‘Mother’ Nature is punishing us with Covid? Call Child Protection!

Tom Griffiths

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“In a tribal society in which ‘everyone knows’ that you need to sacrifice a goat to have a healthy baby, you make sure you sacrifice a goat. Better safe than sorry.” – Daniel Dennett (Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon, 2006)

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The world is now well into the third year of Covid and how we have dealt with it is a mixed bag. Scientifically we have ticked quite a few boxes with research and treatment responses being rapid, ongoing and impressive. The political and policy responses, nationally and internationally, are less impressive due to varied approaches, all ostensibly following the same scientific advice. Regardless of this, governments have taken the pandemic and its impacts – health, social and economic – seriously and negatively.

However I will not be going down this rabbit hole here because it would be a distraction from the purpose of this post although, regarding the politics, hints may be drawn from here. What I am wishing to comment on are the frankly reactionary voices that emerged from some sections of the environmentalist and related movements that took an overtly sanguine and/or smug attitude to the implications of the pandemic – the benefit to the planet of the slowdown, the view that Mother Earth is, in effect, striking back.

These romanticised and reactionary attitudes lie behind, and breathe life into, the positive spin placed on the crisis. For example A Pandemic in Retrospect – Looking Back on the Corona Virus by Hazel Henderson and Fritjof Capra is a case in point. Readers may remember the latter’s The Tao of Physics from the mid 1970’s. This article has pretensions of ‘scientific’ expertise, being written by two people with scientific qualifications and experience. In reality it reads like poorly envisaged sci-fi. The Corona Virus is not Mother Nature’s Revenge by Alan Levinovitz provides a counter view, although as the title suggests, there are plenty of views afoot that do see Covid-19 as Mother Nature’s revenge, as this piece in Counterpunch by Evaggelos Villainatos affirms. Its title, ‘Nature’s Revenge: Climate Change and Covid19’ rings the alarm bell and its concluding sentence is as blunt as it is backward looking:

But unless we connect the virus with the horrors of climate change and the anthropogenic impoverishment of the planet, we imperil ourselves and this beautiful Mother Earth, Mother to All.

Now, in terms of what I want this post to be about I couldn’t have put this better as it is this romanticised and backward take on our dear ‘Mother’ that galls and that is reactionary in more than just a contemporary sense. I’ll pick up the Child Protection angle at the foot of the article – if some think it okay to romanticise and deify our dear ‘Mother’ then it is also okay to take the piss out of ‘her’ and those who worship and apologise for ‘her’.

Whether our relationship with nature is seen and expressed metaphorically, the principal mode of expression in the modern world, or in divine or mystical ways as something actual, as it was in premodern times, there are themes that underlie both viewpoints. These are our dependence upon nature, our compliance with nature’s requirements or dictates, the need to maintain a balance between what we want from nature and what nature can give us, and the need for us to respect nature, to have an attitude to it characterised by scientific understanding as opposed to servility and hubris. Of these, our dependency is the most obvious, containing as it does a level of credibility, as we are part of the natural world and are subject to its laws. But we are left with choices as to how we respond to this dependence and this is where the politics really kicks in. A fine line can distinguish being dependent/part of nature and being subservient before nature, being subject to its control and vagaries. It is important to be clear about the difference and I would argue that it is a part of humanity’s nature, and hence part of the natural world, for us to rebel against the constraints of powerlessness and to maximise autonomy. Goethe’s Faust gave expression to this when he said to Mephisto “If I stand fast I shall be a slave”, the practical expression of which is found in science and technology, not to mention a spirit that rebels against servility.

Struggle against the constraints of ‘Mother Nature’

The struggle against these constraints is a very old one that precedes the development of written language. By Ancient Greek times, Archimedes for one, had picked up the gauntlet, advising those around him: “Don’t just live in the lap of the gods. Don’t be dominated by Mother Nature. You, as a man, can take control of your own destiny.” What Archimedes was getting at was that destiny can be something we create, not something that is delivered to us and that we are bonded to. And this process of creation implied a struggle against, and a wrenching from, prevailing forces, be these natural or human made.

Although the term ‘mother nature’ itself heralds from a Greco-Roman heritage, Gaia being the mother of all life in Greek mythology, equivalents are a common feature of human history and mythology. Most of human history, even extending into the medieval period, saw humanity being subject to what must have appeared to be the whims and caprices of the natural world. Being solution-seeking animals, our forebears sought answers. In colloquial vein and employing my favourite acronym of the early 21stC, they wanted to know wtf was going on and wtf they could do about appeasing what were powerful and mysterious forces. 

Our ancestors came up with answers that enabled them to survive. Beliefs in spirits, gods and demons of varying powers and persuasions, some good, some bad, but nearly all fickle, the movers and shakers of the natural world, made sense to them. It appeased fears; it gave them sufficiently credible answers and directions that helped them get on with the much more pressing task of survival and to accept the inevitability and propriety of their severely limited agency. 

To make these gods and spirits more understandable and potentially accessible to human influence, our ancestors anthropomorphised them. As an inevitable part of this (a devil’s bargain if you will) they accepted personal/communal responsibility for pleasing them and gaining their support or displeasing them and incurring their wrath. The philosopher Daniel Dennett wryly put it this way: “in a tribal society in which ‘everyone knows’ that you need to sacrifice a goat to have a healthy baby, you make sure you sacrifice a goat. Better safe than sorry.” (p160 Breaking the Spell)

While these conclusions are not contentious in the modern world, it is worth reminding ourselves that it was our ancestors who created the spirit world and the divinities that inhabited it; and for those forces they anthropomorphised, our forebears projected much of themselves into their creations. Which brings me back to ‘Mother Nature’. One of the gains we have made in the modern world is, in essence, the jettisoning of the idea of Mother Nature as a sentient, subjective force and the embracing of the natural world (with us being part of it) as something controlled by natural laws that can be understood and applied for humanity’s betterment, of helping us get out from under, develop and improve. 

