The American Crisis – Some Characteristics of Rightwing Populism

The last week has been busy, preventing me getting back to this. And the week ahead is already looking like an even busier week!

Carrying on with the excellent work of Berlet & Lyons Right-Wing Populism in America (which I thoroughly recommend as a fantastic introduction and history of the phenomenon), they identify four more or less essential characteristics of right-wing populism, in addition to that which I provided an overview of in my previous posts. These are:

  1. Producerism
  2. Demonisation & Scapegoating
  3. Conspiracism
  4. Apocalyptic Narratives & Millennial Visions
The pillars of this mandapa are pretty heavily carved and topped with vyala brackets like capital.

I am going to try and give a summary of these, as I think they – along with the previous posts – are important in getting an understanding of the challenge that rightwing populism poses in our time. And, while the focus is on the USA, it is useful to reflect on this exploration into what rightwing populism is and see how it plays out in other countries. Aspects of this analysis are certainly informative when looking at the UK, Bermuda and elsewhere.

First though, I think it would be wrong to say that all four of these characteristics are always present; it’s more that these four characteristics are often present. Some rightwing populist groups might have three out of four for example.

Producerism

In general this refers to a belief that the real producers in society are faced with parasites both above and below; the above being unproductive elites who exploit the actual producers; the below being groups such as ‘the poor’ or defined ethnic or religious groups who are branded as lazy and immoral, who survive by leeching off the producers.

What constitutes the ‘producing’ classes vary, but in general, from my experience, those espousing these views seem to identify them with the middle class, entrepreneurs, farmers and Whites generally. The elites considered to be parasites identified in this view I have found to be bankers, speculators, monopolists, big landlords, most politicians, the civil service, union leaders and Jewish people. Similarly, based on my experience with those espousing these views, the people ‘below’ that are leeching off the producers tend to be people of colour, homeless people, those needing to use welfare, immigrants and Muslims.

I agree with Berlet and Lyon where they conclude that: “Producerism, with its baggage of prejudice, remains today the most common populist narrative on the right, and it facilitates the use of demonisation and scapegoating as political tools.”

Demonisation & Scapegoating

I feel these ones are pretty self-explanatory. However, there are two paragraphs in Berlet & Lyon which I feel are worth quoting in full here:

“Demonisation of an enemy often begins with marginalisation, the ideological process by which targeted individuals or groups are placed outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society through political propaganda and age-old prejudice. This creates an us-them or good-bad dynamic of dualism, which acknowledges no complexity or nuance and forecloses meaningful civil debate or practical political compromise.”

“The next step is objectification or dehumanisation, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects than real people. Dehumanisation often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people is inferior or threatening. The final step is demonisation, the person or group is framed as totally malevolent, sinful and evil. It is easier to rationalise stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, scapegoating and even violence against those who are dehumanised and demonised.”

Scapegoating then being wrongfully blaming a person or a group for problems. It is denial through projection. Again, Berlet and Lyon provide a useful passage worth quoting:

“We use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group re directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonised as malevolent wrongdoers. The scapegoat bears the blame, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of righteousness and increased unity. The social problem may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. What matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook.”

“Scapegoating often targets socially disempowered or marginalised groups. At the same time, the scapegoat is often portrayed as powerful or privileged. In this way, scapegoating feeds on people’s anger about their own disempowerment, but diverts this anger away from the real systems of power and oppression. A certain level of scapegoating is endemic in most societies, but it more readily becomes an important political force in times of social competition or upheaval. At such times, especially, scapegoating can be an effective way to mobilise mass support and activism during a struggle for power.”

It’s not hard to see this at play in the American crisis. Be it the demonisation of Muslims, immigrants, social activists (BLM and ‘antifa’) for example. Nor is it surprising that, while this was always present in the USA, it really saw an explosive growth following the 2008 economic crisis, which still haunts us today.

Conspiracism

I know I’m quoting from Berlet & Lyon quite a bit…

“Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorises the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm. Like other forms of scapegoating, conspiracism often, though not always, targets oppressed or stigmatised groups. In many cases, conspiracism uses coded language to mask ethnic or racial bigotry, for example, attacking the Federal Reserve in ways that evoke common stereotypes about ‘Jewish bankers’. Far-right groups have often used such conspiracy theories as an opening wedge for more explicit hate ideology.”

One need only think of Qanon, of the hysteria about antifa, about BLM as a Marxist plot, the ‘gay agenda’, 5G and anti-vaxxers, especially in reaction to public health advice around covid-19.

And sometimes people outside of the far-right (but this provides an opening for them) may use conspiracism to make sense of genuine inequity, but in doing so fail to recognise the actual power relations at work in society. As such, real life experiences of inequality can be the basis for conspiracism that actual blinds the believer from the true nature of the inequality they experience.

And this is, in a way, reinforced by the fact that there are actual conspiracies – one need only look at Watergate, the tobacco industry covering up knowledge about cancer, the FBI’s COINTELPRO of spying and dirty tricks, and so on. However, conspiracism differs from legitimate efforts to expose these actual conspiracies:

“First, the conspiracist worldview assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events; it regards such plots as the major motor of history. Conspiracism blames individualised and subjective forces for political, economic, and social problems rather than analysing conflict in terms of systems, institutions, and structures of power.”

“Second, conspiracism tends to frame social conflict in terms of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil that reflect the influence of the apocalyptic paradigm.”

“Third, in its efforts to trace wrongdoing to one vast plot, conspiracism plays fast and loose with the facts. While conspiracy theorists often start with a grain of truth and ‘document’ their claims exhaustively, they make leaps of logic in analysing evidence, such as seeing guilt by association or treating allegations as proven fact.”

