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Jan 01, 2013
Oct 02, 2013
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distil
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distilling at least two decades of thinking on the subject.
Although a Professor of War Studies, Freedman does not restrict himself to the conduct of war but reviews revolutionary and dissident stategy on the one hand and business strategy on the other.
He is highly critical of some of the nonsense (he is too kind to call it that) from business gurus and I can only be pleased that I smelled the rat throughout the 1980s and 1990s and read few of them.
Where he gets to is a sceptical view of what we can possibly know about our own futures or control them.
He outlines, in the final section, the role of narratives and scripts in giving us the illusion of control.
This is not a counsel of despair. There is no fatalism in Freedman's approach but he does suggest that 'real life' requires a degree of detachment from scripts and narratives while making use of them as tools.
Educated readers will probably not be surprised by the general thrust of the section on war where there is a sort of master in Clausewitz (and the influence of Jomini) but it will bring you up to date.
As we write, a rather odd crisis between the 'West' (whatever that is) and Russia, after some egregious blundering by the European Union, has allowed all sorts of absurd 'narratives' free rein.
Trying to rein in historic stories about fascism and appeasement as well as more recent tales of humanitarian intervention and self determination has been part of the problem for intelligent diplomats.
The Ukraine remains unresolved as we write but the undoubted strategic skills of Putin and Lavrov on the one hand and Obama and Kerry might be enhanced by having this text at their sides.
The second section on the strategic attempts to overturn elites and systems gives due weight to the role of Marxism but is perhaps too easily seduced into a highly US-centred picture of political struggle.
This provides us with one of the few 'strategic' criticisms of the book - the elephant in the room that Freedman assiduously dances around: the State.
Military strategy is the expression of the force of the State, revolutionary strategies seek to overturn or capture the State and business strategies compete with the State ... but what of the State?
The State, emergent out of warlordism and dynasticism (or small trading communities), is the thing that should interest us most because we are most stuck inside its narratives and scripts.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of space (the book is over 600 pages long) but one senses sometimes that the broader academic community is always nervous of telling us the truth about what feeds it.
But this may be unfair. The book is mostly easy reading (though the idiocies of academic social scientists often cause one to lose patience) and the assessments are honest and fair to all parties.
Indeed, it is good to find a book that both gives due to the troubled struggle by educated revolutionaries to speak for the masses and to the games businessmen play to try to control what cannot be controlled.
A book which treats Rockefeller of Standard Oil and Karl Marx fairly, let alone Tom Hayden, has a lot going for it though maybe Freedman should throw up his hands at Sun Tzu as perpetual strategic cliche.
Will this book make you a better 'strategist'? Well, it will do a service if it makes you sceptical about books that claim to offer that particular pot of gold.
Strategists are probably born rather than made but many of the skills can be learned - or rather 'bad' unstrategic narratives might be unlearned and 'scripts' recognised.
His story of continuous failures to 'get it right' becomes a bit cheerier when rationalist progressives begin to be challenged by the behaviourial economists.
Though I remain unconvinced by this particular discipline - and consider political science to be an utterly absurd concept - cognitive psychology has helped us here.
Increasingly, we are beginning to stop whining that we are not 'rational' (or rather autistic academics are) and beginning to see our mentalities as extremely good survival machines for uncertainty.
Freedman is persuasive that we have a sort of double action mind where intuition and 'art' working in real time gets things right most of the time under most conditions (his System 1 strategic thinking).
Habit and narratives and scripts can get in our way in a crisis and the reasoning abilities of his System 2 thinking enable us analytically and critically correct our own biases and errors.
However, we can only do this in real time, constantly adjusting to realities that are, in themselves, way beyond any form of reasonable long term analysis because of so many variables and unknowns.
Perhaps the thinking started with John Boyd's simple but productive concept of OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) but Freedman here develops a more interesting model of struggle.
In essence, the only strategy is the intuitive positioning of oneself to win each battle as it comes within a general vision of where one wants to be - and this is not a matter for mathematicians.
Notes are private!
Apr 13, 2014
May 01, 2001
Feb 01, 2010
This is a highly recommended work of intellectual history with major insights into the construction of the American mind. Menand's approach can be eas This is a highly recommended work of intellectual history with major insights into the construction of the American mind. Menand's approach can be easily summarised. He takes the lives of four significant American intellectuals - William James, Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey - and weaves a history around them, their associates and historical events.
The purpose is to elucidate the pragmatic turn of mind that emerged as a central element in American political and intellectual life after the horrors of the Civil War. It reached its high point in the first half of the next century. He presents pragmatism in its various forms as a reaction to the absolutism and certainty that had led to war.
He closes by hinting (though not going much further) that the ways of seeing represented by these men have been replaced by more absolutist attitudes in more recent decades.
This book has so much breadth and depth to it that it is hard to suggest anything more than that it should be read. There is no easy summary of its contents. This is fitting. Pragmatic thinking is a response to the human complexity that became increasingly obvious in industrial society.
This required a turning away from simplicities offered by Christian Fundamentalists, Kantians, Hegelians and other believers in the Absolute. Pierce, for example, remained someone with a sense of the absolute but his role is much like that of Kierkegaard's in the equivalent European existentialist revolt against intellectual grand design.
Both men were trying to understand how the world might be interpreted in the light of experience while retaining God. Peirce's philosophy of signs and wonders and Kierkegaard's leap of faith created pragmatic tools for others who required no deity - not what either man intended.
Pragmatism may even be the reason why Marxism could never take hold in the American elite. The central aspect of pragmatism is its lack of ideology - ideas and concepts are just tools. Tolerance of the struggle for mastery over ideas was to be the hall mark of Americanism expressed as democracy.
Pragmatism happens to be the philosophy of action (alongside existentialism as philosophy of being) that I find most amenable so I have a bias here.
Nevertheless, it would be hard to find a more basically decent human being than William James, one of the key figures in Menand's analysis. It is rare to read a book nowadays where a major figure comes out better than you expected - usually, 'great men' (a silly concept) come out human-all-too-human in the worst sense.
Here, James comes out human-all-too-human in the best sense - inquiring, tolerant, decent, humane and providing space for possibility at every opportunity when it comes to us humans. This is a progressive man, not in the sense of the interfering matriarchical busybody who wants us to be 'better' but as someone who sees life as a process of improvement and development from within.
James also re-opened the door for religion not as an imposed morality instigated from above but as a life choice that could be respected even if it was 'wrong'.
What also comes across in the book is just how interconnected the American intellectual class was in the nineteenth century. Make no mistake - American democracy was constructed by elites. Although this changes as the century progresses, the story is almost entirely one of a network of individuals who all knew each other and had family connections in New England.
These are people who grow up and go to war together and deal together with problems raised by the piety, real or assumed, of their parents' generation through argument and struggle. These are not radicals at all. Quite the contrary. They are reacting to a political radicalism about principle that had resulted in violence. Menand is persuasive on this.
These are also highly intelligent people struggling with the processes of transition within a relatively undeveloped proto-industrial economy.
In traditional capitalist New England, merchant families maintained order and morality through an appeal to a puritan God. After the Civil War, a rival conservative culture based on agrarian values was crushed but modernity did not allow the New Englanders much time to bask in their absolute values of righteousness and good order.
Industrial society became continent-wide and complex, leading to tensions between bourgeois paternalism and labour rights. This was compounded by the 'pull' of migrants from overseas looking for a better life and the complex interweaving of science and race with the politics of interest.
Pragmatic thought was the right philosophy for the times. It recognised the sheer scale of the problem of differing interests and the uselessness of resolutions of difference by force and violence.
It is interesting perhaps that 'absolutism' (in the form of the aggressive export of democratic values in the declaration of war of 1917) emerged from the circle of a Southern Democrat. This declaration of war was also associated with an aggressive use of the law to supppress dissent. Many of the New England 'liberals' (William James was conscious of his debt to JS Mill) opposed the war.
Dewey, the youngest, who straddled the liberal/progressive divide, was one of the war mongers but later regretted his position. This became a breach between the true pragmatists and the militant progressives and is underestimated as a longstanding tension between two responses to American democracy.
The liberal pragmatist's prime concern is in making democracy work well in and for itself to avoid disorder and violence. The progressive, like the socialist, wants to make it work for a prior idea or interest.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, was interested in process to ensure the law worked well in a pragmatic way. Personally quite conservative, this might often result in liberal or progressive results. Sometimes this meant that he was supportive of the more tyrannical statist changes and sometimes resistant of them.
The total effect of this pragmatic philosophy of letting judges make the law out of the law was a constant liberal adjustment to changed conditions despite his own conservatism. Menand makes his case well that the construction of American liberal democracy owes a great deal to the confluence of views and adaptation to new realities of this relatively small group of intellectuals.
Perhaps in some ways pragmatism went too far, opening the door to a new phase that was to prove more problematic but this would still accord with pragmatic philosophy. Although I happen to think there is a flaw in this approach, the pragmatist would tend to see process as value-free eventually leading to the best outcome - a counterpart to the market.
In fact, the argument for a struggle of interests within democracy eventually degenerated into the identity politics we see today. Although Menand does not deal with the later period, he gives insights. Ethnic and religious individuals began to see no future in being American alone but in becoming competing blocks within American democracy as ethnic or faith-based Americans.
The pragmatists cannot be held responsible for this development because pragmatism presupposes a common core culture within which other socio-economic interests struggle but the philosophy enabled it to happen. They were not to know that the struggle between socio-economic interests would come to involve the revival of race and of ethnicity, and then of gender and sexual orientation, as organising principles.
A democracy designed to manage the clash of labour and capital in the wake of the traumatic Pullman Strike eventually became a vehicle for culture wars between vast coalitions of identity groups. By the twenty-first century, these were constructing themselves in opposition to each other in a blind process of call and response. Voters would vote on tribal attribute rather than individual interest.
Perhaps the most degenerate phase will be when a woman president is elected not because she is the best person but because liberal women will vote en masse for one of their own.
The State also became powerful in itself as arbiter between labour and capital and so was enabled to become, in stages, 'imperial'. It had learned to undertake war internally between 1860 and 1865 and then practised these dark arts against Indian tribes and the little brown brothers in Cuba and the Philippines.
The new rampant State ceased to be liberal without ceasing to be democratic when it entered the European War with a specific brief to spread values which had by then ceased to be 'pragmatic'. Menand does not deal with this late phase but we can. Pragmatism was displaced by a new democratic absolutism - American democracy not as organic creation but as exportable total system against 'tyranny'.
In the twentieth century, not just in 1917 but in stages throughout the century, America became an illiberal democracy (in the sense that a British person or New Englander would have understood 'liberal'). The new 'liberalism' that has emerged is, like its counterpart conservatism, definitely not a pragmatism but closer to the transcendental belief system of pre 1860 New England radicals.
If conservatism has not lost God. American liberalism (or progressivism) has a vision of what is absolutely right that is not wholly without merit. Sometimes 'real' liberalism fails to deliver. Menand rightly points out that it took an absolutist who believed in God (Martin Luther King) to trigger the changes required to move forward in dealing with racial discrimination.
However, cultural struggle in America today, a stand-off between cultural conservatives and liberals, means partial disconnection from basic socio-economic struggles and this not quite so 'pragmatic'. American democracy is not all that it often claims to be. The current struggle, expressed in terms of Democrats and Republicans, certainly works within certain rules set by the Constitution.
However, the US is not the common culture on which pragmatists had relied for their philosophy of tolerance and pluralism to work, the function of a meritocratic elite which crushed its main rival in war. The America of the twenty-first century is different in fundamental ways from the world of the pragmatists while, in practical terms, within a complicated legal framework, Americans remain pragmatic.
However, making democracy work as process (the aim of political pragmatists) has been replaced by a determination to treat the state, judiciary and legislature as instrumental in a different way. The Constitution is robust but the cultural wars within the US and the imperial adventuring outside seem to have reached a pitch of intensity where the Constitution simply no longer has all the answers required.
Since 2003, the US has engaged in a series of wars that have been fruitless and expensive, culminating in a bloodless defeat in Syria, without any sense of the nation being united any more than in 1917. Similarly, the state's surveillance operations seem to have been undertaken by an executive that is out of control, without legislative scrutiny or opportunity for judicial review.
Neither of these issues appear to engage the mass of Americans who seem to live under the radar screen of any politics that is not pre-set by their cultural identity. The economic losers (once the interest group of concern to pragmatists) are now wholly without a voice, not even the voice that Menand noted existed a hundred years earlier simply by dint of them existing.
Something is up with America. Some crisis that has not yet expressed itself. This book is an invaluable guide in trying to think through what that crisis might be and how it might have come to be. Perhaps, by thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of pragmatic thinking, it might also help Americans think about what might be done to overcome that crisis as it unfolds over the coming years. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 22, 2013
Feb 18, 1988
Feb 18, 1988
This quarter century old basic introduction to the history of continental philosophy still stands up to scrutiny. Robert Solomon has a mildly polemica This quarter century old basic introduction to the history of continental philosophy still stands up to scrutiny. Robert Solomon has a mildly polemical intent in that (in my opinon quite correctly) he clearly wants us to be unpersuaded by the transcendental claims of the great essentialists - Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and their followers.
The book's narrative perhaps hinges on the great anti-philosopher and so the greatest philosopher of the continental tradition, Nietzsche. It is as if progress was not possible until he had spoken though we can offer some thanks to the intellect of Kierkegaard.
Looking back, everything before Nietzsche looks increasingly like ideology and everything after him an attempt at science, the striving towards a philosophy that had the measure of man as he is in relation to the world or a somewhat futile attempt to salvage what he wrecked.
Of course, ideology returns in the synthesis between it and existentialism of the flawed genius Sartre, the squabbles with Camus (untreated here) and the important explorations of identity of De Beauvoir but it has to take account of the existential impulse in order to salvage a somewhat intense and over-wrought version of meaning.
By the time we get to the last chapter, we are too close to the period in which Solomon is writing. He is wisely cautious about what will and will not matter to future generations. In the mid-1980s he can reasonably judge that Althusser and Lacan were effectively damp squibs and have the jury out on Derrida and Foucault (though the last is clearly joining the greats as time passes).
In fact, what does strike us is just how good Solomon's judgment is in nearly every case. Even today, we would give Marx the due given by Solomon and we have since thrown Freud over board as influence on philosophy perhaps too easily.
But (given the closing of the story in effect in the middle of the twentieth century) what remains striking is that the long tail of Kantian and Hegelian nonsense is still so culturally dominant today outside philosophy itself.
We can push to one side the clowning of Zizek but philosophy today is either soundly analytical but increasingly sceptical of itself, striving to give up bits of itself to the cognitive sciences, or it is attempting to find out what it is to be human (the followers of Heidegger) or how power, text, language and the social actually operate (Foucault) rather than piddle around with non-existent universals.
Philosophy remains dynamic and questioning and yet our political and artistic culture, having disposed of both Freud and Marx, seems stuck in the world created by the absolutist transcendentalists.
My own theory on this relates to psychology. The class that sits in a manipulative position over the masses has no tools left but an invented idealism in order to guide and control them.
It is not that Kantian rights theory or Hegelian dialectic (shorn of its Marxist overlay now) are true but that, as tools, they are useful, whereas the insights on what it is to be human of Heidegger (after Nietzsche) or Foucault may be true but they are not useful except to individuals and (were they but to know it) the masses themselves.
The search for meaning thus intersects with a struggle over power and the Absolute has become a pragmatically useful replacement for God. It can both give a spurious meaning to people desperate for meaning (even if it not be true) and be a tool for power while posturing as progressive or advanced thought.
No wonder the liberal intelligentsia and administrative classes find it difficult to give these essentialisms up - it would be like the cynical Constantine giving up Christianity even after someone had pointed out that it was based on invented nonsense.
The invented nonsenses of Christianity were too obvious by the Enlightenment so the arrival of Rousseau and his ilk was like (excuse the joke) a 'deus ex machina', ready and waiting for the new 'democratic' ideologies of conscription and manipulation.
Heidegger and Sartre drifted into the same trap in different ways (and were unlike Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, even if a perverted form of the last was utilised by evil forces later).
Heidegger, whose early and core philosophy stands as the most profoundly 'realistic' account of how we humans exist in the world, drifted into a mystical stance later that might easily have become transcendental in its own right if taken further.
Sartre, a true manipulative genius, merged existentialism with Cartesianism to turn philosophy into a weapon once again but (as Marx did) one for the damned and discontented of the earth to use if they were so minded. That Sartre turned to Marx as tool to hand should occasion no surprise.
Neither 'turn' was persuasive because both wanted to reinvent meaning where there was no necessity for it, either for the individual in the world or as a tool for action in the world. Neither seemed to be able to reconstruct sufficient 'pagan virtue' but had to invent alienations where none need have existed. The theory of alienation, of course, actually being at its worse in the hysterically ridiculous value judgments emerging in the 'horreur' of commodification and objectification from the dimmer type of late Marxist.