While speaking of mother nature metaphorically is clearly a step or few in advance of divine interpretations, the line between them, as suggested above, can be thin. It can also be easily breached. Henderson and Capra’s piece, ostensibly scientific, employs ambiguous phraseology such as: “our planet taught us”, “our mother star”, “Gaia responded in unexpected ways”, “Earth is our wisest teacher”. This is an ambiguity that stretches credulity to breaking point. Villainatos however takes it further. His language, like that of Henderson and Copra, is certainly deferential but more overtly mystical. As well as the sentence I quoted above he writes:

“The Earth, I think, is still beautiful, fruitful, alive and sacred. The Homeric Hymn to Gaia (Earth) describes the Earth as mother of the gods and wife of heavens, very ancient Mother of All, which nourishes every single plant and animal.”

Both pieces are awash with a smorgasbord of mainstream to extremist environmental concerns, ranging from overpopulation to environmental depredation, and laced with environmental hubris and varying degrees of misanthropy. In this sense they vary little fromthe traditional model of mother nature – the need of obedience or compliance to nature or to the whims of the gods; of understanding and accepting our ‘place’. The subsidiary meanings and implications of this stance, its politics, has always been conservative and as human society developed beyond the limitations and constraints imposed by prehistorical, tribal and medieval conditions, reactionary. 

In saying this I am not wishing to sidestep the gendered nature of the creator because our Mother of All had male ‘consorts’ and competitors – Uranus, Zeus, Odin and the Abrahamic God amongst others. Both ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are human creations that their followers, well, follow, seeking to please and to gain succour from; or disobey and suffer the consequences. And the fear of the consequences of disobedience was a very useful tool to wield against those whose behaviour or manner differed too much from those who held the power to do the wielding.

But whether we are speaking of and relating to nature as sentient and emotional, or whether we employ these as metaphors in describing the natural world and our part in it, we cannot be absolved from the politics our stance and our choice of language contains. 

But that being said, and meant, I’m going to end this post poking a bit of fun at both ‘mother’ and her contemporary two legged acolytes. I am going to accept these projected fantasies as real and play with them. In doing this I wish to bring no slight upon our ancestors, those we all have to thank for figuring out ways that worked for them in the survival game (we are here because of them). The same cannot be said for today’s advocates and the conceit they embrace.    

As mentioned above we are curious and problem solving creatures with a tendency to anthropomorphize things, a perverse form of empathy perhaps, and Mother of All is the gold standard. But the freer we become – especially of constraints that have really boxed us in – the more another human quality emerges from behind the shadows. And that is our capacity for humour, to take the piss out of things, including, especially including, ourselves. 

With this in mind I would like to accept Mother Nature as the beautiful ‘Mother to all’, as Villainatos put it, and on this basis ask questions about Mother’s KPIs as a ‘parent’, whether she has met or failed to meet basic parenting responsibilities. Evidence appears overwhelming that Mother Nature has been cruel, capricious and utterly indifferent to the suffering inflicted upon her progeny, including to those who have worshipped her. Countless millions lost to starvation, disease, disasters termed ‘natural’ and occurring with no or little warning and cynically ascribed to human folly (in contemporary jargon this is known as victim blaming). Need I go on? But why is our Mother to All so cruel, indeed viscous in her indifference to human wellbeing? All we can do is hypothesise, but unlike Villainous et al, my hypothesising will be focussed on Mother of All and not ‘her’ victims.      

Mother Nature as a ‘dominatrix’?    

Could Mother Nature be a dominatrix? Kinky, and depending on one’s proclivities…. But ultimately unsatisfactory, the nature of the SM relationship being too voluntary. Dominatrixes are supposed to elicit sexual pleasure through the infliction of measured physical pain, humiliation or servitude. If that was all it was, Nature’s role would be trivialised beyond measure. Humiliation and servitude are certainly part of the ‘deal’ but the physical pain inflicted has been anything but measured. This hypothesis can therefore be discarded.

Could she be a single divine parent with a tragic history of severe attachment disorder? This is more promising as it may explain why ‘Mother’, and ‘her’ slightly lesser divine male cohorts, flipped between going missing in action, perhaps at some divine haunt getting a skinful, or going troppo when presented by the kids with anything remotely resembling demanding behaviour. (Please [mother] may I have some more?). To my mind this hypothesis is worth consideration and jostles with the one that follows.

Mother Nature is suffering from an uncontained sociopathic personality disorder, aka Mother Nature is a nasty piece of work. This too ticks a few boxes, but it raises the question of wtf was the intergalactic child protection agency doing? It was either missing in action (in a collusive relationship and rubbing shoulders at the above mentioned haunt?) or, heaven and associated divine agencies forbid, it doesn’t exist. Either way we kids are on our own and are forced to shoulder the responsibility for negotiating what has been a difficult and complex developmental pathway. And this is where Faust’s advice comes in, enabled as it was by Mephisto’s Life Coach Facilitation Agency.

My point in taking a swipe at Mother of All and her human cheerleaders, aside from having some fun, is to criticise their profoundly reactionary nature. It is misanthropic too of course but misanthropy is, perhaps, too broad for it allows its essentially class nature to slip through unnoticed. It is not the aspirations of the less well-heeled that is the problem. Where significant environmental or social problems emerge we do not point our fingers at the Oliver Twist brigade – wanting more is not just reasonable, but proper – but at those, or the systems, that stand in the way.

Finally, let us not forget that there are two targets we confront in our ongoing struggle for development and prosperity. One is Nature, the natural world. We have an impressive track record in this struggle, discovering and applying natural laws to our advantage. The other is human made, the reactionary killjoys and misanthropes who, generally from a position of privilege, accuse the less well-heeled of greed, selfishness, of caring more about themselves and their progeny than they do about ‘the planet’. And behind the killjoys? Marx hit the nail on the head.

