Archive for October, 2018

Keep Socialism Weird

October 29th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Feminism, Fiction, Politics, Socialism, xkcd.com/386

Gritty says: "our power isn't in being less different or strange...it's in making strange things seem possible".

"our power isn't in being less different or strange...it's in making strange things seem possible".

The above statement, though today often attributed to antifa mascot Gritty, was actually made by Kate Griffiths of the Red Bloom Communist Collective. It reiterates themes discussed in a wonderful interview they did with Red Wedge magazine, entitled "Normie Socialism or Communist Transgression".

I've thought about it a lot these past few weeks, through Kavanaugh, the attacks on migrants, the transphobic attacks of the Trump administration, and now the synagogue massacre by a far right anti-semite. And how in each of these cases, I've had to step back and try to really understand how these political events feel to the people directly targeted by them, in contrast to me, who is of course enraged by it all but still feels mostly safe from it.

In particular I'm thinking about something the interviewer mentions, the "cries from some quarters of the Left bleating about transgression, pathologizing broader Left culture --- implicitly queer folks, but others as well, notably cultural producers. . . . the core of the complaint from some circles is that the Left are a bunch of oddballs". This is what Griffiths calls "normie socialism", a belief that we will somehow better relate to the "real working class" if we adapt to its supposedly bourgeois and patriarchal norms rather than running around like a bunch of freaks.

But what is it to be normal? Griffiths notes:

Mostly, it involves being rich enough not to be embarrassed, but it also involves not being too queer; participating in de facto and de jure segregation along lines of race, gender and citizenship in housing and the labor market; getting a job that matches your “potential” or education; or which can afford you signs of stability and affluence. The ideal is a life organized around the moral imperative of providing the best possible future for your children (which you should probably have) or at very least one which keeps you from being “dependent” on your extended family, the state, or other people at all beyond the medium of exchange. But that kind of “normal” is increasingly a pipe dream for anyone who ever had access to it and has always been tenuous-to-unattainable for much of the working class. For some parts of the working class it has always been, in fact, recognized as such and undesirable.

They go on to observe that the normie socialist discourse evades many conversations about the left's historical limitations, the way patrarchial, heterormative, or white supremacist norms and practices have held back organizing and distorted revolutions. And about how being "out" as a communist isn't separate from being out as queer, or trans, say. They all work together. And they're all weird. The vision of this communism isn't just one of traditional nuclear families with nice suburban lives, only with health care and a union and free education and a guaranteed government job.

It's a questioning and recombining of all identities and forms of social life, for which securing the basic physical necessities of life is merely the pre-condition. It's rejecting gender, the family, work as we understand them. It's the radical revaluation of values that, as Jasper Bernes observes in Commune, can be found in both the value form Marxism of Moishe Postone and the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin.

In other words, communism is really, really weird. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

And yet we have liberals and ostensible socialists, the Jonathan Chaits and Angela Nagles and even other writers at Jacobin peddling the fantasy that the alt-right is somehow a consequence of the left being too weird, too queer, too willing to question white supremacy or heteronormativity.

The resurgence of fascism, also documented in Commune, and the horrifying synagogue murders, should finally slam the door on those who want to blame the left for fascism, to pretend that if we just toned it down on Tumblr and got everyone back in the closet, sad boys in the suburbs would flock to us instead of the alt-right. But of course people like Chait and Nagle will keep peddling the same tired old line, as long as people are willing to pay to hear it.

And there are deeper, more important political battles ahead. The most popular socialist podcasts traffick in the supposed normality of themselves and their listeners, even as they flirt with right-leaning transgression in the form of "ironic" racism or anti-semitism. Leading figures in the Democratic Socialists of America seem to be captivated by a paranoid fixation on a supposed plague of "wokeness" and "identity politics", which they are certain will reduce a resurgent American socialism to solipsistic white-guilt struggle sessions if not ruthlessly supressed.

But what does it mean to take our weirdness seriously as political practice? The Le Guin and Postone idea can sound abstract and moralistic, detached from the concrete work of politics. But for me, it amounts to consciously trying to weird my politics and myself.

I am, in certain respects, pretty "normie": straight, cis, white, middle class, the stereotype of a DSA socialist. The point of saying this is not to navel-gaze or self-flagellate or essentialize identity categories, much as the anti-identitarians want to misrepresent it that way. It is to do the opposite, in fact---to try to trouble those categories and get weird. I can't change the advantages my social location gave me, and in fact I want to put them to use for the revolution. What I can do is try to spend more time in spaces that aren't full of people like me, and more time trying to develop political empathy, to see what being a transfeminist communist means, and what it is to struggle with, and against, identities other than the ones ascribed to me. In the process, I can get a little more weird.

I can, in other words, through listening and understanding, try to approach the kind of psychic mobility that would grant me, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts it, "a command of the conditions of existence and the social mechanisms which exert their effects on the whole ensemble of the category to which such a person belongs (that of high-school students, skilled workers, magistrates, etc.) and a command of the conditions, psychological and social, both associated with a particular position and a particular trajectory in social space." This is not a distraction from socialist or communist politics, it is that politics in practice. I would go so far as to say that without developing this command, good organizing is impossible.