“Conspiracists attacks can be directed either ‘upward’ or ‘downward’. Anti-elite conspiracism targets groups seen as sinister elites abusing their power from above. Counter-subversive scapegoating targets groups portrayed as subversives trying to overturn the established order from below or from within.”

I’ve mentioned some examples above already. Here’s some more – the 9/11 conspiracy, pretty much anything around Bill Gates, the reptilians of Icke, freemasons, unions, scientists advocating public health advice during the covid-19 pandemic, the Muslim Brotherhood, environmentalists talking about climate change. And so on.

Also, it’s not difficult how some members of the elite may wish to take advantage of some forms of anti-elite conspiracism to both distract from a wider and radical critique of capitalism, as well as to benefit their own faction (class interests) at the expense of rivals. Similarly, it isn’t difficult to see how the elite may benefit from encouraging counter-subversive scapegoating in as much as it distracts from the actual causes of social inequality and helps protect the elite from potential threats from anti-oppression struggles.

Apocalyptic Narratives and Millennial Visions

Apocalypticism in this sense means the anticipation of a righteous struggle against evil conspiracies. Millenialism here is a more specific form of apocalypticism, more directly related to certain Christian fundamentalist narratives.

While these can often be religious based, with various aspects of the Book of Revelation featuring prominently with this or that being attributed as the Anti-Christ, or this or that as the Mark of the Beast (most recently this is being attributed to the covid-19 vaccines), they can also take a secular form. The idea of a New World Order, of a global government would be an example of such a secular apocalyptic narrative.

It isn’t hard to see how this characteristic drawers on the previous themes of producerim, demonisation, scapegoating and conspiracism.

The American Crisis – What is rightwing populism?

It is difficult to fully define anything – there are always exceptions to the rule – and I am not a fan of dictionary explanations of certain things (there are many Whites for example who refuse to recognise structural racism, insisting instead only on a narrow dictionary definition of racism, restricting it solely to overt racial discrimination, for example).

However, it is important to get at least a general outline of what rightwing populism is, and more specifically how it manifests in the USA. This is what I attempt to do here.

I am going to follow the lead of Margaret Canovan where she argues that all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’, and all are in one sense or another anti-elitist.” And I also agree with the sentiments of Berlet & Lyons (2000) in their excellent book (which informs much of this series on this matter) where they develop a working definition of populism as:

  1. Involves a celebration of ‘the people’; and
  2. Some form of anti-elitism.

They go on to distinguish a populist movement from populist appeals with the qualification that a populist movement uses populist themes to mobilise a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force.

There are of course both rightwing and leftwing forms of populist movements (and I suppose there may also be centrist populist movements). Additionally, they may be authoritarian or egalitarian in nature, and based on a charismatic cult of a central leader or a decentralised movement based around a motivating idea. They may be advocates of a new future system, or conservatives that romanticise a fabled past ‘golden age’ that they seek to reassert. Further, what falls under the concept of ‘the people’ can be inclusive or it can be ethnic or other identity based. Some may be based on an actual critique of real existing social structures (such as class or structural racism), or they may be based on absurd conspiracy theories (i.e. lizard people or Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

Additionally, populist movements may be repressive in nature or emancipatory. A repressive populist movement is one that mixes anti-elite rhetoric (and scapegoating) with efforts to create, maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Such as race or sex. Often they involve channeling popular discontent away from emancipatory, positive social change and towards oppressing marginalised or vulnerable groups (ethnic or other minorities, immigrants – so, for example, against Filipino workers but away from the bosses who exploit them to depress the general wage of labour…).

Sara Diamond offers what I think is a succinct definition for determining a rightwing from a leftwing movement: “To be rightwing means to support the State in its capacity as an enforcer of order and to oppose the State as a distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society.”

I also agree with Berlett & Lyon’s argument that a rightwing populist movement “is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that rightwing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.”

It is not hard to see much of the rightwing populist movement, throughout the USA’s history, as fitting the above. One need only look at the KKK as a reaction to Black empowerment during the reconstruction era, and since, especially during the civil rights era. Or the Tea Party (and Trumpism) as a reaction to the election of a Black President and gains made by the Democrats in the 2008 (such as the Affordable Care Act).

What do you think – is the above a good working introduction to what rightwing populism is?

For those interested, I strongly recommend Berlet and Lyon (2000) Right-Wing Populism in America – Too Close For Comfort (The Guilford Press). I picked it up early on in the Trump regime and have found it very informative; much of the early part of this series The American Crisis is indebted to the insights of this book.

Also cited above are:

Canovan, M. (1981) Populism. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Diamond, S. (1995) Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements & Political Power in the United States. The Guilford Press.

Carnival & Pomp – Revolutionary & Counter-revolutionary?

This post follows on from an earlier post, and seeks to answer the question with which that one ended:

Are any of these spectacles (Gombey’s, Pomp or Carnival) ‘revolutionary’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ (or have such potential), and what is meant by such anyway?

In order to answer the main question (are any of these spectacles revolutionary or counter-revolutionary), one must first answer what is meant by these terms in the first place.

Revolutionary & Counter-Revolutionary Theory

In my earlier post I quoted, at length, an extract from a work by David Harvey. In one of his key works (if not the one that made his name), Social Justice & the City, he actually provides a useful review of these terms (in relation to theory).

I won’t quote him in his entirety (he devotes a whole chapter to it, and the themes run through the entire book), only the most concise extract that I can find, from his ‘further comment’ section of the chapter ‘Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory’:

There are three kinds of theory:

(i) Status quo theory – a theory which is grounded in the reality it seeks to portray and which accurately represents the phenomena with which it deals at a particular moment in time. But, by having ascribed a universal truth status to the propositions it contains, it is capable of yielding prescriptive policies which can result only in the perpetuation of the status quo.

