The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Musing

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.

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.

Report on Reading: 2016

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Art of the Voracious Reader from Magic: The Gathering

If we count the two books I’m reading at the moment, I will have read and finished at least 60 books in 2016. Though I accumulated many of those conquests in the headlong rush of graduate school history reading (with all of its shortcuts), I was nevertheless able to complete more than a book per week on average. In this post, I will be reflecting on how my reading habits have changed over the past year and what the highlights were. Commence!

Fiction Goes Away Again

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Summer 2015 saw me returning fiction after a long drought. By contrast, 2016 was fiction-free with the exception of a few comics, one book by Jeff Vandermeer, and, if it counts, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Although I could blame the pressure of graduate school for dissuading me from reading much if at all for pleasure, this excuse does not hold water. I spend a great deal of time reading nonfiction in my spare time, and if there were any fiction I wanted to read, I certainly would.

And there were one or two books that caught my eye. After all, why else would I start reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a multi-volume novel? I stalled a couple of hundred pages in and have not looked at the book since, but it’s still a live prospect until I have to return it to the library.

My reason for avoiding fiction has less to do with free time and the lack thereof than the fact that I find fiction less fun and more difficult to read than nonfiction. History, in particular, is highly readable in most cases because modern authors structure their work in the form of linear arguments and narratives that are easy to follow from one point to another while glossing over details that may or may not of any intellectual value to me. I do read fiction in a similar way much of the time, looking for themes, through-lines, and remarkable imagery while often passively forgetting the plot and even character names as I go, it feels somehow less appropriate with fiction. Fiction authors write their books to communicate ideas, of course, but they are also meant to be stimulating and enjoyable in their own right. I feel guilty for reading fiction the way that I do, which also reflects the very theme and idea-driven way I’ve always written fiction and poetry.

One solution to this problem–-since I recognize that my inability to enjoy fiction is a not a particularly attractive or constructive quality––is to simply embrace the fact that I read differently from other people. Not caring about plot or conflict in the slightest, actively seeking out so-called “spoilers” to reduce plot tension that might be emotionally distressing, I have a certain rhythm to the way I read that I may as well own. It certainly lacks some of the spontaneity of a cold-read, a reading that follows the plot beat-for-beat and invests energy into characters, but it has its advantages as well. In particular, once I’ve finished a book for the first time, I can summarize it well enough to get by in a casual conversation and, further, have enough of a deeper grasp of the themes, style, and ideas underpinning the book that I can write worthwhile articles and blog posts about it. Since I don’t plan on writing about fiction for a living, that’s all I really need. Other people have the snarky plot summaries and character analysis covered anyway.

Digging into Braudel and the Annales

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Having buried myself deeply into Marxist historiography in the past, I found myself thinking and writing a great deal about one Fernand Braudel. Partly because of academic obligations and partly because of genuine fascination/affinity, I dedicated many hours to reading The Mediterranean, Braudel’s gigantic two-volume history of the Mediterranean world in the 16th century. After writing over 20 pages about it for a course, I feel I have an adequate grasp on the French historian’s method and his significant shortcomings. That said, I found him an especially slippery figure because he embodies disparate qualities that are not normally concentrated in one person. For instance, though he’s interested in a fine-tuned analysis of geographical and economic trends in European history, he also uses prose in an almost romantic way. Each chapter, though it claims to present some kind of structural analysis of historical epochs, also swarms with the filigree of detail and drama. In short, he’s a fantastic writer, albeit one whose ambitions naturally exceed even his great ability. Forging a unified social science on the basis of a global history is obviously  beyond the capacity of any one scholar, no matter how prolific.

I would recommend reading Braudel in sections and short bursts. He has the quality of a short story writer in his chapter construction, albeit with more of a wandering eye. He reminds me of Henri Lefebvre in the way he combines theoretical analysis with a wide-ranging humanism. It dies from a thousand flaws when stretched out long enough, but a little Braudel goes further than a little of any other writer I know.

And, hey, if you have the time and the shelf space, read the entire Mediterranean in bed at night. It’s history gone picturesque.

