Posts Tagged ‘Walter Benjamin’

Laurence Davis: “Only a Bold and Popular Left Radicalism Can Stop the Rise of Fascism”

March 11, 2017

Written by Laurence Davis and published on Open Democracy, 12 February 2017

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition.

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Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair, Heidelberg, 1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Some right reserved.

Two new worlds are now struggling to be born amidst the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation. The first is the waking nightmare now unfolding in the United States in the glare of the international media. A reality show with a cast of horrors, its politically successful mix of faux right-wing populism and neo-fascism has inspired and emboldened autocrats everywhere and threatens in the absence of an effective counter-power to become our new global reality.

The second, a just, compassionate, ecologically sound and democratically self-managed post-capitalist world, may be detected in what Colin Ward once described as scattered ‘seeds beneath the snow’. Deeply rooted in a rich soil of ideas and grounded utopian imagination nourished by countless counter-cultural critics of capitalism, industrialism and grow-or-die economics from William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus to Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Murray Bookchin and Ursula Le Guin – as well as a long history of popular movements from below working together to resist regimes of domination and develop progressive and sustainable alternatives to them – the tender shoots of another world are emerging all around us.

They are visible in a wide range of grassroots practices, movements, and practical utopias, from Buen Vivir in the Andes, Ubuntu in South Africa, Ecoswaraj in India, Zapatismo in Mexico, and the budding degrowth movement in Europe to solidarity economies, commoning activities, permaculture projects, re-localisation movements, community currencies, transition towns, co-operatives, eco-communities, worker occupied factories, indigenous people’s assemblies, alternative media and arts, human-scale technologies, basic and maximum income experiments, debt audit movements, radical democratic movements such as Occupy and democratic confederalism in Rojava, and emerging anti-fascist fronts and coalitions uniting immigrant solidarity groups, anti-racists, feminists, queers, anarchists, libertarian socialists and many others.

The great danger we now face is that newly empowered forces of reaction will use that power to repress progressive alternatives before they are able to coalesce as an effective counter-power, sowing seeds of hatred and intolerance instead.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic or centre-left political persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and suggested that the most effective antidote to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to social democracy and market globalisation with a ‘human face’. Rather than seek to understand the complex mix of reasons why American citizens voted for a demagogue like Trump, they blame an undifferentiated ‘populism’ and advocate more elite democracy instead.

The breathtaking naivety of this commentary is perhaps matched in recent memory only by Francis Fukuyama’s equally naïve and now risible prediction in 1989 of an ‘end of history’, i.e. an end to mankind’s ideological evolution with the ‘universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.

Walter Benjamin, Paris, 1939

Now more than ever, it is vital that we recognise and articulate careful ideological distinctions between competing right and left wing varieties of populism, and that those of us committed to values like equality, democracy and solidarity take urgent action to oppose Trumpism and the rise of fascism not with more of the same failed elite-led liberal democracy, but with a bold left egalitarian and inclusive radicalism.

The Trump campaign gave voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political establishment. It castigated the elitism and corruption of the system, emphasised its ineffectuality in the face of sinister threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, and maintained that Trump and Trump alone could ‘make America great again’. It succeeded by peddling false solutions and scapegoats for real social problems generated by the governance of interconnected political and economic elites.

By contrast, a bold and inclusive left populist radicalism would expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. It would offer a generous vision of a better world, and a sweeping programme for revolutionary social change that can be translated into everyday practice.

This will require a reconnection with revolutionary roots. Historically, revolutionary ideas and social movements have tended to emerge out of, and give ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late.

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Review – The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left

February 9, 2016

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First published on Marx and Philosophy, 8 February 2016

The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique
Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, 2015. 320pp., $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781893638501

In his “Marxist Critique” of The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism, and The Politics of the Pseudo-Left, David North, a high-ranking member within the Trotskyist Fourth International, chairman of the U.S. Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and editor of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), reprints polemical essays (2003-2012) voicing the response of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to the heterodox theoretical suggestions made by fellow travelers Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner to incorporate greater concern for psychology, utopia, gender, and sexuality into the ICFI’s program. Whereas Steiner and Brenner sought to open the Fourth International to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich’s sex-pol approach, North repudiates any such suggestion as beyond the pale and plainly communicates his revulsion with the Frankfurt School as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. To rationalize his dismissal of Critical Theory, he rather baselessly ties its legacy to the rise of postmodernist irrationalism. North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual “deviation” from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse “pseudo-left,” “petty bourgeois,” “anti-Marxist,” even “anti-socialist” politics. To sustain such fantasies, North presents a highly dishonest, even unhinged analysis of the Frankfurt School theorists and theories.

Starting in his Foreword (2015), North clarifies the association he sees among the “anti-materialist and anti-Marxist intellectual tendencies” represented by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and postmodernism, which for him converge to form the “pseudo-left” (v). North facilely groups the Frankfurt School theorists together with the thought of Nietzsche, Sorel, and postmodernists like Foucault, Laclau, and Badiou (vii). Centered on “race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference,” “pseudo-left” approaches have in North’s opinion “come to play a critical role in suppressing opposition to capitalism, by rejecting class […] and by legitimizing imperialist interventions and wars in the name of ‘human rights’” (vii). North cites SYRIZA (Greece) and “the remnants and descendants of the ‘Occupy’ movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies” as typifying “pseudo-leftism” (xxii). He then enumerates the following accusations against the “pseudo-left”:

  • that it rejects Marxism,
  • advances “subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism” in place of historical materialism,
  • opposes class struggle and socialism,
  • denies the centrality of the proletariat and the need for revolution,
  • promotes identity politics,
  • and advances militarism and imperialism (xxii-xxiii, 205).

In his stentorian 2006 letter to Steiner and Brenner, “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consiousness,” North dismisses his counterparts’ attempts to “infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse” into the ICFI’s program, and dismisses the sexual-psychological dimensions of Steiner’s concern for the development of socialist consciousness (24, 30). Almost in passing, in an attempt to discredit Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, North opportunistically claims that these thinkers supported Stalin’s Moscow Trials, yet no evidence is produced for such serious charges (44). North employs the same line against Bloch, who, unlike Adorno and Marcuse, admittedly was a Stalinist for some time: the author hypothesizes that Bloch’s utopianism “has something to do” with the “political swinishness” Bloch evinced during Stalin’s purges (44).

In this essay, North identifies communism as the culmination of Enlightenment materialism and rationalism, while dissociating Steiner and Brenner from Marxism altogether. In North’s words, these latter take after the “demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School,” who for the SEP chairman are supposed to have rejected Marxism and the Enlightenment wholesale (64-9). Turning to a discussion of utopianism, the author indicates that “Utopia […] is not part of a Marxist program” (72, original emphasis). North argues that the relevance of utopia had been superseded even in Marx and Engels’ day (76-80). Yet tellingly, North boasts of Marx and Engels’ “brutally critical” approach toward “any tendency expressing a retreat from these theoretical conquests [they had made]” in the early years of international communism (80).

North then associates utopianism with idealism, presenting a deterministic account of the development of these philosophies, such that socialism remained “utopian” before the onset of industrial capitalism (82-4). He accuses Steiner and Brenner of resurrecting Bernstein’s reformism because Bernstein disagreed with Engels’ repudiation of utopianism, and of sympathizing with Kant due to their concern for morality (98-102).

The author then launches a tirade against Wilhelm Reich, whom he denounces for being “pessimistic” in his analysis of the rise of Nazism (Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933]), an account that challenges the inevitability of revolution under sexually repressive monopoly capitalism (113-21). Against Steiner’s recommendations, North clarifies that contemplation of Reich’s sex-pol “can only result in the worst forms of political disorientation” (114-5).

In “The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner” (2008), the ICFI’s response to Steiner and Brenner’s reply to “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness,” North expounds more invective against the Frankfurt School. Sketching his view of the affinities among Critical Theory, Marxist humanism, and the New Left’s “middle-class radicalism,” North explains his view of how such “pseudo-left” thinking has penetrated the academy: that is, through the efforts of the “ex-radicals” of the 1960s, who putatively propagated an “unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism” (134). He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic” (140, emphasis added). Passing to comment on Steiner’s “apologetic defense” of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), North observes that his counterpart’s affirmation of Marcuse’s account cannot be separated from the critical theorist’s “rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class” (193-5). The author peremptorily concludes by reiterating the charge of “petty-bourgeois” ways of thinking—all the while counterposing the thought of Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles.

In “The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left” (2012), North endorses the continued centrality of Trotsky’s concern for resolving the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” and dismisses accusations of state capitalism raised against the USSR (202-3, 206-7). North contrasts Trotsky’s structured vanguardism to the “petty-bourgeois despair” he sees Adorno and Max Horkheimer advancing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) (207-10). North asserts the revisionist repudiation of reason and the proletariat to be fundamental to the thought of Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and “countless anarchist, post-anarchist, and post-structuralist tendencies,” and he ties together Marcuse’s Freudianism with the “post-Marxist Left” that arose after 1968 (210-9). On North’s account, the affinity that the “petty-bourgeois” and “affluent” left has for heresies such as Critical Theory, post-Marxism, and even postmodernism putatively reflects its “hostility to the struggles of the working class” (219-20, emphasis in original).

Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP.

In assessing North’s account, one must firstly examine the author’s most inflammatory charge: that Adorno and Marcuse “went along” with the Moscow Trials (1936-1938). North provides no evidence for this accusation, though it is quoted without citation in WSWS writer Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno” (2009). North’s source for the accusation is a 1938 letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, identifying Hitler as a capitalist pawn who would soon attack the USSR, expressing his disappointment with the Moscow show trials and Soviet cultural policies, yet concluding that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet” (Wiggershaus 162). This is not definitive proof of North’s charge. The allegation is belied by Adorno’s May 1938 letter to Walter Benjamin, commenting on a meeting with Hans Eisler: “I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of [Nikolai] Bukharin” (Claussen 237-8, emphasis added). Adorno’s biographer explains that Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer all disagreed with Bloch’s support for the Moscow Trials (ibid). Thus is North’s charge against Adorno disarmed. And Marcuse? He mentions the trials in the 1968 preface to Negations: “The last time that freedom, solidarity, and humanity were the goals of a revolutionary struggle was on the battlefields of the Spanish civil war […]. The end of a historical period and the horror of the one to come were announced in the simultaneity of the civil war in Spain and the trials in Moscow” (Marcuse 1968, xv).

While this does not evidence Marcuse’s contemporary views of the Moscow Trials, it speaks for itself. I asked Peter Marcuse, Herbert’s son, what he thought of the accusation that his father had supported or “gone along” with the Moscow Trials: “That’s absurd. Though my father had identified tendencies within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that he felt intended to subvert the Soviet Constitution, he didn’t believe the Moscow Trials were the proper means of dealing with this” (personal conversation, 13 January 2016). North’s accusations against Adorno and Marcuse thus appear baseless.

Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion. While the critical theorists certainly challenged several fundamental points of orthodox Marxism, it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism, as postmodernists do. One cannot reasonably charge the libertarian-socialist revolutionists Marcuse and Benjamin with repudiating the Enlightenment or advancing “irrationalist […] and individualistic” politics.

Regarding the claim that Critical Theory rejects class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat, it bears noting that the various members of the Frankfurt School differed on these questions and shifted their views over time. While Adorno generally disagreed with the historical-materialist view of the proletariat, the same is not true of Benjamin, Marcuse, or the young Horkheimer. Marcuse challenges Marx’s analysis of the proletariat when examining U.S. society in One-Dimensional Man (1964), but by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).

For Adorno, the relationship with the proletariat is complex. In “Society,” one of his final essays, Adorno writes that “[s]ociety remains class struggle, today just as in the period when that concept originated” (Adorno, 272). This quote definitively illustrates the falsehood of North’s accusations and clearly delineates Critical Theory from postmodernism. Though Adorno is no syndicalist, given his decentering of the proletariat as world-historical subject, his negative-dialectical approach remains revolutionary, expanding the Marxian concern with exploitation and class society into an overarching anarchistic critique of domination. Class struggle thus is not “disappeared” in Adorno’s thought, or in Critical Theory, but rather forms one current within a confluence of generalized anti-systemic revolt.

References

Adorno, Theodor W. 1989. “Society,” in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (eds), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge).

Claussen, Detlev 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1968. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1969. An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press).

Wiggershaus, Rolf 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press)

Rebellion and Prefiguration against Refeudalization and Saktiná

December 22, 2015

Marcuse_74_ParisPublished on Heathwood Press, 21 December 2015

In Salisbury, Maryland, from Thursday 12 November 2015 to Saturday the 14th, the sixth biennual International Herbert Marcuse Society conference took place: “Praxis and Critique: Liberation, Pedagogy, and the University.” Held at Salisbury University (SU), the conference was hosted by Professor Sarah Surak. It was comprised of approximately 23 panels, together with a few workshops—notably including a collective art-making effort to “Express Your Fantasies,” inspired in part by reflecting on the above image of Marcuse speaking in Paris. The convergence brought together a number of radical philosophers and activists who spoke on historical and contemporary struggles and their relationship to Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School theorists—particularly Herbert Marcuse, of course—Marxism, and anarchism.

At the panel on “Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century” held on Friday afternoon, speakers reflected on the meaning of Critical Theory today: the question of its relevance for the present world, and its relationship to the project of liberatory social transformation. Professor Arnold Farr, host of the 2013 Marcuse Society conference at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, spoke to the multiple sites of oppression in capitalist society—race, gender, and sexuality, alongside class—that constitute the various contradictions through which capitalist society is “shot through.” In parallel, Farr identified the cycle whereby critique opens the possibility of change, while the possibility of change helps critique along in turn. Co-panelist Lauren Langman then observed that Critical Theory and its theorists should be primarily concerned with three matters: critiquing society, promoting open-mindedness, and having a vision. He optimistically observed that the strength of the transnational capitalist class is “based on a bowl of jello,” and that humanity “will get a better society” eventually. Stefan Gandler, author of Critical Marxism in Mexico, discussed autonomous Mexican movements, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), other armed left-wing guerrilla forces, and the mass-popular resistance evinced throughout the country in response to the State’s forcible disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014, as well as the popular mobilizations that undermined the heavy-handed response the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) initially had launched against the EZLN during the latter’s insurrection of January 1994. In terms of militarism and non-cooperation, Gandler mentioned that several Mexican Army units refused to follow orders mandating suppression of the Zapatista rebellion, thus greatly limiting the amount of blood shed during the twelve days of war. Andrew Lamas, host of the 2011 “Critical Refusals” conference at the University of Pennsylvania, affirmed the continued relevance of W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis, emphasizing that capitalism can only be overcome in unison with the abolition of white supremacy.

Simultaneously, on the “Rationalizing Environments” panel, SU undergraduate student Jake O’Neil examined environmental and “green” discourse, posing the question, “Is Going Green Enough?” Applying a Marcusean analysis of one-dimensionality, instrumental reason, and the performance principle to the ever-failing project of attempting to “solve” the ecological crisis within the strictures of capital and the State, O’Neil provided a genealogy of the rise of “green consumerism” and the “green economy” over the past generation, contrasting the colonization of the concept from its original association with anti-capitalist politics. Once one becomes enthralled to green consumerism, one’s commitment to a better future is individualized and commodified, thus serving the end of recuperation—that is to say, falsely to integrate the contradictions of capitalism, in turn shoring up that very same system. O’Neil’s clearly Marcusean alternative is to “open up” the realm of environmental discourse, subject hegemonic approaches to critique, and hence allow for “the possibility of liberating, radical change”: namely, a global transformation propelled by the flowering of a Marcusean “new sensibility” among the general populace that would valorize the importance of all terrestrial and marine life, in place of the prevailing valorization of capital and destruction.

