Notes on the Context and Positions of Hello

In its look, organization, and some of its concerns, the recently published pamphlet Hello could be a distant echo of the Call, which is now ten years old. From this we might surmise that there is an intention on the part of its author to update the Call, to modify its position, or at least to echo its rhetorical force and its anonymous spread. I do not think Hello can be reduced to a repetition of or response to the Call; but the connection allows for some context for Hello.

 

phone2 (1)

One way to discern the positions at work in Hello would be to consider how it might be connected to the texts gathered in the 2011 collection Communization and its Discontents. I will not be the first to note that the Call, Tiqqun, and especially anyone moved or excited by reading them appear as the proximate enemy in the pieces in the first part of that collection, especially the prominently placed “What are we to do?” by Endnotes. There is probably but one text in the rest of the collection that presents any of the above-mentioned in a positive light. There, are, of course, details and debates as to how the various writers involved and invoked in the collection conceive communization, but, at a macro-level, the first lesson of the “communization debate” as framed here seems to boil down to grasping that it is Call/Tiqqun/their fans vs. everyone else. Once that distinction is made, the debate may proceed with due seriousness. The entire collection may perhaps be seen as a corrective that attempts to respond to enthusiasm for the Call and Tiqqun’s writings, as they gain increasing prominence in the US (and perhaps the Anglosphere generally).

Due to its family resemblance to the Call, Hello will be perceived as being on the “Tiqqun side” of the communization debate (considered in its macro form). Its writer may have taken this into account, since Hello will frustrate those who share the position elaborated most prominently by Endnotes in Communization and its Discontents.

Call and Hello both set out from an analysis of the situation: not the constructed situation, but what can be known in one’s everyday life. Though Hello does not use this term, it discusses the communicative (or usually non-communicative) situations of everyday life from the title on. Their skepticism is first of all a skepticism about communication and connections with others. Beginning from the situation, the Call advances to organization, to communes; Hello proposes, after its relentless questioning of all social and political life, including friendship, moralism, organization, and representation, what it calls “commitment to commitment.” This phrase seems to refer to a moment anterior to forming a position; it is something more on the order of a criterion concerning positions. That said, one can discern positions in Hello despite the lack of familiar jargon. And in these positions we might locate, not so much a new contribution to the “communization debate” as a strange response to or intervention into it.

First, Hello has an individualist/egoist streak that is illegible in terms of the positions set out in Communization and its Discontents as well as the Call. Hello evidences this in its concern with moralism as well as in its reiteration of the classic egoist’s troublemaking stance that one is free to leave a project at any time. One is reminded of the way Debord dismisses individualist anarchism out of hand in Society of the Spectacle, even though the individualist/egoist practice of joining and leaving groups more or less at will (announced as far back as Stirner) provides a glaring contrast with and problematization of the problems of all the groups and parties Debord criticizes in the long fourth chapter of his book, but also, pre-emptively, of the workers’ councils themselves, well before Théorie Communiste or anyone else pointed out that they retained the form of capitalist management, merely swapping out the managers.

Second, Hello also has an even more prominent nihilist position, evident first of all in its silence concerning organization and utter skepticism towards representation and all political forms, parliamentary or extraparliamentary. Not to speak of the business about everything and Everything! This nihilism appears somewhat more subtly in its “corrosive” skepticism about historical justifications and explanations (though Hello contradictorily indulges in some of that in first proposition and elsewhere): this includes the sorts of periodizations all marxists and most communists engage in. Conversely, what is more certain in Hello, namely, the communicative situation or its impossibility, their immediate surroundings and personal relations, will seem trivial for Endnotes and company. For Endnotes such evidences amount to “the self-affirmation of a self-identifying radical milieu.”[1] On the other hand, given the fact that it is so critical of everything from the individual’s comfort in belonging (to a couple, for example), to crews or groups, to subcultures and, yes, milieus, could one not say that Hello has absorbed this critique, and opted for a highly skeptical relation to the milieu rather than its infinitely more vague alternatives?

This last issue is perhaps the crux of the “debate” from the point of view of Hello. The pamphlet does seem to advocate some version of friendship and perhaps, as “commitment to commitment,” some version of adherence to the milieu (though it never uses this term positively). This as opposed to… the mysterious mass deployment of communizing measures by the soon-not-to-be proletariat. But it will be difficult to associate Hello entirely with Endnotes’ real or imagined antagonists, because it does not advocate sharing, withdrawal, or making communes in any way. Hello is openly anti-political, and there is nothing of what Endnotes refers to as “alternativism” in it. (“Alternativism” is defined as “practices which aim to establish liberated areas outside of capitalist domination.”)

For Endnotes, the Call falls into the trap of not naming capitalism in favor of “an ill-defined generic nobodaddy (capitalism, civilization, empire etc.) that is to be undone by —at the worst points of Call—the Authentic Ones who have forged ‘intense’ friendships, and who still really feel despite the badness of the world,” and not discussing a praxis at the level of the totality. The same criticism could be leveled at Hello, with its playful opposition to everything/Everything—but this leads to the oddest thing about it. It begins in agreement about the second point, deeply questioning friendship and communication, and then precariously reconstructs them at the end. This could be because more than capitalism is at stake. Could this be the third and most subtle position at work in Hello, an unstated but influential green or anti-civilization perspective?[2] From this point of view Hello might be suggesting that something greater than what any history or periodization could name is at stake. Perhaps for them nothing is comprehensible at the level of the totality; Everything is by definition ill-defined. (From this point of view one could even interpret the references to an Outside and especially the conclusion of Hello as mysticism.)

Hello is, in the realm of manifestos, minimalistic: it only calls out what its author says they have done, and greets others from that situation. Its apparent positions are ways to maneuver towards that greeting. Its attractiveness, its potential success, is that it requires less belief (and, incidentally, less study) than the positions of Endnotes and company to be entertained. But is the author totally skeptical about mass action, or do they just see what they are doing as so separate from such events that they prefer not to comment on them?[3] One might say the Hello position is one so skeptical that it is not disposed to talk about mass anything. It remains concerned with the communicative situation itself, and how we are bound or unbound in it (the entire matter might be described as a bifurcation between two uses of the prefix com-; one might instructively consult the respective etymologies of commune and commit).

 

 


[1] One wonders if all of the spite directed at such a milieu or milieus on their part has to do with 1) nostalgia, however well hidden or repressed, for the vanguard 2) resentment, however well hidden or repressed, about the non-dissolution of the focused radical acts of such milieus into a mass scale (“the level of the totality”).

[2] The title Communization and its Discontents echoes the well-known title given by James Strachey to his English translation of Freud’s pessimistic Civilization and its Discontents. The German title of the latter might more literally be rendered The Uneasiness in Culture. This uneasiness, Unbehagen, manifests sometimes as a guilty conscience, sometimes as inexplicable anxiety, and is, Freud proposes, something like the price one pays for belonging to Kultur, civilization. Well, Hello seems concerned precisely with that feeling of uneasiness, guilt, or anxiety; its anti-politics perhaps begins there, perhaps, in a refusal to carry on as though that feeling were not there.

[3] The same question could be asked of the non-connection between communization theory and communizing measures, at least according to the usual predictions on who might undertake the latter.

The Savage Fruit of Alienation

Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford, Verso (2011).

Architecture, for all its aspirations, is usually far too dated. Even for the untrained eye, it is easy to spot when most buildings were designed. And yet, after the luster of newness fades, architecture still casts its long shadow on the future. It is on each side of this phenomenology of time and structure that the Situationists and their inheritors lie. The Situationists, enraptured by rapid mid-century urbanization, tore up cobblestones to find the beach beneath the streets. But after all that work, the beach was not paradise but a desert, and so they turned their rage on a deserving target: the police. Yet today, the life of the Situationists is not on the streets, but has been ossified into wooden art objects and thick academic tomes.

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Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, an anthology of the ‘zine that the Londoner published from 2005-2009, runs Situationism in reverse. It is like that dumb joke about what happens when you listen to a country music backwards – the cowboy gets his pickup, dog, and wife back. By the end of Savage Messiah, the utopian impulse of Situationist urbanism returns while the city is smashed, and even the police seem to fade into mere afterthought. The legacy of Situationism is obvious in Savage Messiah, as Ford explicitly names her project a dérive, the Situationist’s psychological exploration of the subjective experience of urbanism, and passages from situationist-related writers, theorists, and urbanists (Baudelaire, Bataille, Benjamin, Simmel, Ballard, Deleuze, Negri) are peppered throughout the text. But even more generally, the book offers a picture-perfect rendering of Situationist psychogeography because it presents a journey through a city that is too full of discontinuous times, spaces, and images to ever fit on a map.

Savage Messiah begins where the original Situationist International fell apart; the cover depicts riot cops emptying out whatever space might still exist outside dilapidated 60’s estates. This is disorienting at first, as the zig-zag history of architecture that structures the narrative hardly provides a stable set of reference points. Yet one needs not be from London to get the book. And perhaps it would even be best to never have been there at all. This book is better for swimming in than reading. Once the reader crosses the thick black edges that define the book’s own private world, Ford’s images, thoughts, and language remain only partially penetrable. Cut up and pasted side-by-side are many hand-drawn portraits, lists of punk shows attended or d’n’b songs overheard, occasional histories of revolt, stories of quick trips to a bar or flat, photos of empty hallways, recollections of strong smells, cleverly detourned graft slogans, shots of towering buildings, and many tales of being kissed by a new acquaintance. Despite the richness of the world presented, however, it would be a mistake to look for the numerous strands of the book to form a totality.

Rather than providing a fully-knowable totalizing perspective, the seemingly disconnected pieces of Savage Messiah make up an immersive environment that expresses the subjective experience of the city: alienation. The ideal reader is then an outsider. Replicating the experience of walking down the street, the book recalls times and places you have not experienced and never will. Its many people are strangers that you will never meet. Yet being alienated from this nowhere that is populated by nobodies does not produce a non-experience, but in fact, it presents the exact form of experience that dominates modern life. Run-ins and strange connections still occur during encounters with other alienated beings that drift through an environment beyond their control, but these unions are always temporary and feel more like an ongoing series of accidents than cosmic fate.

Yet the alienation of living in a shitty flat or being stuck in the rundown part of town is not something that the book laments. However, it is not something that the book celebrates or protects either, as Ford heaps out disdain for both yuppies lording it and encroaching Olympics 2012 development. Rather, the alienation that comes with city life is presented as fact, though that fact also bears an accompanying range of feelings and urges. Boredom, aimlessness, excitement, frustration, and rage become creativity, exploration, pursuit, destruction, and violence. And this potent mixture is neither more natural nor more inauthentic than mixes found elsewhere, whether it be in the heat of the factory or in wild country air. Rather, these feelings are simply how it is and the question question is only how to put them to use.

Savage Messiah is not without its commentators and critics. And in this regard, Ford’s work suffers a fate similar to the Situationists. On the one hand, the book gets accused of failing at dull stale leftist tasks. But it would be idiotic to read it as a field guide with organizational schemes (for it has none), or worse yet, to vulgarly reduce its richness to a rhetorical screed against gentrification. And on the other, the book gets reduced to art object or documentary archive that simply preserves forgotten or marginal aspects of the city for display. What both these interpretations miss is the purpose of Ford’s text: to fashion crumbling architecture into missiles and barricades. London is not to be saved from the developers but transformed into a punk war machine that screams “Estate Agents! Up against the South facing wall!” as it steamrolls through fascists.

It takes time in Ford’s boozed voyages past various people and places to build up a clear notion of what she finds beneath the city streets. But as the book begins to close, Savage Messiah is clearly set on its warpath. After an exhilarating description of riots, the book ends with a photo of Ford and her crew that is followed by a long coda of pitch black pages. In the final picture, a man casually stands over an upended monitor in triumph over The Spectacle, another two pick up a sofa as if moving it the barricades, and Ford poses in the foreground with a molotov cocktail in hand. The message of the image is clear. But what do the fully-saturated pages at the end suggest? A future too dark to depict? A future more rich than images? Or a future yet to be written?

Bring Back The Metropolitan Indians!

