Friday, October 13, 2017

A Short Comment on the Language of Fandom

      I've found myself reading quite a bit of fan discussion during the recent conflict over the Hugo awards.  The pages of File 770 have become my lunch time reading for the past few months.  That process of reading has really reminding me of the very subcultural behaviors of the group, particularly around the construction of language.  It struck me that a dictionary of fandom might be a very interesting literary and sociological project.  Not surprisingly, there are a number of efforts already in existence on the internet, and I suspect probably quite a few in book or magazine form as well.  Most of these efforts cover both the types of short hand developed in fan circles, such as the now fairly ubiquitous fanfic and slash, as well as specifically fannish language such as ghu and fugghead.  Additionally, such publications will often give definitions for the often obscure acronyms such as SMOF (Secret Master of Fandom).

       Clearly, this is relevant and interesting work if you want to develop an understanding of the fractured and conflictual subgenre, but, for me, it misses out on another dimension of language that you find in fannish conversations, which is not found in specific words or terms, but in conventional turns of phrase.  One clear example that I have found over these last months is the phrase, "It bounced off of me."  The phrase is designed to accomplish a couple things.  1.  It indicates that the commenter didn't particularly like the book or film. and 2.  It makes that dislike a matter of personal preference, one that indicates more about the particular tastes of the reader, rather than the quality of the book or film.  At an immediate level, the phrase is an indication of the commitment to pluralism and relativism within fandom.  It insists that one's personal taste is not universal, and that a book may have qualities that are simply not appreciated because of the limitations of the reader or viewer.  This set of particular commitments is often expressed sentiments, such as "We are all fandom" and the Vulcan phrase, "infinite diversity in infinite combinations."

     I don't want to dismiss that commitment, but it is a commitment that is often undermined by the frequently explosively agonistic nature of fandom.  After all, we are talking about an archipelago of people who enjoy argument and frequently get into explosive conflicts that lead to the splitting of organizations, and to long standing enmities.  Fandom is certainly pluralistic, but that pluralism is fraught with rivalries, rants, insults, arguments, and lengthy diatribes that define the lay of the land.  Rather than being a recent phenomenon, we can find these fights at the origins of the formal existence of fandom, and in the Amateur Press Association, which is probably the closest antecedent to that formation.   In this sense, we see a second pole to the structure of pluralism so celebrated by fandom, one that is already implicit the word 'fan' itself, which simply shortens the term 'fanatic'.  While on the surface, this may seem like the unpleasant underbelly of fandom, it's important remember that the forms of intolerance found within this pole often challenge deeply disturbing aspects of the subculture, such as the forms of racism and sexism found in the genre.  Tolerance, after all, often becomes a form of complacency within the context of an unjust system.

      It also adds a second and unspoken dimension to the statement, "It bounced off of me."  Within the context of a subcultural group that so often descends into futile and bombastic argument, the phrase becomes a way of avoiding such conflict.  That is to say, the pluralism and relativism of fandom becomes a way of both regulating and temporarily avoiding the stasis that lays at the heart of its formation.  In a curious sense, fandom is defined by stasis, precisely because so little as at stake.  It is, after all, not a form of citizenship, an ethical system, or anything other than groups of people who share nothing in common but to enjoy a literary form, an act of enjoyment that millions engage in without any need for a subculture or even a community to do so.  Perhaps, within that context, we can give a third definition to the term, and see it as a form of deferment.  "I bounced off of it" becomes a way of say, "We're not going to agree on this one, but rather than getting into a heated discussion, let's wait and see if there is something to discuss that we will both find amenable."  The statement then becomes a sort of rhetorical border, a way of marking what is open for discussion, and what is not, as well.  In a curious manner, the process then mirrors the production of genre that is its reason for existence.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mises, Bourgeois Thought, and Fascism

I've been getting into quite a few debates with libertarians over the past few weeks about a number of topics. I'm not interested in repeating those debates, which largely haven't been that interesting.  However, those debates have caused me to come across a small passage from Ludwig von Mises in the 1927 preface of his book, Liberalism, that has been at the center of a small polemical debate about the thinker.  Critics have used this material to present Mises as a supporter or even sympathiser with the fascist cause, while the Mises Institute has provided a broader context for the quote to show that the material is more critical than supportive of the regime.  In this sense, the institute gives a broader context for the quote than the opponents and is probably more accurate, but I want to use this material for a different purpose than that of those involved in this debate.  Rather than looking at von Mises as an idiosyncratic thinker who is either guilty or innocent of fascist sympathy, I want to look at the thinker as somewhat representative of the bourgeois response to the crisis of the times and the ambiguous role that fascism was seen as a solution to that crisis.

To do that, we should first look at the passage itself.  Rather than drawing from the initial passage that is drawn on by Michael Lind to critique Mises, I'll look at the longer passage that is provided by Jeffery A. Tucker of the Mises Institute to show that the original quote is taken out of context.  Here's the material.