(ii) Counter-revolutionary theory – a theory which may or may not appear grounded in the reality it seeks to portray, but which obscures, be-clouds and generally obfuscates (either by design or accident) our ability to comprehend that reality. Such a theory is usually attractive and hence gains general currency because it is logically coherent, easily manipulable, aesthetically appealing, or just new or fashionable; but it is in some way quite divorced from the reality it purports to represent. A counter-revolutionary theory automatically frustrates either the creation or the implementation of viable policies. It is therefore a perfect device for non-decision making, for it diverts attention from fundamental issues to superficial or non-existent issues. It can also function as spurious support and legitimisation for counter-revolutionary actions designed to frustrate needed change.

(iii) Revolutionary theory – a theory which is firmly grounded in the reality it seeks to represent, the individual propositions of which are ascribed a contingent truth status (they are in the process of becoming true or false dependent upon the circumstances). A revolutionary theory is dialectically formulated and it can encompass conflict and contradiction within itself. A revolutionary theory offers real choices for future moments in the social process by identifying immanent choices in an existing situation. The implementation of these choices serves to validate the theory and to provide the grounds for the formulation of new theory. A revolutionary theory consequently holds out the prospect for creating truth rather than finding it.

Also relevant is the subsequent passage:

A theoretical formulation can be, as circumstances change and depending upon its application, move or be moved from one category to another. This suggests two dangers which must be avoided:

(i) Counter-revolutionary co-optation – the pervesion of a theory from a revolutionary to a counter-revolutionary state.

(ii) Counter-revolutionary stagnations – the stagnation of a revolutionary theory through failure to reformulate it in the light of new circumstances and situations – by this means a revolutionary theory may become a status quo theory.

But there are also two important revolutionary tasks:

(iii) Revolutionary negation – taking counter-revolutionary theory and exposing it for what it really is.

(iv) Revolutionary reformulation – taking status quo or counter-revolutionary formulations, setting them into motion or providing them with real content, and using them to identify real choices immanent in the present.

Revolutionary & Counter-Revolutionary Spectacles?

How might this be applied to the question of spectacle, specifically as it relates to those of Gombey’s, Carnival and (military, including majorettes) parades?

Obviously the above extract addresses theory rather than spectacle, and it’s not possible to directly force it to apply to spectacle – although it provides some insights and directions.

One could propose:

1) Status quo spectacles – these seek to maintain order, to perpetuate continuity. To reinforce the status quo as, well, the status quo. 

2) Counter-revolutionary spectacles – these either celebrate (and so reinforce) power against any perceived threat, to underline the superiority of the power and State against the threat (say, for example, a military parade celebrating the suppression of a slave revolt or the defeat of a strike); or they do not claim to be anything more than spectacle, but generates false consciousness (a diversion of focus away from revolutionary tasks/criticism) or serves as a social ‘release valve’ for social pressures that might otherwise find their manifestation through revolution.

3) Revolutionary spectacle – these directly challenge the status quo and propose a potential rupture from the status quo; they propose an alternative vision and build the capacity for revolution (through developing consciousness and/or demonstrating the power of ‘the people’ to act for themselves).

Application in the Bermuda Context

Gombey’s and carnival originate as revolutionary spectacles, more or less. They upended social convention, defied formal power and the State. But was the carnival wholly revolutionary, or was it perhaps also counter-revolutionary – or even both at the same time? In as much as the carnival originates as a social convention via the Church (albeit one ‘hijacked’ and adapted by the same social pressures from which the Gombey’s orginate) – in as much as carnival was tolerated – can it not be seen as a social ‘release valve’ form of spectacle, and thus counter-revolutionary, as spectacles go?

The more formal spectacles of Bermuda’s calendar – May 24 parade, Peppercorn ceremony, Queen’s Birthday parade, other military parades, even the Ag Show – all these are essentially ‘status quo’ spectacles, even if some originate more as counter-revolutionary spectacles (primarily the military ones, and those more obvious tied to power and the State, such as the Queen’s Birthday parade).

Are Gombey’s and Carnival still revolutionary? I argued in my previous post that they are not. At least not wholly. Where they subject to counter-revolutionary co-optation or counter-revolutionary stagnation? Without a detailed historical analysis of either phenomena it is impossible to give a definitive answer now – however it seems clear they have transformed away from revolutionary spectacle and, at the very least become status quo spectacle. In some instances – or arguably – they could indeed be seen as counter-revolutionary spectacles.

Carnival

It seems fair to say that Carnival at least is more about commercialism than the revolutionary rupture it initially threatened. Yes, it is ‘a party’ and doesn’t claim to be anything more – but that’s precisely the point, it has lost the revolutionary spirit it once embodied.

Is this the whole truth of the matter? No. Carnaval

Only in the broad, the ‘social’ aspect could it be argued to be the case, to have lost the revolutionary spirit. To the individual – primarily the active participant, but also the active observer – the spectacle can be understood, can be lived, as emancipatory, as a defiant act, as a momentary rupture from the status quo (at multiple levels, racial, class, sexual, gender, age, etc). And this moment – however brief – can be sufficient for the revolutionary transformation of the self, of a development of a consciousness other than that of the status quo, of acceptance of the status quo and a fear of the other.

Carnival may serve as a social release – and as such in a counter-revolutionary way – and Gombey’s may be a neutered caricature of their original defiantly revolutionary origin, but they both retain the potential for revolution. This may begin at the individual level, but the potential exists for sufficient individual ‘revolutionary moments/transformations’ to reach a critical mass and reassert the revolutionary potential they first manifested.