You have built the Reservation for us, and now you want to chase us back into it, into the ghettos of marginalization and despair. No more is this possible! Because it is precisely out of the ghettos that our Rebellion has exploded. Today Human Beings have found themselves again, have found their strength, their joy of collective living, their anger, and their thirst for communism.
-The Metropolitan Indians of North Rome, 1977

metro_indians_city

Some say that a certain distance lends itself to a certain obscurity, but a certain distance can also lend itself to certain clarity. When Franz Kafka wrote Amerika, his final novel, he had never been to the United States and in his book he describes the Statue of Liberty holding a sword in her hand, not a torch. Max Brod, the man who ensured that his friend’s work would become immortal after his death, did not edit out this error. We can only speculate as to why Kafka believed the statue held a sword. The torch in her hand is meant to be a symbol of freedom, a beacon for the poor and hungry immigrants of the world to flock to. But as we all know, when the immigrants arrived, they found the sword hanging above their heads.

We have no idea who the Whitherburo are but it is clear they are not from the United States. Their name is a combination of the English adverb whither and the Spanish word for donkey, one of the most dependable, stubborn, and burdened animals on the planet. Together, their name could be taken to mean, “to what place, donkey?”

The Whitherburo have pierced directly into the heart of the United States with their new book, simply titled Whitherburo. Their ideas of this country (a place they despise) are informed by history books, radical literature, the internet, a few conversations, a few visits, and a surprising amount of inspiration. But like Kafka, they have inserted one strange item into their text: the idea of the Indian.

They dwell often on the counter-culture that emerged throughout the developed world in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this upsurge of revolutionary activity, they find a desire to evoke, channel, or otherwise manifest the spirit of the earth and the forces of life that were being suppressed by fascist/colonial culture.

In the section of the book titled Indians, the authors write “the Americans unnaturally wiped out a people who loved and respected nature and integrated it with their lives. Now the Americans wander about, talking constantly about spiritual belonging, organic food, and so forth. They killed the Indians and paved the land only to regret it later. This is nihilism.” The forces of life that were suppressed during the colonization of North America are constantly struggling to return, to reverse the tide and push back “the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people (Symbionese Liberation Army, 1974).”

When the authors use the term Indian throughout the text, they are referring to these suppressed natural forces, the eternal antagonists to the American project of total fascism. Their use of Indian as a term potentially ripe with antagonism is perhaps intentionally ironic, or perhaps naively so. Regardless of their purpose and motivations, it revives a history of the fetishization of Native cultures while simultaneously asking us to consider how the symbol of the Indian might constitute the spirit of anti-fascism. In the section titled Digression on Nazism and America, the authors make clear that the nihilistic death culture of America is not accidentally, but consciously fascist. “If America brings the Nazis into its own country, puts them back in power in West Germany and Greece, and helps them come to power all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia, it is because America has an affinity with Nazism.

Franz Kafka was to die before the horror of the Nazis exterminated his entire family in the furnaces and death camps of fascist Europe. In regards to our dear Franz, the authors offer the following words. “Kafka well understood America, even though he never visited, and his book Amerika certainly deserves a higher estimation than it receives amongst Americans, who in their typical stupidity treat it as some sort of comedy unique amongst his works, instead of reflecting that he, as an early chronicler of the emerging bureaucratic nihilism, hound his only real country for study in America.”

Every metropolis is created by the forces of death. It surrounds and enslaves the forces of life, the rebels, the insurgents, the people who simultaneously inhabit this web of domination and struggle to destroy it. This war is constant and never ending, and the Indians suffer long defeats and sudden victories that threaten to engulf the world. The upsurge of revolution in the United States that took place in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a moment of possibility that revealed the continued existence of the spirit of life.

In the 60’s, the fun Americans were having is contextualized by remembering the horrific, earth-crushing sadness of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible. When we hear of the street theater of the Diggers, the joys of Woodstock, of the counter culture, we see that Americans were finally starting to enjoy themselves, which meant a break with the Protestant death culture of willing nothingness…The nihilism of American life swallowed up the return of the Indian children, for a brief time at least. But it will only re-start, and this time in a more virulent and final fashion.

While their use of the word nihilism may not synchronize with the common, contemporary understanding, this author finds it to be appropriate. To them, America is the triumph of nihilism. It is nothingness made material and virulent, spreading across the entire world. It hollows out the minds of the population, turning them into dead shells who are concerned only with aesthetics, appearance, image, and representation. When these poor shells first dream of rebellion, they always start by imitating and appropriating the appearances of the rebels that the death culture has extinguished. They do not make this point to forever condemn all potential rebels, but merely to highlight the long and difficult process of decolonization.

In 1975, Bommi Baumann, a former fighter in the June 2nd Movement, published his memoir How It All Began while living underground. In the book, he explains the multiform, diffuse, and ecstatic counter-culture that came to be known as the “support base” of the various guerrilla groups that operated in Germany. Before it took on such a militaristic and lifeless character, the counter-culture was its own weapon of liberation against the forces of death. But all of that began to change.

In the second half of his memoir, Baumann laments this turn that the counter culture took. Before, people would smoke hash, grow their hair long, express their sexuality, commit irrational acts on the street in large groups, and burn things they did not like whenever they were possessed to do so. Life was the guiding force, the spirit that made Baumann quit his alienating job and become a freak. However, as a guerrilla in the J2M, Baumann suddenly found himself forced to dress like the people he despised in order not to be apprehended and remain underground.

Suddenly you’re right there again. You’re standing there with short hair, with a suit, with everything the same again as where you came from; and the people around you react in the same way, they’re just as hardened as you. So you wore yourself out all those years, and did everything, and suddenly you arrive right back there again…the more you make yourself illegal, that is to say, the further you isolate yourself, the more secret the things you are doing become, the more you fall right into this consumerism. Of course, you can’t run around like you did before, so you keep getting more velvet suits, and at the end you look like you’ve jumped right out of Playboy.

The authors of Whitherburo are correct in believing that most Americans (including American radicals, anarchists, etc.) have no knowledge of people like Bommi Baumann or the lessons that others like him tried to pass on. To them, Americans are a largely stupefied and ignorant mass of nihilists with no connection to the past and no hope for the future. The hatred of America that courses through this text cannot be overstated.

Unlike the Americans that they despise so deeply, the authors do offer a clear suggestion to their readers. They believe the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the Indian, will lay waste to the nihilist void threatening to destroy the world. Although the revolutionaries of the 60’s and 70’s might have imperfectly understood this spirit and appropriated forms that were not theirs to have, the authors do not discourage similar efforts. And nor does this author, for that matter.

Before we offer one final quote from the book, I would like to clearly state that we need a return of the freak, the mad, the irrational, and chaotic, and the wild. No more stupefaction, hollowness, depression, or frigidity. We need life, love, joy, rebellion, madness, and laughter. Bring back the Metropolitan Indian! Channel the spirit of the earth! Go wild, be free, and destroy what destroys you!

It is very appropriate that some revolutionaries of ’77 called themselves Metropolitan Indians. These groups knew unconsciously that their real enemy was America, and that the real enemy of America is not the proletariat but the Indians, who represent the power of spirituality returning to a world from which it had apparently been banished. When the factories crumble and reveal their spiritually transient character, all the magic, the metaphysics they had repressed from the world returns to a new and everlasting life. Now the next revolution in this historic chain of appearances will in its turn annihilate historical nothingness, the American Way of Life.

The Reign of Stupidity

Carnival and Cannibal, Ventriloquous Evil
Baudrillard, Jean.
London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010
92 Pages.

 More than others, Anarchists seem to suffer most under the Reign of Stupidity.  Stupidity reigns, has always reigned and according to Jean Baudrillard, it is virtually a perk of holding office.  Stupidity is what he says Power does to people, as it rules over our highly complex, scientific, techno-information-society.    Jean Baudrillard died before Barak Obama was elected, but it is certain that his conceptualization wouldn’t have changed:

rollercoaster

…a majority of [voting] Americans desire the presence in the White House of someone whose stupidity and banality underwrite their own conformism. The more stupid he is, the less personally idiotic they will feel…In this ‘stupid’ hereditary function, power is a virtual configuration that absorbs any element and metabolizes it to its advantage. It may be formed of countless intelligent particles, but that will change nothing of its opaque structure: it is like a body that changes its cells but continues to be the same…America will have become Black, Indian, Hispanic or Puerto Rican [and I would add Asian] without ceasing to be America… it will be all the more integrist for having become, in actuality, multiracial and multicultural. And all the more imperialist for being led by the descendants of the slaves. This is how it is. It is a paradox…” (pp.16-17, brackets mine, fj).

 Throughout his life, Jean Baudrillard was concerned with the effects of Wealth/Power on the life of the mind. Nearly alone among French philosophers, he took the Situationists’ Society of the Spectacle at its word and his work is a logical extension of theirs.  For him, ‘Spectacle’ is the whole of Western socialization: as it is taught in schools; seen in films and TV; propelled in advertisement;  built in architecture; legislated in representative democracies; meted out in punishments in courtrooms and jails; researched in laboratories and forced onto others by the actions of its military apparatus.

… We may ask ourselves whether these Whites…are not already figures in a masquerade; we may ask whether they are not already caricatures of themselves, characters taking themselves for their own masks. The Whites may thus (be) said to have carnivalized – and hence cannibalized- themselves long before exporting all this to the whole world. We have here the great parade of a culture in the grip of a profusion of resources and offering itself for its own consumption, with mass consumerism and the consumption of all possible goods merely providing the most current form of this self-devouring…It is all a great collective spectacle, in which the West decks itself out not only in the spoils of all the other cultures – in its museums, fashions and art – but also in the spoils of its own culture.” (pp. 7-8, parenthesis mine-fj).

So the first part of this book is called Carnival and Cannibal.  Both words are shorthand for Jean Baudrillard’s 30 page depiction of the legacies of Western bourgeois culture.  “Carnival” is the parade of modernization: all the Western technical, economic and political values marching to the tune of evangelization, colonization, decolonization, globalization and hegemony.  “Cannibal” is the increasingly obvious sense that what is being produced by Carnival is a parody which devours itself (pp.4-11).
Everyone is ‘decked out’ in the signs of the master race, its fashion, its art, its technology, its free market, its ‘digital imperative’, but in the same moment, we falsify ourselves in our mimicry. One thinks immediately of college students and academics, of Bono, of Asian kids in German luxury cars, of “Bureau Indians”, of American puppet governments in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, of the new Billionaires of India and of course, of Barak Obama. Carnival and Cannibal are two movements of the same Westernization, from proselyte to self-parody.

 The previously held values of tribe, caricole, family, religion, temple, church and zen monastery all dissolve in the Carnival’s flood of words, images, lessons, attractions and commodities.  What’s left is the human fall-out we have today, a Disneyfied, Bollywoodized, Wall Streeted and 5th Avenue’d control society with its disoriented, demented participants: everyone in their places and wanting more, unable to think differently and destroying their own environment.  

The white missionaries of Wealth/Power hadn’t counted on the fact that they themselves are also their own victims. Western socio-political theory is thereby emptied out: no one (except maybe Zizek) believes in it anymore and the term ‘growth’ has a cancerous and pollutionary sense to it.  Cannibalism is a company against its employees AND its customers AND its environment (Wall Street). It is a country against the others AND its own people AND its own land (the US and the PIIGS countries). One thinks immediately of the French-Algerian rescue mission at an oil installation on 1/18/2013 which began by killing most of the hostages it was supposed to rescue. http://news.yahoo.com/deaths-escapes-algeria-hostage-crisis-still-not-over-141658716.html

Part Two of this book is 56 pages and is called “Ventriloquous Evil”. It is an address that was given in Quito, Ecuador in September 2006. Jean Baudrillard died the next spring, in March of 2007. In this part, Ventriloquous Evil is concerned with what happens after Western bourgeois cultural thought has been emptied of all meaning. It begins with an expression of the problem of ‘hegemony’ versus ‘domination’:

Domination is defined by what it is opposed to, by relations of force and internal contradictions. It is defined by a negativity, and, in order to exist, the master has as much need of the slave as the slave has of the master. Hegemony, by contrast, no longer has need of the opposite term; it does not need its contrary in order to exist – that contrary for which, unlike domination, it has no definition (which is why the concept of ‘liberation’ has no meaning for it: it has meaning only in the field of systems of domination). (pp. 35-36, parentheses in the original text).

