Archives for posts with tag: politics

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In the West, most people see communism as a failed social enterprise, relegated to the dustbin of history after its atrocious implementation during the 20th century. People look at the oppressive Stalinist regime, the brutality of the Maoist revolution, and the devastation of Pol Pot, and argue that while it works nicely on paper, communism is far too appalling, evidenced by precedent, to be taken seriously in any kind of discussion for the future.

Of course, no one seems to know what communism actually means. People use the term “cultural Marxism” to denounce pretty much anyone on the left that they disagree with, since the term is vague to the point of meaninglessness, making it easy to apply. It boils down to modern day McCarthyism against groups of people who probably don’t even identify as Marxist at all. People associate communism and socialism with welfare spending, and Big Government interfering in the economy, staying the invisible hand. In actuality, socialism is the equivalent of industrial democracy, and means that workers run their businesses as a collective, rather than under the autocratic rule of a monarch. Engels actually wrote that once socialism was in place, there would be a “withering away of the state” as it became obsolete, with people becoming more and more involved in the maintenance of their own communities. Communism, once realized, doesn’t involve Big Government at all, and is actually libertarian in principle. The difference is that power is diffused among the people, rather than maintained in tyrannical, non-governmental structures as in contemporary libertarianism. For the record, government interference to guide the economy is called Keynesian Economics, and is responsible for such things as FDR’s New Deal which incidentally brought the Americans out of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, this misinformation isn’t just propagated by the neo-McCarthyists on the Right, since Bernie Sanders, who essentially promotes New Deal-styled policy ideas, proclaims himself a socialist. Not to say that they’re bad ideas in the current economic and political climate, they’re just not socialist.

What separates communism from anarchism (or libertarian socialism, if you prefer), is the method of implementation, and here is where the problems start. Marx, Engels, and Lenin advocated the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which is the transitional state between capitalism and communism. In order for the transition to be successful, there must be centralized power which enforces the new ideological system, as outside forces will continuously threaten the newly established way of life. They give the example of the Paris Commune, which showed promise as a communist paradise, but was overthrown by hostile capitalists not long after its implementation. Had the Commune bolstered its power to enforce its ideals more effectively, it could have survived. Thus, the necessity of centralized power. Of course, once the threats dissipate, the state will allegedly wither away, but the anarchists believed that oppressive power is oppressive power, regardless of who wields the stick of oppression, be it the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. The anarchists wished to abolish all structures of power at the outset, without resorting to authoritarian methods to do so.

If the USSR never actually achieved full communism (a stateless, democratically organized society), and never even implemented any socialist initiatives (democratically organized businesses), how did it becomes the scapegoat for the so-called even-minded critiques of those doctrines? The blame mostly rests on the shoulders of the “liberal media” that has been propagating the capitalist imperative for decades.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published possibly the first thoroughly researched look at what has now become Fake News, in their book Manufacturing Consent. In it, they look at how the media portrays the objectives of capitalist elites as morally honourable, while demonizing those who disagree with the accepted model. For example, everyone knows about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, they even made a movie about it, and everyone knows that Pol Pot and communism in general are responsible for all those deaths. What is less known is that from 1969 to 1973, the Americans had been bombing Cambodia, creating a death toll comparable though slightly less than the numbers of dead under Pol Pot, and then after the Vietnamese ousted Pol Pot’s regime, the Americans covertly supported the Khmer Rouge since Vietnam was seen to be the worse evil of the two. When measuring outrage against atrocity, context is important.

For additional context, there is also the Indonesian genocide of the East Timorese which happened concurrently to the Cambodian one. The difference between the two genocides was that the Indonesian government was being supplied by the Americans, and were slaughtering those with left-leaning principles. Media outcry could very easily have ended the genocide, given America’s involvement in its process, but the outcry never happened, and many of those involved in the massacre are still a part of the contemporary Indonesian government. There was actually an independent film documenting the effects of the genocide today, The Act of Killing (2012), but its accusations of US complicity were pretty much ignored.

