The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Marxism

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.

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.

 

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.

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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.

Paul Burkett: Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

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Paul Burkett wants to show that Karl Marx is not an anti-ecological figure. Marx and Nature is an interpretation of Marx and Engels’ own work on the subjects of class struggle, nature, and communism, functioning as an exploration of the ecological possibilities contained in Marx as well as an apologetic defence. As a starting gesture, I will say that this book will only be worthwhile to you if you are already invested in this debate and have some working knowledge of both Marx’s more significant texts and, maybe, some of the criticisms that have been levelled by ecologists against Marx’s communist ideas. If you are a Green activist or leftist who is just interested in the historical question of how well Red and Green approaches to politics have mixed since the nineteenth century, this will not satisfy your curiosity. Rather, it is an almost purely textual and abstract consideration of the problem.

Before moving into more detail, we should consider just how valuable a purely abstract consideration of Marx’s relationship to ecology might be to us. By treating Marx’s ideas as more or less self-contained and present in our own time, Burkett opens up possibilities for his investigation but also closes some off. As he does in this book, he can try to prove that Marx’s theories are not, in themselves, anti-ecological. By pushing the concrete history of 20th century Marxism to one side, he can try to reclaim an ecological dimension of Marx that remains uncultivated or ignored. On the other hand, he forbids himself the opportunity to examine why anti-ecological tendencies flourished among those claiming fidelity to Marxism for so long. He can point to pro-ecological possibilities in Marx, but cannot definitively establish why, in reality, those possibilities lay fallow and tendencies from the early 20th century to present-day “luxury communists” and accelerationists could grow while upholding many of the same basic tenets of Marx’s thought. So the value of the book’s high level of abstraction is that it can answer theoretical questions more precisely and show, perhaps, how Marx can contribute to present-day ecological struggles while relegating anti-ecological Marxisms and Marxists to a shadowy dimension beyond the text.

With that established, we only need to put down a few more points about the book to show how it both succeeds and fails to fulfill its initial promise:

1. Burkett is able to articulate why Marx is not an unalloyed anti-ecological thinker. He does this in a sensible way: recalling that, for Marx, both nonhuman natural processes and human labour are part of the same class of natural forces. Decisively refuting the idea of a pure nature, he notes how both Earth’s resources and human bodies become the playthings of capital, little sandboxes that can be reshaped or dug out to its heart’s content. Likewise, he successfully argues that Marx’s vision of the full development of human life under communism is not a consumerist fantasy. Rather, it contains a live possibility for the rational socialization of natural resources. Burkett’s Marxism is one that is not blindly industrialist or dismissive of traditional or indigenous knowledge systems and governing practices.

2. In later chapters, drawing not just on Marx but also on thinkers like Antonio Negri, Harry Cleaver, David Harvey, and André Gorz, Burkett shows how workers’ struggles cannot and should not remain in the realm of wage negotiations. They must press for the establishment of a more rational and democratic management of society, including socialized nature. Class struggle can, he argues, be articulated broadly to mean the advancement of all workers’ interests as a whole, including their interest in preserving nature.

3. Yet, I would argue, Burkett’s book can only prove that Marx is not anti-ecological to the bones. He cannot prove that Marx, brought into the realm of Green politics, is necessarily pro-ecological.  This would be a foolish argument since many if not most appropriations of Marx have been anti-ecological or at least ignorant of core environmental problems. A politicized or governing working class––the associated producers, as Marx names them––is not necessarily pro-ecological, and would, as Burkett wisely notes, require a shift into political values that concord with the flourishing of all living and nonliving processes. So although Burkett can give Red a place at the Green table, he does not prove that Red is always Green, and certainly not that Green must always be Red to be effective. Put another way, it remains for other books to try to make the argument that Marx and the entire tradition of thought he initiated is essential to a Green movement or a Green society. Perhaps, at this stage of history, that argument is impossible to make and requires a drastic shift in our current political situation to judge properly.

Revolution and ecological politics are not necessarily friendly to each other. We know this from hard-won experience. However, Burkett’s book, despite its limitations, is certainly valuable within a certain niche. It is, if nothing else, an intelligent and timely intervention within the study of Marx and how useful this nineteenth century might be to a time fraught with signs that life on Earth cannot continue to flourish much longer under the reigning capitalist system.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Against Fear, Against Hope

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“It follows from the definition of these emotions, that there can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope”

–Baruch Spinoza, Ethics  (Project Gutenberg)

Trans people’s fears are near, named, sure as battery acid. Clocking, trans panic, side effects, anaesthesia, Mum, Dad, the ex, the camera, the old book of photos, Dr. So-and-so down at the shrink’s office. For good measure,we can add Donald Trump’s name to that list. Not one of my conversations with trans and even cis queer people since the 8th has carried on a steady pace. They fibrillate, that is, they tremble like a failing heart. Everyone feels the fear. We feel it alone, and we feel it together, that electrical shiver. Everyone I know is going to one protest or another, icing friends who voted for the mockery of flesh, urging their companions to get name changes before what we know will be a long winter sets in.