Today, we seem to live in a world where philosophy exists in three layers: a top layer of serious investigation that informs how science is being done and how people may live in the world; an intermediate layer of celebrity performance whose sole purpose appears to be pander to the prejudices of a certain type of graduate terrified of becoming declasse; and the level below this where liberal rights activism and administrative conservatism rely on philosophical systems that are outdated and, bluntly, plain wrong.
Below these three layers are the population at large, controlled by the layer immediately above (and half persuaded where they are not holding to traditional world views of their rightness), confused by and disconnected from the layer above that and not realising that the things that will decide their future and their world live in that fertile top layer.
What we have as the world trundles towards a revolutionary situation based on technological change is a cultural milieu in which rights and the dialectic have simply replaced traditional religion. It is no surprise to see, equally threatened by the new world, faith-based groups and many intellectual 'Leftists' converging in conservative opposition to the technological and freedom agenda emerging (albeit mostly accidentally) out of much current philosophy.
We are entering a time of struggle. The reactionary forces in this struggle include Enlightenment absolutism as much as people who believe in supernatural forces - both the Absolute and God are really simply variations on the same theme. However, that is looking at things a quarter of a century on from this book.
In the meantime, Solomon's narrative should be taken as one of the best short and very readable guides to the continental tradition, from Rousseau to the existentialists and phenomenologists, and is recommended.
Notes are private!
Oct 27, 2013
Aug 01, 2001
Jul 01, 2003
The death of Nicholas Goodrick-Clark last year (2012) deprived us of an important historian of political irrationalism.
Unlike many others in the field The death of Nicholas Goodrick-Clark last year (2012) deprived us of an important historian of political irrationalism.
Unlike many others in the field, he neither accepted irrational claims as anything other than fictions nor allowed himself the luxury of huffing and puffing about their presumed evil in a liberal society.
He simply told the story and expressed, with discretion (pages 303-304) legitimate concerns about the course of events if these cruel and stupid irrationalisms had their ground watered for them by our own cultural stubbornness.
He was evidence-based and measured. This got him direct access to some of the key figures who espoused the ideologies covered in this remarkably useful book - political racism, esoteric national socialism and white identity politics. What he writes rings true as a result.
The book was written in 2002 and published in 2003 so his death holds the additional tragedy for us that he was never able to bring matters up to date in a Second Edition. His judgments are cautious and wise but he may have revised opinions about a moving political feast.
Each chapter is a fact-based essay in a different aspect of Far Right politics within the West (with only passing reference to other theatres). He begins by covering national socialism (essentially radical extremist conservatism) in the US and the shifting sands of the British Far Right in the face of immigration and multiculturalism.
He then moves on to review the influence of particular Far Right 'intellectuals' - Julius Evola, Francis Parker Yockey and Savitri Devi (on whom he had already written a book) - before moving on to the post-war construction of an association between the Nazis and the occult.
The next set of sections look at the myth of the esoteric SS, those surrounding Nazi UFOs and other extraterrestrial links and the very peculiar figure of Miguel Serrano who was not alone in merging South Asian ideas with the Nazi mythos.
Goodrick-Clark then reviews the two cultural phenomena of black metal and racist rock music and Nazi satanism and transgressional spirituality before coming full circle and returning to politics.
The book closes with reviews of Christian Identity and its 'allied opposite' racial paganism. The final chapter looks at a cultural phenomenon of considerable importance in the 1990s - the overlap of conspiracy theory, new age cultural pessimism and far right ideology.
What do we learn from all this and how might Goodrick-Clark have adapted his analysis in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Naturally, I cannot speak for him so these are just some lines of thought for others to follow and accept or reject.
The first thing we learn is the startling absurdity of much Far Right thought. We can leave you to read his extended accounts of extremist theory in the book for the evidence of that statement.
Where it is logical, Radical Rightist theory is always based on 'essentialist' philosophical assumptions that bear little scrutiny although they may be no more absurd (just 'nastier' and more anti-social) than other 'spiritual' traditions.
Too often, radical right ideology is simply auto-didactically stupid. Even the most cogent analyses are based on a clear misreading of Nietzsche to the extent that almost every claim to the mantle of Nietszche is, in fact, merely a variation on the 'ressentiment' that the great philosopher excoriated in the desert religions.
Perhaps the only thinker capable of getting beyond absurdity to the first rank was Evola and even he sunk into the sort of mythologising that may have worked in the age of Jung and Spengler but scarcely cuts the mustard today.
But the second thing we learn is that these theories are perhaps intellectually absurd but they represent a genuine political problem that the liberal community has swept under the carpet for far too long.
Even in 2002, there was a growing resentment, which I think had more justification to it than liberals are prepared to admit, that the white working class in general and white males in particular were somehow personally guilty for the crimes of the past.
It would seem that it was convenient for imperialism and capitalism to be expiated by the profiting middle classes through an offering to the gods of political correctness of their own underlings.
Like the Aztecs with bodies, the Western high bourgeoisie has offered a hecatombs of souls in order to rewrite cultural norms in a way that will sustain their power. Of course, the souls they offer are never their own. One class of poor has simply been brought in to replace another as favoured grunts of the system.
We have a combination of invented history, a surge of immigration tolerated by the middle classes to drive down wages and solve the 'servant problem', and active cultural engineering behind affirmative action and multiculturalism.
The result is the growth of a cynical and aggressive political class, an alliance of liberals (social and economic) and block minority votes that has created the atomised and unorganised opposition outlined in this book, waiting for its time in the sun.
American culture knows it has a problem. Compare the world of the X-Files - mass suspicion of Government - with new popular TV series like the Walking Dead, Revolution, Defiance and Falling Skies.
Whether produced by Spielberg or JJ Abrams, the tone is one of liberal fear at complete social breakdown and each series questions how far the liberal is going to have to work with some rough-hewn Okie with a heart of gold if he is going to survive.
It is all subliminal, of course, but it is there. The most intelligent of the liberal elite knows that things have gone too far, wants to step back and include the new excluded but doesn't know how.
Meanwhile, the cult of San Muerte appears in the American prison system and hispanic, black and aryan brotherhoods may find they have more in common with each other than they do with the federal government that posits itself as last line of defence between the 'nice' middle class and brutal chaos. If divide and conquer ends, that class is stuffed.
From being a majority in society in the US, the white working class has felt itself under enormous economic and cultural pressure. The Far Right emerged as the element that said what it was not permitted to say within what amounted, ironically, to a liberal totalitarian culture dominated by the educated.
The educated, of course, are now under their own pressure from the internet. The steady pauperisation of the privileged knowledge worker will be the grand factor underpinning the politics of the first half of this century
The situation is not quite the same in the UK and Europe where the perceived 'threat' is feared rather than actual. It centres perhaps more on the denial of particular national and tribal feeling and the 'unfair' tolerance of alien tribes in the cause of universalism and equality.
But the scale of the potential for the active politics of resentment is probably hidden by the incompetence of the Far Right itself. Its language of national socialism, its thuggery and its intellectual stupidity have all alienated the population at large (which is basically tolerant and decent). It has allowed 'liberal' middle class hegemony a length of life that it probably does not deserve.
Indeed, in the UK, the 'Sun' has probably done more for the survival of liberal democracy in the UK than any single force simply because it articulates national feeling and diffuses the anger. If you want a Rightist revolution in the UK, all you have to do is force the removal of 'Page 3' from the paper and please the tiny minority of religious loons and feministas.
Certainly, the BNP's electoral results were derisory. However, a cynical or inspired person could work through this book, sweep away the nonsense, come up with an inspired radical conservatism that did not mention Hitler, flying saucers or race once (as truly irrelevant) and cause serious problems to the complacent hegemony of the political elite.
Fortunately for liberal democracy, there is not a thinker in this book that 'gets' what is happening. A change is beginning to happen in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis - but not the predicted one.
Career fascists like Griffin are being shunted aside in favour of radical populisms like the Tea Party in the US, UKIP in the UK and Marie Le Pen's second wave National Front in France.
Even Die Linke in Germany is developing a 'German workers first' strategy while the Italian Right and East European populist parties teeter between interwar fascism and bloody-minded populism.
The Far Right has failed simply because it is stupid. The populist Right which treats race as irrelevant but takes culture seriously and emphasises the rights of the individual over the rights of the collective is not.
This shift is recent. The global economic crisis was not something that Goodrick-Clarke was in a position to analyse a decade ago. The conspiracy theory obsessions of the 1990s staggered along through the 2000s but merely made Occupy a laughing stock amongst serious radicals of the Left and Right. A new game is afoot.
The New Age generation of irrational thinkers are moving inexorably towards the grave. Their successors are pragmatists whose prime concern is not maniacal amoral hysterical violence but a cultural resistance that is sustainable and that does not need the nightmare of a strong state.
History has also taught us that Hitler was far less demonic, far less interesting and far more incompetent than the 'romantics' of the second half of the twentieth century had liked to think. He was not the 'avatar' but simply a source of memes for political culture.
The final degeneration of the Nazi cult of Serrano lies in the disappointing Euro-comedy 'Iron Sky' and the far from disappointing use of the meme in films like Hollywood's 'Hell Boy'. Now we can all say with Indiana Jones "Gee, I hate those Nazis" without having someone whisper in our ear that the film was made by the 'Juice'.
The Nazis are now just a blip in history, another cruel and incompetent collectivism. They were in power about the same length of time as Tony Blair, another blip in history. But, and this is the rub, not only were the Nazis cruel and incompetent collectivists, it would seem that liberal democracies have proven to be as well.
States (we refer back to De Jouvenel) have taken to themselves the right to conscript labour (enslave) in peacetime on dubious arguments about citizenship or duty since the time of the Jacobins.
This is what the Nazis did and the liberal democracies also accrued that right to themselves. Even today, when most have given up or suspended that right, the Norwegians now temporarily enslave women on the dubious grounds of 'gender equality'. Hmmmmmmmm!
In other words, much of Goodrick-Clark's book refers to the slow unwinding of a total culture of authoritarian statism of which the ideology Far Right was merely a part. This is not to be complacent. The author refers to Golden Dawn, simply as a journal, once in passing, yet, a decade later, this same organisation received global news coverage as a contender for power in a collapsing Greece.
Only a day or so ago, I noticed the National Anarchists proudly posting on Facebook pictures of their lamp post stickers on the streets of Britain and, only months ago, liberal transhumanists were rightly getting exercised about the infiltration of their cultural movement by new wave fascists.
But in other respects, things are getting better. The correct analysis of the Far Right about the rise of liberal totalitarianism (merely a mirror image of their own aspirations to absolute power) has not resulted in a wider appreciation of various national socialisms but quite the opposite.
The rebellions in the Turkish and Brazilian street are cultural but anti-traditionalist. Military and bureaucratic elites are being asked to intervene to protect private life and individual freedom from authoritarians and communitarians. This would be unthinkable in the West where military and bureaucracy are locked into political correctness on their own account.
Similarly, as noted above, the new populist right is far more ambiguous than earlier versions of the right and, in some respects, it represents a libertarian reaction to the Big State with its public sector and positive discrimination welfarist clientage. Right and Left have partly switched places in a process that started with the Reagan Republicans.
The modern libertarian rightist is more likely to be sex-positive and secularist now - more so than the totalitarian liberal who will crush desire under radical feminist ideology and make contingent alliances with religious groups in order to hold on to an urban power base.
Things are, in short, confused but Far Right essentialism has driven itself into a corner of absurd ideas and its violence and culture of cruelty alienates its own potential base. Nordic Social Democracy was strengthened and not weakened by the insane slaughter of kids in Norway by Breivik. The American security state has been strengthened and not weakened by McVeigh's angry terrorist reaction to the atrocity at Waco.
It is a strong recommendation that you should read this book as contemporary history. In 2002, Goodrick-Clark raised his concerns that the cultural war on one part of the community by another would result in the rise of the Far Right and a form of reaction would set in.
I think he was right about the overall trend but he may have failed to see (simply because a decade is a long time in generational politics) precisely what would happen under the twin pressures of changes in political technology and sustained exposure of the moral turpitude and incompetences of our elites since 2008.
The ability of the mass not to be a 'herd' (as in the ideology of many of the frustrated activists in the book) but a wise crowd of individuals empowered by technology and interest is simply not in the mental tool box of resentful working class and declasse petit bourgeois authoritarians.
The paradox is that the hegemony of the liberal elite is coming to an end. This is why they are intensifying their attack with a range of tools such as porn filters and mass surveillance. But this is not to the benefit of either the authoritarian Right or the loons of Occupy.
Something new is stirring - a revolutionary moment perhaps where flawed 'saints' like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning sit alongside cheeky chappies like Nigel Farage and Berlusconi and doctors and market traders in Tunis, Cairo and Istanbul.
Above all, the age of identity politics is coming to an end - we are complex persons with private lives and not merely things defined by our race, our gender, our jobs or our sexual orientation.
This book is, therefore, a vital introduction to an insane but oddly legitimate protest on its own terms to liberal totalitarianism. It is a profoundly wrong and ignorant revolt but its right to revolt must be recognised. This will be uncomfortable to left-liberals but they are creating their own nemesis if they continue along their current path.
Fascist identity politics is simply the shadow side of the identity politics that has infected Western civilisation since the 1960s from the Left. Remove the identity politics of the hegemonic post-Marxist Left and fascist identity politics will die with it. Remove the clinical managerialism and 'federal bureaucratism' of liberal totalitarian thought and esoteric Nazi cults and New Age cultural pessimism will also disappear.
The Nazis are not the problem - they are noisy, nasty but tiny - we are the problem.
Notes are private!
Jul 31, 2013
Feb 11, 2013
Anyone writing a book about the Middle East with any element of long term analysis within it may soon be doomed to disappointing his or her readers -
Anyone writing a book about the Middle East with any element of long term analysis within it may soon be doomed to disappointing his or her readers - things are moving fast.
Two or so years ago, pontificators were predicting the 'inevitable' fall of Assad and the desirable rise of moderate political Islam as a stabilising force in the region, citing Turkey as model.
Within the last few weeks, Assad has not merely survived but he has mobilised a major power to protect his diplomatic rear while the experienced troops of Hezbollah are delivering victories on the ground.
In the last week, we have also seen a major rising in the cities of Turkey against what amounts to a conservative populist regime whose 'moderate Islamism' rather looks as if it is too obscurantist and authoritarian for the tastes of many urban and educated Turks.
This updated book by Alison Pargeter, a highly experienced observer of the Muslim Brotherhood, a key but not the only player in Arab Islamist politics, is probably going to be the best that you are going to get in mid-2013.
What we see here, however, for all the risk of being overtaken by events, is a solid account of an ideologically based and strategic movement for whom any form of politics is mere tool.
She takes us (without any evident bias) through the history of the movement and its progress in Egypt, Syria and Europe and in Egypt and North Africa during the 'Arab Spring' (in this updated second edition).
She leaves us to make our own conclusions. Mine are confirmed (with one caveat) from her facts - the Muslim Brotherhood represents the worst sort of obscurantist authoritarian populism.
Those in the West who have sought to control or manage it are, ultimately, as naive as the fellow travelers of Mussolini. Its regimes will be inherently unstable and either dangerous or sclerotic.
We are seeing something of this already in Egypt where Pargeter has a solid and useful account of the Muslim seizure of power in which considerable tactical skill gained it the Presidency.
The fruits of this are a populist regime speaking in forked tongue, trying to persuade Washington and the World Bank to part with billions while sabre-rattling for the nationalist vote over the Nile.
What these movements actually are remains a bit of a mystery even after this book. My own conclusions are grim. The fundamentals of the movement and political reality have created confused creatures with unstable internal structures based on quite small ideological cliques.
The typical Muslim Brotherhood operation is now made up of a very conservative mass base filled with resentment, led by an opportunistic group of tacticians putting on a democratic face that is skin deep.
Yes, there are genuine reformers. The caveat is that these 'liberals' have a strong base in Europe, in exile and in Libya and Tunisia for different reasons but these are also areas where their base is relatively weak.
If we look at where their base is strong - in Egypt and in Syria and, by analogy, in Turkey in the AKP which has different roots - then the ressentiment of the uneducated masses creates a very different dynamic.
The West's own internal contradiction lies in its attempt to square an accommodation with the MB, on the basis of the MB's very conservative version of democracy, with the fact that the sorts of freedom that we take for granted are inimical to the ideology of our potential 'allies'.
Westerners themselves, as we have also seen in recent weeks with the half-truths and vacillations over surveillance, have many freedoms under threat in the cause of 'protecting democracy'.
