Who do you ‘sock’? From Alice Springs to the ‘Foolish Old Man who moved the Mountains’ – and back

Tom Griffiths

 

This post is about two seemingly unrelated situations separated by both time and distance. The first situation is local, Alice Springs to be specific, and emerges from a men’s family violence program I helped establish in Alice Springs some five years ago and some of the things I have learned over this time. The other concerns an American steel worker called Mike who was interviewed in one of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, “Working…” published in 1974.  Originally reviewed by Marshall Berman in the same year, I first came across it in Berman’s Adventures in Marxism that came out in 1999. For reasons best known to the book gods I reread Berman’s book earlier this year  and the connection between Mike and Alice jumped out at me. I will pick this up below but first let me introduce Mike the steel worker.

 

“Here is “Mike Lefevre” … a 37 year old steelworker. First he abuses intellectuals, complains that they denigrate workers. A moment later, however, he stereotypically denigrates himself: “A mule, an old mule, that’s the way I feel.” He is hurt and angry that his teenage son “lacks respect.” And yet “I want my kid to be an effete snob. …I want him to tell me that he’s not gonna be like me.” He talks about the anger and violence inside him: he goes to a bar, insults someone randomly, starts a brawl. “He’s punching me and I’m punching him, because we really both want to punch somebody else.” But who? Forty years ago in Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, a worker punched out his boss, and the audience stood up and cheered. But Terkel’s worker has the brains to see how things have changed: the structure of work is far more abstract and depersonalised today, and cathartic moments don’t come easy. “Who you gonna sock? [asks Mike] You can’t sock General Motors, you can’t sock anyone in Washington. You can’t sock a system.””

 

What sets Mike apart from many is that he knows, as he’s punching somebody out, that he really wants to direct his fire elsewhere, but feels trapped. He has a sense of what the target might be, but as a solo steelworker, can’t fix the target in his sights, can’t get close enough to ‘sock it’. He has insight, but is hamstrung by despair and self loathing, compounded, it would seem, by isolation. Hope is there too – he reads, looking for answers and direction, but so far these have eluded him.

 

We don’t know what happened to Mike, whether he was able to shake off his despair and self hatred, find kindred spirits and together work out ways of socking systems rather than each other, but Mike, and so many like him, has soul mates in places like Alice and across the Top End.

 

Up here where hopelessness, self loathing and despair could be stamped on nearly everyone’s birth certificate, people quickly come to ‘get’, on some instinctive level at least, that you can’t ‘sock the system’, be that the white fella system or the broken aspects of the traditional tribal system, where humbugging, jealousing and payback are spinning out of control, but where you can sure as hell sock one another. And they do, especially the men who target women, usually their wives partners or girlfriends, as well as one another. And when that doesn’t solve anything they take it out on themselves. The family violence rate, often alcohol fueled, the jail numbers, the hospital admissions associated with violent assault and self harm, the suicide rate and the churning out of corrugated road kids who so quickly grow into corrugated road adults … all this and more screams of the pain and rage that springs from despair, the self loathing that often accompanies this and of feeling trapped. Just like Mike.

 

“Two way learning”

 

This phrase was used by a close colleague and camp resident whose activism was involved in two of the examples I give below. It describes a means of broadening one’s scope in seeking solutions, of learning from and supporting one another and is in direct contrast to the narrowing and, dare I say it, ‘exclusivizing’ pull of identity politics.

 

So what do we learn from Mike and how can this learning be used to help people stop abusing one another, especially their family members, and instead to find targets, political, institutional or community ones that are, or have become, part of the problem and not part of the solution? The first thing is to acknowledge that there are sufficient parallels that exist between Mike, his equivalents elsewhere in the world and indigenous populations in Alice and up the top end for similarities to be sought and lessons to be drawn, be these lessons positive ones or negative ones. Without this we turn our backs on one another or look upon one another as curiosities. And Mike gives us both positive and negative. He knows himself that he is hitting the wrong target and hates himself for doing it, for repeatedly getting sucked in. That’s why he drinks himself to sleep, to escape.

 

Knowing this however, knowing you’re hitting the wrong target, is not a bad place to start. But as Mike would be the first to admit, it’s also not a good place to stay. So how do people get unstuck and find a way forward? They can take another lesson from Mike, a positive one, and look for solutions. Mike’s not just unhappy with himself, he’s unhappy with the situation; it’s why he wants his son to be better than him and good on him for that; it’s why he reads, it’s why he wants to connect somehow with the outside world and to look for ways that will help him find some direction and purpose, to get out from under.

 

What Mike had not yet learnt (and I hope that he ended up learning this) is that you can, in fact, take on a system but you can’t do it on your own. You need to find friends, people in similar situations who are also pissed off and frustrated, and you need to take this to a higher level (to synthesize it) and figure out which targets are real, accessible and ‘sockable’. This doesn’t happen by magic and it doesn’t come from a bottle; it needs determination, organisation, mutual support and a willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. And if you need to stick your hand up, looking for that support, you do that too.

 

Invariably this process starts small. Remember the song “From little things big things grow”? It’s telling us something important. Remember Mike’s frustration “you can’t sock Washington”? Wherever Mike was in the States he was nowhere near Washington, nowhere near the government or the bureaucrats he felt screwed by and he was flying solo. Starting too big can be overwhelming and self defeating. More than enough to hate yourself and seek escape in grog.

 

So what does starting small mean? Let me place this within an Territorian context and give some examples. The first is well known – the struggle for land rights at Wave Hill – the other two, like so many significant struggles engaged in by those who are notionally powerless, virtually unknown and flying under the radar.

 

The well known. 

Vincent Lingiari, land rights and Lord Vestey 

 

This is a very well known story and one that won’t be forgotten. Washington may have been a long way off from Mike, but nowhere near as far as Britain, where Lord Vestey was, or Canberra where the politicians and bureaucrats were and where there was no understanding or support for land rights. As we know, Lingiari and those with him at Wave Hill weren’t budging for anyone and over several years gained widespread support across the nation. Be the politicians sympathetic or be they dragging their heels, they were forced to listen and to give ground, forcing open a door that enabled new struggles and new targets to be identified and targeted.

 

The less well known

  1. Grog, humbugging and mayhem at a town camp.

 

Most readers will have no difficulty understanding the connection between lots of grog and the potential for mayhem. Humbugging may need explaining. As used up north humbugging describes a perversion of the traditional system of mutual obligation where individuals connected by ties of kin are obliged to assist one another in times of need. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jared Diamond have written of similar systems in Somalia (Infidel) and New Guinea (The World Until Yesterday) respectively. When the natural world held the whip hand mutual obligation within family or clan systems was essential to survival. While any system is capable of being abused the fine line that existed between survival and disaster acted as a powerful constraint and the system worked, performing its function as intended. Modernity, in whatever form it has taken, has loosened the grip of the natural world significantly and the constraint it exercised no longer applies. The effect of this development has been to undermine the place of mutual obligation and allow its perversion, often distorting it beyond recognition. Under these circumstances it has become parasitic and exploitative rather than supportive.  A parody of family humbugging was made in this skit from the ABC’s Black Comedy team. It is one of the funniest and most astute pieces of comedy I have seen in a long time.

 

With this in mind let me get back to the grog, humbugging and mayhem with a story told to me by one of its principal architects and actors.

 

Following yet another grog fuelled and mayhem inducing ‘visit’ by some out of town family tearaways to a family in one of Alice’s town camps another of the families decided that enough was enough and began to look for allies and solutions. Consultations with others indicated that they were not alone, everyone knowing the pattern of behaviour and its impacts – humbugging the family to get lots of grog, wild partying, no respect for others, alcohol fuelled violence and a lousy, often dangerous time for others. This pattern had become not only familiar and predictable, but disturbingly so.

 

With sufficient support garnered within the camp, support was sought externally. This brought on board the Night Patrol, auspiced by Tangentyere Council, the indigenous organization responsible for most of the town camps and the police. Relations between the indigenous population and the police has a very mixed history, but unity here was essential for a viable plan of action to be formulated and enacted. This enabled the identification of two interrelated targets – the visiting tearaways and the distorted obligation system they were riding on, a system that had been turned into its opposite. The plan formulated was simple but required commitment, cooperation and organization. Its success rested upon it being driven from the bottom  up. When the tearaways turned up and humbugged the locals to get the grog the police would be informed, would turn up and the grog would end up down the sink. This didn’t need to happen too often before the pennies dropped and the wayward behaviour was curtailed. Mike was shown to be wrong here. You can sock a system, but it needs to be within reach and something that others can agree on.

 

  1. The Women’s Safety Committee and the Men’s Safety Committee

 

When Tangentyere Council began to provide  men’s family violence groups  in 2014 a few eyebrows in the camps were raised followed by a ‘let’s wait and see how fair dinkum this is’ kind of attitude. Five years down the track the program has shown itself to be fair dinkum, that it understood that you can’t respect people without listening to them and that change that didn’t put most of its energy in a bottom up approach was patronizing and a waste of time. People took notice. Firstly a number of women camp leaders, followed later by male camp leaders, let it be known that they were very unhappy about the violence, often grog fuelled, that was tearing families and communities apart. They requested training and support. Over several months in 2015 the women, who has initiated the contact and the request and then the men, along with the workers from the program that provided the training, learnt a lot from one another. Posters opposing male violence in particular started to appear in the camps, negotiations with various authorities aimed at making the camps safer, word being spread encouraging people to speak out and no longer accept violence, these and more all bear witness to identifying clear targets and working to ensure that blows are aimed at these targets rather than at one another. They also bear witness to the wisdom contained in a traditional Chinese folk tale, The Foolish Old Man Who Removed The Mountains, promoted anew last century in a speech given in 1945 by Mao Zedong, telling of a man who ignored community derision and literally chipped away at his task until God (the people in Mao’s telling), impressed by his determination granted him success. And for those unfamiliar it did involve moving mountains. In Alice we can call this The Foolish Old Women Who Are Moving Mountains. And moving it they are, uniting with others in the process. They will eventually succeed, and while derisive comments can still be heard from naysayers, be they whitefella or blackfella, these are now mutterings, uttered more under the breathe than in the open. A tide has turned. It has a  way to come in but its direction and growing momentum is unambiguous.

 

I think if Mike and the various Mike’s around the world knew about all this he and they would get a real lift, there would be, as my camp colleague put it, “two way learning” and the growth of solidarity on that basis. That’s the good thing about seeking connection with people all over, be they locals or from far away; we get to learn from one another and support one another, we get to identify the right targets and to work out strategies to take them on, we get to sock systems.

 

* * * *

 

The dialectical relationship between ‘I’ and ‘We’ – critical response to Michael D. Yates’ ‘Can the working class change the world?’

In the real world we live in – and never more so than in the modern era – it is not the “I” and the “We” but the I/We balance and how this has changed with economic and social development across the span of history.

Thanks to Tom Griffiths for the following article.

* * * *

Last year Michael D. Yates, the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press had his new book ‘Can the working Class Change the World?’ published. It was received, in leftist circles at least, to popular acclaim.

I came upon the book by accident as I was looking for something to give my son. Given my concerns about the relationship between the revolutionary left and the individual I consulted the Index and sure enough, an entry “individualism, under capitalism” directed me to pp 140-41. As it turned out the preceding three pages pp 137-39 were relevant contextually to what Yates concluded as the necessity of the working class waging “its own war against the I and for the We.”

The ambiguity contained in this conclusion and the manner in which the preceding pages framed it is highly problematic, exposing  as it does a pseudo Marxist and ahistorical understanding of the I/We balance and a frankly reactionary position of what this balance should look like if the working classes were in the driver’s seat. Beneath this ambiguity is an ambivalence about individuality per se that borders on hostility. Lukes’ ‘Individualism’ (1973) has done us a favor here as has MacPherson’s ‘The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism’ (1962). The latter details the development, based on need, of theories of the individual that justified the development and ascendance of capitalist property relations in the struggle to break free from feudal constraints. The former, riding on the back of modernity’s achievements, illustrated that individuality and individualism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes (well it/they would, wouldn’t they) some consistent with capitalist property relations and others not consistent. It takes a very selective reading of Marx to not get this. My thoughts on this form the substance of this piece and I should thank Yates for motivating me to post them.

But I would like to firstly clarify what are we talking about when we speak of the I/We balance. The contradiction between the “I” and the “We” – the individual and the family group/community/society, is transhistorical, predating the development of classes and going back to the dawn of human existence. Engels had this to say: “Impressive as the people of this epoch may appear to us, they differ in no way from one another, they are still bound, as Marx says, to the umbilical cord of the primordial community.”

What Engels and Marx were drawing attention to was the binding, caused not by choice, but by the harshness of circumstance, circumstance that did not allow the development of difference. This describes a frozen antithesis, any movement in the contradiction being glacial and occuring over centuries or millenia rather than decades. It has only been in the modern era that this frozen dialectic has melted and the relationship between the “I” and the “we” has not only become dynamic, but has been seen to become so.

* * * *

So let me look at the context and justification Yates provides for us, a context that I can most generously describe as a ‘softening up’ process and less generously as manipulative. He begins under a chapter sub heading, “The “I” and the “We”, and takes us on a folksy recount of a holiday spent with his wife at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. En route they passed through an agricultural area where “we choked on the pesticides … the air was so fouled we couldn’t see the mountains not far to the east.” This may be accurate enough of course but we are being led along a path where the destination is ….well, let’s read on. After references to Tom Joad and Francis Drake (he landed at Point Reyes in 1579 for ship repairs) he introduces us to the native population, the Miwok, the descendents of whom still inhabit the area. The Miwok “were gatherers and hunters, living peacefully in a land of great abundance.” James and Graziani’s California Indian Warfare paint a more nuanced picture pointing out, and providing evidence, that the word “peaceful” is an ambiguous term. Yes, the Miwok were generally a peaceful people but inter and intra tribal conflict were, shall we say, not unknown as was the stealing and raping of women. Indeed a rare surviving record of a war song eulogises this feature: “Leaders, let us go out to war! Let us go and capture a pretty girl.” Cherry picking, we need remind ourselves, is not an activity confined to orchardists.

“Once the Europeans came…” the balance was destroyed. “Disease and extreme culture shock killed most of them” while our lust for land and gold took most of the rest. As he points out “The Miwoks’ “we” was no match for the white man’s “I”. One sidedness in any field of human endeavour always distorts and I make no claim of immunity, but Yates’ agenda blindsides him as he embraces (and promotes) a romanticised account of tribal and pre-modern life. Approvingly, he quotes the view of a contemporary Miwok, Kathleen Smith, who holds that her people have lived in “physical and spiritual balance” without feeling the need to go somewhere else for 8,000 years. This “requires restraint, respect, knowledge and assurance of one’s place in the world.” Not to mention a practical inability, borne of the historical constraints they lived under, to be aware, let alone assured, of any alternative.