My agenda here is neither to diffuse this fear nor to stoke anger. I would be a fool for trying the first, and our righteous anger hasn’t yet dimmed enough to need stoking. Instead, I want to present a map that will provide my friends and comrades a very, very cursory understanding of our present situation. We don’t need the people Spinoza calls prophets, who manipulate fear and hope. We starve for Confidence, that sense of assurance that our bodies are capable, that we can throttle our nightmare and shake some truth out of it! Trans people, especially our black and indigenous kin, are told every step they take is out of line, that all we can count on is our own disposability. This is true regardless of who sits in the White House. When drawing up this map, I want to rely on truths like this, reminding myself and the rest of us that we are hell-bent on the destruction of a machine that passes from thief to thief. It is this process of inheritance, of the birth and rebirth of death in the form of capitalism, that we have to kill.

More often than not, on the grand scale, exactly whose face we’re kicking in doesn’t matter so much, right?

I’ll begin, as all life did, with the earth. Before November 8 capitalism was slowly killing us. For trans people in imperialist countries, “our” states were assaulting Lumad, Oceti Šakowiŋ, Afghans, Okinawans, Brazilian peasants, Hondurans, our own urban proletarians for profit. Imperialists and capitalists don’t just decapitate mountains to look for coal. The people in Flint were denied clean water in the middle of the Great Lakes. The Dakota Access Pipeline and its brood multiplied and continue to multiply. Unfortunately, we white middle class “greens” retreated into nihilism––or into the organic food section, whichever was closer. We somehow imagined that we could cure the Earth without the workers and indigenous and racialized people whose islands were sinking and whose water was corrupted! Hope is our accomplice: we hold out the vague wish that some techno-paradise will emerge like a God to save us. Before November 8, maybe we had some hope left that the “good king” could lead us back to the Great Valley or the Promised Land. Unfortunately, our liberal kin seem to be difficult to teach on this matter.

In essence, capitalism is doing what it must to survive: grow, exploit more and more resources and people, blind itself to everything except profit. If you can be profitable, you are valuable. If not, not. How long can we live with a cancer like capitalism that sees us and all our living and nonliving companions on this Earth as nothing more than means to its own growth?

Even the “good” Obama did nothing to prevent this. The “good” king expanded base building in Africa, deportations, and resource extraction backed up by drones, cops, and liberal newspapers. These political-electoral-criminal machines our liberal trans kin trusted keep crushing them underfoot. Let’s learn from this. Forget the trite fantasy stories, because we know that in real life the “good king” never changes anything for the vast majority who are oppressed and exploited. Capitalism has many faces, beautiful and ugly, and the crucial thing is to see the thing in its monstrous entirety rather than be distracted by a pretty façade.

But we’re already tired! How does recounting all these terrible, huge processes give us Confidence?  So things were bad before and keep being bad! Is that Confidence?

Of course not! But a traveller cannot be sure of their path unless they have a map made as truthfully and accurately as possible. A surgeon can’t remove a tumour unless they know with confidence the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue. Just the same, we have the need to lash out. If we are lashing out in the dark, without the sure knowledge of who our enemies and friends are or where we’re going, how do we know we won’t hurt the ones we need to join with and help the ones we’re trying to destroy? Confidence is the knowledge that we are capable of victory. It’s not the blind optimism that says we will win for sure. It’s the calm resolve that imperialism and capitalism are fragile and that we can and must bring them down. Even if we don’t know the future, we know what we need and we know what we have to do to get it. This is the knowledge, the love that will sustain us at times like this when all our traditional comforts (for those who had them at all) are being eroded.

It can’t sustain us by itself, of course. We all need to belong to strong, revolutionary organizations that can nourish us and sharpen our work. Confidence is not something we can have alone, since individuals are frightfully weak and unsure beings. We have confidence in and through our comrades. Communism means taking the knowledge that all of us have accumulated through experimentation and practice and transforming that knowledge into a means of actually destroying the source of our greatest sickness.