Finding a Niche

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At the beginning of 2016, I planned on being a relatively conventional economic and social historian with a bit of a cultural edge. I know my way around a spreadsheet about as well as psychoanalytical criticism of advertising––which is to say, I know it but don’t particularly like it. Taking a pre-industrial environmental history course, however, eviscerated my preconceptions about history and my work. Since reading The Entropy of Capitalism, I’ve been reading a steady stream of scientific articles and even mathematical discussions of subjects like nonlinear dynamics, modelling, population biology, and how all these subjects can be connected to social sciences and the humanities. I don’t fancy myself the proprietor of a kind of total history, but I have a strong affinity for fields that are able to synthesize insights from across porous disciplinary boundaries. These pores and connections have to be made rather than just used as if picked off the ground. Environmental history excels at putting cultural, economic, geographical, biological, and traditional historical knowledge together in a way that rarely feels forced or eclectic. For my money, it’s where leftists should be going in history right now, especially given the tremendous scale of the environmental issues currently staring us down.

Looking Forward

Though I plan on discussing this further in another entry for A Hundred Thousand Names, I have to address one reason why this blog has been less active lately. One reason is certainly the fact that I was writing multiple 15-plus page papers as well as enrolment applications while handling other everyday demands. As with the fiction example, however, I have to recognize that I could have been spending more time writing blog posts and less time playing Magic: The Gathering or making weird graphic design challenges for myself. My mind has been in ferment lately, and for a variety of reasons ways of thinking and acting that satisfied me before have become increasingly difficult for me to accept. None of this turmoil has been traumatic or painful. Rather, it has simply rendered me less able to put thoughts down in an order and language that pleases me. It’s a pall of uncertainty accentuated by the cold and the dark, and I hope I can use this blog as a forum for subtly working through some of these more difficult issues.

We’ll see what this blog looks like once I’m in a more confident position, but for now, best to everyone and happy reading in 2017.

Christian Kitsch #12: Kitsch in the Wild

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Having produced eleven pieces on various bits of Christian kitsch, I finally feel like I have some basis for talking about Christian kitsch as a whole. I already offered a definition of Christian kitsch in the series’ opening post:

The term [kitsch] is generally used to denote the binary opposition to high art, a form or genre of object that partakes in some of the same tropes as “proper” art so that it can stand in for some of the same purposes, but that does not participate in any discourse that stands above pre-packaged sentimentality, cliché, and a general unquestioning affirmation of whatever bourgeois values are in vogue at the time. Kitsch is also a product of the industrial revolution, and tends to be mass-produced and homogeneous, though there is certainly a sizable niche for homemade kitsch as well.

In short, I argued that kitsch is the aesthetic incarnation of common sense. The infinite flexibility of kitsch derives from the flexibility of the commodity itself. Standing in an aisle of themed greeting cards, you realize their apparent variety. The manufacturers have produced hundreds of canned messages, appealing to stereotypes about straight married people, scatological fascinations, the “relatable” irony of aging, about as mechanical as a babydoll’s wink.  Each card has been assembled with sophistication and professionalism, using traditional cartoons, digital photography, collage, etc. Yet the vast array of merchandise fits into a narrow circle of messages and values. As I mentioned in the earlier piece, kitsch’s most readily identifiable attribute is its ability to inhabit the corpse or shell of art while abjuring any qualities that might make someone think before buying it. If a commodity does not sell, it does not serve its sacred purpose: realizing surplus value and profits. Any barrier to selling, therefore, is an inhibition.

Kitsch, then, is a kind of art the way a virus is a kind of living thing. And like the virus, kitsch is an apt infiltrator and co-opter. As a trans and queer person, it’s easier to realize just how much kitsch fits into heterosexist common sense. But, in certain contexts, trans and queer kitsch can serve the same purpose but on a smaller scale: realize surplus value by gently affirming our common sense about ourselves.

Within queer and trans communities, it can also have the effect of projecting misleading ideas about us: that we are largely white students or professionals who come out, leave their parents, and work in the culture industry or maybe take up knitting. While there’s nothing wrong with fitting that profile (I certainly do, except for the knitting), the proliferation of such impressions (since they’re often not as solid as “ideas,” and kitsch is generally emotive rather than intellectual) obscures our siblings who do not conform to this archetype, especially racialized, proletarian, and older people. So although queer and trans-targeted kitsch might actually shock people who think that “women be shopping” jokes are still mildly amusing, it can have an insidious effect on our capacity to think and the vitality of our communities.