We must fear that the concern to protect a particular and rather manipulative democratic constitutionalism is now in direct opposition to hard-won secular, sexual and cultural freedoms - to all intents and purposes.
The freedom agenda in the West remains reasonably robust but this new vision of a stability through democratic order under conditions where freedom is to be regarded as contingent or as a second order concern appears in its most aggressive form in the Middle East.
This brings us back to events in Turkey (and, indeed, in Egypt and Iran) where quasi-democratic forms can mobilise the disadvantaged and poorly educated rural and artisanal masses against freedom.
This reminds one of the mobilisation of conservative masses not only between the wars but by the US in defeated Europe against Communism. But, this time around, the Islamists are the Soviets 'de nos jours'.
The West's policy agenda seems to be confused about who is our enemy - a mess of misjudgments that seems to be continuing day on day - but its most dangerous misjudgment is to place democracy in poor uneducated countries ahead of freedom.
To be blunt, while all have a right to their beliefs and culture and to a private family life (and the old Arab nationalist dictatorships were sclerotic and past their sell-by date), the imposition of traditionalist values on modernising societies and economies is a serious error in the making.
It is an error because, in the long run, it will not work unless the economic conditions that permit ressentiment continues creating yet another internal contradiction - regimes that depend on their own failure for survival.
Traditionalism requires societies that are frightened by change and yet long term economic security only comes from modernisation.
Even if they are well established in power (and one guesses that military determination on stability will secure Egypt and possibly Turkey for Islamism in the end), the temptation to exclude reformers from power and drive an increasingly obscurantist agenda to maintain the voting base will be overwhelming.
The evidence in only a very few years suggests that this is so. The BBC in particular talked up the liberal young Islamists in Egypt and Syria with depressing naivete without noting that most were either excluded from power or ignored by the real power brokers.
Similarly, the actual conduct in office of Erdogan and Morsi also suggests an ability to use necessary rhetoric to comfort the naive while determining nevertheless on the absolute eventual primacy of shari'a law, in principle, over democracy.
Let us be clear about this. Shari'a law is theogenic - it derives from Iron Age texts that claim the sanction of God and tradition.
Although sophisticated and often humane in the most fundamental way (do not accept the extreme cases of cruelty as typical), it is about controlling individual aspiration and desire for the collective good. It can be demeaning to many women and to those of a different sexuality.
Some in the West may appreciate this ultimate communitarian intent but this collective good is not a democratic one but one wholly dictated by the interpreted will of a God whose existence is actually a matter of faith, where many if not most in the population do not have that faith, and which is interpreted by accultured elites speaking unto uneducated masses from above.
From our Western perspective, this has to be considered an authoritarian reversion to medieval mental maps. It is tragic that, 250 years after the Enlightenment, we have native conservative forces clearly sympathetic to it.
It is also a betrayal of Arabs themselves who have known a time when they were far more advanced than Europeans and could do so again.
Even if conditions change again in the region (and they may do so at any time), this book will provide a solid grounding on the basic facts of this powerful new kid on the block with useful sources in the notes. ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 12, 2013
Nov 19, 2007
This is a fairly substantial and worthy account of the history of anarchism, largely built around review chapters of prominent figures and historical This is a fairly substantial and worthy account of the history of anarchism, largely built around review chapters of prominent figures and historical reviews of anarchism in action. It takes a broad view by including writers and thinkers who might better or equally be considered liberal or libertarian, although Marshall is always at pains to show their differences from classical anarchist thought.
It has to be said that it can be a little dull at times and there is a lack of a sustained overview, something that would give us a better idea of what it all may mean. It was also written in or around 1991/2 so the 'action' (such as it is) takes place at one of the low points in anarchist history - a quarter of a century after the collapse of the student hopes of the 1960s.
Similarly, Marshall is writing at least a decade and probably more before the internet permits the creation of a new politically-directed hacker activism and the emergence of the post-2008 insurrectionism that, one suspects, would have thoroughly confused the somewhat earnest intellectuals who dominate his book.
Indeed, that is the problem with the tale told here. This is mostly a story of intellectuals pontificating from on high about ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and about the nature of humanity and the world in a way that bears little relationship to the actual lived-in world of the people they claim that they want to liberate.
And it gets worse over time. The culmination of the book is a deathly dull (I skimmed in the end) account of the thoughts of that dodgy old Hegelian Murray Bookchin, a throw-back to the nineteenth century if ever there was one.
Marshall is old-school. The succession of (mostly) dead and nearly-dead white males leaves one, ultimately, less minded to anarchism at the end than one was at the beginning, partly because of the brutal realization that, if most of these gentlemen could have achieved their utopian dreams, the rest of us would have been oppressed and miserable before very long, certainly from utter boredom in their craftsman/peasant, neighbourly, crushingly dull, little communities.
At the end of the day, most of these thinkers (as opposed to the far more interesting practical seizures of power by anarchists in the Latin street) have no real language for accepting humanity as it is and so they rapidly go scuttling into a world of claimed reason where you can read petit-bourgeois tyranny on every page, at least when the people do not match up to the dreams of their saviours.
The Green Anarchism of Murray Bookchin is typical. His is a turgid and unrealistic Hegelianism that has very little to do with real freedom, calling us back to what amounts to the faith-based politics of dreamers like Kropotkin and Tolstoy via that German theoretician.
Anything that is ultimately faith-based or essentialist is definitely a bit creepy to anyone with their two feet placed firmly on the earth and many anarchists can be lumped with the Marxists and New Age loons in that respect.
In the end, one is thrown back to a place somewhere between the minimal state libertarianism and a humane left-libertarianism that permits some state action to enable all to be autonomous on equal terms. Grand theory has little to say to us here, praxis everything.
But even the praxis leaves us with a romantic bad taste in the mouth because every decent anarchist experiment – the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt rebellion, Makhno in the Ukraine, the POUM in Catalonia, the Evenements of ‘68 and many others – is quite simply crushed by superior reality.
Not just by superior force but by the fact that the force represents something – the reality of the situation. As a romantic, I am definitely with all these rebellions but, let's face it, participation is heroic but futile, an act of suicide. It would be like Mishima's hari-kiri only for the goodies.
It is not enough to say that these experiments ‘should have won’ because they were ‘right’. The truth is they did not win for very good reasons related to what we are as human beings. The only successful anarchist rebellion would be one that could change humanity – and that is very dangerous territory indeed, a repetition by force of what the Bolsheviks tried and failed to do.
All in all, this book, which is highly sympathetic to the movement, tells us that anarchic thinking is like a chair that is very appealing to the eye but falls apart when someone tries to sit on it. If it did not exist, it would have to be invented but only as a constraint or restraint on power, by promising rebellion if lines were crossed but not as an option for any social organization that is actually viable.
This has implications for the four main current strands of quasi-anarchic thinking in the world today – hacker activism, greenery (which has already compromised with reality to gain a power that it probably does not deserve), the Occupy Movement and anarcho-capitalist libertarianism.
All of these are troublesome for the prevailing order but none of them represent a terminal threat – indeed, the Occupy Movement’s achievement may have been little more than mobilizing the vote for Tweedledum Obama over Tweedledee Romney and giving the State some populist welly when it is minded to bring the capitalists to heel for its own tax-raising purposes. It is interesting that the State did not even bother to do that.
Occupy is particularly daft from a classical anarchist perspective. It is led by naïve middle class students and activists whose sole purpose seems to be to get more cash into the hands of the State from the private sector or give the NGOs a bit more oomph in the street so that money can then be diverted to their latest pet project. The general public, of course, has seen through this.
The most threatening to the State may be hacker activism and then only because its more louche side is quite prepared to act as intellectual muscle for organized crime. But it can just as easily be co-opted into the State Department’s manipulative cyberwars against states it does not approve of and it is most effective as trail-blazer for anarcho-capitalism’s darker side. Kim Dotcom is an anarchist of sorts but not quite what Prince Pyotr Kropotkin had in mind.
Even in Greece today, where one would most expect insurrection, the struggle for mastery over a corrupt and failed bourgeois elite, backed by the European Union, is in the hands either of sensible Leftists who have no intention of unraveling the State and a bunch of gangster fascists. In Catalonia, the drive for independence is also no longer associated with anarchist ideology but with a revived Leftism.
Worse, this Euro-Leftism is not only not anarchist in the traditional sense but is imbued with an ideology of identity politics that wholly relies on the State to impose its cultural agenda on an increasingly resentful mass (at least that proportion of the mass not on the State pay roll, admittedly a decreasing proportion).
Having said all that, if we winnow out perhaps seven out of ten of the anarcho-intellectuals as either faith-based essentialists (and we include the Hegelians) or narcissistic imposers of their values and personality on the world, we are left with some good people and good thinking. The American Paul Goodman stood out in this respect. And it was good to see Foucault briefly included as gad fly.
There is real value in anarchism but not as praxis or ideology. Its value lies in it being a reminder of the core value to humanity of personal autonomy and of individuation. People of anarchist bent would do much better to hold their noses and engage with the political process and the State through improved organization, if only to halt the growing power of authoritarian Leftists, fascists and religious believers. Camus' concept of rebellion as preferable to revolution holds water here - we can all constantly rebel against the unwarranted demands and claims of others.
The final pages of the book raise issues with anarchism as practical politics but by this time we have all made our mind up – either we are anarchists or we are not. I am not – more so after reading the book than before. My initial sympathies dissipated chapter by chapter as I realized that I would be filled with a terminal boredom by these men and their utopias.
Anarchists are too often people who have lost their sense of reality, equally as much as the religious types they claim to despise. In some cases (horror of horrors!), they will even claim to have found a better God or reality as did Tolstoy. Any politics that has a place for invented beings and universal consciousnesses must be considered dangerous and yet a small minority of anarchists persist in this sort of flummery.
Like Marxism, anarchism can be religion by other means and so deeply dangerous to non-believers in the long run. Nevertheless, this book is strongly recommended as a sound guide to what anarchists have thought in the past and what they did in history.
Notes are private!
Nov 11, 2012
This book is now forty years old but it still stands as excellent basic background to the history of secret societies and political conspiracy in the
This book is now forty years old but it still stands as excellent basic background to the history of secret societies and political conspiracy in the eighteenth and first quarter of the nineteenth centuries.
Of course, much of the detail will have been overtaken by the work of two generations of scholar. Roberts is also contesting his case during a period when the grand narrative of Marxism was treated with more respect than it is today.
He is writing as part of the very serious business of countering the persistence of conspiracy in political discourse, especially on the radical right and amongst anti-semites. He writes only thirty years after a holocaust whose raison d'etre was based on a conspiracy theory.
A mildly conservative pessimism – as in the best of the British school of historiography – questions delicately whether conspiracy theory will ever be removed from political discourse by rational men. History, in the age of 9/11 and the New World Order, has shown that his concerns were valid.
The book is measured and serious and there is so much meat in it – essential to understanding why, even today, Europe is ‘different’ in political culture from Britain – that we can only pinpoint three themes here.
The first is to argue cogently that, with the exception of the radicalism of the Illuminati, most esoteric activity in the eighteenth century was political only insofar as it shared the mood of the time. Claims by Barruel and others of a deliberate Enlightenment conspiracy against Kings and Church are untenable.
The second is that the creation of the myth of conspiracy resulted in the creation of political conspiracy after the French Revolution and not the other way around.
Political conspiracies, almost entirely ineffective, were no serious threat to the State during this later period but developed in a sort of call-and-response to the paranoia of States about their very existence. Roberts is illuminating (excuse the pun) on the lack of success of the Carbonari.
The third theme comes late in the book and is only touched upon because its denouement comes after the collapse of utopian socialism and the rise of Marxism.
This is the myth of Buonarroti and, through him, Babeuf spinning a tale of professional revolutionary fervour that was later redrafted to serve history.
Bounarroti, an Italian aristocrat turned radical, was a singular failure during his life time, like (in political terms) Cagliostro and Weisshaupt before him.
However, his obsessive plotting and tradecraft fuelled an anarchist and, subsequently, Leninist reality of secret cadres planning the overthrow of States.
When Lenin spoke of the necessity of a revolutionary cadre to effect a revolution (when economic crisis and a collapse in the ruling order had enabled a seizure of power), he was re-inventing the French Revolution along conspiratorial lines - no less than Nesta Webster and Barruel.
Anarchist revolutionaries, especially the Nihilists, continued to demonstrate the utter ineffectiveness of secrecy and plotting as more than the occasion of violence and murder (and of intensified repression such as Metternich might have approved).
Lenin, a political genius, turned the myth into reality through intellectual discipline. But that is another story ... this book ends in the late 1820s just before the Revolutions of the 1830s would switch our attention back to the great tidal waves of history that Marx and Engels were more interested in.
In that context, Lenin is a sort of synthesis between European political narratives. He 'industrialises' secret conspiracy.
Where I have my doubts about the book is where I have my doubts about nearly all formal academic writing on conspiracy – an imaginative inability to understand or explore the psychological importance of such theories in filling a vacuum of knowledge in times of fear and insecurity.
To be fair, this is a book of history and not psychology and Roberts does touch at the end on the psychological aspects, if all too briefly.
I would argue that conspiracy theory and paranoia are legitimate actors (if with tragic consequences) under conditions where Power holds all the informational cards.
The difference between Roberts’ and our world is the internet - and Roberts is, of course, closer to the mental world of Lenin than that of Assange.
The establishment’s fear of the internet as the basis for a revival of the worst sort of conspiracy theory may be misplaced for a curious reason.
When the internet first appears, it appears suddenly in the face of an Authority (Power) that has defined the political narratives of the population, with diminishing competition, over the whole industrialising process.
The grand narratives of the elite have succeeded one another with little contribution from below except as walk-on parts as rioters or lobby fodder. The Arab World is going through this process now.
Suddenly, Power's ability to define narrative collapses from above with the arrival of the internet and the first reaction of the population is to flood the vacuum with alternative stories based on poor critical faculties, natural distrust, limited experience of Power (except as subjects of it) and very poor reasoning ability.
Although this condition persists across much of the world (and 9/11 and the Iraq War hit the internet formation process at a critical juncture in this respect), the internet is rapidly becoming self-organising through rational hacktivism, community management and a responsiveness on the part of the more intelligent parts of Power
The information vacuum that fed paranoia is beginning to fill with real information. That information is being pumped into a market that is learning not only to be more critical but to argue a critical stance within itself against its more ignorant members.
The social networks are becoming huge political education machines rather than, as originally thought, huge machines for political mobilisation (the rioter and outraged NGO model).
The next stage is actual political organisation which we are beginning to see with the Pirate Party and, conceivably though uncertainly, Zero State. Occupy will feel very naive, the last gasp of Obama-ism, against the rise of new organisations from below that can capture electoral space.
Wikileaks is only part of this massive revolution which embraces the coming semantic web and the creation of focused ‘gardens’ of accessible knowledge.
The numbers of the truly ignorant and passive are still large but the informationally engaged and active population is increasingly in command of its own analysis while selected non-elite leadership groups are self-teaching themselves politics under new conditions.
There is no need for grand conspiracy theory today because we now know that Power largely consists of surprisingly incompetent people only with access to force and the passive complicity of the population between them and dissolution.
If the population becomes questioning and resists force from a sense of its own potential and a cessation of socially constructed fear of consequences, it has no need for a myth justifying its own impotence.
Yes, there are still ‘conspiracies’ but these are the small-scale conspiracies that are practical, rational ones of interest – of bankers, vote-grabbers and special interests.
Adam Smith referred to these and they will always be with us. Indeed, they will replicate within the new self-organising politics because no utopian idealist can escape the actuality of the human condition.
The current political machine can now be seen as ramshackle, so ramshackle that the brutal failure of the Leninist seizure of power can now be explained. Anyone who seizes the levers of power without having built a popular base of some sort can do little than use terror and rely on zombie-like habit to get anything useful done.
Bolsheviks could ignore an election because they could seize a State with a monopoly of information - today, no State can expect to hold onto that monopoly for long.
Conspiracy theory is thus the product of impotence in the face of rapid change. The question becomes today whether the internet will change the situation by transferring new potencies to the masses. If so, there may be much less need for paranoia.
If anything, it is the State that has now become paranoid, what with drones, terror alerts and mass surveillance and nudge strategies to hold back, Canute-like, the spread of questioning and community organisation. Roles are being reversed.
Notes are private!
Jul 07, 2012
Sep 28, 2007
This is a bit of Victorian nonsense of which one can only be grateful that it is relatively short by the period's standards. It is ostensibly the tale This is a bit of Victorian nonsense of which one can only be grateful that it is relatively short by the period's standards. It is ostensibly the tale of an apparent utopia deep underground.