Meanwhile, at the panel “Popular Culture and Prefigurative Politics—on which the Brazilian Marcuse scholar Imaculada Kangussu addressed the question of how art can help to advance the new sensibility and provoke “inner revolutions”—John-Patrick Schultz intervened on “Walter Benjamin and Prefigurative Politics: The Utopian Hermeneutic of Space.” Schultz opened immediately by juxtaposing the Benjaminian concept of the “dialectical image”—whereby “capitalist materiality converges with radically democratic possibility” through direct action and decolonization—with the 30 November 1999 (“N30”) actions taken by the ACME collective, the anarchist Black Bloc, and the Global Justice Movement (GJM) as a whole against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle—otherwise known as the “Battle of Seattle.” The speaker stressed how the GJM instituted prefigurative politics in its actions, seeking not a utopian futural break with capital but instead the immediate founding of “an alternative social order” based on direct or horizontal democracy—these being demands and orientations that “reject[ed] the idea that there can be no other future and provid[ed] a concrete illustration of that alternative.” In Benjaminian terms, Schultz detects in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and in the recent “movement of squares” of 2011 to the present a “surviving historical desire for democratic social control.” Through their prefiguration of a “novel future,” Schultz emphasized, such movements disprove David Harvey’s questionable claim in Rebel Cities (2013) that autonomous, decentralized models of opposition are incapable of presenting a serious challenge to capitalism and the State. Instead, as Schultz writes, their “utopian hermeneutic […] entails a highly antagonistic demand for collective, egalitarian enjoyment [that is] wholly at odds with neoliberalism” and the capitalist system.

On the evening of Friday the 13th, a number of conference-goers attended a reception at an art gallery in downtown Salisbury, featuring a number of beautiful surrealistic paintings by Antje Wichtrey that appear in the volume Versprechen, dass e sanders sein kann (“Promises that it can be different”), edited by Peter Erwin-Jansen. Besides this, the gallery exhibited works that had been created by graduate students attending the “Express Your Fantasies” workshop on Thursday. Apparently, the discrepancy seen between the original Marcuse photograph discovered in the Paris lectures that served as the conference’s main image and the edited version reproduced by the university administration on campus—one lacking the graffiti depicting female breasts, as above—inspired many of the students to express artistic fantasies involving breasts. In addition, those assembled at the gallery celebrated the birthday of Herbert’s son Peter that night—in the presence of Peter himself and his wife—but negatively, it was while we were indulging in art and enjoying the gathering that we first learned about the attacks in Paris. One of the participants made an announcement about the scores of lives taken, and he invited conference-goers to share in a collective discussion about the events and their likely impacts on war, international relations, and the fate of refugees at lunch-time the next day.

At our Saturday morning panel on “Post-Soviet Marxism: Marcuse in the Developing World,” George Katsiaficas began with a presentation on “Eurocentric Views of Civil Society.” Katsiaficas argued that the established power of Western capitalism has often led to the repression of consideration of alternative views of the meaning of civil society, especially in non-bourgeois and non-Western terms. He offered the politeness and fairness of Confucian social norms on hand in Korea and the enlightening thought of Islamic thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-1198 CE) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as promotive of different forms of individuality. Furthermore, he mentioned the early republican governance structure of Lugash under Gudea in classical Mesopotamia (ca. 2144-2124 BCE) as well as the assembly-based republics that arose along the Ganges River from approximately 600 to 300 BCE, together with the parallel birth of Buddhism and Jainism as more egalitarian off-shoots of Hinduism. Moreover, the investigator declared forthrightly that the “theory of Oriental despotism” which permeates much of Western political sociology vastly underplays the very real Western despotism imposed on the non-Western world through imperialism—as starkly illustrated in the estimated 10 million Asians who were murdered by the U.S. military during the twentieth century. Katsiaficas remarked that civil society played an enormously important role in the Gwanju Commune (1980), adding that it still has a great task to accomplish today, in light of the propulsion of domination—the “gangsters running society” and “freedom of war and private property”—intensifying reification and what Jürgen Habermas has called outright “refeudalization” of the globe. I then followed, examining Marcuse’s views on authority and the transition away from capitalism—the question of whether the critical theorist is more in keeping with anarchism and libertarian socialism or Jacobinism and authoritarian socialism. Though the answer is not entirely clear, given the ambiguity Marcuse expressed at times about the need for an “intellectual” or “education” dictatorship to lead humanity and history out of the capitalist impasse, my view is that Marcuse’s political philosophy is more consistently libertarian than authoritarian—it is more concerned with decentralization and autonomy than temporary or “transitional” dictatorship. This is clear from “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis Based on Bahro’s Method” (1979), Marcuse’s last essay. Still, like the EZLN, which has a political system governed by assemblies and a parallel military command-structure, Marcuse may have felt that there was some degree of a need for both: a “Committee for Public Safety” alongside mass-popular intervention and the creation of the commune. Next, comrade Nick Zeller spoke on the fascinating case of Marxism in Thailand, a cause advanced by one Jit Phumisak, who originally and dialectically had been contracted by the CIA to translate Capital into Thai in an attempt to pressure the Chakri monarchy to take evermore authoritarian-repressive measures against the regional specter of agrarian and proletarian revolution. While translating and thus confronting Marx’s work on political economy, Phumisak himself became a communist militant. He went on to write The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and was for this reason imprisoned. After being released, Phumisak joined Thai communist guerrillas—this being a commitment that would lead to his martyrdom in battle against the State. Zeller shared the radical theorist’s analysis of the joint exploitation of the Thai masses, as prosecuted by imperialism and feudalism (saktiná); discussed the similarities and differences between this analysis and that of Marx’s views on non-Western societies like India and Russia; and related the stress Phumisak placed on an alliance between the peasantry and the small but expanding industrial proletariat of Thailand and Southeast Asia in overthrowing the “Western saktiná stage” of world-history. Zeller even mentioned the possibility of engaging in historiography from the vantage point of “saktiná history”—that is, of analyzing history as domination and the struggle against it. Such could be a dialectical counterpart to the “dharma history” or “Bodhisattva history” Kim Stanley Robinson envisions in his alternate-history book, The Years of Rice and Salt: namely, “any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world [… or] which suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward […]” (Stanley Robinson, 2002, p. 733).

At the panel “Biopolitical Spaces of Resistance and Domination,” Jennifer Lawrence presented on critical artworks developed in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the emancipatory potential for aesthetic eco-resistance as a means of speaking to truth to power and its propaganda in a talk called “In Order Not to Die from the Truth: Disaster, Art, Resistance.” Lawrence’s co-panelist James Stanescu then expounded on stupidity, rationality, and animality. He noted that we humans cannot suppress our similarity with the other animals with whom we have co-evolved: that children cannot but recognize themselves in apes and vice versa, and that the interest we take in clowns, metaphysics, and the aesthetic dimension reflects our prehistorical, primordial animality. The “idiot,” in the sense of an intellectually challenged person, slows everything down, and asks the questions which need answering. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote, it is a question of becoming-minor, or “becoming-animal.” Stanescu cited Marcuse’s observation in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that materialism demands the overcoming of the ill-treatment of non-human animals in the historical process, and that our profound commonality with the other animals should lead us to conceive of our own selves as potential “meat,” and thus to reject speciesism on the one hand while practically adopting veganism or vegetarianism on the other. Alexander Stoner spoke next on “Human-Ecological Transformation and Contemporary Ecological Subjectivity,” addressing the dynamics of capitalism and discontents revolving around catastrophic climate change and the environmental crisis writ large. Taking an historical view, Stoner examined the challenges presented by environmentalism during the third quarter of the twentieth century (1950-1975), as more people came to question the superfluousness of work and the utter irrationality of environmental destructiveness, but he noted how the realm of necessity re-asserted itself in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and “stagflation,” much as the Empire strikes back. Stoner spoke to the seeming paradox of increased environmental attention and concern amidst accelerating planetary degradation, and asked whether, as eco-crisis becomes increasingly apparent, the causes of this crisis are becoming increasingly illusory. Stoner took Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) to task in this sense, for Klein identifies the problem as neoliberal capitalism—a surface phenomenon—rather than the capitalist system as such. The speaker expressed concern that radical environmentalists who fail to advance the understanding that it is capitalism which is the problem—as expressed, for example, in Allan Schnaiberg’s formulation of the “treadmill of production”—we will in fact run the risk of enabling capital. Stoner nonetheless conceded that Klein’s examination of the alternative represented by “Blockadia” has value, though he clearly indicated the superiority of anti-capitalist analyses that concern themselves with the productive apparatus, as compared with primarily redistributional approaches like social democracy or Keynesianism.

During the final session Saturday afternoon, SU Professor Michael O’Loughlin gave a presentation on “Dispelling Ideology: Marx, Marcuse, and Chomsky.” During this talk, O’Loughlin principally counterposed the philosophies of Marcuse and Chomsky, stressing that the former—that is to say, the Marcuse of One-Dimensional Man—is far more pessimistic than Chomsky, who believes that the various problematics of capitalism and domination can be resolved through progressive activism and anarcho-syndicalism. Whereas Marx believed the subject in struggle to be the proletariat, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man more or less expresses the thought that false consciousness is all-consuming, that class-consciousness is marginal, and that there is “No Exit” from the capitalist hell. Yet O’Loughlin conceded in passing that, by the time Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) had been published, numerous radical movements had arisen across the globe to challenge regnant one-dimensionality. The professor argued that Chomsky, throughout his sustained and productive career as radical public intellectual, has sought to undermine ruling mystifications through empirical “takedowns” which activate public reason and the instinct for freedom he, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believes humans innately to possess, as well as by promoting alternative modes of social organization rooted in equality, justice, and democracy. Chomsky’s intellectual and political activism was portrayed as following from the dissident’s faith in ordinary’s people capacity for reason and his belief that intellectuals must be with “the people,” and that the revolution will be made by everyday people themselves. Though O’Loughlin did not explicitly proclaim the inverse of such comments—that is, that Marcuse was an aloof elitist and authoritarian who despaired of the people’s incapacity for critical thought and revolutionary social transformation—it was to a degree implied, however great a distortion of Marcuse’s life and work such an interpretation would be! It is quite unjust to limit “Marcuse” to his most pessimistic book, One-Dimensional Man, and to suggest that he, like Vladimir Lenin or the Jacobins, did not believe that the common people proper were capable of changing the world. One need only consult Marcuse’s 1978 conversation with Habermas and company, “Theory and Politics,” to be freed of such an illusion, for in this intervention, the critical theorist declares faithfully that “everyone knows what is necessary,” and that the truth of a revolutionary general will and “the possibilities for its realization” are demonstrable to all (Marcuse et al. 1978/1979, pp. 136-138).

O’Loughlin concluded his presentation by considering three future scenarios for the U.S. in January 2016: the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, thus confirming the deepest pessimism of One-Dimensional Man; the alternate presidential inauguration of Bernie Sanders, an eventuality which O’Loughlin believed would be consonant with the spirit of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation; and the inauguration of Hillary Rodham Clinton, signifying a compromise between these two options, and a “partial” victory for social movements, in O’Loughlin’s analysis. Whatever the outcome of the elections, though, it ultimately remains puzzling to associate Marcuse with electoral politics at all, given his well-established emphasis on extra-parliamentary opposition as the primary means of historical progress.

 

References

Marcuse, H, Habermas, J, Lubasz, H, & Spengler, T. (1978/1979). “Theory and Politics,” Telos 38.

Stanley Robinson, K. (2002). The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam.

At The Base in Brooklyn: Investigating the Mutual Affinities among Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

December 9, 2015

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On Saturday 12/19 at 7pm, I will speak at The Base in Brooklyn on “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  This will be a revised and improved version of the talk I gave at the 2015 New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF) eight months ago.  An abstract follows:

This talk examines the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German Jewish critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and personal lives. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin enthusiastically committed themselves to journalism and the written word as a means of subverting bourgeois society—beyond both of these latter having been martyred in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling suggested in the title. With this presentation, the speaker seeks to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and to open space for reflection on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today.

Dialectical Light, Nature, Negation: Modern Minima Moralia Project

December 3, 2015

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Published on Heathwood Press, 30 November 2015

 

Nature-History Walk. To take a walking tour within a natural-history museum located in New York City amidst the sixth mass-extinction of life on Earth is to experience the contradictions of reveling in the profundity of natural beauty while consciously or subconsciously bearing witness to capital’s ceaseless war on existence and evolution. It is true that, in contradistinction to most other museum exhibits on display in the heart of empire—by nature affirmative—the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York at least provides some critical perspectives on the profundity of the present environmental crisis: the curators have recognized that we “may” be in the throes of this sixth mass-extinction event. Within the museum’s Hall of Biodiversity is emblazoned a warning made by the politically authoritarian biologist Paul R. Ehrlich: that, in “pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” The AMNH has also promoted Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 investigative volume into this most distressing of realities, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.[1] Yet the spirit of absolute negativity to which the sixth extinction attests hardly can be said to permeate the exhibits within the museum that examine the relationship between nature and humanity: quite naturally, these presentations in no way explicitly recognize the responsibility that capitalism and domination bear for the current ecocidal and suicidal natural-historical trajectory. To a degree, then, the clear link that exists between the social relations imperant in the world outside the museum—as well, indeed, as inside it—and the unmitigated destruction of life on Earth’s continents and oceans can thus only be made intuitively. The unity of all living things—and hence the vast disunity which ecocide implies—can indeed be perceived in the contemplation of the great similarities between the human visitor and the numerous other species on display in the Great Hall of Biodiversity, as in the compelling hall on oceanography, the exhibits on African, Asian, and North American mammals, the Hall of Primates, and the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

As the museum’s displays are directed primarily toward children, and considering the multitudes of minors who visit the museum with their families and on school-trips, it is to be hoped that these children, as well as their adult counterparts, grasp the more subversive meanings that the encounter with life and evolution can yield, activating Eros, biophilia, and—yes—revolutionary sadness in a counter-move to hegemonic brutality and unreason. However, childhood in late capitalism is little more than a preparatory stage for getting along: conformity, adjustment, and alienated labor. The system progressively negates the radical potential of the unintegrated child. For our part, we adults have overwhelmingly abdicated. The coral reefs are in the process of practically all being boiled off, the Arctic is melting, and Amazonia is choked by drought, while every successive year brings record-breaking global temperature rises together with record-breaking aggregate carbon emissions. In the destruction of the life-world has the nightmare of childhood come true.

 

Denial of Affirmation. Theodor W. Adorno writes that “[t]he will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live.”[2] Whether the philosopher meant with this to comment on evolutionary processes as a whole or human social organization more narrowly, it is certainly well-said as a description of existence in late capitalism. The seeming contemporary universality of Android and iPhones in U.S. society, for instance, presupposes the super-exploitation of Chinese proletarians who produce the devices directly, as well as slavery and genocidal wars in central Africa related to control over the extraction of the various minerals necessary for such cellular technologies. The libidinal attachment many of us users have to our smartphones, the means with which we connect, rests precisely on the suicide, suffering, and death of our fellow laborers elsewhere—just as the casual use of air travel for work (or “business”), study, vacations, weddings, funerals, political meetings, and even revolutionary summits implies the destruction of the lives of those imperiled by the droughts, famines, and superstorms brought on by anthropogenic climate disruption, to say nothing of our poor future human generations, or the millions of other species devastated by the cancerous capitalist growth economy. In psychological terms, it would seem that people who are complicit in these systems of oppression regularly repress their participation in them in a parallel manner to the way the thought of death is continuously warded off: that is, to avoid inducing terror and Angst. The solipsism of such interpersonal brutality is reflected as well in the thoughtless and entirely unnecessary consumption of non-human animals and their products for sustenance, as in the utilization of animals for medical ‘research’—whether it is a matter of “testing out” the latest pharmaceutical absurdity, or developing drugs that are actually needed for human welfare. Even if one were to be a strict vegan for whom no medication involving vivisection would be indicated, the vegetables, fruits, and legumes one consumes to maintain one’s constitution are almost invariably cultivated by migrant workers who labor and survive in neo-feudal conditions. Practically the same is true for any new article of clothing one may purchase at present. What is more, those who can regularly afford organic food in the U.S. are usually more economically privileged—while a mass-turn to popular urban agriculture as a progressive-collective movement may not be advisable in many U.S. cities, due to the very accumulated and ongoing pollution spewed by the workplaces, cars, and trucks that underpin the monopolist-capitalist everyday.[3] No individual or individualist solution is possible for such negative realities; clearly, it is capitalism and the domination of nature that are the primary problems. Yet amidst the negative context, one cannot reproach others for adopting positions of personal resistance: for non-cooperation embodies the “Great Refusal” that is radically opposed to consumerism and getting along, with all the vast suffering, exploitation, and destruction these imply. As negations of what exist, the ideas and practices of voluntary simplicity and anarchism, together with the militant minority that strives quixotically to be faithful to these ideals, prefigure the possibility of an entirely different and potentially reconciled world-order, one that humanity in concert is capable of bringing into being. Yet the observed conformist attachment to the dominant values and badly misnamed “goods” handed down by the capitalist system, for example, in mainstream U.S. society, presents a great challenge to this potentially hopeful prospect for transformation—does it not?