If we try to do anything of this scale alone, our defeats will push us into surrender and Despair. But with Confidence to keep us level-headed through victories and resilient to failures, we can start to build a movement that can actually abolish capitalism, the living nightmare. Watch for organizations and parties doing good work in your area, learn voraciously, always be vigilant. Especially us, trans people. We know something about uncomfortable transitions, planning for the long term, and relying on a network of mutual supporters instead of uncaring parents or the state. Our tasks are urgent and the times are desperate, but with a razor-sharp understanding and the Confidence of strong organizations that we will help build, we need not rely on hopes.

Gramsci and Braudel

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I recently borrowed a book called Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation by philosopher Esteve Morera. Because I knew a couple of points I wanted to explore immediately, I hurriedly read the introduction and pushed into the index. Once I found the brief portions on Fernand Braudel and the Annales, I began studying without delay. Coincidentally, my used copy of Braudel’s monumental The Mediterranean lumbered to my doorstep that same day. I wanted to use some of the commentary in Morera’s book to anchor a brief post? Its subject? The fascinating and, to me, novel parallels between Braudel’s project and Gramsci’s, as well as some of their profound differences.

So we have three writers in the room: Braudel, Morera, and Gramsci, with the second naturally bridging the two. His discussion of Braudel comes in the midst of a larger discussion of Gramsci’s historicism. Since Gramsci is famous for proclaiming his thought an “absolute historicism,” it’s worth pondering what that means, and Morera wisely breaks down this complex issue into a few pieces. The first aspect he ascribes to Gramsci’s historicism, an affirmation of the transience of all historical phenomena, leads to the discussion of different ideas about the complexity of historical time, from Marx to Kondratiev and, of course, Braudel.

Given how famous he is for advocating the primacy of structure and geographical forces in the course of history, there is some irony in the fact that Braudel is placed in a discussion of historical transience. Yet the connection here is more natural than it first appears. As Morera argues, Gramsci is interested in a “holistic” history that can only be understood from a long-term perspective.¹ He summarizes Gramsci’s views on the temporality of history:

First, an organic theory of society which rejects the atomist conception of history as a series of events; second, the rudiments of a history of historical time…of the various tempos that criss-cross each other in history.²

Anyone familiar with Braudel will already sense the trajectory of Morera’s argument as it leads directly from here to a discussion on Braudel’s triple-layer scheme presented in The Mediterranean. Level one is the realm of geographical time, where the relatively permanence of natural space and structure reigns. Social and economic time forms the second level, and it was here where the intersection between the relative permanence of structure intersects the most with the more short or medium-term conjuncture, which is often cyclical. As Braudel puts it: “swelling currents…economic systems, states, societies, civilizations, and, finally…how all these deep-seated forces were at work in the complex arena of warfare.”³ At last, we reach the final level, where all the froth and dust of political and diplomatic history are kicked up. It’s here, at the third level, where the contingent events follow their wave-like course, emerging for a brief time before disappearing into the sea of continuity and strong currents beneath.

So Gramsci and Braudel share a methodological commitment to holism and an emphasis on the long-term, what Braudel called longue durée. Their commitments each lead them, as Morera notes, to critique sociology and other social sciences for their fetishization of empirical models and the short-term time span. Though neither of them is hostile to the social sciences as such––this is arguable in Gramsci, but Braudel hoped that history could unify all the human sciences––they both understood that the long term perspective is key to grasping the entirety of human social relations and their evolution over time. Gramsci’s analysis of “situations”develops through study of the dialectical unity of structures, conjunctures, and events, which broadly correspond to the terms Braudel uses. I would note in passing, however, that Braudel is careful to avoid stitching these layers together with any kind of “dialectical” or theoretical glue, and his holism is a great deal more empirical and fragmentary than the Marxist or Gramscian theories of history.

Morera later notes, correctly, that where Gramsci and Braudel most differ is in the matter of politics.⁴ For Braudel, politics are part of the ephemeral flows of “the history of individuals,” and not of central importance to his project. Gramsci, being a (jailed) leader of a communist project in Italy, gave politics the most prominent place in his conception of history. Of course, both of them reject the idea of statecraft and royal rosters as the foundation of history, but Braudel ultimately wants to relegate all of politics, including mass politics, to secondary or even tertiary status.

When reading The Mediterranean, I noted that Braudel’s sense of structure was much more fatalistic and continuous than the Marxist concepts I knew. Though there are also more structurally-oriented versions of Marxism that have been criticized for being fatalistic or “static,” Marxists tend to at least subscribe to the theory that human beings make history. Marxists will then make the structural qualification that humans only make history within the more-or-less determined situation into which they are born. Marxist history is the history of catastrophes, revolutions, and class struggle, the processes through which structures, so durable and powerful, prove their transience. “All that is solid melts into air.” With Braudel, I get the sense that it is rather history that makes people, and that people are merely swept along the currents. That said, unlike Althusser––who criticized the Annales journal and Braudel for not having a specific enough theory on the complexity of historical time––Man, capital-M, is the subject of Braudel’s history. He’s still at the centre of the story, but his natures and his actions are tightly bounded by land and water, prices and travel times, the very mental conceptions we’re taught. It’s not “process without a subject” pushed along through the energy of class struggle, it’s a process with a fatalistic subject who can take some reassurance that despite the tumult around him, the great immobile structures and whirling cycles will endure.