Like all such efforts, utopia turns out to be a little more dystopian with every passing intelligent thought and the cause of much didactic heavy duty satire on current conditions (those of the 1870s).
Bulwer-Lytton is not a great writer but he has a dry and detached aristocratic sense of humour that makes this a surprisingly easy read even if nothing much happens.
It stays in the library because of its insights into the mentality of the mid-Victorian upper class male and its subsequent influence in cultural history is well outlined in Matthew Sweet's introduction.
There could be an essay here into that mentality but we would fall into that same didactic trap of the author's - but what we do pick up is suspicion of democracy and a genuine fear of female power.
The attitude to women - indistinguishable as Vril-ya from the sort of angel who surmounted Victorian gravestones - is creepy. The hero's penchant for a sixteen year old 'angel' is duly noted. Hmmmmmmm!
There is even a rather counter-intuitive (to us) view of child labour that may be amusing now but is less so when one considers the undertone of reaction to relatively recent liberal-minded legislation.
Still, Bulwer-Lytton was nearly 70 when he wrote this and his reactionary stance derives from his late transition from Whiggery to Conservatism and a rather obvious suspicion of excitable reformism.
The Vril-ya are so like the ideal of Republican Rome that the book might be regarded as an unconscious manifesto for an aristocratic republicanism threatened with submersion into democracy.
It is certainly one of those books which must be read by anyone interested in the early history of 'speculative fiction' (aka 'science fiction').
Most famously, Bulwer-Lytton raises the political problems and possibilities raised by what would later be our nuclear destructive capacity a full seventy five years before it actually appeared.
Bulwer-Lytton is also the unwitting father of the underground tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, of tales of apocalyptic threat from superior races and of Nazi UFOS in the hollow earth - so he cannot be all bad. ...more
Notes are private!
May 05, 2012
Oct 01, 1993
Originally published in 1945, this remarkable book was possibly the clearest analysis of the nature of Power (always capitalized by De Jouvenel) since Originally published in 1945, this remarkable book was possibly the clearest analysis of the nature of Power (always capitalized by De Jouvenel) since Machiavelli's account of the reality of politics in Renaissance Italy.
It is of its time. De Jouvenel was clearly stunned at the ability of post-dynastic state machines to mobilise national resources and populations for total war. The 'tyrannical' Louis XIV (there is a French cultural focus to the book) could not have dreamed of such power.
The thesis is a surprisingly simple one - that Power (meaning concentrated state power) strengthens itself through the revolutionary defeat of aristocratic republicanism and that its alliance with each rising class in turn strengthens its ability to command the resources of that class.
This is not quite the positive interpretation of successive revolutionary successes that the typical intellectual of the 1940s might have found easy to accept although it is perhaps easier to do so in the light of Communism. De Jouvenel has become a beacon for American libertarians.
But the message is not simply an implicitly anti-communist one. While Hitler and Stalin hover over the story, De Jouvenel's interest is really in the so-called liberal democratic States whose ability to enslave populations and thieve property has been no less than that of these tyrants.
His book is a paradigm-shifter, perhaps more so today, because what he is really saying is that every apparent rhetorical victory for the population in terms of rights, democracy and welfare has actually been a victory for ruling elites.
This is not to say that there have not been benefits - including the rule of law for everyone and welfare programmes - but that the 'deal' has been a dirty one with populations at large conscripted into death and slavery, even in Roosevelt's America, with scarcely a protest.
I part company with De Jouvenel (though I suggest that his analysis in itself is unanswerable) only on his conservative pessimism (which I might share about our species but not necessarily about all future social and political forms). When he moves from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ he is less convincing.
His attachment to aristocratic republicanism, whether Roman or eighteenth century British, may represent more freedom for men who do not come under the gaze of the aristocrat than that offered by the State but petty oppressions, security and welfare do provide a reason for voluntary enslavement.
He is not insensitive to the fact that welfare needs and the bad conduct of aristocrats help drive the rise of State power even if it is clear that populations will die (perhaps in a state of ‘false consciousness’) to preserve this Faustian bargain – an improved degree of protection and security.
Of course, we are in different times now but what De Jouvenel might have noticed is that, as States weaken under the global market system, so protection for the population weakens and that the increase in ‘freedom’ since the 1980s is matched by an increase in insecurity.
Security for the masses in return for blind compliance (with even intellectuals submitting to the myth of the democratic State) has been replaced across much of the West with security for the State against the masses.
This seems to be a slow reversion to eighteenth century conditions. States cannot enforce their desired theft of assets or conscript labour yet are both engaged in expensive and perpetual small wars and trying to reduce their obligations to the population, since they get few services in return.
The population at large thinks that it owns the State (this heir to dynastic accretion of power at the expense of fellow criminal warlords) but it does not and never did. The State is an interest in itself concerned solely with its own survival and is now genuinely worried about that survival.
One survival strategy is to pool power with other threatened bureaucracies in unwieldy and fundamentally flawed imperial bureaucracies like the European Union in the hope that democracy might be attenuated by scale and discontent moderated by judicial legalism and spending.
Another survival strategy is to try and scare the population into compliance with State authority through constant security scares and to encourage passivity with populist policies (‘bread and circuses’).
Yet another is to disengage the bulk of the population by treating political parties and NGOs as partners in Power so detaching them from the population at large. Activists, under this now dominant system, get a slice of the action in return for collaboration.
All these policies, in cultures used to personal freedom, that have access to social media that can by-pass official channels and have a decreasing sense of locality and ideology to bind them together, require funds and funds are becoming harder to find as taxation is resisted.
Moreover, people not merely died for Italy and Germany, they volunteered to die for Italy and Germany. Who will volunteer to die for the European Union? People volunteered to die for communism. Who will volunteer to die for liberal capitalism? No-one who is not an idiot is the answer.
The world of today is very different from that of De Jouvenel. States still have an immense monopoly of force which could create workable tyrannies but such methods would thrust such societies back into unsustainable economic models that would ultimately undermine States themselves.
Our problem is the very opposite. States are now faced with a revived warlordism at the margins – the very basis of aristocratic republicanism and ‘freedom’. It is not stupid to consider Columbian and Mexican narco-gangsters or Al-Qaeda as the possible basis of functional states one day.
This book is highly recommended not so much for De Jouvenel’s implicit prescriptions – somewhat desperate appeals to a religious (in the Roman sense) basis for society and better behavior and self restraint by elites – as for his cold and cruelly apposite analysis of the situation.
Although the analysis is of the situation of the West in the 1940s, the book makes it clear that what he is writing about is something much more ‘eternal’ about Power and its drive for self-advancement. There is something intrinsic to State Power that drives it to tyranny over men.
Undoubtedly, this is a conservative book and probably a pessimistic one but it can be read with profit by those who are not conservative. Authoritarian socialists and other ideologues won’t give a damn and will continue to try to capture the State to enforce their ideology no matter what.
But libertarian Leftists would do well to understand that the State flips from solution to problem at a key point in the game and that the cost of socialist or Leftist policies becomes far too great at a certain cut-off point in key personal freedoms, including State enslavement of labour value.
This does not mean accepting De Jouvenel’s implied approval of the feudalism of Di Lampedusa’s Prince of Salina. It does suggest that a libertarian Left should distrust the people that the ‘Leopard’ distrusted, rising men in revolutionary situations, to which he was happy to adapt.
History is the story of the little guys being screwed over and finding it increasingly difficult to hide from the military boot, the police spy and the tax collector. The fact that some of the cash might return in benefits later is of little joy if your son returns from the front in a coffin.
Perhaps there is some way of creating an aristocratic republicanism where everyone is an aristocrat, jealous of freedoms, prepared to defend their land by force but not steal another’s, charitable, concerned with public order and egalitarian – admittedly a tall order given our species!
Notes are private!
Apr 28, 2012
Jun 01, 2011
Jun 20, 2011
A flawed but interesting, if somewhat indirect, account of the Situationist International which grew out of the Parisian Left Bank, as a generational A flawed but interesting, if somewhat indirect, account of the Situationist International which grew out of the Parisian Left Bank, as a generational reaction to surrealism, existentialism, structuralism and mainstream Marxism, and played an important role in the 'evenements' of 1968.
The problem with the book is that it is low level polemic as much as it is history. Published by Verso, it falls into the classic Verso trap of editorially permitting, indeed encouraging, both posturing rhetoric and obscurity. Verso intellectuals do like to strut and show off like peacocks.
Nevertheless, it is enlightening if only for retrieving key personalities from the movement as highly creative and in giving us at least some idea of why their anarcho-radical ideas were important then and may be even more important now.
I write 'anarcho-radical' cautiously because that is how Situationism might reasonably be interpreted as functionally useful today but, of course (and the book makes this clear), the Situationists spoke within the same standard Marxist discourse as everyone else in post-war Paris.
It is hard to believe today that Marxism held the bulk of the European artistic and intellectual establishment in thrall for much of the immediate post-war period. Its weird tight language infected culture and politics far into the 1980s but acts as a barrier to the modern reader.
To discuss issues of culture and politics required that it be done within a framework of Marxist texts that are now only of interest to specialists - an analogy might be with the necessity of discussing reality or the human condition within a strictly Christian context in earlier periods.
Nevertheless, once we adapt to this strange and ancient language of class struggle and labour value, beneath the cant these artists and intellectuals were genuinely trying to deal with an issue that Christian apologists, Marx himself and the existentialists had all struggled with – alienation.
This is where Situationism and the book become interesting. How do we as subjects of a system that is palpably out of our control regain control. The Situationist response is to emphasise playfulness and an expansive expenditure of what private resources are available to us.
Situationism is fundamentally a romantic reaction to the bureaucratic impulse in both ‘really existing socialism’ (the communism of Stalin and Trotsky) and in the post-war liberal capitalist state that would evolve later into the Hegelian lunacy of the European Federal State.
It also presents an accidental advance critique of what would later become not just a theory of commodity fetishism but an actuality in the form of the debt-fuelled, leisure-based, peasant-worker exploiting capitalism that is now going rather spectacularly through one of its periodic crises.
McKenzie Wark is polemically attempting to recover not Situationism as such but the attitude of Situationists in this context. It has to be said that his few sharp comments on rioting as a response to alienation in the last chapter really are rather good.
There is something as romantic about this book as the movement. It evidences the latter's elan and its imagination, perhaps its paradoxical role in creating the current crisis through its contribution to the post-modern impulse, but not its effectiveness on its own terms.
It is certainly worth reading for its brief accounts of the work of key figures – the novels of Bernstein (whose dissection of post-bourgeois heterosexual sexuality is magnificent), the self-destructive genius of Trocchi, the utopianism of Constant and the central artistic role of Jorn.
I am sure the account of Lefebvre would be fascinating if I cared enough about the Marxist theory of labour value (barely stifles yawn!) – but anyone who reads this book will understand the centrality of Situationist critique to our current predicament and may want to find out more.
And, flitting in and out as Master of Ceremonies, is Guy Debord himself who understands, as Stalin did, that power in any society lies with the man who is given command of the Minutes and the Membership Register. An uneven, occasionally frustrating, book, but well worth reading. ...more
Notes are private!
Nov 27, 2011
Sep 01, 2005
This is the story of a tragic existential hero of British politics, Colonel Marcus Edward Despard, a man of undoubted integrity. Despard took on the B
This is the story of a tragic existential hero of British politics, Colonel Marcus Edward Despard, a man of undoubted integrity. Despard took on the British State, Old Corruption, and lost. He was sentenced to being hung, drawn and quartered in 1803.
This book is not so much original work (though Mike Jay is recovering the real man rather than the false myth of the mad man through researching original documents) as an original interpretation.
The story is really about the political conditions that existed in England in the late eighteenth century and it is a game of two halves.
The first tells of a young Anglo-Irish officer’s experience of British imperial expansion at the very margins of Empire and what he learned there.
Class interests overwhelmed the instinctive democracy of a mass settler society in favour of rich traders and endorsed racial strategies, more by cynical accident than scientific design.
The story of Despard’s experiences in what is now British Honduras is the story of the road that eventually leads to the casual racism of twentieth century Britain.
Racism appears here as the monstrous creation of the self interested few defending their turf against the legitimate aspirations of the many.
The second half suggests how Despard’s reluctant but accurate analysis of the British State leads him remorselessly down a path towards political direct action.
This led to him participating in serious conversations about overthrowing the State with the help of disaffected soldiers. That he did so is beyond reasonable doubt.
I have no doubt that, by a definition of the British State which defined its own terms, Colonel Despard was a traitor and so his judicial murder under conditions of state terror was fully ‘justified’.
But I also have no doubt that this book exposes the degree to which the State declined into despotism under William Pitt the Younger who started as a reformer.
Pitt ended up the creator of the ‘Crown’ as we know it today, an entity that can reserve emergency powers to itself of staggering ruthlessness.
The trajectory of Despard is the trajectory of a man of great natural integrity as his eyes open to the realisation that what he serves as a patriot is corrupt, malign, self-interested and brutal.
He also discovers that those who claim to oppose Old Corruption in Parliament are weak, ineffective and egoistic. Much like today, in fact.
It is the story of many such men in many circumstances who are simply written out of history as stupid or mad (which they are by the lights of the system) in a world where integrity is a crime.
Itis a truism that no one in power every really wants integrity around them – it shows them up. The tragedy here is really the eternal tragedy of British political culture.
Jay raises interesting questions (well rehearsed in the academic community) about the degree to which the English were radical or conservative in the 1780s and 1790s.
What applies then probably applies now. Being normally human, most people most of the time are indifferent to their rulers so long as they deliver the economic goods.
And, of course, so long as they don’t push them (rather than their neighbours) around directly. Sentencing a couple of Facebook naifs to four years in jail is a fact to be observed not acted upon by most.
When the economy weakens or a rival bunch of gangsters emerges at Calais, in Kabul or from within, the State will then start pushing people around.
But it will be adroit at building up the anxieties that bind those who fear losing their small pittance of wealth against those who are actually losing it.
Add to this the fact that most people are actually rather ignorant about how power is exercised. This ignorance is eminently exploited because there is a core of legitimate conservative fear of change.
Thus, it is probably true that, at any one time, in non-extreme circumstances, around two thirds of the population is naturally prepared to accept the State’s narrative even if a third will not.
The numbers, in short, are always for Old Corruption, today as much as in (say) 1780 and, if one wants proof of that, we only have to compare the rule of New Labour with that of Pitt the Younger.
Despard wanted the impossible – an honourable politics that kept its word and preserved old liberties. Old Corruption simply wanted to generate economic growth and preserve itself by any means necessary.
In the end, Despard had to die because he was a genuine ideological, organisational and moral threat to the thugs at the top.
The book is thus instructive not only about England at the end of the eighteenth century but about the essential nature of the ‘Crown'.
This is the centralised machine, using the dynasty as figurehead, that represented itself and the interests of landowners and traders then and itself and that of bankers and special interests today.
Despard was led by circumstances into a cul-de-sac. Jay refers to other radicals like Burdett, Place and Henry Hunt. He was far from alone and E.P. Thompson famously recovered them for the modern age.
All these men proposed a system of society that was defeated at the time (including democracy, basic human rights and even the lineaments of welfarism) but that is now taken as read.
Most did not follow Despard to the point where armed resistance was considered but most were not men of action but of words.
The problem for Despard was that it was rare to find a trained and experienced soldier in a radical context and this is probably why he had to die, after some failed attempts on other radicals.
What has not improved in our society despite all the wins forced through by brave men such as these, the Chartists, the original Labour Movement and others is the general attitude to both State and Empire.
Having achieved so much, the low point of contemporary British history is almost certainly the arrival into office of New Labour which consciously sought power through appealing to the conservative middle.
This was a centre-left Party that to all intents and purposes rapidly became direct heir to the centralised operations of Pitt the Younger in defence of its own special interests and alliances.
Many of the original radicals were country Tories as much as working men or the colonised Irish, often people like Despard and Cobbett.
These saw the State at close quarters and were horrified by its combination of self interest and corrupt action in favour of small minorities of supporters. This led them to opposition.
Grenville and Dundas are fully matched by a recent succession of Home Secretaries with little interest in liberty, manipulators of the media agenda to isolate and traduce critics.
If Pitt is also matched by recent war-mongering Prime Ministers, then there are other parallels to be found in the detail. But history never entirely repeats itself.
Despard undoubtedly had moral right on his side as a radical and probably as an atheist, one of a politicised mass unpolluted by Marxism but reliant on the rigorous polemic of Thomas Paine
History was against him in three regards whatever the debate over whether England was ripe for revolution at some point in the 1790s (it was certainly ripe with the potential for civil war at one point).
The first was the sheer ruthlessness and authoritarian lust for power of the State itself. More died in Cornwallis’ punitive raid on Ireland in 1798 than in Robespierre’s terror.
