No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille interviews Adam Theron-Lee Rensch about his new book No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture

Q. Can you tell us about why you decided to write the book; what the book is about; and why you chose the ‘memoir’ genre to write it in?

A. I was very resistant to writing a traditional memoir, and the first draft of the book included very little personal narrative. While I’ve written about my life and experiences in essays, I believe the memoir or “creative nonfiction” genre tends to perpetuate neoliberal narratives that eliminate structural critique in favour of emotional identification. Everything becomes about the writer as an individual: their suffering, their triumph, etc. Who cares about the larger set of social relations that make this possible? What matters is what is moving enough to sell copy. So, I knew I didn’t want to play into this.

At the same time, I realized my life was something of a convenient structure onto which I could hang my critique: I was born in 1984, came of age in the post-9/11 landscape, and internalized the liberal obsession with meritocracy. If I was going to make something of myself, I thought, I had to become educated. The middle-class fantasy of managerial creativity was baked into how I saw the world, and how I imagined solutions to its problems. I had to unlearn all of that. I think the “left” more broadly also needs to unlearn this, and I’m hoping that people will find something useful in reading about my own process.

Q. Yes, and one of the ways you are clearly hoping that readers will ‘unlearn’ their political outlook is through a more accurate understanding of their class position, and the importance of class-based politics. Can you tell us about your own journey to a clearer understanding of class, and your thoughts on how the left can achieve a cultural shift towards a greater class consciousness amongst working people?

The biggest obstacle for me in understanding class was, as it is for many, the cultural and aesthetic markers that are often confused for class: education, taste, etc. I grew up in Ohio, surrounded primarily by poor and working-class whites. For a long time, I was ashamed of this fact, and attempted to leave it behind by embracing a stereotypically “cultured” aesthetic. I placed a lopsided emphasis on “ideas,” that elusive resource utilized by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the so-class professional-managerial class. There was something seductive about feeling smart, but at the end of the day it did not change my material conditions. I was still struggling to find reliable work, and was in debt from all that schooling I was certain would bring me success.

A few years after the financial crisis of 2008, I moved back to Ohio. Slowly, and admittedly with some resistance, I began to see that all the stuff I thought mattered was not very important. It was mainly a way for me to rationalize my own position in the hierarchy: I may be poor, but at least I’m not stupid! Sadly, this is still a common reason for many to justify inequality and suffering. I think the first major step in creating class consciousness would be to understand that it has nothing to do with individual beliefs and traits of this sort. You likely belong to the same class as many of your partisan adversaries—the working class—and while it may feel uncomfortable to demand justice for them as well it is nevertheless the only way forward.

What I mean is that a majority of workers receive a wage that barely covers their cost of living. It is enough to cover rising costs in housing, food, and insurance, perhaps a credit card or car payment, but not enough to get ahead. Many are not “lucky enough” to even make this much. These are the conditions that shape the lives of most people. They are material, not cultural, and they unite workers in a way that other categories cannot.

The left’s best chance at organizing a broad movement is to focus on these material conditions that a diverse population has in common. This is of course easier said than done, because cultural divisions are powerful. Resentment is a logical reaction to suffering, and it is easier to blame someone than it is to accept that your pain is simply the result of an indifferent economic logic. But again, I think focusing on material condition is a necessary first step toward creating a political movement that a mass of people find appealing.

Q. Ok so if we need to develop a new culture of class-based politics which will unite the mass of working people, this will mean engaging in so-called ‘culture wars’ against the dominant forces that shape our culture. In this context, what do you think is the responsibility of cultural workers – artists, poets, writers, film-makers, playmakers etc. – to help our class develop and apply a more class conscious approach to social and political campaigns?

This is a good but difficult question, but one I think about a lot given my own position as a writer who values culture objects like novels and films. I am not “influential” in any meaningful sense, at least compared to mainstream writers and filmmakers who reach the general public. Nevertheless, I am conflicted by the role works of culture play. It is something of a cliché to bemoan the fact that art is a commodity, and that works of film or literature, even those with explicitly political commitments, must in some sense appeal to a market for distribution. But acknowledging the cliché doesn’t change that fact. The market’s primary function is to relegate politics to the realm of consumer preference: this film appeals to your political sensibilities, that novel appeals to someone else’s, etc. In my more cynical moments, I often wonder if art is not inherently conservative, even when its aesthetic is outwardly radical.