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Fifty years ago – gaolings, resistance and a win

Barry York (republished from ‘Overland’ literary journal )

Fifty years ago, on 4 August 1972, three La Trobe University students—Fergus Robinson, Brian Pola and myself—were released from Pentridge Prison after serving, respectively, four months, three months and six weeks. Hardly any other political prisoners of that period in Australia had served such lengthy terms, with the exception of some of the draft resisters. This was an extraordinary and unprecedented case of political repression.

The ‘La Trobe Three’ had been imprisoned in a maximum-security prison without trial, without rights to bail or appeal, and without sentencing. Formally speaking, we were jailed for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria for violating an injunction restraining us from ‘entering the premises known as La Trobe University’. The injunction had been issued by the university governing body, the Council, because of the students’ leading roles in what academics refer to as ‘the La Trobe Troubles’. A fourth student, Rodney Taylor, was also singled out and named in the injunction. However, he was never captured by police.

The ‘Troubles’ on the campus were part of the broader student and youth rebellion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with core issues the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa and demands for greater ‘student power’ in university decision-making. Monash University had been the bête noir of the establishment due to its campus militancy and the capable leadership of Maoists like Albert Langer and Mike Hyde.

The immediate background to the La Trobe incarcerations dates to 19 April 1971, when a meeting of a thousand students—the largest ever held on campus—voted nearly unanimously in favour of a motion calling for the resignation of the Chancellor, Sir Archibald Glenn. Glenn was managing director of Imperial Chemicals Industries (ANZ) and sat on the board of its UK-based parent company. His presence as head of the University Council was intolerable to the great majority of students because ICI(ANZ) had been awarded a contract by the Department of Supply for Australian troops in Vietnam and the parent company was involved in the apartheid-based economy of South Africa.

The popular demand for Glenn’s resignation allowed the militant left-wing Labour Club (not to be confused with the Labor Party) and the Communist Club to connect the campus issue to the wider question of capitalism and whose class interests the universities served. The Communist Club leader, Dave Muller (1946–2021), had undertaken the initial research into Glenn and ICI, and this provided a firm basis for the campaign.

As with Monash, the communist leadership at La Trobe—which was also predominantly Maoist—posed a special challenge to the authorities. The leadership emerged through struggle within the Labour Club, while the revisionist Communist Party supporters split and either went with the Maoists or removed themselves from the practical struggle. Other factions went ‘every which way’, though basically supporting militant action.

There were other campus issues, too, such as an ‘exclusion clause’ introduced by the authorities to exclude anyone under suspension from a university from being admitted to La Trobe. This was clearly a political move designed to stop left-wing students who had been suspended from Monash being admitted to La Trobe.

The militancy at La Trobe went back further than 1971, most notably with the forced removal of Defence Department recruiters from the campus in June 1970 and later that year, in September, with the Vietnam solidarity marches from the campus along Waterdale Road in West Heidelberg. The first of these peaceful marches was savagely suppressed by police, as was the second march in defiance of the repression. Nineteen students were arrested, two at gunpoint. A third march attracted 800 people, including trade unionists, and marched defiantly along the street to the campus. At this time, the Maoist group was ascendant as leader of the campus left.

Robinson, Pola and myself were recognised as prominent among the leaders on the campus in 1971 when the campaign for Glenn’s resignation gathered momentum. As a matter of principle, no actions were initiated by the Maoist-led Labour Club without first convening a general meeting of students, either through the auspices of the Students Representative Council, or through unofficial general meetings. The latter were often larger than the former and, in July 1971, a meeting resolved to blockade members of the University Council until such time as the Chancellor resigned. A couple of hundred students blocked the doors of the Council room, where Council was in session, and police were called onto the campus that evening. 

As a result of this action, eight students were suspended by the university disciplinary body—the farcical ‘Proctorial Board’. Five of them were also arrested by police. Occupations of the administration building, endorsed by general meetings, took place in protest against the repression, which in turn resulted in greater repression. On 30 September, the authorities called in the police to evict students who had occupied the Administration building. This was a first on an Australian campus. In October, twenty-four students were hauled before the Proctorial Board, of whom twenty-three were suspended and/or fined. (The late John Cummins was one of them).

Hundreds of students took part in occupations of the Admin building on 30 September and 1 October. When the police were called on 30 September, students escaped via the windows of the ground floor. In response, the Vice Chancellor arranged for heavy-gauge wire gratings to be rivetted over the windows. A student general meeting on 11 October voted to remove them and marched to the building, where a group attached ropes to the gratings and proceeded to tug on them until they broke from the rivets. This was done in broad daylight—a sign that intimidation would not work. It was later revealed that the authorities had collected evidence against the student leaders over this action, but no charges were ever laid.

The struggle and sacrifices proved worthwhile. In early December 1971, prior to the end of his term, Glenn announced his decision to resign as Chancellor, and the University rescinded its ‘exclusion clause’. By the end of 1971, the students had won significant victories. However, the campus struggle continued, bringing to mind Marx’s saying about people making history not as they wish but rather as circumstances dictate.

A characteristic of the La Trobe struggle in 1970 and 1971 had been the willingness to bypass official structures of student representation as part of building a revolutionary socialist movement. In early November 1971, the official representative student body—the SRC—resolved to pay the fines imposed by the Proctorial Board, subject to approval by a general meeting of students to be convened early the following year (which, as expected, supported the move). The University Council objected and threatened legal action against the SRC and against any suspended students who remained on the campus. The latter group included Brian Pola, who was the elected SRC President.

The slogan ‘Student control of student funds’ was popular but created a struggle that refocused the campus left onto official SRC politics rather than the previous revolutionary politics that challenged the role of the universities under capitalism. Had this shift not occurred over the issue of payment of the fines, the left would have raised the money from the rank-and-file student body instead. This would have been the ‘Maoist’ way of doing it—relying on the people—and it would have been effective.