 

Historical Climates, Dialectical Light. Disconcerting is the experience of visiting familiar places—cities, states, and regions—and observing how their climates have changed so drastically over the course of just the past ten to fifteen years. Summers in southern California reach much higher temperatures now as compared to the average experienced during my adolescence, while the falls retain the vernal warmth too long in the Pacific Northwest and mid-Atlantic U.S. East Coast. Moreover, there is so little rain, such that wildfires have raged, burning up at least 11 million acres in 2015.[4]

Diagnostic impression: the planet is running a fever that may prove fatal. Featuring a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), 2015 is the hottest year on record, with seven of the first nine months of this year having been the hottest recorded since 1880.[5] The Indonesian peat-bog fires of 2015 can be clearly observed from a satellite a million miles from Earth, and half the myriad tree species of the Amazon are threatened with immediate extinction.[6] The ongoing destruction of life on Earth thus illustrates the world “radiant with triumphant calamity” identified by Max Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947)—together with the “allied […] melancholy hope” Adorno feels “for other stars,” as he expresses in reflections on Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, for “the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised” (1971).[7] Since the time during which such words were written, monopoly capitalism’s “Great Acceleration” has expanded calamity and irrationality to unbounded dimensions, and the fate of human and non-human life is at stake. In this way, the negative hegemonic light which falsely illuminates the world constitutes the inversion of the “Luz” (“Light”) which guided the Mexican anarchist movement as part of the anti-authoritarian syndicalist wing of the International—together with the “Lucha” (“Struggle”) that its constituents recognized as the dialectical means by which to counterpose the emancipatory spectrum of colors: that is, through rationalist education and anarcho-syndicalist federations, inter alia.[8] It is negative-dialectical thought and spirit that seeks the total overturning of atrocity and authority, as both mobilize to ensure the inertial reproduction of the social-property relations impelling self-destruction.

 

Medical-Industrial Waste. Is it not a contradiction for one to work to promote health while acting to degrade human-environmental health—to affirm wanton wastefulness in the provision of healthcare? One thinks of mobile vans that open access to medical services within particularly oppressed communities, but that continuously emit noxious, nauseating, and cancerous gases during their hours of operation. In parallel, the present “best practice” in several U.S. cities seemingly is to run ambulances incessantly on diesel, a known carcinogen.[9] A not dissimilar dynamic governs the driving of personal cars to any work-site, though the contradiction seems most evident in terms of labor, for example, at community clinics—the pollution emitted by workers’ and providers’ commute rains down from the highways onto the very communities whose individuals, particularly children, present to such clinics for treatment of various ailments, many of them indeed related to the normalization of environmental racism and class apartheid within capitalist society. “[A]t no time have all powers been so horribly fettered as [the present], where children go hungry and the hands of the fathers are busy churning out bombs,” writes Horkheimer.[10] Just where do doctors and nurses think all the waste produced by mainstream medical practice goes? To be fair, this problem is in no way limited to the fields of medicine and nursing. Few of us wish to think of the ever-burgeoning landfills filled with plastic and the vast chemical pollution born through production and consumption patterns in the West, the medical-industrial complex, and global capitalism taken as a whole. “Out of sight, out of mind.” This is the dynamic of bourgeois society externalizing its problems to the detriment of the commons—reflected in turn in the frequent compulsion to “just focus on the details,” not the larger picture or world, and never to “get distracted.” According to their own maxims, practitioners of medicine and nursing must firstly do no harm, and it is for this reason that they should resist the “business-as-usual” imperatives of mass-wastefulness together with the rackets trading internationally in wastes, in effect dumping hazardous wastes—medical-industrial and nuclear—on impoverished societies like Haiti, Somalia, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire.[11] Perhaps the increased adoption of the practice of sterilizing medical equipment, as in autoclaves, and the use of vegetable oil-powered mobile vans and ambulances could represent but two facets of elements of a rational transition toward a health-care model instituting a holistic, Hegelian-anarchist perspective, integrating concern for the means to the desired end of collective, social, and terrestrial well-being: an overcoming of the bad present that, in seeking to attend to the wounds and other ailments caused by prevailing power, as by historical circumstances, greatly avoids the generation of new ones in the overall healing process.

 

Locomotive Ride. Global class society, as Walter Benjamin knew, resembles a train headed to disaster.[12] On this ride the passengers are governed by necessity, coercion, distraction, and integration. Intuitively they sense the falsity and danger of the established course, and though they sympathize with the erotic cry of life—the beauty in the lands passed by, as well as nature’s marked recent deadening—their immediate concerns are with particulars, like family, work, and entertainment. By design, some of the cars lack windows with which to even regard the outside world, while in others—particularly the work-sites of the laboring classes—they are shuttered, and external reality ignored. The laborers exhaust, injure, sicken, and kill themselves to keep the engine running, while the members of the upper classes dine in the luxury sleepers. Ubiquitous police, surveillance, and security measures ensure that the system continues on lock. As the train accelerates, those on board increasingly sense the abyss toward which the conductors are driving them. Over the intercom system they are not informed of the train’s route, whether precisely or generally speaking, other than to be told that all is well, that they should soon expect some minor alleviation in their conditions in recognition of their hard work, and not to worry about matters that are the exclusive concern of the administration anyway.

Amidst the directional negativity of this train, dissident groups in the working-class cars regard the given course as increasingly alarming, and they seek to distribute their findings and organize alternatives among the multitude. Even among the privileged there is a minority that concurs with the analysis for general alarm, and these renegade aristocrats surreptitiously share the knowledge to which they are privy with the workers, emphasizing the need to coordinate rebellion. Yet the train evermore accelerates, and a palpable sense of powerlessness and atomization dominates the passengers as a whole. Numerically speaking, most people on board this train would not be expected to favor the course taken by the administration, in light of the terminal consequences that are becoming increasingly evident. But what is to be done practically? Rational-collective choices self-evidently will not assert themselves ex nihilo under the reign of the Iron Cage. In light of the strict established security measures on board the class-divided train, it may well be that the workers cannot at this time storm the engine room to pull the emergency brake directly, as necessary as such a move might be—yet they could refuse their labor and disrupt the train’s route that careens to oblivion. Clearly, such a radical syndicalist approach would not be entirely without its losses, considering the injuries and deaths that would be outrightly inflicted by the police in reprisal to strikes, as well as the question of how non-cooperation would affect the well-being of workers’ children, and the possibility indeed that the rebellion would be crushed altogether. If it did not come at the right time, when would hope for social revolution return?

In the first place, the trajectory of the current course is clear enough. Beyond this, and to the question of the success or failure of the revolution, human history repeatedly demonstrates the anti-systemic activation of Eros under conditions of mass-rebellion.[13] It follows that the sacrifices of the rebels and martyrs of today and tomorrow disrupting the normal functioning of the system in an attempt to avert the destruction of self and Other would pale in comparison to the alternatives—if Eros cannot assert itself.

 

Images of Protest. I will say that the strongest protest-action in which I have participated was the general strike called for by Occupy Oakland on 2 November 2011. Though the strike in fact proved to be far from general, hundreds of thousands took part in rebellion and refusal that day. The climax of the day—which for many protestors likely also represented something of a peak life-experience—came in the late afternoon, as the mass-multitude converged on Oakland’s ports from the east, where the day of action had been based: Oscar Grant Plaza, or Frank Ogawa Plaza. The police could not stop the multitude as it took over the ramps and highways normally dedicated to the movement of capital and goods, pouring into the shipping terminals like alluvial fans. Once the port was taken over, protestors climbed on top of trucks, danced, cheered. Anarchist flags were waved, and one comrade knowingly expressed with a banner that said, “The People are Strong.” The port shut-down was truly a prefiguration of the radical change that could and can be accomplished through the collective organization of those from below—the reordering of the productive apparatus, its occupation and disarticulation. In this sense it was an action that has to my knowledge not been surpassed in scope in the U.S. since—to the detriment of the struggle, clearly, as capital markedly intensifies its destructiveness. Another recent mass-protest effort was made with the People’s Climate March (PCM) of September 2014, but as the organizers of this action in no way wanted to replicate the experience of Occupy, let alone the riots against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle (1999), the march was channeled into a non-threatening route, had no practical target, and made no demands, much less substantive ones.[14] Still, to recognize problems with the PCM’s organization is not to discount the authentic concern evinced by the hundreds of thousands who took part in the actions that day, including a number of explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-systemic contingents. The PCM’s approach was one that bears little in common with radical actions like the Oakland port shut-down and eco-socialist concepts of “Climate Satyagraha.”[15] The “Flood Wall Street” protest that followed the day after the PCM was more clearly in the militant spirit of Oakland, as it aimed to shut down New York’s financial district—though realistically, all we flooders accomplished was to blockade road access to the trading floor, and not to interrupt the normal functioning of capital inside.

Alongside the Oakland port shut-down, two other rebel-experiences I will share include the 2 October 2010 protests in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, and the anti-COP protests in Cancún in December 2010. 2 October, of course, marks the day on which the Mexican military murdered and forcibly disappeared hundreds of students and protestors assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics being hosted in the same city. For this reason this date is commemorated every year in Mexico—and indeed, it was to join the protest-action for the observance of the anniversary in Mexico City in 2014 that the 43 student-teachers from Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared in Iguala by the State. In the highland city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, university students and other youth led the protest in 2010, occupying the main streets, disrupting the existing order, and distributing flyers to inform the public of their actions, in addition to engaging in direct action against symbolic and actual centers of reified power, such as the local headquarters of the National Action Party (PAN) and the transnationally owned OXXO convenience stores. In Cancún three months later, La Via Campesina organized a counter-summit to the official UN summit, COP-16, at which the member-states were supposedly meeting to discuss how to address the problem of climate change—a meeting which Obama did not deign to grace with his presence—and from this alternative summit in downtown Cancún some of the largest counter-mobilizations were organized. The Anti-C@P, a grouping of autonomous youth who proclaimed their opposition both to the COP process and to capitalism, engaged in a number of unpermitted actions in the streets, and had even planned to disrupt official celebrations being held at the luxury hotels on the city’s eastern peninsula, including one featuring the Mexican president, the head of the World Bank, and the owner of Walmart. However, the ubiquitous police check-points erected near the tourist zone dissuaded anti-C@P from following through on these plans. As with the general strike in Oakland proclaimed nearly a year later, and following the mass-action against the Copenhagen COP the year prior, the culmination of rebellion against COP-16 came during a mass-march from downtown Cancún to the Moon Palace several kilometers to the south, where the negotiations were in fact being held. By the end of the several hours-long counter-mobilization, which had been monitored closely by several military helicopters, most protestors were really quite tired. As we finally approached the Moon Palace, the official organizers of the march stopped and organized a rally, while the bolder among us pressed on. Though we did approximate the Moon Palace, eventually we came face-to-face with a police cordon several lines deep. Then suddenly, scores of more riot police appeared from the inauspiciously small building in which they had been hidden, awaiting us. None of us was prepared to resist such a show of force directly, so we retreated back to the rally, hopeful that our spirit of rebellion temporarily beyond the limits of the accepted and given was meaningful.

I can recall a far more desperate spirit during the counter-inauguration demos in Washington, D.C., in January 2005, as those assembled expressed displeasure with the legal continuation of the Bush regime. Access to the parade route was entirely blocked off by fences; police presence was heavy; and snipers could be readily perceived, perched atop several buildings. The presidential limo sped quickly past the section containing the protest block—no doubt just another “focus group” to Bush—what a despotic fool, reminiscent of the tsars. A similarly absurd and negating atmosphere surrounded Israel’s massacres in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009. I can never forget the expressions of rage and pain I encountered on the faces of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem during one of the first few days of the airstrikes and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008. I had entered the Old City and the Occupied Palestinian Territories after having restfully visited Jordan’s Wadi Rum for Christmas. While being driven north from Jerusalem to Nablus, I saw that rocks were strewn on several roads, evidence of direct action taken by Palestinians against the reified, hated power of occupation and destruction. In Nablus itself, a protest camp was established in the dewar, or downtown circle, with the participation of several children (‘otfal), that involved art-making activities, speeches, denunciations, providence of news, publication of the faces of all those martyred. This solidarity arose despite the clear overall tensions between the Fateh-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Palestinian multitude participating in the commemorations and protests evinced a collectivist-humanist concern for the fate of their sisters and brothers suffering under the Israeli bombs in the other major Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than any adherence to divisive political ideologies. The same however cannot be said of the Palestinian Authority forces, who repressed numerous public expressions of sympathy with the people of Gaza, particularly in Ramallah.[16] I recall that on the New Year’s Friday demonstrations in Bi’lin—where the local Palestinian population has been cut off from its agrarian lands due to the erection of the Apartheid Wall—the Israeli forces were especially brutal, opening fire straightaway on the adolescent and youth sections of the weekly communal mobilization to resist colonization, rather than beginning by launching tear-gas grenades first. Among the Palestinians a great rage and outrage could thus readily be gleaned. “How dare they try to take our lives away from us, how dare they treat us like that?”[17] As a negative mirror-image of human rebellion, the cruelty of the occupying force was obvious for all to see.

The seemingly eternal return of negative historical developments in Palestine would re-assert itself most acutely in summer 2014, when the Israeli military once again engaged in a massively murderous campaign in Gaza. In New York, Direct Action for Palestine (DA4P) organized several emergency protest mobilizations in midtown Manhattan directed against the Israeli consulate; a number of banks financing Zionist crimes, including expropriation of land and settlement of the West Bank; and the Diamond District, comprised of numerous jewelry shops owned by Zionist Jews. In this last locale, we protestors encountered the fury of a number of Zionist chauvinists, thoughtlessly and incessantly chanting “Israel!” as we defied them, all the while the State they championed extinguished hundreds and thousands of Palestinian lives. Had it not been for the police cordon accompanying the march, ironically, several of us Palestinian sympathizers would likely have been attacked and injured by this proto-fascist mob. In such a strongly pro-Israeli city, we represented the militant minority opposing itself to authority, authoritarianism, settler-colonialism, and militarism, revindicating the right to rebel against despotism, injustice, domination, and absurdity. Retrospectively, though, in parallel to the counter-protests against COP and Wall Street, one can question whether DA4P concretely helped to stay Israel’s iron fist in any way. As Subcomandate Marcos—now Galeano—movingly observed during the winter 2008-2009 assault: “Is it useful to say something? Do our cries stop even one bomb? Does our word save the life of even one Palestinian?”[18] Yet, as Marcos/Galeano remarks, and as the resistance of Palestinians and their comrades demonstrates, it becomes necessary forthrightly to express one’s repudiation of events once these come to surpass basic principles of humanity so brazenly. “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people” (Adorno).[19]

 

Theses on Repressive Tolerance

1. I am in full agreement with Herbert Marcuse: there can be no right to advocate imperial war, exploitation, racism, sexism, fascism, or genocide.[20] The numerous victims of capital, colonialism, white supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy—prisoners; the institutionalized; racial minorities in the West; women and children; LGBTQ individuals; workers; anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; the millions of non-human animal species; and the biosphere as a whole—demand the overthrow of these systems of domination. Rather than any sense of expediency or conformism, concern for the fate of nature and history brutalized by hegemony must become central to radical ethics and politics today.