"Here we go again. Today, statist-nationalist Michael Lind writing in Salon seizes on one passage from Mises’s book Liberalism to argue that Mises was a crypto-authoritarian (which is a heck of an accusation for Lind, of all people, to make; Lind wrote an entire book that seeks to revive nationalism as a political ideology – even regretting that fascism discredited nationalism).
The passage from Mises as selectively quoted:
It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.
And that’s where Lind ends it, failing to add Mises’s actual conclusion:
But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error."
I want to start out by noting that Tucker is absolutely correct to note that the small part of the passage that Lind excludes changes the meaning of the passage.  Rather than acting as a full-throated endorsement of fascism, an impression that is created by the first section of the passage, we see a far more reserved position being taken.  Fascism has accomplished something, and has acted in the defense of something called 'European civilization.'  But Mises endorsement of the action is a provisional one.  It was an understandable response within a particular state of emergency, but that response was a 'makeshift' one, and any attempt to transform its practices into a long-term solution would be a 'fatal error.'  Tucker goes on to make two other defenses of the statement, noting that the statement was made early in the existence of the phenomenon and that other mainstream institutions made similar defenses of fascism, often without the caution expressed by Mises.  I don't think the first claim really holds up well.  Fascism had existed for a number of years by the time of the publication.  The party was formed in 1919 and had taken power in 1922.  Moreover, its full dictatorial takeover of the state had already taken place.  Most of the negative qualities of the movement had already taken place by the time of the publication.

But Tucker's second position is largely true.  Mises was far from the only person to make this kind of statement, and many defenses showed less caution than Mises.  The passage that Tucker extracts from the New York Times Magazine certainly shows this hastiness if presented in full context.  Fascism was viewed sympathetically by wide swathes of elite opinion and many of those thinkers were less cautions than Mises.  Certainly, libertarians and conservatives have engaged in the same misrepresentation that we see with Lind.  Conservatives have, for instance, removed references to the criticisms that the New York Times made about the otherwise positive review of Mein Kampf.  But, they still have pointed out a trend that can't be ignored even if it needs to be somewhat corrected.  However, that common thread points to a common concern that remains unaddressed in the work of Tucker.  We might perhaps get a glimpse of it if we return to the primary concern expressed by the New York Times.  As note previously, the paper found Hitler's anti-semitism appalling, but saw in the figure something that outweighed that feature, his anti-communism.  Hitler may be a goon, but he was an opponent of the specter of communism, the threat of workers rising up and reorganizing society to benefit themselves, rather than the few.  (Just a small note, I specifically invoke the specter of communism because I don't think that this accurately describes the Soviet Union.  It would be too large a task to spell out why within the confines of this paper, though.) 

When we think about the context around the comments of Mises, we see a similar situation.  Italy just after the first World War saw a sharp uptake in worker's militancy, taking the form of strikes and factory take overs.  Workers not only demanded more wages and benefits, but were openly challenging the structures of private property and the bourgeois government itself, through the formation of workers' councils that were put in place to control production and potentially more.  Benito Mussolini's Fascist Party first entered the political arena by organizing paramilitary squads that we designed to crush this uprising.   The party was in the pay of the employers to accomplish this, and was able to build off of those early successes and take over the state three years later in a staged march on Rome.  (At this point, the party was still very small, and had no chance of military victory.  The party was given this victory by the king.)   When we think about this context, the statement made by Mises becomes more easily understood.  The threat to 'European civilization' is precisely this democratic effort to reorganize the society for the benefit of the many.  The institutions of private property were threatened by the democratic nature of the society and needed to be temporarily suspended to re-institute those relations, but permanent dictatorship was also a threat.  We can see an analogy to the later sympathy that fellow traveler Friedrich von Hayek showed for the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; temporary dictatorship could be a check on the democracy that both distrusted in the name of private property, but it was a dangerous proposition.

However, rather than seeing this phenomenon as one limited to the world of capitalist libertarianism, I want to hold onto the point that Tucker pointed out, albeit for radically different purposes.  The broad spectrum saw the fascist response as a potential safety valve to the crises in their own societies posed by the broad masses that looked (erroneously) to the Soviet Union, the radical possibilities embedded in the Spanish Republic, and perhaps most significantly to their own radical capacities in order to challenge the embattled structures of capitalist accumulation that were created by and defended by that dominant grouping.  Within this context, we might turn to turn to the words of the Spanish anarchist, Buenaventura Durruti to understand this phenomenon.   "No government fights fascism to destroy it.  When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges."

(One last note, I don't think we should ignore the equally racist implications in the phrase, 'European civilization, and while that racist thread falls outside the present discussion, it cannot be ignored in a larger discussion of the phenomenon.)

(You can also find an analysis of the quote from Corey Robin here that provides a larger section of the quotation that makes the anti-communism of the passage even clearer.)
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/buenaventu325901.html
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/buenaventu325901.html
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/buenaventu325901.html
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/buenaventu325901.html

Friday, September 8, 2017

Looking from the sidelines: my shifting views on anti-fascist organizing

It might make sense to open this conversation by looking at the remarks of a number of protesters who attempted to use civil disobedience tactics to oppose fascism and white supremacy during the recent events in Charlottesville.  The first night of the fascist incursion into the city occurred on the campus of the University of Virginia in the form of a torchlight march.  In opposition to that march, a small group of clergy and others decided to protest the fascists and the Confederate memorials that they were attempting to defend.  The small group was very quickly surrounded by the fascists, and only the group of anti-fascists were willing to intervene to defend the group from the fascists.  The police, who they were looking to be arrested by, simply looked on.  The group found themselves in the position where they were defended by a group of activists that have a very different perspective on tactics and strategy. 