Of course, the revolutionary spectacles of ‘people power’, of the strike, of the demonstration, of the popular occupation and – ultimately – the revolutonary seizure of power itself, retain their revolutionary spirit, and remain the most potent vehicle for consciousness and revolutionary change.

For clarity, none of this is an attack on the introduction of carnival in Bermuda, or the organisers or their intent. That it was attacked by representatives of the ‘church’ indicates that the revolutionary threat to the establishment, the status quo, remains, and it was that criticism which got me thinking of the question of spectacle, and what social meaning or potential could emerge from the introduction of carnival in Bermuda.

Can carnival in Bermuda be an agent of social change? Yes.

Could that social change be revolutionary? Yes. However it can also be an agent of only superficial change, just as much as an agent for revolutionary change.

The question is what kind of change one wants, and after deciding that, after bringing it into awareness, does that change how one experiences and approaches carnival?

Similarly, does such a theorising of the spectacle that is the Gombey’s serve as a step to reclaiming their revolutionary potential, reclaiming it away from their Disneyfication?

 

 

 

‘Carnaval’ & Pomp – Or spectacle, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary?

Spectacle, Carnival & Pomp

I was reflecting a bit more last night about my post on Lefebvre’s ‘for and against the street’ in relation to the matter of carnival and the controversy around it.  I kept remembering a line from a book I’d read but couldn’t remember all of it or what the book was – fortunately it came to me over breakfast like a kiskadee’s call hits when feeling moldy…

It’s a bit from David Harvey’s interesting ‘Paris, Capital of Modernity‘, from the chapter Consumerism, Spectacle and Leisure, discussing the Belleville Carnaval; here’s the relevant extract:

Spectacle, even that of the city itself, has always been fundamental to urban life, and its political aspects have long played an important role in the construction of legitimacy and social control. There had been no lack of spectacle under the July Monarchy, but much of it escaped social control by the authorities. Sunday excursions took the workers outside the city limits to the bars and dance halls of places like Belleville, culminating in a ribald and riotous evening descent back into the city center.  The fear lurked that spectacle of this sort could all too easily lead to riot and revolution. This was particularly true of the Carnaval in the week preceding Lent during the 1840s, characterised as ‘the last, exuberant fling of pre-industrial theater of excess which cut hard against the nascent ideologies of the metropolitan city.’ The ‘promiscuous mixing and reversals’, the cross-dressing, the temporary loss of class distinctions, threatened the social order. Carnaval ‘too rudely mocked the careful modulations between spectacle and urban menace staked out across the city. In making gestures, looks and appearances both more explicit and more explicitly counterfeit, in mixing them pell-mell as if no ill would come of the brew, it called the bluff of the Boulevard des Italiens, the Chaussee d’Antin’. The authorities and those bourgeois who were not drawn into the frenzy were fearful and horrified.  The macabre carnavelesque way in which the the bodies of those shot down on the Boulevard des Capucines on that February evening of 1848 were paraded around the city as an incitement to revolution drew upon such traditions. This, then, was what the socially controlled spectacles of the Second Empire set out to displace. The aim was to transform active players into passive spectators. The Belleville Carnaval declined during the Second Empire through a mix of displacement, active repression, and administrative shifts (such as the incorporation of Belleville into the city through the annexation of 1860). The troublesome image of ‘the descent from Belleville’ remained, however, and when it was finally resurrected in the late 1860s, it was with the clear intent of ending Empire and making revolution.

But Second Empire spectacle went far beyond imperial pomp. To begin with, it sought directly to celebrate the birth of the modern. This was particularly true of the Universal Expositions. These were, as Benjamin remarks, ‘places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity’, occasions on which ‘the phantasmagoria of capitalist culture attained its most radiant unfurling’. But they were also celebrations of modern technologies. In many respects, imperial spectacle dovetailed neatly with commodification and the deepening power of the circulation of capital over daily life. The new boulevards, besides generating employment, facilitated circulation of commodities, money, and people. The expositions drew massive crowds from the provinces and from abroad, stimulating consumer demand. And all those spectacles took skill, labour, commodities, and money to mount. The stimulus to the economy was therefore considerable.

Initial Thoughts

From a Bermudian perspective – and ignoring the wider concepts of ‘spectacle’ – my mind here automatically goes to thoughts of the contrast between Gombey’s (and the more recent introduction of ‘carnival’) and our military parades (and an argument could be made that our majorette troops fall within the wider field of ‘military’ parade, in their uniforms and regimented orchestration).

One embodies elements of the ‘wild’, the ‘unknown’, ‘chaos’ and a departure from social norms – the Gombey’s in particular include the aspects of anonymity and a defiant celebration of the sub-altern African and First Nations heritage of our people – sub-altern in relation to the European aspects of our society which is de facto normative and dominant in terms of cultural expression. The Gombey’s are our original form of the ‘carnival’, augmented now with the introduction of a carnival proper (though divorced from the religious time-table in our case, where Catholicism has never been dominant and unable to support a more traditional carnival system to date).

The other embodies ‘order’, ‘regimentation’, ‘discipline’ (not that the Gombey’s do not require discipline, but it is of another form) and is general a spectacle of pomp, a celebration of power and the State.

Of course in Bermuda the two have somewhat lost their original impulses – although the loss is greater for the Gombey’s and (from it’s inception) carnival.  Our ‘pomp’ is less about a demonstration of power and the State as it is a manufactured production for tourism (as well as simply ‘tradition’). It does, however, retain the role of demonstrating power and the State all the same. The Gombey’s – and now carnival – are less a defiance of power and the State today, and are more a tourist and/or entertainment production, while retaining the element of ‘tradition’.  But it’s more revolutionary potential, it’s defiance, has been neutered for the most part. It’s edge has been lost in accordance with its acceptance – its co-optation – by capital and the State.

