer Morphy, is described as "a big-bodied dark man who said 'the proletariat' as one would say 'the seraphim'". In the midst of the set-up, there's a lengthier passage which distances the narrator from the proletariat even as it defends the proletarian:

"If you are a migratory workingman you may pick your teeth wherever and with whatever tool you like, but you may not either by word or act publicly express satisfaction with your present employment; nor may you disagree with any who denounce the conditions of that employment. Like most conventions, this is not altogether without foundation in reason."

Throughout the story, there is an implicit parallelism between Morphy and his religiously unhinged antagonist, Feach, a parallelism that is uncomfortable but comprehensible to any reader like myself inclined first of all to identify with the radical. Neither Morphy nor Feach speak in the clipped certainties of the "hard-boiled" detectives who became Hammett's bread and butter. For each of them, their speech is loaded with song and vision, even as they each regard themselves as messengers of an underlying reality hidden from the perception of their fellows.

The collection is organized by a combination of thematic, formal and chronological criteria. That is, "Screen Stories" (treatments written for motion pictures, some produced and some not) have a section of their own. Conventionally written short fiction is grouped into three thematic sections, "Crime," "Men," and "Men and Women". And within each section, the pieces are arranged chronologically according to when they were likely written, as much as the editors could determine from the typescripts. For me, the commentaries prefacing each section are interesting largely for the information provided about the physical condition of the typescripts and the historical information about Hammett's interactions with the publishing and movie-making enterprises of the day.

In terms of the sections themselves, I was most consistently impressed with the stories included in "Men". "Crime" is relatively short, mostly good, but a bit more uneven. That the low points among the short stories were concentrated in "Men and Women" suggests something about Hammett's ability to conceive women protagonists whose behavior makes sense eight or nine decades later. As for the screen stories, they were clearly not written to be read except by a limited audience of Hollywood producers, directors and screenwriters. While they might be fascinating to Hammett biographers or film scholars, they are not intended as literature nor do they work as such. The book would have been better without them.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Art/Power 2: The Inevitability of Art

Discussant: Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including most recently Love Is the Law and The Last Weekend. His cultural journalism has appeared in The Smart Set, Village Voice, Clamor, and many other publications, and his short fiction in New Haven Review, subTERRAIN, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Best American Mystery Stories.

Optional reading: 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis.

JT: Your proposed topic/title, "The Inevitability of Art" had a certain resonance for me, i.e., the old debate on the inevitability (or not) of socialism/communism. Intentional?

NM: To a certain extent, but it also relates to capitalist notions of utility. Why bother? We see this among writers of science fiction, some of whom actually still insist, even after a century, that they're predicting the future. And writers of literary fiction often reminisce about the days when novelists had an influence on the culture. Naturally, there's the notion of "entertainment" too, which serves mostly to keep those who make the first two claims humble. Oh, and then there are people who suffer under the discipline of this or that would-be revolutionary party while trying to make art.

JT: As in, it's going to happen whether or not you approve, so let it be?

NM: Right. Art-making seems to be an emergent property of big brains and dextrous fingers. The existence of the Divje Babe Flute—our best guess is that it's a Cro-Magnon instrument—tells us that even shivering away in caves, people will expend some effort in art-making. Of course, anthropologists are very eager to assign ritual importance to this sort of art-making. (And that's me giving everyone a break. One can argue fruitfully that it's a Neanderthal flute!)

JT: Not to mention the evolutionary-psychologist approach that reduces anything not immediately conducive to securing nutrition into a kind of display for purposes of sexual selection.

NM: Art, I think is a "spandrel", to probably misuse SJ Gould's term. If art is "functional" for a society, or for conflicts within a society ("Arise, ye prisoners of starvation...") that came later.

JT: Ben Davis seems to be engaged in a certain kind of mutual justification: Of his socialism to the insular New York "art world," and of his career commenting upon said art world to his comrades in the ISO. In the process, he managed the singular accomplishment of writing a book whose justifications in both directions were neither interesting nor convincing.

NM: Well I thought they were interesting! Interesting that he was doing them, anyway. I liked the book; I thought it was funny.

JT: I kept being intrigued by the chapter titles, then disappointed by the contents.

NM: Davis should definitely develop a freelance consulting service titling works of art.

JT: For example, chapter 7: The Agony of the Interloper, I thought, "Here we're going to get an interesting meditation on the difficulties of being an artist or art critic of working-class origin!" Nope....

NM: Well, what would he know about that!

JT: He could talk to someone who knows about it!

NM: Did socialist publishers start publishing work concerned with the actual lived experiences of working-class people again? It also might damage Davis's art-world directed justification: much of the book entails describing this or that bit of revolutionary art and then appending to that a frowny face and the caption "Did Not Spark Revolution." It's like the CIA-backed creative writing programs tell their students: "write what you know."