* * * *

Idealising the past has a long history, of course. We saw it, for example, in the decades preceding the English Revolution and during the revolutionary decades themselves, where it was common for numerous radical voices to look to,  and promote, the Arcadian myth of jolly Olde England before the imposition of the Norman Yoke. As we now know they were marching into the future looking backwards, an understandable reaction given that they were at the dawn of the capitalist and modern era, territory that we have become a lot more familiar with. What was baffling novelty then is no longer baffling. So why, I ask rhetorically, does Yates feel the need to promote a Miwok (or native Indian) Arcadian myth while simultaneously presenting himself as a Marxist and historical materialist?

Once booked into the hostel the reader is subjected to more ‘softening up’. He describes a ‘conversation’ with an east coast law student that degenerated into a lecture, by him, about how California was a monument to waste. In response to her puzzlement he turned his fire onto agriculture, a field of production, she believed, California to be a world leader in. This, the student was to discover, was a view, be it true or not, that would have been best kept to herself.

“This set me off on a lecture about dams, stolen water, subsidized land and water, massive use of pesticides, polluted air and water and exploited farm workers. Measured in terms of energy in and energy out, or in terms of the costs imposed on society by California’s “factories in the fields” the state’s agriculture is not as productive as the Miwok’s gathering and hunting”.

Unsurprisingly she retreats into the next room and, somewhat abashed, Yates follows a few minutes later to “make amends for lecturing her”.

In TV game shows this would be a “but wait, there’s more” moment and Yates does not disappoint. On hearing that she is a law student he seizes the opportunity to tell her (note how the only one doing much listening is her) what a Law Professor tells first years: that lawyers had to learn to be vicious by being treated viciously, a process beginning at law school. After a terse response from her to the effect that at least everyone was on the same playing field, “The woman never spoke to me again.” But Yates is not done. Over the period of his stay he observes her behaviour, concluding that she was oblivious to anyone else’s needs and he and his wife “listened, in amazement as she flirted with a German man” and how “she skillfully led the conversation to her desired outcome” an outcome that enabled her to bask in the glory of the medal she had won at the Beijing Olympics. He paints her, in other words, as a narcissist, an example of the “I” the working class needs to wage war against. Indeed he ends this section with a view of her that is as uncharitable as it is undialectical: Her studies will see her “become firmly and permanently frozen in the “I” and cut off forever from the “we””. Leaving to one side for the moment his view that the “I” is a frozen antithesis, whether she is narcissistic or not is difficult to call because of the way Yates inserts himself in the ‘drama’ and how he needs her to be as he depicts her. In the world of psychotherapy there is a term, projective identification, that describes an unconscious phantasy in which aspects of the self are split off from oneself and attributed to another. In plain language, Yates is telling us a lot more about himself than he realises. In my judgement there is at least as much evidence to suggest that Yates is describing as aspect of himself as there is evidence that the student is a narcissist and doomed to be a frozen “I” cut off permanently from the virtuous “we”.

* * * *

Whether Yates’ hypothesis about his Olympian acquaintance (or mine about him so far as that goes) holds water, his folksy tour has brought us to the kernel of his position, contained in the slightly less than two pages the index had drawn me to. “CAPITALISM IS A SYSTEM of stark individualism” (presumably the high case was to ensure we got the point that capitalism is a system). He goes on to say that “the primary institutions of capitalist society work in concert to inculcate the “I” in everyone, with the corollary that the “we” is detrimental to human welfare…For capitalism to end the “I” must be suppressed and the “we” must come to the fore”.

If he means bourgeois individualism, the kind of individualism that rests upon the individual’s right to own capital – and by extension to exploit the labor of others – and the particular distortions of individualism and individuality that come with this, he should say so. But he doesn’t, opting instead for the more ambiguous I/we dichotomy where, from my viewpoint, he persists in digging a hole for himself. Suppressing the “I” and valorising the “we”, he suggests, “would sound strange to gatherers and hunters who inhabited the earth for almost the entirety of human existence. They had no word for “I” and saw no difference between themselves and the natural world around them. Their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, and their rituals and institutions helped to ensure that these were maintained. For them the earth was the commons, the property of all. They managed their existence in ways harmonious with nature and kept the earth’s metabolism in balance with their own.” Now what was it that Engels was saying?

This is pretty standard Greenie fare with a touch of Gaia thrown in, the “I” disappearing into a romanticised past and embracing an equally romanticised “we”. But to suggest this is  revolutionary, a representation of Marxism and a synthesising pathway, is not only nonsense, it is reactionary nonsense, for while he is correct to assert that our clan and tribal forebears had no word for “I” and that their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, the ‘decisions’ he is implying they made, were in no sense free.

It is all very well for him to have a crack at the legal student, hypothesising that she was entering  a frozen “I” zone but what he describes here is an actual frozen antithesis that covered millenia and kept people, the “we’s” and the, at best, nascent “I’s” held fast within rigid and unforgiving constraints. Whether they realised it or not, they were trapped, their relationship with the natural world being precarious at best. What they did realise was that their task was one of survival and that the “we”, the family, clan or tribe, were survival units. As for the individual, the “I”, for millenia the water was simply too close to the gunnels for the individual to emerge, let alone be able to develop, stand up and rock the boat. And we can’t have the boat being rocked by unruly elements now, can we?!

Harmony was imposed by the strictures and violence of Nature, whose ‘metabolism’ by the way, insisted upon obedience. This was backed up by our own use of violence and by the development and ubiquitous use of shame as a social regulator. In this regard Hobbes’ pithy description of the natural state of humankind before the emergence of central governments as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’ was – and remains – much closer to the mark than Yates. It bears repeating that the first struggle for freedom was freedom from danger, the freedom to survive. For the individual this meant complete identity with the social unit.  The reason for the strength of this tie was simple – these are the groups from which the individual could expect help and protection when in dire need. The catch was also simple. There was no room to cherry pick the aspects of this system that one likes and discard the rest. There was nowhere else to go. The struggle, then, to wrest ourselves free from nature and to sever the umbilical cord, was contingent upon survival. It was upon this basis that the individual was able to emerge and is still in the process of emerging in the underdeveloped world.

* * * *

The antithesis has taken a long time to melt and we should certainly be grateful to our forebears for figuring out how to survive because our being here depended on it. This, however, is not an argument to go back, to refreeze. If we are to genuinely respect and thank our ancestors for the sacrifices they made – and they were innumerable and big – we need to move on, take the opportunities provided and seek new ones. Anything less would, in my view, be patronising and, frankly, insulting.

The embracing of the idea that traditional groups or societies (the more ‘natural’ or undeveloped the better) lived in a harmonious balance with Nature is our contemporary version of Arcadian myth and its emergence is not simply a sign of ideological crisis, although that is certainly a part of it. Strangely, perhaps, it is also a sign of our success, for at no stage in our history have we been as free from the clutches of the natural world than we are now. We have lifted ourselves above, and hence separated ourselves from, abject dependence to a more robust and, dare I say it, equal relationship. The whip that Nature’s metabolism cracks may well compel harmony but our nature has shown itself to be not so compliant. As Goethe’s Faust put it “Once I stand still I shall be a slave.” and it is not in our nature to be slaves. When Faust was weaving his magic it was a moribund feudalism that was being put to the sword. From at least the 20thC, before this in most of the West, we have had, or should have had, other targets in mind. With this Yates would agree; capitalism has got to go. But if he thinks that this involves getting rid of the “I”, the continued development of the individual, he is dreaming.

As mentioned above Yates called this section “The “I” and the “We”, setting them up in lifeless opposition. Given the pages that followed his title accurately reflected content. In the real world we live in – and never more so than in the modern era – it is not the “I” and the “We” but the I/We balance and how this has changed with economic and social development across the span of history. From a historical materialist point of view this is not only developmental, but an unfolding dialectical process. During the Stone Age, for example, the meaning of ‘we’ was single layered and, as Yates correctly points out, there was no word for “I”, although he lets slide by, or fails to realise, that this was so because there was no ‘room’ or capacity for the “I” to exist. If Yates wishes to promote this, or something like it, as a ‘lifestyle’ to aspire to, he is welcome to it, but he will have Buckley’s chance in convincing the rest of us – the modern “I’s” and the modern “we’s” to tag along, either voluntarily or under coercion.  

In modern societies ‘we’ has many layers including, of course, class, as well as many layers within and between classes. This many layered aspect is significant because it is both a reflection of, and in turn an enhancer, of individual expression and development. Our  ‘we-ness’ now extends in a multitude of ways formerly unimaginable. Norbert Elias sums up the significance of the options this development opens up in his The Society of Individuals: “From a certain age the individual can usually withdraw from the family [or group] without forfeiting his or her chances of physical or social survival.” In other words, there is somewhere else to go. But more than this – and this is something that Yates seems not to get at all – not only are there loads of somewhere elses to go to, there are loads of someone elses to go to, or find, as well.

Unlike the “frozen I” that Yates imagines (and needs in order to support his anti “I” distortions) the development of the individual in modern societies is necessarily accompanied by the development of society itself, of, compared to any previous social formation, a multiplicity of choices in how we can be ‘we’ as well as ‘I’. ‘We’ relationships are no longer necessarily permanent and inescapable, no longer confined to family or small community and hence no longer an inescapable impediment to the development of who we choose to relate with and how we choose to do it. Elias adds that “…in combination with a reduction in the power differential (not to be confused with equality of power), the greater variability of relationships forces individuals to take a kind of repeated inventory, a test of relations which is at the same time a test of themselves. They have to ask themselves more often: how do we stand in relation to each other? As the forms of relationship across the whole spectrum, including those between men and women and children and parents, are comparatively variable, or at least not inescapable, their exact form is increasingly the responsibility of the individual partners.” Individuals being increasingly responsible for the type and form of their relationships …? Now we can’t have that, can we? Well, not if the “we” is a Yates “we” in any case.

At least on this reading Yates seems unable to understand that as the “we” develops and becomes more complex, so too does the “I”. Each contains the other and it is important that revolutionary movements, if they are to reemerge, understand this and struggle to overcome a longstanding uncertainty cum ambivalence about the place and role of the individual, be that within groups/parties, the working classes broadly or society as a whole. It is not as if Marxism is a stranger to this aspect – I give examples below – although if one were to confine oneself to much of what passes itself off as the real deal, one could be forgiven for missing this.

* * * *

One of China’s Gang of Four, Wang Hung-wen, commented during the 10th Congress of the CPC that “A true communist must act without any selfish considerations and dare to go against the tide, not fearing either removal from his post, expulsion from the party, imprisonment, divorce nor guillotine.” As a young man at the time I was impressed by the comment but it was not until much later that I came to realise how profoundly radical it was and how relevant to the substance of this post. Yes, he was addressing a Congress, a great big political “we” and through media, broad sections of the Chinese population, an even bigger “we”. But within that context he was aiming his comments at the “I”, at the individual communist or communist sympathiser. In my view, it is only possible to swim against the tide, to be able or prepared to do as Wang suggests, if you are an autonomous individual prepared to put the interests of self aside and stand up, alone if necessary, and take come what may. In fancier jargon we can call this, appropriately, taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences they invite. It should be noted that part of this responsibility lies in seeking unity in organisational form with others, but is not confined solely to it, as Wang was fully aware.

The Turkish poet and communist Nazim Hikmet spent 18 years of his adult life in gaol for his political activities and the last 13 years of his life in exile. Much of his best poetry was written ‘inside’. A few lines from two of these will suffice: From It’s This Way: “It’s this way/being captured is beside the point/ the point is not to surrender.” And from Galloping Full Tilt from Furthest Asia: “To live free and single like a tree/and in fraternity like a forest/this longing is ours.”

The Czech communist Julius Fucik, captured by the Nazis in 1942 and executed in 1943, wrote on single scraps of paper, smuggled out of prison, what was to become Report from the Gallows. George Lukacs remarked that the ‘New Man’ appears most powerfully and richly in it and it is an extraordinary testament and example of what Wang was getting at. It can still be found on internet bookshops and I would advise readers to find it.

And lastly, going back a little further to the English Revolution (no, not the ‘Glorious’ one, but the real one) there is the example of the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, the most radical voice of the time, as well as being about 200 years ahead of it, who said, circa 1650, “Freedom is the man who turns the world upside down, and he therefore maketh many enemies.” He knew what he was talking about.

There will of course be many other examples and I have only cited these because they were (are) all in my head. What unites them all, what has them singing from the same song sheet, is that they demonstrate the dynamic between the “I” and the “we”, that the development of them as exemplary individuals was enhanced by their engagement in and commitment to the cause of revolution, to the “we”. This was not only where they found themselves, it was where they made themselves. In other words we unite or seek unity on the basis of our pre existing – and valued – individuality, not in spite of, or in opposition to it. Unity (or ‘weness’) of this type, is an expression of our individuality. It does not lose itself in the ‘we’ but finds itself at a higher level of expression. It is a synthesising process of development in other words and it is this feature that is absent from Yates’ understanding of both the “I” and the “we”. His is not a model that speaks of the future.

When asked by a journo where the best place to find comedy was, Australian comedian Barry Humphries, better known, perhaps, as Dame Edna Everage, replied “under one’s nose”. It is good advice and has far broader application than just comedy for this too is where to look for the future, or its seeds, and we would do well to take heed. Looking where Yates is looking will get us nowhere.

 

* * * * *

‘For America to Live, Europe Must Die’ – existential torpor versus modernity’s melting dialectic (a critique of the reactionary outlook of the late North American Indian activist Russell Means)

Russell Means was a prominent and divisive North American Indian activist, artist, writer (ironic given what he has to say about writing below) and actor who died in 2012. He first came to widespread prominence for his role in the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973. The speech below ‘For America to Live, Europe Must Die’ was given in 1980 and is broadly representative of his views. Visit the Wikipedia page here and follow links for more detailed information. The speech, apparently his best known, was given before several thousand people who had assembled from all over the world for the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

It was forwarded to me by Barry asking my opinion of it and my response was immediate. I was working in Alice Springs at the time and in two nights after work I fired back my comments, contained in the text of the speech. This was certainly a more convenient way for me to respond as I was able to use the framework of the speech without having to develop a separate framework that would have been required by an article. But it also kept the response more lively and in direct contact with what Means was saying; more concrete I guess. Means was clearly a very intelligent and passionate activist and my argument with him, if I can put it that way, is over what road to take as we respond to the challenges thrown up by capitalism and modernity’s melting dialectic more generally. His being divisive is not the problem (we could actually do with more). What divisiveness is over is another matter entirely. Nearly forty years down the track the issues raised by him remain current.