2. The concept of tolerance must return to its original sense of being a “weapon for humanity,” moving into the future victorious against the counterparts of the clerical-absolutist regimes of yesteryear.[21] This implies an active counter-movement from below incorporating direct action and dual-power to take down capitalism, militarism, and all other forms of oppression. Marcuse is right to stress that the revolt of the oppressed against the system historically has served to pause the continuum of domination—if only momentarily. One thinks of numerous historical examples illuminating the path: the French Revolution; Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals; the Paris Commune; the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and the Mexican Revolution; the February Revolution, deposing tsarism; the Spanish Revolution of 1936; Rubén Jaramillo, Genaro Vázquez, and Lucio Cabañas, Mexican guerrilleros; the global uprising of 1968; the Gwanju Commune; the Tahrir Commune; the Palestinian Intifada; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN); and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), among many others. As Marcuse observes rightly:

The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions […] only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities […]—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.[22]

[1]     Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2]     Adorno, T. W. (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (p. 229, E. F. N. Jephcott, trans.) London: Verso, 1974.

[3]     Engel-Di Mauro, S. (2014). Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Eco-Social Approach. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan..

[4]     Agence France-Press. (2015, 14 October). “2015 becomes worst US wildfire year on record,” Phys.org. Retrieved 22 October 2015 from http://phys.org/news/2015-10-worst-wildfire-year.html.

[5]     Associated Press. (2015, 21 October). “Warmest September ever points to 2015 being world’s hottest year on record,” Guardian.

[6]     Plait, P. (2015, 27 October). “Indonesia Fires Seen From a Million Miles Away,” Slate. Retrieved 22 November from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/10/27/earth_from_space_indonesian_peat_fires_show_up_in_satellite_photos.html; Carrington, D. (2015, 20 November).“Half of tree species in the Amazon at risk of extinction, say scientists,” Guardian.

[7]     Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (2002/1947/1944). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (p. 1E. Jephcott trans.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; Adorno, T. W. (1993). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (p. 154, E. Jephcott, trans.). Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

[8]     Hart, J. M. (1978). Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class (pp. 111-120). Austin: University of Texas Press This affirmation of Luz/Lucha in no way seeks to overlook its metamorphosis into the House of the Global Worker (COM), which during the Mexican Revolution unfortunately played the reactionary role of serving in the counter-insurgent war waged by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón against the Zapatistas (ibid, pp. 126-135).

[9]     Gani, A. and Nicholson, B. (2015, 28 October). “The 116 things that can give you cancer—the full list,” Guardian.

[10]   Horkheimer, M. (1993). Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Writings (p. 35, G. F. Hunter. trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[11]   Clapp, J. (2000). “Africa and the International Toxic Waste Trade” (pp. 103-124). In The Environment and Development in Africa (M. K. Tesi, ed). Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

[12]   Benjamin, W. (1977). Gesammelte Schriften I/3 (p. 1232). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag..

[13]   Katsiaficas, G. (2012-2013). Asia’s Unknown Uprisings: Volumes 1 and 2. Oakland, California: PM Press.

[14]   Gupta, A. (2014, 19 September). “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,” Counterpunch Retrieved 22 November 2015 from “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,”; Saul, Q (2014, 16 September). “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” Truthout. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26215-like-a-dull-knife-the-peoples-climate-farce.

[15]   Saul, Q. and Sethness Castro, J. (2015, 10 April). “On Climate Satyagraha,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/10/on-climate-satyagraha/.

[16]   Juma’, J. (2012, 3 July). “PA repression feeds flames of Palestinian discontent,” Electronic Intifada. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from https://electronicintifada.net/content/pa-repression-feeds-flames-palestinian-discontent/11456.

[17]   Holloway, J. (2010). “Of Despair and Hope,” Interventionistische Linke. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.dazwischengehen.org/node/669.

[18]   Subcomandante Marcos (2009, 1 February). “Gaza Will Survive,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/02/01/gaza-will-survive/.

[19]   Adorno, op. cit. (1974), p. 233.

[20]   Marcuse, H. (2014). Marxism, Revolution, Utopia: Collected Papers, Volume Six (pp. 293-297D. Kellner and C. Pierce, eds.). London: Routledge, 2014.

[21]   Ibid, pp. 218-221.

[22]   Marcuse, H. (1965). “Repressive Tolerance.” In A Critique of Pure Tolerance (p, 123, R. P. Wolff and B. Moore, Jr., eds.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Review of Robert Lanning’s In the Hotel Abyss, by Ignacio Guerrero

June 29, 2015

hotel abyss

Published by Ignacio Guerrero on Heathwood Press, 25 June 2015

,
“What is negative is ne
gative until it has passed.”

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

In his newly published In the Hotel Abyss, Robert Lanning presents an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Theodor W. Adorno, the famous twentieth-century critical theorist, aesthetician, and musicologist. In the work’s title and content, Lanning reiterates and expands György Lukács’ charge that Adorno and other like-minded contemporary German philosophers had effectively followed the pessimistic example of Arthur Schopenhauer and metaphorically taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” which affords its guests “the daily sight of the abyss between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art,” thus “enhanc[ing their] pleasure in this elegant comfort.”1 With his colleague Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s predecessor as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (also known as the Frankfurt School) and his writing partner for Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), “Teddy” shares a common theoretical inspiration emanating from Marxism, as reflected in the profound critique he advances of bourgeois social relations, yet he largely rejects the “positive” moment of historical materialism, which foresees the birth of communism through global proletarian uprisings, the “parliamentary road to socialism,” or some combination of the two.

In this sense, Adorno almost merits the accusation of having advanced the paradoxical concept of a “Marxism without the proletariat.” The very opening of his last work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is illustrative in this sense: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” For Adorno the leftist German Jew, the “attempt to change the world miscarried.” If one reflects even for a moment on the vast atrocities and historical errors that marred the twentieth century, the latter claim here cited would certainly be justified—but then one asks, what next? Why the sense that history has ended—that the chance for social revolution or even relative improvement has been “missed,” never to return? Can there be no rebirth of rebellion? Lanning is right to stress that Adorno’s politics are not especially helpful as regards reconstructive anti-systemic action, or praxis. Hence, a palpable conflict can be seen between the constant demand Adorno’s political philosophy makes for negation, following Hegel’s example, and his practical suggestion that corrective action is useless and revolution inconceivable, amidst the putatively “absolute power of capitalism.”2

Lanning argues that Adorno’s political philosophy, though highly critical of capitalism and authority, is excessively negative: his view is that it can be summarized as amounting to “unfettered negativity” (172). Lanning denounces Adorno’s seemingly wholesale rejection of the actuality or even potentiality of proletarian resistance and the development of anti-capitalist and anti-systemic alternatives, in light of the established power of monopoly capitalism and its culture industries. In Adorno’s presentation, as is known, the working-class majorities of capitalist societies are reduced to thoughtless “masses,” both colonized by and integrated into capitalism—supposedly willingly, on this account. Lanning posits that such a point of view leads Adorno inexorably to adopt an “essentially […] defeatist perspective”: “to him the class struggle was already lost” (18, 25). Having repudiated the positive and practical aspects of historical materialism, Adorno concerned himself with specializing in high art and writing in an exceedingly inaccessible style—as in the image of the Grand Hotel Abyss, indeed—and his few forays into social studies suffer from significant methodological problems, in Lanning’s view. Above all, as Lanning emphasizes, Adorno’s theory of social change is basically non-existent, and the sparse work he focuses on this question rather problematic. Overall, the author of In the Hotel Abyss is concerned that Adorno’s readers are left dialectically disempowered, even subject to despair, as they contemplate the vast depravity of capitalism and the lack of resistance to the system that Adorno observes, and upon which he concentrates.

This new volume certainly presents many compelling criticisms of Adorno’s lifework, particularly with regard to the philosopher’s elitism and political aloofness—manifestations, to be sure, of his disregard for the unification of theory and praxis, or his doubts even about the possibility of such—and for this reason merits a great deal of consideration, discussion, and debate. Adorno’s philosophical system had many shortcomings, and Lanning helpfully illuminates a number of the most important ones. Yet some of the critique presented In The Hotel Abyss of the philosopher also reproduces Adorno’s own penchant for exaggeration, overlooking the real contributions he made and continues to make to anti-capitalist struggle.

In the Hotel Abyss: Challenging Adorno

Lanning’s critique of Adorno is at its most incisive in terms of the challenge it presents to those who may hold the critical theorist actually to have been left-wing or revolutionary. The evident disconnect between theory and practice highlighted by Lanning in Adorno’s case is notorious. Like Horkheimer, Adorno favored the total overcoming of bourgeois society—its
determinate negation, taking from Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet he dedicated exceedingly little of his intellectual life-work to theorizing about political action or change, and even less to concretely organizing against the system. While he is well-known for his radical critique of capital, as elaborated perhaps most systematically in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951), Adorno doubtlessly errs in holding dialectical contradiction to come to be effectively arrested within the Iron Cage of monopoly capitalism. Speculatively, Lanning hypothesizes that the theorist’s self-assuredness on this point serves precisely as a means of ignoring the very “working class outside Adorno’s door” (11). Admittedly, the absence of discussion about class struggle or revolutionary political action of any sort in Adorno’s oeuvre is evident, and glaring. Lanning suggests that Adorno would do well to reconsider Hegel, who defined the dialectic fundamentally as movement and development, as in the image of the seed and the blossoming flower or fruit. “Where Adorno sees the acquiescence of the masses to the immediate environment he should also see […] the possibilities for developing the individual’s relation to such powers [of capital] and the possible alternatives in the face of it” (36).

From these legitimate points, Lanning proceeds to take issue with Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics for being too radical, or too demanding: the charge is that Adorno’s critical negativism lends itself to an approach which overlooks the necessary intermediary steps between prevailing conformist resignation and the possible emancipated futures. Adorno “reject[s …] any behavior that appears to be positively oriented to the appearance of advancement, progress, partial resolution or sublation of contradictions” (46). Nothing “short of the complete negativity and annihilation of existing conditions” will do for Adorno. Lanning relates his complaint here about the theorist’s effective ultra-leftism to his claim that Adorno adheres metaphorically to the Jewish Bilderverbot, or the ban on images of the divine, as a negative theology which denies the possibility of something different. He further argues that Adorno’s employment of the Bilderverbot marks a distinct break from the Messianism of Judaism and the Jewish socialist tradition. However, it could be argued instead that Adorno’s use of the Bilderverbot illustrates the very revolutionism of his dialectical method, which must remain negative until global capitalist society is overthrown. On this point, in fact, it would seem more than a bit perplexing to accuse Adorno of being insufficiently messianic or utopian. One need only consult the finale to Minima Moralia:

Knowledge has no light but that that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.3

Violating this liberatory messianic sense, nonetheless, Adorno took a rather problematic view of jazz—one that is consistent with his analysis of the hegemonic culture industries, yet reflective of chauvinism and even racism as well. For Adorno, who first encountered the new musical style in Germany before the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazism (1933) and his forced exile the next year, jazz was “perennial fashion”: supposedly standardized, commodified, and expressive of pseudo-individuality, jazz on Adorno’s account reproduces the subjectification of the masses through diversion, gratification, and integration. Clearly, Adorno did not associate the development of jazz with its African ethnomusical origins, or seem to have much of any familiarity with its relationship to the historical experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. For him, instead, it was an affirmative musical form that in practice served European fascism, particularly in Italy and Germany. Consideration of this viewpoint can help explain Adorno’s disturbing comments in “Farewell to Jazz,” an essay written in response to the ban imposed on jazz and all other expressions of “Negro culture” in Thuringia state following the Nazi accession to power there in 1930. In this piece, Adorno declares characteristically that, “no matter what one wishes to understand about white or Negro jazz, there is nothing to salvage.”4

Rather self-evidently, then, Adorno’s take on jazz is shocking: to portray it as an affirmation of subordination and alienation and thus ignore its historical and ethnographical context is at best to provide a very partial picture, or indeed to openly declare one’s distinct lack of sympathy with the struggles of Black people—that is to say, one’s racism. On this point, Adorno surely merits all the criticism he has received, and more. Furthermore, Lanning makes the important point that to merely dismiss jazz or any other musical style out of hand for the mere fact of its being commodified on the market is to overlook the very real dialectical possibilities that music can have as regards the emergence and expression of attitudes critical of existing power-relations. Lanning’s analysis is similar in terms of Adorno’s research on radio broadcasts in U.S. society, carried out at Princeton University following his emigration to the U.S. in 1938: the refugee intellectual either was not knowledgeable of the extensive contemporary use of the radio to promote the causes of labor and racial equality in his new host country, or did not believe such alternative programming to bear mentioning, in light of the dominance of the capitalist monster.

Additionally, in parallel, Lanning subjects Adorno’s research on authoritarianism and fascist propaganda to critical review. Overseen by Adorno, The Authority Personality (1950) in its methodology and design followed the first study from the Frankfurt School into the political attitudes of German workers during Weimar, as directed by Erich Fromm in 1931. This previous study was never published, due to its politically negative conclusions: it anticipated that the majority of German workers could be expected to go along with Nazism if it came to power, with small minorities being either strongly pro-Nazi or strongly anti-fascist.5 In a similar way, Adorno and company were motivated to examine the psychological potential for fascism in U.S. society, both by investigating it descriptively, as by theorizing its causes, with the activist end of inhibiting its advance. The resulting study, based on interviews with about 2000 formally educated, white, middle-class men and women mostly from northern California, was conducted by presenting participants with questionnaires such as the Anti-Semitism (A-S) Scale, the Ethnocentrism (E) Scale, the Politico-Economic Conservatism (PEC) Scale, and the Fascism (F) Scale. Dividing the results into a bimodal distribution of high-scoring or prejudiced persons and low-scoring or relatively unprejudiced individuals, the study’s authors take heart in their findings that the majority of participants did not betray extreme ethnocentrism. Yet Lanning calls into question the external validity of The Authoritarian Personality, or its statistical generalizability across society as a whole, by noting that Jews and trade-unionists were excluded from participation, to say nothing of people of color. Presumably, a more diverse study sample could have yielded even greater anti-authoritarian conclusions.

Lanning also shows how Adorno’s investigations into the radio broadcasts of U.S. fascist agitator Martin Luther Thomas—investigations that have been considered innovative, given the theorist’s social-psychological conclusion that fascism advances not just through elite manipulation of the people, but also (and perhaps moreso) through working-class or “mass” complicity—themselves converge with the projected situation Thomas praises: that is, that “large sectors of the population” are sympathetic to fascism due to their putative mindlessness and brutalization in labor (133). Lanning here identifies an unfortunate and revealing affinity between Adorno’s conclusions and the irrationalist hopes of pro-fascist agitators: the view that rationality is possible only for a small sector of the population. This insightful point notwithstanding, the author does not in good faith acknowledge that Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality expressly seek to promote reason as a counter-move to the fascist threat.

