24 November 2013
On religion and ethics
I am going to be using "religion" in the pejorative sense below, distinct from any question of personal relationship to the 8th Dynamic/Absolute Truth/God Almighty. I am using Frank Zappa's definition:
"foolish rules, of ancient date
designed to make you feel all great
while you fold, spindle and mutilate
the unbelievers from the neighbouring state"
Any Marxist, materialist or humanist should be able to argue that there are materialist, humanist ethics: "shoulds" which come from the "is" of our lived experience, rather than being arbitraries. Mr Zappa again:
"Do what you want, do what you will,
just don't mess up your neighbour's thrill,
and when you pay the bill, kindly leave a little tip
to help the next poor sucker on his one-way trip."
We would reject the speculation of religious scholars that the reason you can tell something is holy is precisely because it is irrational. (The question of whether there is such a thing as "divine" ethics which contradict humanistic ethics is something that we should leave well alone, although Sufis discuss it.)
So Zappa's definition of religion can be put in other terms as "a code of justifications for behaviour which contradicts the plain ethics of ordinary life". As Neil Gaiman put it: "something you know which I don't know which makes everything you do okay". Excuses for being an asshole, yes yes.
Given this, a religion (excuse-for-being-an-asshole) doesn't need God. It just requires some kind of idol (the State, the Revolution, the Clearing of the Planet, the Ascension), the service of which not only excuses but demands the suspension of the everyday duty of care towards one's fellow living creatures. It is the same as Giorgio Agamben's "state of exception" - the religious authority, or King (the two were not distinct originally) is that which tells you when it is okay to act like an asshole. And it is always a living person or persons wielding this power.
The Bible says thou shalt not kill, and then gives plenty of examples of justified and approved killing. The Qur'an explicitly says that there are times when religious law does not apply. Trotskyists know that all's fair (in principle) against the class enemy - lying, cheating, stealing, torture, if necessary for the Revolution. But only a big strong man - a ganzer macher, to use the Yiddish term - can act as an interpreter/judge and actually say "yes, this crime was in the greater good and was therefore no crime". L. Ron Hubbard wrote about this in the most explicit way.
So a religion gives guidance for the "state of exception" (the return to the law of the jungle), but only the Big Man can make such a declaration in individual cases. And this is why - and this is a Chaos Marxist aphorism coming up - the more dogmatic/literalist the organisation, the more a Big Man/Dictator will be necessary to interpret and execute the dogma/scripture. Imposition of rules = escalation of power to suspend the rules.
Now, a commentor on the fantastic anti-zionist blog Jews sans frontieres made the following observation in a comment:
members of left-wing groups do follow their ganzer-machers to an astonishing degree, however much the big man's latest whim makes the group a figure of fun or revulsion.
This is true to the extent to which the members of such a group are discouraged from having "their own politics" - i.e. their own individual ways of combining theory to practice - and have to have the Big Man do their thinking for them. Or in other words, the extent that "our politics" are theoretical positions instead of guidelines for behaviour.
This is the beginning of a series exploring the Ganzer Macher model of left-wing politics, based on my personal experience. To be, as they say, continued.
11 November 2013
Out To Lunch is a big proponent of the Marxist-humanist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya, formerly Trotsky's secretary who broke with him over his continuing attachment to the Soviet Union after that country had become a bureaucratic nightmare and pissed all over the ideals of October 1917. Now, I must admit I'm finding it hard to get into D-skaya's work - all I've got out of it so far is the importance of the Hegelian dialectic, which I interpret as a recognition that all categories are conditional, everything is in a process of flux, and therefore getting hung up on the definition of words or categories rather than seeing through them to the real stuff underneath will kill any movement for real emancipation stone dead.
But I suppose I really like the name of the intellectual tendency which she left behind: "Marxist-humanism". That is, again in my own filtered perception, a recognition that, as the proverb of the indigenous people of my country has it: He aha te mea nui? He tangata. He tangata. He tangata. (People are the most important thing.) By people we mean actual living breathing humans in all their objective conditions of living and their subjective, emotional, contradictionary consciousness. The essence of capitalism - and the bureaucratic state capitalism which Stalin mockingly called "socialism" - is that numbers and quantities are the most important things - dollar signs, amount of "stuff", the necessity to put a dollar sign on all the stuff so it becomes just the same as all the other stuff, the race to have more "stuff" for less effort than the unbelievers from the neighbouring state. So capitalism has certainly provided the world with more "stuff" than our ancestors dreamed possible. In doing so, we proved that "stuff" doesn't make people happy.
(Some people get nostalgic for Eastern Bloc "socialism" because it wasn't competitive, it was a lazier society, there was less stress on the average person if they weren't a political dissident. But that was a bug rather than a feature in the system. Stalinist economics was supposed to be capitalist economics only much faster, as Stalin himself explained. People prefer the old system precisely because it didn't work, or to be precise stopped working in the early '70s. In the words of Dr Frank 'N' Furter, I think we can do better than that.)