* * * *

(Thanks to Tom Griffiths for this article).

* * * *

Russell Means’ article is in plain font. Tom’s responses are in italics.

* * * *

The only possible opening for a statement of this kind is that I detest writing. The process itself epitomizes the European concept of “legitimate” thinking; what is written has an importance that is denied the spoken. My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition, so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.

 

An inauspicious opening salvo that sets the scene pretty nicely for what follows, not least his romanticisation of traditional culture (here tribal) and his confusion about the abstract and the concrete.

 

So what you read here is not what I’ve written. It’s what I’ve said and someone else has written down. I will allow this because it seems that the only way to communicate with the white world is through the dead, dry leaves of a book. I don’t really care whether my words reach whites or not. They have already demonstrated through their history that they cannot hear, cannot see; they can only read (of course, there are exceptions, but the exceptions only prove the rule). I’m more concerned with American Indian people, students and others, who have begun to be absorbed into the white world through universities and other institutions. But even then it’s a marginal sort of concern. It’s very possible to grow into a red face with a white mind; and if that’s a person’s individual choice, so be it, but I have no use for them. This is part of the process of cultural genocide being waged by Europeans against American Indian peoples’ today. My concern is with those American Indians who choose to resist this genocide, but who may be confused as to how to proceed.

 

Well, learning how to write and learning how to use writing as a tool/weapon is a good place to start. It’s not the writing; people have been historically keen to learn and ruling classes, until modernity had matured a little, equally keen to deny them that opportunity. Whose side are you on? His reference to cultural genocide is plainly wrong if we understand by culture something that is living and it being a user’s guide to finding one’s way through the maze of social existence. If we see it as something fixed and eternal then his claim has validity, although then the idea of a requiem might be more appropriate. His view differs radically from American Indian voices I became aware of when visiting Toronto recently. In the Toronto Museum was an extraordinary exhibit of three traditional Indian figures, ‘residents’ of the museum for over a century, transformed by the addition of a power drill, a camera tripod and an ipod. Beneath it was this explanation:

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

 

(You notice I use the term American Indian rather than Native American or Native indigenous people or Amerindian when referring to my people. There has been some controversy about such terms, and frankly, at this point, I find it absurd. Primarily it seems that American Indian is being rejected as European in origin–which is true. But all the above terms are European in origin; the only non-European way is to speak of Lakota–or, more precisely, of Oglala, Brule, etc.–and of the Dineh, the Miccousukee, and all the rest of the several hundred correct tribal names).

 

I don’t have a problem with this paragraph. The term he favours – American Indian and the terms he rejects all have the benefit of drawing multiple tribal backgrounds into a unity. In this it is much like nationality. Within this unity however there is difference, or diversity and I don’t have an issue with that being acknowledged.

 

(There is also some confusion about the word Indian, a mistaken belief that it refers somehow to the country, India. When Columbus washed up on the beach in the Caribbean, he was not looking for a country called India. Europeans were calling that country Hindustan in 1492. Look it up on the old maps. Columbus called the tribal people he met “Indio,” from the Italian in dio, meaning “in God.”)

 

I know I’m being picky, but he argues against himself here – he, we, know this because  we can not only read the maps, but the historical record.

 

It takes a strong effort on the part of each American Indian not to become Europeanized. The strength for this effort can only come from the traditional ways, the traditional values that our elders retain. It must come from the hoop, the four directions, the relations: it cannot come from the pages of a book or a thousand books. No European can ever teach a Lakota to be Lakota, a Hopi to be Hopi. A master’s degree in “Indian Studies” or in “education” or in anything else cannot make a person into a human being or provide knowledge into traditional ways. It can only make you into a mental European, an outsider.

 

And what is wrong with an outsider? Tribalism and small community thinking generally do not trust outsiders. Small group paranoia aids survival when our dependence and domination by the external environment prevents or limits our ability to be open and to trust. If you want to live with your head stuck up a dark and malodorous hole…

 

I should be clear about something here, because there seems to be some confusion about it. When I speak of Europeans or mental Europeans, I’m not allowing for false distinctions. I’m not saying that on the one hand there are the by-products of a few thousand years of genocidal, reactionary, European intellectual development which is bad; and on the other hand there is some new revolutionary intellectual development which is good. I’m referring here to the so-called theories of Marxism and anarchism and “leftism” in general. I don’t believe these theories can be separated from the rest of the of the European intellectual tradition. It’s really just the same old song.

 

Yes and no. They emerge from the same song sheet but music is then developed and its constraints transcended. He is exposing his non dialectical way of thinking – he doesn’t need the word, although he is clearly familiar with it, he needs the idea of how and why things change internally.

 

The process began much earlier. Newton, for example, “revolutionized” physics and the so-called natural sciences by reducing the physical universe to a linear mathematical equation. Descartes did the same thing with culture. John Locke did it with politics, and Adam Smith did it with economics. Each one of these “thinkers” took a piece of the spirituality of human existence and converted it into code, an abstraction.

 

Good grief, as if how he talks about spirituality is not an abstraction! The ‘code’, the abstractions he accuses Descartes et al of making were no match for his whopper, a damn sight more useful and, dare I say it, closer to the concrete.

 

They picked up where Christianity ended: they “secularized” Christian religion, as the “scholars” like to say–and in doing so they made Europe more able and ready to act as an expansionist culture. Each of these intellectual revolutions served to abstract the European mentality even further, to remove the wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe and replace it with a logical sequence: one, two, three. Answer!

 

This is nonsense. He is suggesting, bluntly, that the “wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe” under medievalism, or the Dark Ages, or under slave owning societies, traditional players all of them according to his criteria (and mine too actually) was better than what we have and can realistically achieve or aspire to today. Reactionary is a polite description, nutty more to the point.

 

This is what has come to be termed “efficiency” in the European mind. Whatever is mechanical is perfect; whatever seems to work at the moment–that is, proves the mechanical model to be the right one–is considered correct, even when it is clearly untrue. This is why “truth” changes so fast in the European mind; the answers which result from such a process are only stopgaps, only temporary, and must be continuously discarded in favor of new stopgaps which support the mechanical models and keep them (the models) alive.

 

All that is solid old chap, all that is solid… He craves for the certainty of eternal truths and when we consider this in relation to social relations, including family relations, he is eulogising a trap, especially if you are female.

 

Hegel and Marx were heirs to the thinking of Newton, Descartes, Locke and Smith. Hegel finished the process of secularizing theology–and that is put in his own terms–he secularized the religious thinking through which Europe understood the universe. Then Marx put Hegel’s philosophy in terms of “materialism,” which is to say that Marx despiritualized Hegel’s work altogether. Again, this is in Marx’ own terms. And this is now seen as the future revolutionary potential of Europe. Europeans may see this as revolutionary, but American Indians see it simply as still more of that same old European conflict between being and gaining. The intellectual roots of a new Marxist form of European imperialism lie in Marx – and his followers’ – links to the tradition of Newton, Hegel and the others.

 

This “conflict” is a false antithesis. As he uses this purported contradiction “being” is seen as being static, rather than dynamic, a form of existential torpor. And his use of “gaining” is a ruse employed because it can be seen as having negative, materialist connotations. He uses it to dismiss the idea and promise of development – economic, social or personal. Replace “gaining” with “improvement”, also a word denoting growth, reread his ’contradiction’ and note the different vibe given off.

 

Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of that spiritual process was and is to give away wealth, to discard wealth in order not to gain. Material gain is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it is “proof that the system works” to Europeans. Clearly, there are two completely opposing views at issue here, and Marxism is very far over to the other side from the American Indian view. But let’s look at a major implication of this; it is not merely an intellectual debate.

The European materialist tradition of despiritualizing the universe is very similar to the mental process which goes into dehumanizing another person.

 

The reality is actually in inverse proportion and the comparison he promotes is fraudulent. He is right of course that the materialist spirit has despiritualized, ie, demystified the universe. It does so by reeling in understanding from its hiding place beyond the clouds, where it was the property of the gods, onto the ground and hence within our grasp. Tribalism certainly encourages the dehumanization of ‘other’. Modernity does not. Since when is understanding the richness and possibilities present in “another person”, indeed, all of us, “dehumanizing”? As Berman observes in his tribute to Times Square the one nice thing about American imperialism is that it embraced everybody. “Despiritualizing the universe”, as he puts it, is making the universe and us in it, explicable. Seeking answers, pushing the limits and transcending, rather than being trapped inside boundaries, makes us active players, not spiritual zombies.

 

And who seems most expert at dehumanizing other people? And why? Soldiers who have seen a lot of combat learn to do this to the enemy before going back into combat. Murderers do it before going out to commit murder. Nazi SS guards did it to concentration camp inmates. Cops do it. Corporation leaders do it to the workers they send into uranium mines and steel mills. Politicians do it to everyone in sight. And what the process has in common for each group doing the dehumanizing is that it makes it all right to kill and otherwise destroy other people. One of the Christian commandments says, “Thou shalt not kill,” at least not humans, so the trick is to mentally convert the victims into non-humans. Then you can proclaim violation of your own commandment as a virtue.

 

If there is a trick here he is the one playing it, although I suspect the trick is being played on him too. When the Old Testament God was taking a breather from smoting this tribe and that he issued the Commandments to his select tribe. “Thou shalt not kill” was an instruction to not kill one’s own. As for the others, follow my example… Christianity deserves praise here because it broadened the Old Testament definition of human and tribe to include everyone. Jared Diamond speaks of precisely the same traditional dehumanizing of other tribes in the New Guinea Highlands (The World Until Yesterday)

 

In terms of the despiritualization of the universe, the mental process works so that it becomes virtuous to destroy the planet. Terms like progress and development are used as cover words here, the way victory and freedom are used to justify butchery in the dehumanization process. For example, a real-estate speculator may refer to “developing” a parcel of ground by opening a gravel quarry; development here means total, permanent destruction, with the earth itself removed.

 

I’ll let the hyperbole go through to the keeper, but what he is doing is humanizing the planet and dehumanizing us.

 

But European logic has gained a few tons of gravel with which more land can be “developed” through the construction of road beds. Ultimately, the whole universe is open–in the European view–to this sort of insanity.

 

Yes, openness is what it’s about. In one sense he is highlighting the contradiction between the politics of the ‘House’ (or tepee in his case) and the politics of the ‘Street’, closed versus open systems of intercourse. The philosophers he holds a grudge against haven’t despiritualized the world, they have demystified it. This is the high end of town version of what general human intercourse does and it enriches us – materially and spiritually, in the process. What’s not to like? And as for his ‘satisfaction’ being only measured ‘in terms of gaining material’ he not only articulates a lot of pre capitalist thinking, but greenie and pseudo thinking. Good grief, could there be a link? He employs a common sleight of hand here by focussing our attention on only the narrowest impacts and drivers behind capitalist accumulation – profit, exploitation and destruction – the former going only to the capitalist, the middle referring to ‘mother’ earth and humanity and the latter also to dear old mum and the human spirit. (He is reducing human spirit to a form of miserablism, no fun at all). Some of this is true – capitalists do exploit nature and human labour – but he dismisses altogether the accrued benefits of this through increased social wealth and the social, cultural and personal development that this enables. By only highlighting the destructive and venal aspects he opens a wide door for the sort of moral posturing that is rife these days among the pseudos and greenies. For him I suspect it is much more than posturing, more a reflection of a genuine existential crisis or funk. Whichever, we cannot excuse his solutions.

One of the problems he has, and it’s a biggie, is his essential inability to shift between what systems jargon calls different level thinking. A sociological or group perspective as opposed to an individual or personal perspective, what we ‘see’ or experience and the conclusions we draw when inhabiting each level is an example we would immediately recognize. Norbert Elias uses the example of the pilot and the swimmer to explain the tension (advantages/disadvantages) between different level thinking. The latter has the advantage of being above, seeing the overall picture, whether the swimmers are heading toward rough water or dangerous currents or not, whether their direction leads to safety or danger. The swimmer cannot see this, but what he/she can see and experience and what the pilot cannot is what is useful/possible in the immediate situation, what the affect of the currents/tidal pull is on a personal or small group level and what can be done about that in the immediate (or here and now). Revolutionaries, especially ones that have fealty to Marxism, need to be able to swim and fly at the same time. Russell was stuck on the ground, gazing skywards and as we now know, thanks to those wretched scientists and philosophers, the light from the sky reflects a distant past; this is why he is able to romanticize it.

 

Most important here, perhaps, is the fact that Europeans feel no sense of loss in all this. After all, their philosophers have despiritualized reality, so there is no satisfaction (for them) to be gained in simply observing the wonder of a mountain or a lake or a people in being. No, satisfaction is measured in terms of gaining material. So the mountain becomes gravel, and the lake becomes coolant for a factory, and the people are rounded up for processing through the indoctrination mills Europeans like to call schools.

But each new piece of that “progress” ups the ante out in the real world. Take fuel for the industrial machine as an example. Little more than two centuries ago, nearly everyone used wood–a replenishable, natural item–as fuel for the very human needs of cooking and staying warm. Along came the Industrial Revolution and coal became the dominant fuel, as production became the social imperative for Europe. Pollution began to become a problem in the cities, and the earth was ripped open to provide coal whereas wood had always simply been gathered or harvested at no great expense to the environment. Later, oil became the major fuel, as the technology of production was perfected through a series of scientific “revolutions.” Pollution increased dramatically, and nobody yet knows what the environmental costs of pumping all that oil out of the ground will really be in the long run. Now there’s an “energy crisis,” and uranium is becoming the dominant fuel.

 

While not confined to this paragraph I detect a lot of envy here (envy is a primitive emotion and seeks to destroy what it cannot have). He is in good company of course, it is pretty rampant in pseudo circles. I think it is a displacement of feelings of disappointment and failure many of us have felt but only a few of us have owned and taken responsibility for. I do not mean that we have ‘caused’ the malaise, although we have certainly been part of it. The malaise is ours, that is the left’s, and not the systems (its problems, contradictions remain, requiring a synthesizing resolution). Rather than spitting the dummy and pointing our collective finger only at the perfidious 1% we need to shake off our dependence on those we make theoretical gods (avoiding responsibility) and understand that we have some work to do.

Above I said that envy seeks to destroy what it cannot have. Jealousy at least aspires to possession. Rather than acknowledging his confusion and existential angst he rationalizes it by blaming the system totally and romanticizing the past. It saves him from thinking his predicament through. This is a pity because he was obviously an intelligent man.

 

Capitalists, at least, can be relied upon to develop uranium as fuel only at the rate which they can show a good profit. That’s their ethic, and maybe they will buy some time. Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available. That’s their ethic, and I fail to see where it’s preferable. Like I said, Marxism is right smack in the middle of European tradition. It’s the same old song.