The responses on the part of the group in a variety of formats are instructive.  Most noted that the experience of facing the fascist mob was remarkably different than their what they previously experienced at demonstrations.  They also noted that the training they went through did not prepare them for this situation.  Most acknowledged the debt they owed to the group of anti-fascist activists.  It's a remarkable set of documents as a whole.  Some of these individuals had been involved in thousands of protests and some had only been involved in a few, but there is a consistent thread through the responses, an acknowledgement that the set of assumptions that they came in with did not correspond with the situation.  The tactics that they set out to use, which I want to add are part of a time honored and powerful tradition within activism in the country and around the globe, did not make sense here.  The group did something that we so often avoid; they acknowledged that they did not understand the conditions that they were entering into and that the tactics they used were not adequate to the situation because of that. 

It's an intellectual honesty that we admire and all too often eschew in our own practices.  However, for the purpose of this essay, I want to emphasize this quality of not knowing as one common among us who have not had significant experience confronting fascist groups.

My own experience began in that ignorance.  I entered into the world of politics through the punk scene in the Twin Cities in the early 1990's.  What I didn't know at the time is that a significant change had occurred in that scene before I entered it.  In the late 1980's a group of skinheads calling themselves the Baldies had come together to drive out the white supremacists from the Twin Cities punk subculture.  By the time I had entered the scene, this group, now reformed as the Anti-Racist Action network had driven the active white supremacist elements out of the scene and into the underground.  This meant that I could enjoy going to shows without having to worry about the kind of violence that Nazis have brought to the punk subculture, and I could enjoy participating in that community without the worry that so many have had to take on.  It's something that I took for granted at the time, but it's something that I'm profoundly grateful looking back at the situation.

My involvement with the punk scene gradually receded as I got involved in the Emma Center and other activist spaces, which led to me having different priorities.  As that shift occurred, I became aware of the Anti-Racist Action network. I was initially made aware of the network when a professor passed on some information about an ARA activist who was being charged with assault because of a confrontation with a Nazi skinhead, and I gradually became aware about community debates about the situation.  I eventually attended an ARA meeting with a friend, which translated into my initial aversion towards the group.  At that meeting, a young man showed up to the meeting looking for support from the network.  He had returned to his old neighborhood, looking to catch up with some friends, and found himself being recruited by the head of the National Socialist Movement, Jeff Schoep.  In response, he had panicked and hit Schoep on the head and stole his car, along with all the literature in that car.  The group understandably immediately set out to support the individual, who had responded to a dangerous situation as best he could.

But I had no understanding of the danger the individual was in that situation, and the reasons for his response, and I was appalled.  Rather than trying to understand why the individual or the network responded in the way they did, I dismissed them and looked to other places to be involved in activism.  I reasoned at the time that one should be opposed to such individuals but that the actions of the individual and the network were unacceptable in the face of free speech activity.  I didn't understand that fascist organizing almost always involved violence as a means and an ends in that organizing and that allowing such activities to occur creates the conditions for those groups to take over those spaces.  To put another way, fascist organizing isn't simply a matter of unpleasant speech acts but the active creation of violent and authoritarian social spaces.  Perhaps, more significantly, I had no conception of the threat posed to the young man who was being recruited and the legitimacy of his fear and vulnerability in the face of this recruitment.  The only reason I don't look back at this situation without much embarrassment is that I at least had the good sense to shut my yap and listen, rather than intervene.

From there, I got more and more involved in the activist projects of the Twin Cities.  My involvement in the Progressive Student Organization led to my participation in the anti-sanctions campaign and the broader network of radical activists in the Twin Cities.  The conflicts that eventually tore apart the PSO brought me in contact with the anarchist sections of that movement, which gradually drew me into the anti-globalization movement that was effectively brought to the attention of the world by the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.  I didn't participate in that protest, but I was at later protests in Washington D.C. and Quebec City, along with a series of confrontational protests in the Twin Cities, from the Mayday protests to the ill-advise ISAAG protests.  Those experiences drastically changed my world view and what kinds of activities should and could occur during protest.  I went from viewing Black Bloc tactics as being ill advised and unpleasant to being involved in a number of Black Bloc formations, and embraced the increasingly confrontational ethos of the times.  Perhaps more significantly,  I experienced confrontation in a variety of ways that were only previously abstractions.

These experiences led to a small group of us deciding to organize a small militant response to the upcoming KKK rally that occurred shortly after the initial boom in anti-globalization protest.  We managed to both organize a concert in opposition to the fascists and contributed a core of protesters to a small group that confronted the small group of Klan supporters within the larger opposition to the group.  At the ground level, both our activities and the larger structures of the protest were deeply problematic in ways that I can't touch on within the aegis of this essay, but the experience itself was significant.  One of the things you learn in the process of engaging in these conflicts is that the process is a lot messier than at least I initially expected.  Most of it was a lot of yelling, but there were some kicks and shoves as well.  Outsiders want conflict to be neat and easy, but never is.  Conflicts with fascists are going to messy, and if you snap the picture at the right time, the detached image can tell a damning and misleading story.  Just as significantly, we were far from the most militant group in the protest.  We went as far as to kick a fascist in the butt as he crossed the police line, but a sizable group of the counter-protesters who didn't typically attend rallies greeted the Klan supporters with rocks and fists.  The intensity of the response got to the point where anti-Klan organizers stepped in to protect the children of the supporters, although not the supporters themselves.