None of this is to say that people who appreciate kitsch are morally or intellectually deficient. Unfortunately, the comforting and domesticated aspects of kitsch are intrinsically appealing to people whose lives are troubled by uncertainty. To criticize kitsch is to condemn the deficiency of a system of production and its foul effluence. These objects, to be frank, are not worthy of any human being. If we flipped the argument and said that people who like kitsch are unworthy of “higher” things, we would indeed be slipping into elitist errors. Still, we should never hesitate to condemn them for fear of being called elitist.

At last, we come to the final piece of our little plastic and porcelain ecosystem: Christianity. After all this time wading through shoddy Archie comics and listening to sanitized “parody” music, two questions present themselves:

1. Why is Christianity in particular such a hotbed of kitsch production and consumption? Is there anything specific in popular theology that sanctions it, or can you explain Christian kitsch solely by the subjugation of the church in general to capitalist logic?

2. In discussing items like the Spire Archie comics, how do we understand the interrelation of “propaganda” and “kitsch.” Is it possible for something to be confrontational propaganda––designed to confront and convince, to make a real argument––and kitsch at the same time?

Number one is difficult to answer, though I suspect that the subjugation of most of the church to capitalism both materially and ideologically has inflamed certain inherent problems in Christianity. There is a reason why Christian art in particular is so often allowed to be garish pablum.

As for number two, the answer has everything to do with context. While they were authored as propaganda, they would only serve that purpose if given or shown to people outside of the Christian community or used as teaching tools for children or new converts. It seems, however, that when read by people who are already convinced Christians and agree with the noxious political perspective they contain the books function as kitschy comfort food. Propaganda has to have a certain political edge and aesthetic quality to avoid kitschy aspects, and the two sides are often complementary. Militant commitment to any position requires, in an environment of (real or perceived) widespread indifference opposition, that the committed person consume a certain amount of literary material to nourish that commitment. Like food for the body, like knowledge for the mind.

This question of propaganda vs. kitsch is not relevant for everything I’ve reviewed here. But the fact that a confrontational tone can still coexist with snoozy conformity in a piece of kitsch, especially when that object is appropriated ironically, shows how context and time can warp the meaning of an object beyond the recognition of its original author.

I’ll certainly be considering these two questions in further entries in Christian Kitsch. We’re coming up on lucky 13, so I will have to find an especially ripe example for everyone! Until then, keep your eye out for kitschy delights. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment, but if not my nose for kitsch is unfailing. Best of luck.

 

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.

Affection through Attrition: Me vs. Tears for Fears

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My partner and I disagree of very few matters of taste. Such is their rarity that these tiny rifts have been upgraded to perennial inside jokes. My loathing for post-Gabriel Genesis, my general distaste for 80s pop production––such is the glue from which lasting relationships are forged.

The first time I listened to Tears for Fears was because of a challenge; both of us were “assigning” music we liked but that the other didn’t know and gauging the reaction. Back then, I thought their titanically popular Songs from the Big Chair felt like a synthetic, operatic, and emotionally oversaturated album injected with irritating 80s production. That’s more or less the same evaluation I have now, except that my value judgment has changed. A number of explanations for this shift suggest themselves:

  1. My partner is a persistent and patient taste-manipulator who is slowly taking control of my very faculties of perception.
  2. I’ve mellowed out and allowed my taste to either broaden or become more lax and lazy, depending on my mood and your perspective.
  3. Tears for Fears’ old records were transfigured through some kind of divine intervention.
  4. Metal Gear Solid V’s constant stream of 80s music tapes have chipped away at my resistance to 80s pop and synth-heavy music in general.

I would accept at least three of these explanations as plausible “prime movers” in my shift in perspective.  Perhaps the deepest one, however, is the fact that, compared to three years ago, my entire emotional landscape has transformed. Partly because of the stresses of gender transition and partly because of getting older and more tired, I’ve become more receptive to works that are melodramatic/operatic. Yes, Metal Gear Solid V acclimated me to 80s pop over many hours of listening to it while dispatching fascist South African mercenaries with RPGs. But without this more basic internal change, I would probably just have ignored all those tapes and listened to ambient noise instead.