Lanning is nevertheless correct in identifying the principal methodological problem in Adorno’s account of fascism as being the theorist’s systematic exclusion from consideration of the proletarian, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements actively raging around him, first in Germany and then in the U.S. Adorno does not discuss or ever seem to mention the hundreds of street-battles between the German Social Democrats’ self-defense group, the Reichsbanner, and the German Communist Party’s “Proletarian Hundreds” against the Nazi SA in the years before 1933,6 nor did he dedicate much of any attention to struggles for racial equality during his exile in the U.S. (1938-1945). One wonders how Adorno the radical could have overlooked the latter, having lived years in Harlem on Morningside Heights before his wartime move to Los Angeles. For Lanning, then, much of what Adorno claimed regarding authoritarianism was based on little more than “imagery” and self-serving “esotericism”; worst of all, it has functioned to “denigrate the legitimacy of working-class politics by ignoring [them], thus affirming the non-existence of an historical agent for socialism” (150). The author of In the Hotel Abyss identifies Adorno’s sometimes-colleague Ernst Bloch as a more insightful commentator on these matters, given the latter’s view that, however acquiescent the “masses” may be with capital and authority at any given time, this situation should not be taken as final, but rather should be interpreted as a process that can dialectically be “disrupted and redirected,” as reflected in the Blochian concept of the “Not-Yet.”

Lanning’s concluding chapter focuses specifically on Negative Dialectics, and scrutinizes Adorno’s seemingly circular sociological argumentation. In essence, Lanning’s claim is that Adorno holds history’s dialectical dynamic to have been effectively strangled under late capitalism—hence the view imputed to Adorno that culture and consciousness cannot be other than what they are, and that psychological and material subordination within bourgeois society themselves reproduce capitalist domination. Lanning concludes that Adorno broke from the Marxist tradition and “chose to freeze the relations he observed as real […]. His position is that […] these are insurmountable conditions” (191-2). Though the author of In the Hotel Abyss concedes in passing that parts of Adorno’s critique of reified consciousness have merit, he notes that such criticism itself only reflects the alienation resulting from bourgeois society, and he reiterates the charge that Adorno presents no alternative—thus in fact yielding a significant regression in comparison with Marx’s communist method. In closing, Lanning returns to his chastisement of the critical theorist for the latter’s supposedly boundless negativity as well as his undifferentiated critique of “the masses,” which papers over distinctions in class and the division of labor, and he charges Adorno with limiting resistance to the life of the mind and imagination, as in German Idealism, rather than advancing radical political struggle, as materialism does.

Discussion: Negative Dialectics and Anti-Capitalism

Lanning clearly presents a number of serious charges against Adorno’s critical theory. This reviewer concedes that the philosopher’s essentially theoretical orientation is of little use for the political question of how to displace and possibly overthrow capital and authoritarianism, and the contempt Adorno often expressed in life for workers and common people is profoundly lamentable. Both of these negative aspects can be said to reflect Adorno’s considerable privilege, as the male child of a Jewish wine merchant and a Franco-German artist for whom labor was an unknown experience in youth and early adulthood. It would seem that Lanning has something of a point in hypothesizing that Adorno’s elitism perpetuated itself as a “career-building” experiment in “abstruseness” (13)—though Lanning’s claim that Adorno can justly be portrayed as the forerunner of postmodernism is less tenable, as this academic trend lacks the German theorist’s anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. In addition, Adorno’s highly insensitive and even implicitly racist comments on jazz speak for themselves, and may justly cause those encountering them to reject a thinker with whom they may share other affinities. Yet it would be wrong to hold Adorno to have been an ethnic chauvinist, as ethnocentrism is one of the main critical foci of The Authoritarian Personality. In Minima Moralia, Adorno identifies white supremacism as the basis not only of anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps, but also the repression of people of color in the U.S.: “The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers […]. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom.”7 In this same work, as well, Adorno recalls a childhood memory which complicates the view that his critical theory is irredeemably anti-worker:

In early childhood I saw the first snow-shovellers in thin shabby clothes. Asking about them, I was told they were men without work who were given this job so that they could earn their bread. Serves them right, having to shovel snow, I cried out in rage, bursting uncontrollably into tears.8

Though this passage is ambiguous—it is unclear whether the young Adorno’s emotional reaction is directed against the workers themselves, the injustice they face, or the normalization of such oppression that is expected of him—it at the least shows sympathy for the cause of repudiating class inequality and the realm of necessity. In naturalistic and Freudian terms, moreover, it is significant that this experience took place early in Adorno’s personal development. Of course, the link between the sharing of this memory and a commitment to a concrete syndicalist program is tenuous in Adorno’s case. Similarly, to return to the question of race, one would be hard-pressed to find Adorno expressing support as a public intellectual for contemporary anti-racist and decolonization movements. While Adorno opposed the Vietnam War on a philosophical level, claiming it to carry on the genocidal specter of Auschwitz, he did little to concretely resist it, in contrast to radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, the militant German student movement of the 1960s had arisen largely in response to the Vietnam War and the Federal Republic of Germany’s collaboration with its prosecution, as seen in the U.S. military’s utilization of West German air-bases. The student radicals’ demand that Adorno and Horkheimer publicly come out against the war was one of many that resulted in the conflict which ultimately led to the Institute director’s death on vacations in Switzerland in 1969.

Reading In the Hotel Abyss, it becomes clear how much Lanning dislikes Adorno’s negative-dialectical approach. This disapproval toward the Adornian system may in fact mirror a dismissal of the anti-authoritarianism of Adorno’s seemingly intransigent negativity. In what sense might this be the case? We have seen how Lanning repeatedly rebukes Adorno for his ultra-leftism—his “position […] that capitalism must be completely defeated in all its aspects before the possibility of meaningful change can be considered” (208). One wonders if Lanning realizes he is chastising Adorno here for being faithful to the young Marx’s admonition to engage in the “ruthless criticism of all things existing.” Lanning’s argument against Adorno is thus more than a bit reminiscent of Lenin’s designation of “left-wing communism”—that is, anarchism or syndicalism—as an “infantile disorder”: consider the author’s rejection of Fromm’s designation of expressed political sympathy for Lenin as an historical figure as reflecting an “authoritarian” rather than “radical” attitude within the study on workers in Weimar Germany (144n12). The resort to Lukács for the title and spirit of the work is also telling, given that, while Adorno the unattached intellectual is subjected to critique—no doubt, to repeat, much of it merited—Lukács the advocate of Party Socialism is not.

A fundamental point within Lanning’s argument that bears reconsideration is the author’s very presentation of Adorno’s putatively unrelenting negativity. In his discussions of Bloch and Walter Benjamin, Lanning seeks to depict considerable differences between them and Adorno, when in fact all three held similar political and philosophical views, and greatly influenced one another. While it may be true that Adorno is overall more negative than these two, there certainly are a few positive moments in his oeuvre which anticipate the possibilities of a post-revolutionary society. In his final work, Adorno defines the “objective goal” of dialectics as being the task of “break[ing] out of the context from within.” Further, “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”9 Here, at the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, Adorno posits a vision that is heterotopic to Lanning’s account. Criticizing Schopenhauer’s fatalism and other Kafka-esque manifestations of the belief that the world is irrevocably absurd, Adorno makes the following observations:

However void every trace of otherness in it, however much all happiness is marred by irrevocability: in the breaks that belie identity, entity is still pervaded by the everbroken pledges of that otherness. All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness [humans] are denied, and are denied by themselves […].

What art, notably the art decried as nihilistic, says in refraining from judgments is that everything is not just nothing. If it were, whatever is would be pale, colorless, indifferent. No light falls on [humans] and things without reflecting transcendence. Indelible from the resistance to the fungible world of barter is the resistance of the eye that does not want the colors of the world to fade.10


This utopian underside of Adorno’s thought is similarly expressed in Minima Moralia, where the philosopher presents the following images as an alternative for the possible communist future: “Rien faire comme une bête [Doing nothing, like an animal], lying on the water and looking peacefully into the heavens—’being, nothing else, without any further determination and fulfillment’—might step in place of process, doing, fulfilling, and so truly deliver the promise of dialectical logic, of culminating in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to the fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.”11 Thus we see the selectivity of Lanning’s charge of Adorno’s “endless negativity” (208), and the inaccuracy of the claim that Adorno adhered entirely to the Bilderverbot. In this sense, it is unfortunate as well that Lanning ignores Adorno’s 1969 essay on “Resignation,” which was written in response to the criticisms raised precisely by Lukács and the radical student movement against Adorno and the Institute for Social Research. In this momentous intervention, Adorno defends autonomous thought as resistance and praxis: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker […] is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” As the “universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such,” the “happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity,” and whoever has not let her thought atrophy “has not resigned.”12

Whether one accepts Adorno’s defense of the prioritization of theory over action here or not, consideration of this essay and the other positive dialectical images mentioned above problematizes Lanning’s characterization of Adorno’s thought as being entirely negative. Incidentally, Lanning himself almost unconsciously recognizes this at the outset of his discussion of Negative Dialectics, which he presents as demanding a “second” negation to follow the insufficiently radical “first” negation of capitalism—the Soviet Union, say, or social democracy. Lanning then proceeds to write that the Hegelian “negation of negation” amounts to a “positive moment” (174), but he chooses not to connect Adorno’s thought to this point. On this matter, in point of fact, Adorno’s finale to Minima Moralia bears revisiting: “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”13 From this perspective, the dialectical interplay between the fallenness of bourgeois society and its envisioned inversion in Adorno’s system comes to be seen as having subversive and even hopeful rather than quietistic implications.

The present review will end by raising an important problem in Adorno’s thought that Lanning points to but does not sufficiently develop: the problem of false consciousness and social determination, or who it is that determines social reality. Lanning argues that Adorno’s account of worker or “mass” acceptance of fascism and capitalism represents an exercise in victim-blaming. In Negative Dialectics and other works, Adorno does note that humanity is effectively imprisoned by the system which it reproduces and upholds—in an echo of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, a concept the transcendental Idealist describes as being inhibited by humanity’s “self-imposed immaturity,” which results from “indecision and lack of courage.” Lanning picks up on this, claiming Adorno to have viewed proletarian conformism as willful. While this charge against Adorno is partly true, as far as it goes, it is also too quick, in that it offers no alternative means of thinking through the observed problem of proletarian integration into capitalist society, and how this might be resisted and overcome. Certainly, a great deal of coercion goes into the reproduction of class society, as Adorno recognizes: “Proletarian language is dictated by hunger.”14 Yet one should not simply hold the capitalist game to proceed through the duping of the workers—for such a view removes the personal and collective agency of the subordinated, and all practical possibility of achieving something different. The present discussion on this complicated matter will close here, though the reviewer firstly should like to mention that autonomous Marxism has tried to address these issues in creative ways, in an echo of Étienne de la Boétie’s innovative Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548), and lastly to emphasize that the interrelated problems of conformism and bourgeois destructiveness retain all of their acuity in the present day, nearly a half-century after Adorno’s passing.

1 György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 243.

2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1982), 120.

3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §153 (emphasis added).

4 Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell to Jazz,” in Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 496.

5 Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 23-30.

6 M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 53-84.

7 Adorno, Minima Moralia, §68.

8 Ibid §122.

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge: London, 1973 [1966]), 406.

10 Ibid 403-5 (emphasis added).

11 Adorno, Minima Moralia §100.

12 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289-93.

13 Adorno, Minima Moralia §153.

14 Ibid §65.

At the 2015 NYC Anarchist Bookfair: Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

April 12, 2015

MAB MAB poster 1-1

I will be speaking at this year’s New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF), this Saturday, 18 April, at 3:30pm in the New School.  The topic of my comments will be “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  I hope to see you there!  A description follows:

“This talk will examine the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and biographies. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin share an enthusiasm for journalism and the written word in subverting bourgeois society and converge in their views on revolutionary armed struggle, in addition to having both experienced a sordidly tragic fate in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of European Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling I have suggested. With this presentation, I seek to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and then to present some reflections on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today, particularly in terms of ecology, feminism, and global anti-authoritarianism.”

NYC ABF

An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War

February 24, 2015
A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

Published originally on Anarkismo

ABSTRACT: The devastating civil war that has followed the popular uprising in Syria which began in March 2011 has to an extent drowned out the legitimate grievances of the civil-protest movement against Assad and Ba’athism. This war has been greatly inflamed by support by the U.S. and Israel along with the reactionary Gulf monarchies for anti-Assad rebels on the one hand, and aid provided to the regime by Iran and Russia on the other. In addition, clearly, this geopolitical dynamic has driven the rise of ISIS/Islamic State, and it informs the new war being waged by the NATO-Arab monarch “coalition.” In contrast to the neoliberal authoritarianism of Assad and the reactionary fanaticism of ISIS and associated rebel-groupings, though, the Kurds of northeastern Syria (Rojava) are working to institute a more or less anti-authoritarian society. Hope may be found in this social model, as in the direct action of the uprising.

“Behold where stands the usurper’s cursèd head. The time is free.”

– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 5, scene 8

The popular uprising in Syria that has demanded the fall of Bashar al-Assad and an end to Ba’athist domination since its beginning in March 2011 poses a number of questions for the international left, particularly anti-authoritarians. For one, the Assad regime has long sought to present itself as an Arab State in steadfast resistance (sumoud) to U.S./Israeli designs in the Middle East, as well as a government that is more representative of Arab public opinion, compared with the various Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is significant, in this sense, that Syria’s official title under Ba’athism has been the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), a name no doubt adopted as a marker of anti-monarchical distinction.1 The SAR’s progressive stance of resistance to monarchy notwithstanding, Syrian Ba’athism is clearly dictatorial, and it uses democratic centralism to attempt to legitimate its rule. As basic reflection on Assad’s response to the initial uprising makes clear, the Ba’athist State is brutally elitist in both theory and practice.

The profundity of horror of the civil war that has followed the popular mobilizations in Syria is evident, and though not all the violence which has now raged for nearly four years can be attributed to the regime, its choice to respond to the explosion of popular protests in 2011 with ruthlessness no doubt precipitated the armed insurgency that subsequently developed against it. The civil war midwived by this conflict between people and State has taken on a decidedly international scope—for to understand events in Syria itself, one must also consider the geopolitical situation, wherein Syria is allied with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as part of the “resistance axis” arrayed against the US, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beyond such considerations, transnational jihadist networks from the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have greatly inflamed the situation, having been born from the flames of this war—though not without considerable foreign support.

As against reactionary currents like al-Nusra and ISIS, progressive movements that have emerged from the activist movement against Assad and the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) show promise in terms of anti-authoritarianism, however much their efforts have seem to have been drowned out by the fighting. Above all, it would seem that the Kurdish libertarian-socialist currents which have grown considerably in northeastern Syria—Rojava—in connection with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) show the most promise in terms of social revolution, though the substantial military aid such forces have received from the US and NATO to help break ISIS’ siege of the border town of Kobanê since last September does raise some questions. An additional factor to consider when reflecting on the reported adoption and partial implementation by the PYD and its sister PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) of anarchist Murray Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism is that the Kurds of Rojava have enjoyed autonomy from the Ba’athist state since its withdrawal of troops from the area in 2012. As a comrade pointed out in the question-and-answer period that followed the recent presentation by a representative of the Kurdish Anarchist Forum (KAF) on Rojava at the 2014 London Anachist Bookfair, the more central regions of Syria have borne far more repression and destruction, due to the actions of regime and rebels alike.

In sheer terms of scale, it is overwhelmingly the Sunni majority of Syria that has suffered the most during the uprising and war, in light of the disproportionate number of dead and displaced who belong to this majority community. It has been Sunni neighborhoods and villages that have been the primary targets of the Ba’athist regime’s brutal counter-insurgent strategy, which has involved indiscriminate artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and SCUD missile attacks.2 Different casualty estimates claim between 130,000 and 200,000 people to have been killed in Syria in the past five years, and the UN reports that 9 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war, 3 million across international borders. Clearly, the war in Syria must be taken as among the most devastating ongoing conflicts in the world.