My experiences within that situation were fragmentary and short lived in contrast to many of the experiences of other, more serious anti-fascist protesters and I don't think they translate into any kind of expertise.  Instead, my main understanding of these situations comes from the conversations I wound up having with committed anti-fascist activists, when I eventually joined the Anti-Racist Action in 2001 or 2002.  The reasons I got involved in the network aren't terribly relevant to the discussion, but I got involved in the Minneapolis group for reasons that had more to do with my trust and affection for the members of the group and its commitment to a feminist politics than it had to do with anti-fascism.  At the same time, my involvement put me in touch with a whole range of activists that had been involved in the fight for a lot longer, and I did something that I should have done earlier, I listened and asked questions.  I heard a lot about the messy conflicts that occur within these situations, why people got involved, and the self-critical analysis of such activists.  Perhaps, most significantly, I remember talking to a group of anti-fascist activists in a small city in what I think was Indiana.  They talked about their vulnerability in the face of a town in which fascists were allowed to run free.  They couldn't go to shows or go to a bar to get a drink without the very real threat of violence.  It made me understand the conflict in a way that I previously didn't understand.  There are very real criticisms that one can make of the network, but I learned a lot from it and it's unfortunate that it doesn't still exist.

As an end-note to that experience, I should perhaps pass on one last experience that I had while a participant in the group.  We didn't have a lot of direct confrontations with the fascists, while I was in the group, but one exception was a labor organized, immigrants rights rally that the National Socialist Movement decided to protest.  Involved in the protest was the same Jeff Schoep discussed above.  Our engagement with the group was non-confrontational.  We watched them and they watched us.  It let the far more important event go on.  However, at the beginning of the event, we were approached by Keith Ellison, who was at that point, a state legislator.  Ellison had defended the young man discussed above as a lawyer and had gotten him off many if not all the charges laid against him.  He had worked with a number of ARA activists over the years and was at that time, an ally.  He had helped both Anti-Racist Action and the Arise! collective when they were bizarrely accused of terrorism by a cynical and opportunist sheriff's department after 9-11.  Ellison's response on seeing the NSM was to suggest in a deadpan voice that perhaps he could hit them with a tire iron this time and that we could defend him. With a change in perspective through a long education, an incident that was so shocking and outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior at the time became something that was so easily understood it could be easily passed off as an amusing anecdote.

It's been a while since I've been within those circles, but they deeply shaped my views on the subject, and I've continued to listen to those involved in these fights, particularly in the recent moment, where I have been on the sidelines because of a combination of health and employment issues.  I do still find myself in debates over the tactics though.  When I find myself in debates over these tactics, I find myself confronting a set of assumptions held by my opponents that I frequently held many years ago, and like many converts, I find myself somewhat less than patient with the views that I once held.  I suppose it's a common bad habit of the convert. One one hand, I should probably be more patient with people who I once resembled.  On the other hand, its frustrating to hear argumentation that is so fraught with unwarranted assumptions and badly thought out premises.  For instance, there is a tendency to collapse militant anti-fascism with Black Bloc tactics, transforming those transitory groupings put together in response to particular emergencies into a sort of homogeneous, organized group.  Such tactics have been recently embraced by a lot of militant anti-fascist groups, but they weren't a dominant tactic within ARA organizing, and don't represent the sole militant strain of action against fascists in the present.  Just as significantly, we can see in the case of the major protests that the groups that have embraced these tactics have taken different approaches in different situations.  We're discussing networks and an umbrella of tactics, and critiques need to deal with that reality.

Much of this debate is driven by the representation of these protests by the dominant media. We frequently immediately link violence against fascists to those engaged in Black Bloc tactics or militant anti-fascists in opposition to a group of peaceful protesters, but a lot of people really don't like these groups and will throw down against them in ways that get erased in that sort of narrative.  Certainly, this was the case in the way the dominant media talked about the confrontations at the protest against Milo Yiannopoulis in Berkeley.  Most of the activists who were on the ground for that protest talked about the forms of cooperation that occurred between those participating in the Black Bloc and other protesters against fascist provocateurs, but this aspect of the protests was utterly effaced by the media who presented a far different story, one that transformed fascists looking for a fight into peaceful protesters assaulted by a mob that had infiltrated an otherwise peaceful protest.  Images taken out of context created this narrative and there was no effort to put those images into any real context. Like myself several years previously, those reporters made no effort to understand the context of the situation or the nature of the groups that they were writing about.  They assumed that they were a group of individuals engaged in unpleasant speech acts rather than what they were, an authoritarian mob seeking to create a racist and authoritarian society.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Short Review of Charles E. Cobb Jr's This Nonviolence Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

I initially looked at the reviews of the book at the Amazon website before I started reading Charles E. Cobb Jr's This Nonviolence Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, and it's pretty clear that the book is being embraced by some in the gun rights movement as a vindication of their political positions. The title also provocatively invites this interpretation, but this reading strikes me as a profound misunderstanding of the book. Rather than attempting to intervene in those particular debates, the text is primarily a critique of the dominant image of the civil rights movement, an image that presents the movement as a top down phenomenon, tied to a small group of spectacular images and charismatic men. Instead, Cobb brings the idea of armed self defense to look at how the civil rights movement could only be understood within the context of the larger Black freedom movement, and the self-organization of tenant farmers, former veterans and other groups and individuals who had no particular investment in the tactic of non-violence.  The movement was also deeply shaped by the cultural formations of the African-American communities that were mobilizing themselves to challenge the apartheid structures of the United States, the everyday use of guns only playing one aspect of that formation. 