Chomsky and Herman give many more examples, such as media comparisons between a priest being killed in Poland and four religious American women killed in El Salvador. Or the media’s attempt to pin the assassination attempt on the Pope onto Soviet communists, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Their criticism of the media’s portrayal of the Vietnam War, commonly associated with media hostility to power, is that the media decried American casualties, and American blunders within the war, but it never criticized America’s right to intervene militarily in foreign nations, nor the devastation wrought to the Vietnamese. Similarly today, the legitimacy of the War on Terror is simply assumed, and weeping over American casualties and condemning certain methods remain the only viable criticism. The deaths of Middle Eastern civilians are basically shrugged off.

Capitalist propaganda is why we associate Russian Gulags with communism, but not the Western assassination of the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953 with capitalism. Mosaddegh was trying to limit the powers of Western oil companies in his country while trying to keep the profit derived from his nation within his nation, and was killed for it. That’s not capitalism. Or the Great Bengal famine, when the British East India Company implemented crop policies that reduced the production of edible crops for those that were more viable on the international market. The food shortage that erupted resulted in the deaths of 10 million people. Again, not the fault of capitalism. Donald Trump today wants to reinvigorate the Afghanistan war, instate an American Viceroy, and claim ownership of Afghan mineral deposits as compensation for the 16 year war that America started. Using war, death, and destruction to enrich resource-driven oligarchs could never be categorized as a staple of capitalist doctrine. Those who denounce Venezuela as a failed socialist state ought to maintain that Haiti, the Philippines, Guatemala, Chile, Iran, and many, many others should be capitalist utopias due to the intervention into their politics that emphasized private power over public ownership. A system where the ultimate goal is profit at any cost could never result in anything terrible. But it does, obviously, since that doesn’t make sense at all. Communism at least works on paper.

Where does propaganda end and reality set in? The USSR, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and Maoist China all resulted in terrible atrocities, and that is something that no one will deny. But are they appropriate examples of communist principles in action, or even socialist ones? If you are going to criticize socialist states, there are examples where the ideal was realized. Israeli Kibbutz, starting before Israel was even a thing, are socialist communities that still flourish today. Catalonia, Spain, prior to Franco’s attempt at fascism, was a successful anarchist society. It was even described with reverence by famed author of Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell, in his book Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, being an ardent socialist, was quite fond of the experiment. The Diggers in 17th century England are another example. Today, Marinaleda, also in Spain, admits to being a successful communist utopia, and economically speaking, far surpasses the surrounding cities which gives credence to its claim. There are certainly criticisms that exist of these places; the Kibbutz are mired in Judaic and Israeli cultural/political intrigue, there are few opportunities for ambition in Marinaleda, and the Diggers and Catalonians were wiped out by their ideological opponents (Is being wiped out a criticism? Marx thought it was, but perhaps these examples exist better as a condemnation of an ideology, ironically driven by competition, that cannot abide competition. Fukuyama’s End of History is essentially the monopoly of a system that claims such a development is a destructive failure).

We shouldn’t dismiss misunderstood ideas without proper analysis, and we shouldn’t read Animal Farm and assume that the solution is to leave Mr Jones in charge. Communism is certainly associated with a sordid history, but how much of that is reality and how much is propaganda? How does it fare against the reality and propaganda of capitalism? There are reasonable precedents that we can learn from without being blinded by the grotesque theatre of the common strawmen. We don’t have to strive for an anarcho-communist utopia, but neither should we dismiss it out of hand.

Institutions get a bit of a raw deal. To be sent to an “institution” generally is interpreted as either going to prison or a mental hospital. To become “institutionalized” is to lose one’s personality and become slavishly indoctrinated to the regulations of whatever authority you’re living under. We associate the term with fear, omniscient control, and zealotry. The church is the perfect example. We are seeing a surge of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, never giving an account as to what that actually means, but embracing it nonetheless because it allows them to distance themselves from the institution of organized religion. Yet institutions make up a greater portion of our society than just our prisons, churches, and hospitals. Marriage is an institution. The law courts are an institution. Democracy is an institution. An institution is not an object, but the social implementation of an idea.