Once I had given Tears for Fears another real chance, downloading Songs from the Big Chair on a whim and listening to it under the moonlight (and the roof: it was raining outside). I came to the second track, “Working Hour:”

One of the most irritating trends in 80s pop music was the blatant abuse of the saxophone, both in its incorporation into songs and in the production process. During the decade of Sting’s solo work and Kenny G, saxophones, which I tend to welcome in songs from other decades, often feel as though they’re being used for cheap emotional ploys. And, indeed, this was my initial impression of “Working Hour,” which begins with a brief instrumental intro featuring a saxophone solo. Not only this, but it’s paired with harps and bright synth atmospherics. The introduction suddenly shifts at one point as the rhythm of the song itself takes hold and the song builds up layers of instrumentation until it takes full shape just before the vocals kick in at the two minute mark.

Everything that follows is somehow more resonant to me now, especially the sense we get that the narrator is held back and confused by fear, fear that originates from some vague point in space or time that we can’t grasp immediately. You could also read the song as a cryptic allusion to the alienation of wage labour, albeit presented in a misty fashion. As always, songwriter Roland Orzabal’s lyrics are are sung with clarity and intensity but don’t immediately make sense or, I would argue, need to convey their semantic meaning. Most of Tears for Fears’ appeal is about performance and drama, and in this regard “Working Hour” proves its quality.

To cautiously generalize my observations on this topic:

Taste, like desire, is clearly a highly variable facet of someonee’s personality, strongly affected by close relationships, family history, and their implication in larger class, cultural, and national structures. It has the capacity to change unexpectedly in response to a whole swathe of events and interventions, but curiously remains one of the ways in which people try to stake out identities for themselves. My encounter with Tears for Fears and my transition from a hater to an admirer is one small stream in the larger processes of culture and class formation going on all around me. Best not to take too much specific insight from it, but it’s a fun example of how changes in taste are usually part of larger changes in a person’s or community’s life.

The Peanuts Movie: Not a Review

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My maturation process was different from most people’s. From my teens on, I always thought of my past selves as ungainly skins to be molted off at the earliest convenience. Nostalgia was anathema to me, and I openly derided my past tastes. Thrown into university with a brittle psyche and depressive, even nihilistic, tendencies, I would complain at length to my friends about all the insecure students trying to reconnect with their childhoods when adulthood was beckoning. It’s not that I exorcised all my passions and tastes from earlier; I just had a hypercritical attitude about myself and, by extension, anything I liked.

Peanuts, though, was bone marrow, a phantom limb. My first love was the television specials, but I quickly devoured the 60s and 70s comics Schulz and Melendez mortared together to make those specials. Being raised in the Midwest as a depressive, hyper-articulate, wannabe adult, Schulz’s spare, efficient commercial line art and heavily psychologized characters were irresistible. So while Schulz’s capitalist acumen and  aptitude for self-promotion and unholy dedication were what made it famous, what fused Peanuts to my brain was its portrait of a hopeless world where people just took comfort in their own flaws.

And that’s why this is not a review of the Peanuts movie. The quality of any given ancillary Peanuts product is meaningless. In fact, all it has to do to have me enraptured is to preserve the tone. The tone that has me coming back to Wes Anderson’s movies long after I acknowledge they are rather inconsequential––so why do I cry for so many of them?––is the gentle bleakness of the polite, decaying Midwest. I don’t cry for the Peanuts movie because it’s not appropriately cruel. Too many softening touches, too much Hollywood glitz. It’s not that the creators don’t understand the characters, but that they recognize they have to limit the audiences exposure to them, like a heavy element somewhere in the low hundreds on the periodic table. Peanuts is all about being sad, privileged, conceited, and shattered all at the same time. It’s about having a comfortable enough life that you can take shelter even in your own worst flaws. Characters come together and form an unbroken chain of schadenfreude. Of course, that’s not all of it. It’s much gentler than that in practice, even if its character roster is populated by insecure whiners and overconfidence artists.

We could talk about how comic strips in general make their characters run on little hamster wheels, trapped in formula as surely as they’re bound in rectangular panels. Comparisons to Sisyphus and existentialism arise, but at the same time, in the logic of the strip (ignoring the deified hand of the author) Charlie Brown is not forced to run his kite into the kite-eating tree. He does it because he’s an all-American do-gooder who won’t give up though the plants themselves thwart him. He never seriously considers never kicking the football again. And contrary to Camus’s famous pronouncement about Sisyphus, no one can imagine Charlie Brown happy.