Starting with a history of Black armed self defense from the beginning of U.S. history, Cobb shows that the forms of self-defense advocated by the Black Panthers and others were a far more traditional response by the Black freedom movement.  Within this context, the non-violence advocated by the mainstream of the civil rights movement was a novel approach to protest, and an approach frequently misunderstood by older activists and intellectuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois.  At the same time, Cobb maps out how these older groups were able to cooperate and organize with the newer non-violent civil rights movement to form a powerful social movement that was embedded into the everyday life of their communities. Cobb argues that the civil rights movement could not have succeeded without these organizations, and at the same time, these organizations recognized the importance of the non-violent movements despite their unwillingness to embrace their commitment to non-violence.  Within this context, non-violence becomes a series of tactical and strategic approaches that could be combined with armed self-defense.  The same group of protesters who sat in at the restaurants and other institutions were often defended from vigilante violence by armed former soldiers while they slept. In addition, despite the immense power of these forms of social organization, Cobb does not present the end of these movements in a triumphant light, capturing the ambiguities and sense of loss with the end of the movement, despite it's immense effect on the social structures it attempted to overthrow. 

In a certain sense, you could think of the text as operating within the long tradition of the genre of history from below more than anything else. It's very readable, as well. I highly recommend this text.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fire on the Mountain and the Representation of History

     The recently proposed television series, "Confederate", by the showrunners of Game of Thrones has created a great deal of controversy online.  The show proposes an alternative history in which the civil war ends as a stalemate and the Confederacy persists as a slave-holding nation.  Unsurprisingly, the proposal has been greatly controversial, particularly in the face of the explosion of authoritarian white nationalist activism and organizing in the past few months.  The push back against the proposed show has taken multiple forms, from challenging the ability of the showrunners to create such a narrative in a thoughtful manner to the persistence of such narrative recreating the "Lost Cause" myth and even the legitimacy of white artists creating the narrative.  An additional response has been a proposed alternative history that would imagine the country after reparations.  However, within the margins of these conversations, a number of science fiction fans have brought up an alternative narrative, Fire on the Mountain, a 1988 novel by Terry Bisson that imagines a history where John Brown's uprising succeeds due to the participation of Harret Tubman in the uprising.  As far as I can tell, very little attention has been given to the Bisson narrative within the context of the above controversy, so I thought I would write a brief essay discussing its imagined alternative history, and its explicit assessment of the history of the country.

The narrative of Fire on the Mountain itself is richly created, oscillating between the narrative of a former slave who participated in the uprising and his great-granddaughter, who is reviewing the memoirs of her grandfather in the socialist republic of the southern United States in the late 1950's.  The story richly imagines the experience of the successful slave uprising, while constructing a plausible southern socialist republic, preparing to send astronauts to Mars after a failed previous mission.  The first imagines the uprising as a slow build up of resources, with the insurgents first taking to the mountains to engage in a guerilla struggle before succeeding in putting together a successful army, and brings the historical personas of Brown and Tubman alive through their engagement with the youthful protagonist of that section of the novel.  The southern socialist republic in turn is created through references to novel technological developments and social structures, pointing to a radically different society  Between those stories, the slave revolt and successful construction of the independent republic contributes to a series of global rebellions, from a successful Paris Commune to an eventual successful workers' revolt in the north, starting in Chicago.

Through that process,the novel effectively poses the successful revolt as a novum, a novelty that transforms the terrain of history, and takes up the hypothesis in the first German preface to Marx's Capital, where he states, "As in the 18th century, the American war of independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so that in the 19th century, the American Civil War sounded it for the European working class." A prognostication that he expands with the following material on the process of the destruction of slavery, "At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Wade,vice-president of the United States, declared in public meetings that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical change of the relations of capital and of property in land is next upon the order of the day. These are signs of the times, not to be hidden by purple mantles or black cassocks. They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will happen. They show that, within the ruling classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing"  Within the context of these statements, the destruction of the institution of slavery creates a possibility of transformation if fully implemented, albeit an uncertain one.  Bisson simply extrapolates from the other side of this hypothesis.

At the same time, it presents a stark image of the present of the present within its pages through an illicit parody novel produced by proslavery forces in the revanchist North that imagines a path of history that look remarkably similar to our own.  To get a sense of how this is described, we need to a look at an extended passage of the novel that describes the parody novel and its story. 

