Fiction

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!

Marx and the Two Crises in “New York 2140”

September 18th, 2018  |  Published in Fiction, Political Economy, Politics

What follows resembles remarks I made at an event marking an art exhibition at the Verso Books, to which Kathy Newman kindly invited me. The event took place on the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, one of the critical moments in the last great financial crisis. The artwork I mention is described here.

The unveiling of the photo, artist at right

The unveiling of the photo, Susanne Slavick at left, artist Alberto Jaar at right

Thank you for coming, and to Kathy for inviting me. Marx would probably be amused and a bit distressed to have pride of place here. I am of the camp that believes that Marx concluded, in his mature thought, that the theoretical system he had developed was suitable and necessary for understanding the capitalist mode of production, and for no other historical period or type of society. He would therefore be disappointed to find that he and his ideas had still not been rendered irrelevant.

Since we're here to consider a work of art dealing with the financial crisis, I thought I'd talk a bit about one of the best works of financial crisis art, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140. Robinson is both a Marxist a great writer of speculative fiction. New York 2140 imagines a future for this city that is very different from its present in one way, and very much the same in another.

The difference is that much of the city is underwater. Using extreme--but far from impossible--projections from current climate science, Robinson posits that the melting icecaps in Antarctica and Greenland have caused sea levels to rise by 50 to 60 feet. Such a dramatic rise means that all of Manhattan south of 34th Street is permanently underwater, while the region from there north to Central Park is the "intertidal", which is only dry at low tide. And yet people continue to behave like New Yorkers, stubbornly sticking around and trying to keep their partially-underwater buildings from collapsing. (The main characters live in the MetLife tower at 23rd and Madison.) Meanwhile the more cautious money has decamped--for Denver, wonderfully chosen as a symbol, as it is one of our highest elevation and most boring cities.

Now this is a different sort of crisis than the one we're marking here. Only it really isn't. The financial crisis and the climate crisis both stem from the operation of capitalism, a system that Marx showed us is prone to go into and out of crisis, again and again.

One fundamental reason for recurrent crises is capitalism's need for endless growth. The reason for this has do with something that's a bit futurist and science fictional about capitalism itself. It is a system predicated on deploying money in order to make more money--not merely in zero-sum competition between capitals, but as a whole. It is generally said, by bourgeois and left economists alike, that a healthy capitalism needs to average something like 3 percent growth a year.

How is this possible? How can all the capital that exists represent a quantity greater than itself? Because some of it is what Marxists call "fictitious" capital, which represents not value that exists in the present, but value that exists in the future, when some act of consumption will validate and valorize investments made in the present.

When this system is working smoothly, the magic of compound interest means that even growing at 3 percent or less a year, the amount of capital in existence can increase very rapidly. David Harvey notes that between 1970 and and 2010, the amount of global capital seeking investment outlets grew from $0.4 trillion to $1.5 trillion. Thus capital's historical record of rapid increases in material production and wealth is also, paradoxically, a problem for the system, because all of this capital has to be invested in something that will produce a positive return, and there are a limited number of such investment outlets, particularly in a world of rising income inequality and diminished purchasing power among the working class.

What is necessary, then, is for some portion of this excess value to be destroyed, "devalued" in Marxist terms. This means only that things become worthless, not that they are necessarily physically destroyed. There are many ways this can occur. Of course, companies go bankrupt and their shares become worthless, in the ordinary course of capitalist competition. War is a popular method of devaluation. But sometimes, things are so out of balance that a massive, system-wide correction is the only way to get back to a baseline of positive growth. Ice Cube, rapping about the LA riots, once said that "riots ain't nothing but diets for the system." In a way, so are financial crises.

But what does this have to do with climate change, which is where I started out? Quite a bit, as it happens. For one thing, catastrophic climate change is a hell of devaluation method. In the last crisis we heard a lot about "underwater" homeowners, those who owed more on their mortgages than their houses were worth on the market. Now we face the prospect of houses being worthless because they are literally underwater. (Not that you would know that if developers and their friends in government have anything to say about it.)