At the same time, I don’t think being a philistine is a useful position for anyone to take. So, what we’re left with is a tension between market forces and the individual commitments of cultural workers, the latter of whom must court the market for an audience. Their politics, much like the critics handing out prestigious awards, tend to skew liberal. But I would say if there’s one thing cultural workers can do it is challenge the sort of narratives the market finds so appealing, and that justify the neoliberal worldview of individual adversity and triumph. What this would look like, exactly, I’m not sure. Class relations have nothing to do with “the individual” in the narrative sense, or even “lived experience,” to borrow a term used a lot these days. Perhaps the role of cultural workers is simply to find ways to make objects that acknowledge this. I think a film like Parasite comes close: it is a film first and foremost about class, and adopts genre tropes to offer a description of class relations, which is totally smart and useful.

Q. Thank you! There is a lot there to think about, and that resonated with our approach to culture on Culture Matters. Can I now turn to the main political and cultural issue in the United States – the presidential election. In the light of the need for more class-based politics, what’s your take on Trump’s presidency and the class consciousness of different segments of the American people?

Contrary to popular belief, I think class consciousness does exist in America. The problem is that it’s the wrong class. The wealthy have a keen sense of their position, and as our political “spectrum” shows they are willing to put aside differences to make sure they maintain their power. Indeed, bipartisanship is never greater than when workers try to organize or fight back.

There are many obstacles preventing widespread class consciousness among workers, from the shame of admitting one is poor to the atomization characteristic of what I like to call “curated capitalism.” The algorithm has done a lot to fracture any sense of a common or “mainstream” culture that everyone interacts with. Everything can be tweaked and personalized, and soon you find yourself online in communities of people just like you, never needing to interact with anyone outside of it. Add to this our lack of organized labour, our culture wars, and a deep suspicion toward the possibility of change, and you’re left with a country of alienated people who are often too exhausted to do anything except find small comforts in leisurely activities.

Adam head shot

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Trump’s presidency has been painted as some sort of populist uprising, but I don’t think that’s quite right. About 110 million people didn’t vote in 2016, mostly those in the lower income brackets. If anything, the absence of working class participation is the real populist revolt, but this fact is never talked about seriously. Instead, we continue to inflate the problem of the “white working class” who of course is described as inherently authoritarian, racist, etc.

Why? Because it justifies the worldview of those who benefit from our class structure, and ensures that the discourse focuses on criticizing individuals (bigots) and not social relations. After all, if you’re a manager or media personality, even one with left-leaning politics, do you really want workers to organize and take away what power and influence you have? It’s not a surprise that during the 2020 primary, Elizabeth Warren’s base was educated professionals who preferred her top-down managerial approach to Bernie’s bottom-up solidarity. They were the ones who’d get to manage the “revolution”!

Q. Thank you. Finally, what is your view on the result of the election, in terms of the need to develop and promote class-based and socialist politics in the U.S.? What does the future hold for the U.S. and the world generally?

The 2020 election was in a lot of ways a missed opportunity for class-based politics in America. Sanders never fully recaptured the insurgency he represented in 2016, and I think his exit was seen by the establishment as an indictment of policies that prioritize the needs of the working class. As a result, the “choice” between Biden and Trump was basically aesthetic: which version of austerity do you prefer?

Moving forward, I think there needs to be a serious conversation about what “the left” represents. The culture wars of the Bush era never really went away, they were just given new descriptions. To be somewhat reductive, the Christian Right was replaced by the Fascist alt-right, and the Latte Left was replaced by the anti-fascist Left. A lot of self-described socialists still reflexively approach working people as incapable of contributing to the movement. They are often seen as too reactionary, or too uneducated, unable to participate in the discourse properly. As someone who has spent too much time in academia, I feel comfortable saying we need to stop taking our cues from intellectual vanguards and prominent media personalities who remain mired in the culture wars. Under this approach, material interests of working people are not always represented within this dynamic. This can make the left’s project alienating and incapable of attracting broad support.

I am not smart enough to offer an easy solution to this problem. What I will say is that we need to focus more on those material interests that impact a massive segment of the population: wages, insurance, housing, and debt. The U.S. economy is not productive in the way it once was, which means the source of exploitation has changed. While industrial capital still exists, much of it has been outsourced and replaced by finance capital. Monopoly rent-seeking has become a critical problem and effectively resurrected feudalism.

In other words, far fewer American workers are being paid to produce goods that other workers buy to realize profits. Rather, profits are realized by charging workers to use services. This is the Silicon Valley model as seen with Netflix, Spotify, and others. Amazon, for example, generates billions each year simply by charging people to host websites. How do these companies remain profitable? They do so by cutting costs, not by hiring more workers to produce more goods. So, focusing our energy on that parasitic model of profit extraction would have the greatest impact in changing the power relations to benefit working people.