Ventriloquous Evil is what happens when the Western “Good” wins and achieves hegemony. For those who might read this small book, it is best not to ruin it by telling the ending. Suffice it to say that Jean Baudrillard, right until his death, held out hope for humanity and he finds the solutions to these problems in the writing of Yukio Mishima and Alan Sillitoe among others – in the literature of Events. Jean Baudrillard’s symbolic realm of gift and potlatch opens a door for all of us:

There remains, also, the nostalgia cultivated by all heresies over the course of history – the dream, running parallel to the course of the real world, of the absolute event which would open on to a thousand years of happiness. The heightened expectation of the single event that would, at a stroke, unmask the enormous conspiracy in which we are immersed. This expectation is still at the heart of the collective imagination. The Apocalypse is present, in homeopathic doses, in each of us. (p. 89)

f. jones

To Beach or Not to Beach

He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of an intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” –The Road, (130)

The Road is a post apocalyptic sci-fi novel, a love story, and a dark and inspiring metaphor for the nihilist project of destroying this world. Contained within this metaphor are meditations on myth, identity, symbolic culture, innocence, why we do what we do, and how we evaluate the consequences.

molotov

The story takes place roughly ten years after a nuclear war has devastated nearly everything on earth. Almost everyone is dead, and almost every last can of food has been scavenged. Dead naked trees pock the ash blanketed landscape falling one by one as time goes on. Seeds no longer germinate and there don’t seem to be any living animals, bugs, birds, or fish. The only remaining life as far as we can tell are the handful of humans who have survived the immediate aftermath and now wander about choking on ash as they forage and/or hunt other humans. There is talk of the existence of communes but we never encounter them or learn anything about them other than the fact that those exiled from the communes can be identified by missing fingers on their right hand. McCarthy tells us nothing about why the bombs went off. This is not a story about war or global politics. It is a story about a Man and a Boy, a father and a son, and the love between the two of them, “each the other’s world entire”(6).

We encounter these two characters just as they determine that where they are offers nothing but grim certainty, “There’d be no surviving another winter here” (p.2). They set out to change their conditions by venturing into the unknown; heading towards what is for them merely a vague notion, The Beach. Without knowing what to expect and with no way to accurately calculate an outcome, they decide to risk everything in order to create a condition for themselves in which new possibilities can emerge, rather than endure their current situation in which only one thing is possible. All they have to guide them is an old torn up roadmap that is difficult to decipher, partially because it was made for navigating a world that has since changed significantly. The road is dangerous and promises nothing, but the misery heaped on them by circumstances over which they had no control has made traversing it necessary.

Along the way the Man and Boy struggle to stay fed and hydrated. The stores and houses they search through have already long since been ransacked many times over. They have to remain hyper vigilant because there are marauding bands of cannibals. Natural selection seems to have favored those most willing to be organized and vicious:

He woke in the morning and turned over in the blanket and looked back down the road through the trees the way they’d come in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh, he said.
What is it, Papa?
People on the road. Keep your face down. Don’t look.
…An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon…Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks…The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of truck spring in some crude forge upcountry…Behind them came the wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill clothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.”(P 92)

At one point they stumble upon a pill box buried in someone’s yard fully stocked with food and water and various other supplies and sundries. Compared to life on the road, this comfortable hiding place resembles heaven on earth… Here they can enjoy the same basic material comforts as a prisoner, three hots and a cot, and about as much freedom. They stand no chance of improving their situation – of realizing any desires beyond mere survival. And the danger remains, any minute they could be caught helpless. On the road they can see danger coming and hide or run in any direction, they can also spot tracks and see if someone is on the road in front of them and avoid them, whereas in the bomb shelter they would be trapped like rats, one way in one way out. They decide they want more. They want the Beach.

The story flashes back briefly from time to time, sometimes to the Man’s memories of life before the fall, other times to a third person narrative or earlier events that lend context to the story. Some flashbacks are to what the author refers to as “the early years” in which “The frailty of everything [was] revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.”(28) One is to the day when the bombs went off, and another is to a couple weeks after that when the Boy was born. One of the more profound and disturbing flashbacks is to the night the Boy’s Mother decides to take her own life “…with a flake of obsidian…Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick.”(58)

Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is.”(Schopenhauer, Studies In Pessimism)

The Mother’s suicide shatters the Kantian imperative regarding humanity as an end in itself (although she might affirm that this would be a fine act to “universalize”). Her existence combined with sentience produces only tension, which she resolves with a nihilist cadence. She openly acknowledges that this is a selfish act that will have an impact on those who care about her and she does so not just unapologetically but in a way that is callously triumphant. She mocks what she perceives as wounded manhood in her soon to be widowed husband and the absurd notion that he could somehow provide a life worth living for her and her son. She tells him death is her lover who will give her what he can’t. She is the one with the courage to embrace the nothing. “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart. He didn’t answer. You have no argument cause there is none.”(57) Here, McCarthy takes that vulgar concept ‘sanctity of life’ that still haunts our culture, that serves power in its quest to erase the option of ‘nothing at all’, and iconoclastically ridicules and thrashes it. “And she was right. There was no argument.”(58)

Sci-fi authors have a way of using fiction to critique culture and power that is similar the means used by more academic social critics. For instance, what scholars like Nietzsche and Foucault offer with their genealogies that is of value to us iconoclasts is a means of rendering arbitrary and contingent the concepts and power structures we engage with in our daily lives that societies take for granted as being legitimate and sacred, universal and immutable. By examining and deconstructing the historical processes, the material and political conditions in which certain concepts gained utility for serving power and control (i.e., normalization) we can see how for example: normal and deviant, sane and insane, able bodied and disabled, masculine and feminine, white and of color, super-ordinate and subordinate, guilt and innocencen, etc., are not pure natural existential states but mere reifications acting as currency within a specific economy of power. And once the grid on which these elements operate is altered or destroyed they can all cease to exist or take on entirely new meanings and functions (like how paper currency became wallpaper after Argentina’s economy collapsed). Sci-fi authors do a similar thing by constructing a hypothetical future or an alternate past or present in which they can playfully imagine other social contexts where these concepts might have either different uses and meanings or possibly none at all.

The characters in The Road exist in a world that has already been destroyed. The material basis for the social relations that created the world we know has been annihilated by nuclear warfare. McCarthy shows us in his fictional scenario how–without having some social utility or institutionalized power structure to serve–once seemingly universal acontextual truths of human existence like justice, time, identity, morality, history, sanctity of life, innocence, community, progress, etc. all become useless anachronisms. There is a part when the Man points a gun at an attacker and explains a bunch of esoteric neuro-science about what is going to happen to the attacker’s brain when he pulls the trigger. The attacker asks, “What are you a doctor?” the Man replies, “I am not anything.”(68) No identity predicated on any category can have any meaning absent a symbolic culture in which to contextualize it. None of the characters in this story have names, “Who is it? Said the boy. I don’t know, who is anybody?” (49) McCarthy eulogizes in this story not just the death of people and infrastructure, but also the death of symbolic culture itself:

He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought…The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”(88) “The last instance of a thing takes the class with it.” (28)

Beneath the veil of abstractions, of spectacle and hyperreality, of social relations mediated by images, of culture and politics, we inhabit a world of bare ahistorical chaos and pure possibility just like the characters in this novel. The amenities in the world you and I live in are more abundant than what these characters have available, but the universe of abstractions that make up culture and meaning and a moral order are just as arbitrary and made up in both worlds, except that the characters in The Road have more control over the mythologies around which they orient their lives and gauge their decisions.

The man pretends to the boy that their life is given meaning by some cause that precedes and anticipates them, that exists outside of them and that can still exist even if they’re not alive to conceive of it. He tells the boy that he is appointed by god to protect the boy. He creates for the boy some millenarian myth of them “carrying the fire”. Carrying the fire protects them from harm and as carriers of the fire they do not engage in the behavior of the marauders, they don’t rape, kill, or cannibalize. The Man knows there is no such fire; he is only interested in protecting and comforting the boy. He does not do this because he believes their world contains any possibility of restoration or redemption. He is simply concerned with creating the least tortured existence he can for his son which sometimes means offering him a myth laden with hope, sometimes it involves holding a gun to his head ready to kill him before the cannibals find him. This is not a religious man. The closest he comes to prayer is a soliloquy in which he asks god if he has a neck by which he could throttle him. He has witnessed not only the death but also the cremation of god, the scattering of his ashes. But as Bataille tells us “The absence of god is no longer a closure: it is the opening up to the infinite.” It is greater and more divine and “(in the process I am no longer myself but an absence of self; I await the sleight of hand that renders me immeasurably joyful.)”(Absence of Myth, 48) For the boy, “the fire” is that sleight of hand.

We create myths for ourselves as anarchists, historic ones, they tell us where we came from and where we’re going and why our suffering is meaningful and redeemable. At times we even secularize the fundamental principal of eschatology: that history is not complete until God’s plan is fully realized in a human dimension. This myth-making can be helpful for us in the same way it is helpful for the Man and the Boy, it is a means of making sense of our choices within the context of conditions that are utterly absurd. But we are not agents of redemption here to restore humanity after its fall from grace. There is no state of grace and innocence to return to. There is no predetermined order that awaits humanity’s arrival at which point everything settles into its place and history stops. McCarthy’s story refuses any narrative of hope or redemption; he simply reveals choices and actions and consequences that occur in a chaotic ahistorical vacuum for no reason. Worlds come and go and the end is never the end and even if it is one day, it won’t mean anything because there will be no one around to conceive of it.

Where men can’t live gods fare no better…Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody.
Everybody.
Sure. We’ll all be better off. We’ll all breathe easier.
That’s good to know.
Yes it is. When we’re all gone at last then there will be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out on the road there with nothing to do and no one to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?”(173)

After watching the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, in which a giant planet crashes into the earth destroying it, I stood on a hill overlooking the entire bay area and imagined seeing a planet beyond the clouds hurtling towards the earth and contemplated a sudden fiery end. As I watched the machines below with their lights and smoke crawling over the gridded landscape as well as the flying ones above, I tried to imagine what this place looked and sounded like two hundred years ago. Armageddon has already come and gone here. I didn’t notice because I wasn’t around, just like the Boy who never experienced the world of the Man. For those who lived here for thousands of years, the entire world as they experienced and understood it has been obliterated by a series of catastrophic events that still continue. All I’ve ever known is the aftermath, that is my world. Like the boy, I’ve heard stories of what it was like before but those are “…thing[s] which could not be put back.”(287). To us these characters seem to be simply running out the clock in the hopeless futureless debris of the old world. I imagine we might look the same way to someone from the destroyed world that used to exist where I live now.

The choices we face are similar to the ones faced by the characters in this story (which I’ve chosen to read as a parable) . Sometimes we want to hide out from the worst of it in the shelter, hoping to just comfortably enjoy each other’s company unmolested for a while. Sometimes we wish to opt out entirely like the Mother did; when all our options seem to only promise terror and tedium, choosing nothing seems like the most sensible thing to do. And sometimes we make a run for the Beach, even though we know we’ll probably not arrive there and could die trying. “He said that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.”(29) And it’s possible that it’s already or always has been too late, that we could remove the last paving stone and beneath it discover a Beach that’s not at all like we imagined: “Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy”.(215) But no matter what we choose on any given day, we have the ability to mythologize about our choices and their consequences however we please.

The next time you light a rag sticking out the end of a bottle half full of gasoline and motor oil ready to destroy everything that stands between you and the Beach, remember, nothing bad can happen to us because we are carrying the fire!

References

Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth. New York: Verso, 2006
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Studies in Pessimism. ebooks. Adelaide. 29 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2012

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Unimaginable Weirdness: Comments on Some Comments on Desert

Recently, the anonymously written pamphlet Desert was reviewed by (the) two egoist newspapers: Cresencia Desafio (CD) in The Sovereign Self‘s sixth issue and by Apio Ludd (AL) in the very first issue of My Own. Both reviews are strikingly similar, each deploying their Stirner-inspired critique of both Hope and The Future against Desert. However, they failed to interest me for two reasons: they are responses to sentiments that, didn’t actually appear in the text, and, by focusing on the question of hope, flew straight past what I consider most exciting about the it.