Religion is a well known institution, so let’s observe how those institutions were formed. Judaism is a religion built on laws. The Torah is an inherent institution because it takes an ideology and literally spells out behaviours and regulations one ought to follow. With Islam, Sharia Law similarly dictates behaviour among Muslims. Both of these religions have survived for millennia with little change in structure. Islam’s split into Sunni and Shia was due to Muhammad not naming a successor before he died, and each sect chose to follow a different path of leadership. There is no difference in doctrinal interpretations because everything was already laid out… except of course for managerial disputes.

Let’s contrast to Christianity. Jesus Christ did not stipulate strict laws to be followed, but offered guidelines in their stead. “Love thy neighbour” is a nice platitude that offers a pleasant way of being, but it’s not so rigid as “Don’t eat pork.” The institution of Christianity was not the result of Christ’s handiwork, but of Peter’s. Peter is the one who built up the church into an institution, and as there was no solid bond between the doctrine and the church, it was slow going. The canonical relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father was not officially decided until the First Council of Nicaea, 300 years after Jesus was crucified. The development of the church was done by individual popes, often on a whim, which set about the doctrinal revolution of the Reformation. The Laws of God were deemed greater than any papal decrees, and so rebelled the Protestants.

An important thing to remember is that Jesus Christ was not the only Jewish messiah. There was what is referred to as a “Messianic Fervor” during that time period where Jewish messiahs were popping up left and right. Even in the centuries after Christ, Jewish messiahs would crop up every now and then to develop one cult or another, and then fizzle out soon after the death of their leader. Jesus is the messiah we remember because he had a Peter.

My favourite forgotten saviour is Sabbatai Zevi. Zevi was a messiah who actually got quite popular during the 17th century in the heart of the Ottoman empire. I suppose they must have learned from Roman mistakes, since rather than martyr him, the Muslim rulers of the time forced him to convert to Islam. This lead to large swathes of people converting in his wake, and others holding out that Zevi was still secretly Jewish and converted because he was super cunning and sly, rather than fearful for his life. Whatever the case, there are very few people who now care about Sabbatai Zevi (to his credit, they do still exist).

The non-Jesus Jewish messiahs failed, not because they weren’t charismatic enough or weren’t putting forward ideas that the population could rally around, but because they focused on the feeling of Jew-ness, rather than any direct social implementation of their doctrine. They had no staying power.

Machiavelli spoke of a need for institutions to provide stability in any country. An institution by definition is something bigger than any one individual because it is a representation of the ideals of the whole. Machiavelli constantly referred to the Romans, and compared the two methods of government under which Rome was ruled: the Senate and the Emperors. The senate relied on codes of conduct, votes, and the voices of the (landowning, male) people by definition. The emperors relied on the temperament of individual. Certainly Caesar and Augustus were competent enough rulers, but the institution of Emperor was built on shaky foundations, and Rome was quickly under the sway of rulers like Commodus, Nero, and Caligula.

Compare this to current Western democracy. Though everything is now glaringly relative, George W. Bush was a terrible president. His term limit came to a close, and he was not so terrible that he left without a fuss. Stephen Harper won his seat in the last Canadian federal election, but by our own parliamentary method of government, he lost all his real power. Our institutions of democracy are bigger than the individuals within them, so we can transition between rulers without any coups or arbitrary lineage.

Our court system is the institution of justice. If one person feels wronged by another, they can sue or prosecute, and regardless of the result, will generally accept justice as having been meted out. There is little risk of personal vendettas escalating out of control because justice is seen to be represented by the institution.

Institutions, regardless of their bad rap, are what keep societies stable over the long term. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, communism didn’t fail because communism is a bad method of governance, it failed because Napoleon was able to stage his coup over Snowball with no repercussions. No institutions were in place to prevent such a thing, and the individual was allowed to become greater than the ideals of the whole.

Institutions need sacredness in order to preserve the representation of being greater than an individual, but they also need adaptability in order to survive. Just as the Jews developed the Talmud to address some of the growing concerns against the Torah and the old ways, so too have Americans amended their constitution. Laws frequently are changed, as are the ways of implementing them. The court system, as well as our current method of democracy, are in definite need of reformation. Modern contexts must continuously be applied to the “holy” laws of institutions in order to keep them relevant.