A Mother Stamps Her Feet
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

A Mother Stamps Her Feet

Published in Poetry

A Mother Stamps Her Feet

By Rafael Pizarro 

A mother in San Jose sees a child in
a cage and stamps her feet.

This is how it starts.

In a cabin, at the foot of humble
mountains a man and his wife, married
seventeen years now and still young,
watch a neighbor dragged out of his home
and taken away as his own wife works and
their children attend school. The young couple
visit the family that night. They cook a meal
together and plan for the next day.

This is how it builds.

A teacher leaves his classroom in Austin
for the long drive down to the border
and takes some colleagues with
him. Along the way they sing songs of
liberation and redemption.

This is how we sustain.

A committee of parishioners from
St. Mark’s in New York gather gifts of
clothing, toys and toothbrushes
and wrap them around a table in
the sanctuary.

This is how it grows.

They come one by one or in carloads. They come
on busses, they come by plane and a joyous
committee meets them at the airport
as if they were long lost relatives.

Now it really comes together.

Like mountain streams we meet together on
the road and out of one there are many
thousands and we stamp our feet, and the Earth
shakes. Some hearts are hardened, others are
broken, but each and all must now reckon
with their own demanding soul.

That’s how we win.

Statue of L

What They Don’t Know Is
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

What They Don’t Know Is

Published in Poetry

What They Don’t Know Is

by Kevin Higgins

That this cannot be avoided by everyone wearing protective glasses.
That the contents of their half-full cups are about to evaporate.
That the University will remain closed until further notice.
That Kim Kardashian’s arse has been abolished.
That the idea of tomorrow is suddenly quaint as a dinner plate made in West Germany.
That the price of house insurance just went up ten thousand per cent.
That the lack of reception on their mobile phones isn’t because they’re going through a tunnel.
That even the hairstyle of the Fox News anchor woman is no longer perfect.
That Adolf is now the second most hated politician in history.
That the station at which this train terminates no longer exists.
That the priest who’ll give them last rites is just a guy in an outfit
his brother recently wore to a fancy dress.
That God is a skeleton who knows everything and will one day talk.

Author's Note:

I got the idea for this poem while walking through the grounds of our local hospital, just behind our house, the week after Donald Trump was elected. I looked at the apparently solid buildings and the normal life going on all around and thought: none of this is guaranteed to continue. A world war which would bring buildings like these down and put a stop to what we think of as normal, everyday things is now entirely possible. The image is Napalm, by Banksy.

The election: Irises along the canal
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

The election: Irises along the canal

Published in Poetry

Irises along the canal

by Mair De-Gare Pitt

Fly the flag for the men
who dug and died on these banks.
Brandish your torch for their wake.

Their country was work.
Their time was cheap.
It was bought and sold.

Fly the flag for sunny days.
Nod at your face in the shadowy glass.
Bring a splash of cheer to the deeps.

Your country is summer.
Your time is fleeting
and it is not for sale.

Author's Note

In response to your call-out – my most pressing concern at this difficult time in world politics is the rise of nationalism. In America with Donald Trump’s America First, in France with Marine le Pen’s far right party – all over the world. And in my country too, Wales, there is the rise of a national politics.

I partly understand this. I love being Welsh, love Welsh culture, literature and language, sport and music and history. And I am aware that poverty here has hit many families hard and that people are searching for relief. But I am deeply distrustful of any movement which is inward-looking and exclusive. I am sure the Scots, English and Irish have similar love for their country, but I fear movements which separate people who have so many unanswered needs in common.

The Labour movement united people as brothers and sisters. Let’s not forget how precious this unity is. And let us extend our friendship and support to people from any country where need, oppression and poverty are rife. At a time when the world is threatened by climate change, and where the consequences will no doubt be felt most by those who have least, surely we need to face this together.

 

Absurd colours for absurd people: an exhibition ridiculing the right wing, by Heidrun Thate
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

Absurd colours for absurd people: an exhibition ridiculing the right wing, by Heidrun Thate

Published in Visual Arts

Bianca Idelson reviews an exhibition by Heidrun Thate at the Sacripante Gallery, in Rome.

Heidrun Thate, born in Germany but living in France for more than twenty years, paints Hitler's figure - with constancy, refinement, and even obstinacy - in the colours of a deliberately exaggerated range of the most unnatural fruit candies she can imagine, ranging from candy pink, to a greenish fake salad, to a red that's redder than strawberries. One could say: it's Hitler, dreamed in supermarket style.