JT: On the one hand, his observation of the intrinsically middle-class nature of the labor process involved in creating visual art aimed at an art world audience ("fine art" for lack of a better term) was on target. While he makes reference to the fact that most artists have to labor at working-class jobs while attempting to make the economics of small-scale commodity production work out for them, he never acknowledges the potential that this could lead to a bifurcated existence for those artists who don't come into it with a trust fund at the ready.

NM: And, of course, there are significant and increasing barriers for artists with working-class backgrounds, so they are harder to find. Often, class issues elide into race issues, and middle-class gatekeepers are more interested in performing anti-racism than they are in performing class politics.

JT: He does hold up William Powhida early on as an example of an artist from a working-class background. I don't know enough about Powhida to say whether that's accurate or not. Ultimately, though, most forms of artistic production do not treat lone "creators" very well. Visual art, and our preferred mode of creation, literature, are the exceptions, not the rule.

NM: Without knowing Powhida's background, except that he did a portrait of his father with the word "failure" under it, suggests to me that Davis is right.

JT: Though there are many ways of being failures, proletarian ways and petty bourgeois ways.

NM: Solidarity can be helpful. One reason why it is possible to earn some money writing science fiction short stories is because of solidarity between writers in that field. New writers are told, "Don't give your work away! Aim for the top-paying markets first!" Literary fiction writers are now reduced to paying to submit work to non-paying venues. And it's not simply a matter of a popular fiction genre meant to "entertain" versus literary fiction (which is thus meant to...?) since there are relatively few paying markets for crime/mystery short fiction as well.

JT: That could spiral off into a whole other set of questions about the decline of the short story as an economically viable form of writing for writers and publishers alike.

NM: It is no surprise that one of the major figures in getting SF writers paid was Damon Knight, a leftist graduate of a WPA Art Center, and a Futurian—an early group of leftist fans who soon became professionals.

JT: I've been troubled, though, by the recurrent, rarely examined notion that SF/F are a somehow more "working-class" subset of the writing universe. Not that there aren't plenty of cases of working-class people who've gone on to have careers in that area, but also plenty who, by virtue of their education and family background, could likely have settled into a middle-class existence had they not caught the writing bug. I include myself in that.

NM: I don't know how common that idea is, but of course who calls themselves working class except for middle-class socialists. But if there's truth to it, it may simply be because SF (and other genre fiction writing) is not supported by the state. Literary fiction, almost all of it, is. And as anyone who actually has any money will tell you, the best way to succeed in business is to get the state on your side somehow. (There's a reason that many right-libertarians are either poor as churchmice, hypocrites, or IT professionals for third-tier state universities.)

JT: The solidarity helps, but it does seem that the economics of SF/F are such that even a prolific writer with good relations with existing "pro-rate" paying venues would not be able to secure the equivalent of a living wage by writing short fiction. To the extent that the phrase "Golden Age" has any meaning beyond nostalgia for a lily-white, male-dominated past, it refers to a brief period wherein that might have been possible.

NM: Oh, short fiction is a sideline, like selling decoy ducks at a flea market. Though even into the 1970s "Always write short stories" was advice one would hear, because it was relatively easy to sell short stories to Hollywood. Not that movies or TV shows would get made, but option money is always a thrill. But it's not as though most people are spending forty hours a week writing short fiction either. When people were, there were markets to support such, and primitive production processes (manual typewriters, carbon paper) that made it so. The equivalent to writers who made their livings in the slicks or pulps are writing TV programming today.

JT: Which is itself a proletarianized production process, at least as far as I can tell from descriptions of the "writer's room".

NM: Yes. Can't have workers owning even intellectual capital, after all.

JT: So we have a situation where the forms of artistic production most often experienced--television, film, music--and even some that are not often experienced--theater, dance--have fundamentally cooperative productive processes. And yet the vestigial couple/few forms which retain some connection to a pre-capitalist, artisanal past--the visual arts, and those writers who keep banging our heads against short fiction, poetry and maybe the novel--are the accepted forms for understanding the figure of "the artist".

NM: And theater/dance get shuffled off into the idea of socially necessary rituals that just happened to survive and become entertainments in the way that membership in secret societies, or public mass circumcisions did not.

JT: Or public executions, though I'm sure those will have a comeback.

NM: A friend of mine is doing her dissertation on the musickers of Jamaica—it is interesting that she includes musicians, DJs, and dancers (from the audience) as musickers, and shows that music-making can lead to integration into the arts economy that way. Dancers being seen on YouTube vids and then getting jobs dancing behind some pop superstar here in the states.

JT: Davis did make a point, in his usual "hur-hur, didn't bring about a revolution" way, about the ephemerality of artists' collectives.

NM: I'd bet that many artist collectives last about as long as a Trotskyist group of over 50 people last before splitting.