‘Cyborg’ Carnivals?

Carnival itself, is, in Bermuda’s case, wholly manufactured.

Whereas our sister islands far to the south have a carnival rooted in the Catholic tradition (like that described by Harvey above), which combined with the same elements of defiance (to slavery, to White supremacy, to power, to the State) of which the Gombey’s originate to create the potentially revolutionary carnival spectacle, we did not have such a tradition. Catholicism has always been dominated here by Anglicanism, and Bermuda has not changed hands between Catholic and Anglican powers (and thus retained ‘Catholic’ traits) – we’ve been Anglican dominated since inception, with dissenters exiled or suppressed.

Bermuda’s carnival is novel, wholly manufactured, by Bermudians who have experienced carnival to our south and yearned for its replication, its reproduction, in the Bermudian context. Our carnival is not organic – it is artificial. And essentially designed from a business plan, for the sake of consumption, of creating an event. This does not mean that it is not possible of becoming a ‘cyborg’, of incorporating and becoming partially organic ‘of the people’ in time – and may already have done so with its inception.

This is not a criticism of our carnival, merely an observation, that our carnival is manufactured, is artificial, can only ever aspire to become a cyborg. It is divorced – at its birth – from the organic revolutionary character of its inspiration, and retains the ‘revolutionary’ aspect more in superficial form than historical connection. Although revolutionary – and organic – potential can accrue to it all the same, over time.

Revo or Contra?

Which brings to question whether any of these spectacles can be seen as revolutionary or counter-revolutionary (and what is meant by these terms anyway)?

For space considerations I’ll continue this as a second post.

A Little Lefebvre – On the street…

A little bit of theory Urban Rev

I’m still pretty swamped with work and unable to write proper blog posts as I’d like to.  So I’m cheating here and just going to type up an excerpt from a book that I’m reading at the moment – Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution.

The recent discussion concerning the introduction of Carnival in Bermuda reminded me of this passage – I’d be curious what (if any) people’s thoughts on it are. 

The following comes from the concluding pages of the books first chapter ‘From the city to the urban society’.  I have elected to retain the format as it exists in my book.

For the street

The street is more than just a place for movement and circulation.  The invasion of the automobile and the pressure of the automobile lobby have turned the car into a key object, parking into an obsession, traffic into a priority, harmful to urban and social life.  The day is approaching when we will be forced to limit the rights and powers of the automobile.  Naturally, this won’t be easy, and the fall-out will be considerable.  What about the street, however?  It serves as a meeting place (topos), for without it no other designated encounters are possible (cafes, theaters, halls).  These places animate the street and are served by its animation, or they cease to exist.  In the street, a form of spontaneous theater, I become spectacle and spectator, and sometimes an actor.  The street is where movement takes place, the interaction without which urban life would not exist, leaving only separation, a forced and fixed segregation.  And there are consequences to eliminating the street (ever since Le Corbusier and his nouveaux ensembles): the extinction of life, the reduction of the city to a dormitory, the aberrant functionalisation of existence.  The street contains functions that were overlooked by Le Corbusier: the informative function, the symbolic function, the ludic function.  The street is a place to play and learn.  The street is disorder.  All the elements of urban life, which are fixed and redundant elsewhere, are free to fill the streets and through the streets flow to the centers, where they meet and interact, torn fomr their fixed abode.  This disorder is alive.  It informs.  It surprises.  The work of Jane Jacobs has shown that, in the United States, the street (highly trafficked, busy) provides the only security possible against criminal violence (theft, rape, aggression).  Wherever the streets disappeared, criminality increased, became organised.  In the street and through the space it offered, a group (the city itself)  took shape, appeared, appropriated places, realised an appropriated space-time.  This appropriation demonstrates that use and use value can dominate exchange and exchange value.

Revolutionary events generally take place in the street.  Doesn’t this show that the disorder of the street engenders another kind of order?  The urban space of the street is a place for talk, given over as much as to the exchange of words and signs as it is to the exchange of things.  A place where speech becomes writing.  A place where speech can become ‘savage’ and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls.

Against the street

A meeting place? Maybe, but such meetings are superficial.  In the street, we merely brush shoulders with others, we don’t interact with them. It’s the ‘we’ that is important.  The street prevents the constitution of a group, a subject; it is populated by a congeries of people in search of … what exactly?  The world of merchandise is deployed in the street. The merchandise that didn’t make it into specialised locales or markets (marketplaces, halls) has invaded the city. In antiquity the streets were merely extensions of places with specialised functions: the temple, the stadium, the agora, the garden. During the Middle Ages, artisans occupied the streets. The artisan was both producer and seller. The artisans were followed by merchants, who, although only merchants, soon became masters. The street became a display, a corridor flanked by stores of various kinds. Merchandise became spectacle (provocative, attractive) and transformed the individual into a spectacle for others. Here, more than elsewhere, exchange and exchange value take precedence over use, reducing it to a residue.  Therefore, the critique of the street must be more incisive: the street becomes the focus of a form of repression that was made possible by the ‘real’ – that is, weak, alienated, and alienating – character of the relationships that are formed there.  Movement in the street, a communications space, is both obligatory and repressed.  Whenever threatened, the first thing power restricts is the ability to linger or assemble in the street. Although the street may have once had the meaning of a meeting place, it has since lost it, and could only have lost it, by reducing itself, through a process of necessary reduction, to nothing more than a passageway, by splitting itself into a place for the passage of pedestrians (hunted) and automobiles (privileged). The street became a network organised for and by consumption. The rate of pedestrian circulation, although still tolerated, was determined and measured by the ability to perceive store windows and buy the objects displayed in them. Time became ‘merchandise time’ (time for buying and selling, time bought and sold). The street regulated time outside of work; it subjected it to the same system, the system of yield and profit. It was nothing more than the necessary transition between forced labour, programmed leisure, and habitation as a place of consumption.