      "You never read it? I wrote a paper on it in college  It was a bestseller in the 1920s.  It's a border fantasy, a what-if."
      "You mean it's pro-slavery?"
      "Well, not exactly," Grisson said.  "Worse than that, really.  It's a sort of white supremacist utopia, mis-topia maybe."
      "So if its not about slavery, what's it about?
      "Empire.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, slavery was about finished anyway," Grissom said. "Africans around the world were throwing it off.  The real issue in the Independence War was land. Nationhood."
      "So there's no Nova Africa." Yasmin riffled the pages. "Does Tubman hang too?"
      "She's not there," Grissom said.  "That's the trick the plot turns around.  The idea is that instead of going on the Fourth as planned, Tubman gets sick.  The raid is delayed until fall, October, I think.  Brown goes without her.  Now according to the book--and in actual fact--Brown was more of a strategists  than a tactician.  Without Tubman he hesitates, takes hostages, lets the Washington train go through.  You know, in real life it was Tubman who insisted on blowing the Maryland bridge and cutting off the train.  Anyway, in the book they don't blow the bridge; they get trapped in the town, captured,and hung as traitors."
      "So we have John Brown's body and now war."
      "There's still a war.  It's just not an independence war.  It's fought to keep the old U.S. together rather than to free Nova Africa."
      "So who wins?"
      "The North. Lincoln," Grissom said.  "In the book, he become president and the war is started by the slave owners, who are trying to set up a separate country--like Nova Africa, as a matter of fact, on pretty much the same territory."
     "Clever."
     "But a slave country, run by the slave owners."
     "They already had that, for all practical purposes," Yasmin said.
     "They were losing it by 1860, or at least thought they were.  They didn't want another Kansas.  Anyway, in the story the North fights to keep the South in the Union. And they do. They win."
     "And we lose."
    "And how. Listen, this book was a bestseller in the U.S. in the 1920's.  Lincoln's a big here; so's Lee...."
     "Lee?"
     "He leads the army for the South.  He plays the good loser, the Virginia gentleman generous in victory, gallant in defeat, shaking hands at the end--all that."
     "Amazing," Yasmin said.
     "White right prevails; the slave owners keep the land, even get more.  The slave system is modified so that n'Africans end up as serfs; or worse, as a sort of landless nation packed into the slums of Chicago and New York for occasional servile labor."
     "No Nova Africa."
     "Afraid not, comrade.  One nation indivisible--it's old Abe's dream, and your nightmare.  You don't even get a hundred acres and a Mule."
     "Mis-topia, dystopia, wishful thinking." (Bisson 75-76)

In a curious sense, this brief conversation of an imagined parody novel of the defeated North contains the ethical core of the novel; it imagines the history of the United States as a nightmare, or a horrible parody, as terrible as it is improbable from the rational standpoint of the socialist republic.  It demands that we estrange ourselves from this nightmarish history, to imagine another approach, to reject the inevitability of the present, which is presented as the result of a small series of unfortunate contingencies.    At another level, it's a commentary on the possibilities and failures contained in what is often called the second reconstruction, the civil rights era, which the author participated in and saw collapse into the counter-revolution of Reaganism.  To return to the initial controversy, the novel demands that we both reassess our history and to fight to create radically new social relations, a demand also implicit in the destruction of Confederate Memorial statues by anti-racist protestors.  Within this context, we need to break out of the fantasies of innocence that often frame our narratives about the violent white supremacists calling themselves the alt-right. As I noted a few days ago,

I've been thinking a bit about one of the ways that the so-called alt-right movement has been criticized, notably the narrative of treason. A lot of material has accused the movement of treason because of its invocation of the confederacy and Nazism. The logic is, implicitly, since these organizations support either seditious or enemy forces, they must be condemned. I think this is a mistaken narrative. By this logic, we should condemn John Brown, a man who clearly engaged in military actions against the United States government in his efforts to overthrow slavery. The problem with aligning oneself with the Nazis, the confederacy, and the Klan is that these are brutally racist and authoritarian social movements, not that they are treasonous. Implicit in the effort to brand these movements treasonous is an effort to declare them exogenous, outside the national narrative, which strikes me as a profound erasure of the history of our country. Rather than engaging in this fantasy, we should acknowledge that these forces are fully a part of our nation, and because of that, need to be combated all the more. The fight against fascism should be a fight to transform the nation and perhaps even to obliterate it as it currently exists, not to preserve it.

In either case, the novel takes the forms of estrangement embedded in science fiction and creates a remarkable alternative world, refusing the abyss of the counter-revolution, even as it marks that abyss. Within this framework, the novels demolishes the 'Lost Cause' myth by showing the continuation of the white supremacy at the heart of the supposedly defeated Confederate cause, showing its preservation in the post-reconstruction era.  In this sense, the estrangement embedded in the imagined narrative of Confederate contains a deep mystification, and an inability to grasp the history of the country.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Colonialism and Science Fiction



Within the context of the recent Hugo Awards, science fiction writer, Cixin Liu made the following comment, “If the aliens would like to attack us, they would never consider whether you’re from China or the U.S.”   The comment is obviously meant to reference a common humanity, one that spans the divide between two countries who have a long history of conflict.  It also implicitly references a common interest of Chinese and U.S. fans in science fictional narratives.  So, we’re all human, and we all like science fiction.  At the same time, it also mirrors a curious remark made by Ronald Reagan to an apparently perplex Mikhail Gorbachev during diplomatic talks.  Reagan evidently noted that the two countries would by necessity unite in response to a common Martian threat.  It should be noted that this narrative structure has been used in a lot of popular science fictional narratives to imagine a United Earth, from blockbuster movies to far more esoteric narratives.  But, does this basic premise hold up?  I don’t think so.