Heidrun captures the signs of the times, pervaded by nostalgic aspirations towards a world that would like to see its own security guaranteed through regulations, restrictions, prescription codes ... and expressess it through the colours of pop candy, exposing its incredibility.

Heidrun Thate 01

Colour and thematic choices thus succeed in making us perceive, lurking around the corner of the image, a paternal and protective Hitler, and make us guess that historiography had a dysfunctional effect in depicting the dictator as a monster.

It seems that the artist wonders up to what point each of us could hide aspects, attitudes and tendencies of that unhealthy type, for example in the paintings in which Hitler seems to perfectly caricature aspects of human kindness towards children and women, stuffed with good manners and gentlemanly attitudes. The absurd colour makes us perceive all the deception of the staging, and the human and cultural squalor hidden under the cloak of an arrogant admiration of himself, a man built by the machine of delirious political doctrines and propaganda (now called spin doctors) but nourished and supported by a perverse narcissism.

Heidrun Thate 02

Today more than ever, in the deafening and blinding noise of social networks, Heidrun Thate reminds us that the danger of a collective delusion of non-perception is always present, in all of us. She speaks of American soldiers arrived in front of the horror of the concentration camp of Buchenwald, who could not believe that the inhabitants of Weimar, (known as Goethe's home and birthplace of German constitutional democracy) only eight kilometers away, had never perceived the acrid smell of burnt human flesh that constantly came out of the ovens - and how those soldiers brought the population to see the incredible atrocity. Which they would not look at - historical photographs show the inhabitants of Weimar in Buchenwald, with their eyes covered by the fingers, so that they could not see.

A similar blindness seems to affect some youth groups, according to a 2018 survey by CNN carried out in seven European countries, but broadly comparable with other research in the U.S. It turns out that about 20% of the young people interviewed have no knowledge of the extermination of Jews under Hitler: the highest numbers are found in some countries like France and Austria. Yet the number of young people who have visited concentration camps has increased over the past two years to two million per year.

Heidrun Thate 03

It is easy to understand how the lack of historical knowledge softens the critical abilities of voters: in this way the political language that seeks shortcuts to consensus by exploiting insecurities and fears and turning them into aggression and hatred, is simplified. This is what happened in some European countries in the recent EU elections, and in the United States, with the election of Trump. 

Heidrun Thate, with her slashing strokes of sharp candy-coloured images brings out the rightful, ridiculous truth in these characters.

Heidrun Thate 04

 

 

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

SL 1

Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.

SL2

Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

Lying to the Land
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

Lying to the Land

Published in Cultural Commentary

In the first of a series of articles on aspects of modern culture, Paul Tims tells us about 'fauxgress' as exemplified in the film, TV and music industries as well as elsewhere – and how we can make things better.

The most pernicious and successful lie in western culture is that things are getting better. Every day, in every way, we move closer to perfect equality – or so we’re told. The general consensus is that we have more rights than ever and the bigotries and xenophobias of the last century are being pushed out of existence. The rise of the far right and the election of spray-tanned pop-up tyrant Donald Trump are supposedly aberrations: the death-throes of a sickening paradigm.

It must be nice to believe that. It’s a comforting theory that probably helps a lot of people sleep at night. I have another theory, however: one that contains markedly less horseshit. My theory is a simple one and can be summarised in a single sentence. Brace yourself. If you’ve been living in the consensus reality-tunnel for the last few years, this may blow your fragile little mind-melon into a thousand tiny pieces. Here it is: our culture is basically as awful as it’s always been, just slightly prettier. Don’t worry if your monocle popped out your eye in astonishment. That’s a perfectly ordinary reaction.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the progress we’re supposed to be experiencing is a carefully-crafted illusion. Over in the States, Trump wasn’t elected by a vocal minority of bigots, because that’s not how democracies work (no matter how dysfunctional they are). He was elected by a terrifying majority of socially alienated, systematically-ignored rust-belters who didn’t have access to the level of education needed to realise he was exploiting them, lying to them and pandering to their worst impulses. Here in the UK, racism is clearly alive and well. The British people are glibly preparing to leave the E.U. (along with the cultural and economic benefits it provides), largely because ludicrous caricatures like Nigel Farage told them it might provide a great opportunity to get rid of a few foreign johnnies.

Feminist Classic White Ladies Tee 1050x

You can buy T-Shirts with the word ‘Feminist’ on them, but they were probably sewn in sweatshops by women who are treated little better than slaves. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, did you know that reports of rape shot up by 20% last year in London alone?