I felt increasingly frustrated as the author emphasized mostly on the incumbent disasters of the future rather than focusing on potential contentions of the present. And even then, their plan of action was incredibly unclear, vapid, and even slightly confusing at times.

A Critique of Desert, CD


There are hints about who the author of Desert is addressing. I imagine that the text is primarily aimed at the anarchist who believes (or pretends to believe) that saving the world is possible: one who is attached to some version of the future (the rev, the collapse, whatever). I also imagine that the author of Desert thinks that things would be more interesting if they were surrounded by comrades who were relieved of such illusions.

Desert explores various possible futures, not with attachment, but as a way of demonstrating that insofar as we can say anything about the future, it is only that there will be one (probably) and that it will be incredibly complicated. This is one of the main points of the text: things possess an immense complexity that our politics rarely accounts for. The future will be filled with uncertainty (much like the present). In some places things will be exciting and liberatory, in others horribly oppressive. Whatever it is that we do, depends on where we are and what’s going on.

Desert is an exploratory work, not a prescriptive one. Perhaps CD found the author’s program ‘unclear’ because it lacked one. The author lays out what they think might happen in different parts of the world, they hypothesize possible ways that anarchists and radicals might respond to such shifts, and give interesting examples of what other people have done/are doing in similar circumstances. This is why the point about complexity is so important—not only does it become unimaginably difficult to develop any sort of program, prediction, or plan, but it also gives us reason to refocus our energies on what is most immediate in our lives. Desert points out that while we don’t have any capacity to completely understand, let alone save the planet we do have the capacity to interact with our local environments, to create a more expansive life project, to find accomplices, and to survive in ways that are increasingly liberating. This strikes me as a dramatic rejection of the distant for the immediate, both geographically and temporally.

The author of Desert remains such a slave; despite his/her critique, s/he has not Deserted hope.

Deserting Hope?, AL

…they did choose to focus largely on potential global chaos…which I perceive as a surrendering of themselves to the same age-old ‘when the revolution comes’ sentiment—hoping for potential future contentions as a sort-of anticipatory solution to their discontent.

A Critique of Desert, CD

The illusion of hope fills both reviews. Although, this illusion is not of having hope, but of seeing it where it isn’t. The most that can be said about Desert’s specific judgements about the future is that there will be, “of course, unimaginable weirdness.” This is not described as being a weirdness that one looks forward to; the author is merely engaged in an exploratory exercise that concerns itself with possibility. Talking about the future does not necessarily mean that we are always committed to whatever predictions we might be making. Even if we are fairly certain about our predictions, our lives and our happiness don’t have to be contingent on their realization.

The future is always only a vision, i.e., a hallucination.

Deserting Hope?, AL

Imagining the future as a fantasy or daydream, instead of as a possibility to be hoped for, can certainly be a worthwhile anarchist exercise. I can create other worlds inside my head, tweaking and changing them to suit my every fancy; their existence is completely intentional and creates no expectations or assumptions about future reality. My fantasies give me an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction, as well as making my desires more clear to me. There are many ways of relating to one’s fantasies that are, indeed, deluded. Believing in their inevitability or longing for their realization both seem to muddy the water and prevent one from living in the present as expansively as possible. Instead, I name my fantasies and daydreams for what they are and indulge them so long as doing so gives me pleasure; the problem only arises when we mistake the dreams for reality.

The future should not be allowed to foreclose on today, even if today is foreclosing some possibilities in the future. No future is worth living or fighting for that is not existent in the present.

Desert, Anonymous

Desert strikes me as a playful imaginative exercise with the purpose of bringing others in on the game. Rejecting global everything, it argues that the question ‘how do I live my life?’ might be more worthwhile than ‘how do I save the world?’ It asks us to abandon our longing for a future that we have no capacity to create, or that we have no reason to believe in, and instead use this energy to explore ourselves, our surroundings, and, if one chooses, others. Most interestingly, Desert challenges us to rethink our understanding of anarchist subcultures. Perhaps these complicated networks of individuals are best equipped to adapt to whatever the future might bring. Within them, there might be the capacity to widen the cracks in the concrete, that allow us to live out our wildness more expansively. All of this is only possible to the extent that we are open to new ways of relating to our desires, to each other, and to circumstance.

These are all sentiments that the egoist in me is very friendly towards.

I, with the author of Desert, abandon hope and despair but choose to leave the future where it is: in my imagination as a conscious fantasy. I thank the author of Desert for providing me with more fodder for my daydreams. I will continue to navigate this peculiar narrative of mine with all the information I have at my disposal. The Desert around me will sometimes allow me to see into the future so that I might prepare accordingly; other times I will be forced to ride the dunes of complete uncertainty. Either way, I will spend my time playing in the sand—all the while trying to remain indifferent to any particular outcome.

A Critical Review of Anarchism & the City

Note from author: This review was orphaned from another anarchist magazine. I had sent Dr. Ealham a draft to give him a chance to respond to the criticisms I made and rectify any misrepresentations. Rather than responding in a spirit of criticism, he took grave offense to my notation of his academic connections and the government funding of his research, threatened legal action, and threatened to contact the magazine to prevent the article’s publication. Subsequently, the magazine in question stopped responding to any questions regarding the review.

If you would like to contact the good Dr. to let him know what you think about threatening to talk to cops, suppressing the publication of criticism, or being an academic who poses as a comrade and lives off the struggle, you can contact him through his university home page.

Chris Ealham
Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937

Chris Ealham’s Anarchism and the City is a fascinating book that builds on the tradition of urban history, most notably realized in Mike Davis’ innovative work on Los Angeles, City of Quartz. But Ealham’s method is distinct; as he maps out the development of his topical city—Barcelona between 1898 and 1937—he builds a tension, chapter by chapter, by lucidly alternating between describing the strategies and countermeasures of the diverse elite centered in an array of political parties, business and paramilitary formations, and those of the proletarian inhabitants centered in the CNT and numerous affinity groups or criminal gangs, as they fought for the city, from above and from below. In this way, Ealham not only brings the struggle alive, he also frames it strategically and tactically rather than deterministically. He draws on a voluminous base of primary and secondary sources in Catalan and Spanish to portray a nuanced and detailed history.

While history has historically been biased in favor of ruling class needs and perspectives, not only do Ealham’s sympathies lie with the baser sort, his telling emphasizes proletarian illegality and counterviolence as an important libertarian force in the battle for the city, that flows directly from the impossibility of living under the hyperexploitation the Catalan bourgeoisie inflicted on the largely immigrant population, crowded into slums, obliged to work in their factories or to wait and rot as part of the pool of surplus and precarious labor. Simultaneously, he presents the alternating bourgeois strategies of law and order, and what should most accurately be called socialism (socialized or at least state subsidized housing, medicine, education, and welfare, on top of a class-antagonism-ameliorating engineering of the social landscape) as attempts to extend social control while underwriting capitalist exploitation, and always backed by a measure of brutality and violence. As a result, the reader takes pride and joy in the accomplishments of the robbers and assassins who stick it to their oppressors, while wincing at every new attempt of the cops, bosses, and politicians to steal the city and crush the new communes that have sprung up, at least as latent ideals, in the very bosom of urban oppression.

We are treated, thus, to a Barcelona in which impoverished workers and tramps flaunt bourgeois norms in the bars and cabarets, subvert the limitations of their meager housing by converting the streets into their living rooms, and win their bread by robbing the payrolls or sacking the shops, while politicians of right and left connive and bicker, trying to establish the best balance of fidelity to or autonomy from Madrid, that will allow them to stem the tide of revolution while also monopolizing the exploitation of the local workers, swinging back and forth between Spanish military dictatorship and Catalan autonomy.

Only in this context can the CNT be understood in depth, and Ealham does a great job of portraying the Confederación as a heterogeneous labor organization laid atop and integrated into neighborhood and criminal networks that propagated it and sheltered it when the going got tough. At least in certain years, it would be fair to suggest that the CNT was not primarily a labor union, and that at the very least a great part of its strength flowed from largely informal neighborhood networks. This theoretical conjecture makes me wish for a similar study of the IWW, because it seems to me that at its strongest, the wobblies were a network of tramps and direct actionists, and the organization was recuperated commensurate to the instilling of union discipline (think, for example, the central body’s decision to renounce sabotage in response to government pressure).

Another good feature of this book, a concept not invented by Ealham but one he uses effectively, is the analysis of “moral panics” (regarding sanitation, crime, lower class violence, lack of labor discipline, street culture, and other phenomena) communicated by the media as a tool to unite conservative and progressive elites and demand their common recognition of a perceived threat to social control. From this analytical device, one can infer how competing factions of the elite can encode a public discussion of mutual interests and establish a common basis for differing strategies of public order, while also training the non-elite and the aspiring elite to view society in these terms (which would not be possible in a conspiratorial or secret conversation that explicitly discusses exclusive elite interests); furthermore, one sees how the media, well… mediate, building consensus or at least solidarity between competing elite factions.

There were also, naturally, some elements of Ealham’s book that I dislike. Before discussing these, it’s necessary to make a disclaimer. It should be assumed academics will usually play a role of recuperation in social struggles. If it was the priests who were put up against the wall in Barcelona, 1936, a violence Ealham rightly justifies, it will be the academics who would have cause to fear a similar fate should a revolution occur nowadays. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise that I found so little in Ealham’s book that warrants strong criticism.

The first concerns a topic that only constitutes a detail in his work: sexism in the CNT and the proletarian culture. Fairly enough, he criticizes the CNT and the grupistas (those who acted in affinity groups, sometimes under the aegis of the Confederación, sometimes independently) of sexism. However, perhaps forgetting that the proletarian neighborhoods and the CNT were also made up of women, and these women were not passive victims of circumstance, he fails to explore the other side of this sexism. Mujeres Libres barely warrant a mention, and this only incidentally to their participation in the demolition of a Barcelona jail in 1936. Their newspaper, their propaganda efforts, their debates with the male CNT leadership, the literacy classes, childcare, and combat training they provided, are not mentioned.

In mentioning that the affinity groups that carried out expropriations, bombings, revenge killings, attacks on the police, and other actions, consisted almost entirely of men, Ealham evidences an erroneous view of patriarchy as a static, strictly conservative structure that can be overcome through the equalization of participation in the traditionally masculine sphere; in other words, liberal feminism. But just as patriarchy persists in a world that includes women in government and the workplace, women’s struggles are alive in traditional, gender conservative societies. Ealham himself points out how necessary women were in supporting these struggles, though he seriously undervalues that role: “their involvement was almost exclusively of an auxiliary nature.”

The clandestine and offensive activity of the anarchists would have been impossible without the people, generally women, passing messages; hiding, tending, and feeding fighters; gathering and carrying intelligence; storing supplies; mobilizing community opinion; stonewalling the police, and much more; just as it would have been impossible without the people, generally men, pulling the triggers or driving the getaway cars. As such, it is inaccurate to say that these affinity groups consisted exclusively of men. To do so is to take the sexist-inflected stories of those men, who also considered support activity to be an auxiliary rather than primary function, and inscribe it as objective history. But community support is in fact the sine qua non of guerrilla struggle.

Ealham also displays what in my mind is not a sufficiently anarchist feminism when he indicts the anarchists for not closing down the brothels once they had taken over the city, as though sex workers were passive victims waiting to be rescued by the syndicalists. An investigation of who owned and managed the brothels and how this changed in 1936 would have been much more interesting. What I happen to know from my own historical explorations of this city is that in the neighborhood of Raval, many sex workers were powerful social actors. In the “Tragic Week” insurrection of 1909, it was a respected neighborhood sex worker who led the charge against the Raval police commissary, liberating the comrades arrested the day before.