The Peanuts Movie is the most credible attempt I’ve yet seen to turn Peanuts into a conventional feature film. It succeeds well enough to make itself anonymous. Simultaneously, it’s hard to forget what happens in the film because most of it has happened before, in other movies or comics or specials.

Maybe someday I’ll get over Peanuts. I’ll probably have to want that to happen before I do, though.

 

Defeat is a Wound, Forgetting is Death: The Importance of Political Memory

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Like a river fed by many tributaries, political struggles draw nourishment from multiple sources. Collective memory is one of these sources of sustenance. Much academic work has been done discussing how different communities sustain themselves by building and developing a sense of collective memory. Transmission of this memory, including practical knowledge and philosophical assumptions, is integral to the continuity of communities over time.

One of the ways that the ruling class stifles and weakens revolutionary movements is through the propagation of ideological histories. People’s struggles are shrouded in mists, whether of obscurity or, when too large to ignore, sticky sentiment. What should be the collective and inviolable asset of the people is thereby transformed into a vehicle for the repression of struggles and of the advance of people’s consciousness. And if academics are resolutely opposed to covering up these struggles––which has been nominally the case in the historical discipline for some time––they can simply be walled off in academia and forced to run the career treadmill. Where the river can be dammed, it is dammed. If not, it is diverted or, in the last case, remapped so no one can quite remember where it actually flows.

Only through a process of continually learning from our own and others’ mistakes and refining our practice can we achieve political aims, no matter how modest. This is why the seemingly trivial practices of recording meetings, writing histories, and penning personal reflections are so vital to the health of the revolutionary cause. Without a past, without the fruits of past struggles, of past reflection, we are starting from the beginning over and over again. This is one reason why it’s valuable to have some strong institutional structures, since that can facilitate these kinds of projects. Political practice is what ultimately wins victories, but we can’t situate our practice properly without a through knowledge both of the general situation (External) and our own (Internal).

This is how a movement can survive a thousand defeats; but in forgetting we kill not only our own movements but those that came before us. Even worse, negligence in this matter only harms new revolutionaries and young Marxists who won’t have any larger grasp of the tradition into which they are inserting themselves. While we will hopefully always have the global and historical moments (1917, 1949, 1871) to remember, within my city the problem seems to be much more acute. Organizations I’ve been a part of have difficult communicating their own history to me. In part this is out of a hesitance to implicate former members and expose them by name, which is understandable. On the other hand, every organization that calls itself revolutionary should have a sense of its own history and the ability to transmit that history to newcomers. Even if the organization is very young, it will still possess a history and established ways of doing things.

Of course, the objection might be raised that to harden our work into a “tradition” is equivalent to setting a formula in stone. We condemn ourselves to solemn and useless repetition of old techniques and old words long deprived of meaning. And to that I say: an organization is far more likely to flail and uselessly repeat itself if it does not have a record and a deep grasp of its own past. Traditions should be established precisely to be criticized and put to new uses, while providing a general guard against the most obvious errors. Whether a group fossilizes into an archaic joke or not would more likely depend on the quality of its line and its ability to refresh itself, drawing on the human capacity for creativity and adaptation. We must rigorously distinguish between empty reenactment and a living relationship to our history and traditions.

With that said, we should all work hard to strengthen our collective memories, both for our own uses and as a service to the communities we are (hopefully!) embedding ourselves in. Just as the movement is at the disposal of the people, so too should its history always be their history. When we forget our past struggles, we can lose the sense that struggle is even possible. I’m all in favour with a clean break from past errors. But first we have to figure out what those errors are in the first place!

 

Political and Personal Partnerships

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Happy birthday to Lenin as well! All we’re missing is the cat.

I was recently finishing up Lumpen: The Autobiography of Ed Mead and was impressed by the amount of time Mead dedicates to matters of love and partnership. Given how much of his life was spent in revolutionary activity, I found this somewhat unexpected. People would be picking up this book to learn about his militant exploits, not descriptions of his lovers and friendships, after all. Still, it led me to think more carefully about the topic of how to handle personal partnerships when you claim to pursue revolutionary politics. Given that I have more than three years of experience with my current partner (and comrade blogger!), I felt it fitting to record my reflections.