I should say that the above is a rank generalization, and Braudel’s histories are almost indescribably complex and eclectic. But I appreciate Morera’s insight into the relationship between Braudel and Gramsci because it called attention to my lack of knowledge about Gramsci and clarified the latter’s thought, which to me has always been less penetrable than that of his contemporaries. Engaging with Morera has pushed me back to reading Gramsci again, this time with a wiser frame of mind, and I’m glad I crossed this bridge between historians.

Notes:

1. Esteve Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation (New York: Routledge, 1990), 83-4.

2. Ibid, 85.

3. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II vol. 1, trans. Sîan Reynolds (New York: HarperCollins, 1972), 21.

4. Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism 93.

Makoto Itoh: The Japanese Economy Reconsidered

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The Japanese Economy Reconsidered is a short slice of Marxist economic history and analysis. Effectively summarizing the Japanese “lost decade,” which has by now accordioned out to more than two decades of stagnation, the book is an incomplete but strong primer on the Japanese economy in the 1990s. More than a factual account, however, it also offers a preliminary definition and critique of neoliberalism in the Japanese context.

It’s worth asking how Itoh is “reconsidering” the Japanese economy. He asks some of the same questions everyone was asking about Japan in the 1990s: what happened? Before the bubble burst, popular chatter about Japan ranged from idolization to outright terror.  Where he differs from the mainstream liberal discourse on Japan is in his diagnosis of the Japanese economy from the 1973 oil crisis onwards. Many accounts I’ve ready discuss how Japan weathered the oil embargo with relative ease, shifting towards an export-focused industrial strategy that ensured steady growth throughout the 1970s and 80s. Itoh, meanwhile, opens his book with: “In 1973, high economic growth in the Japanese economy…came to an end.”¹ Following the resource crunch and inflationary crisis of the 1970s, the Japanese state aggressively injected money into grandiose public works projects, assisted the implementation of automation in factories and offices, crushed public sector unions through privatizations, and fueled a temporary recovery. What came out of that was the famous bubble, where land prices escalated beyond all reason and financial speculation in land and stocks was feverish. After this bubble inevitably detonated, near-zero growth became the norm, which, combined with an aging population, has created an immense problem of planning and legitimacy.

Itoh fills in that basic narrative in chapters 2-5, investigating the role of information technologies, industrial hollowing-out and the effect of the boom and depression on family life, the process of the bubble’s bursting, and Japan’s position in the globalizing capitalist system. In that final chapter, the book focuses on Japanese industry’s increasing capital exports into other countries in Asia, particularly China and Southeast Asia. Given the publication date of the book (2000), it’s not surprising that it ends with a brief autopsy of the Asian boom of the 90s and the subsequent collapse of that bubble.

There is nothing difficult or unclear in Itoh’s book; there is nothing all that striking either. Well, there is one possible exception. While his diagnosis of the “failure of neoliberalism” in Japan might seem obvious in hindsight, it partially synthesizes its analysis of neoliberalism with the idea of Japan as a “company-cented society.”² We see the echoes of his concluding remarks in the 2007-8 global financial crisis, which reproduced many of the dynamics of the Japanese collapse in the 90s: “Company-centred restructuring combined with emergency economic policies that place priority on alleviating the difficulties of big business has deepened the hardship and worry in the economic life of the majority of people.”³ This reality, this induced existential fear, he argues, is part of what has depressed the Japanese birthrate to such lows.

It might be useful to take the longtime category of “company-centred society” and bring it to a more general analysis of neoliberal capitalism. When looking at the kind of civil societies the last forty years of capitalist mutation have produced, we see the gravitational pull of private firms increasing, orienting more and more of the rest of the state and nonstate sectors (NGOs, media, online communities, etc.) around capital accumulation. Indeed, given that most states’ response to the crisis was to violate neoliberal principles with gigantic public bailouts, the idea of company-centrism might even be more generally descriptive of the current form of capitalism in the First World than neoliberal.

Unfortunately, the lot of the Japanese working class has only deteriorated further in the sixteen years since the publication of The Japanese Economy Reconsidered, and the current Japanese government offers no chance of rescue from the vultures of corruption, bureaucratic domination, and industrial decay that have preyed on Japan for most of living memory. So Itoh’s short and straightforward work serves about as well as a book can: it informs and outlines what possible paths the Japanese people might take in liberating themselves.