JT: Indeed. It begs the question of whether there are some forms of artistic creation for which the individual--if not the atomized, autonomous subject of bourgeois myth--is a necessary precondition. Scientific writing has worked out a more-or-less effective way to present collective writing, yet no one would suggest that it is a source of potential aesthetic pleasure. Most efforts at "collective" authorship seem to stall out at 2 authors, and rarely are those even lastingly readable.

NM: Well, there are personal filmmakers, one-person theater performances (mimes, busking) etc. And authors write individual works mostly by themselves, but there's collaboration within and across generations, even to the point of someone like Chaucer deciding to really enthusiastically start using the -ing suffix, and then we all get to have it later.

JT: With few exceptions though (usually in the realm of highly experimental film, e.g. Maya Deren) film is a collective act, albeit with alienated collectives bossed about either by prickly auteur-directors or autocratic producers. With writing, we can admit that, for example, it's Shakespeare's world and we're all making noises in it. But even if we gathered together all the Greek-American ex-Trotskyist writers in the world and said, "let's write a novel together," would the end result find an audience outside that collective?

NM: Only the members of our former groups, eager to see if they're in the book!

JT: And our mothers.

NM: Which brings to mind another horribly alienated form of collaboration: the artist under discipline. Have you seen this? Talk about autocratic producers. "Try to work in the coal miners, Corny! We got two contacts up there in northern Ontario!"

JT: I did. It's not an accident that I did not write any fiction worth attempting to get publish until after emerging from discipline. Not that the particular grouping I was affiliated with would have demanded editing rights. But when one's social relationships with people outside the grouping are mediated through the exigencies of a certain type of discipline, it becomes difficult to observe human behavior & be able to convincingly replicate it in fictive form.

NM: I guess we won't have to scour China Miéville's work for traces of SWPism anymore—clearly he was always good enough to avoid most of that sort of thing. And discipline is internal: how many leftists have you met who really try to squeeze whatever their artistic interest is into their politics. Revolutionary cha-cha dancing and macrame!

JT: One of the more intriguing revelations to come out of the SWP collapse was Anna Chen talking about being put under discipline to do press work for China Miéville. Until the point at which he began to question the dictatorship of the SC, it was judged to be in the interests of "the Party" to let him (and apparently Richard Seymour as well--who got away with not attending branch meetings for years on end) have a very long leash and attain a certain level of fame. I think that's actually consistent with a certain reading of Gramsci current in both the British SWP and the U.S. ISO: starfucking as revolutionary praxis, dressed up as "hegemony." It works even more smoothly when you are generating the stars yourself.

NM: There's Romanticism in art and revolution. Who wants to read a revolutionary memoir detailing week after week of unsuccessful newspaper sale. The march through institutions is an odd and interesting thing; easy enough for an artist to become enamored by. But also potentially useful—who knows where the periscope of the Red Submarine will rise above the waves next.

JT: What I have actually found more stifling is that the hot-house atmosphere of a small group--and let's face it, all left groupings in the Anglophone world are small--produces modes of behavior that would be implausible to the outsider.

NM: Did you ever wear a "class struggle cap"?

JT: No.

NM: Supposedly it's a dockworkers cap? My father just retired from the piers, as you know. Never seen him wear one! (They wear toques, because it's cold outside.)

JT: You can see examples in On the Waterfront. It's absurd.

NM: Yes, we should definitely take our cues from Elia Kazan!!

JT: There's a particular style of oratory, echoing Trotsky by way of Max Shachtman by way of Sy Landy, that I mastered. I could give a very detailed description of it in a story. If I then submitted that story anywhere, editors would say, "Nobody talks like that!" Meanwhile, the likes of Said Seyrafiezadeh get published in the New Yorker, and people feel qualified to write "communist" characters based on Dostoevsky's The Possessed and a few quotes from the Manifesto.

NM: Anyone get it right? I thought Lethem mostly did in Dissident Gardens.

JT: Mostly. What I think he missed were some of the dynamics of intergenerational transfer. Which is odd, because he's admitted that he was basically writing about his own grandmother. Don't trust anyone's descriptions of their parents.

NM: And this brings to mind the question of entertainment: what is Lethem doing? Adjusting the story for the sake of entertainment, trying to be political in his own way—now that Obama is Karl Marx the CP is nostalgia, like a soda fountain or a slide rule—, or just working out his own family history as a literary writer is supposed to do. There's certainly an idea that popular fiction should be apolitical, or at least avoid sending those terrible "messages" people see in their alphabet soup.

JT: Who would find characters like Rose entertaining? She's not enough of a caricature to be entertaining as anti-communist mockery. To find her entertaining you have to recognize her. To recognize her, you either have to have been in the orbit of the organized left, or be a New Yorker. And the latter is what, I think, he and his publisher were banking on. A person may not really know anything at all about left ideologies, or Jewish culture, or the historical geography of New York City. But to be considered cultured in the United States, you need to be able to pretend that you do. Lethem is providing a relatively easy to swallow dose of cultural capital, with little danger that someone would take any of the ideologies detailed seriously enough to act upon them.