But there has to be a step beyond Marxist-humanism, and I think we can use the term ecosocialism for that. Now I worry that I may be misusing a known term here. I think hithero "ecosocialism" has just meant socialism with a specific emphasis on ecological issues, like socialist-feminism means socialism with a specific focus on combatting misogyny. But no, I'm not talking about difference in political demands. I am talking about not only incorporating the humanist emphasis on combatting alienation, on the development of individual as well as class consciousness in the class struggle, rather than (as sect-Marxism as historically done) fighting capitalist alienation and exploitation by letting your Party superiors exploit and alienate you. I am talking about expanding this to an ecological awareness of the dialectical relationship between "culture" and "nature". Of a socialism which sees humanity as a crystalisation/hypostatisation of Earth's biosphere, and wishes to prevent capitalism becoming a cancer which will kill the whole body in the mistaken short-term interest of one part of it.
Now I hate to say it, but I'm going to use the Scientology concept of the "Eight Dynamics of Existence" here again. I'm sure that the conman Hubbard ripped this off from a more reliable source, but I haven't found it yet. Anyway, the idea is that one experiences life 1) as an individual; 2) as part of a family; 3) as part of a tribe/group/nation; 4) as a human animal; 5) as part of life on earth; 6) as part of the physical universe; 7) in the realm of spirit/metaphysics; 8) in the realm of Absolute Reality or God. In this sense, Marxist-humanism is Marxism which explicitly includes Dynamics 1-4; ecosocialism, in my conception, adds Dynamic 5. Perhaps a long-time descendent of this train of thought might finally unify the social and physical sciences and add Dynamic 6, but there's a way to go yet.
04 November 2013
The principal interests of Chaos Marxism are revolutionary politics, psychology and culture – and the place where, like the fundamental forces of nature, they are revealed to be a unity under situations of high pressure. It has been increasingly gratifying to discover, over the last year or two, that – particularly in Britain – we are not alone in these concerns. Making contact with the Materialist Esthetix current was a decisive point in our evolution; another was being sent the first two editions of the Newhaven Journeyman, a journal under the capable editorship of Alastair Kemp at Eleusinian Press.
The Journeyman subtitles itself “a haven for dilettantes”. Dilettante comes from Italian and literally means “someone who delights” - that is, someone who takes delight, pleasure, jouissance in a field of endeavour. In original Italian, it has the same meaning as the French amateur - “someone who loves”. (Italian football's highest amateur league is Serie D, for dilettantes.) And both these words have taken on the secondary connotation of the opposite of “professional” - not only in the sense of “doing it for money, rather than love”, but, sadly, as in “not up to the highest standards of craft; shoddy; half-baked”.
Professionalisation, of course, was originally a step forward for working people. The history of organised sport began with a struggle between, to use old-fashioned sexist cricketing terminology, “Gentlemen” and “Players” - i.e. between the ruling class who had no day jobs and could therefore take time off whenever they felt like it to train and play, and working people who needed to be paid to bring themselves up to the “Gentlemen”'s level. Similar things happened in the world of music and other artforms, when the old-school patronage model (where, as Frank Zappa put it, “the duke said, I'll chop your fingers off if it doesn't sound like this”) was replaced with the freedom to sell one's creative efforts in the market place.
As good communists, we of course recognise that the negation of amateurism by professionalism was a triumph of the bourgeois revolution over feudalism; and yet, perhaps it is time for that negation to be negated once again. Professionalism in sports, the arts, academia and music has led to a hypostatisation of all the worst elements of the “celebrity cult” - hyperspecialisation means that our performers have become untouchable, unreachable, iconic, inhuman, and their increasingly superlative performances have ceased to bear anything but a vague family resemblance to anything that ordinary people might do for fun. In my own country, a recent series of newspaper articles have explored the hitherto-hushed story of mental health issues among elite sportsmen. Meanwhile, we all know from a million rock biographies and artist documentaries that success in the cultural market economy can screw our creative heroes up far worse than failure.
Karl Marx predicted that the communist future would mean a kind of “return to amateurism”, a reversal of the inhuman hyperspecialisation in the division of labour encouraged by the unfettered commodity economy - where “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes” (The German Ideology). In the spirit of the Hegelian dialectic, this would mean that the dilettante – she who does things for fun, for passion, for use-value – has become more useful than the full-time professional, paid a good living to concentrate on a vanishingly small area of human endeavour.
The academy, in the current vogueishness of “interdisciplinary studies”, has finally begun to catch up to this. But by that it means teams of hyperspecialists. Woe betide any generalist – or even someone who wants to start in an interdisciplinary fashion – getting such a position. Combined with the “bums on seats” model of tertiary education, where pushing people up the ladder to dissertation becomes an end in itself, and you get what I like to call the lumpen-intelligensia – the “reserve army of philosophy and art”, people with all the verbal, creative and cognitive skills necessary to make real steps forward in combining theory into practice in creating new stuff which means something, and yet not able to use those skills in the market economy. So many of us end up earning a crust by proofreading, grammar-checking or indexing the works of those good enough at, to use another Zappaism, “politics or blow-jobs” to have landed one of the jobs that the rest of us were trained for.