 

Yep, it’s part of the European song sheet, but with an improved score.

 

There’s a rule of thumb which can be applied here. You cannot judge the real nature of a European revolutionary doctrine on the basis of the changes it proposes to make within the European power structure and society. You can only judge it by the effects it will have on non-European peoples. This is because every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself. I defy anyone to point out an example where this is not true.  

 

Happy to pick up the gauntlet. We defy anyone to venerate the old ways once they become familiar with what traditional life was actually like, still is in some places,  for individuals – women particularly – by reading memoirs by people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Phoolan Devi among others or anthropological accounts by people like Jared Diamond. What they will see – if they so wish – are accounts by or about people who have emerged from traditional settings or settings in the earlier stages of transition where, so to speak, the plane has barely left the tarmac.

The destruction he cites was real but it was first and foremost ideological, the destruction of those venerable ideas, as Marx put it, that proclaimed and enforced the belief that nothing different was either possible or permissible.

 

So now we, as American Indian people, are asked to believe that a “new” European revolutionary doctrine such as Marxism will reverse the negative effects of European history on us. European power relations are to be adjusted once again, and that’s supposed to make things better for all of us. But what does this really mean?

Right now, today, we who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation are living in what white society has designated a “National Sacrifice Area.” What this means is that we have a lot of uranium deposits here, and white culture (not us) needs this uranium as energy production material. The cheapest, most efficient way for industry to extract and deal with the processing of this uranium is to dump the waste by-products right here at the digging sites. Right here where we live. This waste is radioactive and will make the entire region uninhabitable forever. This is considered by the industry, and by the white society that created this industry, to be an “acceptable” price to pay for energy resource development.

 

Note the sleight of hand – not capitalists or their proverbial lackeys, not bourgeois governments, but ALL of us. He turns a good point about dumping into an attack on all people of European background. It’s so slack it doesn’t even qualify as racist (which he was not in any case).

 

Along the way they also plan to drain the water table under this part of South Dakota as part of the industrial process, so the region becomes doubly uninhabitable. The same sort of thing is happening down in the land of the Navajo and Hopi, up in the land of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow, and elsewhere. Thirty percent of the coal in the West and half of the uranium deposits in the United States have been found to lie under reservation land, so there is no way this can be called a minor issue.

 

Correct on this one.

 

We are resisting being turned into a National Sacrifice Area. We are resisting being turned into a national sacrifice people. The costs of this industrial process are not acceptable to us. It is genocide to dig uranium here and drain the water table–no more, no less.

Now let’s suppose that in our resistance to extermination we begin to seek allies (we have). Let’s suppose further that we were to take revolutionary Marxism at its word: that it intends nothing less than the complete overthrow of the European capitalists order which has presented this threat to our very existence. This would seem to be a natural alliance for American Indian people to enter into. After all, as the Marxists say, it is the capitalists who set us up to be a national sacrifice. This is true as far as it goes.

But, as I’ve tried to point out, this “truth” is very deceptive. Revolutionary Marxism is committed to even further perpetuation and perfection of the very industrial process which is destroying us all. It offers only to “redistribute” the results–the money, maybe–of this industrialization to a wider section of the population.

 

Yes and no. Yes to his first two sentences, no to his third. Marxists do not aim to level downwards, but upwards. We do not take wealth from the capitalists, but their capital. This is then used to create more socially beneficial wealth and the benefits of that are ‘passed around’.

 

It offers to take wealth from the capitalists and pass it around; but in order to do so, Marxism must maintain the industrial system. Once again, the power relations within European society will have to be altered, but once again the effects upon American Indian peoples here and non-Europeans elsewhere will remain the same. This is much the same as when power was redistributed from the church to private business during the so-called bourgeois revolution. European society changed a bit, at least superficially, but its conduct toward non-Europeans continued as before. You can see what the American Revolution of 1776 did for American Indians. It’s the same old song. song.

 

Revolutionary Marxism, like industrial society in other forms, seeks to “rationalize” all people in relation to industry–maximum industry, maximum production. It is a doctrine that despises the American Indian spiritual tradition, our cultures, our lifeways.

 

“Despise’ is too visceral, but I’ll let it pass. Do we ‘despise’ if we see it as a permanent resting place, a veritable burying ground for human aspiration and progress? Certainly. As something that can, like the rest of us, develop quantitatively and qualitatively? Certainly not; we respect the individuals and people too much to sacrifice them on a mythologized and idealized altar.

 

Marx himself called us “precapitalists” and “primitive.” Precapitalist simply means that, in his view, we would eventually discover capitalism and become capitalists; we have always been economically retarded in Marxist terms. The only manner in which American Indian people could participate in a Marxist revolution would be to join the industrial system, to become factory workers, or “proletarians,” as Marx called them. The man was very clear about the fact that his revolution could only occur through the struggle of the proletariat, that the existence of a massive industrial system is a precondition of a successful Marxist society.

 

He has this roughly right, but it is his failure to get dialectics, either intellectually or viscerally that sees him fantasize about the either/or – losing one, idealized and good permanent existential state to another bad and demonized existential state.

 

I think there’s a problem with language here. Christians, capitalists, Marxists. All of them have been revolutionary in their own minds, but none of them really means revolution. What they really mean is continuation. They do what they do in order that European culture can continue to exist and develop according to its needs.

 

He is onto something here. Much of what calls itself revolutionary – including things we have been involved with, has not really been able (has not desired?) to see past capitalism in either its economic or social relations. In this sense a % of what he is railing against are things we rail against too. And, paying respect to his reference to language, let’s toss in revisionism and mechanical materialism in their numerous manifestations.

 

So, in order for us to really join forces with Marxism, we American Indians would have to accept the national sacrifice of our homeland; we would have to commit cultural suicide and become industrialized and Europeanized.

 

Cultural suicide? This needs to be confronted. Cultures – any of them – that do not change to reflect the conditions and challenges of contemporary life – die. Their ‘permanence’ reflects a relationship between humans and their environment that is static, or nearly so. Cultures redeem themselves, if I can put it that way, by being adaptive and with only a little effort they can also maintain links with their past. But in this relationship between the past and the present we serve the present, not the past.

 

At this point, I’ve got to stop and ask myself whether I’m being too harsh. Marxism has something of a history. Does this history bear out my observations? I look to the process of industrialization in the Soviet Union since 1920 and I see that these Marxists have done what it took the English Industrial Revolution 300 years to do; and the Marxists did it in 60 years. I see that the territory of the USSR used to contain a number of tribal peoples and that they have been crushed to make way for the factories. The Soviets refer to this as “the National Question,” the question of whether the tribal peoples had the right to exist as peoples; and they decided the tribal peoples were an acceptable sacrifice to the industrial needs. I look to China and I see the same thing. I look to Vietnam and I see Marxists imposing an industrial order and rooting out the indigenous tribal mountain people.

 

As Marxists we can look at this and accept valid criticisms of the ‘how’, but not about the ‘whether’.

 

I hear the leading Soviet scientist saying that when uranium is exhausted, then alternatives will be found. I see the Vietnamese taking over a nuclear power plant abandoned by the U.S. military. Have they dismantled and destroyed it? No, they are using it. I see China exploding nuclear bombs, developing uranium reactors, and preparing a space program in order to colonize and exploit the planets the same as the Europeans colonized and exploited this hemisphere. It’s the same old song, but maybe with a faster tempo this time.

 

This is a dummy spit. His placing planets uninhabited by anything, except maybe microbes, on the same level as earth inhabited by real people and a bunch of near and not so near rellies gives the game away. He is lost (willingly it seems) in a fog of idealized abstractions. Has he any idea about the real circumstances and conditions of the peasants et al he so casually dismisses? It is the system – or his view of it – that he focuses on, not actual people.

 

The statement of the Soviet scientist is very interesting. Does he know what this alternative energy source will be? No, he simply has faith. Science will find a way. I hear revolutionary Marxists saying that the destruction of the environment, pollution, and radiation will all be controlled. And I see them act upon their words. Do they know how these things will be controlled? No, they simply have faith. Science will find a way. Industrialization is fine and necessary. How do they know this? Faith. Science will find a way. Faith of this sort has always been known in Europe as religion. Science has become the new European religion for both capitalists and Marxists; they are truly inseparable; they are part and parcel of the same culture. So, in both theory and practice, Marxism demands that non-European peoples give up their values, their traditions, their cultural existence altogether. We will all be industrialized science addicts in a Marxist society.

 

Well the track record gives a basis for this faith – a faith based in evidence I hasten to add – and the capitalists have shown a remarkable capacity to get on top of these ever emergent issues.

 

I do not believe that capitalism itself is really responsible for the situation in which American Indians have been declared a national sacrifice. No, it is the European tradition; European culture itself is responsible. Marxism is just the latest continuation of this tradition, not a solution to it. To ally with Marxism is to ally with the very same forces that declare us an acceptable cost.

 

This too gives the game away. While Marxism is certainly part of the European tradition his letting capitalism off the hook indicates that he is opposed to development full stop.

 

There is another way. There is the traditional Lakota way and the ways of the American Indian peoples. It is the way that knows that humans do not have the right to degrade Mother Earth, that there are forces beyond anything the European mind has conceived, that humans must be in harmony with all relations or the relations will eventually eliminate the disharmony. A lopsided emphasis on humans by humans–the Europeans’ arrogance of acting as though they were beyond the nature of all related things–can only result in a total disharmony and a readjustment which cuts arrogant humans down to size, gives them a taste of that reality beyond their grasp or control and restores the harmony. There is no need for a revolutionary theory to bring this about; it’s beyond human control. The nature peoples of this planet know this and so they do not theorize about it. Theory is an abstract; our knowledge is real.

 

Assert away. The real knowledge he valorizes is real knowledge that fitted and that emerged (was won) from a particular past. He elevates it to an abstraction, an idealized one at that, cut adrift from real, contemporary life.

 

Distilled to its basic terms, European faith–including the new faith in science–equals a belief that man is God.

 

Sounds good to me, we made him after all. Making man a god (and knocking down the Gods in the process) is a progressive yearning and achievement. It is an inherent part of overcoming a near complete and passive dependency on nature. Modernity has given us the means to dispose of them and place ourselves centre stage. Along the way there has been pushback, a cultural drag that sees us make ‘gods’ of leaders and ‘makers and shakers’ (he cites some) and we transfer our dependency – or, at least, too much of it – onto them. Phil Court’s pithy description of this, made in the late 70’s – “Follow me and you need never think again” has been etched in my mind ever since.

 

Europe has always sought a Messiah, whether that be the man Jesus Christ or the man Karl Marx or the man Albert Einstein. American Indians know this to be totally absurd. Humans are the weakest of all creatures, so weak that other creatures are willing to give up their flesh that we may live. Humans are able to survive only through the exercise of rationality since they lack the abilities of other creatures to gain food through the use of fang and claw.

But rationality is a curse since it can cause humans to forget the natural order of things in ways other creatures do not. A wolf never forgets his or her place in the natural order. American Indians can. Europeans almost always do. We pray our thanks to the deer, our relations, for allowing us their flesh to eat; Europeans simply take the flesh for granted and consider the deer inferior.

 

There is a poetic beauty to this prose and its creative impulse should not be dismissed, but let us not confuse the beauty of words with science which has a beauty and majesty of its own.

 

After all, Europeans consider themselves godlike in their rationalism and science. God is the Supreme Being; all else must be inferior.

 

This is childish. Creatures do not willingly give us their flesh, nor do they see us as weak and pity us. The wolf and the deer are not capable of making rational choices. A wolf does not choose to accept the natural order. To do so it would need to, and be capable of, appreciating alternatives. Wile E Coyote our wolf is not. He does not get hold of ACME goodies as he unhatches his diabolical (and tragically flawed)  plans to catch the Road Runner. He/she obeys instinct or dies (a fate that may await anyway). Russell is running with an animistic mysticism that belongs to the childhood of our social evolution. Such thinking may have provided succour in our earlier days but time, us with it, has moved on. And need I add that in the process of moving on we have used plenty of fang and claw. The prose he uses reflects an early grappling with trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. It helped with the overriding task of survival. There is no point at all in looking for higher level explanations unless we have the time and opportunity to do so. When we do not, spending time is a waste of time and may undermine our ability to survive.

 

All European tradition, Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of all things.

 

Quite so, that’s why we love it. As Gerrard Winstanley, the most radical voice of the English Revolution observed, “Freedom is the man who turns the world upside down, and he therefore maketh many enemies.”

 

Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused, and this cannot go on forever. No theory can alter that simple fact. Mother Earth will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate, and the abusers will be eliminated. Things come full circle, back to where they started. That’s revolution. And that’s a prophecy of my people, of the Hopi people and of other correct peoples.

 

The spirituality so enamoured by him is, compared to the spirituality made possible by modernity, impoverished. It leaves us as dependent children. I much prefer to stand up with and join my fellows.

 

American Indians have been trying to explain this to Europeans for centuries. But, as I said earlier, Europeans have proven themselves unable to hear.

 

Oh we’ve heard all right and not just from American Indians. Many such voices were raised during medieval times across Europe resisting change and wanting to keep people ‘spiritually enriched’ and in their place. That’s why we’ve moved on.

 

The natural order will win out, and the offenders will die out, the way deer die when they offend the harmony by over-populating a given region. It’s only a matter of time until what Europeans call “a major catastrophe of global proportions” will occur. It is the role of American Indian peoples, the role of all natural beings, to survive. A part of our survival is to resist.

 

He is right here – at least much of the time. Survival is the name of the game and has been since year dot – ask the wolf. But where is abundance, thriving (and I’m thinking more culturally/spiritually than materially although they are connected)? Without these survival is also a trap that holds us tight and it has taken our forebears millennia of struggle, suffering  and resilience to break free from its constraints.

 

We resist not to overthrow a government or to take political power, but because it is natural to resist extermination, to survive. We don’t want power over white institutions; we want white institutions to disappear. That’s revolution.

 

American Indians are still in touch with these realities–the prophecies, the traditions of our ancestors. We learn from the elders, from nature, from the powers. And when the catastrophe is over, we American Indian peoples will still be here to inhabit the hemisphere. I don’t care if it’s only a handful living high in the Andes. American Indian people will survive; harmony will be re-established. That’s revolution.

 

No, it’s nihilism.

 

At this point, perhaps I should be very clear about another matter, one which should already be clear as a result of what I’ve said. But confusion breeds easily these days, so I want to hammer home this point. When I use the term European, I’m not referring to a skin color or a particular genetic structure. What I’m referring to is a mind-set, a worldview that is a product of the development of European culture. People are not genetically encoded to hold this outlook; they are acculturated to hold it. The same is true for American Indians or for the members of any culture.