NM: I just wonder if there are enough people aboard Red Submarine, and in New York, to float Lethem's novel. After all, novels aren't mass entertainments—Lethem is pretty famous, but he's not Nora Roberts. Is he famous enough to get 90 percent of that audience, plus whatever readers just buy whatever he does, and is that enough to "work." That's part of what makes art an inevitability—we'll do it whether or not it is socially necessary for either a political goal, or to turn a profit for some publisher, film studio, or gallery owner.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Art/Power Episode 1: On Being a Marxist and Hating Romanticism

Discussant: Kurt Newman is a graduate student in History at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He blogs at and the S-USIH blog.

Optional reference works:

  • Jean Beaudrillard, The Mirror of Production
  • Nancy L. Rosenblum, Another Liberalism: Romanticism and the Reconstruction of Liberal Thought
JT: The title you proposed is, "On Being a Marxist and Hating Romanticism". Each of the words in that have had various, almost opposite meanings loaded on them. So rather than me assuming I know what you mean, can you start by giving some sense of what they mean to you. What, for example, does "being a Marxist" mean to you?

KN: Being a Marxist, for me, means being a "historical materialist." That involves a certain fidelity to the notion that societies are organized around property relations, formalized in law, backed by violence, expressed in class divisions, and having to do, finally, with control of surplus production (in the first instance, food produced above subsistence)

JT: On that much we agree, though I may have a quibble around the phrase "property relations"--let's see if we need to get back to that later. So how, then, does romanticism, and hatred thereof, come into it?

KN: Romanticism, either with a small or raised "R," is the spirit that animates Marx's critique. It is inherited from Hegel, but it is more than just that... it is the ideological coloration of modernity, or as Rosenblum suggests, one blade of modernity's scissors, with liberalism as the other blade. What does it mean? It means an affective investment in the magic of poiesis, the erotic charge of building things, the glorification of productive work, and the passion for individual and collective experiences of transcendence of the vulgar and mundane.

JT: OK, and here I think is where we may get into some more areas of disagreement, since I doubt I would agree that romanticism "animates Marx's critique."

KN: Oh, interesting: What do you see as animating Marx's critique?

JT: On the other hand, I am not necessarily interested, any more, in coming to Marx's defense. But I do think, to get useful data out of the Marxist experiment, we have to have a clear sense of what it was.

KN: I'm not sure, on these terms, that Marx himself would disagree with my characterization of him as a Romantic. Almost all radicals and revolutionaries were.

JT: I see it as being preoccupied with an attempt to return always to the real, understood in the sense developed in Hegel's Science of Logic as the motion of essence and appearance.

KN: Isn't Hegel's "passion for the real"--and Marx's also--romantic?

JT: If we consider for example the kind of German Romantic poetry from which Marx and Engels took inspiration, there's little patience for the heroic flights of Novalis or Hölderlin. Heine--still romantic, but with a sardonic edge--serves as more of an admired figure.

KN: Stylistically, the case could be made that earlier Romantics, as well as Goethe and the grotesque writers, as well as Hegel, of course--the case could be made that these are Marx's literary influences, much more than a Heine.

JT: There's a hazard of stretching the term "romantic" so far that it ends up meaning nothing. Hegel's passion for the "real"--conceived in idealist terms--means reconciliation with the state, anathema to the romantic consciousness. When the real is conceived as the set of material interactions, the potential for reconciliation is reduced, but there's a certain responsibility--to the material welfare of the struggling class--that imposes a necessary restraint as well, also anathema to revolutionary romanticism.

KN: Okay, right. I see where we are disagreeing. I think we are agreeing.

JT: How Hegelian!

KN: Let's shift from semantics, and from Hegel's limitations, to the question of the erotic investment in poesis... the Promethean... you don't see that as central to Marx's project?

JT: No, I don't. And now I think I am understanding why you recommended the Baudrillard as an orienting text. Could you expand a bit on what you take out of The Mirror of Production?

KN: Sure. It's a very fascinating book, of course, part of the early Baudrillard of the political economy of the sign, where Marx is subjected to a pretty sophisticated psychoanalytic/linguistic interrogation, under the presiding spirit of Georges Bataille. My kind of book. In the first instance, I like it as an anti-work/anti-work ethic book, which is how Kathi Weeks uses it. In the second instance, I like its proposition of a pure anti-production instead of a romantic productive force as the generative stuff of experience. It is a way of integrating Freud of the "death drive"--a philosopher who I think is proposing something true about capitalism, and maybe about political economy more generally, when he proposes that productivity (and desire) is a problem for humans; repetition is our destiny. I have recently found out that this is, basically, the position of the Japanese Marxist Kojin Karitani. So, not at all original.