Where was I? Oh yes. So in one sense the whole Internet/blogosphere can be seen as a “haven for dilettantes”. But the flip side of open access is zero quality control – except in the sense that “click-baiting”, sensationalism or pandering to prejudice for an audience, creates its own superstars. Surely the future of a communist logosphere must be in collective quality control. It's the difference between “private publishing” and “vanity publishing” - you can put your stuff out completely freely, screw the market economy and the institutions, etc, etc... but if you're not part of a collective or a community which can help you spellcheck your work, give it a wash and shave its armpits, or even in extreme cases to tell you that you've just wasted your time... I don't fancy your chances of producing something great. You need a grindstone to whet your sword of burnished gold against.
And herein is the genius of the Newhaven Journeyman – it comes out in the format of a small booklet, of similar size and shape to institutionally-backed journals, and – one assumes! - has an editorial agenda of quality control. And yet the content is a metric fuckton more interesting than anything you'll find in a “real” journal, because it comes from the intersection of theory and practice. This ain't a bunch of psychs reading off the results of randomised controlled trials of the new Blahdeblahdezine tablet in making crazies sit down and shut up, no sir. When – in Issue One (2012) you read Jan Tchamani talking about her experiences of syanesthesia when the outside world becomes literally too painful to step into, or Andrew Roberts' deeply sad exploration of the life of poetess Charlotte Mew, who lived a lonely life for fear of any progeny falling prey to the “lunacy” which had led to her sister and brother being locked up – this is real stuff. This is what being “differently sane” to use the Church of the SubGenius's terminology feels like on the inside. It's a cage made of bars no-one else can see. This is radical subjectivity, the subaltern telling Gayatri Spivak to get lost and doing its damndest to speak. Or – in the case of Kim Withnail's “Two Women” - when it's gone too far down to speak, you'd better hope you have an artist/therapist/activist with a hell of a lot of compassion handy to at least transmit a glimmer of what's really happening to those on the outside.
The subaltern, as I think Aleister Crowley might have recognized, can only speak from a place of “darkness”, that is, from the “blind spot” of the All-Seeing Eye of official consciousness. This is the place of Freud's “uncanny”, or Robert Graves' “objective poetry” which is the same thing as the most ancient voodoo magick chants in that you can tell “the presence of the Gods” (or Muses, or the Juice) by the hairs on the back of your neck bristling. So we have experiements in weird fiction which are deeply unsettling. I must say that I didn't enjoy either Thomas DeAngelo's “The Scientist” or Liz Aidl's “Beneath” from Issue Two (2013). But that's because I recognized where they came from. The first is a morality of tale research into radical subjectivity gone too far, while the other explores the masochistic complicity of the partner of a Dixie version of Josef Fritzl. I don't like those places where the writers delved, because I've been close to them and barely got out again with my ego intact. Which is precisely the kind of thing that “objective art” reminds us of. You're not suppose to like the “real stuff”.
Hold on, I almost forgot myself. Talking about “whetting the grindstone”, and I was about to finish this review without any criticism? Well... I must say I wasn't too impressed with Tristan Vivian Adam's “Talking with Cries”, which read to me a bit like “cargo cult academia” - aping the obscurantist langage of our social betters to come to a conclusion which might have worked much better as a one-page poem. Daniel Spicer's cut-up was very interesting for the first few iterations, not so much after that. As for the work of Michael Burnett, I thought "Ghost in the Cell" was quite clever and apposite, while "Black Widow" disappointed by relying on old school misogynist tropes. And – while I'm personally excited by the whole meme of ecosocialism – I found his non-fiction “The Cost of Winning” a bit too abstract, without direct connection to doing stuff in the here and now. With regard to reconciliation ecology, Michael – a subject which I find intriguing – what is to be done, by us, to coin a phrase?
So – although of course I love the way Ben Watson writes and his contributions to both issues give me real pleasure – I don't suppose you read the Newhaven Journal for fun, any more than you write for it for fun. To quote Rorschach, the disturbed vigilante from Alan Moore's Watchmen - “we do these things because we are compelled”. We write and draw and make music because to do otherwise means having no mouth and yet you must scream. It might not be any good but we can never tell that in advance and we must do it to find out if it was worth doing. And, if we are deeply honest, we find music and art and writing and politics which bring us face to face with the Blind Spot of our whole culture (the exploitation of the proletarian and the oppression of anyone who doesn't “fit), and with the Blind Spot in our own minds which is the internalisation of the lies we have to tell others in order to live in this $2.99 material world.
Keep going, Alastair and your motley crew of fellow travellers.