The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: January, 2017

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.

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Book Review: Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain

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(Disclaimer: I am colleagues with the author [one discipline removed] in the academy and know him. We also both have a tenuous academic career, though I am perhaps still more recklessly hopeful. While I’m here in the parentheses, I want to say that I think the author’s acknowledgements and dedications are some of the best-written and most sincere I’ve read, which shows the integrity of their author. Love to all of you in the movements!)

Continuity and Rupture serves a very specific purpose. The book is neither history nor theory because, as the author indicates, it incorporates history and body of theory into its basic premise. We’ll discuss what that history is as we go through the review, but the body of theory––which it calls Maoism-qua-Maoism or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM for the sake of my carpal tunnel)––should be explained first. In order to explain what Maoism means for the unaware or misinformed audience, the author has to show where it came from as well as what direction it is metaphorically travelling.

For Moufawad-Paul, MLM emerged as a coherent body of theory in the documents of the Communist Party of Peru––Shining Path (PCP) in the late 1980s. Over the next few years, the story goes, the party’s theory coalesced on an international level within the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). Maoism preexisted this historical and theoretical sequence as a term, the author argues, but in the 1970s it largely functioned as a synonym for a party or an individual’s alignment with China as opposed to the Soviet Union. This pro-China attitude often corresponded with an anti-revisionist orientation. Though revisionism is a slippery term that communists graft onto any number of perceived or real errors, here revisionism indicates parties that professed Marxism while abjuring revolution and arguing for a peaceful and gradual path to socialism through elections.

As anti-revisionists, groups like the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party in the US, La Gauche Prolétarienne in France, and revolutionary organizations from Turkey to The Philippines, arrayed themselves behind Mao’s criticism’s of the post-1956 Soviet Union and, by extension, parties that still maintained connections with Moscow. So the revisionist rogue’s gallery included a majority of the older, established capital-c Communist parties. But, Moufawad-Paul argues, simple support for China did not mean that they had transcended the limitations of Marxism-Leninism (ML), and in fact were ML orthodoxy incarnate. In fact, the author notes, the parties disintegrated precisely because their adherence to ML rendered them incapable of grappling with various social movements that had emerged in the 60s (movements in which the creators of these anti-revisionist parties had usually participated in some form). The typical example is the RU/RCP’s homophobic line, which relegated gay members to what has been dubbed the “Red Closet.”

Maoism, in order to be a relevant improvement on ML, had to resolve the contradictions of traditional ML. Moufawad-Paul’s fundamental argument is that it has done so without jettisoning the important insights of its anti-revisionist predecessors. Within its rupture from traditional ML, it preserved the continuity. In fact, he goes so far to propose that its rupture was not just simultaneously contiguous with its tradition but in fact necessary to the preservation of the entire Marxist theoretical edifice. MLM puts its ancestors to death in order to keep them alive, we could say.

Fundamental to the flow of Moufawad-Paul’s argument is the notion that Marxist theory constitutes a scientific, rather than merely ideological, tradition. Therefore when he appeals to the work of someone like Thomas Kuhn and his ideas about paradigm shifts in science, he is not being analogical but rather quite literal in ascribing to Marxism the same evolutionary process as physics, chemistry, and the like. Not that he thinks Marxism is a natural science or that it has any authority over such areas (he mocks those who do argue Marxism’s hegemony over all of science). Rather, like Louis Althusser, he sees Marxism as a form of knowledge and practice that can pose and answer questions scientifically, constantly negating its own theories even as it preserves core principles and “methods.” Thus, just as physics got its atom from Democritus but endowed it with a fresh and empirically useful meaning, Maoists took a word that had one meaning and transformed it. Words and concepts, in other words, are not identical.

Whether or not one supports the idea that politics can be scientific, the analogy with paradigm shifts in science is an illuminating device. We can see, throughout Continuity and Rupture, the ways in which Maoists deploy old Marxist concepts like class in a different way than Leninists, and how these differences are relevant enough to separate the two fairly strongly despite their shared embrace of the vanguard as a useful organizing concept. The author also dispels some misconceptions about Leninism and its ties to historical periodization in a way that I found very satisfying. The idea, for example, that Leninism is “the Marxism of the era of imperialism,” petrifies Marxism as long as imperialism exists. Linking the development of Marxism to the vicissitudes of capitalist evolution rather than the actual practice of communists seems foolhardy and self-negating as well as historically dubious since, as Moufawad-Paul observes, imperialism hardly waited for Lenin’s say-so to come into being.

In sum, the book does what it says on the cover: convinces me that Maoism came into being in the late 1980s and has created a novel set of theories and practices that have made some headway in challenging capitalism in parts of the world. I already shared this understanding with the author, but I think it makes a convincing case even to the relatively uninformed. Those who are hostile to Maoism in all forms would also benefit from this book because it offers a coherent explanation for what it is.

That’s not all a book like this has to do, of course. I’ve spent the first half of this review talking about the book in terms of its argumentative structure and commentary. However, the real question Moufawad-Paul has to answer, especially to the vast majority of people who are not Maoists, is why it matters. After all, if Maoism is irrelevant to the reader, an explanation of what it does and how it talks and where it was born is nothing but an abstract exercise. Almost like a taxonomy for mythical creatures: elaborate and fascinating, but of no immediate value except to nerdy enthusiasts like me.