With our victory over Glenn and the ‘exclusions clause’ achieved by the end of 1971, Fergus, Brian and I were among the few of the 1970-1971 militant activist generation to return to campus the following year when the continuing, unresolved, issue was ‘student control of student funds’.

Our consistent revolutionary perspective on politics and struggle, challenging the role of the universities under capitalism and supporting unity between students and workers, was as much of a threat to the authorities as the actions we supported. The use of Supreme Court injunctions to stop us entering the campus grounds was a clear attempt to stop us expressing our views at general meetings.

It is pertinent to note that in the three other cases of university authorities applying for injunctive relief against student radicals—at Sydney and Monash in 1970 and Queensland in 1971—the restraining orders were narrowly focused and specifically prohibited the named students from participating in disruptive activity. The exception was an ancillary injunction taken out by Queensland University on 30 July 1971 against an individual leader, Mitch Thompson, who was prohibited from entering the campus. This served as the model for the La Trobe injunctions, which sought to stop us from entering the university grounds—that is, to stop us expressing our views on campus.  This left us no choice but to be defiant, as a matter of principle. And, of course, we were aware that the injunctions were designed to intimidate other leaders and developing leaders.

The indeterminate nature of the ‘sentence’ for contempt could only be resolved if and when the ‘La Trobe Three’ agreed to purge our contempt before the Supreme Court and promise not to enter the campus grounds if released. This we were not prepared to do. Rather, we sought to continue to exercise our right to participate in the political life of the campus, including helping to organise, initiate and address rallies and general meetings of students, and take part in protest actions on the campus.

It was very hard doing time without knowing when we would be released. We could not count down the days and we were in ‘A’ Division, which had a lot of long-term prisoners doing time for armed robbery or murder. The fact that we were placed with so many long-termers was an ominous sign. However, a campaign for our release was underway at the La Trobe campus, building strong support from other campuses and trade unions and, notably, within the legal profession.

I remember being told that Amnesty International was about to take up our case in London but we were released before that became necessary.

All our mass actions on the campus had been endorsed by general meetings of students. Therefore, after the capture of Fergus on 12 April and Brian on 1 May, the left leadership called for the holding of an official referendum on the campus to allow students to resolve the issue. The left called on the Vice Chancellor and Council to agree to abide by the referendum’s results. The main issue—the release of Fergus and Brian—carried the day in the referendum which was held from 10 to 12 May 1972. Of the 1667 students who voted, 1005 voted for the withdrawal of the injunctions.

I was captured and lodged at Pentridge in June, which added further pressure on the University authorities to abide by the referendum results and highlighted their refusal to do so. The Council was encouraged in its hard line by a ‘pro-violence minority’ among some senior academic staff and students aligned with the National Civic Council who consistently refused to support democratic means of resolving the conflict.

We never apologised to the Court nor did we purge our contempt before it. So, how were we released?

On the 20th and 22nd July, Vice Chancellor David Myers visited us in Pentridge with a view to persuading us to purge our contempt. We still weren’t prepared to do that, as it would mean agreeing to not enter the university premises, but we were certainly willing to discuss any offer he would make on behalf of the Council. He wanted us to sign a statement repudiating violence on the campus. We were not prepared to do this either. Although the far right ironically described us as a pro-violence minority, we knew that the real pro-violence minority were those who relied on police violence and intimidation, not to mention those who sent troops to prop up a fascist regime in South Vietnam and ‘bomb back to the Stone Age’ those who were fighting it.

One of our legal advisors, communist lawyer Ted Hill, also visited us and advised us to sign the statement only on condition that Myers also sign the repudiation of violence on behalf of the Council. In this way, the terms for the disbandment of the injunction and for our release were neutralized and we felt we could sign. So, on 31 July, we joined with the University Council in repudiating violence on the campus.

Our release on 4 August 1972 was a victory because the University authorities bowed to mass pressure and it was the Vice Chancellor who applied to the court for an end to the injunctions and for our freedom. We never apologised to the Court and we promptly returned to the campus where, still under suspension for specified periods, we continued to take an active part in campus politics.

My book, Student Revolt, published in 1989, provides greater detail and contextualisation about the La Trobe student movement from 1967 to 1973. It is available for free on-line: https://c21stleft.com/2015/09/05/student-revolt-la-trobe-university-1967-to-1973/

Melbourne Panel Discussion – Marxism and Anarchism – Saturday 30th July

Saturday July 30th, the Melbourne chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society will be hosting a Panel Discussion on “Marxism and Anarchism: Radical Ideologies Today”, at Trades hall in Carlton, Melbourne, starting at 1pm AEST.

It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Anarchism and Marxism. They emerged out of the same crucible – the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.

To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these two radical ideologies must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. To see in what ways their return in our current moment represents an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost.

Platypus asks the questions: Where have these battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?

Panelists:

Matthew Crossin – Melbourne Anarchist-Communist Group

Lachlan Marshall – Solidarity [International Socialist Tendency]

Benjamin Smith – Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation

Tom Griffiths – Unreconstructed Maoist

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This event is free, and seating is limited by the venue. Please register for tickets: http://www.eventbrite.com.au/…/panel-discussion-marxism…

The event will conclude in under three hours.

Please register for tickets so that we can keep track of numbers.

Entrance via Victoria Street.

Join us at the Curtin across the road for a drink afterwards to continue the discussion.

A livestream of the event will be available over Zoom. If time permits, questions from the online audience will be permitted.

## About Platypus:

The Platypus Affiliated Society, established in December 2006, organizes reading groups, public fora, research and journalism focused on problems and tasks inherited from the “Old” (1920s-30s), “New” (1960s-70s) and post-political (1980s-90s) Left for the possibilities of emancipatory politics today.