Just as importantly, armed with greater empathy and knowledge, I can bring what I know back to the political work I do, and to the "normies". That means, at a larger scale, making sure that, for example, DSA is getting more involved in things like the International Women's Strike and the Trans Book Bloc, rather than recoiling from them in favor of some supposedly pure, "universalist" "class" politics. It means, at a smaller scale, talking to and encouraging fledgling comrades, whose politics may not have gotten much past the Bernie Sanders campaign, to think and act more radically and more deeply.

That's the way forward because it's ideologically and morally right, but also because it's strategically what is most likely to work. Certainly the anti-woketarian inquisitors in DSA mostly seem to have succeeded in generating a lot of ill will, disillusionment, and anger from people who could have been comrades. It's their excesses, and not some over-investment in being self critical about racism or patriarchy on the left, that I'm worried will drive people away and shatter promising organizing projects.

And as Griffiths argues:

I don’t think it will work on its own terms, that is, simply electing socialists or even more Democrats to office. It relies on an already unrealistic and static account of the commitments and sympathies of working class people, who like me, each have their own individual political stories of change, through relationships, through organization and through action. If any of this works, to the extent that it recruits newly politicized socialists, they aren’t going to stay still; we see that I think in a lot of the political expressions of local DSA chapters and working groups, and in even in the development of the Chapo Trap House fandom, which often exceeds its authors in political sensibility and vision.

In other words, warmed-over minimalist social democracy may get you closer to high tide, but it won't prepare you for what you find when you get there. These days I'm sometimes reminded of the antics of some of the Maoist and Trotskyist students of the 1960s, who thought they could connect with "real" workers by cosplaying as clean-cut, conservatively dressed normies. The real workers, of course, were already quitting their jobs, growing their hair out, and getting into sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now as then, the times call for a politics and a sensibility that is, as the old line of Lenin's had it, "as radical as reality itself."

Keep Socialism Weird!

High Tide Socialism in Low Tide Times

October 25th, 2018  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Some recent discussion on Twitter has me thinking again about one of my longstanding projects, and something I want to do at book length soon: the contradictions of building social democracy.

My basic outlook, as described in the linked essay, is that the socialist project must be conceived in terms of "building the crisis", or "building social democracy only in order to break it". That is, we win reforms that strengthen and nourish the working class, and lessen its dependence on capital. But in so doing, we create a situation that is intolerable to capital itself, a moment of truth that must either smash the entire system or restore a reactionary state of affairs.

To understand this dynamic, it may be helpful to periodize the historic tasks of the socialist movement, as they correlate with the political-economic environment.

There are, I would say, two distinct types of crisis that arise, when the class war between labor and capital reaches an intense pitch. One of them happens when labor and the left is extremely weak---wages are low, workers are disorganized, lack of effective demand leads to stagnant growth, and sheer desperation leads to an upsurge in militancy and protest.

What we have been living through since 2008, manifested in Occupy and Black Lives Matter and the new wave of socialist elected politicians and the teacher strike wave and even #metoo along with much else, is this type of crisis. I could write a book on the low-wage, high-debt, precarious economy that has driven millenial politics in this direction, but Malcolm Harris already did it so just go read that.

The politics of an age like this are what I call "low tide socialism". It is a socialism that aims to rebuild the organs of worker power and the social welfare institutions that shelter workers from the ravages of capitalism and the market. It is, in other words, the project of building 21st century social democracy. The parameters of its united front are defined by New Deal liberalism (and Bernie Sanders mind you, democratic socialist nomenclature aside, is a New Deal liberal). Its exponents include one of the most powerful tendencies within the Democratic Socialists of America, as represented by The Call

I support most of the demands of this kind of low tide socialism: health care and education and housing for all, green jobs, massive unionization, and so on. But once again: where does this project ultimately lead?

It leads to the second crisis. The crisis of "high tide socialism". That is, what do you do when your workers movement and welfare state begin to press against the limits of what the capitalist class will accept? Can you expropriate the expropriators and sound the death knell of private property? Or does capitalism's thermidor restore accumulation on the basis of private wealth's austere dictatorship?

This is how I view my various critical interactions with other socialists and liberals as to the necessary radicalism of socialist politics. I see myself, essentially, as a high tide socialist operating in a low tide environment. In practical terms, I am allied in my daily work with low tide socialists pursuing incremental reforms and a new social democracy. However, I think they greatly err by viewing the question of confronting the high tide crisis as something to be put off until "after the reformolution", as it were.

When last we were at high tide, we saw efforts like the Meidner Plan, policies that pushed the welfare state in the direction of true socialization of the means of production. These attempts were failures, beaten back by brutal capitalist counter-attack. And they failed, I believe, because the very parties and movements that had so successfully built social democracy had rendered themselves totally unable to conjure the militant forces that could have made society ungovernable, and truly overcome the rule of capital.

What would "the Meidner Plan armed" look like? We didn't know then and we don't know now. But we need to figure it out. And the time to do that is not when high tide finally comes---a high tide that, like the real high tide of the other second crisis, may be higher than ever before. The time is now.