Notes:

  1. Makoto Itoh, The Japanese Economy Reconsidered (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), 1.
  2. Ibid, 94-95.
  3. Ibid, 135-136

 

G.A. Hoston: Japanese Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan

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Marxism is a powerful analytical tool due to its ability to extract the universal significance of historical processes that necessarily occur in particular places and times. Strong internal tension between the particular and the universal presents both incredible barriers and opportunities for revolutionaries and scholars to push social research and political action forward to new heights. Marxists from all over the world have grappled with the unique challenges of their own regional and national contexts, and Germaine Hoston’s book is a case study in how a generation (or two) of Marxists engaged in a sustained debate over how Marxism could contribute to revolutionary action and the production of new knowledge. And the fierce theoretical/historical struggle between the Kōza-ha and Rōnō-ha groups fostered the development of intensive research into Japanese history and, in the process, altered and stretched the boundaries of Marxism as a body of thought at the time.

Hoston’s book is an intellectual history of sorts, a narrative about the inception of indigenous Japanese Marxism in the 1920s and early struggles to define what Japanese Marxist politics and theory would look like. As mentioned, major participants in the debate typically lined up into two factions: the Kōza-ha (lecture school) and the Rōnō-ha (worker-farmer school). These debates were shaped by a number of factors, political as well as academic. For one, the emergence of Marxist political organizing in Japan owed much to the successes of the Russian Revolution and the Leninist advances in Marxist thinking on imperialism and revolutionary strategy. More directly, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) emerged––twice, since the first attempt collapsed after a short time––under the wing of the Soviet-dominated Comintern. Because of this international situation, the relative immaturity of Japanese Marxism, and the paucity of historical materialist studies of Japanese history, as well as for institutional reasons, the Comintern theses on Asia, the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP), and revolutionary strategy in Japan carried considerable weight, and in many ways defined the line split in the debate.

Factors internal to Japan also had weighty bearing on the debate. Japan in the 1920s and early 30s was experiencing what has been commonly referred to as Taishō Democracy, where bourgeois political parties were more prominent than in the preceding Meiji period and universal male suffrage was put into effect (1925). An air of relative relaxation prevailed in universities, permitting the open nature of the debate over the Marxist terrain until the 30s saw Japanese militarism ascend to a more dominant role as the country entered open war with China, most of Southeast Asia and, eventually, the United States. Japan’s entry into the capitalist world also varied considerably from the English model Marx used as the basis for his theorizing, meaning that scholars’ positions in the debate often sprung from how they reconciled Japan’s unique circumstances (late entry into the capitalism, imperialist voraciousness combined with a stagnant agricultural sector, status as an “Asiatic” society) with the universality of Marxist theory.

The Kōza-ha, on one side, endorsed and vigorously defended the Comintern position. In brief, they argued that advancing to socialism in Japan required a two-stage process. First, the socialist movement had to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, particularly in the countryside and in the realm of political liberties. Only once that phase was complete could a proletarian revolution be carried out. Their reasons for supporting the Comintern line were the obvious deficiencies of even “Taishō Democracy” and the persistence of what they saw as feudal landlordism in the countryside. The emperor system also factored into their arguments, which varied and often proved innovative despite their commitment to a preexisting line.

Rōnō-ha, on the other hand, endorsed the view that the bourgeois revolution in Japan had been completed by the Meiji state and that a broad-based open socialist party could complete the revolution in a single step. They often appealed to Nikholai Bukharin’s ideas about advanced capitalist societies and noted the power of state-monopoly capital (the zaibatsu combines) and the instantiation of universal male suffrage in 1925. They acknowledged feudal remnants that persisted––the emperor and certain aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship in the countryside––but argued these were irrelevant anachronisms and that the feudal Tokugawa landlord class had been forcibly integrated into a bloc with the dominant bourgeoisie through the crash industrialization of the country during the Meiji era.

Hoston’s documentation of their debates is fairly exhaustive, covering a number of theorists on both sides as well as certain rogue ideas that often sparked soul-searching among all Marxists in Japan. The example of Takahashi Kamekichi is particularly fascinating. Although Takahashi pioneered disciplined historical materialist study in Japan, his theory of “petty imperialism,” which argued that Japanese expansionism did not constitute imperialism in the Leninist sense and that vigorous colonization of Asia was indispensable for Japanese socialism, obviously prefigured Japanese imperial arguments about the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the Great Pacific War. His use of Marxist theory and techniques for quasi-fascist ends––he went so far as to say that the left should seize an ultra-nationalist position to avoid ceding it to the far right!–– provoked a storm of critique and research from the more left-wing Marxists in Japan.