In the street, the neocapitalist organisation of consumption is demonstrated by its power, which is not restricted to political power or repression (overt or covert). The street, a series of displays, an exhibition of objects for sale, illustrates just how the logic of merchandise is accompanied by a form of (passive) contemplation that assumes the appearance and significance of an aesthetics and an ethics. The accumulation of objects accompanies the growth of population and capital; it is transformed into an ideology, which, dissimulated beneath the traits of the legible and visible, comes to seem self-evident. In this sense we can speak of a colonisation of the urban space, which takes place in the street through the image, through publicity, through the spectacle of objects – a ‘system of objects’ that has become symbol and spectacle. Through the uniformisation of the grid, visible in the modernisation of old streets, objects (merchandise) take on the effects of colour and form that make them attractive. The parades, masquerades, balls, and folklore festivals authorised by a power structure caricaturise the appropriation of space. The true appropriation characteristic of effective ‘demonstrations’ is challenged by the forces of repression, which demand silence and forgetfulness

Postscript

If you have an opportunity to read the book in it’s entirety, I wholly encourage it – although I warn you that, at least to me, the writing style can be a bit different than what one might be used to. It does strike me very much as akin to a stream of consciousness writing style, but I do find it pregnant with possibilities.  

And I do feel that the above extract should provoke various thoughts within the Bermudian context (or wherever you might be reading this from).  What do you think?

Clarification on Marx’s 18th Brumaire

Quoting Marx

Recently I took the opportunity to include the following quote by Karl Marx in an opinion piece on Bernews:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” 

The edition I have.

The edition I have.

This is one of Marx’s most famous quotes, and comes from the opening line of Marx’s ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapoart’ written in 1852 – and an excellent read, analysing a precursor to the fascism of the 20th Century, amongst other things.

Allspice Interjects

Now, amongst the various comments resulting from that opinion piece one individual, posting as ‘Allspice’ made the following statement:

“Let’s just have the rest of the quote from Marx shall we?  Mr Starling kinda bends the meaning a bit.  Let’s get back to what Marx was really saying, the the meanings of events are rehsaped by those who need to deliver a message.  There seem to be pertinent parallels within this text as well.”

The poster then provides another excerpt from the same work by Karl Marx:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.  And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs off revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.”

I should note here that Allspice also provided – very kindly – in their post a link to that wonderful online resource of Marxist works the Marxist Internet Archive – more particularly the link to the very work of Marx in question.

A Response to Allspice

Quite honestly, I’m not really sure what to make of Allspice’s criticism of my use of the initial quote.  S/he indicates that I’ve bent the meaning of the quote, and then argues, based on a reading of the additional excerpt, that the initial quote should be read as ‘the meanings of events are reshaped by those who need to deliver a message’.

Now, that’s not actually what I understand from the subsequent passage that Allspice quoted – although I admit it’s been about seven years now since I last read the 18th Brumaire in its entirety.  I’ll get to my understanding of the quote shortly.

I do want to commend her/him for raising this though – whatever little I can do to get more people reading Marx is certainly something good I reckon!

Allspice has, however, actually misquoted, be it by design or by accident.  S/he implies that the quote s/he provides directly follows from the quote I made.  This is not strictly true.  There are actually two sentences that directly follow from my quote, with his/her quote being the first half of the following paragraph.

So, let’s look at what follows my initial quote:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.  Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle.  And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.”

I won’t bore readers with the minutiae of 19th Century French political history (as interesting as it is and as relevant as it is for fully understanding Marx’s work in question – in the printed work I have a lot of the detail can be found in footnotes).

However, Marx was basically saying that the events of the 1851 coup that brought Napoleon III to power (Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte), and his subsequent regime (1852-1870) was a caricature and farce compared to the coup (on Brumaire 18th, year 8 of the revolutionary calendar of revolutionary France – November 9th, 1799) that brought his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, to power.

This 1799 coup itself marked the counter-revolution – the defeat of the French revolution – from reactionary forces within itself, hence the tragedy.  The 1851 coup followed the defeats of the revolutionary wave of 1848.

I used the quote to criticise the tragedy of the PLP’s years in power and the farce of the OBA repeating, almost as a caricature, some of the more glaring mistakes of the PLP.  To me the quote lended itself to that and was quite fitting.  Read in that context, one could paraphrase the subsequent sentences by Marx, rendered into updated Bermudian politics, thus:

“Cannonier for Brown (reference to BHC, Uighers, etc), Scott, Gibbons and Brangman for Smith, James and Horton (some PLP Education Ministers), the Jet Gate scandal for the BHC scandal.”

Of course, it’s not a direct one-to-one thing, but I think one gets the gist of it.

Essentially, I dispute the charge that I was misconstruing the meaning and context of the quote in question.  I think my use of the quote was apt.  I’ll leave that, of course, to the readers.

Looking at Allspice’s Quote

I’ll take a brief look at Allspice’s quote now.

The first sentence of this quote from Marx, I read it as a look at the question of structure and agency.  As in, to what degree do we have ‘free will’ and to what degree are we prisoner to circumstance.  My reading is that we do have free will, but that freedom is circumscribed and determined by our particular circumstances.

In other words, someone born into poverty has as much free will as someone born into the top 1% of wealth.  However, the latter has a greater ability to exercise their free will than the former; the ‘reality’ of both will be radically different, and this will lead to different world-views; the choices that present themselves to one will be radically different than to the other and, based on their radically different experiences (which help inform decision-making) even when exercising free will on the same issue could make radically different decisions.