A Brief History of Modern Syria

To begin to make sense of Syria’s uprising and civil war, one must consider the history of the country and region. Excluding consideration of classical antiquity, the rise and spread of Islam, and the domination of the Levant by the Ottoman Empire, a truncated version of Syrian history would begin from the time of European colonization after the First World War, when the defeat of the Ottomans opened the possibility of self-determination for the Arabs who had previously been subjects of Istanbul. Characteristically, however, French and British imperialists decided themselves to appropriate former Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, dividing these into two regions that were demarcated by the infamous Sykes-Picot Line, agreed to in 1916. Thanks in no small part to the dialectically subversive and colonial machinations of T. E. Lawrence, Britain awarded itself Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon. In 1920, when French General Henri Gourard entered Damascus after defeating indigenous forces allied to Faisal bin Hussein—a Hashemite royal, related to the present Jordanian King Abdullah II—he is reported to have repaired to the tomb of the world-historical Kurdish general Salah-ad-din (Saladin), located in the Old City, and to have announced, “We’re back!”3 Such imperial arrogance notwithstanding, French colonialism did not survive long in the Levant, as an Arab-nationalist insurrection led by Sultan Pasha al-Atrash raged from 1925-1927, and mass civil-disobedience demanded respect for the popular will in favor of independence in Lebanon and Syria at the end of World War II.4 Though the French military tried to suppress both major uprisings using disproportionate force, it ultimately was forced to recognize that it had lost control of the Levant, and so granted these countries independence (Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1946)—in a preview of further losses to the French Empire incurred at Dienbienphu in Vietnam and later, during the Algerian Revolution.

Following formal independence and the election to power of Arab-nationalists in Syria, the country joined the Arab League and resisted the expanding Zionist enterprise—though to little avail, in light of the events of May 1948. The Arab Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party was founded in 1946 by Michel Aflaq, a Damascene independent Marxist and pan-Arabist, and it enjoyed electoral successes during Syria’s first decade of independence.5 The country engaged in an unprecedented federation with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt under the aegis of the “United Arab Republic,” though this collaboration lasted only three years (1958-1961). In 1963, the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup, proclaiming the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), but it was not until 1970 that air force commander Hafez al-Assad took power. It was during this time of Assad’s rise that the Syrian Ba’ath Party was purged of its more radical elements.6 Prior to Assad’s takeover, Syria allied itself with the Soviet Union, this being an alliance that has survived the USSR’s collapse: indeed, the ongoing relationship between post-Soviet Russia and the SAR is key to understanding the “balance of forces” in the present conflict, which has been marked by asymmetrical superiority on the part of the regime, at least in the early period of the uprising and war, before the rise of ISIS. In 2011, Syria was Russia’s second largest export-market for arms (a value of $500 million), and Putin sympathizes with Assad’s presentation of the conflict as a struggle against militant Islamists, for this framing has clear echoes of the counter-insurgent campaign he and Yeltsin have pursued in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, during the post-Soviet period.7

Special note should be made of the SAR’s foreign policies, since these have accounted for the relative historical and geographical uniqueness of Syrian Ba’athism, and the legitimacy that has been afforded it within many circles. Assad the elder and Assad the younger have kept up the appearance of making up a key part of the “rejectionist front” against the U.S. and Israel, as seen in the 1973 war Hafez al-Assad launched jointly with Egypt against the Jewish State, and the long-standing material and financial support the regime has provided to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Historically, Syrian Ba’athism has supported the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as provided safe haven for PKK fighters fleeing Turkish military repression across Syria’s northern border.8 Significantly, moreover, Assad had hosted Hamas since 1999, when it was expelled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, until the coming of the uprising, which led the group to break with the Syrian leader, in accordance with the international Muslim Brotherhood’s position of opposition to the regime. Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal ordered the Damascus headquarters to be packed up in January 2012, and since then, Hamas’s HQ-in-exile has tellingly been based in Doha, Qatar!9 Nonetheless, according to the analysis of Ramzy Baroud, Hamas may in fact be considered now as seeking to mend ties with the Shia resistance axis, in light of a lack of alternative sources of support, particularly as regards relations with neighboring Egypt following the junta’s coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in summer 2013. In turn, the SAR’s historical support for Hamas can in some ways be considered an outgrowth of its opposition to Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a conflict that goes back to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). As regards Lebanon, the Ba’athist alliance with Hezbollah cannot be considered as separate from the regime’s close ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, with which the elder Assad quickly allied himself upon its establishment in 1979—however strange the image of a secular dictator embracing a fundamentalist Shi’ite clerical regime may be. In part, of course, the Assads’ alliance with Iran has been driven by the split in Ba’athism between its Syrian and Iraqi branches, a division that took place in 1966: Assad supported Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion, and he even sent 1500 troops to aid coalition forces against Saddam during Desert Storm a decade later.10 Significantly, moreover, with regard to neighboring Lebanon, the SAR sent an invasion-occupation force to the country in 1976, supposedly to reduce tensions in the raging civil war, though tens of thousands of troops remained until they were forced out in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, an act that was widely blamed on the Assad regime. In terms of the politics of occupation, the elder Assad’s support for right-wing Maronite Christian militias against the PLO in the Lebanese Civil War complicated the Ba’athist State’s claim to serve revolutionary ends, even if Israel’s 1982 incursion of Beirut and southern Lebanon was motivated in large part by the prospect of removing Syrian forces from the country.11

Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez following the latter’s death in 2000. The younger Assad (34 at the time) was readily welcomed by the Syrian Parliament, which promptly lowered the minimum age of candidacy for the presidency to accommodate him, and he was “elected” with 97% of the vote in that year. While Bashar al-Assad has no doubt preserved the dictatorial nature of the Ba’athist State, thus carrying over the work of his father, earlier in his reign there was hope that he would bring liberalizing reforms to the SAR. Such hopes were motivated to a degree by the younger Assad’s background, profession, and personal life—he was an opthalmologist, not a military man, and was married to the British-raised daughter of a Sunni surgeon, and for this reason was personally acquainted with life in the United Kingdom.12 The beginning of the younger Assad’s rule thus coincided with the emergence of the ill-fated “Damascus Spring,” a movement that sought to demand that the transition in power from father to son be accompanied by suspension of the State of Emergency Law (live since 1963), the release of political prisoners, and the implementation of liberal electoral reforms. Though Assad ultimately suspended such political reform efforts, he certainly has delivered in neoliberal terms—that is, in terms of serving the domestic and transnational capitalist class. After taking the reigns of the Ba’athist State, the younger Assad opened up the Syrian economy, selling off firms that previously had been State-owned, slashing subsidies for food and energy, and squeezing the financing of social services that had previously benefited the popular classes under the slogan of “Arab socialism.” Besides, in 2001 Assad opened negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).13 As has been noted, these economic reforms were not matched by a parallel opening in politics. According to Alan George, author of Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom (2003), Assad’s reform proposal was for a “China-style economic liberalization.”14 Ironically, and to an extent reflecting a Marxian dialectic, Assad’s neoliberalism has adversely impacted the living standards of the majority of Syrians, particularly rural residents, many of whom would go on to join the burgeoning popular mobilizations against the regime in 2011, even while it was precisely these elements that had constituted Syrian Ba’athism’s primary social base in previous decades.15 Political reform in the SAR would not come until the first month of the uprising, when Assad was forced to announce the suspension of the Emergency Law and a limited amnesty for political prisoners, in addition to granting citizenship to Syria’s 300,000 Kurds, who to that point had been stateless under Ba’athism.

While Assad’s economic policies are neoliberal and orthodox, given their empowerment of a high bourgeois Sunni class that forms a critical pillar of support for Ba’athism—and in this sense, one sees a clear parallel to post-Soviet Russian society, with the oligarchs and grand capitalists who have supported Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s closest allies—he has maintained the SAR’s posturing of resistance to US/Israeli and reactionary-Gulf monarch designs in the Middle East. Assad greatly opposed the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian State has hosted more than a million refugees from that conflict. What is more, Assad facilitated the entry of Sunni jihadists into western Iraq to resist the US occupation.16 Taking these factors into account, and thinking of the SAR’s support for Palestinian and Kurdish resistance movements, a fruitful parallel can perhaps be drawn between Assad and Mu’ammar al-Gadhafi, who during his tenure championed Pan-Africanism and supported guerrilla groups resisting Israel and the West both financially and materially. The difference in fate between these two Arab dictatorships would seem to have to do with timing more than anything else: the unexpected NATO war to topple Qadhafi served as a precedent for Russia and China in terms of any possible repeat-action vis-à-vis Syria at the UN Security Council. After Qadhafi’s ouster, Putin and China would not countenance another opportunistic authorization of use of force by US/NATO forces. In fact, this geopolitical dynamic can to a degree explain the increasingly desperate recourse Obama made in September 2013 to try to commence an open air-bombardment campaign against Assad in the wake of the sarin gas attack in al-Ghouta, outside Damascus: first, POTUS claimed he would—much like his predecessor, on a similar pretext—act unilaterally with force, but he then backed down amidst marked opposition at home and on the international stage. When John Kerry off-handedly observed that the war-drive could be demobilized if Assad gave up his chemicals weapons, Putin’s diplomats jumped at the opportunity, arranging a deal whereby Assad would surrender his non-conventional weapons stocks—though significantly, while not demanding the same of Syria’s Zionist neighbor. This compromise contributed greatly to a de-escalation of tensions, thus averting a Libya-type operation in the Levant, which imaginably would have had similar results in terms of the fate of the regime and Syrian society. Tripoli’s official government has seen it necessary to flee the rampaging fundamentalist Islamists unleashed by NATO; it now bases its operations on a Greek car-ferry off-shore the eastern city of Tobruk.

March 2011: The Beginning of the Uprising

Undoubtedly, many of the initial demonstrations against the regime in 2011 raised legitimate grievances against Ba’athism: its corruption, inequalities, and authoritarianism. As is known, the Syrian uprising came late in the process known as the “Arab Spring,” months after the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen had begun. The popular rebellion started as a response to the imprisonment of several elementary-school boys who had painted the famous saying from the Arab revolts (al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam, “the people want the fall of the regime”) as graffiti on their school in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. When their parents and other local adults mobilized to demand their return, the police are reported to have denied them access, and even threatened that the children would never be seen again. This grave insult to popular dignity catalyzed progressively larger protests in Deraa that ultimately met the bullets of State authorities, in turn leading to the explosion of protests in other parts of the country, first in the traditional anti-Assad bastions of Homs and Hama. (This latter city, comprised of the Sunni majority, was the site of a ghastly repression inflicted by Ba’athist paratroopers in response to an uprising organized there by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982; between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrians were killed.17) Even in Damascus, poor and middle-class individuals and families demonstrated against the regime in the early months of the rebellion, though in Aleppo and Latakia, home to more minorities, protests were less forthcoming.18 In terms of class and geography, the character of the protest movements seems to have been sharply divided between poor rural and urban Syrians, Sunni and secular, from the working classes and middle classes, as arrayed against big business (including and especially the Sunni high bourgeoisie), the military/State apparatus, Alawites, and Assad himself. Christians certainly also have been targeted by chauvinist currents within the opposition, and many have supported the regime from the beginning due to fears of the specter of Islamist domination. Another factor has been the rural-urban divide, with palpable tensions between the better-off, presumably “progressive” urban dwellers of Damascus and the supposedly conservative, peasant background of many regime opponents.19

With reference to this early period of the conflict between people and State, it is important to clearly state that the militaristic and carceral violence imposed by Assad’s regime from above was stark and grossly disproportionate—and arguably, it was consciously so—in light of the detention of ten thousand Syrians in the first six months of the uprising, and a total of nearly sixty-thousand imprisoned since then. Such fascist tactics notwithstanding, regime soldiers and police were attacked and often shot dead at this time as well, most likely by armed Islamist groups who opportunistically took advantage of the destabilization initiated by the popular protests against Assad and Ba’athist domination. Over 100 State security officers were killed in the first month and a half of the uprising, with an additional hundred massacred at Jisr al-Shughour in June 2011. This death-toll on the regime side is certainly orders of magnitude smaller than the number of casualties inflicted on protestors in the early months of the uprising—nearly 2500 are reported to have been killed in the uprising’s first six months alone—but it can help explain the regime’s resort to an iron-fisted response, which its regime propaganda rationalized by playing up the angles of “foreign conspiracy” and “Islamist terrorist gangs.” Assad definitely missed a huge opportunity for de-escalating tensions when he failed to intervene and punish the elements of the security forces who had reacted brutally and contemptuously to the first protests in Deraa, but then again, he may well have believed from the start that only a highly authoritarian approach to dealing with the popular revolt would allow his regime to survive.20

With the passage of time and the transition from popular uprising to insurgency and civil war, as spurred on by regime brutality, the regime’s military-police apparatus took increasingly macabre means to suppress the civil uprising: it began employing artillery against rebel positions and civilian areas alike in fall 2011, followed by aerial bombardment in spring 2012, cluster bombs that summer, and then missiles in the fall.21 Though the cities of Hama and Homs have met with great violence from the regime from the beginning of the uprising, Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib, and the suburbs of Damascus have been subjected to as much devastation, if not more. Intriguingly, it would seem that Assad’s commanders have chosen to rely more on artillery and air-power than the infantry and armored divisions to serve the end of repression, due to the greater risks of defection involved in the use of regular ground-troops, who are overwhelmingly Sunni conscripts.22 Indeed, to ensure the loyalty of the military and security services to Assad, the officer class and intelligence agencies are mostly constituted by Alawites.23

After months of initial civil protest against the regime—some currents of which had demanded mere parliamentary reforms at the outset, but then were subsequently radicalized by the regime crackdown, coming to demand no less than the fall of Assad and Ba’athism altogether—the popular-activist movement was eclipsed by the resort to armed struggle, as prosecuted both by Islamist opportunists and more secular rebels, including thousands of defectors from regime forces, a handful of whom proclaimed the foundation of the Free Syria Army (FSA) in June 2011. In addition to army defectors, it is understood that FSA ranks were filled at the beginning as well by volunteer civilian-militants driven to resist the regime by force of arms. In this sense, the beginnings of the FSA must not be conflated with what the FSA subsequently has become, following the pernicious influences the CIA, GCC, and competing Islamist rebels have had on the FSA brigades. In parallel to the FSA’s armed struggle, an important anti-authoritarian development has taken place among the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that have managed regions of Syrian territory from which the regime has been expelled during the war. According to the estimation of Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, the praxis of the LCCs has made the Syrian uprising “the most democratically organized” of all the Arab revolts that began in 2011.24 As a matter of fact, the decision regime forces made early on to dismantle these decentralized units by arresting their principal organizers played an important part in the general shift from civil to armed tactics on the part of increasingly more regime opponents.25

Speaking of the oppositional movements to Assad—besides class considerations, which can again be summarized broadly as pitting the poor and middle classes among the Sunni majority against Sunni capitalists, Alawites, and the regime’s repressive apparatus, religious identification has been a critical factor in the course of the uprising and civil war. Due to the particularities of Syrian Ba’athism, especially the younger Assad’s neoliberal turn, Syria’s rural poor hail overwhelmingly from the Sunni majority (74% of the population), while families and members of the Alawite and Christian minorities (12% and 10%, respectively) have been the most economically privileged groups under Ba’athism, besides the Sunni high bourgeoisie. Though notable exceptions exist to the established trend of Alawite and Christian support for the regime, it generally holds to be true: like the even smaller Druze and Shia minority groups of Syria (4% of the population), Alawites and Christians fear domination by chauvinist interpretations of Islam, like those expressed and affirmed by the majority of the armed groups that have lined up against Assad.26 If one looks to history and especially the present, one can understand such fears: consider the collusion between the Egyptian military and Wahhabis to attack and massacre Coptic Christians after Mubarak’s fall, or ISIS’s ethnic-cleansing operations against Christian Yazidis and Shia in Iraq and eastern Syria.