It operates on the premise of an alien attack that lacks any tactics, strategy, or any subtlety.  When we turn to the history of colonization, which these narratives from the time of H.G. Wells[1] have been referencing, we see a far different approach to attack.  Within those context, whether the destruction of the indigenous populations of the Americas or the colonizing projects in Asia and Africa, we see a process in which the colonizers make temporary alliances with local elites, create divisions within populations and exacerbate already existing tensions.  This process is intimately linked with the process of knowledge production and categorization. The enlightenment’s love of the construction of taxonomies and the process of the primitive accumulation of capital are profoundly intertwined.  Perhaps to put it more simply, the desire to understand through category is not easily separable from a desire to control.  Within this process, knowledge production is not simply a reflection of existing conditions, but an active reshaping of those conditions, at times deliberately, at times accidentally.[2]

 So, if we look at India, for instance, we see an entire religious category, the “Hindu”, constructed out of a multiplicity of religious traditions that often overlap, but also often contradict one another.  These categories then are taken up by the populations themselves and often take a life of their own, for instance, in the form of “Hindu Nationalism.”[3]  We can see a similar process in the creation of the concept of blood quantum designed by the United States government to decide who qualifies for tribal membership or the construction of townships in South Africa.  In effect, colonial governance continues along the same lines as imperialist aggression, constructing an elaborate and hierarchical taxonomy of the governed population, creating divisions and rivalries built upon the always inadequate resources distributed by the colonial regime.  In that process, the categories constructed become lived experience for those who are classified under them.  After all, it defines what access they have to resources, education, and employment.  It also often constructs local elites whose power is enhanced by the colonial process, who are invested in the imperial government.[4]

This all adds up to a very elaborate way of saying that there is a very good chance that our future alien overlords may care very deeply about the differences between the United States and China, and further divisions that may in fact be deeply incomprehensible or meaningless to us.  I see no particular reason why an aggressive alien species that has clearly developed the advanced forms of military technology needed for such an invasion wouldn’t also be able to develop the same set of knowledge skills that allowed Europe to transform itself from a backwater into the center of the world system.


[1] War of the Worlds, First Men on the Moon
[2] Too many sources to be mentioned
[3] The basics of this get covered by Karen Armstrong in her book, Fields of Blood, but there’s a lot more scholarship on the topic, particularly on the part of post-colonial scholars.
[4] See Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, which this analysis borrows heavily from

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

M'Boom Live

I came across this recording on YouTube in my attempts to find music suitable for playing while my students worked with each other on their papers, and thought I would share it with you here.  It's a early seventies recording of Max Roach's percussion group M'Boom, which he founded in 1970. 


Friday, July 28, 2017

Pre-election thoughts on the protests at that time

I wrote this material about three months before the election in response to the massive protests that were occurring at the time.  In many ways, the spirit of these protests continued on through to the first few months of the Trump administration, particularly in the form of the protests at the airports that occurred when the Muslim ban was first announced, but also in the form of street fights with the so-called alt right and the far more legal and formal protests of the women's march.  It also took a far smaller and local form through protests of representatives and phone calls as well.  However, it seems like that high tide of protest has at least ebbed.  My hope is that we will see such forms of ungovernability soon and in larger numbers.  I put up the essay as a marker of the time period.  I'm not sure if I would write it the same way at this point, but I still think its worth putting up.

            In the proliferation of such a massive amount of political action within the past year, particularly around the Black Lives Matter movement, I found myself thinking of a passage within Rosa Luxemburg's treatise on the Russian revolution of 1905, titled "The Mass Strike".  Luxemburg exams the phenomenon of the mass strike within the revolution as both a critique of the top down notions of struggle as developed by mainstream of the main intellectual of the SPD, Karl Kautsky, along with the ahistorical concept of the mass strike as developed by anarchists.  In opposition to both, Luxemburg emphasizes the mass strike as a phenomenon that arises out of the self-development of the proletariat through the process of the class struggle.  Through that engagement, Luxemburg emphasizes both the multiplicity of the struggle, along with intensity of the struggles.  She notes:

            The mass strike, as the Russian Revolution shows it to us, is such a changeable phenomenon that it reflects all the phases of the political and economic struggle, all stages and factors of the revolution. Its adaptability, its efficiency, the factors of its origin are constantly changing. It suddenly opens new and wide perspectives of the revolution when it appears to have already arrived in a narrow pass and where it is impossible for anyone to reckon upon it with any degree of certainty. It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena. And the law of motion of these phenomena is clear: it does not lie in the mass strike itself nor in its technical details, but in the political and social proportions of the forces of the revolution. (Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)

            At the most immediate level, we can see that Luxemburg recognizes what Louis Althusser might later refer to as a moment of revolutionary fusion as occurring within the years of her analysis.  An almost infinite array of discrete and concrete struggles or contradictions came together, aligned themselves in a manner to challenge the very nature of the empire.  But her insight moves beyond that initial insight.  If we see a moment of revolutionary fusion, it does not take the form of a synthesis.  Instead the struggles maintain their multiplicity, their inability to form a whole.  At the same time, the struggles are marked by a form of indistinction, of mutation, 'peaceful wage struggles' become 'street massacres, barricade fighting'.  Through this description, we can see an embrace of what Hobbes phobically linked to the figure of the multitude, a disjointed and militant mob that refuses to become a people and refuses to be governed.  Luxemburg draws on the naturalistic metaphor of the sea to describe the pervasiveness of the social movements of the time and their ability to adapt and mutate themselves in the face of a multiplicity of efforts to repress that refusal.  The movements ‘bubble forth’ ‘ceaselessly’ move, and constitute a ‘changing sea of phenomena.’  She ties that movement to the strength of the revolutionary forces in the country, to the logic running counter to capital.  One one hand, these movements reflect the multiplicity that is at the heart of the concept of use value, the multiplicity of needs that continually exists exogenously to the logic of exchange, even as exchange is absolutely dependent on that multiplicity.  On the other hand, the movements constitute a kind of counter flow to the flows of labor and commodities that define capitalist accumulation.  It’s a flow that refuses the coagulation into the logic of exploited dead labor, the infinite exchangeability of labor time.  Inasmuch, these movements point to an alterity always present within capital, the potential for another way of life.