Reform is a difficult process because traditionalists hold on to the divine nature of institutions, and rightly they should, just as progressives rightly need to push for continuous adaptations. It is of very serious consequence to disregard the institutionalization of ideals because the result otherwise is generation-dependent chaos as each group, for good or ill, implements the whims of whoever holds the most power. If power is in the hands of something abstract and timeless, no one person can fuck it up. It would take a whole lot of people to fuck it up, and if it gets to that point, that institution probably needed a good fucking up anyway.

Institutions can of course be corrupted, or killed by a thousand cuts. Starve The Beast politics is certainly one way to destroy public institutions without overtly stating that that is your aim. Democracy too could be said to be an illusion, as partisan politics, voter suppression, lies, lobbying, special interests, and propaganda essentially eliminate any genuine democracy taking place in so-called “democratic” nations. I think if progressive individuals wanted to make headway in solidarity with conservative peers, touching on the traditional sacredness of the institutions being condemned and mutilated by Conservative politicians might be a good place to start.

Are there modern institutions that I believe should be abolished, rather than reformed? Certainly. Do I know how to do that without succumbing to chaos? Not really. Those who denounce reform in favour of revolution must ask themselves how they plan on cementing their ideology in place, and what might their society look like in 200 years, and how might future changes to their society take place. Lenin was very clear on the need for authoritarianism in revolution, and he was right. To overthrow an institution is a huge risk, and it would need to be replaced by another in order for society to maintain stability. How that stability is implemented is the difference between a fascist state and a democratic one.

To decry institutions is fallacious. To call for revolution without something solid to replace it is to place your hopes in a dead phoenix. Each perspective, conservative and progressive, need to coexist so each can maintain their proper function. Our goals cannot be to “win” over the other, but to maintain social institutions as best we can, and help them grow alongside the rest of us. To fear and malign them is just as much a failure as it is to believe them to be impervious to change. And when we each fail, we fail as a whole.

I’m not a huge fan of identity politics. My reasons are the common ones: they’re unnecessarily divisive, and they tend to ignore practicality. I’m not against the idea of identity politics; every identity has a right to celebrate themselves in an empowering fashion, but when that mental process is expanded to the grander scale of actual politics is when things fall apart. Luckily, I found a brilliant video that disagrees with me, and it puts forward the best case for identity politics I’ve ever seen:

Here’s a summary for those who opt out of watching this almost 12 minute video:

Identity politics is based on arbitrary distinctions between two groups, and those distinctions don’t necessarily even need to be defined all that well. Politics on the whole, as defined by Carl Schmitt, is the distribution of power along those hazy boundaries. Consider the One-Drop rule that governed the ‘blackness’ of individuals during the 20th century: insane nonsense, but still firmly embedded in the cultural psyche and accepted by the whole as a means of dividing power. To quote, “True political conflict isn’t about facts – it’s about the fight against other identities, however arbitrarily we might point them out.”

Politics therefore isn’t about policies, government programs, or their austere lack, but about “who is allowed to have power over themselves, and who is not.” The arguments over any other issue is what Olly, the presenter, calls, “management disagreements.” Those who focus on these management disagreements as the basis for their political identity are less zealous than those who adhere to Politics as defined by Schmitt. The zealotry behind a dogmatic identity can literally kill while milquetoast liberalism could never achieve such an extreme. Because of this, a government that runs on the ideologically weaker managerial proceduralism platform will be dangerously vulnerable against any group fueled by identity-based fanaticism that is big enough to threaten it. This means that anyone who doesn’t take into account power and identity when they are discussing politics will be doomed to lose every time.

Olly then goes on to say that when one considers the identity politics of the Left and compares it to those on the Right, there is a crucial distinction to make because they are not mirror images of one another. In this Us vs. Them mentality, the opposition to the Left is less rigid than the opposition to the Right. For example, when the Left defines itself as against the rich, a rich person could simply redistribute their wealth and they would be accepted by the Left, whereas gay people, transgendered people, Muslims, etc. who are the dichotomous Other to the Right, cannot change who they are because their identity is not a choice. He concludes by saying that the centrists who focus on liberal democracy and forget, or purposefully ignore, the role that power and identity inherently play within politics are essentially condoning the violence that those two factors play in every day lives.