 

This is a good point and one our current ‘right on’ identity set could take notice of. Indeed he is miles ahead of them and I have a sneaking feeling he saw them coming.

 

It is possible for an American Indian to share European values, a European worldview. We have a term for these people; we call them “apples”–red on the outside (genetics) and white on the inside (their values). Other groups have similar terms: Blacks have their “oreos”; Hispanos have “Coconuts” and so on. And, as I said before, there are exceptions to the white norm: people who are white on the outside, but not white inside. I’m not sure what term should be applied to them other than “human beings.”

What I’m putting out here is not a racial proposition but a cultural proposition. Those who ultimately advocate and defend the realities of European culture and its industrialism are my enemies. Those who resist it, who struggle against it, are my allies, the allies of American Indian people. And I don’t give a damn what their skin color happens to be. Caucasian is the white term for the white race: European is an outlook I oppose.

 

In spite of the generally reactionary nature of the speech his discrimination here is well made.

 

The Vietnamese Communists are not exactly what you might consider genetic Caucasians, but they are now functioning as mental Europeans. The same holds true for Chinese Communists, for Japanese capitalists or Bantu Catholics or Peter “MacDollar” down at the Navajo Reservation or Dickie Wilson up here at Pine Ridge. There is no racism involved in this, just an acknowledgment of the mind and spirit that make up culture.

In Marxist terms I suppose I’m a “cultural nationalist.” I work first with my people, the traditional Lakota people, because we hold a common worldview and share an immediate struggle. Beyond this, I work with other traditional American Indian peoples, again because of a certain commonality in worldview and form of struggle. Beyond that, I work with anyone who has experienced the colonial oppression of Europe and who resists its cultural and industrial totality. Obviously, this includes genetic Caucasians who struggle to resist the dominant norms of European culture. The Irish and the Basques come immediately to mind, but there are many others.

 

His working at ground level (or should that be sea level?) is essentially correct. Where do correct ideas come from after all? It is his failure to link this with an abstract that springs from, and in turn speaks to, the present and future that leaves him stranded on the docks after the ship has well and truly sailed.

 

I work primarily with my own people, with my own community. Other people who hold non-European perspectives should do the same. I believe in the slogan, “Trust your brother’s vision,” although I’d like to add sisters into the bargain. I trust the community and the culturally based vision of all the races that naturally resist industrialization and human extinction. Clearly, individual whites can share in this, given only that they have reached the awareness that continuation of the industrial imperatives of Europe is not a vision, but species suicide. White is one of the sacred colors of the Lakota people–red, yellow, white and black. The four directions. The four seasons. The four periods of life and aging. The four races of humanity. Mix red, yellow, white and black together and you get brown, the color of the fifth race. This is a natural ordering of things. It therefore seems natural to me to work with all races, each with its own special meaning, identity and message.

 

The ‘natural order of things’ for most of our species time has been clan and tribalism and very ‘in house’. This has engendered separatism, or perhaps more accurately, justified it. Trust and mutual reliance was ‘in house’ and outsiders, the ‘other’, were mistrusted or feared. This is what modernity has helped us overcome. It is ironic and a pity that this progressive aspect he holds is swamped and almost lost in a reactionary covering.

 

But there is a peculiar behavior among most Caucasians. As soon as I become critical of Europe and its impact on other cultures, they become defensive. They begin to defend themselves. But I’m not attacking them personally; I’m attacking Europe. In personalizing my observations on Europe they are personalizing European culture, identifying themselves with it.

 

Yes they are – and with good reason because key components of the individualizing synthesis have been hard wired.

 

By defending themselves in this context, they are ultimately defending the death culture. This is a confusion which must be overcome, and it must be overcome in a hurry. None of us has energy to waste in such false struggles.

Caucasians have a more positive vision to offer humanity than European culture. I believe this. But in order to attain this vision it is necessary for Caucasians to step outside European culture–alongside the rest of humanity–to see Europe for what it is and what it does.

 

Contradictions are not resolved (synthesised) by stepping outside of them. Or as Blake put it in Heaven and Hell “Without Contraries is no progression”. But the synthesising process here is a subjective one – we have to want to do it rather than having it done for us.

 

To cling to capitalism and Marxism and all other “isms” is simply to remain within European culture. There is no avoiding this basic fact. As a fact, this constitutes a choice. Understand that the choice is based on culture, not race.

 

Well, he is making a choice too, but I take his essentially correct point. We are choosing to move forward and just because ‘beyond here there be dragons’ is no reason to go backwards.

 

Understand that to choose European culture and industrialism is to choose to be my enemy. And understand that the choice is yours, not mine.

This leads me back to address those American Indians who are drifting through the universities, the city slums, and other European institutions. If you are there to resist the oppressor in accordance with your traditional ways, so be it. I don’t know how you manage to combine the two, but perhaps you will succeed. But retain your sense of reality. Beware of coming to believe the white world now offers solutions to the problems it confronts us with. Beware, too, of allowing the words of native people to be twisted to the advantages of our enemies. Europe invented the practice of turning words around on themselves. You need only look to the treaties between American Indian peoples and various European governments to know that this is true. Draw your strength from who you are.

 

This is a fair enough point and could be taken from any self help manual – which means it is easily transformed into the sententious. The problems presented by the treaties are not merely hedges in their maze, impassable barriers, but present opportunities too, not to be given, but to be fought for. Solutions and progress are to be found, in other words, on the arena. Going off in a high dudgeon is no solution.

 

A culture which regularly confuses revolt with resistance, has nothing helpful to teach you and nothing to offer you as a way of life. Europeans have long since lost all touch with reality, if ever they were in touch with who you are as American Indians.

 

This hints to me of a hostility to revolution and here I am meaning social rather than political revolution.

 

So, I suppose to conclude this, I should state clearly that leading anyone toward Marxism is the last thing on my mind. Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism and Christianity are. In fact, I can say I don’t think I’m trying to lead anyone toward anything. To some extent I tried to be a “leader,” in the sense that the white media like to use that term, when the American Indian Movement was a young organization. This was a result of a confusion I no longer have. You cannot be everything to everyone. I do not propose to be used in such a fashion by my enemies. I am not a leader. I am an Oglala Lakota patriot. That is all I want and all I need to be. And I am very comfortable with who I am.

 

I am not so sure that he was comfortable with who he was – or perhaps became. By all means dismiss Marxism; a lot of crap has been associated with it and he may well have been disillusioned with the crap as we are too. But the tone of his speech speaks of defeat, disillusion, even despair, leading to withdrawal and a full scale retreat. Whatever we may think of this, it is not where the future lies. For this we should direct our sights to the statement provided by those North American Indians behind the Ontario Museum exhibit.

 

 

 

 

The politics of the House and of the City… New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

‘… an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face”. And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes’.

Thanks to Tom Griffiths for this contribution.

* * * *

New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

And the rest goes…

 

New York, New York, all the scandal and the vice …

I love it.

New York New York, now isn’t it a pity

What they say about New York City?

 

I loved this song when it came out, its cheek, irreverence and capacity to laugh at itself. And I couldn’t help being reminded of it as I was reading the late Marshall Berman’s On The Town, One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. Both seemed to be singing from the same song sheet.

 

While this post has been prompted by my reading of Berman’s final book my point in doing so springs from my view of how important the city – urban life and experience – is in human development and how ‘missing the boat’ much of the left has been in accepting both the opportunities and challenges this development has thrown up.  The politics I will be drawing attention to (and where the left is, or should be in relation to it) can be summarised in the distinction to be made between the politics of the House and the politics of the Street. And let me be clear, I’m for the politics of the Street. I will give some space to the House further down, but first lets go for a walk because the modern city creates an essential link in providing individuals, in particular working class individuals, with opportunities for personal development and growth (they are individuals as well as members of a class, remember) opportunities for them to break free of the constraints imposed by the House.

 

What impressed me about Berman’s book – the spin Berman puts on the maelstrom that is the modern world generally and of which Times Square is a highly concentrated symbol – is its vitality and its liberating aspect. And in saying this I in no way wish to downplay or ignore the challenges that have accompanied this. Berman makes no claim to being the first to highlight this and makes reference to two French writers of past centuries to point out that the link between modernity and the Street, while an essential feature of modernity,  is not new. A key Enlightenment figure, Montesquieu wrote of it in his Persian Letters (1721), and over a century later the poet Baudelaire identified the modern urban centre as a space where old (pre modern) boundaries were broken down and new possibilities opened up, coining the term “the heroism of modern life’ in the process. Times Square, the flawed hero of Berman’s book has lived, or should I say enabled, Baudelaire’s heroism in concentrated form since the 1890’s.

 

Berman gets down to business straight away describing the modern city as a place that enables an individual to be both oneself and someone else. Being social animals we carry the seeds of curiosity, a desire for growth and an empathic sensibility within us and the possibilities described by Berman enables their germination and growth. What is made possible here is to expand beyond oneself, beyond formerly socially or family imposed boundaries and constraints, to be able to transcend these limits and grow.

 

In the early 21stC the Islamic fascists are acutely aware of and threatened by this possibility and this helps explain their violent hatred of modernizing influences that disrupt and transform social and family relations. Please note that social and family relations are not being spoken of here as abstract relations, but as relations that still have pre modern or medieval hooks embedded in the flesh of the men, women and children who are the real life players in those relations. Those who identify with the left should not be too smug about this because although what now passes for the left have never approached the loony killjoy levels of the Islamic fascists or Islamic fundamentalists generally, it  has historically contained a strong current of killjoyism of which the odd parallel can be drawn – that being the antipathy and mistrust felt about the unconstrained individual, let loose from the ‘safe’ bonds of the House where, historically, the teaching and maintenance of family and social hierarchy were enacted.

“One of the primary human rights is the right to the city” argues Berman, the right to a space and an opportunity for individual and social transformation. But how does the city enable this, what makes it happen? And, in any case, anticipating mutterings coming from the background, aren’t there casualties, I mean cities are hardly beds of thornless roses and many with progressive pretensions think thorns is about all they have or have come to have.

Enter Times square, what it represents and opens up.

Times Square as we know it – an entertainment and commercial centre – came into its own with electrification and by the 1890’s had already developed a ‘reputation’ that scandalized the morally precious of the day by giving them innumerable reasons to hyperventilate and complain about falling moral standards. It takes little imagination to write their script – the denunciation of public spaces like bars, theatres, dance halls, cafes and the like as “brothels” or to understand it as a voice belonging to the House.

Initially this group had, to rope in modern terminology, some diversity, being a collection of traditional moralists, including secular moralists and evangelicals. Low hanging fruit one might think. But by the early 20thC their number came to include secular intellectuals with left politics “who wanted the masses to be radical and militant and to struggle for their rights…” [just so long as these rights didn’t extend to expressions of individual and sexual freedom] “…who believed that commercial mass culture was corrupting their minds”. In spite of the cultural shift in social attitudes to sexual mores this whinge remains a very contemporary trope. And it wasn’t just (or even, if we are to be honest) commercial mass culture that was the main corrupting element, it was sex. No surprises here of course.

Both men and women had good reason to be drawn to the Square’s promise, to be able to break free of the rigid stereotypes and expectations of the House, stereotypes and expectations that had been particularly constraining on women. A good way of looking at the complaints of the moralists (of whatever hue) – the Mary Whitehouse set and the Iranian and Saudi  moral police being more contemporary equivalents – was that they were complaining about the breakdown between the rigid separation of the House and Street and the power relations between the sexes that were reflected in this. This distinction rang bells for me in two ways. Most importantly (and most recently) it summed up a lot of what I have seen in the work I have been doing in the family violence arena and the refugee/new settlers arena where individuals and families have come from regions where the transition from the traditional to the modern is unfinished business. Here women are supposed to belong in the House; it is not only their domain, it is where they belong and where they have been kept.

In western societies women have been on the Street and fighting for their right to be there for a considerable period as the examples of Montesquieu, Baudelaire, Jacques Brel (see below), amongst others and Times Square indicate, but for many coming from backward or relatively undeveloped regions this fight is in its early stages. By way of example a former colleague had recorded a series of interviews with three former refugees from Africa dealing with family based violence and “upside down families”. The female interviewee, entering middle age and with dependent children, had likened traditional marriage in Africa to “a prison” where she was obliged to obey her mother in law and submit to the overall authority of the men of her husband’s family. She initially found the situation in Australia so different and confusing that, she explained, “for two years we go mad”. She meant by this that the breakdown of the rigid and hierarchical boundaries between the House and the Street was so exhilarating and discombobulating that it took, in her experience, two years for the penny to drop that with this new freedom came the opportunity for personal growth and, contained in this package, personal responsibility. That being said, she was under no illusions that upside down was the right way up.

 

Baudelaire’s ‘heroism of the street’ spoke of this development in the mid 19th century, but over a century earlier Montesquieu had noticed that the cat was already coming out of the bag in his Persian Letters. Montesquieu and I go back a long way, to my first year at university and we parted company soon after (read almost immediately) and too soon for me to really get was he was on about when it came to urban life and modernity. Time, Berman and an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face,”” And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes.

And this brings me to the second bell ringing aspect of the distinction between the House and the Street and that is the overtly political aspect, that which should be the bread and butter of those holding revolutionary or radical pretensions. Here I found Berman’s take on Times Square (and by implication its equivalents elsewhere) refreshing, thought provoking and speaking directly to the synthesising sensibility that sits at the analytic heart of Marxism – or, rather, should sit at its heart. Above I had touched upon the modern cities transformative qualities, qualities that enable growth and that throw up new challenges. Berman describes Broadway street culture as being created by the sons of migrants, especially from the more backward areas of Europe, who had come to America seeking a better life. With them they not only brought aspirations that challenged the old ways, but constraints that contained them, a cultural drag from the old times, representing the mores of the traditional House. One of the aspirations of the sons was for this street culture to include women. Women also wanted that space and stepped in, although not yet as equals. It was a task of the daughters (and granddaughters …) to begin to renegotiate the rules of the dance.

But from the word go the daughters were part of the action and as early as 1892, a mere eight years before the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Union in New York, a writer wrote of working class women, lonely after a working day venturing out of their hall bedroom, cold and lonely ”to lose herself in the unending procession on Broadway.” Berman points out that “there may never have been such a vast variety of women thrown together in any one place before.”