My biggest complaint against this book is its affinity towards democratic and institutional forms. Ealham consciously enters into a strategic debate regarding the use of insurrectionary and illegalist strategies, making a number of open criticisms. While his text is by no means the undertheorized and dishonest hatchet job so frequently produced by the critics of insurrectionary anarchism (e.g. Black Flame) he does commit a number of errors and contradictions.

For example, he fairly debunks the critique that the FAI, at its outset, constituted a vanguard (in reality they sprang from the grassroots to prevent syndicalist politicians from taking over the CNT and leading it to reformism). Just as fairly he opines that before 1936, the Nosotros affinity group within the FAI had come to exercise disproportionate power. Yet even at this stage, the evidence does not bear out the assertion that they constituted a vanguard. They failed, in fact, to steer the assembly that made perhaps the most crucial decision in the CNT’s history: to form the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias along with the political parties, or, put another way, to form a government. Garcia Oliver vehemently opposed the decision, and Buenaventura Durruti sat on the fence, but the assembly overwhelming sided with Diego Abad de Santillan, the anarchist economist who was eager to mobilize state power to impose an anarchist economic model. Ealham repeats the contemporary allegation that Oliver wanted to create an anarchist dictatorship but doesn’t mention that it was Abad who succeeded, partially, in creating an anarchist dictatorship. Oliver, oddly enough, was astute in his arguments, though his megalomania soon overcame his principles and he subsequently accepted a post in the government.

Ealham is dead wrong when he states that the CNT “simply ignored” the Catalan government at this historical juncture. The Catalan President Companys’ personal notes confirm the reality on the streets: if the anarchists had only ignored the government, it would have disappeared, for it had become powerless after workers’ militias defeated the fascist coup attempt. It was the CNT that resurrected the government, by accepting dialogue with Companys and then by joining the Central Committee (which would have been powerless without CNT-FAI participation) alongside the UGT and Catalan leftists, who had already proven themselves as lackeys and cops during their previous stints in power, and the POUM, a tiny cult following the teachings of the Butcher of Kronstadt (and an organization that Ealham repeatedly praises, oddly enough).

Following its collaboration with the new antifascist government, the CNT-FAI instituted a pseudo-anarchist dictatorship in Barcelona, which Ealham accurately depicts without a hint of the romanticism most of us usually fall prey to. While documenting many of the anarchist accomplishments in Barcelona starting in July 1936—some of them organized by the Confederación, most of them arising spontaneously—he also points out that the CNT-FAI used its power in the new government to introduce compulsory unionization, and argues (more radically than many non-academic anarchists) that “the acceptance by the CNT-FAI leadership of a productivist ideology aimed at maximising war production seriously undermined these initiatives and resulted in continuing workplace alienation.” Neither does he omit the story of Josep Gardenyes, one of several illegalist anarchists who continued to fight capitalism after the July revolution, and who was detained and executed by CNT-approved patrullas.

While not withholding the dirty details, Ealham does not offer any theoretical explanations for why the institutional forms created by the anarchists lent themselves so easily to alienation and repression, except for a meager complaint that CNT delegates were not immediately recallable and the organization was not “genuinely democratic”. In fact, given the frequency that Ealham accuses the illegalist anarchists of “elitism,” and his claim that Nosotros and the other affinity groups dominated the union, all but the most careful readers might blame nascent CNT authoritarianism on the presence of illegalist elements. But the political trajectory of Nosotros and the FAI, even though both of these groups were moderately or completely illegalist in their origins, cannot be competently used as evidence of the consequences of illegalist or insurrectionary strategies. As Carles Sanz put it in his history, La CNT en Pie, which came out subsequent to Ealham’s work and thus was unavailable as a source:

This simplistic analysis is the one that has characterized the majority of historians, converting the history of the CNT into a history of good ones and bad ones, depending on the stance of the analyst. It’s certain that different currents existed, as they always have, but this labelling doesn’t always work. Thus, we see the sectors considered to be moderate defending very anarchist principles depending on the circumstances, repression, conflicts and clashes with the bosses, and, on the other hand, extremist anarchists assuming organizationalist and syndicalist postures [my translation].

It is Ealham’s evident preference for democracy and institutionalization that prevents him from offering any coherent explanations for the CNT’s self-defeat. Democracy always ends up with leaders and popular withdrawal. That can’t be covered up with faults in personal biographies or structural trifles such as the lack of a mechanism for immediate recall of delegates. Democracy ALWAYS subverts its own mechanisms. This is in the nature of democracy. For example, Federica Montseny (one of the pro-government camp) was arbitrarily put in a position of leadership in a way that subverted democratic mechanisms already in place in the CNT. If the CNT constitution enabled the immediate recall of delegates, would that really have made a difference if, in the circumstances of July, the delegates were independently appointing new delegates, or deciding to collaborate with political parties, in contravention of their constitution, in an assembly not called through the appropriate channels?

It is fair to point out that informal, decentralized rebellions nearly always lack the initiative to go further and act strategically, but what this problematic requires is a solution far more original than Ealham’s desire for a “revolutionary institution” “capable of channeling the revolutionary energies against the state.” The CNT was this institution, and it was the linchpin in the obstruction of the revolution. It was the grassroots that expropriated, that took over factories, that made barricades, that made the revolution, and the CNT, which had once cultivated such activity, that blocked it as soon as it had won access to power, and he’s bemoaning the lack of revolutionary institutions?

A fair critique of the anarchist failure should certainly have an organizational component, but greater organizational democracy is an unrealistic proposal. At multiple points in the book, Ealham expresses a latent critique of democracy. What his book is missing, more than anything, is the maturation of this critique in a theoretical realization that democracy in government and “genuine” democracy in social organizations have the tendency and the ability to interface, creating a link or a mutual understanding that opens the door to recuperation.

Ealham’s strategic critiques, however, are reserved mostly for the insurrectionary or illegalist anarchists. While Nosotros, as a group, deserves a great deal of criticism, and while the Catalan anarchists generally deserve Ealham’s criticism regarding their failure to show solidarity with the Asturias uprising of 1934, his other criticisms, and his constant attempts to belittle their frequent rebellions, are unfair. On multiple occasions he uses the state repression that followed attacks and attempted insurrections as evidence for the weakness of those strategies. But everyone knows that stronger repression is the inevitable companion of stronger struggles, and to signal repression as evidence of failure is poorly disguised defeatism or pacifism (one in the same, after all). The illegalists, the affinity groups, the CNT, and the anarchists generally all survived the multiple waves of repression. In fact, by July 1936, they were so strong Companys acknowledged them as the only power in the city. Evidently, the existence of repression is an incoherent counterargument, especially in this case, since the anarchists from margin to center survived this repression and came out winning.

At one point, Ealham suggests that the aggressive strategies of the anarchists were a throwback to insurrectionary ideas, which he brackets as a 19th century phenomenon, and dismisses as incapable of withstanding the new repressive capacities of the State. Yet it was the union form that proved itself outdated on the level of repression, and the affinity groups that were most resilient (a fact that Ealham elsewhere acknowledges, and that the historical record bears out). For example, the police were unable to infiltrate the grupistas, given their tight security practice and massive neighborhood support. Whereas the affinity groups operated clandestinely during democracy or dictatorship, and thus continuously developed their security practice, the CNT often suffered breakdowns in their decision-making procedures when they had to transition to clandestinity, as multiple anarchist historians have pointed out.

When the CNT had to go underground, it was the affinity groups that kept it alive, funded, and combative. Ealham claims that other, unnamed revolutionary groups funded themselves during periods of repression without recourse to robberies, thus the expropriations were not necessary, but the fact is, in Catalunya at least, there were no other organizations as large as the CNT that provided as much support to workers and prisoners as the CNT did. The only other organization that could hold a candle to the CNT was the socialist UGT. Are they the anonymous “revolutionary organization” that survived the military dictatorship without carrying out bank jobs? Well, they got donations from the petit-bourgeoisie, and this funding is reflected in their politics and their practice.

Ealham contradicts himself when he portrays the illegalists as “elitists” and claims that “the insurrectionary tactic had only really triumphed among a small section of the middle and upper leadership of the unions”, or when he describes mass village uprisings supported by insurrectionaries in Barcelona as “putsches.” This is Ealham at his most dishonest. Fortunately, he’s also a good historian, so he himself sets the record straight (although in coded terms, so that only a careful reader can notice the contradiction), by describing the massive popular support the affinity groups had in the neighborhoods, the generalization of illegal tactics beyond self-described illegalists, the setting up of barricades—in July 1936, May 1937, and many occasions before that—as a grassroots or spontaneous activity, and the multiple mass uprisings, such as the one in Hospitalet, that were the antithesis of elitism.

It is the democratic bias that alleges direct action to be elitist and assemblies to be egalitarian, and I long for a day when anarchists will leave this tired old lie for the authoritarians rather than repeating it themselves. Any but the most superficial analysis of what constitutes an elite would require that for an affinity group using direct action to be elitist, they would have to use fame or martial capacities acquired through their exploits to take over a preexisting hierarchical structure. Direct action tactics and affinity groups on their own are incapable of generating such hierarchies. Democratic institutions, on the other hand, are imminently capable of generating hierarchy. If it as exaggeration to say that assemblies tend towards manipulation, at the very least they are highly susceptible towards it. Revolutionary experiments and anarchic societies that have been most successful at preventing the development of authority tend to be those which have overlapping and redundant rather than centralized and unified decision-making spaces. It was the CNT which provided this very unity, that during most of its existence served to bring together the Barcelona working class, foster a sense of common identity, and potentiate solidarity, but once the organization had amassed the power to force the State into dialogue, that effectively harnessed and smothered the revolution.

Ealham frequently tries to minimize the accomplishments of the insurrectionary strategy, while simultaneously providing the information that disproves him. When syndical methods (mass protests and strikes) won an intermediate victory in February, 1936, he trumpets that “mass syndical pressure succeeded where the grupistas had failed, the rejuvenated CNT unions securing the return of many of the workers victimised after the ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ to their former workplaces.” But this episode comes after a whole list of victories won by the affinity groups. Furthermore, it’s a strawman: the affinity groups evolved, as Ealham himself documents, to deploy a set of tactics that would complement, not replace, other tactics such as strikes and protests.

To mention one last example (of many), Ealham casts doubts, without any real content, on the effect the insurrectionary anarchists had in preparing workers to defeat the fascist putsch. While the affinity groups were not the only ones to procure weapons before July 1936 (CNT-organized committees also snatched a number of handguns from night watchmen), they were the principal ones to use these weapons, to develop the competence and the courage to go on the attack, and to spread heroic examples throughout the entire society that they could attack and win. It was Nosotros that led the assault on the crucial Atarazanas barracks, and the Woodworkers Union, one of the most radical and supportive of the grupistas, that held the barricade on Paral·lel, preventing a military column from reinforcing the soldiers at the port. With the storming of the Sant Andreu Arsenal, these constitute the three most important military engagements that defeated the fascist uprising in Barcelona. How the years of armed struggle that came before this, including the repressed and failed risings, didn’t play a decisive role, cannot be logically explained, because the proposition is totally incoherent. Ealham can only offer the hypothesis that the struggle was “greatly” expanded through the participation of the Trotskyist POUM (even though the POUM was a tiny organization which at that time was militarily insignificant); presumably this growth in popularity was won by a more pluralistic, mass, non-“elitist” democratic CNT.

In this context, it is not at all unfair to point out that Ealham received academic grants from the Catalan and Spanish governments for researching this book. Subsequently, it becomes necessary to ask what is the State interest in sponsoring a history of anarchist struggle in Barcelona (note that the book came out in Spanish and English). Spain is one of the few states in which anarchism can not be entirely removed from the official narrative, because Spanish and even moreso Catalan history would simply not make sense without the anarchist struggles. These struggles still survive today, intervening significantly in popular responses to the ongoing economic crisis. Some of the same strategic debates that were relevant one hundred years ago are still hotly contested, and it is in these that Ealham intervenes, weighing in on the side of institutionalization. It would be unfair and dishonest to suggest that anyone who sides with the syndicalists against the insurrectionaries is a State tool: particularly the brands of insurrectionary anarchism that have flourished in Barcelona deserve a great many criticisms, while the anarcho-leaning labor organizations deserve at least some credit for potentiating social conflict. But what is historically obvious is that democratic, mass organizations distancing themselves from illegality and waiting for the “right moment” have consistently been a vehicle for the recuperation of struggles by the State. By weighing in sometimes underhandedly on the only side of the debate that will ever receive government funding, and without developing even standards for a nonpartisan critique, Ealham neglects his responsibilities.