Islamization of the Anti-Assad Opposition

During this time, early on within the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, the oppositional movement was largely “hijacked” by Islamization and sectarian jihad. The “pro-rebel” narrative on this evolutionary process, which is accepted by some on the left, indeed, is that the regime’s violent repressiveness made a non-violent social transformation of Syria impossible, such that protestors were forced to take up arms. However, as the Angry Arab News Service editor As’ad Abu-Khalil rightly notes, this explanation leaves unclear why the armed insurgency so quickly became dominated by jihadist elements, with the more secular FSA units progressively eclipsed on the battlefield over time. Realizing the fears of many reasonable regime opponents regarding the option for an armed approach to resistance, the option for armed insurgency has brought the imposition of a reified power on the Syrian masses who previously had struggled legitimately against Ba’athist domination, as militarization, sectarianism, and Sunni chauvinism took hold.27 Besides the FSA, one cannot overlook the primacy of reactionary movements like Ahrar al-Sham (Free Islamic Men of the Levant), Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Islamiyya (Islamic Front), Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), and ISIS itself in this second phase of the Syrian saga. All of these groupings have been heavily influenced by Wahhabism, otherwise known as Salafism, or openly endorse it—this being an extremely intolerant and highly authoritarian interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abed al-Wahhab (1703-1792 CE). It is well-known that the opposition driving many of these extremist Sunni groups has been hatred of the SAR’s secularism and the regime’s privileging of Alawites, who are considered by Wahhabis as “nusayris,” or fake Muslims—that is, infidels!

This process toward the militarization and Islamization of the opposition to Syrian Ba’athism has not primarily been an organic Syrian process, as it has undoubtedly been fueled greatly by the influx of thousands of foreign fighters pertaining to these various Islamist gangs and the significant support provided to these in terms of funding, arms, and training by the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S./Israel. The degree to which these outside imperialist interests have provided support to the different currents within the anti-Assad opposition has been variable, yet it has been considerable nonetheless: a “conservative” estimate of the quantity of arms supplied to rebels by the US/GCC has been calculated as amounting to at least 3,500 tons, in acccordance with the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad cites estimates that Qatar has provided between $2 and $6 billion to rebel forces in Syria. Officially, the U.S. gave only “non-lethal aid” to Free Syrian Army units in the first couple years of the civil war, though numerous stockpiles of US-made heavy weapons as well as tanks and armored-personnel personnel carriers have made it into the hands of ISIS—“appropriated,” the story goes, as they were by ISIS from other anti-regime forces, as well as Iraqi Army units, who surrendered Mosul so quickly when confronted with IS hordes this past June. Turkey and Jordan both host CIA bases where arms have been “coordinated” and “moderate rebels” trained. Additionally, it has come to light that Israel provides medical aid to rebel fighters injured by regime forces in southern Syria—recall that the Israeli military shot down a regime jet over the Golan Heights in September 2014 that was bombarding al-Nusra positions, and consider that the Jewish State has bombed Syria on at least six separate occasions since the start of the uprising and civil war, with the most recent coming being just in December 2014.28 With regard to the relationship between ISIS and the GCC, it is not necessarily true that KSA and Qatar State interests have funded ISIS specifically, but the evidence does suggest that private interests from these countries, as well as in Kuwait and the UAE, have been seminal in ISIS’ meteoric rise. Besides, what is ISIS but an extreme expression of the “moderate” rebels that have been openly supported by Qatar and the KSA for years? It would seem that, other than for the Kurds and certain elements within what remains of the FSA, the spectrum of armed resistance to Assad is limited to the far-right dimensions of political thought.

Foreign Factors Prolonging and Intensifying the War: Empire and Climate Catastrophe

The Syrian Civil War has been as bloody as it has been drawn-out principally due to the material and financial support of broadly different imperialisms for the two (or three, or four) sides of the conflict**: Russia and Iran supporting Assad on the one hand, and the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the US/Israel supporting various rebel factions on the other. Shamus Cooke makes this point knowingly on in a July 2013 piece on Truthout, though he does not name the Russian/Iranian support for the SAR as similarly contributing to the war’s prolongation. To an extent, the different constituent parties on the NATO/GCC side would seem to disagree on exactly which oppositional groups to aid and favor, and there has been some speculation that the US and Israel in fact prefer Assad to any Wahhabi or Salafist movement that could follow him, which would likely be allied to forces like ISIS—such that US/Israeli support for the rebels could be argued as seeking simply to install a solidly pro-Western strong man to replace Assad, perhaps someone like FSA General Salim Idris. This end clearly would serve US/Israeli designs for regional hegemony, as it would GCC interests—the excision or neutralization of a major component of the “resistance axis” in the Middle East. Yet this goal seems very illusory at the present time, when the FSA is greatly weakened in terms of the balance of forces in the civil war. Indeed, many former FSA units have reportedly abandoned the brigades to join the more successful Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Besides the ongoing conflict between people and State, the main military conflict at this time is between the regime and ISIS, with the newly forged NATO-Arab monarch coalition’s air-war against ISIS arguably and ironically serving Assad’s strategic objectives in some ways.

Besides the very real arms and cash provided by the NATO/GCC side to the rebels since the beginning of the uprising and civil war, it bears mentioning that the specifically Saudi ideological influence on the rebel-currents predates the current disturbances by decades. Flush with unimaginable wealth yielded by the exploitation of its massive petroleum-deposits in the late twentieth century, the KSA has long prioritized proselytization of its particularly reactionary interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world, with well-known noxious effects. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Deobandi school of Islam among Pashtun refugees in Pakistan was seminal to the success of the Taliban in taking power in war-torn Afghanistan, a society exhausted in 1996 by more than a decade of Soviet occupation and the years of civil war among Afghans that followed Soviet withdrawal. More fundamentally, of course, the Saudis’ matching of funds and arms supplied by the CIA to the mujahideen via Pakistan during the Soviet occupation itself played a critical role in the strengthening of reactionary, fundamentalist forces in the region. The story is not entirely dissimilar in the case of Syria, where Saudi private and public resources have been directed to chauvinist opposition forces that have to varying degrees now melded into ISIS. Moreover, the KSA’s established sectarianism in supporting Sunnis against Shi’ites and thus presumably Iran—see the Saudi invasion of Bahrain in 2011 to suppress the Sunni-Shia popular uprising against the ruling Khalifa dynasty there, itself being Sunni—has further polluted the geopolitical context of the region, such that Sunnis and Shi’ites increasingly face off against one another on religious lines, as in Iraq, rather than organize jointly against the capitalists, monarchs, Zionists, and other authoritarians. The toxic legacy of the KSA’s Wahhabism in terms of suppressing left-wing and humanist alternatives in the Middle East should be clear for all to see.29 In this sense, it is not terribly difficult to see how aspects of the Syrian and foreign opposition to Assad have been framed primarily in religious terms, with political Islam seemingly resonating far more as an identity of resistance to the regime than leftist sentiments. With this said, however, the decline of regional left-wing forces cannot be blamed exclusively on the KSA, for the Assads clearly have contributed to this dynamic as well, as the US, Israel, and Iran have.30

Another critical aspect to consider in terms of imperial power and oil politics is the role that environmental and geographical factors have played in the development of the uprising and civil war. From 2006 to 2011, Syria suffered an unprecedented drought which in all likelihood follows from the observed decline in Mediterranean winter precipitation over the past four decades, a change which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has attributed to global warming. The drought has been far worse than any experienced during the twentieth century, and has even been described as the worst since the onset of agricultural civilization itself in the Near East. As can be imagined, this new ecological situation has worsened poverty, especially for pastoralists and agriculturalists in Syria’s rural regions, and contributed to a mass-migration of these effective environmental refugees. It has been argued that this ecological-demographic shift, which has involved an estimated 1.5 million people, greatly exacerbated anti-Assad sentiments, and that it would indeed act as a “threat-multiplier” as regards the stability of the regime with the coming of the uprising. Yet it must not somehow be thought that Assad is entirely the innocent victim of climatological chance here—or really, more accurately said, the previous and ongoing legacies of mass-carbon pollution by the West—for his liberalization of the economy itself certainly gave monopoly-capital a free hand in exploiting water reserves with abandon, leading to marked falls in water-table levels and thus greater societal vulnerability to turns of events like a devastating drought that in turn is intensified by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).

Coming to the present, and to consideration of what could or should be done, an arms embargo for all parties to the conflict could be one means of de-escalating the Syrian Civil War, as would be the renunciation by the US/Israel of a war-footing against Iran, as Richard Falk recommends, in addition to progress toward transforming the Middle East into a nuclear- and weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone (NWFZ and WMDFZ).31 Admittedly, is difficult to envision how such steps would realistically be implemented, given the established hegemonic interests on both sides of the conflict, both in terms of Syria itself as well as with regard to Iran behind it. So far, the three iterations of the Geneva conferences on Syria’s future and prospects for reconciliation between Assad and the opposition have accomplished little, as Shamus Cooke has reported. By excluding Iran from the talks and continuing to press forward with new funding for the FSA on the order of $500 million, Obama shows his administration’s lack of interest in seriously working toward a cessation of hostilities—in a parallel to the White House’s reactionary standpoint on a number of other pressing global issues, from support for Israel to dismissal of the increasingly radical recommendations of climate scientists. In terms of the humanitarian and political dimensions of the ongoing drought in Syria, this would only seem to show the acute importance of concerted global efforts to radically reduce carbon emissions as a means of reducing the probability of future recurrences of eventualities like this one, or ones far worse indeed, that could imaginably affect billions of lives. As is clear, though, from any contemplation of the theater of the absurd on hand seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru, the global capitalist power-structure is far more interested in upholding its utter irrationality and violence than in dealing in any sort of reasonable fashion with serious existential threats like ACD.

In terms of the war itself, a cease-fire between the regime and rebel forces would be but a minimum demand for progress on the question of Syria’s future. Though such an accord would not resolve issues regarding the ultimate fate of the regime or the importance of demobilization and disarmament—to say nothing of the geopolitical power-struggle—it would seem basic in terms of beginning to attend to the devastation wrought on the Syrian people and the region by this war. Another critical aspect is to ensure that the rights of the country’s minority communities are protected in a future Syria; as has been stated, sectarianism and fears of Sunni majoritarianism have clearly driven many Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shi’ites to side with the regime.32 Granted, it is true that progress toward respect for cultural pluralism, as toward a resolution of the civil war in general, is now greatly complicated by the rise of ISIS, with the strange dynamic being symbolized by the unexpected phenomenon of NATO/GCC air-forces bombing positions within the delimitations of Syrian territory that are controlled by elements of the opposition they previously had supported against Assad.

**The two principal sides are Assad and ISIS, though the FSA could be considered a third front (one that arguably is on the way out), with the popular civil struggle against Ba’athism a fourth.

The Promise of the Rojava Revolution?

Within the course of the Syrian Civil War, which has self-evidently been so full of darkness, negation, and destruction, one potentially affirming development has been the unfolding of Kurdish autonomy in the northeast of the country, known as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava. There, the PYD and the Kurdish Group of Communities (KCK) have overseen what some observers have hailed as a thoroughgoing social revolution—the “Rojava Revolution”—inspired to some degree by the anarchism of Murray Bookchin. While the revolution is said to have followed Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism, the KCK has referred to its particular praxis as “democratic confederalism,” or “Kurdish communalism.” These changes are in turn said to have reflected the recent internal reorientation of the PKK, with which the YPD and KCK are affiliated, from a traditional Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective seeking national liberation for the Kurds to a more communitarian-anarchist approach reminiscent of that taken by the Zapatistas in southern Mexico. The outcomes that have been reported from KCK communities, particularly thanks to the efforts of the Democratic Society Movement, or Tev-Dem, have been a rise in councilism and direct democracy, an internal supersession of the use of currency and a shift toward cooperative production within the KCK, and a marked emphasis on women’s emancipation and ecological balance.33 Most recently, of course, the fate of the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have been in the minds and hearts of observers from around the world, who have watched as ISIS forces progressively surrounded the city of Kobanê on the Turkish border and besieged it for months on end, leading to the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and concern that the Salafist forces, if victorious, would carry out genocide in the city. Eventually, of course, the US-monarch “coalition” intervened against the ISIS menace as part of the aerial-bombardment campaign it had launched in August 2014: the estimated six hundred imperialist air-strikes targeting ISIS forces in and around Kobanê certainly contributed to the YPG’s victory against the Salafists, which was announced in late January.

The attack by ISIS on PKK affiliates in Rojava—an assault that was ultimately rebuffed by the intervention of NATO air-power—is not the first time these insurgent Kurds have had conflicts with elements opposed to Assad. In late 2012 and early 2013, the PYD and YPG/YPJ were attacked by FSA units, just as they have met with al-Nusra assaults at other times, whereas other FSA brigades have actually supported the YPG/YPJ in defending Kobanê. Relations between the Kurds and the Syrian rebels have not exactly been consistently amicable. In a parallel of sorts to the case with Alawites and Christians, Kurds in Syria—who incidentally are mostly Sunni themselves—have distrusted the mainstream Syrian opposition for being dominated by Arab nationalists who have proven unwilling to clearly ensure the rights of minorities in any post-Assad future for the country.34 A clear parallel can be drawn here with relations between Algerian Arabs and the Berber or Kabyle minority that resides in eastern Algeria, for the Kabyles have resisted trends reflecting Arab chauvinism and centralization of power in significantly militant ways in the half-century following independence from France.35

Nonetheless, despite the socio-political strides made by the PYD, KCK, and YPG/YPJ in Rojava under admittedly non-ideal conditions, skepticism and concerns abound regarding the content and direction of the Rojava Revolution. For one, an anarcho-syndicalist perspective would question the liberal-parliamentary tendencies that certain Kurdish factions have been seen to favor over the councilism of Tev-Dem and the KCK. Anarchists should regard the Rojava experiment truthfully, neither overlooking the trends toward parliamentary social-democracy and centralization in the movement, nor hold it all in utter disdain precisely due to these very tendencies. Beyond that, the recent dénouement in Kobanê, which saw NATO/GCC air-forces launch a continuous four-month bombardment of ISIS positions starting in September, just as the heroic defense had been overwhelmed and the city was in danger of falling, raises questions about the revolutionary character of the self-described Kurdish radicals. If the movement depends on the US military to save it from ISIS, then how anti-imperialist can it really claim to be? On the other hand, one could argue that the US/GCC has a responsibility to protect the town from falling to ISIS forces, given that these hegemonic powers are in fact to varying degrees to blame for the emergence of ISIS—particularly when one considers the constituent parts of the ISIS armory. Nonetheless, and while not overlooking the obvious differences in political orientation between the cases of Rojava and Libya, is this “tactical alliance” between revolution and reaction terribly distinct from the military support given by Obama and the French to the Benghazi rebels who arrayed themselves against Gadhafi? If one welcomes USAF’s intervention to “save” Kobanê, can one really reject the calls made by certain elements in the anti-Assad opposition for a US-enforced no-fly zone over the SAR? David Graeber provoked a great deal of controversy on the left when he suggested in early October—that is, early on within the airstrike campaign—that the West had to provide military assistance to the Kurds in Kobanê, or at least that it should pressure Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to open the border to resupply the embattled YPG/YPJ and allow in Kurdish reinforcements like the Peshmerga—who were in fact allowed to cross over in late October. Whatever one may think about the morality of imperialist air-strikes defending social-revolutionary processes, the truth of the matter is that the Obama administration now has an “in” with the PYD, and it has reportedly entered into direct talks with the group. Admittedly, the problem is a complex dilemma, with no clear answers.