It is perhaps worthwhile providing the second half of the paragraph that Allspice has quoted to better understand the other aspects of this quote.  And so, directly following on from where Allspice stopped, and thus finishing the paragraph in question:

“Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-1795.  In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

There’s a couple of paragraphs that follow, before what I think is a key paragraph for understanding this eddy of Marx’s writing:

“Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.”

Two paragraphs after that are is a particularly interesting quote:

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.  It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past.  The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content.  The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.  There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.”

As I read Marx’s work, he was arguing that the 1851 coup was draping itself in the guise of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era in an attempt to (a) gain legitimacy; and (b) distract from the reality of the coup and what it meant for the French people (or, more specifically, the working classes).

Poetry of the Future?

The last passage I quoted refers to the communist revolution that Marx hoped to see in the 19th Century.  And, indeed, there was the Paris Commune of 1871 prefigured the potential of a democratic communist society.  And in this, the Paris Commune did not seek legitimacy so much in the past as it did in a radical rupture with the past and developing a new way of social and economic organisation – the content goes beyond the phrase.

I think it also speaks of the need for articulating a clear, positive and liberating vision of a better world as an animating revolutionary force.  Or, as a recent Marxist writer opines:

“Marxism has a prodigious magical power to invent, to create its own values and ethics – an ethics higher, better and more durable than the hollow values that insist upon the sacrosanctity of free market individualism.  Marxism, in short, has the power of struggle, of struggling to invent what Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire deemed a new poetry of the future.”

 

The Logic of Reinsurance Capital?

Seldom does one come across the conflicting logics of capital versus humanity than this article in the RG today. If I’m reading it correctly, there are those in the industry who are hoping for a major disaster/catastrophe in order to reverse a threat to profit. The threat to profit rates is due to competition, saturating supply and thus leading to a fall in reinsurance rates.  capitalist altar According to the analysis, a lot of the increased competition is only able to do so through new entrants valuing risk too cheaply ‘in the pursuit of market share’. A major disaster/catastrophe would, by this logic, expose those new entrants with lower underwriting standards – and thus less able to withstand the losses from paying out in reaction to a major disaster/catastrophe – thus culling the reinsurance ecosystem in a survival of the fittest manner.  Those more able to withstand such a major disaster would then be able to capitalise on this, maximising their profit. No mention seems to be made of the human or environmental tragedy that such a major disaster/catastrophe would involve.  Simply the cold pure market logic of how to maximise profit.

A little comic relief!

Street Corner Petitions

It’s been another busy day of collecting signatures.

Today, we started a new initiative, of collecting signatures in the City of Hamilton.  From noon until 2pm, we were collecting signatures on the corners of Queen & Reid Street and Parliament & Church Street.

The response was pretty good!

While there were some who were opposed to the petition for a referendum, for the most part there was a positive response, with people asking if we’d be there again on Thursday so they can bring their friends.

So, the answer is YES!  We will be out there again tomorrow, from 1200-1400hrs, in the same locations!

One of the things that I found the most striking is the number of people who thought we were still going to have a referendum on the issue of casino gambling, and were shocked to find out that was not the case.

Another thing is that a surprising number of people think we’re either calling for casino gambling or that we’re opposing casino gambling.

We’re not doing either.  We haven’t taken a position on casino gambling at all.

All we’re doing is asking for a referendum on the issue of casino gambling.  That’s it.  It really is that simple.

One thing that I would just like to say is that I really appreciate the opportunity to engage the people, face to face.  That’s my favourite part of canvassing, and being out there, explaining what the petition is about and why we’re doing it, it’s a terrific opportunity and a wonderful experience.

And so, here’s a video, a cartoon, that I came across earlier today and I thought it would be nice to share it with readers!

It’s a short and funny video looking at the current economic crisis from a Marxist perspective – Enjoy!

Some comments by Ollman on Marxism & Political Science – Part Three

The excerpts below pretty much follow on from the last post on this…

The main subjects treated by Marx’s theory of the state, taken in the above manner, are as follows: (1) the character of the state as a social power, embodying the kind of cooperation required by the existing division of labour, that has become independent of the individual producers; (2) the effect of social-economic relations pertaining to class rule on state forms and activities and the state’s function in helping to reproduce these relations; (3) the effect of state forms and activities on the production and realisation of value; (4) the control, both direct and indirect, over the state exercised by the imperatives of the economic system; (5) the state’s role in the class struggle, especially through legitimating existing institutions and practices and repressing those who dissent from them; (6) the conditions in which the state acquires a degree of autonomy from the dominant economic class; (7) the ways in which politics is ordinarily understood, the social origins of this political ideology, and the role it plays in helping the state perform its distinctive functions, particularly those of repression and legitimation; and (8) the possibility inherent in the foregoing, taken as historical tendencies, for the emergence of a form of state that embodies communal control over social power, which is to say, that seeks to abolish the basis of the state itself.

Dr Ollman is a professor of politics at NYU, with a particular background in Marxist dialectics.

Dr Ollman is a professor of politics at NYU, with a particular background in Marxist dialectics.

In practically every instance, Marx’s theory of the state is concerned with locating relations inside a system and depicting the effect of that system on its relational parts.  Without some grasp of what is happening here, many of his particular claims will appear confused and contradictory.  The apparent contradiction between statements that seem to treat the state as an ‘effect’ of economic ’causes’ and those that present a ‘reciprocal interaction’ between all social factors offers one such difficulty.  Another is the way Marx treats past and possible future developments in the state as somehow part of its present forms.  A third, suggested by the first two, is that the concepts that express such ties have at least partly different meanings from those found in ordinary speech.  Only [a] resort to Marx’s method can clear up these and related problems.