It’s necessary to point out that the dispensation of academic grants is a mundane and nearly automatic affair, but the role of academics in elaborating alibis for the State is also a commonplace, and grants are one of many mechanisms that continuously bind academics and their production to the longterm needs of State and Capital. It is not a question of unethical or opportunistic academics succumbing to employment pressures and incentives, but the exact opposite; given the banality of evil, only the most valient and rebellious can rise above their institutional position and subvert the role assigned to them, although this subversion is not black and white but a matter of degrees.

On the whole, Ealham has subverted his role and, through this book, challenged dominant histories and developed theoretical tools for an anarchist approach to history. But where he intervenes in the contrived debate between insurrectionist/illegalist and syndicalist/mass organizing, he has coincided with State interests in constraining the historical repertoire of acceptable and effective forms of struggle. This error is compounded by the factual errors or logical contradictions he commits in the advancement of his argument.

The recent success of May Day in Barcelona (2011) demonstrates the potential of complementary struggles along the anarcho-syndicalist and insurrectionary lines, as well as the great popularity of insurrectionary tactics. Histories that portray the latter as an outdated peculiarity prone towards elitism and incapable of withstanding repression not only parody themselves, they also polarize people into camps and make occurrences like this year’s combative and popular May Day protest less likely. Histories that promote democracy and institutionalization miss out on the great mistake that has haunted anarchists in the Spanish state, in 1936, and again in the period of 1976 to 1980, a mistake that repeats itself on a smaller scale even today, and one that is encouraged in the State’s own portrayals of the past.

Nonetheless, it was an easy mistake for Ealham to make. Crediting the failings of the Barcelona anarchists to the excesses of “revolutionary gymnastics” is common enough among historians, even if this view is unnuanced, contradictory, and prejudicial; the most famous of the revolutionary gymnasts were extremely flawed individuals who personally deserve the critiques that are generalized upon the strategic currents for which they serve as avatars; furthermore the prejudices of our culture conflate democracy with liberty and direct action with tyranny.

Despite this blemish, which really only concerns a minor part of the book, Anarchism and the City has a lot to offer, not only by giving English-speaking anarchists an important and exciting part of our collective history, but by showing better ways to think about history, how we arrived at the present moment, and the contest that will shape the contours of our world well into the future.

Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937, by Chris Ealham. 263 pages. Oakland: AK Press, 2010.

Text as Folk Art: a book for non-readers

We could create change and resist the destruction that they wrought on the world. I felt joy and hope in all the possibilities we could continue to create, rebelling against their hallowed message that we should give up and give in.

I had to climb the hillside to see what was on the other side. Once I did, I saw the giants everywhere. I continued onward with curiosity and courage. I saw others doing the same and many of us walked together in mutual support. p 42

From Rousseau’s infamous noble savage to a fascination with tourism, western capitalist society has found many ways to both maintain and exploit the image of some people as Other. One of the more pernicious flavors of this is to see some people as more authentic, more in touch with their humanity and their experience. This increased authenticity can be attributed because they have suffered more, or because they are not seen as fitting into the model of the Normal Person ™ (who is supposed to be some combination of [sub]urban, white, middle class, straight, certified sane, etc). A particular kind of interest in folk art is part of this alienation.

In Europe, psychiatric collections, mediumistic art work, and paintings by autodidacts such as Alfred Wallis (1885-1942) and Henri ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau (1844-1910) were held aloft by modernists, along with colonial plunder from Africa and the Americas as salvation from industrialization’s increasing ravages (Gale 1999:16 and 17). Across the Atlantic, a similar fascination with ‘naive’ expression was taking place. Championing the romanticized notion of a fast-fading authenticity inherent in Anglicized American heritage, certain collectors, scholars, gallerists, and museum professionals turned their attentions to folk traditions. Marcus Davies

The definition for folk art is quite contested: how is it distinct from crafts (or is it)? What is its relationship to fine art and schools of art and art schools? Must it be completely untouched by the art market, or can folk pieces be in dialog with fine art pieces? Can fine artists do folk art? Should folk art be an umbrella term that includes naïve art, art brut1, tribal art, tramp art, self-taught art, etc, or is it a thing distinct from any of those? And so on.

For our purposes, wikipedia gives a reasonable entry:

Folk art

a) encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic

b) expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. It encompasses a range of utilitarian and decorative media…

c) is practiced by people who have traditionally learned skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal community settings, though they may also be formally educated

As with all attempts to define a group as outside of capitalist, western, urban values or experience, this can be read optimistically (the definers are dissatisfied with the status quo and are reaching for something, trying to understand the world in different ways), or pessimistically (the definers are attempting to integrate all difference into the status quo, to flatten differences even while they trumpet how “different” they are).2 More to the point, the members of the given group are both inside themselves and outside themselves at the same time. The Situationists were brilliant in their analysis of the Spectacle as something that divorces people from our own experience, an alienation that we are all subject to, but that members of Otherized groups are subject to differently. Vine Deloria’s article “Anthropologists and Other Friends” is intense and paradigm-shattering in its depiction of the relationship between anthropologists and the people-being-defined, negating (among other things) the idea that any of us can be untouched by the society that envelopes us.

Organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts rightfully define folk art as art coming out of a specifically identifiable tradition. Folk art is “learned at the knee” and passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions, like Hopi Native Americans making Kachina dolls, sailors making macramé, and the Amish making hex signs. From the website for the American Visionary Art Museum

Hopi-Native-Americans-making-Kachina-dolls (et al) are not just involved in a deeply spiritual and practical effort that their people have done for generations, they are also operating as Authentic Others within a capitalist model. These two ways of existing are diametrically opposed – are even mutually exclusive – and yet this paradox is embodied in these Hopi (et al), and to varying degrees in all of us.

Our truck sped along the highway, our thoughts in a tumult. Few cars moved our way, apart from the occasional military vehicle. In the other direction, the roadway was overflowing with evacuees. They began to look like refugees from another place. p 45

In Black Flags and Windmills (BF&W), scott crow – the best known (or at least the most interviewed) of the founding members of Common Ground Collective (CGC) – explains how he grew up and in to a world view that promotes a certain way of looking at race, class, disenfranchisement, responsibility, and privilege. BF&W is a reflection of that world view – one that has been called variously anti-racist, anti-colonialist, leftist – with many of its strengths and weaknesses.

While the group had many contributors and co-creators, it is fair to say that CGC (now a non-profit called Common Ground Relief) was initiated by a local ex Black Panther, a local woman, and an anarchist, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans was traumatized; entire neighborhoods had been emptied – sometimes through force; the government was demonstrably more interested in controlling the behavior of those who were left, than it was in meeting their needs. CGC, like many other efforts that seek to serve people’s needs without government or NGO mediation, has been lauded by some as an example of direct action, and criticized by some as a charity. In fact it was probably both, depending on when and on which people or subset of people one focuses on. Scott crow makes clear that there was an ongoing negotiation between working with people who were not anarchists, not used to dealing with anarchist horizontal process and mostly probably not interested in learning to deal with it, and the anarchists who made up most or sometimes all of the volunteers who were coming in from outside the area. Differences that were not made any less challenging by the different racial, economic, and cultural compositions of the two groups.

Naïve art:

The main characteristic of naïve art is a rejection, or strained relationship to, the formal qualities of painting, especially the three rules of perspective (as defined by painters of the Renaissance):

The rules of perspective are

  1. decrease of the size of objects proportionally at distance,
  2. enfeeblement of colors with distance,
  3. decrease of the precision of details with distance.

The lack of these characteristics leads to an equal accuracy brought to details, including those of the background, which would be shaded off in fine art paintings.

 

BF&W is an exercise in folk and naïve art, because it is less a cohesive story (or even set of stories) than a record of part of a conversation. The book does not abide by any of the rules normal for books on any of the themes that it includes. It is more than a memoir of CGC (it includes some of scott crow’s childhood) but less than an autobiography – crow mostly discusses his childhood, political development, and part of his life during the existence of CGC. It includes a history lesson but only for a few disconnected and very specific pieces of history, without a larger context (primarily the Black Panthers and the Zapatistas). It is a political text by an anarchist who seems to have been most inspired by non-anarchists. It is a manual for disaster relief without much step by step information to duplicate specific success(es). It is an adventure story about fighting cops, vigilantes, snitches, and entitlement, as well as surviving the environment, without a clear ending. People who already know a bit about CGC might read this book for more information on Brandon Darby, who was a significant part of the story for scott crow, and who gained notoriety first from to his self aggrandizement, and later when he came out as an informant to the FBI. However, where scott crow discusses Darby, it has more to do with crow’s process of coming to terms with the fullness of Darby’s perfidity, than it does with an analysis or accounting of Darby’s behavior.

More fundamentally, the text does not follow a single line at any point. All of the threads are woven together in the way that spoken conversations sometimes flow, but that seem quite random on paper. Because there are so many threads that all seem to get equivalent attention, it’s hard to know which is foreground and what background.

This conversational style, in which bits from all the various themes are mixed together–biographical fragments with stories about the Spanish Civil War and crow’s alliances with ex-Black Panthers (a description that is featured heavily throughout the book), etc–is so pronounced that it makes the book seem like something new, perhaps a book that is for people who don’t read, who don’t like or want to be limited by the patterns or habits in more traditional books.

So Folk as a description operates here in two ways. First is that of “a set of practices learned by watching other people,” in the sense that crow learned his activism by watching and listening to ex-Black Panthers, and from them received a particular take on identity, society, and liberation that he faithfully represents here, even when it is in conflict with much of anarchist thought. In a chapter called Of Anarchists, Panthers, and Zapatistas, crow explains his own eventual embrace of the label anarchist (after rejecting it initially because of his distaste for punk anarchists in his youth), when he decided “it was time to shock the political system.” For some it will be odd that in this chapter the examples of actual action that he uses are two groups that have no anarchist affiliation at all.

It is not hard to find criticism of the authoritarian practices of many within the Black Panther Party; one example is this quotation from Paul Glavin’s friendly review of Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party (edited by Kathleen Cleaver – who wrote the preface to BG&W – and George Katsiaficas).

The authoritarian, top-down structure of the Panthers, combined with their reliance on Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, is objectionable from an anti-authoritarian perspective. The Panthers saw themselves as a vanguard Marxist-Leninist style Party with hierarchical ranks and they were influenced by Mao. For example, Michael L. Clemons and Charles E. Jones’s essay, “Global Solidarity,” points out that fifty percent of BPP political education classes were devoted to Mao’s Little Red Book. Key members were given State titles, such as Minister of Information and Minister of Defense.

In this collection, Mumia argues it is hard to generalize about the BPP because it had many offices and a diverse membership reflecting regional and cultural differences. Yet by the 1970s the BPP did become increasingly authoritarian and centralized. … http://www.newformulation.org/1pantherinsurgency.htm

And the Zapatistas, as exciting as they have been for people looking to create mass movements, are themselves not even anti-state.

The EZLN has not hidden their agenda. Their aims are clear already in the declaration of war that they issued at the time of the 1994 uprising, and not only are those aims not anarchist; they are not even revolutionary. In this declaration, nationalist language reinforced the implications of the army’s name. Stating: “We are the inheritors of the true builders of our nation”, they go on to call upon the constitutional right of the people to “alter or modify their form of government”. They speak repeatedly of the “right to freely and democratically elect political representatives” and “administrative authorities”. And the goals for which they struggle are “work, land, housing , food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace”. In other words nothing concrete that could not be provided by capitalism. Nothing in any later statement from this prolific organization has changed this fundamentally reformist program. Instead the EZLN calls for dialogue and negotiation, declaring their willingness to accept signs of good faith from the Mexican government.