Conclusion: Historical and Philosophical Implications of the Syrian Uprising

To conclude this discussion on Syria, which so far has been steeped in geopolitics, I would like to turn to some historical and philosophical considerations. The Syrian uprising provides yet another example of mass-popular rebellion demanding participation in the political realm; in this sense, it joins the long list of dignified popular insurrections that have aimed at the institution of People’s Power, as George Katsiaficas has chronicled them. To answer the question posed by Nader Hashemi in The Syria Dilemma (2013)—a question he takes from the left-wing and revolutionary historical tradition—the Syrian people do have the right to self-determination, and their struggle against Ba’athism resembles the earlier struggle against French imperial domination in important ways. However, it is highly questionable that the means to this desired end should be those advocated by Hashemi, in accordance with certain factions in the FSA and their civilian counterpart, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: that is, a no-fly zone over the SAR enforced by NATO and the GCC, along with increased financial and military support for the “moderate” rebels.36

Another question to ponder is whether the Syrian people have “inherited” the standpoint of sumoud and resistance from Ba’athism—with this being one of the SAR’s few positive aspects. Though the findings of current opinion polls of Syrians, both located inside the SAR and abroad, whether as refugees or as constituents of the diaspora, are unknown to me, it is to be imagined that they do support the Palestinian struggle and oppose US/Israeli/GCC designs for the region. Furthermore, if given the opportunity, it would be hoped that they carry this resistance to a dialectically higher level than what has been exhibited by the Assads, in support of the global struggle for anti-systemic change. Still, the observed collaboration of elements of the anti-Assad opposition and of the Kurdish revolutionaries with the US/Israel complicates matters, to say nothing of the ties between the far-right facets of the opposition enthralled to Wahhabism and their GCC backers.

In terms of political philosophy, the Syrian uprising and civil war present a number of intriguing ideologies to reflect on. Though clearly atavistic in its desire to re-establish a Caliphate in the Levant, ISIS is not strictly medievalist in its approach, as its sleek videos and propaganda style attest to. Moreover, as Murtaza Hussein has argued, ISIS can be considered as sharing more with Leninism, the Maoist Red Guards, and the Khmer Rouge than the early Muslims, given the theory to which it claims adherence, and which it strives to institute: that is, the liberation of the people (or Umma) from above via extreme violence, as waged by a vanguard group. Indeed, this approach would seem to echo that taken by Sayyid Qutb, a leading early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose “revolutionary” Islamist theory arguably was developed on the foundation of Lenin’s philosophy, with Islam replacing communism as the world-historical resolution to class struggle and human alienation in his account.** On the other hand, the organizational style and underlying philosophies of the YPG and YPJ can be considered to recall Nestor Makhno’s Ukrainian anarchist army, the Makhnovshchina, and the anarcho-syndicalist brigades of the CNT/FAI in the Spanish Revolution. To a lesser extent, certain elements of the FSA could be said to have libertarian elements—not specifically in terms of the political views of many of the affiliated fighters, particularly in light of the mass-defection that has been observed of FSA units going over to groups like al-Nusra and ISIS, but rather in operational style, for the FSA from the beginning was reportedly comprised largely of decentralized and autonomous brigades that resisted an overarching command structure, until this was imposed with the coming of the Supreme Military Command (SMC) in December 2012. At present, according to Patrick Cockburn, FSA commanders receive their marching orders directly from Washington, such that any postulated similarities between the FSA structure and historical anarchist fighting-groups can be said to have been surpassed now in the historical process. As for Assad and Syrian Ba’athism, these can be viewed as variants on the Leninist and Jacobin traditions themselves, if we were to bracket the younger Assad’s neoliberalism for the moment: as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein (and notwithstanding the conflicts between Saddam and the Assads), Ba’athism in the SAR has taken on the form of a secular dictatorship that claims to represent the wishes of the people, both Syrian and Arab as a whole, through a sort of democratic-centralist observation of “the general will,” as conceptualized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Interestingly, it is in this vanguardist sense that Ba’athism and Qutb’s proto-Leninism converge politically, their basic divergence on the role of religion in society notwithstanding. According to its own narrative, Syrian Ba’athism has “stood up” to the supposedly backward and devout attitudes of ordinary Syrians, especially rural folks and Sunnis, and in this way preserved cultural and religious pluralism, relative freedom for women, secularism, resistance to Zionism and US/GCC imperialism, and the “progress” of the Arab nation—or, so the pro-regime argument goes.

I will close by quoting Herbert Marcuse, discussing Walter Benjamin: “To a liberated people, redeemed from oppressive violence, there belongs an emancipated and redeemed nature.”37 While the Syrian uprising and civil war have self-evidently been primarily about social domination and human oppression, the popular struggle and mass-suffering seen in that country can be taken as representative of the times, a microcosm of the brutality visited by late capitalism on humanity and nature alike. Besides the evident human losses involved, the civil war has doubtless also greatly degraded the environment of the Levant, much as other wars have, including that of the Turkish State against the Kurds, as associates of the Cilo-Der Nature Association observe.38 The political struggles in the Levant, which contain liberal, reactionary, fundamentalist, and revolutionary elements aligned against State terror, the police state, and militarism, illuminate the general struggle for a free humanity, which is developing as though embryonically. Without a doubt, the global revolution is made not just for humanity, but also for nature, without which humans cannot live, as the long-standing drought in Syria shows. In fact—again with reference to the recent COP20 conference—the uprising demonstrates what would now seem to be the sole means of interrupting existing trends toward total destruction: that is, direct action, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. Though repulsed, shackled, and beaten, the humanist-insurrectional Geist seen in the Syrian uprising and the Rojava Revolution holds great promise for radical politics today and into the future: the primacy of reason over tradition and authority, an end affirmed in the ninth century by the Baghdadi heretic Ibn al-Rawandi. I will leave the last word for a famous Kurdish saying, which I have learned from anarcha-feminist Dilar Dirik, speaking on “Stateless Democracy”: Berhodan jian-e!” (“Resistance is life!”)

**As Adam Curtis explains in “The Power of Nightmares,” Qutb sought to apply authoritarian-socialist lines of analysis to the study of the Arab masses, who he thought had inauthentically internalized and accepted capitalist, materialist values from the West that fundamentally conflicted with the “truth” of Islam.

A shorter version of this talk was first presented at the November 2014 Boston Anarchist Bookfair.

1Firas Massouh, “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left,” Global Communism (2013), 52.

2Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (London: Routledge, 2013), 57, 192.

3Reese Erlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 48.

4Erlich, 50-57.

5Ibid 60-61.

6Ibid 61; Gilbert Achcar, The People Want, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 173.

7Hokayem 172-4.

8Erlich 172.

9Ibid 209.

10Erlich 146-149, 71.

11Massouh, 60; Erlich 67-68.

12Hokayem 22.

13Ibid 26-27, 43.

14Cited in Massouh, 63.

15Achcar 177.

16Ibid 178.

17Ibid 178-179.

18Hokayem 45-49.

19Ibid 54.

20Ibid 40-41.

21Ibid 57.

22Ibid 58.

23Achcar 174.

24Ibid 182.

25Hokayem 69.

26Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (London: Hurst and Company, 2012), 29-54.

27Hokayem 81.

28Erlich, 250-255.

29Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).

30Massouh, 58-59.

31Richard Falk, “What Should be Done About the Syrian Tragedy?” The Syria Dilemma, eds. Nader Hoshemi and Danny Postel (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013), 61-75.

32Hokayem 11.

33For more details on the KCK’s accomplishments in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), please see TATORT Kurdistan, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology, trans. Janet Biehl (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2013).

34Hokayem 80.

35David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).

36Nader Hashemi, “Syria, Savagery, and Self-Determination: What the Anti-Interventionists are Missing,” The Syria Dilemma, 221-234.

37Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution, and Utopia: Collected Papers. Volume 6, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (London: Routledge, 2014), 126.

38TATORT Kurdistan, 158-60.

Climate Change and Human Alienation

April 27, 2014

Somalia300

“El Cuerno de África,” Santi Mazatl  (2011)

Originally published on Dissident Voice, 26 April 2014

“[The] self-alienation [of humanity] has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” – Walter Benjamin, 1936

At the end of last year, the Humanist Workers for Revolutionary Socialism (HWRS) published a provocative position paper which presents their analysis of the climate crisis: “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” Aside from discussing the very real threat which anthropogenic climate disruption poses to humanity and terrestrial nature generally considered, the HWRS in this essay develop a theory of human alienation based on the thought of Karl Marx and Erich Fromm and posit such alienation as the main obstacle for the emergence today of radical mass-movements from below that would check the increasingly fatal trends toward unprecedented levels of suffering and death and global ecocide promised by climate catastrophe. Being Leninists, however, the HWRS recommend “revolutionary” party leadership as a means of directing the alienated masses toward the enacting of anti-capitalist social transformation and the rational mitigation of climate destruction. Clearly, such a recommended solution is highly problematic—yet the HWRS paper presents enough critical points for reflection and contemplation to merit a brief discussion of it here.

To begin, I would like firstly to delineate my agreements with the HWRS writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” I certainly share the view that the capital-induced climate destabilization on hand necessitates a “worldwide revolution” as an equal and opposite corrective reaction (21), and I also hold that the psychical alienation and mutilation imposed by capitalism largely explains the fact that those from below “tolerate […] the constant wars, oppression, greed, cut[t]hroat competition, suffering, and destruction of the environment and this planet that the people in power inflict on the majority around the globe” (7). On the individual and group levels, too, the “only reasonable response” to the depth of the environmental crisis “would be for everyone who is aware of the situation to forget about their personal lives [sic] and immediately start a crusade to stop capitalism’s assault on nature and the entire planet” (18). I agree with the HWRS as well in their concluding thought that all organizations which claim the revolutionary mantle must “place the struggle against climate change […] as the highest priority in [their] program and [their] daily practice,” and that they should toward this end “immediately initiate a massive campaign about the need to overthrow capitalism as our only chance to avert the extinction of the human race, and combine [this] with daily interventions against the effects of ongoing environmental destruction” (30). In addition, the group’s social-psychological analysis of the grip which conformity, adjustment, bourgeois distraction, anxiety, and anomie hold over most people in “advanced” capitalist societal settings represents an intriguing explanation for the marked lack of mass-revolutionary consciousness and praxis vis-à-vis this seemingly quite terminal of threats to human happiness and flourishing and ecological balance. I believe this account—derived from Fromm, who in turn developed his critical, humanistic psychoanalytical approach from a synthesis of Sigmund Freud and the young Marx—to hold some merit, though with some reservations.

These important contributions notwithstanding, the HWRS account suffers from a number of grave issues, in my view. For one, as already mentioned, the grouping adheres to a Leninist/Trotskyist ideology, with all the distortions this implies: a highly delusional account of the historical rise of Stalinism in post-1917 Russia (8-9), a concomitant fetishization of Lenin and Trotsky (21), and the illogical assertion which follows—that only liberation “from above” can succeed in overthrowing capitalism and thus provide humanity and nature a chance of surviving climate chaos (30). Indeed, in Nietzschean (or even Heideggerian) terms, the HWRS resolve their stated concern for the problem of the alienated masses by saying that the possibilities for a post-capitalist, non-ecocidal future can be secured only through rule over the general populace by enlightened individuals who have somehow themselves transcended alienation (30). The HWRS clarify that the overcoming of alienation “cannot take place spontaneously” but must instead be the work of “a revolutionary [sic] party that knows what it is doing [!] and what is needed for victory” (28). Epitomizing dichotomous thinking, the HWRS opportunistically consider the only two options they believes possible in terms of staving off climate catastrophe: that either the global bourgeoisie will take steps to slow down global warming—which it is not doing and will not do—or Leninist parties capable of “leading the masses” will develop and intervene to outcompete the “reformist and centrist” oppositional alternatives and succeed in overthrowing the rule of capital within a quarter-century—that is to say, before climate change supposedly has progressed beyond the point of no return (23, 27).

Besides this highly authoritarian and unsavory political strategy, the HWRS account of human alienation may itself in some ways reify rather than help to illuminate the problem, for the essay presents something of a “locked-in” analysis. This is perhaps best illustrated in the authors’ citation of recent neurological studies which reportedly show that “[t]he brain is wired in a way that makes a person defenseless against the manipulation and demagoguery that are so common in capitalism” (26). If this claim is true—which it obviously is not—then how can the HWRS hope for the emergence of the Leninist vanguard which is heroically to lead humanity beyond capitalism, alienation, and total destruction in the first place? The assertion that “[p]eople are too alienated from life and from themselves to start a worldwide uprising against climate change” (19) is similarly extreme and unscientific. One need only look at the phenomenon of “group events” in China for a counter-example. Granted, the profundity of the climate crisis is truly horrifying, as the HWRS detail in this piece, and it is not as though any significant mass social movement—other than Occupy, in a way—has arisen within the Western world to the challenge of confronting the extent of its horror head-on. Under such conditions, tendencies toward despair and pessimism are natural and to be expected—yet they certainly are not justified as a means of prescribing “party socialism” as the only option available to humanity.

Anti-capitalism, socialism, and communism retain a truly world-historical importance at this late hour, as means of undermining and—it is to be hoped—ultimately tearing down the capitalist system that is without a doubt impelling life on Earth to utter disaster. In this the HWRS make an important point. Yet is simply not true that the chance for global communist revolution will arrive only through the domination of an actionist minority over the “average, backward person” to which the HWRS reduce the human multitudes (25). The writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity” would do well to consult the opening line of the founding principles of the First International (1864), which reads that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Consideration of the embodied history of Leninism and its monster-child Stalinism should be enough to delegitimize the tactics of Trotsky and company for all time.1As an alternative, anarcho-syndicalism, particularly of the ecological variety, holds a great deal more promise with regard to interrupting the fatal tendency toward climate destruction, in terms of both means and ends. Yet to return to Fromm and the issue of alienation, the observed lack of revolutionary activism in terms of climate issues among workers and people in general in industrialized societies may itself well be a reflection of the popular understanding that the State neither represents nor enacts the people’s will, whether on the environment, military spending, social programs, drug policy, or any other critical issue. For their part, U.S. polls from recent years (2012 and 2013) have shown consistent majorities expressing “belief” in anthropogenic climate change and concern for its effects.

Decentralization of power, self-emancipation, and anarchism remain important radical political alternatives to the utter irresponsibility and mindlessness of the global ruling class with regard to anthropogenic climate disruption. Self-management in the workplace—guided by the principles of participatory economics (Parecon), for example—coupled with community control of the political sphere would provide a humanistic alternative to “party socialism” that could well solve for the factors impelling climate catastrophe without threatening to impose a horrid repeat of the totalitarian political oppression for which Leninism has been responsible. The devolution of power to the global demos would indeed represent a recovery of the “lost treasure” of the “revolutionary tradition,” as Hannah Arendt terms the council system.2 Moreover, it would constitute a true political manifestation of Arendt’s concept of natality, the potential birth of a new world—this, in the face of the threat of mass-involuntary suicide.

Nonetheless, as Herbert Marcuse writes at the end of his most pessimistic book, “[n]othing indicates that it will be a good end.”3 In the minor chord, the HWRS does honestly consider the possibility that the climate crisis may already have progressed beyond the point of no return, such that a successful global anti-capitalist revolution in the near term may itself come too late (29-30). Clearly, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds these questions, and we confront the unfortunate reality that humanity will only come to learn the precise truth about these matters upon the conclusion of the next decade or two. Equally clearly, however, no humane alternative exists than to struggle for anarchist, anti-systemic revolution today.

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1To examine the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism with a critical eye, please consult Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (1970) and Gregori Maximov, The Guillotine At Work (1940).

2Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963]), 207-73.

3Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 257.