JT: I had a very different experience in reading it. There are books where, once one accepts certain premises, one is pulled along ineluctably to further conclusions, regardless of how repulsive one finds them. Digesting that sort of book requires either that one accept the conclusions, psychoanalyzing one's resistance to them, or re-examine the elements of one's thought that led you to accept the premises. For me, this book was... whatever the opposite of that is. Its premises struck me as false at first blush, but only as I read through it could I begin to analyze why that was so.

KN: What struck you as false?

JT: The fundamental identification of "productivity" with poiesis (i.e., the physical reshaping of matter).

KN: But that's Marx's position

JT: On the contrary. Consider the passage in Capital where Marx defines "productive labor". The example given is not a coal miner, or a Silesian weaver, or even a railroad engineer. It is a teacher in a private school.

KN: Right--Marx thinks that there is an authentic form of poetic labor that still exists in the form of intellectual work. Mining might have once been that, but capitalism has robbed it of its poetic authenticity. In this, Marx is very close to Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris (all of whom were Romantics).

JT: But what does the private schoolteacher produce? Blockheads. Even if he resorts from time to time to the disciplinary rod, his "productive process" is fundamentally "intellectual" or "spiritual" in nature. His job, to which that productive process is subordinated, is to produce profits for the capitalist who owns his school, and in so doing to produce blockheads qualified to do much the same. To the extent that a student emerges from that productive process capable of engaging in a critique of political economy, he is a defective product.

KN: Right--this is the irony of the "negation of the negation". But Marx sees "productivity for capital" as a form of "productivity" (for capital!) which is only legible as against some other notion of productivity for something else. Baudrillard says: let's get past thinking about labor as the source of all value; that's just the starting rule of a particular language game.

JT: But that is not the language that Marx uses in Capital. You--and, to be fair, most readers of Marx--are overlaying the armature of Cartesianism and Hegelianism on the plain sense of the passage.

KN: Well, I haven't conceded to only talk about Capital, or to pretend that Capital is not a Hegelian whole (with some missing books). Marx says a lot of things. What Marx is up to in Capital is to map barriers and limits.

JT: "Productivity" exists as such only in the context of the emergence of generalized commodity production and the possibility of measuring distinct physical entities and social relations according to the same measure: that of value.

KN: We do not disagree about this. I just think that Marx thinks there is some primal Promethean force that is connected to human labor, the prehensile, etc. That is the common source, he says. But he says another thing--value is measured against the necessaries required to reproduce the worker. So there are two measures--labor-power worked up in commodities, and the hunger of the worker. This is the "transformation problem," and I don't think it can be solved

JT: Prior to capital (and Capital), there are various productions, in the plural, of materially distinct things. And if communism means the demise of value as a method of organizing society, then it makes little sense to presume that the abstraction of productivity will survive.

KN: Right, I agree. I don't have a dog in this fight. I think "productivity" as a thing measured by the CBO, etc., is a fiction, a chimera. I think Marx, and Marxists, think that labor is connected to productive power which becomes a fetish around which certain investments are made. That's the Romanticism I want to decline, and yet remain a Marxist.

JT: Even Baudrillard acknowledges, however, that Marx polemicizes against the notion of labor as the source-of-all. He makes a big deal about the unfortunate, sexist language that Marx uses to make that point, but I think it does more to undermine Baudrillard's argument than he realizes. Baudrillard's argument works, at best, as a polemic against a certain type of Marxism--what passed for Marxism in the hegemonic penumbra of the PCF.

KN: Sure, yes. But let's return to JB's central claim--radicals of all sorts are obsessed with production. There is no reason for this: it is an arbitrary inheritance. This is a sort of crazy claim. Of course, we need to think a little bit about production, to eat, to have houses, etc. But what if we bracketed that, and embraced the deconstructive challenge--are we sure that there are good foundations for our productivism?

JT: I want to go back to the "transformation problem". Certainly it's proved "insoluble" enough to keep several generations of political economists making abstruse presentations at Historical Materialism conferences.

KN: Yes, to everyone's eternal embarrassment.

JT: I'm not sure that it is insoluble. Or rather, I'm not sure that it was insoluble. For one thing, Rosa Luxemburg did a more than passable job in The Accumulation of Capital, in part by disproving some of Marx's subsidiary claims. (Baudrillard's statement that Luxemburg analyzed imperialism "according to the principle of least theoretical effort" is one of his more embarrassing boners.)

KN: Okay, I am not so into the slice and dice stuff. I don't think Luxemburg squared the circle.

JT: But the stronger claim that I would make is that it, like any of the subsidiary problems of Marx's Critique of Political Economy, is soluble only through proof of the central hypothesis of Marxism: the necessity of communism.