Twilight of the American Left – from Unherd

This essay by Park Macdougal is reprinted from ‘Unherd’

“The most vulgar, simplistic view of the Left — that dissolves all the supposed distinctions between centrists, liberals, leftists, socialists, communists into one homogenous Democratic blob — happens to be correct.” So writes Benedict Cryptofash, an anonymous Twitter user and self-described “anti-leftist” whose other theoretical contributions include “the Left and Right are fake and gay” and “only libtards care about policy”.

Despite appearences, Cryptofash — his pseudonym mocks the tendency of online leftists to accuse their critics of “cryptofascism” — is not your typical Right-wing internet troll. He’s a Marxist who regards “leftism” as the ideology of bourgeois supremacy, the twenty-first-century equivalent of the classical liberalism that Karl Marx spent his mature years attempting to demolish. “My critique focuses on the Left,” Cryptofash writes in one of his periodic straight tweets, “not because they are worse than the Right, but because they are better than the right at precluding proletarian class consciousness.”

Cryptofash is one of the more visible members of a political tendency known as the “post-Left”, the latest in the endless stream of new and strange ideologies thrown up by social media. Although professing commitment to traditionally Left-wing goals such as anti-capitalism, the post-leftists are defined mostly by their aggressive hostility to both the Democratic Party and the radical Left — including the Democratic Socialists of America and the academic-literary Left of magazines such as Jacobinn+1 and Dissent.

Aside from Cryptofash, other leading lights include What’s Left? co-hosts Aimee Terese and Oliver Bateman, editor of The Bellows Edwin Aponte, the Irish writer Angela Nagle and a coterie of pseudonymous Twitter accounts, such as @ghostofchristo1Red Scare co-hosts Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova might be considered fellow travellers.

The core assertion of the post-Left is relatively simple: The real ruling class in America is the progressive oligarchy represented politically by the Democratic Party. The Democrats are the party of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the media, the upper layers of the national security state and federal bureaucracy, and of highly educated professionals in general. The Republicans, however loathsome, are largely a distraction — a tenuous alliance between a minority faction of the ruling class and petit bourgeois.

Effectively incapable of governing outside the bounds set by the Democrats and Democrat-aligned media, corporations, NGOs and government bureaucracies, the GOP’s real function is to serve as a sort of ideological bogeyman. By positioning itself as the last line of defence against phantasmic threats of “fascism” and “white nationalism” coming from the Right, the ruling class is able to legitimise its own power and conceal the domination on which that power rests.

Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.

At the core of this diagnosis is the idea that “identity politics”, “antiracism”, “intersectionality” and other pillars of the progressive culture war are mystifications whose function is to demoralise and divide the proletariat.

Similar criticisms have been made by Left-wing writers such as Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, but whereas these “class-first” leftists tend to regard “identitarianism” as a liberal deviation from authentic leftism, the post-leftists regard the idea that there still is a radical Left meaningfully distinct from the Democrats as meaningless. And because post-leftists see the Democrats, and by extension the Left, as their primary enemy, they have no problem engaging and even entering into provisional alliances with the populist Right, especially on cultural issues. Hence the right-wing memes.

Of course, the post-leftists operate at varying levels of coherence and theoretical sophistication, and most of them have produced far more in the way of podcasts and tweets than sustained considerations of political theory. (Cynically, one might say they are less of a “tendency” than a Twitter clique centered around Aimee Terese.) But it would be a mistake to dismiss it altogether on those grounds — the Dirtbag Left’s Chapo Trap House podcast, after all, has played an outsized role in the revival of millennial socialism, and it is always difficult to predict which of today’s shitposters will be setting the tone of the culture five years from now.

For one thing, the post-Left channels powerful currents of Marxist and post-Marxist critique that have been downplayed or forgotten during the “Great Awokening” and the recent socialist renaissance: from Amadeo Bordiga’s communist hostility to “anti-fascist” collaboration with the bourgeoisie to Christopher Lasch’s early writings about the medical-therapeutic state as a tool of class domination.

But perhaps the most obvious spiritual predecessor to the post-Left is the Italian-American philosopher Paul Piccone, the founder and long-time editor of the critical theory journal Telos and another Marxist who eventually left the Left only to find himself in a strange alliance with the Right.

Piccone began his career as a disciple of Herbert Marcuse and proponent of his theory of “one-dimensionality”, which held that capitalism had advanced to such a degree in the West as to effectively abolish all opposition to itself. With the proletariat co-opted by consumerism, radicals, in Marcuse’s view, should instead look for resistance from racial minorities and other outcasts who had yet to be integrated into the system.

But by the late 1970s, Piccone, reacting to the failures of the New Left, had broken with Marcuse. He began to argue that the new social movements that Marcuse had perceived as expressions of anti-system negativity had in fact been forms of what Piccone dubbed “artificial negativity” — pseudo-radical protest movements generated by the system itself.

Piccone agreed with Marcuse that by the mid-20th century, capitalism had triumphed over all internal resistance. But he believed that because the system required such resistance in order to periodically restructure itself and avoid stagnation, it had begun to manufacture its own controlled opposition. He interpreted the initial Civil Rights movement, for instance, as a product of the system’s need to “rationalise” the segregated labour market of the South, after which it seamlessly transitioned to promoting black nationalism in an “attempt to artificially reconstitute an otherness which had long since been effectively destroyed”. The allegedly radical protest movement against the Vietnam War had, similarly, merely allowed an evolving US capitalist class to abandon an imperial quagmire that had become obsolete.

Indeed, Piccone grew so pessimistic about the “artificial” nature of Western leftism that he spent much of the rest of his career seeking out extant pockets of, and resources for cultivating, “organic negativity” — his term for social practices and political formations that genuinely stood outside the logic of the system. Some of these he found on the far-Right, in the regionalism of the Italian Lega Nord, the anti-liberal political theory of Carl Schmitt, the paleoconservatism of Paul Gottfried and Samuel Francis, and the right-wing “identitarianism” of Alain de Benoist. Such explorations, or flirtations, were justifiable because, in Piccone’s view, nearly all of what passed for radicalism in the mature societies of the West was pseudo-radicalism that ultimately served capitalist interests. 