After all, as the author admits, Maoism has no claim to hegemony either over the broader left or within Marxism more narrowly. In India, The Philippines, Peru, and Nepal it achieved/still is achieving some level of organizational success, and in the latter case was upheld by the party controlling essentially the entire country outside of the capital region. However, Nepal’s revolution has splintered and dissolved, seemingly held in perpetual stasis. The Peruvian Maoists capitulated after the capture of the leader they venerated, Gonzalo. In India, the party is under immense strain as a result of state repression. In The Philippines, the people’s war has been protracted indeed, though it seems the most stable of the movements at this time. This is not to speak of Maoist movements in the West, which are nascent or at best have achieved the status of marginal forces in certain cities. A reasonable and honest radical might rightly, I believe, still approach Maoism with skepticism.

Still, Moufawad-Paul declares, Maoism’s emphasis on putting communism into action, on bridging the here and now and the communist future, puts it on firm ground. And I think it’s at least undeniable that the old communist parties are moribund, especially in North America, and that Maoist movements are often militant bright spots, along with certain anarchists, in many urban settings here in North America. We might say that Maoists are making some of the most valuable and worthwhile mistakes of any leftist tendency today. So I would keep an eye on Maoist movements as the global situation tenses and we see a resurgence––how powerful we cannot reckon––of old reactionary and fascist tendencies. The margins are often the most fertile breeding ground for successful ideas, and I think Continuity and Rupture makes some of Maoism’s best ideas legible to those who might scoff at party documents. And that’s a valuable contribution indeed.

 

Follow the Curves: Anti-Area Studies and Environmental History

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“[B]oth the traditional disciplines and area studies often incorporate similar underlying assumptions about the nature of social space. Both, in other words, tend to take for granted the reality and integrity of entities like `Latin America’ or `Southeast Asia’. They also incorporate similar ideas about the relationship between scholar and subject of study. That is to say, disciplinary as well as area studies often embody an implicit image of `the West’ as the fountainhead of theories with which to interpret the rest of the world.”

–Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural 8, no. 1 (2000), 19.

Here Morris-Suzuki, a well-known veteran of Japanese studies, challenges disciplinary and area studies from one angle. She goes on to recommend a remedy in the form of an “anti-area studies” that would locate global forces to examine comparatively as they work in areas that are quite distant from one another.

This is necessary because traditional area studies are built around those rickety blocs of earth-space called “regions” which, when we’re talking about territories as large as “East Asia” or “North Africa,” tend to lure scholars into the trap of exaggerating the commonalities that just so happen to pervade a given pre-constructed region. One example might be “individualism” for North America or “Confucianism” for what we would call East Asia. The problem is twofold. First, the way a social process like Confucianism operates within a certain region changes depending on how we draw the boundaries for a region. The “Middle East,” for example, is notoriously impossible to map in any coherent way, sometimes being limited to the Arab-Persian-Kurdish-Turkish-Jewish-Azeri-etc. core around the Mediterranean and other times stretching as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Second, the fact that a set of ideas or institutions and practices are prevalent within a certain space does not make those ideas or institutions and practices core to those areas. Christianity has adherents throughout many regions but does not simply “define” those areas because it’s there and happens to occupy a contiguous territory.

Environmental history can take Morris-Suzuki’s challenge and carry it still further. We’ve already seen sprawling environmental histories of the world that look at multiple dispersed reactions to global phenomena (ice ages, solar disruptions, El Niño events) that cannot be contained by region. Even studies of national entities or states and their relationship to the environments within their territories, disease-causing organisms, ocean tides, and other nonhuman processes and beings are blind to the nation and state. A comparative study of, for example, British and Japanese responses to urban cholera epidemics will consider both countries within their particular “regions,” of course, but it also allows for an appreciation of similarities and differences that do not map onto proximity or distance. Two countries at opposite ends of the world deal with the same problems of trying to preserve particular human bodies from particular germs. Used with a critical eye, the environmental-historical approach can shake both disciplinary complacency and the often-imperialistic projections of area studies.

Inherent in the environmental approach, of course, is the risk of attempting to explain too much or assuming consistencies on a species-wide basis that might not exist. Comparisons cast across huge distances can also come up with little relevant information if there are not enough bases for comparison or the researcher has not framed their questions in a productive way. But I see the entire ecological approach to politics and scholarship a powerful tool for avoiding these pitfalls, since the approach can integrate to divergent spatial and temporal scales, finding how more universal, slow-to-change processes interact with localized and singular events. Seeing the world as more opaque and less “hieroglyphic” and “readable,” as Suzuki puts it, we can confront the difficulties of an ecological approach to history and anti-area studies with a renewed awareness that our frameworks and theories will disintegrate in translation more often than not.