The State organised networks of spies on high salaries, fixed juries, lied to the public and hired people like Gillray for them.
The second was the ancient fear that split radicals on the meaning of a colonial revolt in nearby Ireland.
The original Irish revolts united Protestants and Catholics in one cause but the British State cleverly set the two communities against each other and exploited ancient fears of priestly reaction at home.
The third was the collapse of the ideals of the French Revolution into Napoleonic despotism.
High ranking radicals could plausibly introduce the conspiracy trope of Pitt and Napoleon being in league to militarise their societies and introduce a centralised despotism for the benefit of their elites.
By 1802, the probability of holding down the population was high but not if the radicals were led by people from its own ranks with military expertise.
Over and over again, informants repeat Despard’s character as a ‘gentleman’ (notably his green umbrella!) and the experience of dealing with Wolfe Tone was immediate in the memory.
The man had to be taken out or purged by the State and if jury-fixing and dubious witness statements would do it, then so be it.
Despard had fallen into the trap of desperation, consorting with Irish radicals and implicitly connected to the French just as Tory radicals were seeing Napoleonic France as just another thug state.
A ruthless State found an easy target and took it out for the narrative value of suggesting that its own terrorism was justified in the past by real threat (how familiar from New Labour tactics!).
It also saw the opportunity to promote a new populist narrative of national mobilisation when war was to start again, ironically making great use of Despard's friend, the Lord Nelson.
Part of that narrative was not to present Despard as desperate and naive (because that left space for him being right) but that he was mad.
An accusation of madness could evade any sense that his and others’ critique of the State was correct and that it had a moral integrity not shared by the dynastic thugs.
So, this is a tragic tale of someone who, under other circumstances might have led a revolt that would probably have been crushed in any case.
Perhaps better to die with dignity as murder victim than compromised as leader of a revolt that would have meant atrocities on both sides.
Yet he is still an existentialist hero, alongside, say, St. Maximilian Kolbe, someone who did what was right even though it was absurd and would end with his own extinction.
There is no real evidence of a French connection and his purposes appear reasonable and honourable. His conduct on the scaffold was certainly a model of dignity and courage.
Despard was a true soldier to the end, refusing at any time to implicate his own comrades. If anyone plans a statue to him on the site of his murder by the State, I would subscribe.
Notes are private!
Sep 29, 2011
Apr 12, 2011
This is an Apologia for the unwitting founder of the latest but possibly not the last of the great ‘herd’ religions.
The book itself is not a complete
This is an Apologia for the unwitting founder of the latest but possibly not the last of the great ‘herd’ religions.
The book itself is not a complete failure. If you are studying Marxism, it would be a good text that summarises the best case for it much as one might go to Tertullian or Augustine to get the best case for Early Christianity.
Similarly, no babies should be thrown out with the bathwater of Communist history. Marx can be seen as analyst and as historical fantasist. As analyst, he offered superb insights into the nature of power and the construction of the social that will be timeless.
As historical fantasist, lesser minds than his (amongst which we must include Professor Eagleton) have made a vicious stew that resulted in the ruination of many lives, not least that of the neurotic activists and martyrs of the religion created out of it.
The book puts forward ten propositions against Marx in a series of chapters (and Eagleton does not stint on these) where he attempts with varying success, intelligence and good faith to counter them. The end result is unconvincing.
Not that he does not write well or with logical argument but he constantly confuses categories, seeking to justify the history of Marxism, distance Marx from the history of Marxism and redraft our understanding of what Marx is supposed to have meant at different times and in different places.
Because it is partly polemical, the final result reads like a desperate attempt to wean the Lefties whose progressive god has failed, the one that thought it could ride the capitalist and markets tiger, back into the fold.
To take the religious analogy again, this is a subtle Jesuit trying to bring High Anglicans back home to Rome. But putting all this to one side (and it is noticeable that the one criticism he does not seek to counter is that Marxism is a religion in all but claim), the book is ultimately futile.
Eagleton can argue until he is blue in the face but Marxism is a busted brand at three levels –
- philosophically, it only works as essentialism in a world that is now too intelligent to take essences at face value,
- politically, in the end, no Marxist state can exist until it happens by dint of a history that will not permit consistently Marxist actions and,
- finally, at a human level, Marxists are often quite limited and neurotic people with a limited understanding of other persons and whose authoritarian instincts are only thinly veiled.
Eagleton, though he writes well, cannot help being constantly snarky about individuals – whether Paris Hilton or Mick Jagger – whom he clearly despises with the sort of snobbery that made the Fabians and Raymond Williams so detached from the population they claimed to serve.
He refuses to give respect to popular individual choices that might embrace these icons. He never really deals with sexuality or transgression except in ways that would make me fear a Cromwellian misery in his communitarian paradise.
In the end, all I see is a sour intellectual of a failed political generation filled with resentment that the current crisis is not being interpreted according to a faith dearly holds. He wants everything – to show how superior he is, how he told us so and why his ancient ways are hip.
The desperate attempt to ally Marx to the fashionable political cultures of feminism, anti-colonialism (with some justification in this one case) and environmentalism (pur-leeze!) shows an amazing lack of understanding.
These deeply flawed identity and single issue movements represent the heart of conflict within but not against market capitalism. For this reason alone, the book may be placed in the library for reference but otherwise ignored.
Marx may be studied as an authentic flawed genius with insights that match, say, those of Freud and Nietzsche but Marxism has little to teach us except to avoid intellectuals claiming to have a solution to our problems.
In reality, Marx may have been right about ‘internal contradictions’ in capitalism but the handling of these contradictions will arise from the street and through cultural struggle and not through Marxism.
On the contrary, Marxists are likely to be found up there trying to manage the State against us – that is certainly so across half Europe and in most of our ‘democratic’ centre-left parties where closet Marxists still hold sway.
Eagleton repeatedly suggests that our choice is between ‘socialism and barbarism’ and this is where he frightens me because he places ‘socialism’ on the side of Rome and order against the free creativity of the general population as individuals.
He claims otherwise but he is bluntly not to be trusted in this. In a stark choice between ‘socialism and barbarism’, one is tempted to choose barbarism as the lesser evil.
Social revolution I still welcome (indeed, I think we are in the midst of it), but if you ever see a Marxist trying to take a lead within it, then remove them quickly, by any means necessary. If they do not kill you, they may end up killing your children.
Notes are private!
Aug 06, 2011
This is a sound one volume narrative history of communism, written from a fairly predictable liberal democratic perspective.
Marxism is philosophically This is a sound one volume narrative history of communism, written from a fairly predictable liberal democratic perspective.
Marxism is philosophically unsound. Leninism was astute at the process of seizing power but unable to manage the possession of power.
The result was (and Robert Service is persuasive in this), inevitable brutality, oppression, bureaucratism and sclerosis with failure inbuilt into the system.
However, the book is, like the liberal democratic strategy for dealing with communism after the Second World War, largely a work of containment.
Like all liberals, Service is fair-minded – up to a point – but the narrative has its gaps. Those gaps ultimately diminish the value of the book as anything more than a rough-hewn historical narrative.
There is no depth of understanding here. Service pays lip service to the conditions from which Communism emerged but it is merely that – lip service.
A revolutionary vanguard emerges because all other methods failed to deal with abuses.
These latter may seem small-scale for comfortable middle class people when compared to the later horrors of communism but they were far from so to the vast mass of the population in underdeveloped societies.
It is easy to be moralistic on a full stomach.
Lenin’s exiles experienced the Tsarist brutalities that preceded and accompanied the terror tactics of the desperate and failed Narodniks with no change for the better in peasant or worker conditions.
The confused and often stupid tactics of Mao arose from a world in which their opponents included a Kuomintang that permitted perhaps a million peasants to be murdered when dams were deliberately broken.
This is not to justify but merely to observe, since communism’s success and failure must be seen as the last desperate throw of the dice by radical intellectuals.
They had (in their own eyes) to seize power against systems of exploitation under conditions where no one had been trained to exercise power once it was seized.
The blame for the excesses of communism lies in the ineluctable human condition - the real idiocy of communism is its theory of our species.
It also lies in the conduct of preceding elites that created an educated class that had no function as much as with the faults of the ideology itself.
Create an educated class and then fail to listen to it or to feed it with sinecures (a lesson the Communists learned to the point of sclerosis when in power).
Do this and you will inevitably create explosive frustration. Some of this elite will go on to become obsessive Lenins or Breiviks.
The West now is in a similar state - an underemployed graduate class promotes liberal internationalism on the back of the general taxation of everyone else just as the base for that largesse is collapsing.
Capitalists and property-owners have listened to progressive intellectuals, created an alliance of sorts, but this has merely ended up in costly failed foreign interventions to extend markets.
This is what is meant by the ‘trahison des clercs’. Now the money is running out.
It is the conservative populist right that may seem to have better answers than a Left which engaged in its own ‘trahison’ in complicity with a system that, as communists, it had once affected to despise.
At the time of its arrival, Communism was often the only answer left to mass exploitation within underdeveloped territories and to the phenomenon of imperial exploitation.
It is no accident that communism failed where workers were benefiting from exploitation of the wider world (in other words, where capital accumulation permitted mass participation in social democracy).
Communists have had a continuing problem in that their preferred progressive forces will always have more in common with exploiters of the vast mass of humanity.
Social democracy as a negotiated solution has thus worked for much of the period in which communism ruled as an alternative. It was a necessity for elites in facing off an alternative model.
Social liberals have been struggling ever since communism collapsed to preserve what had only existed because this enemy also existed.
When communism disappeared as a rival, elites started to claw back their power, a process that started in the crisis of the late-1970s.
The complicity of the centre-left with a weird combination of free markets and authoritarian liberalism has now left it with no resources with which to reclaim leadership in the current time of troubles.
This resistance gap is being filled with petit-bourgeois populisms like the Tea Party, violent anarchism, anomie, the black economy, libertarian hacktivism – anything but a discredited Marxism.
Communism certainly succeeded in acquiring power and then became increasingly brutal to the degree that ideologues had massively ignorant but desperate populations to deal with.
Desperation simply created urgent demands for short term results under external military pressures that could only be enforced through the most brutal means.
Despite Eagleton’s claims (elsewhere) that brutality is no necessary result of communist control, the evidence is demonstrably against him.
Pol Pot was a logical culmination of the constant outward flow to the margins of ‘empire’ of this ideology of desperation.
Communism was always strongest where it was anti-imperialist and weakest where it was imposed by its own perverted imperialism (as in Eastern Europe).
There is a lesson in this – Communism is always the last ditch ideological card for desperate poker players.
Marxism, of course, may transmute (as it has done in Europe) into a devious bureaucratic corporatism but this very subterfuge indicates that it still requires a serious breakdown to come out into the open.
Service occasionally mentions the benefits of communism in promoting egalitarian welfarism – if not always delivered in practice, always a definite intent.
This intent was held back by lack of resources because of Communism’s own intrinsic economic incompetence.
This, in turn, was based on its true weakness, its failure to comprehend ‘human nature’ in terms of the persistence of human desire for ‘things’, individualist rationality and lack of shared ‘belief’.
True believers are always a minority in any religion. Sclerosis, corruption and a police state were inevitable results.
The majority simply accept the nostrums while a further minority either work the system to their own benefit or insist on the value of some ‘better’ system.
Service is very persuasive that Communism was intrinsically unreformable despite the hopes of reform Communists because reformers are, in the end, not really electable as Communists.
What he does not do is delve very far into the psychology of Communist failure.
By not going deeper into this top-down intent to improve the lot of the general population without its actual consent, the phenomenon ultimately remains unexplained.
Pol Pot, Hoxha, Mengistu and Ceaucescu are the leaders that we are supposed to be horrified by. We are all supposed to be impressed by that rank example of political incompetence, Mikhail Gorbachev.
But this is absurd. Even Service falls for a moment into the ‘good’ Communist trap. Gorbachev brought down communism as an idealist communist.
This is not an example of goodness or nobility but merely of stupidity. The same might be said of Dubcek. Only Havel saw things clearly.
We are certainly right to be horrified by the Pol Pots but we should equally be stunned that ‘democratic centralism’ should turn up such a light weight and dreamer as Gorbachev.
If a system can only produce thugs, sclerotics and dreamers, then it is patently not working.Communism fails fundamentally as a political ideology because it simply is incapable of managing complex societies.
Democratic centralism is flawed because bureaucracies and revolutionary struggles thrust inadequates into power by the nature of the process.
Nevertheless, liberal democrats are not wise to strut over the ‘end of history’ or the inevitability of free markets and liberal institutionalism.
The anti-Communists have operated as vilely as the Communists on many occasions but with much less excuse except defensive greed.
If the West had stood back and permitted the Revolution of 1917 space in return for a policy of non-interference elsewhere, then Bukharinism might have created a social-fascist state.
Such a state need not have been a threat or quite so murderous. But that is a big argument and we shall never know.
The Oslo bombing indicates that resentment exists against the self-satisfaction of progressive liberalism. Self-serving elites govern on behalf of the people in name but for themselves in practice.
When all the customary expressions of horror have passed, it behoves to ask what the conditions are that trigger such actions. It is not enough to simply refer to such ‘extremists’ as mad or evil.
The history of democratic centralism (communism) may yet offer us some lessons on dealing with this sort of ‘ressentiment’ and this is a recommended basic text in that process.
Something will always emerge that may offer cause to the propertied to be fearful whenever a new generation of radical intellectuals see the state of the exploited and oppressed, culturally and economically.
If there are not enough jobs for high school graduates and if they can create cadres capable of sufficient organisational competence, liberal democracy and capitalism have a problem.
This book is valuable, therefore, for two entirely different reasons. It is a well argued case study about a movement of resistance that collapsed under the weight of its own ‘internal contradictions'.
It is also valuable for what it fails to talk about – for the gaps in the narrative. What is now needed is to supplement this narrative with a look at those gaps.
This means the conditions that permitted communism to emerge and the precise effect of the fear and loathing of imperial elites (internal and external and not forgetting the US) on its trajectory.
We should also be honest about the short term positive changes communism effected through often brutal means for majorities against minorities.
And about those internal contradictions and inherent flaws we have referred to (on which Service tells us most but not all of the story).
From there we can start to consider what, to be fair, Service, does address though almost in passing – could ‘communism’ arise again?
The answer is probably ‘yes’ but not in that name, nor in that particular Marxist-Leninist form nor in any way that is recognisably communist as we now understand the term.
In the end, Communism was just Nietzsche’s priestly Christianity but with bureaucratic and military teeth, a religion for the masses. But it did give some voice to the weakest.
Instead of operating alongside the State, it became the State. For priests read apparatchiks and bureaucrats.
As with Christianity, the weak were represented but their interests perverted by special interests - and yet they did get some benefits.
The refusal to accept this 'good' in communism is to be blind to the possibility of its return as some form of authoritarian national welfarism that might easily have a rightist cultural cloak.
While the Soviet Union collapsed surprisingly quickly under the weight of its own contradictions, we now seem to be blind to the potential for collapse in our remaining two large imperial systems.
We now get the cultural panic without the analysis or the remedial action.
The Chinese are now wholly dependent for growth on grabbing overseas resources with all the verve of British imperial pirates, while the US represents a financial system with crumbling machinery.
That debt-ridden machinery depends for its short term survival on Chinese desperation to keep it and European capitalism in operation.
We are back in an age of unstable competing empires and of terrorism, exactly where we were in the late nineteenth century.
Marx loved irony – that the whole capitalist thing is being held together by an exploitative communist peasant state will have him grimly smiling in his grave.
Perhaps the local revolutionary struggles of the Zapatistas on the ground, of Anonymous in the ether and of national and religious fundamentalists give us clues to the future.
Today, only one of these trends owes anything to Marxism – and then only indirectly. One might come to say one day, without irony: “Communism is dead. Long live revolutionary national welfarism.”
Notes are private!
Aug 06, 2011
This book is hagiographical, polemic, based on limited sources and has some small editing issues but it is still well worth reading.
Otto Strasser is p This book is hagiographical, polemic, based on limited sources and has some small editing issues but it is still well worth reading.
Otto Strasser is presented here by Troy Southgate as a ‘German Socialist’, neatly eliding the fact that he was very much a national socialist with an early association with Hitler’s NSDAP.
His brother, Gregor, was murdered in the infamous Knight of The Long Knives and Otto barely escaped with his life, suffering danger, poverty and indignities for well over the subsequent decade.
Indeed, the account of his desperate attempts to stay one step ahead of the German Army in France in 1940 links in the memory with Koestler's account of the chaos of those days and that superb romanticisation of the era in Curtiz' 'Casablanca'.
This book is a reminder that interwar German nationalism has since been over-simplified in the West and in Germany because it has been convenient to do so. It is a useful source for understanding yet another strand of that German Idealism that has proved such a burden to Europe.