Relationships are Never Worth Preserving for Their Own Sake

This is a play on the idea that the Marxist party––or any political form or relation––is not worth valuing in itself. Rather, it’s a tool, an apparatus that has a particular purpose and needs to be embedded in its organic base. A partnership between two people is a means of providing mutual support, emotional and often sexual fulfillment, and an environment where all members can grow and change in a healthy way. Love is the point, not one exact form that needs to be protected like a sacred object. This can cause huge problems for people who stay together far longer than they should or see their partners in a fixed way and can’t accommodate personal evolution. Relationships should be treated seriously, just like political work, but always with the correct goal in mind: mutual support and fulfillment of each person. Fervent attachment to the idea of a relationship can lead to abuses and hurts far worse than mere separation. Not to say that separation isn’t also incredibly damaging in many cases, but even the latter is often made more arduous simply because each person was attached to one particular form of a relationship rather than, truly, to the loved ones in all their complexity.

The Ownership Model Produces Jealousy and Venom

The bourgeois nuclear family has countless ardent defenders. These suburban paladins will ascribe all kinds of magical fetishistic powers to the Victorian family, and to them I say humbug. Call me the Wedding Scrooge if you must, but the reality is that classical marriage is founded on a property relationship: the woman becomes the object of exchange, transferred from her father’s family to that of her husband. Western marriage rituals are all rooted in this financial reality, not to mention the fact that marriage usually happens within your own class and serves to solidify your economic position. Our white dresses and cakes and mirror balls conceal the slick tentacles of corruption and mixed motives. I don’t mean to demean marriage itself––I’m married and don’t mind it much––but it’s important to recognize that the entire legal apparatus around marriage is constructed because it is a property relationship, one built for lawyers, jewellers, and life insurance agents as much as the loving partners. Every love marriage in capitalism is afflicted by money relations, which saddens me profoundly.

A fetish for ownership and possession also rests at the root of a lot of jealousy and dishonesty within relationships. I personally struggle with feelings of professional envy, especially when my partner is able to take advantage of opportunities that I don’t have. At the same time, I recognize that jealousy and resentment are antithetical to a loving bond, not to mention the politically correct way to treat a fellow traveller with whom you are also in love. As Spinoza emphasized, feelings of resentment and schadenfreude are symptoms of minds that are sickened by what he called sad affects, products of our irrational imagination. Putting down your partner because you feel envious or distressed just diminishes yourself––it puts you at a distance from one of your greatest allies and probably hurts your health as much as your heart. Partners often stand hand in hand to flourish together, but at times their paths diverge and they have to allow their significant others to grow. This relates back to point 1. The central point is: you don’t own your partner, their time, or their other relationships. Honesty and open criticism are your friends, not secrecy and turning narc on one another.

Sharing Politics: Criticism, Struggle and Unity

Though I would never demand that my partner mirror my exact politics––that would be neither possible nor healthy––I do believe that it’s important for partnerships to rest on a foundation of shared values and interests. Because of that, it’s difficult to imagine myself in a relationship with a liberal or, god forbid, a reactionary. Desire works its designs in strange and ambiguous ways, but a lasting and healthy partnership is probably impossible across a cavernous political gap. A partnership, after all, has to be an environment that ensures that each member doesn’t have to waste their energy suppressing themselves or fighting with their significant other.

At the moment, my notion of an ideal relationship between two subjects who are just as political as they are amorous is that they are able to debate and struggle with each other without losing a common foundation of respect and principles. Engaging the other member of the partnership, criticizing them when necessary, and being willing to receive open criticism, are all crucial for staving off the spectre of secrecy, gossip, and backbiting. In political discussions with my partner, although I often take a teaching role because of my slightly more advanced comprehension of political ideology, I have to be aware that her own experiences and knowledge are likely to surpass mine in certain areas, and to be humble before her on such questions. Nothing ever works out perfectly, but the fact that we have a strong friendship and good communication in general enables our little talks to be more productive and meaningful than they otherwise might be.

Conclusion

I’m quite young and do not have the iron-tested experience of many people I know. Still, I think I’ve had a long enough time to reflect and am attentive enough to offer some insight into those reflections. Just as no political party or work of art will be pure, so the relationship is constantly incomplete and imperfect, always pushing its member s towards new heights of solidarity. I’m quite thankful to my partner for the time we’ve had together, and strongly believe we’ll have our best times in the future.