New Year’s Smorgasbord: Three Thoughts to Carry into 2017

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Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #30

Happy New Year to all of my patient regular readers! I wanted to start off 2017 with a post that was more freeform than usual. Because my predominate mood the past few months has been healthy but painful uncertainty, I have been stretching out to find new insights and creative approaches to the problems I’ve been encountering. And to give the blog a loose and sketchy overture for the year, I will put down three brief snapshots of where my mind has been at lately. To make it more meaningful, I plan on revisiting these three core ideas and refining them a few times throughout the year. Maybe by the end of this coming December I’ll have settled into a more solidified mental state. Or maybe not, but at least I’ll have this post as a time capsule to dredge up in the future.

Vignette #1: The City Woman

The LGBT movement is an urban movement. Cities like Toronto are the only places where we can gather in large enough numbers to forge our own affinities and communities, at least offline. We don’t have one role in the concrete-and-glass thicket––some of us are prisoners, some are upwardly mobile, some are homeless––but the city is our shelter, our environment. Solidarity in urban neighbourhoods differs greatly from the alliances that are possible among subsistence producers in rural areas. Everything we do winds through the so-called cash nexus, leaving us without the option of “dropping out” or trying to be self-sufficient. Only visions and plastic dreams of self-reliance can persist here.

For our movement to thrive, though, it must grow out of the sidewalks and alleyways. Vitally, we have to cultivate groups of LGBT readers, eaters, walkers, lovers, and workers who can deal with fear. Our fears haunt us, but our politics are blind if we let fear tell us what to do. And as long as we see our problems as problems for the state to solve, our petitions will be cursed wishes. Forcing the state to make our lives easier has not been in vain, but as prisoners of the status quo we can only formulate our problems in terms that we think the state can solve. When the state solves problems it does so with armies of soldiers, teachers and bureaucrats. More of the same, more of the same. And then the curse takes hold, as our desires, filed with special officers, become requests for cops to take our sisters to jail, to “clean up the streets,” to ultimately squeeze ourselves out of the cities on which we depend.

We need a city consciousness––Municipalism is one word we could use. While I’m not suggesting that LGBT people of all sorts abandon national or revolutionary aspirations, we have to recognize what we can do in organizing and improving our neighbourhoods, apartment blocks, and cities. We have a global vision, and perhaps a national programme, but we would not survive in a city if we let it die and rot. Nor is survival the ultimate goal; rather, we have to build a new world within our reach. Not everyone is inspired by lofty and abstract goals, especially at first, and solidarity is often starts with proximity and coincidence rather than intellectual agreement.

Vignette #2: Proliferating

As I mentioned in the introduction, whenever I try to think or act lately I’m dogged by an unfamiliar ambiguity or uncertainty. I can ascribe some of that to a long period of inactivity during the winter, but not all of it. Problems I thought I had solved continually re-present themselves to me. Partly, this has to do with the fact that my graduate school demands mingle with the anxieties of gender transition. Learning goes in stages of proliferation and consolidation as early experiments give way to solidity, which again dissolves under the stress of new and potentially contradictory information. Here is a form of movement that is not exactly progressive. It’s expansive and twisting, with abrupt changes in speed that can throw the thinker into unexplored terrain.

The wrong response to this change is to batten down and resist it. For now, I am in the proliferating stage, seeking answers in unknown areas for questions I was unable to solve in the last time of apparent certainty. Political and intellectual certainties––not even mentioning sexual or personal identities––tend to self-destruct over time while leaving remnants of themselves. I suppose I was due for another storm. Change is usually good, but it helps to confirm this with a tight group of confidants who can challenge and shape your development in productive ways. After all, when one individual changes, the connections that person has will inevitably shift as well.

Vignette #3: Four-Act Stories

On a more creative level, I have been writing a loosely linked series of stories in my spare time. Studying Satoshi Kon’s films and reading traditional Japanese poetry, I stumbled on the concept of kishotenketsu, which is a four-act mode of storytelling found in China, Japan, and some other countries in that cultural sphere. Kishotenketsu is obviously the Japanese name for this structure. In any case, however, my interest in it is that it is a form of storytelling that does not revolve around central conflicts between characters, themes, or ideas. Rather, it puts them into chaotic tension with each other, somewhat like the structure of a Western musical symphony with its scherzo, expositing premises and themes  and then introducing a twist that radically changes how the reader views the the established elements. While not for everyone, the form appeals to me because it shows that you can write plot without prioritizing conflict.

In fact, attempting to produce writing in this form-–poetic and prose––triggered questions about my own approach to politics. Though Marxism is traditionally explained in terms of a strong narrative conflict––different core groups of people within a society struggle over the allocation of power and resources, and this drives history forward. However, I’m increasingly skeptical of historiographies that are purely linear and can’t account for forms of (metaphorical) historical motion that are neither forward nor backward. Perhaps it’s possible to restate Marxism in terms that account for non-linearity and degrees of chaos and order, the tensions and twists that are not necessarily antagonistic but that nonetheless reshape history and our understanding of it.

***

Closing:

I’d like to wish all of my friends, friendly readers, and comrades a New Year overflowing with possibilities. With so much uncertainty suspended in the air this January, we can all use reassurance and solidarity as an antidote to fear. May all our order be tranquil and all our chaos be creative. And let us together build things we have not yet imagined.

awoo!

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