It’s also worth noting that there is a prevailing sentiment against the poor and the sick here in Britain. The Tory government has declared literally thousands of disabled people on benefits ‘fit for work’ only to have them die within six weeks, cut off from the state support that allowed them to live. If there wasn’t a nasty undercurrent of hatred for the impoverished and the disabled, there is no way the party that did that would still be in power.

Racism, right wing lunacy and misogyny are supposed to be dying out, but the most cursory glance at actual statistics (or even just electoral and referendum results) tells you that this isn’t the case. The lie of continual progress is laughably transparent. There are, however, two questions worth asking. Where is this false narrative on culture coming from, and why is it being pedalled?

The chances are that you feel confident that you’ve encountered the narrative and agree that it’s pretty pervasive… but I bet you can’t think of a single source that’s actually articulated it! That’s because the lie isn’t told explicitly on news programmes or in editorials. If it was, people would see through it in an instant. Humans are pretty dense, but they don’t actually have brains made of play-doh. They’d notice a fib that spectacularly obvious. Instead, the lie is fed to us at a sort of primal level: it’s encoded into our cultural myths, emphasised by the stories the media chooses to tell and implanted in the very language used in mainstream forums.

moonlight

The media went mad with ecstasy awhile ago, when Moonlight (a film by and about black people) won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was happy news, of course, but did you notice the way that it was framed as a watershed moment: a significant victory that marked a serious change in the way western culture regarded non-white stories? Maybe that’s even true, so long as the stories in question are on the silver screen.

The year that film came out, America arrested 111,000 people just for being in the country illegally- a 42% increase over the previous year. Sure, it’s great a film by someone other than Honky McWhitebread the Third won an Oscar, but clearly it changed diddly-squat about race-relations in the real world, where human beings actually have to live.

If the murky waters of US race relations don’t float your boat, why not take a look at the always-zany world of representational feminism? Since 2016, we’ve seen gender-flipped reboots and/or continuations of some major nerd-culture touchstones: women now fill the main protagonist roles in Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who. This is framed as an indisputable sign of progress by the decision-makers responsible. Conversely, any criticism of these gender-swaps is framed as inherently sexist.

marvelwomen

But why are we seeing lazy gender-swaps of stuff that already exists instead of a wave of original women-lead TV shows and films? And why hasn’t this supposed triumph of vaginal representation magically empowered women to not be used as fuck-toys and free labour by rapists and sociopaths out here in the real world? It’s almost like a lot of people in the film and television industries have cynically seized on feminism as a brand, that can grab viewers for their sub-par cultural byproducts while leaving actual women to suffer the same miserable fates they always have.

It’s not just films and telly that have turned once-meaningful ideologies into cheap brands, however: it’s also the music industry! I speak, of course, of Beyoncé. She’s held up as a symbol of both racial equality and feminism in the music world… despite being a truly terrible human being who shouldn’t be considered a paragon of anything. Once again, I should stress that it’s good non-white women are having their voices heard in music. Unfortunately, Beyoncé is a non-white woman who once gave a private concert to the family of the murderous dictator Gadhafi. She also once danced around in front of the giant neon-hued word ‘Feminism’ wearing nothing but a figure-hugging leotard. As a man, I understand I’m not allowed to define what feminism involves, but I know a lot of radical feminists who would tell you that it doesn’t involve gyrating around, half-naked.

Of course, in the three previous paragraphs, those perpetuating the lie of progress aren’t actually oppressing anyone or screwing anyone over. Maybe they’re not deliberately creating a false narrative? Maybe they’re just overly optimistic morons who ate a lot of paint as children? My counter-argument is one word: Disney. Disney films have had a fairly liberal outlook lately, right? They’ve promoted tolerance and equality and… hang on a minute! This bloody company was producing its merchandise using sweatshop slave labour as recently as 2012! Weirdly, I can’t find anything more up to date than that on the subject… which is suspicious in itself. If you needed proof that the pedlars of faux-progress (fauxgress, if you like) know exactly what they’re doing: there it is.

On a similar note, Nike (purveyors of the world’s most pretentious trainers) recently launched a massive ad campaign designed to combat racism… by including non-white people (especially Muslims) on the posters. We’ll leave aside the fact that simply including non-white people isn’t especially radical: it’s basically just the bare minimum demanded by human decency. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Nike was using sweatshops and child labour in non-western countries as recently as August 2017.

nike

Just like Disney, Nike is a systemically racist company with a history of exploiting non-white workers. Despite this, they are hypocritically cultivating a progressive, anti-racist image for themselves in order to promote their brand. As with Disney, trying to figure out if Nike still uses sweatshops has proven rather difficult, as there’s a troubling dearth of post-2017 online resources regarding their corporate practices. However, I’d invite my readers to apply inductive reasoning to the problem and take a wild stab in the dark.