The square emerged as a place where men, women, kids from all over the world dreamed of ‘making spectacles of themselves’, of being unveiled. Picking up the same theme late Belgian singer/songwriter, Jacques Brel, in his song Timid Frieda picked up in the mid 20thC where Montesquieu and Baudelaire had left off in the preceding two. And in doing so he was able to highlight the tensions and challenges of the politics of the Street that had now fully matured. Timid Frieda:

Will they greet her

On the street where

Young strangers travel

On magic carpets

Floating lightly

In beaded caravans

Who can know if

They will free her

On the street where

She comes to join them

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Will life seize her

On the street where

The new dreams gather

Like fearless robins

Joined together

In high-flying bands

She feels taller

Troubles smaller

On the street where

She’s lost in wonder

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Won’t return now

To the home where

They do not need her

But always feed her

Little lessons

And platitudes from cans

She is free now

She will be now

On the street where

The beat’s electric

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Who will lead her

On the street where

The cops all perish

For they can’t break her

And she can take her

Brave new fuck you stand

Yet she’s frightened

Her senses heightened

On the street where

The darkness brightens

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

If you see her

On the street where

The future gathers

Just let her be her

Let her play in

The broken times of sand

There she goes now

Down the sidewalk

On the street where

The world is bursting

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands.

 

It is a fabulous song. As one would anticipate after 200 plus years Brel’s lyrics picks up Montesquieu’s identification of early promise and Baudelaire’s more developed 19thC depiction and exposes a fully developed dialectic. The left I identify with walk with Timid Frieda offering encouragement if asked for – although she seems to be doing pretty well under her own steam. The square, the Street simultaneously liberated women and presented them (and the guys) with new challenges. But there was no turning back. If the rules of the dance were to be renegotiated you needed to be on the dance floor.

As touched upon above revolutionary parties or organisations (or those with pretensions), have a pretty chequered history when it comes to jumping onto the dance floor, letting their hair down and encouraging others to join in. And when it comes to understanding the transformative possibilities inherent in this they didn’t even make it onto the dance floor. The irony here is that the proverbial masses – and most were working class remember – were showing us the way and embracing “the street where the future gathers.” In doing so they ignored the cautionary, if not disapproving tones coming from comrade central about bourgeois frivolity and self indulgence undermining class solidarity and commitment to ‘the struggle’.

Breaking out and having fun, especially where sex is stirring the pot, has been more House than Street with communist parties and organisations stepping around the issue rather than embracing it. Class struggle and revolutionary politics were serious business (this aspect is true) and demanded a commitment that found the ‘letting one’s hair down’ side of things diversionary (read, with Russian Accent) petty bourgeois individualism. This aspect is not true and is a false antithesis; it is a voice coming from the House.

This is not to suggest that the tension between the serious aspect and being “on the street where the beats electric” is ever in abstract balance. Letting one’s hair down for those revolutionaries in occupied Europe during WW2 was not an option and needed to be put on ice while confusing right wing bourgeois democrats as ‘fascists’ and drawing parallels with Nazism is simply nutty and a sign of isolation. Please pass the bucket of cold water.

What the politics of the Street does, in effect, is ‘invite’ us to look forward, to grapple seriously with the contradictions inherent in its development, those affecting personal development, our place in the dance, in particular and to try and identify the synthesising processes that take us forward, that open up new possibilities and new challenges. But this remains an invitation; free will, choice and responsibility cannot be avoided whether we accept the invitation or not. While it would be drawing a long bow to say that the left’s collapse has been due to its inability to transcend the politics of the House and embrace that of the Street – its failure to get on top of economic challenges and present credible revolutionary alternatives having a bit to say about this collapse too – the left’s conflation of the development of individuality with bourgeois individualism has seen it trailing rather than leading.

This aspect has been a primary interest of mine since my work as a relational and group therapist has forced me to confront the place of choice and personal responsibility within the context of group and family dynamics and by implication social dynamics. This has taken a sharper form with the work I have done over the past 10-15 years with individuals and groups from within what is called new and emerging communities – primarily refugee communities – where the politics of the House, the traditional understandings or role and place, have been predominant. The link between this and the transformative possibilities of the Street became impossible to ignore. Nor was the link to the left’s ambivalence and its failure to confront and transcend its own assumptions regarding individual growth and development, especially as this related to the place of women. We need to get back onto the dance floor and formulate a few moves of our own.

* * * *

 

If Bertolt Brecht were in Alice (Springs)…

download

Many thanks to Tom Griffiths for this excellent poem.

For overseas’ readers, Alice Springs is a town in central Australia. The population is about 24,000, of which 18% is Indigenous. The town has very serious crime problems and is the ‘murder capital of Australia’. Domestic violence is especially bad.

The level of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities has been described as “out of control” by the Northern Territory Coroner. Women are taking the lead in calling for an end to violence.

Tom has been working in Alice with a family violence program run out of Tangentyere Council. The group program is for anyone but is overwhelmingly attended by men from the town camps or public housing. It addresses men and women of all ages who want to draw a line in the sand. The need on the ground and the adaptation of the original reminds us that art (of whatever form) must strive to do more than reflect reality, but must strive to change it.

 

Praise of Learning

Learn the simplest things. For you

Whose time has already come

It is never too late.

Learn your ABC’s, it is not enough,

But learn them! Do not let it discourage you,

Begin! You must know everything!

You must take over the leadership.

 

Learn man in gaol

Learn woman in the camps

Learn child roaming the streets

Seek out the school, you who are homeless!

Sharpen your wits, you who shiver!

Hungry man, hungry woman, reach for the book: it is a weapon.

You must take over the leadership.

 

Don’t be pushed around sister

Don’t be humbugged brother

Stand by your children parents

Stand up for yourself

And for others

You must take over the leadership.

 

Don’t be afraid to ask brother!

Don’t be won over sister,

See for yourself!

What you don’t know yourself,

You don’t know.

Add up the reckoning.

It is you who must pay it.

Put your finger on each item,

Ask: how did this get here?

You must take over the leadership.

 

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Toronto Museum – An exercise in ‘education’, irritation and Bertolt Brecht

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

– North American Indigenous exhibit, Toronto Museum

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(by Tom Griffiths)

Recently my wife and I had the opportunity of visiting the Toronto Museum at the invitation of a Toronto based colleague of hers, in order to see a Viking exhibition. Well, historical remnants and explanations thereof – if you want to see the long boats you need to go to the Viking Museum in Oslo. We did not expect this to be able to match the Viking museum, not a fair ask in any case and in this sense our expectations were met.

Before moving on to the purpose of this post, which is not really about the Viking exhibits, two comments about it, both positive, are worth making, especially since they affected my expectations (and disappointments) of what I would be exposed to in the rest of the museum, or rather those parts I visited. And these left me peeved and irritated with Brecht buzzing around my head. But more on this later.

The two positives, while modest in themselves, showed an attempt being made by either the curating bods at Toronto or Oslo to engage the visitor in the life and times of the Vikings. And having vicariously visited Valhalla courtesy of Dirk Gently’s adventures in The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul I was ready to be engaged.

The first positive was an obvious attempt by the curators to explain aspects of context, specifically social and economic, that helped shape the Vikings. As one would expect these days particular attention was placed on the place and role of women, making them visible. This aspect painted with a broad brush. The other positive was about fine detail. As one would expect after a thousand odd years many of the exhibits were showing their age and associated brittleness. One, a sword, made decrepit and fragile by rust, was partnered by a reproduction that had been placed in front of it. Above the repro was a sign saying Touch Me. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Briefly, for a fleeting second, I was able to imagine myself there. I will leave it to your imagination to decide whether ‘there’ was somewhere in the former Viking territories or in Valhalla.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that I was buoyed by this experience, it had certainly lodged somewhere in my head as my wife headed off to work leaving me to explore the rest of the museum. At this stage Brecht was, shall I say, keeping a low profile.

Whilst I did not ‘do’ the whole museum I did see three of their substantial exhibitions. In order of my seeing them these were an exhibition of 1stC to 20thC AD Korean sculptures and artifacts, a North American Indigenous section and a series of 16thC to early 20thC bed and sitting room furniture in ‘typical’ domestic settings. A legacy of European style as the Museum put it. Hint: the inverted commas serve as a warning. By the time I had finished Brecht was buzzing furiously.

Leaving Odin, Thor and their Viking worshipers behind I headed off to a Korean exhibition, the focus of which was mythology, mythological figures (the King of Hell, for example), furnishings and residential representations of the wealthy and … I don’t know what the collective noun is for numerous Buddha statues gathered in a small space is – a chill of Buddhas perhaps? – and a chill of Buddhas.

An O.D. of Buddhas- insouciance for all

I entered this exhibition curious but without any specific expectations. I left it Buddha’d out, having been through a Charge of the Light Brigade moment – Buddhas to the right, Buddhas to the left … The benefit of this over dose was it forced me to think and what follows is a distillation of that.

There were several aspects to this, the most immediately obvious being the historical, the retreat inward in the face of powerlessness. Whilst not true in any absolute sense the old boy himself and his many followers were, like the Stoics of ancient Greece and the Brahmin aesthetes, to name but a few, suffering an acute on chronic shortage of places to go with any dissatisfactions or grievances they had with the material world. And more importantly the people generally had even fewer places to go – they had no choice other than to put up with it and figure out ways to survive.

Hobbes’ dystopian description of the primitive world where life outside society was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ could also have been applied to the social conditions surrounding Buddha et al because life inside these societies wasn’t much better. From such materially and spiritually impoverished soil, “a heartless world” as Marx put it, sprang both need, “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and solution.

Withdrawing into the inner self was something they could do – and proselytise about – and they did. And yes, I know that proselytising about it is an external act and a defacto, if not intentional, political act but we moderns have Buddha et al at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to passing judgement on the value of what he or others were promoting as solutions to the miseries and injustices of social life.

So what is my gripe about confronting these ‘chilled out’ stone figures? None. As just mentioned, judging those times by today’s values and insights wouldn’t even make the grade as picking low hanging fruit; my gripe with the museum’s display is with how these concrete historical figures have been removed from their actual, material conditions and the human needs these ‘nurtured’ and gave birth to and rendered them abstract.

Museums all around the world, including Toronto, promote themselves as having an educative function. Unlike their Viking display, this was not education, but mystification. The saving grace, if I can put it that way, of the Buddas one can see in temples across South and SouthEast Asia – my favourites are the giant, recumbent Buddhas I’ve seen in Thailand and Sri Lanka, whose eyes peer lazily beyond, looking like they’ve just had a shot of heroin – is that they make no attempt to educate in a rational, secular sense; they are religious figures at places of worship.

There the term education takes on an entirely different meaning, one that is part of a religious faith’s ‘job description’. I disagree with the message but have no gripes with their honesty. I am unable to be so generous with the museum and this connects it with the following.

Another aspect is quite contemporary, a comment on the times. At the dawn of the modern era we see someone like Bacon revolutionizing philosophy by turning it outward, to the objective world of things. He took more than a passing swipe at medieval predecessors and ancient Greek philosophy alike for their looking inward and took a very direct swipe at Plato and Platonism generally: “when you taught us to turn our minds inward and grovel before our own blind and confused idols under the name of contemplative philosophy; then truly you dealt us a mortal injury.”

While not directed against Buddha or what his adherents stood for it could easily have done so. There was a world to conquer. The means to do it were emerging and these means were accompanied by and encouraged a spirit full of confidence and vision. This bullish spirit (or should that be Bolshie spirit?) of the young bourgeois revolution, so admired by Marx, is now in an almost apologetic retreat. Where once a critique of the shortcomings and hypocrisies of this revolution created elbow room for proletarian promise and daring do, there is now among ‘informed opinion’ and the broad spectrum of bourgeois ideology a de energised, timid state characterised by a sense of diminished hope and glumness if not outright funk.

And just when we thought things had reached rock bottom who should step, or rather who is pushed, onto the stage, but Buddha, eyes closed or glazed over telling us to focus on the inner self. Now in whose interest could that sage advice possibly be I wonder?

Tellingly, perhaps, my favourite figure in this section of the museum was the King of Hell, a diabolical little chap who at least displayed a sense of vitality. And here Brecht made his first appearance. As I looked and smiled at the King I was reminded of Brecht’s Mask of Evil: “On my wall hangs a Japanese carving/ The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer./ Sympathetically I observe/ The swollen veins on the forehead, indicating/ What a strain it is to be evil.”

As with my little ‘mate’ the King there is tension, there is contradiction, there is life. And thank heavens for that! Or should that be thank hell?
After entering this exhibit with casual interest I found myself relieved to be leaving it and without consulting the museum map soon found myself outside (and then inside) the North American Indigenous Exhibit.

The North American Indigenous section

It may be odd to say this but these exhibits had a certain familiarity courtesy of my childhood and adolescence watching westerns on TV and Saturday arvo matinees. That being said the exhibits were of interest and some attention had been paid (not enough as I was soon to discover) to explanation of context.

Then it happened, an exhibit that not only caught my attention (seized it was more accurate) but made me audibly laugh in surprise and approval. This was the highlight of the museum and demonstrates how the dead and buried can be made to live, for their living descendents to embrace the challenges of modernity without sacrificing their heritage and how easy this transformation can be. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

This exhibit was of three native Americans, life size plaster cast figures, two men and a woman, originally installed about 100 years ago. The male figure to my left was squatting and reaching for something with his left hand; in the middle, and standing was the female figure and to her left the second male figure in a semi squatting pose. An unremarkable exhibit of the past and a defeated past at that. Comforting for the victors perhaps, but not so for the vanquished and it was this discomfort (pissed offness is probably more accurate) that transformed what was before me into something exceptional. What I actually saw and what had given the exhibit life and relevance was the male figure to my left reaching for a power drill, the female figure holding a tripod and camera and the remaining figure wired up with a ipod.

After my initial ‘wow’ response my gaze fell to an explanatory note at the base of the trio. It said it all:

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

European Style through the Ages

I left the Indigenous display in a buoyant mood and soon ended up, in more familiar territory, in the Samuel European Galleries where I was assailed and increasingly irritated by the ‘legacy of European style through the ages’ – the ages here meaning the late middle ages – the birth of the modern period – to the 20thC. I later discovered, courtesy of their website, that during the period covered, “Europe witnessed agricultural, social, economic and industrial innovation that would change how Europeans lived, worked, and viewed with the world around them” and was invited to “examine the influence these changes had through the lens of decorative arts development in central and Western Europe. Walk among period rooms and vignettes, including those of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Victorian periods, and discover the different stylistic signatures of each.”

Now, I need to disclose that I gained this information after my visit and after the irritation I increasingly felt as I walked “among the period rooms and vignettes” conversing in my head with Brecht as I went. Had I had this info with me at the time my irritation would have been greater.

The problem I had was not with what was there but with what was not. The period rooms and vignettes displayed were, not surprisingly, either the “stylistic signatures” of the emergent bourgeoisie (landed or otherwise) or of the decaying aristocracies of Europe. This fails to surprise on two levels. The first is that the display artifacts were made by skilled craftsmen using quality materials and these have a tendency to last and to be handed down across generations. The second is political, or ideological more broadly and ironically sits in the same camp as that identified and rectified by the Indigenous activists referred to above. In much the same way as the common working people – you know, the ones that actually make all the stuff and keep it working – are written out of history, the lens employed at the museum airbrushes them out too. The pity of this is that their signature appears in every single exhibit, but remains unseen and devalued. As I traipsed my way through the centuries, looking at these rooms with their ‘stylistic signatures’ the one signature that emerged as dominant was that of class, of ownership.