Scattered Thoughts on Japan and China’s Hedgehog Dilemma

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I understand China and Japan’s current and recent relationship to be one of acute tension caused by an attraction-antagonism dynamic. Both countries are increasingly interdependent in the economic sphere, but this has not resulted in the amelioration of historical grievances or current tensions because capitalist competition for resources and markets increases antagonism. There are numerous forces at play here, and I wanted to write a short post outlining some of my own ideas for how the history of East Asia has played out in the last few decades, culminating in the post-crisis history we are currently attempting to understand.

Factor 1: Japanese Investment in China

As key manufacturing industries in Japan faced problems accumulating capital with a (relatively) high-paid domestic workforce and increasingly subject to international competition because of neoliberal reforms haphazardly implemented since the 1980s, it began to export more and more capital to China. The result is that many Japanese cars, electronics, etc. are manufactured in China, which has done nothing to alleviate social and economic stagnation in the home country but has allowed individual corporations to survive. Recent Chinese protests against Japan (in 2012 most recently) often focused on the destruction of Japanese-branded commodities and the shaming of Chinese people who bought them.

Factor 2: Nationalism as the governing ideology of both countries

Since the Deng Xiaoping reforms, socialism has been displaced as the dominant party ideology in China by GDP-obsessed nationalism. Though the state was ambivalent about popular protests against Japan, it allowed them to proceed as long as they didn’t target national policies. This indicates that the PRC and the ruling CPC relies on nationalism as unifying ideology while fearing popular radicalization. In particular, a popular nationalism that endangered China’s hard-fought membership in the capitalist world system would spell trouble for the ruling class if it became widespread.

In Japan, meanwhile, PM Shinzo Abe is chipping away at the pacifist Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. Popular opposition is rising, but the Japanese state has been pivoting towards a renewed Japanese nationalism and assertiveness in foreign relations. It’s building its military capabilities and loosening the bonds on where and when it can intervene. It’s probably the case that Japanese and Chinese nationalisms feed off of their own antagonism, with nationalists in each country making different historical and political cases for the strengthening of their own nation vis-a-vis the other. Capitalist competition, nominally an economic matter, is thus to a degree overdetermined by its political connotations as the two nations try to open new markets for their goods and compete for influence in the Global South, especially SE Asia and Africa. Similar competitive dynamics contributed, lest we forget, to the outbreak of WWI.

Chinese and Japanese nationalism are not directly comparable, of course. Japanese nationalism, emerging in the Meiji era, traces its own heritage back to the military state of WWII and pre-war imperialism. Chinese nationalism has its own roots in national liberation struggles, though in the current context its progressive content is much more ambiguous and contested.

Factor 3: Rise of an Urban Consumer Class in China

One of the most intriguing parts of the recent protests against Japan in China is that it focused heavily on Japanese imports. The friction that sparked the protests involved territorial and resource disputes in the South China Sea, but the preferred objects for Chinese protest were the ones most readily associated with Japan: commodities. The content of these protests was thus shaped by Japanese commodities and their availability to a certain class of Chinese person. Reports on these protest movements focus on two pieces: discussions of the issues on online forums and their urban character. Nationalist protests against Japan broke out not only in places like Xi’an, which are weapons manufacturing centres, but also in industrial cities like Shenzhen, where many Japanese firms have industrial operations. It’s likely that China’s middle class has been at least partly shaped by the availability of Japanese consumer goods, and the working class by building those goods. But the fact that potential boycotts were advocated online and that sales for Japanese cars dropped significantly after the protest movement broke out shows there was at least a large section of protestors who are relatively prosperous. This has potential implications for how to analyze the class character of Chinese nationalism and its adherents since the 1980s.

***

We can conclude that the dynamics of capitalist competition, capital export and exploitation of lower-wage workers in China, and the entrenchment of nationalist politics in both countries indicate that the new economic closeness between Japan and China will not necessarily be amicable. Discovering how this situation came to be requires a historical investigation into the relations between the two countries against the backdrop of neoliberal globalization and the increasing regionalization of East Asia after 1990 (in the ideological sphere, see Japanese Asianism after the Cold War ended). The possibility of antagonism, either directly or through proxies, cannot be neglected.

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