It can also be recommended as providing some fascinating insights into what it was like to be a German nationalist in the 1920s. Most books on this era take an Olympian view as if any nationalist was by nature a fool for participating in the first steps towards an ‘inevitable’ Gotterdammerung.
Of course, hindsight is a glorious thing but there was no necessary march from defeat in 1918 to the death camps. The opposition to Hitler might, had circumstances been only slightly different, triumphed over a man who never had the full support of the majority of the German people or his own Party.
One of the saddest elements in the book is the determined bureaucratic attempt of the Allies to ensure that their own people sustained a blame game at the expense of the German people – an attitude that permitted the Allies to engage in bombing operations that were, bluntly, war crimes.
Thus evil begets evil …
Even taking account of Southgate’s attempt to rehabilitate the man, Otto Strasser comes across as decent and likeable if perhaps a bit of a political nerd. I am prepared to believe that he was the nicer man in his unfortunate contretemps with the aged HG Wells in Bermuda while in exile.
But being a decent man is no guarantee of political competence or of being right nor of that decency not being overwhelmed by circumstances if he, his brother, the Black Front and the SA had ever come to power.
Perhaps we might wish that his kind had triumphed over Hitler within the NSDAP (certainly many shtetl Jews would likely have survived the next two decades) but it would not be a particularly nice place to live if you had an ounce of independence or lust for freedom – or been Jewish for that matter.
Strasser must be characterized as part of the conservative Catholic resistance both to capitalist modernization and to an ‘a-moral’ international socialism which was associated, not entirely without reason, with those Jews who had abandoned any faith in God and turned to politics.
Strasser stood against capital and for the workers (Strasserites would back strikes where Hitler would cut deals with industrialists) and against international communism (although National Bolshevism would sustain a theory of common Eurasian working class interests).
This strand of German nationalism was fed by the same streams as Belloc and Chesterton in the UK.
Some analogy would be with the sclerotic catholic authoritarianism (in practice, rather than in full accordance with Strasserite theory) of Franco or various East European traditionalisms. Whatever Strasser was, unlike Hitler and Mussolini, he was not a cynic - probably his undoing.
The difference from the ‘nice’ Catholic conservative revolutionaries of Merrie England was Strasser and his generation’s experience of defeat on the Western Front and of economic collapse first in the wake of war and then after the Great Depression.
This led to attitudes that involved far more than the scapegoating of the Jewish community but anti-Semitism certainly came as part of the package.
Strasser comes out of this a little more creditably than most national socialists – but only just! A dash of implicit tolerance of anti-Semitism from Southgate in ‘apologia’ is a little uncomfortable to read.
Otto represented a very real alternative to Hitler – redistributionist, corporatist, welfarist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist – as well as a position that had room for the Catholic ideal of one nation under God. But he was also naïve when faced with the gangster politics of his opponents.
Such German Idealism as Strasser’s is of its time and place. Some of it survived the war as the social compact that still remains at the heart of the democratic German State, an ideal of corporatism shared by Christian Democrats and Social Democrats alike and consciously denying its inconvenient part-parent.
Because we demand that the Nazi era be ‘sui generis’, a peculiar eruption of evil and a simplification of history into the standard American-style narrative of black and white, we fail to see that the Nazi State of Hitler and his gang only arose as most effectively brutal player in a longstanding game.
Nor did German history suddenly end in 1945 and start anew. Book burning did not end with Hitler. Even under the Christian Democrats in the immediate post-war period, communities were engaged in the burnings of ‘grimoires’ and of other material that they disapproved of.
There is an essential continuity to German history. The importance of this short and readable book is that it reminds us of that continuity. It stops us from convenient simplification.
It helps us question the standard narratives we have grown up with. It does not, however, threaten to turn us into national socialist sympathisers after the fact.
Strasser himself got the worst of both worlds. The Nazis tried to kill him more than once. The Allies, and especially the time-servers who managed to get themselves into power as ‘democrats’ by the late 1940s, found it convenient to label him a Nazi because of his threat to the post-war Federal deal.
Whatever you think of the man and his politics (I would oppose them as absurdly essentialist), his treatment by the Allies and by the post-war German Government was as dodgy as we have come to expect from liberal democracies when dealing with what they consider to be existential threats.
The recent supply of Wikileaks material on the known innocence of large numbers of Guantanamo Bay victims tells us a lot about the moral turpitude of bureaucratic liberalism.
This book tells us that this essential lack of integrity has been going on for an awful long time. The hiring of Nazi rocket scientists is but a part of a wider engagement by the West with the cruel realities of power.
Former Hitlerites were convenient partners but working class natonal socialists who defied Hitler were not - this tells us something about liberal priorities. A force that might ally with the Soviets on a nationalist platform was clearly not tolerable - again comprehensibly at that point in history.
Southgate’s account of Strasser’s treatment in the 1940s does not entirely fill me with indignation – you plays the game, you takes your chances – but it adds to the mounting evidence that our ‘own side’ is pretty morally bankrupt when judged by its own claimed standards.
As for the politics, Southgate lays out Strasser’s pre-Gleichschaltung position in great detail in a central section of the book. I refer you to the book. Southgate believes these ideas still have merit.
I do not agree with him. Strasser’s ideas were a conservative petit-bourgeois response to radical modernization, based on a deeply flawed idealistic philosophy. But, whatever they were, they were not ‘evil’. Dull and impractical and potentially sclerotic, yes – but evil, no!
To label all national socialist thought as ‘evil’ rather than misguided is as absurd as considering all Marxist thought to be stupid or all liberal thought as benign. Things are far too complex for such easy judgements on any ideological formulation.
The great flaw in all idealism is its philosophical universalism (albeit that national socialism embeds this in the nation or, in Hitler’s case, in a spurious notion of race) but this is a flaw that is fully shared by the philosophes of the Enlightenment and by Marxist scientific materialism.
All European politics in the wake of industrialization has been infected by some form of idealism or reification. Millions have died as a result. As villains go, in a world of holocausts, gulags and Vietnam, Strasser and similar types like Walther Darre are not in the highest ranks of evil-doers.
Today, he is of somewhat fringe interest. National Bolshevism had a brief flurry of publicity in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in Russia but it was really the security apparat’s pet.
The more interesting Eurasian ideology is traditionalist and has been carefully managed to buttress National Putinism.
Southgate, whose own political trajectory has taken him through most of the Radical Right groups of consequence on the fringe of British politics, contemporaneously with my abortive trajectory through the mainstream ‘official’ Left, has now ended up as leading theorist of National Anarchism.
National Anarchism is another relatively fringe operation that suffers from the historic links of many of its members with harder and nastier organizations but it is one which is intellectually interesting.
However, interesting is not important when the Radical Right is as full of squabbles and splitters as the Marxist Left.
The Radical Right and the Official Left increasingly look like two sides of the same coin of political essentialism even if National Anarchism probably gets it right on the bureaucratic State.
Southgate himself owes a lot to Strasser, though one suspects that Otto would not easily have comprehended the diminishing of the national state in the theory.
The sensitive liberal should be warned here that this book is designed to be part of a strategy of engagement with the outside world and that the publishing house has the Strasserite logo on its spine of hammer and sword, a hommage to the Bolshevik hammer and sickle.
But the political philosophy of Strasserism is dated. It does not really stand up to philosophical scrutiny. Yet Southgate has every right to re-present him to the world after half a century or more of neglect. In that context, this is a good introduction.
Why it should be read by anyone who purports to understand modern history should be clear by now – it is a vaccine against simplistic victory narratives and it shows how basically good men could join, in good faith, and then be crushed by, vicious movements.
The national socialist movement was vicious enough to offer death to Otto as the price of failure but do not believe for a moment that leading factions in liberal democratic parties are not ruthless in their own way about ideological dissent. We all know the record of the Communists in this respect.
Otto Strasser was a cul-de-sac in European history and politics but his story offers an instructive tale and the book is recommended for those interested in political thought and European history.
Notes are private!
Apr 25, 2011
Jul 15, 2008
I came to this 1969 cult 'classic' in the fervent hope that it might allow me, finally, to 'get' modern environmentalism for which this is a seminal t I came to this 1969 cult 'classic' in the fervent hope that it might allow me, finally, to 'get' modern environmentalism for which this is a seminal text.
Part of my subsequent lack of enthusiasm is down to style. There is no doubt that Buckminster Fuller was a genius of sorts - at least as an engineer, planner and technologist - but he writes like a 'speak your weight' machine with a propensity for creating neologistic compound words that would put German philosophy to shame.
Far from inspiring, the man just cannot write imaginative prose and yet his subject cries out for imagination. I am sure that he says precisely what he means but it is next to impossible to sustain an interest while being hectored by a person, no doubt kindly in intention in his way, who is egotistical to the nth degree - a 'speech-talker', as my daughter would term such types.
Still, great thoughts are only made easier, no more, by great language skills. There are many prose poets whose ideas can be distilled down to mere mystical garbage when the beauty of the formulation has passed from one ear and out of the other.
Sadly, his are not such great thoughts either ... instead we get a self assured, somewhat egotistical, reasoning that patronises the reader in a step-by-step and apparently logical approach that blinds us with pseudo-science. If persons were just units of existence with blank slates for minds, he might conceivably have a point. But we are not and so he does not.
Buckminster Fuller is a sort of monster despite all his fine aspirations for humanity. He is so, in part, because he sees us all not truly as intrinsically flawed individuals (which we are and which makes us who we are at our best) but as units of existence who can be made nobler by planners. He is a planner and we are the crooked timber that must be used to fulfil the plan for our own good.
Where have we heard such sentiments before? Why, from pretty well every 'great' Western ideologue and thinker whose ego has extended itself to encompass the known human universe.
Far from being ready to consider deep globalist environmentalism (as opposed to human-centred localist environmentalism) as a reasonable possibility for humanity, Buckminster Fuller has converted me into its sworn enemy.
I now know, if there are others like him within the contemporary environmentalist movement (for we can see his influence in the 'Zeitgeist Movement' and in the eco-hysteria surrounding the circle of Al Gore), that, when we ordinary humans fail to meet the needs of the Plan, whatever his personal benignity, his heirs will make old Joe Stalin look like a pussy cat as they enforce their will on a global scale - always in the interests of us and of humanity, of course.
If you are the sort of personality who would have loved dear old Karl Marx before '36, then you'll just love Buckminster Fuller today!
This philosophical primitivism is a shame because there is a great deal of merit in his analysis of capitalism even if he seems loathe to be direct about his primary enemy lest he get accused of being a fellow-traveller with the equally flawed communist alternative that had divided up the world with Washington while he wrote.
He gets close to a truth in his myth of the Great Pirates (the one entertaining and worthwhile section of what is otherwise a monument to the turgid) but it is still not the truth.
The tale of the Great Pirates is a sound enough mythic critique of what we have inherited (as of 1969) but it is about as historically plausible as pretty well every other evangelical motivating myth that has come out of the Anglo-Saxon imperium, from those of the Mormons and Madame Blavatsky to those of Margaret Murray and L. Ron Hubbbard.
The history in this book is mostly just simplistic nonsense that seems to depend on the reading of a few geostrategists and very little experience of practical politics, the sort of simplistic populism, mixed with technocracy, that is standard fare when a certain type of engineer tries to make sense of human complexity and builds societies as he might build bridges.
Old political activists will know that the heart sinks when an engineer or scientist tries to apply engineering or scientific principles to knotty political problems ...
He does make us think, to his credit, about excessive cultural specialisation and about what 'wealth' actually means to humanity. On the latter, he adopts an American populist approach that is analytically correct even if it may not be pragmatically meaningful, given where we are today.
He has also done us a service in suggesting that we are going to be more socially productive and creative if we are given more freedom to think at leisure. The science of daydreaming suggests that our mind does benefit from idling.
And he did the West a great service by joining those who pointed out the effects of pollution within the capitalist world long before it was forced to the notice of Soviet planners by their bullied dissidents.
Failure to consider polluting effects was undoubtedly a major contributing factor to the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of its Communist model - Buckminster Fuller's dissident voice helped the West adjust more effectively to the threat of environmental degradation.
Finally, the analysis of the way that wealth is easily created in war but not in peace is a criticism that stands today of how sovereign 'piratical' states have served the interests of their historically continuous institutions far more often than they have of their peoples.
Buckminster Fuller's somewhat stylistically suppressed righteous anger at global inequity, imperialism, elite corruption, planetary dispoliation and inefficiency leads him to some wise analytical conclusions but not to equally wise solutions.
The Spaceship Earth concept is, of course, seductive, like those of Gaia or the Clash of Civilisations or the End of History, but such book-selling catch-phrases are either so general as to have no meaning for humanity (unless you remove humanity from the equation altogether) or are grossly simplistic when it comes to trying to decide what humanity (which really means individual persons in societies and not some essentialist reified thing with one hive mind) is to do next.
The truism in Spaceship Earth (which we must accept) is that, as a species, we sink or swim with the planet. If it dies, we die - end of story. But there is one heck of a leap from that simple and true proposition to the determination for a planned world government of happy free people living in leisure guided by philosopher kings like our dear Buckminster Fuller.
Self-appointed Platonic Guardians have not had a great record in the humanity stakes. The Buckmister Fullerenes are unlikely to be much better if they actually get their hands on any directive power. I am, for example, not an 'Earthian' but a person who happens to live on Earth. So are you?
As for his faith in computers and automation, this is a belief and nothing more. A sort of instinctive scientific progressivism that over-estimates what computers can do to model our universe and underestimates the logic of an AI displacing us as soon as it can model it better than us.
In the end, one fears that this brave new world (and we are reminded of Huxley here) requires the behavioural normalisation of humanity on a mass scale in order to ensure that the computers can cope with the variables!
His advocacy of 'synergy' and general systems theory reminds one of nothing less than the contemporaneous Rand Corporation, the cold calculations of Hermann Kahn and the vicious number crunching of the latterly contrite Robert McNamara as he judged the success of a war by the body bags.
This is the world of American technocrats at the height of the Cold War and it is salutary to remember that the US lost the Vietnam War and that central planning ruined the Soviet Union just as it would no doubt eventually ruin the planet.
On top of this, there is in the introduction to the book by his grandson all the barely concealed hysteria that drives an environmental 'enthusiasm' that seems to owe as much to a peculiarly charismatic frame of mind in American small town populism as it does to genuine scientific endeavour.
This is a text that believers may love but that the rest of us should question more critically and ask how or why an engineer, who experimented with sleep patterns for himself and then was puzzled that his colleagues could not keep up, can or should have anything to say about the workings of the human soul.
Buckminster Fuller's genius lay in the observation, management and manipulation of matter - and he should not have strayed from that territory. ...more
Notes are private!
Sep 02, 2010
Jul 07, 2009
A remarkable book - the best recent expression to date of the 'rage against the machine' that has been emerging for some time at the margins of Europe A remarkable book - the best recent expression to date of the 'rage against the machine' that has been emerging for some time at the margins of European life.
This is an intellectual version of a rage that is usually focused on direct action. The bulk of the book appears, despite its claims to come from 'The Invisible Committee', to be drafted primarily by one highly creative and rather witty voice but the impulse here is precisely that fuelling riots in Athens on the one side and the laying of flowers at the home of attempted cop-killer Raoul Moat in Newcastle on the other.
The Moat business confused as much as it horrified Middle England but it represented the alienation of many people who have no economic stake or position of respect within the global economy and yet are housed within its faltering motor, the Western capitalist democracies.
A war of sorts is slowly gathering pace between these marginalised peoples and the authorities. The latter are mobilising the authoritarian petit-bourgeoisie just as the former seem to be learning how to connect and to co-ordinate outside the surveillance systems of a police force that is no longer theirs but often represents, through no fault of its own, the characteristics of an occupying power.
France, as so often, is a central cockpit for this struggle. This book contains many allusions, not always fully explained, to clashes between the police and the disaffected, mostly in the suburbs of the big cities, that began even before the recent economic crisis and are clearly not fully or fairly reported to the rest of the world.
This is a France where the shine has long since come off its President Sarkozy and whose own response to the slow motion breakdown of law and order is to mimic his neighbour, Silvio Berlusconi, by shifting to the populist Right as the middle classes get increasingly frightened.
The last few weeks alone have seen the entire French political class uniting around a ban on the burqa that puzzles freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons in its intensity. On top of this, we have just seen an assault on the Roma which mimics a similar attack last year in Italy.
The trajectory of unreported and intensive surveillance and policing of the suburbs is clear - do not allow these areas to become the source of Athens-style riots or, worse, the basis for the rise of anarcho-communist no-go areas like those of Hezbollah in Beirut or Hamas in Gaza.