What I especially enjoy about Hoston’s thematic approach, where she takes individual facets of the debate like that of the agrarian question in a single chapter, is that it highlights the specific achievements of Japanese Marxists in particular areas. This is especially evident in the chapter on debates over the nature of the Japanese state. She notes that the conditions of the debate and the Japanese historical moment encouraged the creation of remarkably advanced theory that was, in many respects, only matched by European studies of the late 60s and 70s. She includes detailed descriptions of the theories each scholar advanced, and in many cases does not hold back from indicating what the stronger and weaker theories were on each side of the debate. Her own insights make the book’s examinations of these theories not only academically interesting but more useful to readers interested in doing their own theory.

It’s unfortunate that the book’s overall tenor demonstrates the rather powerless position of the Marxist left in Japan for most of its existence. Despite Marxism’s quick entrenchment into Japanese academia, the broad left parties, including the JCP, have been quick to use their theoretical position to justify legalism and gradualism. Although the debates on the topics of the Japanese state and the agrarian question were lively, they have often been confined to the classroom and library. This takes its most direct form in the ideas of Uno Kozo, who openly advocated the separation of economic theorizing from political action. Of course, this scission between academic brilliance and a fairly impoverished real movement is not unfamiliar in many parts of the world, particularly the First World, but Hoston’s book exposes the tragic split between the brilliant efforts of both factions to create a truly native Japanese Marxism and the state of revolutionary action in that country, then and now.

What’s important, however, is that many of these challenges were seen, at least latently, in the arguments of the debaters in the 20s and 30s, especially in the pessimistic outlooks of the Kōza-ha theorists. Hoston’s history is relatively straightforward and light on context, but as a historical analysis of intellectual trends in Japanese Marxism it serves a useful purpose. It impresses upon all of us the critical necessity to take the examples of the past and subject our own contexts to rigorous analysis while––at the same time––developing and deepening our political activity.

Akira Narusawa: “The Social Order of Modern Japan”

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Capitalism is first and foremost a mode of production, the division of society into an exploiting capitalist class whose existence is predicated on extracting surplus value from the proletariat. This mode of production, however, also generates social relations and ways of life that support its existence and help to produce people who are primed to either exploit or be exploited.

Akira Narusawa’s “The Social Order of Modern Japan” is a helpful exploration of the forms of life and regulation that suit capitalism in a particular place and time. Its focus is on the genesis of modern Japanese life during the period of the Meiji Restoration, roughly from the 1870s to just before the turn of the century. It explores the way that capitalism dissolves ways of living while imposing its own highly regimented systems to manage time, space, and the human body itself. Narusawa’s piece is a schematic look at how capitalism restructured Japanese society in the nineteenth century, forging a new social order that was in many ways unique while retaining some general features of capitalist social relations.

But why would the bourgeois ruling class care about time, space, and the motion of human bodies? This question feels somewhat obvious when we remember that capitalism is a dynamic system of production, distribution, and consumption that requires certain conditions to function. Namely, goods need to circulate, factories need to produce, armies need to manoeuvre, and people’s minds and bodies have to be conditioned for proletarian labour. Nature provides the vast resources that capitalists need to transform into capital, but capitalism’s demands on time, space, and people’s bodies are in many ways antithetical to traditional and natural patterns of growth and development. As a result, the state and social institutions are taken by the ruling class as weapons of persuasion and coercion, forcibly and painfully bringing the world of their dreams into being. This desperate need for favourable conditions colours the capitalist regulation of time and space. And in Japan, where there were outside pressures from the West to adapt to capitalist ways as soon as possible, there was a particularly acute need for this kind of social (re)construction.

To return to Narusawa’s piece, we see that methods of timekeeping in pre-Meiji Japan were largely tied to the cyclical rhythm of the moon and sun. Temple bells played some role in determining the workdays of servants and state officials, but the largely agrarian population’s entire life was oriented around these natural cycles. In 1872, the Meiji state replaced the old lunar calendar with a solar one, launching an assault not only on traditional conceptions of time but also on superstitious beliefs perceived to be insufficiently “modern.” Sunrise and sunset no longer determined the beginning and end of the workday, and this work discipline was increasingly enabled by the spread of artificial light.¹ Of course, capitalists could extract more surplus value from their workers if the working day could be lengthened past the boundaries of nighttime. Further, the state strengthened its hold over everyday life by creating a system of nationwide holidays that glorified the emperor-family system.