Like I said: good stuff. I myself have written about the perilous implications of a possibly universal Us vs. Them mentality, and given that that would encompass politics as well, then Schmitt’s Identity Politics are truly the only type that need to be addressed. However, if that’s the case, then Olly’s argument fails on one critical point. Consider Vladimir Lenin. Or Mao Zedong. Or Pol Pot. These were identity politicians on the Left who engineered a violent, inflexible attack against their identity-based opposites: the bourgeoisie. There was no talk about allowing the rich into the loving warmth of their Leftist ideology. There were massacres. The same could be said for Malcolm X who did not want white people to end their racist ways, he simply wanted them gone in a black-people-only utopia. The Left can be just as ideologically vicious as the Right when they are inflamed by their identity-based righteousness. If politics is only Identity Politics, and both sides at their extremes work only to eliminate their opposites, then ultimately we’re just fucked.

In a glimmer of hope, let’s consider this excellent Al Jazeera article that has a similar theme to Olly’s lovely video. It mentions a similar distinction between the populism on the Right and the populism on the Left, but uses an example of Bernie Sanders demonstrating left-wing populism by wishing to break up the big banks as the contrast to the Right’s anti-pluralism. Olly hints at this as well when he says that the rich and powerful can give up their oppressive ways to become a friend of the Left. It is not the identity that is at issue in these examples, but the practices of those who possess that identity. In order for Schmitt’s Politics to have a happy ending, the Other needs the capacity to change.

It could be argued that this is simple: give up racism, or sexism, or homophobia, and people will be welcomed into that loving embrace of the Left I was fantasizing about earlier, but unfortunately this is too simplistic. Consider the arguments of Anne Bishop, who declares that everyone possessing oppressor traits (straight, white, male, able-bodied, etc.) will always be oppressors because regardless of their deeds, they will always benefit from the privileges that those identity markers bestow upon them. In addition, they will have grown up under conditions that reinforce their superiority, and undermining that conditioning is an infinite process that can never successfully be accomplished. Bishop claims that the person who believes that they have finally rid themselves of their oppressor qualities becomes more oppressive for holding these impossible beliefs. What Bishop is essentially saying is that the dichotomous Other of the Left cannot shed their incompatible identity any more than the Other of the Right. Are we just fucked then?

Since identity is inescapable from either side, then we must look elsewhere for solutions. The key lies in the example I used from the Al Jazeera article where Sanders wants to break up the big banks. Breaking up the big banks has absolutely nothing to do with identity. In fact, it is closer to what Olly might call a management proposal. This management proposal, however, is the mechanism for change that would allow the rich to absolve themselves of their oppressive identity to something more acceptable to the Left. Or consider the Black Lives Matter campaign demanding an end to the shooting of black men by police. This is Schmittian Politics because so long as police are trained to use deadly force, and crimes are still committed by black people, even if racism is taken out of the equation, this will always produce the use of deadly force against black people. It is an impossible demand for change. Further evidence is the call to defund the NYPD and expel the police department from Pride Parades; clear indications of inflexible dogmatism. This isn’t allowing capacity for change, it’s demanding the elimination of police from within the Leftist fold: an explicit Us vs. Them mentality. Instead of an overarching ban on police, or calls to defund and therefore ultimately abolish the institution of policing, why not look at mechanisms for change? In the UK (save Northern Ireland), cops do not carry firearms, and if this system were imported into the United States, it would certainly eliminate the police killings of black men. While I am by no means saying this is the panacea for the shootings of black men by police, and other, better solutions are certainly available, it is one example of a mechanism for change that does not call for vindictive polarization.

If we are to accept the implications of Schmittian Politics, then the passionate zeal that drives us must be directed against the management disagreements that Olly insists are not involved in that type of Politics at all. Creating a Them out of an identity marker, no matter which direction it is coming from, will only ever be destructive. My initial critique was right: we must avoid divisiveness and focus on practical, real-world solutions. Identity must be dismissed in favour of these mechanisms for change, as they are the only way to bridge the friend and enemy divide. I mean sure, maybe that is an impossible request, and we are hardwired to pursue an Other based on arbitrary identity markers. If that’s the case, then, as I’ve been saying, we’d just be fucked.