This is a struggle that is still being fought out on the margins of society rather than at the centre. It has its 'respectable' counterpart in the war over mass information, epitomised by Wikileaks' publication of secret US Government documentation and Iceland's remarkable decision to make itself what amounts to an anti-captalist safe haven.
In this context, 'The Coming Insurrection' is a key text because it brings a nihilistic intelligentsia into direct contact with the marginalised through a theory (not specifically outlined in the text but on every page) of direct action. This first arose on the radical racist Right but has migrated across to the anarcho-communist Left almost seamlessly. This is the theory of 'leaderless resistance' and it is causing anxiety to the established Governments of the capitalist and semi-democratic West.
My own assessment is that neither side can win in this war. The organisational resources and, as demonstrated both by the German State in the 1970s and by the Israeli State today, ruthlessness of the authorities will ultimately strip away every vestige of liberty, if deemed necessary, from the general population.
States will use every possible trick of cultural manipulation in order to contain, criminalise and break the spirit of the rebels. The general direction of history may, in this respect, be like that of the Tsarist authorities in dealing with the Narodniks - a cycle of repression and terrorism that ends up with a defeat for both anarchism and the State.
Just as with the Tsarism, if there is not some restraining liberal influence (which, fortunately, we believe is the case), the process of breaking the back of revolt not merely degrades the ethical claims of the State (which are pretty dodgy anyway) but raises the sense of something being profoundly wrong amongst sufficient sections of a powerless middle class that a certain sympathy will emerge for the marginalised, even at their most brutal.
A refusal to judge and, in some quarters, a shift into the marginalised camp offer unknown threats and consequences to the existing system. The problem is one of money and modernisation. The resources of the State are much greater than that of the rebels but are still limited and the necessity to strut on the world stage and get a share of world trade conflicts with the necessity for investment in the marginalised zones along local, regional and national lines.
What 'leaderless resistance' does is give permission for anti-social behaviour to become political action against a system with, as this book makes clear, the aim of seizing territory through communal action. The destruction of the tools of the existing system is undertaken through actions that are so random and 'unled' that the authorities have no specific place to clamp down and so must commit to arbitrary action and injustice to make progress. It is deliberately provocative.
As for the book itself, published in 2007, it was apparently the prime piece of evidence in a somewhat dodgy anti-terrorism trial of nine persons in France in 2008, and is now freely available in translation, distributed by no less than the MIT Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an act that, like the widespread publication of the Unabomber Manifesto in its time, indicates that the 'safety valve' of freedom of speech in the Anglo-Saxon world still continues to operate.
The introduction can be skipped. It is different in style and content and lacks the literary panache of the rest of the book. The bulk of the book is a witty and coruscating analysis of modern Western culture that, bluntly, is just about right.
On about every page, the nihilistic author peels away the magic and the illusions and the delusions of late capitalism with a 'bon mot', a 'mot juste', a phrase that might come to be in book of quotations. Read these chapters and you may be horrified but also enlightened or you may simply throw the book away in disgust as a devout Christian might throw away Lavey's 'Satanic Bible'.
The problem with the book is the obvious one - where does it take us in practice?. Its analysis of what is wrong with contemporary culture may be nihilist but it is depressingly accurate.
Again, it reminds one of the analyses by the Russian Nihilists of the combination of comic opera and brutality that was Tsarist Russia. But the book falters in the last fifth when it tries to turn this analysis into a plan of action, a plan that does not have anything of the organisational 'nous' of the Catalonian Anarchists or, say, the Zapatistas.
Certainly, the authors of this text are doing that traditional French thing of revelling in their own intellectual abilities and command of language - these are people who have read their Foucault - but there is no sign that they actually understand the workings of power. Nor do they appear to have learned anything from history or show any sign that they could match the ability of the Zapatistas or even Hamas to manage the instruments of late capitalism, such as the media, to survive, prosper and serve their communities.
The 'Invisible Committee's' policies of direct action are not only self indulgent at the ultimate expense of the marginalised but self-defeating. As Wikileaks has shown, the anarcho-libertarians who play the internet in an informational war that engages the middle classes and then splits them are forcing radical changes in state action that actually reduce their ability to undertake brutal and oppressive actions.
The anarcho-communists behind this text are simply seeking a self-immolation that will destroy the very tools that they use against the system. The inheritors of their strategy are not likely to be libertarians at all but the same sort of revolutionary authoritarians that emerged in Russia in the wake of the collapse in 1917.
In fact, for all the talk of 'internal contradictions' amongst Marxists (foes of the anarcho-communists), capitalist democracy remains exceptionally adaptable and fluid. The sort of war that allowed communism to emerge is unlikely and, if it did take place, China and India would implode long before the United States. So long as the US stands 'free' (whatever that may mean), liberal capitalism, even if socialised to a degree, has its stronghold.
But this book is a highly recommended text because if the authorities do not understand that the rage against the machine is real and justified, they will eventually be doomed to irrelevance. Technological and associated cultural changes are making authoritarian solutions more difficult to sustain. Instead of provoking authority into tyranny, the anarcho-communist are likely to exhaust authority into coming to terms with liberty so, in that sense, they may be doing us all a service.
The Invisible Committee's 'leaderless communal resistance' will not transform the West into what appears (when you analyse it) to be some strange quasi-agrarian but urbanised collaborative and sustainable community of equals (which really means warlordism and anarchy in the popular sense). Their actions will merely prolong the agony by giving an excuse for repression that cannot be sustained - an alternative 'bourgeois' libertarian resistance is emerging at multiple levels to the presumptions of State, religious and cultural authority in any case.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the central section that goes into a direct attack not merely on the 'progressive' trend (clearly exploited by authority in its foreign policy) but the popular environmentalist movement. The 'Invisible Committee' (perhaps with a dash of paranoia but also with some justice) sees this as the creature of the next stage of capitalist enslavement, the means of making us all willing workers in dismantling a failed system in order to build one that will be more effective in its control of us.
There is some merit in this idea which works against the grain of the growing identification of environmentalism and anarchism, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon world. The ecological industries do seem to be built on a framework of increased regulation and centralisation of power and there is no doubt that the European Union as a project has seized control of environmentalism, following German state priorities, in order to enhance its power against nation states.
Meanwhile, the surveillance and tracking systems that late capitalism clearly considers absolutely essential to managing the movement of goods and services cost-effectively seem to cross-link with ease to the tracking of persons required by the security structures of the state and thence to the monitoring of personal use of energy and of individual's waste management.
The environmentalist movement provides the security structures and capitalism with a far more effective ideological buttress for its actions in Europe than security - the reverse of the case in North America.
But whether eco-obsession or fear of terrorism, the constructed mythologies of both, reaching to almost religious proportions amongst the less intelligent in both territories, converge in the creation of massive infrastructures for individual surveillance and management across the West as a whole that are not so very different from those that might have been employed in a more technologically advanced Soviet Empire.
As the Invisible Committee puts it: "The new green asceticism is precisely the self control that is required of us all in order to negotiate a rescue operation where the system has taken itself hostage. Henceforth it is all in the name of environmentalism that we must all tighten our belts, just as we did yesterday in the name of the economy."
To be crude, this is effectively saying that we are like people who have been persuaded to organise the cattle trucks to take us to the camps and so save the authorities the trouble. There is merit in this argument since the ability of states to manage culture and opinion has advanced a great deal over the last thirty or so years.
There is another aspect of the book that surprises. It is ostensibly of the 'Left'. Anarchism is traditionally of the Left and its enemy is the State but the most coruscating attacks are not only on the progressive and environmentalist movements but on the official organised trades union-based Left. The assumption is that fascism (linked to the State) is the enemy but the ideology behind the book has oddly traditionalist and conservative aspects.
There is a belief in place and personal association (only an edge off tribalism), a surprising and not clearly explained rant against cultural relativism and an end-game that may be similar to Marx's withering away of the state but could equally be a post-modern version of the agrarianism and small tribe mentality of the followers of former Leftist and now Right theoretician, Alain de Benoist.
Indeed, since there is no real provenance for the authors, we have to be highly suspicious that the author merges his Foucault with some understanding of De Benoist to create something that is not so much beyond Right and Left as subversively New New Right from the perspective of any establishment Socialist who is in collaborative alliance with the new eco-capitalism.
This is part of a much wider trans-valuation of values in Europe. Official Socialists and the anti-Islamist universalist Rightists merge their aspirations with the security State while both the radical Right and the anarcho-Left move into the position of street resistance and localism.
The difference is that the Left (including the Invisible Committee) have no place for racial or ethnic questions of difference or any radical differentiation between gender roles. The Invisible Committee clearly support the rights of migrants and has no sense of nationality in the way that it has traditionally been used to buttress the State.
Nevertheless, its ideology of place and personal association, as well as of direct action and of violence, is not a million miles from those less hidebound and more intelligent European Rightists with a critique of modern capitalism and a sympathy for traditionalism that extends to respect for, say, Islam and so for Hamas and Hezbollah.
This is a tension and internal contradiction within the 'resistance' (or insurgency) that has yet to work its way through the 'system'. The balance of 'leaderless resistance' protest is different in different countries - from Athens and the Latin world (where it is quite definitely on the Left) to the Anglo Saxon community (where it tends to the quasi-racist Right).
But the real reason to read this book is for its literary merit, often for its wit. It is my belief that it will be an underground classic that will be seen as having, albeit in extreme terms, captured the mood of a time. It will inspire an 'attitude' of resistance to authority that, in very many small ways, may ultimately and positively bring the authorities to heel and into alignment with the general mass of people's expectation that they should serve its interest and not the institutional interests of politicians, lobbyists, corporations, bankers, unions and churches.
So here is a taster of the mood of the moment, as applicable to the marginalised of the Anglo Saxon world as that of France ...
" From Left to Right,it's the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or saviour, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse, according to the findings of the latest surveys. ... In its very silence, the populace seems infinitely more mature than all these puppets bickering amongst themselves about how to govern it."
" The weak, depressed, self-critical, virtual self is essentially that endlessly adaptable subject required by the ceaseless innovation of production, the accelerated obsolescence of technologies, the constant overturning of social norms, and generalised flexibility. It is, at the same time the most voracious consumer, and paradoxically, the most productive self, the one that will most eagerly and energetically throw itself into the slightest project, only to return later to its original larval state."
" We have arrived at a point of privation where the only way to feel French is to curse the immigrants and those who are more visibly foreign. In this country, the immigrants assume a curious position of sovereignty: if they weren't here, the French might stop existing."
" The aura that surrounds Mesrine has less to do with his uprightness and his audacity than with the fact that he took it upon himself to enact vengeance on what we should all avenge .... the open hostility of certain gangs only expresses, in a slightly less muffled way, the poisonous atmosphere, the rotten spirit, the desire for a salvational destruction by which the country is consumed."
" The couple is like the the final stage of the great social debacle. It's the oasis in the middle of the social desert ... the utopia of autism-for-two."
" ... we don't work anymore: we do our time. Business is not a place where we exist, it's a place we pass through. We aren't cynical, we are just unwilling to be deceived ... The horror of work is less in the work itself than in the methodical ravaging, for centuries, of all that isn't work: the familarities of one's neighbourhood and trade, of one's village, of struggle, of kinship, our attachment to places, to beings, to the seasons, to ways of doing and speaking."
" The metropolis is a terrain of constant low-intensity conflict, in which the taking of Basra, Mogadishu, or Nablus mark points of culmination. ... The battles conducted by the great powers resemble a kind of never-ending police campaign in the black holes of the metropolis ... The police and the army are evolving in parallel and in lock-step."
" We have to see that the economy is not 'in' crisis, the economy is itself the crisis ... The brutal activity of power today consists both in administering this ruin while at the same time establishing the framework for a 'new economy'"
" There is no 'environmental catastrophe'. The catastrophe is the environment itself. ... they hired our parents to destroy this world, and now they'd like to put is to work rebuilding it, and - to add insult to injury - at a profit. The morbid excitement that animates journalists and advertisers these days as they report each new proof of global warming reveals the steely smile of the new green capitalism ... "
" Tracking, transparency, certification, eco-taxes, environmental excellence, and the policing of water, all give us an idea of the coming state of ecological emergency. Everything is permitted to a power structure that bases its authority in Nature, in health and in well-being."
" A civilisation is not an abstraction hovering over life. It is what rules, takes possession of, colonises the most banal, personal, daily existence ... The French state is the very texture of French subjectivities, the form assumed by the centuries-old castration of its subjects ... In France. literature is the prescribed space for the amusement of the castrated. It is the formal freedom conceded to those who cannot accomodate themselves to the nothingness of their real freedom."
" There is no 'clash of civilisations'. There is a clinically dead civilisation kept alive by all sorts of life-support systems that spread a peculiar plague into the planet's atmosphere."
So there we have it ..
Notes are private!
Jul 30, 2010
Oct 27, 1993
This book is part of a series of graphic accounts of significant modern philosophers and ideas. The original idea behind the series was that you could This book is part of a series of graphic accounts of significant modern philosophers and ideas. The original idea behind the series was that you could educate through a combination of image and crisp short summaries of the life and history of complicated people and concepts.
This is both absurd and helpful. None of these books (largely produced in the post-modern fervour of the 1990s) can do more than skim the surface of a subject. Ideas can be so foreshortened that they are meaningless to the uneducated subject. The graphics are often crude but they serve their purpose, only rarely adding to the obscurities instead of enlightening us.
On the other hand, they offer two hours (approximately) of comic book summary of the main tenets of a thinker or movement with valuable pointers to further reading or study. They are very useful and entertaining in that context.
To a great extent, they have been superseded by the internet. Wikipedia and a basic Google search can deliver similar short reliable summaries with links at the click of a mouse but they still have their role in opening up the minds of many people who would never otherwise come up against these ideas.
Personally, I am a great admirer of Nietzsche who, though not flawless, provided us with some very fundamental insights into human psychology and engaged deeply with some of the toughest metaphysical and other philosophical problems encountered in Western philosophy.
We have long since left Marx and Freud behind, largely because of the excesses of their followers, but we have scarcely touched the surface of Nietzsche's contribution to thought even if his analyses may never be fully acceptable in 'polite society'. He is the most inconvenient of philosophers.
There is no point in summarising a summary account of his life and thinking. I have my own theory of his 'madness' (about which, of course, doubts have been raised) so if you are not interested in this, do not read on and just make a judgement on the book on the basis of your need.
The probability is of a serious nervous breakdown and mental instability but it strikes me that it is not accidental that it was triggered by a horse being beaten by a man in public.
Nietzsche's thought derived in part from his absolute refusal to compromise in trying to understand the reality of 'herd' behaviour (in effect, social psychology) and in communicating his findings about that behaviour to a world that, by his own analysis, had too much at stake in seeing the bones beneath the skin.
It was not a truly free society - an intellectual elite acted as a thin veneer of public morality and of ideology within a system that remained fundamentally brutal in its demands for service from its members. The masters, indeed, had become slaves to their slaves in order to maintain order, both social and cultural.
Nietzsche was the liberationist of the individual against this system but was quite definitely one without much of an understanding of the components of the 'herd' outside his class. He thought that a man of the elite (he is ambiguous about women) could liberate himself from the obligations imposed by the collective from below without perhaps understanding that the elite had a great deal of material interest in creating this system of self-policing in a complex industrial society. Unlike Marx, Nietzsche clearly did not understand how industrial society was different from the pagan world of the past.
Within such a bourgeois culture, faced with a threat from within their own community, people like Nietzsche are handled not through attack but through a policy of isolation - as inconvenient and 'not to the point'.
This how the intelligentsia operates in any case, through systematic exclusion of those who do not accept the prevailing ideology. I am sure that many fine minds, with perhaps similar if much less developed ideas, have languished in obscurity unable, without leisure, to record their thinking, even in the lower ranks of bourgeois Germany.
Nietzsche was both lucky and unlucky in living at the cusp of a new age. On the one hand, there was sufficient freedom from cultural authority to enable free expression. On the other, there was an insufficient plurality of cultural communications for that free expression, at least in his life time, that might counter the dead weight of the existing German elite.
Part of Nietzsche's famous breach with Wagner derived from anger at the great artist's slow and steady absorption into this dominant culture rather than challenge it with a new 'pagan' affirmation of life. Wagner abandoned the Nibelungenlied for Parzifal.
Nietzsche can occasionally sound as if he is pessimistic in this context (which is certainly the view of most persons faced with the grim Doctrine of the Eternal Return) but, in fact, his entire work cannot be understood except as an attempt to affirm life in the face of the much grimmer pessimism of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer's miserabilism might be regarded as the natural thinking response to the flummery of Christian duty but one that, as in Wagner's case, equally permitted submission to its demands. Amongst the elaborate lies we weave to keep ourselves 'sane', Wagner appeared to choose Schopenhauerian negation and Nietzsche never forgave him for this.