Although Piccone could be more than a bit conspiratorial, it is not hard to see how his “artificial negativity” thesis could be applied to a great deal of the officially sanctioned cultural radicalism of today, which may help to explain why ideas similar to his are beginning to resurface. One can also point to the experience of leftists during the Trump years who found themselves corralled into an anti-Trump popular front that had them allying with not only centrist Democrats but also Never-Trump Republicans, including many of the architects of the Iraq War.

Bordiga had famously argued against this sort of broad-based “anti-fascism”, which he warned would “breathe life into that great poisonous monster, a great bloc comprising every form of capitalist exploitation, along with all of its beneficiaries”, and this is indeed what happened — socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, initially popular for their opposition to the “corporate” establishment of the Democrats, ultimately fell in line behind the party’s leadership and urged their followers to do the same.

The Trump years also revealed something about the nature of power in the United States that, once seen, is difficult to unsee. For all the warnings that Trump would turn out to be Hitler, he in practice turned out to be more like Berlusconi — a vulgar entertainer with a sordid personal life who in most respects ended up governing like a normal politician.

What happened on the other side of the aisle was more subtle but also, in the long run, more sinister. We saw the national media collaborating with shadowy intelligence agents and researchers to launder a conspiracy theory about Russian collusion and, later, employ the same playbook to block Trump’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. We saw constant media-generated and wealthy NGO-funded campaigns against racism and sexism welded to the electoral priorities of the Democrats. We saw “Critical Race Theory”, a crude ideological rationalisation of the Democrats’ coalitional logic, elevated to the level of quasi-official religion. We saw Twitter suspending The New York Post for publishing embarrassing information about Joe Biden’s son in the run-up to the election and payments processors such as PayPal partnering with progressive NGOs to monitor their customers and report “extremists” to law enforcement.

In short, we saw the consolidation of a near-unified ruling class bloc explicitly aligned with the Democratic Party against the potential disruption of Trump. This development has already created a host of strange new political alliances. If it holds, we should not be surprised if more than a few anti-capitalist radicals begin to reassess who their real enemies are.

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‘An alien association’: Master of Arts thesis on Maoism and the Communist Party of China 1971-1977

The late John Herouvim wrote a Master of Arts thesis at La Trobe University in 1983, drawing on wide and meticulous research and interviews with Communist Party of Australia (ML) members and former members. The former members included veterans of the working class struggle such as Clarrie O’Shea, Bill Wilson and Marj Broadbent. Most of the interviewees were still members and requested anonymity but they wanted to speak because of their growing disillusionment with that party.

I only recently came upon a copy of the completed thesis. It hasn’t previously been scanned, to the best of my knowledge.

I am yet to read it properly but recall having a few differences with John, such as his use of the term ‘ultra left’ too loosely. At the time he was researching it, there were a few social-fascist types who tried to stop his progress. John purchased a large steel safe, like a fridge, in which he kept his notes and drafts. He told me once that the safe would even survive a bomb blast. Thank heavens, it was never put to that test.

Ted Hill, the party chairman, wasn’t happy about John’s research and declined to cooperate with him but I remember John telling me that Hill offered him unrestricted access to the archives of a small trade union should he drop the project and focus on a history of that union instead. Presumably, the party had strong influence in that union, whose name I forget.

The thesis is now an historical document about a party and period that, in my view today, represented the decline of the left. I didn’t articulate my frustrations in that way at the time but quit organisationally in late 1980 or early 1981 and had no problems with being interviewed by John for his thesis. I was in the esteemed company of Clarrie O’Shea, after all.

Nearly four decades on, I have scanned the thesis and share it here (in four parts).

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Soylent Green and the reactionary Malthusians

Karl Marx didn’t mince words when it came to the Rev. Thomas Malthus, the ‘pastor of the Poor House’. Marx described him as “the greatest destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity” and “a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes“.

(Apart from that, he wasn’t too bad, though!)

In 1968, Paul Erlich’s book, ‘The Population Bomb’, revived Mathusian dystopianism and, surprisingly, was embraced by some people who regarded thermselves as on the Left. Yet in emphasizing population growth and limited resources as the source of problems, the neo-Malthusians overlooked the capitalist mode of production and the structures of class power.

In the C19th, in blaming ‘too many people’ as the source of poverty, Malthus was indeed committing “a libel on the human race” and offering “apologia for the poverty of the working classes”.

The Canberra Times recently published my article below. It had been gestating for a long time and the movie ‘Soylent Green‘ prompted me to write something, given that the dystopian sci-fi film is set in our year: 2022. The movie came out nearly 50 years ago.

My article in The Canberra Times took up a full page, so I definitely can’t complain about the generous word length. However, had I had more words, I would have included at least three more references

First, a personal memory: In the mid-1990s, I was at a party at a friend’s place overlooking the Georges River in Sylvania Heights, Sydney, and the eminent palaeontologist and climate alarmist, Tim Flannery, was among the guests. We had known each other, briefly, at La Trobe University around 1973 or 1974, and struck up a conversation. Tim was very much concerned about population growth, believing that Australia was already over-populated. He told me that the optimum population for Australia was seven million people. I pointed out that that figure approximated the population in 1947 and asked whether he really wanted an Australia of the 1947 type. He seemed not to have thought of it like that, in terms of society, before.

I would also have liked to add more examples of very popular dystopian sci-fi films that have helped create a disempowering doom-and-gloom ethos and that were proven completely wrong in how they saw the future. A powerful example is the original ‘Mad Max‘. The filmmakers in 1979 were so freaked out by the oil crisis of 1973 that they set Mad Max in the ‘wasteland’ of 1985!