Nike and Disney don’t have the monopoly on exploitation however. The tech giant Apple has a nasty habit of filling its phones and computers with conflict minerals. If you’re not familiar with the term, I should explain that conflict minerals are metals and other materials mined in territories controlled by local warlords who use the profits to fund obscenely violent conflicts with other warlords. It’s interesting that Apple has managed to position itself as a trendy, alternative, ‘progressive’ brand without actually having a specific progressive message. It’s even more interesting that it’s managed to do it while indirectly funding wars that kill innocent women and children on a daily basis.

I’ve told you where the cultural narrative (or lie) of progress is coming from – cultural pundits, media outlets and half-arsed content creators. Given this information, it’s not that hard to figure out why it started. Money. Tell people everything’s getting better, frame yourself as a champion of the new paradigm and watch millions of good, kind, politically-aware people queue up to buy your DVDs and T-shirts, read your magazines and newspapers, retweet your sponsored fucking content.

The world is not getting better. Not in the ways that matter. But it can get better. You might be feeling a bit bleak and alienated after reading twelve paragraphs of proof that progress is a lie and that the world is as bad as it’s always been. But I’ll tell you a secret. You have the power to change things for the better.

Progress in mainstream culture may be a write-off, but we are living in an age where we have unprecedented access to music, books, TV shows and opinions that exist outside the mainstream. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with the way you or others are represented in your favourite genre of TV show or film, go on the internet and find cinematic works created by artists with genuinely different voices, or visit an online bookstore and find literary examples of your preferred genre that would never make it into Waterstones or Barnes and Noble.

If you’re sick of the pandering, half-witted fauxgress to be found in modern music, it’s easy to find lists of alternative songs in any style on music websites, then listen to them immediately on Youtube. It’s even easier to simply not buy products from corrupt, fauxgress-spouting compaies.

You’re already sat at your computer, reading this article. You’ve already taken the first step towards seeking out counter-cultural content. Thanks to technology, you have the ability to ‘vote with your feet’ and only engage with content that meets a high standard. If you want to kill fauxgress and replace it with something better, the simplest way to do so is to ignore it to death.

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy

Published in Fiction

Phil Brett tells the story of when Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joseph McCarthy.                              

Sixty five years ago, on March 26th 1953, Dashiell Hammett, the famous novelist who was responsible for popularising the hard-boiled private eye novel, faced Senator Joseph McCarthy. For a brief moment in the confrontation, there took place an exchange concerning the possibility of communism in the United States. What led to that frankly surreal moment shows both what the American state will do to protect its rule, and the power which it fears.

 PB 2 Maltese Falcon                      

By 1953, Hammett was internationally known for his novels such as The Maltese Falcon, which had set the template of the cynical hard-drinking detective (See Murder, Mavericks and Marxism for my socialist look at the growth of crime fiction). His writing inspired legions of others, including such luminaries as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Many of his stories had been made into Hollywood movies. The 1941 film of the Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, usually appears in best movie lists, and the book figures in literary equivalents. But it wasn't because McCarthy disliked film noir that Hammett was having to defend himself. To find the reason, we perhaps should travel back to the start of the twentieth century.

By then, the United States had grown to a position where it could rival Britain and Germany. Huge corporations were now creating huge wealth, but only for those at the top. With the ever greater demands of profit, came ever greater exploitation. Workers fought back and unionisation grew, but the American federation of trade unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was ill-equipped to lead it, being virtually all male, all white and all skilled. Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States writes that "Racism was practical for the AFL. The exclusion of women and foreigners was also practical." Theirs was a business unionism, set up to help big business whilst earning fantastic salaries for the officials; divide and rule worked for them. But not for the movement. Mass strikes, such as the 1907 general strike of over ten thousand black and white workers on the New Orleans levees, terrified the bosses. Socialists and anarchists found their ideas gaining an audience. A new union, The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies) was created to cross racial, gender and sectional lines. It grew massively. The ruling class responded as they always had, and would continue to do, by unleashing terrible violence. Strikers were regularly fired on, such as in 1916 Everett, Washington, when two hundred armed thugs opened fire, leaving five Wobblies dead. It was far from being a one off.