Or maybe not totally worthless after all. I mentioned that New York 2140 is a financial crisis novel--Robinson has said he wrote it in response to the crash of 2007-8. And for all the geographic changes in his New York, what has not changed is finance capitalism, which seems almost implausibly similar to today's. A major plot point of the book turns on a property bubble related to investment in partially underwater properties, and a financial crisis triggered by a massive hurricane. One of the focal characters is a banker who specializes in betting on this intertidal real estate.

Climate crisis is coming--whether it will be as bad or worse than Robinson imagines is, at least in part, up to us and our political movements. But addressing it means confronting capitalism, just as dealing with financial crisis does. Marx himself understood how capitalism drove ecological destruction, because of the what James O'Connor called capital's "second contradiction" with nature, after its primary one with labor.

In Marx's day, the impact of carbon emissions on climate was not yet well understood. What was an object of intense investigation, however, was soil fertility. Marx followed the chemist Justus von Liebig, who observed that urbanization and industrialization were systematically depriving the soil of nutrients and harming crop yields. This happened because food was still being grown in the country, but it was then being transported to the cities to be consumed by the new industrial proletariat. The resulting waste, rather than being returned to the soil as in agrarian times, went into the gutters of London. Marx described this as a great disturbance in "the metabolic interaction between man and the earth". Later Marxists like John Bellamy Foster refer to Marx's theory of the "metabolic rift."

The missing shit of the absent proletariat was first replaced by bird shit, mined from guano deposits off the coast of South America, and then by industrial fertilizers. Those fertilizers were and are produced using large amounts of fossil fuel, meaning that the resolution of the soil fertility crisis fed directly into the atmospheric carbon crisis that we face today. I suspect that the resolution of that crisis, whether it is undertaken on an eco-capitalist or an eco-socialist basis, will, like the answer to diminished soil fertility, involve intensifying rather than reversing our manipulation of the human interchange with nature, managing rather than simply closing the metabolic rift. I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson that along with a zero-carbon energy system, we probably need some kind of geoengineering--meaning either taking carbon out of the atmosphere, or blocking some portion of sunlight from penetrating the atmosphere--if we are to head off a human catastrophe.

What I want to leave you with, however, is the recognition that we are headed into a climate crisis, of which this weekend's hurricane in North Carolina is one omen, and that we are well overdue for another financial crisis. It's impossible to know exactly what will touch off that crisis, but one alarming indicator is student debt, which has astonishingly more than quadrupled in less than 15 years. (The concentration of this debt among a certain stratum of young adults should play a role in any explanation of phenomena like the Democratic Socialists of America, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Occupy Wall Street, which began seven years ago this Monday.)

But we should be wary of the tendency, indulged occasionally by environmentalists and leftists, to suppose that ecological or economic crisis can overturn capitalism on its own. Capital, remember, is not a thing but a form and a relation, a process of turning money into more money. That process does not require money to deployed in making any particular thing, or in making a thing at all (consider the value of intellectual property in the right to copies of an image; an image of Karl Marx's grave, say.)

There is a happy and only partially delusional version of the eco-capitalist story, in which big business makes money from recycling and solar panel installation; this view was on display just this week at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, attended by the likes of Starbucks and the financial firm Blackrock. But there's a darker side too, money to be made directly from the devastation of climate change. Naomi Klein popularized the term "disaster capitalism" to refer to the use of crisis as a pretext for neoliberal retrenchment, as seen for example in the gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But there is a way capitalism can also profit from the disaster itself--there's a lot of money to be made cleaning up, rebuilding, and relocating, not to mention selling gated communities and private security services to those who are rich enough to move to higher ground and hide from the victims of climate catastrophe.

In New York 2140, financial and environmental crisis coincides with a massive debt strike, so that instead of 2008-style bailouts, the system truly does begin to collapse and transform into something else. We won't have to wait until 2140 to face another crisis in the real world, the only question is whether this time, we can force a resolution that works for us, rather than for capital.