Capitalists use the technology afforded by science to destroy boundaries, but not for the sake of humanity per se but rather for their own enrichment at the expense of the people as a whole. We see another example of this in the realm of space: the abolition of restrictions on movement of goods and people across domain borders. At the same time it abolishes these barriers, it installs the spatial tyranny of landownership and private property anew, for example forbidding farmers from going up to the mountains behind their property:

“This, of course, presents a familiar view of the opening up o space by the modernization process, but there were…people subjected to new restraints on their movement…Such changes clearly established private possession of space and demarcated land borders. These people [farmers and other workers] were of no concern to the enlighteners.”²

In general, the Japanese ruling class encouraged the creation of “good order,” creating spaces that were meant to be functional and neat. Stipulations around neatness and orderliness were of course strong in military discipline but derivative rules were imposed in schools and factories. One of the contradictory aspects of capitalist schemes for rule, however, was that this concern for tidiness and bright, clean space only prevailed in the privileged central areas and did not apply to “undesirable” locations and people, who were more or less completely neglected. In reference to workers’ dormitories, Narusawa notes, “many of these facilities were extremely poor; there was a danger of fires and other disasters, hygienic conditions were bad, and many factories lacked even the space necessary to regulate the workers’ daily lives.”³ While certain parts of the population could participate in the aesthetic experience of modern cleanliness and order, people who were shunted to the side or considered as little more than organic machine parts were excluded from these aesthetic considerations.

Indeed, the entire spatial organization of capitalism in general is laid out in the book:

“The dirtiness swept out of the centre accumulated on the periphery,  but for order to sustain itself it was not sufficient just to remove the disorder to the outside. It had to be isolated and controlled there in order to prevent the invasion of the centre by this major disturber of order.”⁴

Here Narusawa is describing literal filth and unclean objects/spaces like cemeteries and places for the imprisonment mentally ill. Yet, one could talk about the capitalist treatment of the unemployed or homeless, the imperialist subjugation and military policing of peripheral states, the systems of isolation for refugees, exports of entropy like computer waste to countries like the Philippines, etc.

This ordering extended even to the body in Meiji Japan, as students and army troops alike participated in drills and physical exercises designed to regulate bodily movement and eventually inculcate a “correct” state of mind, one pliable to the needs of the capitalist state and mode of production. Laws forbidding nudity came on the books, which had never been illegal in previous periods of Japanese history. Every living and dead body was mapped onto a grid, intensively inspected for hygiene, encouraged to adopt Western diets, and bodily regulations as detailed as the position of the testicles inside one’s trousers were drafted, though how seriously any individual rule was taken must have varied. And of course a body of official experts arose to be the arbiters of all these new systems.

I’ve more or less summarized the content of the article and expanded on its meaning according to my own perspective. For example, although Narusawa’s perception is acute and his critical eye for matters of everyday life is useful, he actually neglects to mention capitalism much at all in the article. What we’re left with is an article that presents these facets of social order as emerging from pre-Meiji society and coalescing into modernity without any centre of gravity. It holds “modernity” responsible, rather than the productive/social engine that produced modernity for its own convenience and development. He tends to describe these social orders as products of “mass society” where large groups of people need to be coordinated, but neglects to mention, except in the case of the military, for what purpose people need to be coordinated and schematized. It’s an excellent article with a significant theoretical blind spot. Still, it produces some powerful insights into the fundamental sickness of this order in which Japanese people still live:

“Modern society…gives rise to excessive order. The more we process the nature we perceive as ‘disorder’ to make an artificial, ‘orderly’ order, the broader becomes the gap between nature and humans, and humans unconsciously or even gladly shut themselves into an artificial time and space.”⁵

Notes:

  1. Akira Narusawa, “The Social Order of Modern Japan,” in The Political Economy of Japanese Society, ed. Junji Banno (Oxford University Press, 1997), page 202.
  2. Ibid, 215.
  3. Ibid, 217.
  4. Ibid, 214.
  5. Ibid, 236.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Talking Back to Our History

Hundred Thousand Names cover

“There’s a story in an ancient play about birds called The Birds

And it’s a short story from before the world began…

From a time when there was no earth, no land. Only air and birds everywhere. But the thing was there was no place to land. Because there was no land. So they just circled around and around. Because this was before the world began.

And the sound was deafening. Songbirds were everywhere. Billions and billions and billions of birds.

And one of these birds was a lark and one day her father died. And this was a really big problem, because what should they do with the body? There was no place to put the body because there was no earth.

And finally the lark had a solution.

She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head. And this was the beginning of memory.

Because before this no one could remember a thing. They were just constantly flying in circles.

Constantly flying in huge circles.”