KN: Sure, I agree with that.

JT: The "transformation problem" is a problem in much the way that "expanded reproduction" (i.e. accumulation) is a problem, in that the solution is not mathematical, but political.

KN: I think this is Michael Lebowitz's take on things. Yes, totally co-sign, absolutely. This appeals to me.

JT: It would theoretically be possible to work up a mathematical solution for the transformation problem if one hypothesized a certain constant value for "the needs of the working class," by establishing the biological minimum required for generational reproduction. What blows it all up is the introduction of "new needs”…

KN: yes. that's one of capitalism's core contradictions, a real, Hegelian contradiction. But even the "old needs" are a problem because the rate of domination is variable.

JT: i.e., the concessions made in improvement of working-class living standards in response to class struggle. The novel problem that we have to begin to address is, if the end point of that proliferation of new needs is not their realization through a communism of abundance, then what political steps have to be taken to assure even the "old needs."

KN: But always combined and uneven. And this is where ideologies of race and gender become really crucial.

JT: Where I think we may part ways is that an emphasis on poiesis is not necessarily romantic. In the case of Marx, I think it comes from--not turning the Cartesian/Hegelian thinking subject on his head, but showing that this subject exists only because someone built him a warm house, harvested his food, cooked it, knit him clothes, etc.

KN: Yes, I can see that. I would be happy to concede, even, that my problem is less with Marx's Romanticism (which I would not, for example, write a polemic about) as with Romantic Marxists in the Left, the current Left, including, emphatically, the academic Left. Lee Edelman wrote No Future because he hates Annie. I want to write something because I hate Les Miserables, the musical.

JT: Somehow this is turning my thoughts toward the Rosenblum book. In some ways I found it a more thought-provoking book than the Baudrillard, perhaps because its point of view is so far distant from mine. I'm not particularly interested in "recasting liberal thought"--in the long run, I don't think it has much future, and in the near term, I find it annoying. Yet by analyzing liberalism and romanticism in dynamic interaction with each other I saw some uncomfortable similarities to the Left as it stands.

KN: Yes. Rosenblum's project is annoying. That's why I chose it. I really like the book, though. It's useful. I have none of her commitments to liberalism, and I find the horizon of "social peace" to be odd and off-putting. But I think her style of doing political theory and her presentation of liberalism and romanticism as dialectical is immensely helpful.

JT: One thing that struck me, as I was reading it, is that my view of Marxism is premised on the inescapability of politics. Yet more than 30 years of neo-liberalism have had the effect of mass depoliticization. In the absence of mass politics, what brings scattered individuals into the orbit of the Left is usually some combination of liberal and/or romantic impulses.

KN: Yes. Which makes the new discussions of the Party something other than ghoulish nostalgia. It can be that, too, of course.

JT: So what are some particular examples of left romanticism that you find especially off-putting?

KN: It's worst in labor studies: a certain veneration of work and working, straightforwardly metaphysical. It's there in a lot of hatred of popular culture. It's there in the cult of experience that stands at the center of a certain activism-ism, as Doug Henwood puts it. And it's particularly palpable, lately, in a certain resurgent Leninist masochism--paeans to discipline, sacrifice, transcendence of the self for the noble cause. There can be honorable iterations of these positions (all of which I hold, at least part of the time)--but I think they are always about something else...

JT: And I'm not going to come right out and defend any of that. But there are some semi-rhetorical questions that need to be asked. Such as: Are there types of work that are more socially necessary than others, and that even in alienated, exploited form point to things that will still be necessary in the future?

KN: Yes.

JT: Are there aspects of popular culture that merit hatred?

KN: Yes.

JT: Are certain types of experience necessary for the transformation of mass consciousness?

KN: Not sure--maybe I don't know if this is the proper formulation

JT: And are there times when discipline and sacrifice are necessary, or at least more honorable and effective than the available alternatives?

KN: Yes.

KN: So that begs the question--you say, "I think they are always about something else"--what else?

KN: Fantasy, anxiety, magical thinking, in some cases, blessedly few, but I think there are some, paranoid desire for power over others.

JT: Are fantasy, anxiety and magical thinking necessarily, always counterproductive? Pardon the accidental pun.

KN: No--they might be constitutive of every political imagination. The point isn't to "not do them" but to think carefully about their effectivity. Dreaming about milk doesn't feed the infant. But there is no "don't dream about milk" option.

JT: Do you have kids?

KN: No. A dog. I like kids!

JT: When my daughter was an infant, in her sleep, she would make sucking motions. My wife and I would say, "she's dreaming of milk." So your metaphor was unintentionally evocative. The infant is never not going to dream of milk. It's practically all the infant knows how to dream about. The infant is not taking in nutrition when she's dreaming of milk. But suckling is only partly instinctive. As the child grows and gets more control over its physiology, it has to keep learning how to do it better, and keep re-learning how to do it in a new physical configuration.