From THE EZLN IS NOT ANARCHIST

crow’s book exemplifies a conundrum for a particular kind of anti-racist activist, which is the question of how much one constrains their ideas to fit into models that have been approved by people of color. When one is an activist, as crow decidedly is, the models of the panthers and the zapatistas are too practical and successful (within limits) to be denied. But if anarchy is something more than a set of tactics, then one must admit that anarchy is impractical. It is not practical to have a beautiful vision of the potential in all of us, a potential that demands the overthrow of so much that so many take for granted or in fact demand. This dilemma continues to be acted out in many people’s political activities and organizations, and the scott crow book is (among other things) a story of the balancing that he was trying to do between its horns.

Anarchism means not waiting for the other to do something. It means knowing what the right thing to do is, recognizing we have the power to do it, then doing it. p73

But Folk can also apply to the way that a work is understood to be outside of institutions; counter to what is considered learned or erudite; easy for the Common Folk to understand. When the point of a work is to replicate cultural norms that are not scholastic or outside of a particular form-of-life, to be – for example – accessible to a group of people who are not used to reading, then the conversational flow and familiar language will be a comfort and an encouragement. These might be the people who take the story of Don Quixote’s windmills as an expression of hope and a refusal to concede, rather than as a sign of an old man’s delusion.

Reading this book brought up for me questions of habit and form, formality and structure. Arguably, scott crow took the format – papers bound together with glue and a cover – and made it his own. A practice that egoists, among others, might be able to appreciate.

  1. aka outsider or visionary art – ie art by people who are considered insane or far outside of social convention)
  2. Of course both pessimistic and optimistic views are true simultaneously.

Böll, Orwell, Bolaño: In Defense Of Art

Böll, Orwell, Bolaño: In Defense Of Art

This is a century in which democracy regularly presided over the birth of fascist regimes and civilization constantly rhymed – to the tune of Wagner or Iron Maiden – with extermination.

-The Invisible Committee

Only in chaos are we conceivable.

-Roberto Bolaño

 

Introduction: Art and Auschwitz

In the book Music of Another World, Szymon Laks describes his experiences as a member of the Jewish orchestra in Auschwitz. The post-war, communist government of Poland would not allow it to be published, claiming that it portrayed the Nazis in a positive light. In the book, there are passages such as the following:

When an SS-man listened to music, especially of the kind he really liked, he somehow became strangely similar to a human being…at such moments the hope stirred in us that maybe everything was not lost after all. Could people who love music to this extent, people who can cry when they hear it, be at the same time capable of committing so many atrocities on the rest of humanity? There are realities in which one cannot believe.

The book was eventually published in France and is one of the only books on the subject of the Jewish orchestra in the death camps. Laks explains how playing in the orchestra allowed him to have extra food, more privileges, and was the sole reason for his survival in the camp. He does not hide from the fact that his art sheltered him from extermination, nor does he hide his belief in the eternal power and beauty of music.

Contradictions were unavoidable. The book I present to readers interested in these matters does not claim to solve them. On the contrary, it may even introduce a few new contradictions. Is not one of them the very fact that music—the most sublime expression of the human spirit—also became entangled in the hellish enterprise of the extermination of millions of people and even took an active part in this extermination?

Laks never lost sight of the power that the art of music contained and his experiences in the death camp did not ruin the faith in his craft. But it did show him how his craft could be used for the most brutal and deathly purposes, how his compositions could ease the worries of those who did not know they were walking into the gas chamber, and how music calmed and cleared the minds of the Nazis who starved, shot, and burnt thousands of people in Auschwitz.

To write about music in [Auschwitz]–Birkenau without referring to the background against which this music was played would be counter to the aim and even the sense of this book. For this is not a book about music. It is a book about music in a Nazi concentration camp. One could also say: about music in a distorting mirror.

 

Heinrich Böll and the Red Army Faction

Heinrich Böll worked for a bookseller after completing school in 1937, four years after the Nazis had risen to power. The bookseller he worked for sold contemporary and antiquarian books and also published select works. After finishing his apprenticeship with this book company he attempted to devote his life to reading, writing and teaching. This lifestyle was interrupted by his conscription in the Nazi program of compulsory labor service. Completion of this six-month service was a prerequisite for attending university. Having fulfilled this requirement, he decided to attend university but was only able to complete the summer term before being conscripted into the German army in 1939.

He fought for the Nazi army until 1945 when he was captured by the Americans and interned in a French prisoner-of-war camp. Released in the winter of 1945, Böll returned to his home town of Cologne to find it destroyed by the allied bombing campaign. There, he began to rebuild his demolished house with his wife. Like millions of young German men, Böll had been swept into the clutches of the fascist army and did not attempt to escape. Like millions of young German men, he spent the rest of his days after the war attempting to understand what had happened in Germany and how it had come to pass. His first novel, published in 1949, was titled The Train Was On Time and centers on a young German soldier on a train ride from France to Poland, the country of Auschwitz. On the train ride, this soldier befriends other soldiers and they discuss the horrors of what they have seen and what war has done to them. But nevertheless, the train arrives on time and the soldiers continue onward into death, misery and war.

Unlike most Germans who had a hand in the war, Böll did not shrink away from his responsibility to those who had died but also to the new generation being raised in the reconstruction. All of his following work concerns the German psyche and the aftereffects of fascism. In his fiction he highlights who was responsible for the Nazi horrors, explains how Germans attempted to resist, and casts a light on the many who were cowardly and afraid. For this, he earned the reputation of being an antifascist author and is credited with redeeming German literature from the shadow of the Nazis.

In April of 1968, the first members of what would become the Red Army Faction (RAF) bombed two department stores in Frankfurt, wanting to show the German public that they could not support American fascism without being subject to attacks. These young people had internalized the messages that people like Böll had been sending to the youth since the end of the war. They looked on with disgust and horror at the former Nazis holding high positions in the government and corporations of capitalist West Germany. Holding onto the memories and stories passed down by Böll and other writers, the youth were determined to never forget nor forgive the people who had created the death camps.

However, there were others who did not share either Böll’s or the youths viewpoint. Axel Springer, owner of the Bild-Zeitung newspaper, championed German support for the American war in Vietnam, condemned the wave of student unrest, and singled out radical leaders by name.

One of these radical leaders was Rudi Dutschke and after the Bild-Zeitung ran the headline STOP DUTSCHKE NOW! there was an attempt on his life by a right-wing youth. In retaliation, a mob of people stormed the newspaper headquarters, destroyed their trucks and burnt their papers. Amongst this mob was Ulrike Meinhof, the famous journalist who in 1970 helped free Andreas Baader from police custody and joined the RAF.

Unlike his contemporary Theodore Adorno, Böll met the younger generation where they were and did not assume an arrogant and condescending demeanor. He watched and did not condemn the RAF as they proceeded to rob banks and attack military and judicial targets. One of these targets was the offices of Axel Springer’s publishing company in Hamburg. In 1972, an RAF bomb exploded in an office and wounded 17 employees of the company that published the Bild-Zeitung newspaper. Ulrike Meinhof, the former journalist, was largely behind this action that would linger in Böll’s memory.

In the summer of 1972 the first generation of the RAF was captured and soon began their hunger strike in prison. Böll intervened on behalf of Ulrike Meinhof in 1972 because he believed that the press, which had been accusatory, had deprived her and her group of a fair trial. Böll was then himself criticized, subject to police searches, accused of creating a climate for violence, and cast as a threat to the internal security of the nation (Anonymous).

By 1974, an RAF member named Holger Meins had died from starvation. This same year, with the actions of the RAF firmly in the popular imagination, Böll published one of his greatest works. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or: how violence develops and where it can lead is a slim novella only 144 pages long. It details the life of Katharina Blum (pronounced ‘bloom’), a young, stern housekeeper for a wealthy liberal couple.

She leads a boring life, wanting nothing more than to earn her wages, balance her checkbook, have an apartment, own a car and be able to cook herself dinner. She is portrayed as the perfect example of the moderate success and comfort that was awarded to those who worked hard in the new capitalist West Germany. One day, she is invited to a dance where she meets a young man. For the first time, her friends see her enjoying herself and dancing. The normally stern woman unlocks herself and goes home with the young man who also happens to have stolen money from the army and deserted.

The next morning, the police raid her apartment in search of a dangerous terrorist. When they enter the apartment, they find Katharina alone with a smile on her face. The authorities take her to the police station and begin to interrogate her, believing that she helped the terrorist escape. She maintains her innocence and narrates to them her banal life. Unable to find any evidence against her, she is released into the world but soon becomes the victim of a right-wing media frenzy.

A paper called Die Zeitung calls her and her mother communist agents and encourages the authorities to jail her. A journalist for the paper illegally visits Katharina’s mother in the hospital and through his words causes the old woman to die of a stroke. His presence in the hospital is never discovered but upon hearing news of her mother’s death, Katharina blames it solely on the right-wing journalist. She soon invites him to her apartment for an exclusive interview. After he arrives, Katharina shoots and kills the journalist, turns herself into the police and learns that her young terrorist lover has also been apprehended. The reader last sees Katharina locked up, happy to be able to be with her first love once they are both released from prison.

In this novella, Böll in no way portrays Katharina’s assassination of the journalist as either faulty or uncalled for. If anything, this action is presented as perfectly reasonable. The novella caused an immediate controversy and positioned Böll on the side of the anti-fascist RAF. In 1975, the year after the novella’s publication, the second generation of the RAF began its offensive. Some would accuse Böll of encouraging and allowing this to happen. In this authors estimation, Böll is a true anti-fascist artist. His book was perfectly timed and posed the most forbidden questions in West Germany. A cinematic adaptation of the novella was released in 1975, further adding to the conflict. The film ends with the following words that were written by Böll at the beginning of his story:

The characters and actions in this story are purely fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional, nor fortuitous, but unavoidable.

 

George Orwell and the Sect of Revolutionaries

 

Shortly after the Greek insurrection of 2008, a group was formed that called itself Sect of Revolutionaries. In February 2009, after shooting at a police station and throwing a grenade at it (which did not explode), the group claimed the action by putting a CD with their communique on the grave of Alexis Grigoropoulos. In the communique, they threatened to assassinate police officers. This threat was followed through with and in June of 2009 the group killed an anti-terrorist police officer. In their communique for the assassination, the group threatened to attack the journalists responsible for helping quell the insurrection and returning society to its normal functioning. In July of 2010, the group assassinated the right-wing journalist Sokratis Giolias outside of his home. The following text are excerpts from the communique claiming his assassination.

So we’d rather go to his home than let something happen in a gunfight in the street and hit someone irrelevant. What exactly was said through the intercom to ensure not only that he would come down, but would come alone without being accompanied by his wife, is something that does not need not be made public for several reasons.

Our main concern was for not the slightest thing to go wrong with his wife and of course the young child. Everyone gets the end they deserve and these people have done nothing to us. Furthermore, the practice of political execution is very clear and specific. There will never be any danger from our attacks for any family members or family environment of a target that does not have any involvement in their dirty options and interests, even if this obliges us to cancel our plans. An urban guerrilla is not a cold murderer. When he chooses to shoot, he does not hit the face itself, but the choices of the specific person, the position he holds, the decisions he has taken, the interests he serves. It’s not a personal thing. The armed fighter fights the operators of the system who no longer have their own separate face, but a particular job they are defending. The armed fighter does not shoot people, he shoots against the system itself.


George Orwell, perhaps one of the most famous anti-fascist writers, was also a journalist. After being shot in the neck fighting against Franco’s army in Spain and after witnessing the Stalinist betrayal of both the anarchists and the Trotskyists, Orwell returned to his native England and penned the immortal work Homage to Catalonia. While he recovered and wrote, hardline communist supporters began to attack him in the press, insinuating he was nothing more than a bourgeois tourist who used the misery of others to sell his books. When his reflections on Spain were published in 1938, no one bought the book and it was clear that his perspective was neither welcomed or believed by those who subscribed to either the capitalist or communist mythology.