Thirdly, it’s worth noting that the Internet Movie Data Base lists the top 500 dystopian sci-fi films – which means there are many more than that. They really are a cultural phenomenon.

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Science fiction stories had a big impact on my early political development. I liked the ones that dealt with ‘the impossible’ that was nonetheless potentially possible. Unlike fantasy, which never interested me with its dragons and other mythical creatures and impossible scenarios, sci-fi had a basis in science and innovation. Stories and films about space travel, planetary exploration and colonisation of other planets thrilled me; they seemed beyond possibility back then but I loved to fantasize about a future in which they would be part of life. Later, I was influenced by ideas about how society itself could be reshaped into something much better and, through Marxism, came to a rudimentary understand about the forces that were retarding such progress and those that were pushing things forward.

It’s very rare to find progressive sci-fi in mainstream cinema today. An exception in the mainstream was the movie ‘The Martian‘ which came out in 2015. I really enjoyed the way it showed how humans can overcome obstacles imposed by Nature, in this case the apparently uninhabitable planet Mars. Human ingenuity, wit, courage, innovation and spirit combine to ‘conquer’ Nature. The stranded astronaut survives to tell the tale.

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Anyway, here is my article…

‘SOYLENT GREEN’ IS STILL BAD FOR YOU – 50 YEARS ON

Barry York

It is a brave science fiction film that offers a precise year in its speculations. This is particularly so in the dystopian genre where eco-catastrophe is a common theme.

The makers of the iconic ‘Soylent Green’, which was released nearly 50 years ago, offered us a glimpse to our own year, 2022. It was the first film to mention the Greenhouse Effect, though there is no suggestion that the inhumanly overcrowded, sweltering, society depicted is the result of CO2 emissions. Rather, all the problems in the dystopia of 2022 are caused by ‘overpopulation’.

The film was made in 1973 when the world’s population was 4 billion. Today, it is 7.7 billion. The filmmakers’ expected it to be much larger than that. Some countries, like China and India, with huge populations are lifting themselves from poverty. The United Nations Human Development Index, which has measured health, education, income, gender equality, and poverty since 1990, indicates that population growth and progress are not mutually exclusive.

Soylent Green is a type of biscuit on which the malnourished population portrayed in 2022 has come to rely. It was formerly made from plankton but then the oceans acidified. Soylent, the monopoly manufacturer, finds a new source, one that is not revealed until the film’s shocking end.

The action takes place in New York City, which in the film has a population of 40 million and is terribly overcrowded and polluted. (Reality check: New York City’s population today is 8.8 million). There is no sunshine, just grim darkness and power outages. The streets have people dying in gutters, car wrecks everywhere, and makeshift shanties in laneways. Tenements are dilapidated and their stairwells crowded with women and children who have nowhere else to sleep. The film’s main character, Detective Thorn, played by Charlton Heston, clammers over them to reach his small room.

In this imagined 2022, Manhattan has two million out of work. Corruption and crime are out of control. (Reality: crime has reduced greatly in New York City since the 1970s). In Thorn’s precinct, there are 137 murders a day. (Reality: there were 450 murders in all of New York City last year).

In the Soylent Corporation’s New York, everyone swelters as the days reach 32 degrees all year round. (Reality: Winters remain very, very, cold).  The masses line up at rusty central water pumps for their ration of water which has become a scarce resource. (Reality: New York City’s seven reservoirs are at 88% capacity).

Fresh food is a luxury for the great mass of people who are malnourished. But not so the rich. Thorn, who is probably in his late 30s, has to be taught how to eat an apple by his best friend, Sol, the elderly man of wisdom who remembers how things used to be in ‘the good old days’ before ‘our scientific magicians poisoned the water’. (Reality: New York City water is only poisonous if you regard fluoride as a poison). Sol is played admirably by Edward G. Robinson in his last cinematic role.

An exasperated Sol declares that ‘Everything’s burning up! No-one cares!’, but that is hardly true when it comes to climate change. Not only do governments around the world take action to reduce CO2 emissions, admittedly some more than others, but some of the biggest multinational corporations are on side as well.

At its core, Soylent Green is a reactionary film because it adopts the Malthusian view that ‘too many people’ cause the problems. The misanthropy is expressed through Sol when he says: ‘People were always rotten but the world was beautiful’. Beautiful – but for the people?! None of the world’s problems, such as lack of democracy and development, corrupt governments, oppression of women, inequality, nationalism, shifts in climate patterns and the rule of capital, would be solved by reducing population numbers.

Charlton Heston, a prominent right-winger in the US, commissioned the script for the film. The great divide between rich and poor is revealed when Thorn investigates the murder of a director of the Soylent Corp and enters the victim’s spacious apartment in the ruling class’ exclusive Chelsea Towers. The capitalists live in utter luxury with fresh food, water, air-conditioning and the latest mod-cons, including video games. But the film goes nowhere with this class divide; instead, the problem is overpopulation. Echoing the Rev Thomas Malthus’ ‘libel against humanity’, as Marx described it 157 years ago, it is the poor, tired, huddled masses who are responsible for their own suffering. A very convenient belief system.

There is one scene in which the people riot but that is short-lived and they are easily defeated, their bodies scooped up from the streets in large front-end loaders and taken off to… well, that would be a spoiler.

The film’s portrayal of women in the imagined 2022 is laughable. They are either part of the sweaty anonymous mass or beautiful ‘furniture girls’, who are assigned to each new tenant in the apartments of the rich. They do what they are told. It’s as though the Women’s Liberation movement never happened.

The film ends with poor old Sol going to a euthanasia clinic. Given his attitude to Humanity, who can blame him? It’s legal in 2022 and performed in clean comfortable circumstances. Sol watches beautiful scenes of Nature on a large screen – blooming flowers, blue skies, fluffy white clouds, streaming rivers, forests, ocean waves crashing gently on a beach – while his favourite classical music is played in the background.