KN: Ah, right. That's why I am never a fan of just saying "get real!" The point is to de-stigmatize the language of fantasy.

JT: So dreaming of milk can serve a practical purpose. But if when the kid wakes up hungry there's no nipple, all she can do about it is scream.

KN: Right. And children become intelligent about that very quickly. So it's weird that many Western Marxists leap to fantasy as "false consciousness". If we were to say: our access to political hope is mediated via fantasy, and that this has structural consequences and implications, we would be in much better shape, I think. It's actually a simple point. It's not even a very smart point. But I think it's politically vital.

JT: On the other hand, the metaphor is in some ways representative of one of the most prevalent fantasies in Western politics: the state as parent, either the stern disciplinarian Father or the nurturing Mother. The former at least is a bit closer to the real functions of the state.

KN: Yes... that old Oedipal politics, very hard to escape.

JT: Many years ago--I'm pretty sure it was in 2004--I wrote an essay that may no longer be online. I've lost track of it. Anyway, it talked about how both "false hope" and "false hopelessness" were necessary preservatives of the existing system.

KN: Very interesting. I think that's correct. They work hand in glove.

JT: "Ideology critique" is very good at unmasking false hope, but often at the cost of creating or reinforcing false hopelessness. To your mind, is there a way of distinguishing false hopes from hopes that have some sort of "truth content," or is this not the right approach?

KN: Well, the false is no longer false as a moment of the true.

Coming soon: Art/Power Episode 2, "The Inevitability of Art," with Nick Mamatas.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Communism and Disaster

The impending climate catastrophe is forcing recalibration of fundamental political concepts across the political spectrum, but especially in the anti-capitalist far left. That is not to say that many, if not most, are responding to this force with much other than an ostrich-like insistence that all remains as it was. But provocative reconsiderations arise in ways and from corners that could not necessarily have been predicted by a linear extrapolation from past intellectual history.

For example, the “left communist” milieu is justifiably known for its theoretical aridity. It was Amadeo Bordiga, for example, who coined the phrase “the invariance of communism”. Yet from this milieu has emerged a “loose collective” around the Out of the Woods blog on I call particular attention to their latest essay, “Let them eat growth” and its concluding paragraph:

“Therefore, we have to pose the question of communism and climate change. This means taking seriously the biophysical aspects of materialism: food production, water supply, clean energy, housing. This isn't only a question of transforming social relations - it requires consideration of the fundamental constraints of thermodynamics that economists typically ignore. Is it going to be possible to feed and house 7-10 billion people under conditions of climate chaos? 'Disaster communism' is our holding term for this problematic. We're currently researching the questions of agriculture, ecosystem restoration, and the worst case scenario of unmitigated climate change. We'll be following up these issues in subsequent posts.”

Can there be such a thing as “disaster communism”? If communism is the collective reappropriation of capitalist property and its re-deployment to meet human need, then communism in the context of climate disaster would require differentiating between those elements of capitalist property that can and should be used, and those that will either be destroyed by the effects of climate change, or should be in order to prevent the catastrophe from worsening. Let us follow the advice of OotW collective and consider these biophysical issues seriously.

  • We know that the human body cannot survive prolonged exposure to “wet-bulb temperatures” (humidity levels) greater than 40C. The prudent thing to do would be to try and figure out which inhabited locations have “locked in” such conditions based on projected global temperature increases, and then either evacuate them, or engage in massive public works that uses solar power and advanced architectural technique to build sufficient shelter from the anticipated heat and humidity. Such conditions have already been observed in places such as Dhahran, Saudi Arabia--a place that has only become a site of significant human habitation for the purpose of fossil fuel extraction. I think it is safe to say that we would all be better off if Dhahran and its environs were depopulated, its inhabitants given useful employment elsewhere. How is that to come about? Clearly it depends on the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, but also, overthrow by whom, and to what end?
  • Naturally, the locations most likely to attain such conditions of uninhabitability are clustered around the equator. Due to the historical patterns of capital accumulation, those are also places with large populations of starkly immiserated proletarians and limited access to advanced technique. We are looking, therefore, either at massive relocations, or massive public works to reconstruct Lagos, Nairobi, Recife, Dhaka, etc.
  • In terms of water supply and its impact on food production, present climate models can predict which regions will see net declines in precipitation and which will see net increases. The former is sufficient to tell us which regions will become less productive of certain crops. Information on net increases in precipitation is far less useful. As any farmer or serious gardener can tell you, it is not just the total volume of precipitation, but its timing and pace. Does it come as a nice blanket of winter snow that protects perennials and gently thaws to water crops in the spring? A torrential late-summer downpour that ruins crops just before harvest? A February rain shower that washes away the snowcover, leaving plants vulnerable to frost? For farming not just aggregates matter, but patterns, i.e., not just climate, but weather.
  • As climate scientists have explained, and recent extreme weather events have demonstrated, climate change makes weather less predictable. The increase in total atmospheric energy increases the pace of day-to-day changes. Patterns that had been locked in for centuries of the Holocene shift in counterintuitive ways, as polar vortices settle in over Chicago while the route of the Iditarod dogsled race thaws in Alaska. Food production via farming does not depend on any one climatic configuration, as is evidenced by the adaptability of humans in nearly all corners of the globe. But it does depend upon overall predictability of the weather. The science of weather prediction has advanced tremendously in the last century, but has so far not kept pace with the forcing effects of carbon emission.