–Laurie Anderson, “The Beginning of Memory”

When I saw Bugs Bunny cross-dressing, when I saw Laurie Anderson in drag, dug into my mind and found stories about miraculous transformations, writing myself into stories about growing into a woman’s body lying down in a faraway place, I was making circles. Like brushing fingers around and around erogenous areas, like the frustration of samsara, I was stuck in a circle. And running in a circle brought me back to the same point: birth and rebirth of pain and guilt, self-loathing as a perpetual motion machine. It’s not that I’ve left that circle behind, but I’ve found that people like me have a name, have a history, have a unique form of life that is worth protecting and fostering. Trans people, and trans women like me, have lived before me and left me their memories. Without these collective memories, I was condemned to aimlessness.

I recently met the dearly departed Leslie Feinberg and asked hir what she thought about my career of choice. Hir answer, though an echo of her words my mind summoned from a book, was piercing:

“Which side are you on? The hunter or the hunted? Historians sitting on a pastoral fence…doesn’t exist in reality. The fences are barricades. And barricades are a dangerous and impossible place to perch on during a battle.”¹

I was used to this idea, but for the first time it truly sunk in that I was one of the runners, one of the people who ran from the cops and clung to each other because our families were absent or oppressive. Self-created people who had to build ourselves “on the fly,” and had no business perching on fences. Such is the brutality of the hunters that they keep us from burying our dead in the back of our heads, and we have to pass this vertiginous chasm separating us from our ancestors.

It’s a staggering responsibility, looming in the back of my mind. But I kept listening to Les talk, and an uncanny feeling springs up in my guts.

“Transgender people are not dismantling the categories of man and woman. We are opening up a world of possibilities in addition.”²

But if after we have done all we are called to do, gender as a system still exists, gender as a faceless cartographer who plots us all on a map, with most of us being where there “be monsters,” what is it all for? I should laugh at myself. After all, I stand before many accused of reinforcing the gender binary by identifying as a trans woman. To return to the map metaphor, what comrade Les is suggesting is that we are working to tear down the fences and open up new territories, recognizing all these gender positions and spaces as valid. I’m still left uncertain. Why not just throw out the map? Don’t repeat the mistakes of trying to build an androgynous “gender-neutral” society but don’t reaffirm gender as a positive! Maybe we’re simply talking past each other about the same thing.

Well, we live in a country where white gay fascists can sleep undisturbed. Where the capitalist-imperialist vampires can take our hard-won concessions and brandish them as a weapon against our kin in Palestine, Afghanistan, and a hundred thousand other kill zones. Land speculators and gentrifiers push our working-class and homeless youth out to pull in the champagne-and-Human Rights Campaign crowd. Perhaps I should take hir advice and put my petty suspicions of people I think have the “wrong” identity and put them where my internalized transphobia and guilt should go: oblivion.

“There are and will be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people on both sides of these barricades. How do we recognize our enemies from our allies?”³

We can’t simply scan someone’s gender expression or self-identification to tell who our friends are and who our enemies are. First, we define our goal: liberation of all and of each from all forms of oppression. Then we ask ourselves: for whom will that be a dream, for whom will it be a nightmare? Our movement will be the most advanced, a vanguard capable of uniting all of the exploited and oppressed, or it will be useless. Sie looked at me and asked another question:

“But on what basis will we form such a movement? Around what forms of desire? The ache of hunger? The desperate need of poverty and homelessness? The yearning for freedom from oppression?”⁴

I couldn’t answer, and I had finished the book before long, so I left it unresolved. At the same time, I know that it won’t come from spite, schadenfreude, mockery, or even thin and watery hope. Hope, always paired with fear and anxiety, is nothing compared to what will emerge from within history itself. Our liberation will come from within our bodies, which we hardly know, and from a history we will ourselves make. Whatever weapons and forms of love, war, and life we need to forge, we will.

Which is not to say we are assured of victory. Our lives are imperilled by many grave dangers and crises. But these will sit unresolved as long as we are scattered and divided. What Leslie Feinberg’s words, spoken and printed 20 years ago remind us is that a movement built on either cheap unity or calcified divisions is doomed either to fail or succeed in making our lives all the more miserable. “Constantly flying in huge circles.” Yes. At least until we remember all the names, far more than 100,000, and learn what history, what their voices, are telling us so insistently.

Notes:

I gently adapted Leslie Feinberg’s words to fit a more dialogic format without, I believe, twisting their meaning. All the references are here, though, for the curious.

  1. Leslie Feinberg, “Learning from Experience,” in Trans Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 119.
  2. Ibid, 58.
  3. Ibid, 128.
  4. Ibid, 127.

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