On the one hand this is all rather ho hum – what had I expected to see anyway? But on the other, consigning it to the ‘ho hum’ department is itself a problem because it colludes with the obscuring of social relations. The question that kept repeating in my head was ”where are the people?” And I mean all of them – the property owners, the quality sort of chap with his quality sort of wife, their servants (who cooked the meals? who changed the sheets and cleaned? who…?) the craftsmen who had built everything before me. Where were they? And what were their quarters like? where and how did the craftsmen live?

The Indigenous example – the power drill, the camera and the ipod – demonstrated how the past can be made highly pertinent to the present, how the gap between them shrinks and can be traversed. With curatorship guided by curiosity and social awareness and how these are shaped by the times, we can be given the opportunity of asking questions of history. We can tackle, like our indigenous friends, how we can bring these questions into the present and ask ourselves what aspects of this past remain tangled in the present, holding us up and what aspects have opened doors and propelled us forward.

But why Brecht? Why him in my head, needling me? Brecht is one of my favorite poets and the answer lies in one of them, Questions From a Worker Who Reads:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.

 

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The Individual and the left

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THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE LEFT

Tom Griffiths

  

Some introductory ideas/context

The medieval soul is superficial, impoverished, miserable – that’s why the role of religion had to be imposed to fill in gaps or provide a veneer.

The modern soul is deep, complex (and therefore prone to neuroses) developing further layers of complexity. Increasingly the link is to individuality within an increasingly complex and multilayered society.

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I want to start this essay with a quote from The German Ideology, a work by Marx that predates the Communist Manifesto by not very much, and pose a rhetorical question to the reader: what stands out to you? What is Marx actually getting at?

“…private property can be abolished only on condition of an all round development of individuals, because the existing character of intercourse and productive forces is an all round one, and only individuals that are developing in an all round fashion can appropriate them, i.e. can turn them into free manifestations of their lives.” Selected Writings ed McLellan p 191

In case we missed it – and the left has a long history in peering through Nelson’s telescope on its position relating to the individual – Marx was pointing out that the development of communism couldn’t occur without the all round development of individuals.Abolition of private property from above, via some form of executive fiat, is no substitute for the broad cultural changes that “the all round development of individuals” assumes and that the abolition of private property must be a reflection of.

A Procrustean bed has no place here. As with spirituality, we have left the field of individuality and authenticity to the right – which is why we find some of their libertarian ideas attractive (presumably this must also apply to the Spiked crew).This 55+ year old quote from Barry Goldwater is a case in point: “Every man, both for his own individual good and for the good of society, is responsible for his own development.

The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: They cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.” (The Conscience of a Conservative, 1960). It’s like Nietzsche with a southern twang. And before readers start hyperventilating over the very obvious holes in old Barry’s argument – “he would say that wouldn’t he, he’s let the property question slip through” – we need to be aware that the radical left has been complicit in effectively allowing individual agency and responsibility – cornerstones of freedom – to become the ‘property’ of bourgeois property.

Late American Marxist, Marshal Berman, (The Politics of Authenticity , All That is Solid Melts into Air  made a spirited attempt to rescue the individual and reclaim territory once charted by progressive forces, including the revolutionary left, and he deserves our thanks. I’ll be dipping into his material, amongst others, below. There are a lot of reasons why what have formerly been mass revolutionary movements can now hold conventions in broom cupboards and assuming the ostrich position concerning the individual is one of them.

But before proceeding further some off road detours or context, hopefully relevant, are called for.

Why bother?

My first detour is: why am I bothering? My motivation is twofold. The first, and oldest, springs from an ongoing interest and dissatisfaction with how communist, and broadly revolutionary leftist thinking, has dealt with the individual. The second comes from my not quite as old work as a family therapist, group worker and supervisor (men’s family violence groups) and refugee support worker. I have come to appreciate that there is a considerable degree of overlap between these areas.

Human Nature

My second detour takes a very brief look at human nature. An uncontentious materialist view of human nature sees it as neither purely biological nor as an atomised abstraction along the lines of Adam Smith’s ‘natural man’. Our biology may be fixed within evolutionary frameworks but our individual and psychological makeup occur within social and historical ones. These latter therefore unfold and develop as we interact with both the natural world and the world we create and struggle to overcome their constraints; as we make our history, so we make ourselves.

Late German sociologist Norbert Elias expressed this rather well when he said “What is fixed by heredity, the range or pitch of voice, for example, merely provides the framework for an infinite variety of possible articulation.” (p36 The Society of Individuals)

Since the scientific revolution that accompanied modernity, numerous figures have expressed this fundamental truth. The 19thC thinker J.S.Mill, for example, wrote that: “Human nature is not a machine to be built like a model, and set to exactly the work proscribed to it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of inward forces that make it a living thing.” (On Liberty)

A more robust view  was expressed by Ivan Michurin, a Russian/Soviet scientist (he straddled epochs): “We cannot wait for favours from Nature, our task is to wrest them from her”, while English Marxist historian Christopher Hill, in God’s Englishman (p218) quoted Hugh Peter saying in 1648, “The work of God will go on [but] I am not in the mind we should put our hands in our pockets and wait what will come.”

Hugh Peter was expressing the idea of giving “history a push”, of loosening the reins on human subjectivity. During periods of revolutionary turmoil the “task to wrest them from her”, was not so much directed at Nature as at moribund ruling classes content with the idea that it was their natural and divinely ordained right to be in charge.

This idea captures a dilemma faced by proletarian parties which led successful revolutions in backward societies. These revolutions were obviously on the side of historical development but the ‘push’ was not solely directed at proletarian revolution. There was first the not so small problem of the bourgeois revolution to complete or even get started. We are familiar with the expression ‘push/pull’ and the push in Russia and China was in both bourgeois and proletarian directions with the latter being eventually defeated by a pull that was able to pass itself off as progressive. Deng Hsiao Ping’s “black cat, white cat: who cares so long as it catches mice” summed this up. As necessary and correct as the united front with the peasantry was, it was also a compromise and one of the components of this compromise – the one I’m interested in here – is the cultural space given to individuals and the cultural beliefs and practises that corralled that space.

Clearly siding with Michurin’s stand, Berman proposes that “It is inherent in our nature to make all things new – including ourselves.” (The Politics of Authenticity p165). In today’s world of deadened discourse we would insist that this view must accord with ‘evidence based practise’. What can I say, other than: it does and in bucket loads.

The Individual in Context

Picking up the point that we make ourselves, it seems reasonable to ask: how and from what?  Elias makes the obvious, but easily overlooked observation that individuation, the process of becoming individual, presumes some sort of social context because one must have a society, clan or group to individuate from.  While this may seem obvious its implications are easily missed, even by so-called Marxists, who should frankly know better.

In dialectical jargon the individual and society are in relationship as thesis and antithesis, each being antithesis or opposite to the other. In more colloquial vein they occupy different sides of the same coin. Speaking of the relationship between society and the individual across history, Elias  speaks of the ‘frozen antithesis’, a forced and inevitable one sidedness that cements one side of a contradiction, the ‘society’ side, to the exclusion of its opposite, the ‘individual’ side. When this happens the mutual interpenetration of opposites cannot be seen, let alone analysed, blind-siding us in the process.

Plekhanov’s favourite Hegelian aphorism that a contradiction leads forward covers similar ground. And this is what we have seen in traditional (pre modern) societies where the relationship between society (or group) and individual, the we/I balance, as Elias puts it, is fixed. And from the point of view of those involved, eternally so. Dynamism or fluidity in the relationship is absent and the individual is severely constrained and barely recognised.

There were very compelling reasons for this and they revolved around the issue of survival. For tens of thousands of years human survival was marginal and hard won. Individual survival depended upon the survival and viability of the group the individual belonged to. Initially these were small, family based units before developing into larger clan or tribal based societies and beyond. To use a maritime metaphor, the seas were too rough and the water too close to the gunnels for the individual to be able to stand up and rock the communal boat. Hence for most of our history the individual has had to serve the interests of the group and by so doing enhance his/her own chance of survival. The first struggle for freedom then was freedom from imminent danger, the freedom to survive. The struggle to wrest ourselves free from domination by nature is the basis upon which individual freedom emerges.

But this took many thousands of years and the development of mystical beliefs and practises – cultural, religious and loosely, ideological, were the secondary, and at this stage of our development, the most useful vehicles deployed to pass survival manuals from one generation to the next. As Daniel Dennett points out, harsh realities meant that we simply didn’t have the time or opportunity to turn the wealth of empirical knowledge our ancestors gained into higher level, scientific knowledge.

Romantic beliefs that surface from time to time, like those espoused by many greens, that our forebears lived in a harmonious relationship with nature, leapfrog conservatism and head straight for reaction. The fallacy of this belief rests upon an assumption that the relationship was essentially benign, if not between equals then at least between mutually respectful partners where a fair, de facto accommodation could occur. Nothing could have been further from the truth. For many tens of thousands of years nature held the whip hand. Our ancestors did as nature dictated.

The Individual in Pre-Modern Society

Alienation, here the separation of individuals from their potential to develop, was systematically imposed, unavoidable, unconscious and experienced as normal in static societies that were governed by fixed norms and traditions. Here, people must be satisfied with the roles given, experiencing themselves, Berman says, as pegs, aspiring “only to fit the holes that fit them best.” (The Politics of Authenticity p xxvii-xxviii) A static equilibrium is Berman’s description of Elias’ frozen antithesis.

This static equilibrium was dominant in the west until the demise of medievalism between the 16th and 20th centuries – (Russia across the 19th and 20thC, although if we include the Vatican in our reckoning we will need to push out the time frames a century or few). It is difficult to find a better, more dispassionate and dystopian description of traditional power and order than that given by prominent 19thC French reactionary Joseph de Maistre  who saw humanity as sinful, weak and proud with savage natures that must be kept in check by an uncompromising and unquestioned authority. “…all greatness, all power, all social order depends upon the executioner.” What can one say but “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.”

A static equilibrium describes social arrangements that warm the hearts of conservatives and reactionaries across the broad sweep of history, from Plato to Edmund Burke, Burke’s contemporary de Maistre and beyond in both directions.

Marxists have no difficulty in identifying Burke as a stick in the mud given his immediate hostility (1790) to the French revolution and his valorization of tradition, albeit within the context that accepted the gains of the English Revolution. Plato is more interesting because he was identified by the Second International’s leading theoretician, Karl Kautsky, as a prototype socialist come communist. Late American Marxist Hal Draper, was no fan. “Plato’s state model is government by an aristocratic elite, and his argument stresses that democracy inevitably means the deterioration and ruin of society. Plato’s political aim, in fact, was the rehabilitation and purification of the ruling aristocracy in order to fight the tide of democracy. To call him a socialist ancestor is to imply a conception of socialism which makes any kind of democratic control irrelevant.”

Like so many aristocrats after him Plato’s ideal of individual perfection was one’s acceptance of the role a person was born into, performing one’s ‘proper’ function, a perfect balance Plato called justice. It was a pity that Kautsky was unable to ask simply: justice for whom?

While Plato was an aristocrat and a static equilibriumist (it’s not a neologism, I’ve checked) there is little point getting carried away with his reactionary politics two and a half thousand years down the track. But the same allowance cannot be extended Kautsky or other revolutionary figures drawn to Plato as some kind of Ancient Greek avatar of revolutionary socialism.  While violent class struggles may occur within Plato’s schema “they concern only the allocation of particular holes to particular pegs. The board itself, the closely knit but rigidly stratified system of the Greek polis, which defines men precisely by their functions, remains unquestioned and intact.” (Berman The Politics of Authenticity p xxviii) What Berman is drawing attention to is, in systems jargon, first order or quantitative change. What is required is second order or transformative change. The board itself needs to go. That the leading figure of the Second International saw Plato as a prototype socialist indicates the depth of the problem for the left around the individual and the demos generally.

Under traditional circumstances people’s personal identity was derived from the roles they were born into or assigned. This promoted social stability of course (what’s not to like comrades?) while inhibiting innovation and creativity. It also shielded the undeveloped self from expectations and disappointments beyond one’s station. While systems are not sentient the advantages they confer pass on to those that are and these advantages were most warmly accepted by those who, coincidentally, sat at the top of what Hill describes as “the cosy hierarchical world picture [that] must not be disturbed lest the social hierarchy be challenged.” (The Origins of the English Revolution p345)

Berman’s take is similar pointing out that “Individual thought or feeling, insight or initiative, could only be destructive to these traditions and routines. Hence it was essential for traditional society to keep individuality from developing, at the bottom as well as at the top.” (The Politics of Authenticity p100)

The dead hand of the past, a point not missed by Marx, weighed down on the aristocracy and the peasants alike, but “it was easy to see why the upper classes were willing to make the sacrifice of self which their social roles demanded.” But no matter what station one was born into everyone “was reduced to a function of the rank which he acquired at birth – or, perhaps more accurately, to paraphrase Marx, the rank which acquired him.” (Ibid p101)

The respective autobiographies of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel, Nomad), Souad Burned Alive and Phoolan Devi (The Bandit Queen of India) describe both these aspects with an intense, intimate clarity. The life stories of these women are required reading by those serious about understanding, on a personal level, how tradition works and the risks that must be confronted in the struggle to form an authentic self.

THE WINDS OF CHANGE – CULTURAL REVOLUTION IN EUROPE

What I have been attempting to describe is the dividing line between the pre-modern and the modern world. The transformation of the former to the latter saw the relationship between the individual and society transform from suffocating stasis to dynamism. The place of the individual has grown enormously, with modernity facilitating this growth and there can be no doubt that this development has enriched those societies subject to its influence. There can also be no doubt that the transition was, or is for those societies still in transition, anything but smooth or complete.

While contradictions and conflicts of interest between society and the individual continue to exist and may often be very sharp, modern societies have created a social and political space (a cultural space if you like) where individuals can fight for and extend their own piece of the action. While we often think of these developments in terms of ‘rights’, it is worth remembering that along with creating ourselves we create the need for new rights and we win them through struggles against both nature and socially imposed impediments.

Gramsci described as a cultural revolution the period ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation. I’d not previously thought of these events, or movements, as cultural revolutions before, but he was right. They sounded the death knell of medievalism and it is worth remembering that the transition was protracted, violent and characterised by what we have come to realise as historical transformations with their obligatory twists and turns. This latter point should serve to reassure, by the way – looking back we can see that frozen antitheses were melting all over the place, a fact that should encourage us to look for the current melting points.