The second world war began in earnest in 1939. Orwell made his living during this time by writing for newspapers and magazines while his wife worked for the Censorship Department. As the Luftwaffe began to bomb England, Orwell saw the same fascism he had been fighting in Spain turning its sights on the island. He and other radical socialists joined the Home Guard, believing it could become a revolutionary organization. However, mishandling of a mortar during training caused Orwell to injure two fellow militiamen. Following this, he contributed to the war effort by planting potatoes and writing antifascist articles. The struggle against the shared fascist enemy had brought him to this position of co-existence with the British Empire, although he never accepted it uncritically.

In the summer of 1941, Orwell began working for the BBC, transmitting broadcasts to India in order to counteract Nazi propaganda while his wife transferred from the Censorship Department to the Ministry of Food. In 1942, Orwell started to write for the Tribune, a paper run by two leftist Labour MP’s. Wanting to concentrate on writing his next book and tired of sending useless broadcasts to India from a decaying empire, Orwell quit his job at the BBC and became the full time literary editor of the Tribune. His new book was to be Animal Farm.

By 1944, the book was ready for publication. Unfortunately, no one would publish it, afraid that it would damage the vital wartime relationship between England and the USSR. Shortly after the first rejection of his manuscript, a V-1 rocket destroyed his home and he had to dig through the rubble to retrieve his book collection. After Orwell finally found someone to publish his work, the Ministry of Information instructed the publisher to deny publication (it was later discovered that the official in the Ministry who ordered this was a Soviet agent). In 1945, Orwell found another publisher who promised to publish Animal Farm and was later sent to Paris to cover the liberation of the city for the Observer. While he was there, witnessing the destruction of the Nazi occupation and the rebirth of the city, his wife died during a hysterectomy.

During the first General Election since the start of the war, the Labour Party took control of the government, ousting the conservatives led by Winston Churchill. The month after this election, with the leftist Party in control of the country, Animal Farm was finally published. Orwell quickly found himself with the reputation of being an anti-communist writer. While Animal Farm was a definitive condemnation of Stalin’s USSR, he soon turned his attention on the Labour Party and the Cold War that was about to start. He began work on 1984, his bleak and terrifying tale of the future. He and his wife’s experiences working for the government informed much of the story. What Orwell feared the most was the Labour Party imitating the practices of the Stalinist’s in their effort to fight against post-war Soviet expansion. His vision of the Ingsoc (English Socialism) of the Party (the Labour Party) was a horror he wished to avert.

The main protagonist of the story is Winston Smith, an underling for the Outer Party. This character is Orwell, forced into collaboration with the Inner Party out of wartime necessity. Orwell saw the lies, the deception and the corruption of the government he had worked for during the war and in his final days of writing 1984 he did his utmost to apologize and to explain the position he had filled during the conflict. He did not shrink from what he had seen or what he had done and with the publication of his book in 1949, he gave everyone a warning of what the powers of the world intended to do over the next 40 years. His book may have not been so bleak, he said, had he not been a dying old man.

It is unknown what Sect of Revolutionaries would have thought of Orwell had they been his contemporaries, especially during the war years. He most certainly collaborated with the government and did support the Labour Party, however critically. When he died in 1950, he left behind a legacy that would inspire countless anti-fascists and writers. One of these writers, Roberto Bolaño, wrote the following words about Orwell:
George Orwell isn’t just one of the great writers of the twentieth century, he’s also first and foremost a good man, and a brave one.

 

Roberto Bolaño and Exile

Roberto Bolaño was a silver-tongued demon of the written word and specialized in generating mysteries that confounded all who attempted to control the chaos of the imagination. Born in Santiago, Chile in 1959, Bolaño lived in the colonial city until his family relocated to the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City in 1968. That year in the city, over 300 students were massacred by the military at the Plaze de la Tres Culturas. This event, so traumatic and overwhelming, cast a shadow over the young people of the city that Bolaño was to call his home for the next 5 years.

From the age of 15, Bolaño began his life as a free spirit and vagabond. He dropped out of school and immersed himself in the leftist counterculture that was attempting to regroup after the bloodbath. He began to steal books by his favorite authors, attended poetry readings and learned the ways of the prostitutes, junkies, poets and gangsters of the Mexico City streets.

If we are to believe what Bolaño wrote, then the following narrative of his life is true. In 1973, at the age of 20, Bolaño left Mexico for Chile to go help fight in the war against capitalism. Salvadore Allende, the socialist president of Chile, had been withstanding international and domestic pressure after his election and it was clear to many in the country that a military coup or fascist revolution was approaching. Bolaño had only been in the country for a few months when Augusto Pinochet staged his coup against the government. While on the street, Bolaño was picked up by the fascist police and taken to jail. During his imprisonment, he heard the sounds of people being beaten, tortured and killed. After eight days in which he thought he would meet the same anonymous death as hundreds of others, Bolaño was discovered by two prison guards who had been his childhood classmates. Released into the now pacified and quiet streets, Bolaño decided to return to Mexico by land.

He wandered Central America during this journey and eventually gravitated towards the pockets of resistance still fighting in the war against capitalism. His path took him through Nicaragua and El Salvador where he saw that his revolution was not yet gone, that his contemporaries were still intent on freeing their countries. Returning to Mexico City in 1974, Bolaño committed himself to writing poetry and destabilizing the established literary order by interrupting readings, stealing books and attacking those he believed represented the conservative values that had lead to the carnage of 1968 and 1973. He was not a fighter or a guerrilla and his words were far more powerful than any sacrifice of his body could have been.

In 1975, Bolaño learned of the death of Roque Dalton. Dalton was a poet and a guerrilla fighter in the People’s Liberation Army, a Marxist organization fighting the government in El Salvador. Dalton believed, contrary to his comrades, that their clandestine existence prevented them from even knowing the people they claimed to be fighting for. This belief of his was later used against him by his enemies. A story was propagated that he was a CIA agent and his desire for his organization to be more visible led his comrades to execute him on May 10th, 1975. Dalton wrote, my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life. His veins extended to Mexico City where Bolaño was attempting to create the Infrarealist poetry movement. In 1976, he penned the manifesto of this group from which excerpts can be read below.

In architecture and sculpture the infrarealists start from two points: the barricade and the bed…the true imagination is that which destroys, elucidates, injects emerald microbes into other imaginations. In poetry and in whatever else, the entrance into the work has to already be the way into adventure. Create the tools for everyday subversion…risk is always somewhere else. The true poet is the one who’s always letting go of himself. Never too much time in the same place, like guerrillas, like UFOs, like the white eyes of prisoners serving life sentences…make new sensations appear—Subvert daily life.

But the most haunting sentence of this manifesto appears near the end and encapsulates the disillusion and loss he and his generation felt in the time period between 1968 and 1975: We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming. We hear in this line the cry of Dalton as he was executed and the screams of the Chilean disappeared. In 1977, a year after writing this line, Bolaño left Latin America for a post-Franco Spain, the place he would spend most of his remaining life.

In the old anarchist stronghold of Catalonia he worked a series of random jobs including being a garbage man and the security guard of a campground. Regarding this period of time in his life, Bolaño wrote, my sickness, back then, was pride, rage, and violence. Those things (rage, violence) are exhausting and I spent my days uselessly tired. I worked at night. During the day I wrote and read. I never slept. To keep awake I drank coffee and smoked…tacked up over my bed was a piece of paper on which I’d asked a friend from Poland to write, in Polish, Total Anarchy. I didn’t think I was going to live past thirty-five. I was happy. In the early 1980’s, Bolaño eventually settled in Blanes, a small Catalan town on the coast. He opened a jewelry store in which he also slept at night. This was the last of his “extra-literary” jobs and it enabled him to write his poetry with more consistency and less exhaustion and for the next decade he wrote poetry and made no money off it.

In 1990, his first child was born and he decided to begin writing fiction, the only form of his craft that would enable him to support his family. It was only after beginning to write novels that Bolaño’s experiences and his anti-fascism were articulated for the world. His second novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas, is a fierce condemnation on every petty writer that surrendered or willingly gave their services to the fascist governments of Latin America. The book is composed of various biographies of fictional authors who sometimes bear a resemblance to the living and dead authors that Bolaño despised. One of these characters is the son of fugitive Nazis who settled in Argentina after the war. He becomes famous for his line drawings that can only be seen from the air. These drawings are nothing more than the blueprints for concentration camps. Not surprisingly, the art world comes to adore and praise this silent and enigmatic fascist.

Bolaño’s next novel, Distant Star, explores this same theme by centering on the life of one of the authors described in his previous book, a Chilean named Alberto Ruiz-Tagle . The main character is a mysterious student of literature who always appears to be bored. When the fascist coup takes place, Ruiz-Tagle brutally murders two sisters he was in class with and takes pictures of his crime. Once Pinochet’s government is firmly in place, Ruiz-Tagle joins the air force and soon becomes a famed artist. His craft consists of writing cryptic phrases in the sky with the exhaust of his plane. This brings him much critical acclaim and allows him to traverse the high-society of fascist Chile. At one of his exclusive art-shows, he covers an entire apartment in photos of the people he has tortured and killed over the years of Pinochet’s reign. The high-society that sees these photos reacts negatively to these images of what allowed their fascist leader to rise to power. The novel ends with a private detective tracking down an aged Ruiz-Tagle in exile and assassinating him.

In 1998, Bolaño published The Savage Detectives, the story of his comrades and fellow poets in Mexico City. It details the divergent paths he and his friends took and reveals the love he had for those years of sex, drugs, filth, and beauty. The book’s plot spans across Latin America and Europe and centers on two characters, one of them Bolaño and the other his friend Mario Santiago, a member of the Infrarealist movement. The love and warmth evoked in this work that immortalizes his comrades quickly made the book Bolaño’s first best-seller and brought him a fame he had never known. But unlike many other artists who had allow their fame to devour and weaken them, Bolaño continued to write novels that focused on the deaths and misery caused by the fascists and the beauty, chaos, and art that he and his friends had championed.

His next novel, Amulet, focuses on the life of a woman who is trapped in a bathroom of a university for twelve days during the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City. While she is terrified and afraid and waiting for a death that does not arrive, she reminiscences about her life as the queen of the streets and poetry and highlights the creative world that the fascist military wanted to exterminate. By Night In Chile, a novella published in 2000, revolves around the hypocrisy of the church, the left, and the literary society that existed in Chile during the reign of Pinochet. These two books are attacks on all of the artists who lived comfortably while other artists, the poor ones, the rebellious ones, were slaughtered.

His final novel was 2666. This work transcends anti-fascism and expounds on the mysteries of the holocaust, Germany, the femicides of Ciudad Juarez, telepathy, the labyrinths of literature and the horror of unrestrained greed. It is the first and only great book of the twenty-first century and cannot be summarized. It is meant to be read carefully and with caution.

In his short story “The Murdering Whores,” Bolaño tells the story of a young woman who is watching the broadcast of a soccer match in what may or may not be Francoist Spain. She sees a young man give the fascist salute along with thousands of others during the match. For some reason she singles him out, dresses up like a whore, gets on her scooter and drives down to the stadium. Miraculously, she finds him, seduces, takes him to her apartment, ties him up and then begins to deliver a long monologue. Her words ramble and flow in all directions and the true reasons for what she chooses to do are never fully articulated. But at the end of the story she kills the fascist youth with no regrets and no hesitation. This image of a woman killing a fascist represents the utopia of Roberto Bolaño.

Coda

In the article “Gaga, Bowie, Hitler,” this author set out to disparage and undermine a few of those artists who used their gifts to bolster the machinations of fascist systems of governance. In this article, we fulfilled a suggestion from Heinrich Böll in which he stated that “to condemn [poetry] requires that it first must be recognized.” However, rather than follow his advice uncritically, we decided first to condemn art before recognizing its timeless power and beauty. Art has been praised enough, art has been abused enough, art has been mutilated enough. We felt no need to accord it any more undue praise.

An artist only has their commitment to their vision to hold on to. Once that vision is contaminated by the dictates of the market, authority, and the status quo, the artist becomes a tool, an empty shell, a plastic vessel. But there are artists like the ones described above who not only possessed but held onto a unique vision of a world free of fascism and control. Art can be a weapon and the authors described above demonstrate this assertion. Despite our harsh condemnation of art in the past, we agree with Roberto Bolaño that “only poetry isn’t shit.”