He is nearly eighty, which approximates the life expectancy in New York today. But in 1973, when the film was released, life expectancy was seventy-one.

After Sol dies, Thorn secretly follows the truck carrying the corpse to an unknown destination. Dozens of bodies end up in a large warehouse and are then processed into… you’ve guessed it! – Soylent Green. Thorn screams out: ‘It’s made out of people!’ Not a bad metaphor for capitalism, actually, as a system that objectifies our labour potential and exploits and consumes the best hours of our lives.

As the end credits roll, we again see the scenes of beautiful Nature. My mind turns to recent road trips with my wife along the east coast of Australia and the glorious scenery.

Soylent Green inspired hundreds of similar sci fi films and influenced countless numbers of people with its unreal dystopian vision. Such films are a reflection of a social system that accurately sees no future for itself.

Soylent Green, and the ideology it represents, really are bad for us – toxic, in fact.

Pandemic – what kind of society?

(The following article by Paul Komesaroff appeared in The Age on 15 January. I’m running it here without permission in order to promote further discussion. Please read it at the original AGE site and make comments there too)

January 15, 2022

Now that the disaster is upon us we can start to analyse how it happened.

I am a frontline health worker, lying listlessly in bed battling an infection with the Omicron variant. My illness has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on our current predicament and what lessons can be learnt from it.

Healthcare workers have been pushed to the limit by the crisis.

We do need to be clear, however: this is a true disaster. Unprecedented numbers of people have been admitted to our hospitals, which are now full. Deaths are mounting rapidly. Ambulances sit in line for hours waiting to discharge their sick patients to overrun emergency departments. Patients with serious non-COVID illnesses, like heart attacks and cancers, struggle to find doctors to treat them.

In the health services up to 10 per cent of workers are away sick, and many, unable to cope with the stress, have given up and resigned. Food and other essential services are failing. The frantic determination to avoid lockdowns has produced a de facto lockdown, more intense than the official ones because of its unplanned, chaotic nature and the absence of safety nets.

Admittedly, not all the news is bad. Even if the vaccines are imperfect at preventing infections and hospitalisations, they do greatly reduce the risk of death – and they may well have saved my life. Healthcare staff – doctors and nurses, young and old – are working tirelessly, often to the point of exhaustion, in heroic efforts to keep the system going.

But it is still a disaster. How did we get here? For nearly two years we had struggled to work together and protect each other. In Victoria, respected political and public health leadership provided reliable information and a determined and clearly argued plan. There were lapses – like hotel quarantine – that were subjected to ruthless public scrutiny, but overcoming the challenges and setbacks heightened the sense of solidarity and mutual caring.

But then it all unravelled. It seemed quick but in reality the forces had been in play all along. An unrelenting campaign to undermine the collective purpose, to oppose all restrictions, had worn away at confidence in public health measures. Campaigns of disinformation and conspiracy theories stimulated the rise of fringe Trump-like groups. The incessant talk about how injunctions to support the vulnerable were in reality a device to undermine prized individual “freedoms” hit home.

A concerted effort by the federal government, supported by the NSW government, attacked the few strategies that had been shown to work. Ballooning numbers in NSW quickly led to the spread of infections across the country.

Then, exactly as Omicron emerged, as health workers looked on with incredulity and horror, even the most minimal remaining restrictions were lifted.

It was widely acknowledged that this decision would produce disastrous consequences and would need quickly to be reversed. And it was true: the disaster happened and the restrictions were reversed. But the damage had been done and the effects were irreversible.

The policy that produced this decision was not the result of simple incompetence. It embodied a fully coherent, and carefully articulated, ethical world-view, on which we as a society now need to make a decision.

The “let it rip” strategy is a potent statement that health and human life should be held to be of little value; that individual “freedom” is directly opposed to collective action and mutual care; and that our society is richer and better if we and our governments repudiate responsibility to weaker members, to those fleeing persecution, and to future generations.

Through the clouds of my delirium I fancy that this understanding of society as a war of all against all had long been discredited. I imagine that most of us have become aware that freedom is enhanced when the structures of mutual support and opportunity remain intact. I muse that there is abundant evidence that the safety of our children and grandchildren can only be assured if we work collectively and co-operatively to protect and care for each other and for our planet.

The reality is that we are in the middle of a war – not just against the “invisible enemy” of the virus but also a new culture war, or more precisely, an ethics war. What is at stake is the vision we wish to have for our society: is it that of a collection of individuals opposed to each other, where security is limited to the powerful and the privileged?

Or is it of a world of shared values, where collective resources can be applied to those in most need, where each of us is prepared from time to time to defer our own comfort to assist and care for our fellow citizens?

In my fevered state, waiting for my clearance from infection control to return to the fray, I try to remind myself of the heroism of the young doctors, nurses and other essential workers. But I am not confident about the outcome.

Professor Paul Komesaroff is a Melbourne physician, ethicist and writer.

Tiananmen Square 1989 – an American Marxist-Maoist’s view from the ground

William Hinton (1919-2004) was an American Marxist who lived and worked in China before and after the revolution of 1949. In 1966, he wrote up his experiences and observations of daily life, class struggle, strategic planning and social transformation in Long Bow village. The book, ‘Fanshen‘, remains a classic. (‘Fanshen’ broadly means overturning something).

As a Marxist and ‘Maoist’, Hinton naturally rejected the ascendancy of the capitalist-roaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, and pulled no punches in his 1983 book, ‘Shenfan’ (meaning the opposite of Fanshen).

The account of what happened at Tiananmen Square in Hinton’s book is here.

I’m posting this because, incredibly, there are still people around who claim to be leftists but regard the rebellion as a foreign plot, its suppression as justified, and the massacre as fake news.

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