   PB 3 IWW                               

A year later, IWW organiser Frank Little, was kidnapped by vigilantes, tortured and hanged. Strong evidence suggests that the vigilantes were in fact members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. A member of the Pinkertons at the time was one Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Lillian Hellman, playwright and writer, comrade and partner of his for thirty years, later claimed that Hammett himself had been personally approached to be part of the gang. Her claim has been questioned, but whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt that Little's murder appalled him, and as a Pinkerton he would have witnessed the strike-breaking, infiltration, blackmail and murder which, despite their name, was pretty much the main work of the agency. Seeing at first hand how the state would subcontract out terror made Hammett begin to question the values which he had been brought up with.

 PB 4 newspaper on IWW                                

By the twenties, the IWW had been destroyed, with many activists dead or in prison, and the Socialist Party was falling apart. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan had grown to 4.5 million. It looked as if the American ruling class had won, and reaction was on the march. Racism and terror had long been popular mechanisms of oppression, but now there was something new in their tool box of terror - anti-communism. The first Red Scare was launched as a reaction of to the 1917 Russian Revolution, with the state mobilising against the threat. The press joined in, howling against anyone who even vaguely threatened the 'American way of life'.  President Woodrow Wilson forced Congress to pass the 1918 Sedition Act, primarily aimed against anarchists. Similar to what we see today, with Donald Trump calling anyone he perceives to be an opponent a snow flake, back then, there was little concern to differentiate between communists, socialists, anarchists, liberals or merely decent human beings. They all were 'reds'.

However, the struggle continued, with mass strikes. Marcus Garvey's message of black pride reached large audiences and the NAACP bravely battled for justice. In 1919, the American Communist Party (CP) was formed. The 1930s depression saw times get even harder, with more workers growing disillusioned with capitalism. The CP had grown to 55,000 by the end of the decade.

Hammett might have left the Pinkertons, but he was using the experience of detection in his writing. His first story was published in the magazine The Smart Set in 1929. The first of his five novels was Red Harvest (1929), which was followed by The Dain Curse (1929), the Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931) and the Thin Man (1934). They brought fame and wealth. However, the effect wasn't to draw him towards capitalism, but quite the opposite.

The 1930s saw him involved in civil rights and anti-fascist activity, joining the American Labor Party and in 1937, the Communist Party. In the main, his support was financial, and lending his name to campaigns. Not that his politics can especially be seen in his writing - there is a constant theme of a corrupt society in them, with many of the cops on the take, but little more than that.

But neither the lack of overt literary socialism, nor the fact that he had served in both world wars, was going to save him from the watchful eye of the red scaremongers. Over time, legislation had been steadily passed against the left. In March 1947 president Truman signed Executive Order 9835 to check the "Americanism" of public employees. It was the legislation which the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) would use. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, says, ""The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." And the crook was certainly cheap here, with Senator McCarthy achieving his moment in history, by conducting several HUAC investigations.

Again, as with today's resident of the White House and purveyor of gaudy Twitter patter, stars in the movie industry were useful targets (see also Peter Frost's article I am Spartacus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo). This was partly because there was anxiety that any liberalism in the arts might help raise awkward questions about society (see my If We Stop Fighting The World Will Die for an example of how political messages appear in the most mainstream of films). But it was also because the stars' fame could be used to spread the fear - if the state was willing and able to go for the great and good, then the local activist was an easy target. In wielding such power, the ruling class showed their fear, by trying to instil it in others.

    PB 5 HB and LB              

Some fought back, including in 1947, a high profile, (and in the history of lobbying, possibly the best-dressed ever) delegation, led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the same year, Hammett was elected the president of the Civil Rights Congress (CVC) whose role was to fund defences for those arrested for political offences.                                      

Four years later, he was brought before the United Sates attorney for the southern district of New York to disclose who had been aided. Hammett refused. As a result, he was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt. The magazine Hollywood Life caught the OTT hysteria, calling Hammett, "one of the most dangerous (if not THE) influential communists in America".

Then in 1953, he was dragged in front of the HUAC. This time it was to face the charge that 'pro-communist' books had made their way into overseas libraries run by the State Department. Three hundred copies of his books had been found on the shelves of seventy three of its libraries. Fearing that American capital would collapse from Sam Spade's sardonic wit, Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joe McCarthy.