Thus, while it is possible to predict, with some degree of certainty, which places will be rendered uninhabitable--too hot and humid, too dry, or submerged under rising seas--it is not yet possible to predict the human carrying capacity of the remaining geographies. The latter is what we--the global proletariat--would need to be able to enact “disaster communism”.

Which returns me to the prognosis that I wrote back in May 2013:

“Even if the working class were to take power, it would do so in a context of runaway climatic feedback processes, sea-level rises sufficient to inundate major cities (and even entire nations), dramatic desertification of the world’s bread-baskets, deadly heat waves in some of the most densely populated regions of the planet, etc. Marxism as a method of critique would tell us that new scarcities will give rise to new oligarchies, new distributions of power, and new modalities of exploitation and oppression. Marxism as a mode of critique will tell us that the moment for its realization has passed, that its fundamental positive hypothesis [the necessity of communism] has been invalidated, not as a moment of a self-devouring dialectic of negativity but as an inexorable consequence of physical processes triggered by humanity but escaping its control.

“The choice, then, is not between socialism and barbarism, but between various flavors of barbarism. And there may well be some flavors of barbarism which label themselves socialism [or communism]--and those may well be preferable in respect of the equity with which sacrifices are shared….”

Disaster communism, then, is an attempt to hold on to the word “communism” in the face of conditions that announce its negation and death. It is reminiscent, in many ways, of how early Christian communities, who still identified as Jews, had to revise traditional Jewish messianic teachings after the death of Jesus and the self-evident non-arrival of the Kingdom of God. It is an example of an attempt to theorize and bring about a potentially more humane form of barbarism.

Perhaps this is a vestige of my own Jewish upbringing, or my political training as a Trotskyist, or even both, but I am allergic to efforts to salvage ideas by changing the meanings of words. If the Messiah is the redeemer of all humanity, and humanity has not been redeemed, then there has been no Messiah. If socialism and communism mean the international abolition of classes through the unleashing of material abundance, then without material abundance there can be no socialism or communism. It may be that those words ultimately get redefined into something else whether I like it or not. But my inclination is to stick with the stiff-necked remnant.

Yet in spite of all that, I also continue to call myself a socialist, a communist. What does that signify? I have had a hard time explaining it up until now. Let me make an attempt.

As we slide into the climate disaster, massive population movements will become an increasing feature of human existence. Instead of conflicts between states, or conflicts between classes and/or other interest groupings over control of states, we will see, more and more, conflicts between states and nomadic movements of masses. In the realm of political theory, to the best of my knowledge this is best prefigured by the philosophical anarchism of Deleuze and Guattari (i.e., the “territorialization/deterritorialization” of Anti-Oedipus and the “nomadology” of A Thousand Plateaus), albeit in a nauseatingly romanticized form. Identification with the nomad is the adoption of a kind of anti-politics, in which one does not engage with the state, only strikes pinprick blows at it to try and secure survival without falling under its sway.

A case can be made that, in the Syrian Civil War and its resulting flows of now stateless refugees, we are seeing the first such conflict of our period. This is not to say that climate change “caused” the Syrian Civil War—this would be far too reductionist, though I have seen information suggesting that drought and food shortages contributed to the timing of the uprising. It is just to say that, if one is scanning the globe for images of possible futures, the events in Syria are not only troubling, but carry a high probability value.

The Syrian Civil War also shows that the state, even in its death throes, does not become irrelevant. It fights for its life at the expense of the masses’ lives. Counter-states of various types and levels of repressiveness are erected in its ruins. These in turn create poles of attraction and repulsion, refuge and peril, for the nomadized masses, with greater or lesser hostility to these masses.

In continuing to call myself a socialist or a communist, I intend to signify three related propositions:

  1. As a matter of choice and predisposition, I am more inclined to politics than to anti-politics, that is, to engage with the state in order to replace it.
  2. The type of state I prefer to live in is one that will provide refuge to the dispossessed, the refugee, the nomad.
  3. I do not trust any capitalist or pro-capitalist leadership to respond in that way to our shared catastrophe.

Perhaps we need new words to name the needed actions. But the actions are no less needful in the absence of their proper names.