            In the past year, we have been seeing a similar moment in our own country, albeit with a smaller magnitude than the one that Luxemburg discusses, largely, but not exclusively around the phenomenon labelled Black Lives Matter[1].[2]  To rehearse material that is undoubtedly familiar to the audience, we have seen an explosion of demonstrations in response to police violence.[3]  That violence has become a focal point to challenge the ever-changing structures of white supremacy that at are so significant in structuring the logic of capitalist accumulation, both at the present moment and through the entire history of the country.  It’s taken the form of insurrectionary violence[4] in Ferguson and other cities, objects hurled at police officers, freeway occupations around the country, peaceful marches of school children, lock-downs of police stations, demands made to Democratic presidential candidates, and a variety of other conventional protest.  The truth is that any effort to document the rich variety of protest will necessarily fail in capturing the rich diversity of activities that has occurred in the past year, and any effort to demarcate these protests as being a part of a particular moment is necessarily going to erase the histories that feed into these protests and inform their logic.  At the same time, we can see a particular language of action, slogans, and social formations that are particular to this moment. And we can see the impact of those movements on the presidential campaign through the disruption of the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, through explosive protests against the racist authoritarian nature of the Trump Campaign.[5] Through those actions, it has introduced a genuinely democratic and agonistic dimension to the stage managed theatrics of the presidential campaign.  The movement has also challenged the connections between the traditional trade union movement and police unions, and has succeeded in creating a meaningful wedge between these formations.  It has also formed alliances with elements of those traditional structures.  But perhaps most significantly, it has transformed the freeway, that representation of the flow of labor, of commodities, into a representation of a profound refusal, through its blockage.  We’ve seen this tactic not only employed in cities traditionally associated with protest, but across the country.[6]

            Within this web of activity, we can see the possibility of a new form of live, although perhaps only in a negative form, through the refusal of so many to be governed by the same oppressive institutions that have committed such violence.  We can perhaps see the capacities of such a movement in its spectral form, in the phobic descriptions of the movement by the recent comments by Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke at the Republican National Convention.  Clarke marks the organization, along with the Occupy movements, as breaking an unspoken and unwritten code of conduct for the country, and therefore standing outside the respectable conventions of protest, and representing anarchy.  It’s initially difficult to negotiate this description with the often quite modest political reforms called for by the official representatives of the movements, but it makes sense when we look at the protests themselves, which have pushed far beyond these official demands in their radicality.  It also makes sense when we see the refusal of even the reform branch of the movement to be formally incorporated into the political system.[7]  If anything, we have seen an intensification of this refusal in the continuation of street protest, despite the calls for official calls for calm after sniper attack in Dallas.  Through such actions, we see a movement that is increasingly unconcerned with the preservation of the forces of the status quo.  At the same time, it would be a mistake to ignore the precarity of the contingent web of alliances that created this potential historic bloc.  At the most obvious level, there is the threat of the opportunistic incorporation of this formation into the Democratic Party, a threat that is most notably media personality and former mayoral candidate, DeRay Mckesson.  However, the conflicts that defined the freeway occupation in Minneapolis between activists seem like a greater threat.  Without getting into the details, the arguments represent long historical divisions that intersect questions of identity and tactics.  They represent the profoundly divided nature of the proletariat itself, and aren’t easily resolved through simple slogans.  The question the movement and those who wish to see it succeed have in front of them is how to make this multiplicity productive and grow.  We can see the violence of the backlash beginning to grow.


[1] Although it may actually involve more people than were involved in the insurrectionary activities in the Russian Empire at the time.
[2] Given some of the confusions around the slogan, I should note that I am referring to the larger movement that has congealed around the term, rather than the specific network that has named itself Black Lives Matter.  The distinction is important since the movement is far larger than the network and contains both elements far more insurrectionary than the network, along with highly opportunist individuals and groupings tied to the Democratic Party and Teach For America.
[3] There is a need more a more intense engagement with the logic of policing, one that could be informed by the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who draws from the earlier work of Marx and Foucault amongst others.  There is also a larger conversation within the Black Radical Tradition, as well.
[4] It’s important to note that this has been largely limited to property damage, but not exclusively.
[5] Which was produced by a large intersection of actors, but this could be said about the broad phenomenon, as well.
[6] The tactic itself deserves more discussion than provided here, and it would be a mistake to think of the action as a unified.  Instead, we have seen very different approaches to taking over freeways.  Some have been mass actions, while others have been controlled protests by small groups.  Some are deliberately designed as acts of civil disobedience, while others are taken up by parties who are not interested in being arrested. 
[7] Once again, we definitely see some opportunist exceptions, but the network has largely refused this incorporation.