For most of the hearing, Hammett, like so many others who appeared before the HUAC, pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions in case they might incriminate him. There is a tradition of socialists using political trials as a platform to argue their cause. Why Hammett and others didn't do this is not clear. Perhaps, the reason is hinted at when one of the Committee questions him as to why he is appearing "before the bar of public opinion". He replies that it was not the 'bar of public opinion' which had sent him to prison for six months - the implication being that it was the state, doing so for political reasons. By the fifties, the left had suffered a series of defeats and confidence was low: taking the Fifth was seen as the only viable tactic. Certainly, Hammett didn't lack moral courage. He'd shown that in the 1947 trial and the fact that he had publicly supported campaigns associated with the CP throughout the Red Scare.

But then McCarthy asked, "Do you believe that the communist system is better than the system in use in this country?" Hammett didn't this time take the Fifth but instead answered, "Well, regardless of what I thought of communism in Russia today, it is doubtful if, you know, any one sort of thing - one is better for one country, and one is better for the other country."

McCarthy, then asked, "You seem to distinguish between Russian communism and American communism. While I cannot see any distinction, I will assume there is for the purpose of the questioning. Would you think that American communism would be a good system to adopt in this country?" Hammett took the Fifth, but then to perhaps McCarthy's surprise, he added that it was a question which could not be answered by a yes or no. McCarthy asked why. "You see," Hammett answered, "I don't understand. Theoretical communism is no form of government. You know, there is no government. And I actually don't know, and I couldn't without - even in the end, I doubt it if I can give a definite answer."

Sensing a chance to trap him, the senator asked if he favoured the adoption of communism in the United States. Hammett didn't take the Fifth but answered no. It wasn't the answer that McCarthy had expected. Hammett explained, "For one thing, it would seem to me impractical, if most people didn't want it."

Maybe McCarthy should have read some of the books he was so intent on banning. If he had, then he might have understood that to achieve communism, Marxists believe that a transitional socialist state is required, you did not jump straight to a communist state. So Hammett was, strictly speaking, not denying his politics. McCarthy just simply did not understand them. In any case, the agent of change was the mass of the working class. The masses in 1953 USA were not in a pre-revolutionary state, so Hammett was being practical. Hammett's testimony couldn't be said to have been a stirring defence of socialism, but he hadn't implicated anybody else, nor fundamentally denied his politics.

The session ended with McCarthy returning to the ostensible reason for his appearance, the stocking of 'communist literature' in state libraries. He asked the author, "If you were in charge of that programme to fight communism, would you purchase the works of some 75 communist authors?" Hammett, replied with a putdown which Sam Spade would have been proud of, "If I were fighting communism, I don't think I would do it by giving people any books at all."

Despite his careful replies, he had done enough to provoke further action against him. He was blacklisted and the FBI spent a lot of time and effort in trying to charge him for tax fraud. Perhaps nothing more was done because Hammett was a sick man, who would not publish anything major again. He become a virtual recluse, living with Hellman until his death in 1961. Even then, he had beaten McCarthy, outliving the senator by four years.

There is no doubt that the American ruling class faced a serious threat to its power in the first half of the twentieth century. It defended itself with brutal violence, intimidation and blacklisting - nothing less than state-sponsored terrorism. The left was smashed.  Sixty five years later, with Trump as president, it could be easy to think that McCarthy had won. However, within a decade, the sixties would see a re-emergence of radicalism, with women's, black, gay and anti-Vietnam movements changing American society forever. Even today, with the Uncut, Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns, not to mention campaigns against Trump, people still fight for radical ideas in the States. McCarthy would have been apoplectic at the sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans flocking to support Bernie Sanders, a politician proud to call himself a socialist.

The root of Senator Joe McCarthy's fear is still here. And let us also remember that McCarthy's name is now despised, synonymous with witch hunts, whilst Hammett is famous for the creation of a literary genre. Perhaps the words of Sam Spade, his most famous creation, also spoke for him: "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble."

Hollywood Ten

Come in number 45, your time is up
Friday, 27 November 2020 17:32

Come in number 45, your time is up

Published in Poetry

In Which No. 45 Once Again Seeks Validation To Dispel
The Existential Fear That Gnaws At His Very Soul

 by Steve Pottinger

Thursday, 4am. The president wakes
Reaches, half-conscious, for his phone
Unwilling, untutored, unable to fight.
Must! Have! Attention! Now!
Punches the keypad over and over

In a desperate, infantile frenzy. Then:
Send.

America! The best! My big red button!

Falls back against the pillow, spent,
Useless, lost. Needing some kind of
Consolation, he mutters that he’s bigly
King, in his own mind at least. But
We see the emperor naked, unmanned,
Impeachment barrelling relentless down the line.
The end will be fast.

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