The above is excerpts from Ollman, B. (2003) Dance of the Dialectic – Steps in Marx’s Method.  University of Illinois Press, USA.

Notes

How to apply these to Bermuda, to an analysis of the Bermudian state?  To what degree does the Bermudian bureaucracy constitute an autonomous entity, or does our small size lead to reduced autonomy for the state?  And yet we retain a strong public sector union, notably the BPSU, but also the BIU and the BUT, which may, to a degree, serve as a counter to reduced autonomy, in some ways?

Also, with the division of the capitalist class here between the races and, accordingly, the two parties (the ‘Black’ capitalists mostly in the PLP, the ‘White’ capitalists mostly in the UBP, now the OBA), to what degree does which party is in power affect the state in relation to competing capitalist interests, both local capitalists and the international capital domiciled here – along with the comprador capitalists?

#5 very interesting – the legitimation of formal politics and the delegitimation of informal politics, in the sense of demonstrations and civil disobedience, but not in the sense of cabals, lodges and old school networks, an all too endemic feature regardless of which party holds power.  Plus, the restriction of political, ‘the political’, to the constraints of ‘liberal democracy’ in the Westminster parliamentary form and the opposition to a participatory, protagonistic democratic alternative, where ‘the people’ become an active participant rather than a passive spectator and granter or occasional consent? #7 relevant/insightful here too.

Some comments by Ollman on Marxism & Political Science – Part Two

This continues shortly after the excerpts quoted in the previous post.

Dr Ollman is a professor of politics at NYU, with a particular background in Marxist dialectics.

Dr Ollman is a professor of politics at NYU, with a particular background in Marxist dialectics.

Can political science open itself to Marxist studies despite all these handicaps?

I believe Marxism makes an essential contribution to our understanding of politics, but to grasp it we have to know something about the dialectical method with which Marx’s methods are developed.  Only then, too, will many of the dissatisfied political scientists referred above be able to see what else they could study and how else they might study it.

I believe it is necessary, therefore, that Marxists in political science today give priority to questions of method over questions of theory, insofar, of course, as the two can be distinguished.  For it is only upon grasping Marx’s assumptions and the means, forms, and techniques with which he constructs his explanations of capitalism that we can effectively use, develop and revise, where necessary, what he said.

And perhaps as important for Marxists teaching in universities, only making this method explicit can we communicate with non- (and not yet) Marxist colleagues and students whose shared language masks the real distance that separates our different approaches.

Whether dealing with politics or any other social sector, it must be stressed, Marx is concerned with all of capitalism – with its birth, development, and decay as a social system.  More specifically, he wants to understand (and explain) where the present state of affairs comes from, how it coheres, what are the main forces producing change, how all these facts are dissimulated, where the present is tending (including possible alternatives), and how we can affect this process.

Marx’s theory of the state seeks to answer these questions for the political sphere, but in such a way as to illuminate the character and development of capitalism as a whole (which is not different than what could be said of his theories about other areas of life).

The above is excerpts from Ollman, B. (2003) Dance of the Dialectic – Steps in Marx’s Method.  University of Illinois Press, USA.

Notes

One key problem for both Marxists and its opponents has been a misunderstanding of Marxist method.  The vulgar Marxism came to dominate, especially one based on economic determinism, one that favoured structure over agency, rather than recognising the interaction between the two.

Opponents misunderstood Marx as a result of neglecting his methodology (dialectics) and belittled his contributions accordingly.

Worse, self-professed Marxists misunderstood his methodology, with all too many grasping only the superficial aspects of his contributions which, as valuable as those were for their time and place, led to dogmatism in as much as the essence, the dialectic, was ignored.  And this was compounded by ‘actually existing’ 20th Century authoritarian socialism, with the Stalinist caricature of dialectics and ‘official’ Marxism.

Hence Lenin’s complaints of the lack of dialectical understanding amongst the revolutionaries of 1917, the adoption of a bureaucratic superficial dialectics, the limitations of Bukharin’s initial contributions (his Arabesques remain to be investigated), and the importance of Lenin’s own philosophical notebooks.

More importantly, Lukacs’s important note on ‘orthodox Marxism’:

“Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations.  It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book.  On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.  It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders.”

And so Marxism, properly conceived, can indeed greatly contribute to Political Science, and, at that, any investigation in as much as everything currently exists in a totality of capitalism, and can be interpreted as such.  Marxism, properly understood, offers a powerful tool to investigate different aspects of the capitalist system in its entirety.

To realise this, however, requires a ‘going back’ to the origins, of learning the methodology, the essence, of Marx’s contribution, not of his ‘finished products’, what dogmatic Marxists may consider ‘sacred books’, the superficial crystallisation of Marxist thought at a certain time and place.

Note that capitalism must be treated holistically.  One can zero in, that is, to focus, on this or that aspect, and in doing this one must appreciate that some things become blurry, out of focus, in the process, and that different relations apply at different degrees of focus, of attention.  But all must constantly be related from the particular aspect back to the general, to the holistic totality of capitalism, if one is to understood this or that aspect properly.

It is in doing this, recognising the scalar nature of research, along with an understanding of Marx’s dialectical method, that one can make Marxism a ‘living tool’ rather than a series of dogmatic and dead tools, which are limited in their usefulness, even if they still provide some viable pointers.

And the purpose remains that of his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach - as inscribed on his tombstone.

Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach – as inscribed on his tombstone.

And thus relating to praxis, the union of theory and practical action, dialectically influencing each other as a guide to realising Marxism as a living tool to both understand and to change the world.