These transformations ushered in the modern era and with it the modern individual. Most bourgeois opinion, that is, most ‘opinion’, prefer to either be overtly negative about revolutions or to ignore them. This also applies to attitudes of any oppositional movement that comes from below – cultural or otherwise – where the default perspective offered is, as suggested, to not only turn a blind eye or to focus on the negative aspects but to demean and treat with contempt the ignorant or stupid masses. Where are Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters pumping out Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive when you need them I ask rhetorically.

The threat and fear of ‘chaos’ is an oft repeated mantra by both conservatives and reactionaries, especially as revolutions threaten or are in their midst. Communist parties, especially those in power, have shown themselves to be prone to catching this bug and the challenges it throws up in spite of their need to launch cultural upheavals or revolutions. This latter is surely part of the job description, a recognition that it’s ok to consciously and deliberately give history a push. But the modernist cultural revolution, if I can call it that, was not prescribed or consciously directed and the participants were most unlikely to have had a clear idea about how things would unfold or where they would end up. Developments were more akin to an unpredictably moving but unstoppable tsunami, moving forward here, being held back or pushed in other directions there, leaving untouched some remnants and swallowing up others. One way of reading Hill’s histories is with this in mind. So too with Shakespeare who wrote his plays as the tide began to surge.

The ‘left’, of whatever stripe, speaks of and seeks to work with ‘social units’ – the working class, unions or worker or community organisations, parties etc. But unless this contributes and leads to an ongoing transformation of the social unit or group (getting rid of the board), and thereby to the opening up of opportunity for individual growth and transformation, the ‘left’ would be pissing into the wind and indicating that, on this matter at least, it has failed to understand or embrace the modernity that Marx and Engels, amongst many others, were so enraptured by.

Group maintenance without transformation is a dead end. Group transformation without individual transformation, is politically fraudulent and reactionary, seeking to maintain the existing or traditional power relations within the group, community or society. As repeated once already, the board itself has to go.

THE EMERGING INDIVIDUAL

Hill makes the point that the transition from tribal to village society involved a shift from kinship (blood bond) to neighbourhood; that is, from tribalism to feudalism; and that the transition from parish to sect was a shift from local community to voluntary organisation. Voluntary organisation cannot occur without the existence of self-motivated individuals. Today this is the norm, indeed so normal as to barely raise comment. In the social sphere alone we see a plethora of activities, clubs, associations and the like which people engage in freely. It covers all classes, ages and tastes and could not occur without freely choosing individuals, all taking responsibility for fulfilling certain of their needs.

But the communist movement has struggled with the free aspect of the individual uncritically buying (I use the term advisedly) the bourgeois assertion that central to this freedom is freedom of property ownership and hence of capital. The individual that emerged from the medieval straightjacket was associated with the development of capitalism, capitalists and aspiring capitalists, what Hill termed ‘the industrious sort’. One sidedness in an analysis is always a problem and an embarrassing one when the analysis is promoted as dialectical. Here the matter of the individual is left dangling, a frozen antithesis, stained with its association with the ‘industrious sort’ so central in the development of capitalism (Tawney’s depiction makes this connection a defining characteristic). Individuality, individualism, bourgeois individualism and its junior, aspiring cousin petty bourgeois individualism, are generally carelessly treated as synonyms. While some common ground between them is real, contradictions and points of divergence emerged early on. Failing to see this, or downplaying their importance and lumping them all together, is more than careless, it is lazy and betrays an ambivalence about the place of the individual absent from Marx and Engel’s thinking.

As mentioned Berman has attempted to correct this by focusing on the emergence of the individual, as has Hill. One of Hill’s great contributions has been his determination to track and expose the development of both sides or aspects of the individual’s development in England from the 16th to the 18th centuries. That is, the individual’s connection to bourgeois economic and social development, the aspect that has ‘form’, and the flourishing of the individual among the ‘lower sort’, the members of the ‘many headed monster’. (Change and Continuity in 17th Century England)

Failure to distinguish between capitalism and modernity

Associated with this has been a failure by the left to distinguish between capitalism and modernity. Each has developed together and each has, within itself, contained the possibility of the other. This is best seen and summed up in the “all that is solid melts into air’” aspect, the dynamism, that has been common to both. By the early 19th C it was becoming possible to clearly distinguish between the two and to see that the development of one was frustrating, distorting and impeding the development of the other. Marx’s writings were very much concerned with this distinction (we can see it too in Goethe’s Faust, albeit in a less politically conscious way); indeed he and Engels were key figures in making it. In effect they were saying: I like this part, the dynamism, the restlessness, the urge to develop, the newfangledness, which in turn enables the individual to develop; but not this part, the tying of labour, in perpetuity, to market relations and the exploitation and alienation that goes with this.

Marx and Engels spent most of their lives demonstrating that capitalist economic and social development will materially create the conditions where it can be superseded. Where, in other words, modernity can be fully transformed and shed itself of its capitalist constraints.

The identification that left wing radicalism has made between the capitalist economy and the liberal state with ‘individualism’ has also seen it linking radicalism with, as Berman puts it, “a collectivism that negated individuality.” This is succinct and accurate. A collectivism so understood, one that attempts to negate the ‘newfangledness’ so admired by Marx, will take us nowhere other than a dead end. More disturbingly it aligns a radical, anti-capitalist sensibility regarding the individual with the premodern. Indeed, that is what it is a hangover from. It is backward looking and as communists or assorted radicals we need to remind ourselves that that is not the direction we should be heading.

The Marxist Archive reflects this problem and makes its own contributions (see the entries for ‘Individual’, ‘Individualism and Collectivism’ and ‘Autonomy’ for examples). While not wishing to make such a detour as to get lost let me make the following points. Its entry for ‘Individual’ goes no further than formal logic or the medieval Latin word ‘individuum’ in describing particular, indivisible things. This includes individual humans, of course, but also individual rocks, horses or flies crawling up a wall. Unique persons, with their multiplicity of individual characteristics fail to make the team. ‘Individualism and Collectivism’ is more nuanced, but remains problematic (or should I say symptomatic?). It speaks of collectivism transcending or sublating individualism; that is a collectivism which does not suppress the individualism of bourgeois society, but supersedes it. This gets closer, but supersedes to what? Primacy is given to collectivism with the transcendent, dialectical leap, only relating to it. Individualism, which remains ‘bourgeois’, or consistent with the individuality that emerged under capitalism, remains unsuppressed but also untransformed. It is as though dialectics has had a seniors’ moment and forgotten that individuality too, must transcend its bourgeois limits.

Individuum (and its siblings individualis and individuus) was, in relation to the now emerged individual (bourgeois or otherwise) a word at a low level of synthesis, a direct reflection of Elias’ frozen antithesis and Berman’s static equilibrium, characteristic of undeveloped or backward societies. A collectivism that negates, or awkwardly slides over individuality within a modernist context, that strips the particularities of individual persons and highlights only those features common to all is backward looking and reactionary.

The bods at the Archive, seem to understand that the individual is important but their ambivalence gets in the way of them seeing the matter as dynamic. The antithesis remains frozen.

But if dialectics has meaning this must also indicate that we also have a problem with the universal, although this is not an issue for here.

Although we are social creatures who define ourselves in relation to the other, modern societies enable identities to be achieved and transcended. The synthesis has developed to a much higher level. Roles and limits are transcended regularly and to such a degree we barely notice. Your average citizen at work transcends him/herself out of work or even at work – is he/she a junior sports coach, team manager, assistant this or that, the secretary of a club, an amateur whatever, a blogger … How about a revolutionary? Now, that’s a novel idea!

Berman points out that “To be authentic, authentically “oneself”, is to see critically through the forces that twist and constrict our being and to strive to overcome them” (The Politics of Authenticity p xiv). In a repressive society people cannot be themselves within the system but must strive to become themselves in spite of the system. This can take private, even mystical forms, as with the Stoics, or openly rebellious forms where people can only be themselves, or strive to become so, against the system. Revolt, Berman reminds us, is the only mode of authenticity a repressive society allows. It is not only right that we rebel against reactionaries, but in doing so we act authentically.

If the theory of revolution grows out of and develops alongside the idea of authenticity, we need to be able to evaluate how well proletarian parties like the Bolsheviks and CCP fulfilled or sought to fulfill this within the boundaries of what was historically and socially achievable. Within the west I think we’ve been under performers and more aligned with the historically regressive. Revolutions in undeveloped countries present a more complex picture. With 80/90% of the population in China, for example, being peasant and where feudalist culture predominated, the communists had to work with the raw materials at hand and an emphasis on a collectivism that downplayed individuality was probably unavoidable. That was certainly what they inherited. This did not mean that individuality did not develop. It is difficult to read Lu Hsun or any of William Hinton’s accounts without seeing new and vibrant individuals emerging. But there is also an ambivalence borne of the circumstance (the constraints) of these revolutions. In his very sympathetic Reconstructing Lenin, Hungarian historian Tamas Krausz remarks that “the autonomy of the individual and of personality as the communal societies’ main context of unfolding was missing not only from Lenin’s legacy, but from the legacy of the entire period, which insisted on other areas of development.” (p369)

What I find disappointing is the lack, or apparent lack, of theoretical material from either the CCP or the Bolsheviks that laid the realities on the table in such a way that indicated that they knew the growth of the individual was an important goal and that it was occurring, but that circumstances did not allow them to focus on this. This distinction, and its rationale, does not strike me as beyond the wit of the players to articulate. While my own ignorance may be the driver here, the lack of much written material indicates that it was not seen as a problem. This reinforces my hunch that there has been a deep ambivalence about the individual in revolutionary movements generally and that this has been dealt with through avoidance and a one sided focus on notions of collectivism.

One of the problems I have with this (there are a few) is that this ambivalence leaves the door open to the development of anti-capitalist feelings that spring from a backward looking romanticism, a yearning for a pastoral, harmonious, pre industrial past, based on scarcity and frugality.

This reactionary yearning looks to an idealised, non-existent past and posits it as the future. Its most modern form can be seen amongst extremist greens and Islamic fascist groups like ISIS. It certainly had a presence in the English Revolution and re-emerged as a current of the Romantic period that arose partly in response to the Industrial Revolution. However, as Berman states, we envision equality within an urban, dynamic economy based on growth and abundance. (p36) And Amen to that!

During the 18thC and 19thC that reactionary yearning for harmony and stability was expressed strongly in reactions to the Enlightenment and to the French Revolution. Prior to the revolution reactionaries on both sides of the English channel were busy drawing the cultural authoritarian wagons into a circle, drawing upon Neo-Classicism from the arts and Newtonian physics, in order to promote social stability by encouraging people to submit to fixed, eternal rules, externally imposed and closed to scrutiny. This de facto united front between a decaying French feudalism and an ascendant British capitalism occurred because both ruling classes required social stability. The British were more successful having had a revolution, albeit limited in its extent and aims; the French were not because they hadn’t. But on both sides of the Channel ruling class anxiety was a clear sign that the horse had well and truly bolted. Whilst it is obvious that there were a great many other issues that drove the revolution, the progressive unfettering of the individual, his/her emergence as subjects on the social and political arena, was prominent among them. Following similar developments that had been occurring in Britain, the third estate mob was becoming less and less mob like.

By 1790, for example, before the direction of the revolution had become clear, Edmund Burke was quick to fire a shot across the bows, dismissing the philosophes and the revolution that Burke would have seen as their mongrel child, as “sophisters, economists and calculators. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” Proud submission? Servitude an exalted freedom? Warming to his theme and moving seamlessly into hyperbolic overdrive he predicted that “All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics all the sentiments that beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by the new conquering empire of light and reason. All decent drapery of life is to be torn off …” (Reflections… paras 127-8)

While Burke’s prose is simultaneously impressive and nausea inducing he employs a sophistry unmatched by any of his erstwhile French targets. We should keep in mind that de Maistre’s reflections, made after the revolution, dispensed with Burke’s draperies and cut to the chase. Berman points out that what Burke was effectively admitting to was that the “whole social system of Europe was essentially a system of lies” which is where de Maistre’s executioner comes in as reinforcer. Shelley exposed these lies in his poem Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. It is good to have Burke in mind while reading it.

French reactionary responses were also predictably hostile. What had been lost was the clarity and predictability of medieval Catholicism, especially the stability and obedience to medieval hierarchy. Individuals, they argued, had been severed from their traditional (and subservient) ties. The atomised, uncontrolled individual, the individual who no longer respected the sanctity of the place of his/her superiors, was a threat to social cohesion and aroused consternation among those superiors for whom de Maistre was an influential spokesperson. Individualist liberalism was destructive to the social order and de Maistre’s uncompromising worldview has cast a long shadow.

Had figures like de Maistre simply faded into the background and, along with their ideas, exited stage right, we could happily channel the Mandy Rice-Davies line of “well he would [say that] wouldn’t he” and move on. What is of ongoing interest about de Maistre, aside from his ‘casual’ attitude on maintaining social order, is his influence on Saint-Simon, one of the Utopian Socialists’ heavy lifters, a man who had a significant influence on the development of numerous socialist currents that developed in the mid to late 19thC. Both men were contemporaries and it was de Maistre’s thinking about social cohesion and political authority that garnered influence. Auguste Comte, Saint-Simone’s secretary and father of sociology, frequently and approvingly cited him.

Culture that draws its authority from a closed and oppressive past cannot prepare or aid its members to negotiate the permanently turbulent waters that modernity throws up. For such cultures, the future has already happened and all it does is prepare people for more of the same.

Historical events demonstrate more powerfully than words that this has a shelf life. Taking sides in the individual/social divide, however, presented real challenges, cultural and political, that have seen ostensibly radical and revolutionary ideologies promote ideas that bore disturbing similarities to feudalist or semi feudalist ideas of community with limited space for individual development, let alone transformation.

The development of society to  higher levels (higher levels of syntheses as Elias would put it) enables higher levels of individuation and individual development, opening the way to increased fulfilment (and increased dissatisfaction); increased chances of happiness (and increased chances of unhappiness and disappointment), all of which are society specific. So which road, the high road or the low road? Old maritime charts used to have “this way there be dragons” to describe unknown waters and discourage exploration. Dragons might be scary, but “this way there be development”.

This of course is not a one way street as the development of the individual in modern societies is necessarily accompanied by the development of society, of a multiplicity of choices in how we can be ‘we’ as well as ‘I’ and ‘we’ relationships are no longer necessarily permanent and inescapable, no longer a constraint to the development of free will and personal responsibility.

The working class itself has made it clear through its actions and choices that it values individual growth and development and the economic development which facilitates this.

The question for communists and assorted ratbags is: do we?