Nietzsche used up vasts amount of psychic energy in seeking out his own 'truth' (he never accepted that there could be a 'Truth') and his 'truth', which was based on a rigorous stripping away of layers of social illusion and convenient irrationalities (including the illusion of rationality itself), could only have value either to someone in a similar position to him (a bourgeois mind with a mission) or to a society that felt itself free to experiment with freedom. Nietzsche took his vision, often writing his books in a matter of days after months of cogitation, and laid it out remorselessly to his (then) non-readers in a drive for self-exploration that a critic might consider as neurotic in itself.
His thinking was a necessity, not a desire, and the resultant body of work, obscure though it may be in places, is one of the greatest creative uses of the mind in human history. It proved a revolution in thinking that spread first amongst intellectuals overseas, then returned to Germany in a bastardised form (irrelevant to all those truly interested in the thought). Once purged of its more absurd followers, bit ecame a central source for nearly all modern continental philosophy and for a critique of power that (in my view) has now become truly salient in the social conditions arising from rapid change in the technology of communications.
The point is that Nietzsche described the social world more accurately than any preceding philosopher and placed it in a metaphysical context. His observations now seem in closest accord with the dark findings of the cognitive scientists and the social psychologists about how we humans actually operate and command the world.
Many Enlightenment-trained intellectuals will run around like frightened rabbits and then sink into a gloom at Milgram's experiments or the Holocaust as if their thinking will change anything about these things. Nietzsche would not have been surprised in either case for it is just how he saw that the 'herd' operates and the educated elite responds. Even now, Western liberal thinking has still not come to terms with the death of Reason as substitute for Revelation and is turning to 'nudge' as its last desperate fling at dealing with inconvenient truths.
Where he was lucky in his legacy is precisely in not being acceptable too soon. Marx saw Marxism boom and bust as it seized power, perverted power and then died because Marx's undoubted insights were hobbled by Engels' scientific materialism. Freud was to have a similar problem with Freudians who became sucked, like Marxists, into complex and fixed ideologies of mind that soon came unstuck, in a perverse reversal of what happened to Marxism, by not being scientific enough!
Nietzche, on the other hand, was followed initially by maniacs who seriously perverted his message (the malign racial nationalism of his sister and of German radical nationalists) but who did this to such a ridiculous degree that his work not merely survived but emerged strengthened. 'For what does not kill, strengthens' in his often quoted aphorism. Nietzsche's approach to life survives precisely because it is individualistic and anti-ideological. It cannot be systematised like Marxism yet it embodies its critique of Reason in the terms of reasoning itself. It out-reasons Reason and brilliantly and entertainingly at that.
This will soon bring us back to the flogged horse, so be patient. Because the flaw in Nietzsche's thinking arises from the conditions in which he did his thinking. You must imagine a man isolated but following the logic of his own thought in a way that others might have considered 'mad' well before his diagnosed 'madness'. Yet the brilliance and power of reasoning and determination could not permit such a judgement reasonably while he still thought and wrote. However, this man may have been hard on the human race's capacity for illusion but he was also hard on himself.
He knew the logic of the situation. He was seeing into the heart of the human condition. Evolution must eventually see humanity negate itself completely in its illusions (as many post-modern French thinkers seem to suggest is happening) or 'become' something else. This latter is the real 'trans-human' message behind the 'ubermensch', an individual transformation that evolves into a species-transformation or else sees humanity as an evolutionary dead end for humanity as a whole. Some may now expect the 'ubermensch' to be found in the world of artificial intelligence, raising the interesting conundrum of which sort of negation we might choose in the long run - spiritual or physical.
Whether he saw himself as an 'ubermensch' is unclear. It is unlikely. He was a prophet of the new type like his Zarathustra, a man crying 'God is dead' in a world that thought him 'mad'. And so we come to his fundamental flaw. He rightly castigated 'compassion'. He was right to do so in two senses. First, as the psychic vampirism of the liberal or Christian or progressive with power in hand whose 'compassion' is a form of power relation, denying the rights of the victim to be anything other than a victim. Second, in the Buddhist sense, of a distanced 'compassion' for the world, a 'compassion' which is the negation of existence, a refusal to engage in life.
In his determination to call the tune on the 'slave mentality' and the life-negating aspects of these two types of compassion, which are really forms of self-centred victimisation of others and of oneself respectively, he hardened himself and he forgot a third form of compassion. There was no energy left for this compassion and no insight into the self to see its necessity. This is the third form of compassion, one that arises from the Will to Power where another or others becomes existentially chosen, without illusion, to become part of oneself yet with respect for their own autonomy. It is, in short, 'love'. Poor Nietzsche never seems to have had the chance to experience this sense of worlds entwined and of the interconnection between equals that goes far beyond the nonsense of modern romanticism.
In his one big blind spot, he did not understand just how much his Will to Power was bound up with the libido (where we are indebted to Freud in raising its presence as unconscious drive). This is the energy designed to acquire 'more' and make oneself whole - being social animals, this includes relations with others. All relations with others are relations of power but, at a certain point, we can decide ourselves whether they are relations of power that are inherited, especially inherited by our slavish internal needs created by society for society (as in Christian cultural repression), or they are relations of power that we create and in which our true nature is best expressed by having relations of power that are calibrated to be as equal as possible. Why? Because that is how we get our greatest pleasure, conversing within an aristocracy of equals (not materially but existentially).
By the time of his madness, Nietzsche will have been very isolated and lonely. There was no love in his life. No interconnection. Certainly no aristocracy of existential equals. Nor could he expect such an aristocracy to emerge in his life time - indeed, one may be emerging only now with new forms of communication. When he saw that horse beaten (I surmise), he saw not merely himself beaten but the raw misery of a world in which one man may speak the truth of what is to come and yet know that no-one will understand until he is long dead (if at all). Worse, by the doctrine of the eternal return, his life would be an eternal round of such existential lonelinesses. This does not negate his affirmation of life but his surge of compassion for that horse is a rising up of compassion for a humanity that does not 'get it' and for himself as the person who does and is before his time.
Given everything that had gone before, his only 'choice' is an assumed or actual madness. In a parody of the Christian message which he excoriated mercilessly, Nietzsche is 'crucified' on the cross of his own humanity. ...more
Notes are private!
May 27, 2010
Jun 18, 2009
This book tells the story of Leon Trotsky and his years of exile and eventual assassination in Mexico from 1937 to 1940. Unfortunately it is marred by This book tells the story of Leon Trotsky and his years of exile and eventual assassination in Mexico from 1937 to 1940. Unfortunately it is marred by an extremely eccentric approach to story-telling with over-clever cutting between times and places. This is intended to tell the background to the main story but it soon gets out of hand. It is as if someone suggested to Patenaude that the story might make an art film one day and that he should cut and shape the story with that in mind.
The result is that the core of the story is often not entirely clear. Every time that you think you have a firm grasp of the narrative, the author goes hurtling off into a disconnected account of either Trotsky's role in the Bolshevik movement or the early history of Trotskyism. It is like a rambling conversation where the professor suddenly says, "Ah, that reminds me ..."
So what we have is a mish-mash - part entertainment like those romantic lives of princesses that graced the history shelves of my local library forty years ago, part disconnected noddy-and-big-ears account of the Russian revolution and early Soviet history and part (the most, fortunately) a genuinely informative history of three vital years in(strangely) the intellectual history of what was soon to be the greatest global power the world has ever seen - of which more in a moment.
The real value of this book lies in the fact that Patenaude's specialism is not Russia or communism at all but in American responses to Russia and communism. His previous book was on the American Relief Expedition to Russia during the Famine of 1921. This new story takes place in a context where the largest concentration of followers of Trotsky was to be found in the US in the wake of the New Deal.
Why this should be so is not covered in much detail by the author although we might cite the legacy of the IWW and radical syndicalism after the collapse of Eugene Debs' challenge to the system in 1918, the attraction towards Trotskyism of cosmopolitan New York liberal and Jewish intellectuals, the negative fact that interwar fascism and Stalinist aggression did for most Trotskyists in Europe and the fact that Trotsky (not actually doing much real dictating other than into a dictaphone or to a secretary) could combine the attributes of proletarian war hero with ostensible free thinker and modernist to the libertarian and machismo culture of the American Left.
Trotsky certainly had a remarkable ability to seem a tad more liberal than he actually was. Stalin's brutal and obviously manufactured war on the Left Opposition (the Purges) in Russia made Trotsky the underdog and American 'bourgeois' progressive liberals made a career out of defending the underdog.
Meanwhile, operating in a milieu where surrealists and muralists found Trotskyism a more amenable artistic model than Stalin's simplistic socialist realism (essentially, offering art as mass propaganda), Trotsky's writings on art implied an openness to modernism (probably more apparent than real) that was attractive to forward-thinking intellectuals. Patenaude also refers to a certain snobbisme and orientalism that may be relevant - "[Trotsky was:] the cultivated, Western, internationalist alternative to the peasant, Asiatic and nationalistic Stalin". Already I prefer Stalin!
Although you can certainly buy intellectuals with cash as the State Department discovered in the 1950s, flattery is much cheaper. The illusion that you could be both free and Left in Trotsky's world (especially as news emerged of the growing repression within Russia itself and the vicious assault on the POUM in Catalonia by Communist operatives) drew in what can only be described as worshippers.
In fact, the remarkable achievement of this book is to present us not with a true hero (Patenaude is not biased or a polemicist) but with a narcissist of exceptional moral blindness who one soon understands (whether the author intends this or not) would probably have been a disaster for Russia - probably worse than Stalin if civil war and chaos is worse than internal tyranny and the gulag.
Only Trotsky can possibly make this reviewer sympathetic to Stalin. The man lacked judgement and he possessed an ego the size of the Kremlin. The fact that a brutal choice lay between the Man of Steel and this over-intellectual egotist suggests just what a wrong turn the Bolshevik Revolution proved to be and how much the weak Kerensky, perhaps more than Lenin who was 'only doing his job' as a revolutionary, must take responsibility for allowing it to happen.
Kerensky's blind refusal to bring Russia out of the war and mobilise workers and peasants for democratic socialism led to an unnecessary revolution that gave Russia the eventual choice between two monsters. We only had the chance to consider Stalin the worse monster because Trotsky failed to get his chance to show what he could do with the full force of the State. His treatment of the Kronstadt mutineers alone tells us what Russian workers, peasants and intellectuals had to fear from this man - a round of executions without trial to 'save the revolution'.
However, Patenaude does manage to bring the man to life. He is very good at interconnecting family concerns (Trotsky was proof positive of ideological obsession as a biological dead end as his gene pool was systematically wiped out by his opponent), the left-wing politics of Mexico (in which artistic concerns and rivalries loomed large in the squabbles of the world class muralists), the distrust and espionage undermining the networks of Trotskyists in Europe and the often very young circles of workers and intellectuals in North America who provided money and muscle to his court in exile.
Patenaude's narrative style does make it difficult to follow the plot sometimes but his research and judgements appear sound. He plays a straight bat in not taking sides and in letting the facts speak for themselves - which makes the narrative complexity all the more unnecessary.
But what we have here is not a story of ideology and politics so much as one of trans-national gang warfare in which our hero is a defeated don, holed up in a near-fortress, with inexperienced young political hoodlums who were facing, by 1940, direct murderous assaults on the compound and, eventually, the most brutal and fanatic personal attack imaginable on the Old Man himself. Only in Mexico would a leading artist launch a murderous attack by an assault team on a political figure! Only Soviet Communism could find a killer like Mercader to do the deed and take the rap in the way that he did - subsequently awarded great honours in the Soviet Union after many years in a Mexican jail.
The fact that this war was conducted over the supply of ideas and power rather than guns, contraband, drugs or prostitutes does not change the essential manner in which business was being conducted. Trotsky was just a less competent gangster than his rival while Stalin had the massive reserves of Russian state power to ensure the eventual elimination of not only Trotsky but of any future leaders with his 'brand'. Despite the existence of the Fourth International, Trotskyism effectively died with Trotsky in 1940 as anything more than an irritant and pot-stirrer to capitalists and communists alike.
Having successfully disposed of one dynasty, the Romanovs, Stalin certainly seemed determined not to allow a new Soviet one to appear, the Trotskys - anyone connected to Trotsky within reach of Stalin simply disappeared. At a human level, the story of the killing and disappearances of Trotsky's family is heart-rending and he is by no means immune to the pain of loss - a sympathy rendered a little less likely to cause a sleepless night by the sure knowledge that he seems to have had few such nights himself over those he had murdered for equally valid reasons of state in the Civil War.
Perhaps Trotsky might only have survived if the US had permitted him entry. To murder a political opponent in Mexico is one thing, to do so within the rising superpower is another - poison would probably have had to have been substituted for an icepick. You get the impression that Trotsky was seriously concerned towards the end about moderating his position to effect such an entry but, equally, that, the Old Man (as he was called) being an acquired taste for only a small section of American political society, there was no interest in giving him sanctuary or creating a centre for revolutionary subversion to the Left of the New Deal settlement and unnecessary diplomatic problems at a time of global instability.
As for American Trotskyists, their numbers may have been small but the ideological squabbles of these years proved to have unintended consequences many decades later. The hatred of Stalin and Communism within America may be associated with the American Right but it was at its most virulent in the disappointed American Left.
Whereas in Europe, the challenge of fascism was immediate and put many radical socialists firmly into the Communist camp despite repeated political monstrosities (the purge trials of the 1930s, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and, later, the systematic colonisation of Eastern Europe), in the US a combination of free worker resentment of Communist practice and Trotskyist rage against Stalin placed much of the American Left in a position of aggressive universalism which privileged the export of American liberal values against the claims of what came to be called the 'evil empire'.
Dialectical materialism, already intellectually under severe pressure to Trotsky's dismay during his last years amongst his US followers, crumbled under liberal pressure and anti-Communist virulence. Although Patenaude does not go into much detail on events after 1940, the debates surrounding the purge trials, the invasion of Finland and the Nazi-Soviet Pact and around Marxist philosophy, led to the Minority breakaway and to the eventual trajectory of key intellectuals all the way across to what would become the hardest form of Reaganite anti-Sovietism.
Not all the 'Partisan Review' mob ceased to be socialists but the trajectory was clearly from late 1930s Trotskyism through Cold War Liberalism to the origins of neo-conservatism for many - and the common denominator in all these positions was anti-Stalinism and anti-nationalism. The ideology of the modern Anglo-American imperium was born to a surprising degree out of Trotsky's circle in those last years of his life.
James Burnham, for example, the most extreme example, moved from a central position in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party across to Reaganite groupie over thirty or forty years and the move seems, in retrospect, surprisingly natural. Often but not always Jewish East Coast intellectuals, filled with righteous indignation at Stalin's crimes and replacing the inevitable victory of the proletariat with the inevitable victory of liberal capitalism and 'freedom', moved across the political spectrum and influenced, eventually and alongside European conservative nationalists, the circles that eventually coalesced as neo-conservatism.
Ironically, the high point of Idealism in politics was probably not the furthest extent of the Nazi or Soviet Empires but the furthest extent of the Anglo-American Imperial tradition in the post-invasion occupation of Iraq. If you consider that Saddam Hussein modelled his methods in Stalin, then the Iraq War might be regarded as the Marxist struggles of the 1930s replayed once again as both tragedy and farce! If you really are determined on black humour, you can see the funny side of this. Two sides without the nonsensical philosophy of their ancestors playing radical internationalist and nationalist roles no different from those of Trotsky and Stalin during the struggle for policy and power in Russia in the 1920s. As before, so later - the one with the most firepower wins.
We should not exaggerate the importance of Anglo-Saxon intellectual Trotskyists as representatives of the international revolutionary Left. The opposing Majority Fourth International continues to this day with a strong base in France (inheriting opportunities created by the collapse of Communism as ideological home for the left trades unions) and the numbers active in the Minority Trotskyist Movement were always very small. But, in American intellectual history, these were 'players'!
The revolutionary vanguardism inherited from Lenin (which Trotsky had actually opposed at the time) and the intellectualism of the circle around the Partisan Review created a fairly vibrant politically active set who came to live their hates and anger and who redirected their universalism and idealism into forms that were imbued with a typically American pragmatism. The numbers of former Trotskyists who supported the Iraq adventure and who underpinned the transformation of New Labour (a deeply transtlantic project) is more than chance would permit. The mentality is consistent.
Trotsky himself gives us a clue to this thinking when he stubbornly insisted, against the evidence, that the Soviet Union was a progressive state, refusing to condemn the Soviet attacks on Poland and Finland and advocating full American support for Britain against the Nazi threat. It would not take much, once Trotsky was murdered, for increasing numbers of former followers who disagreed with him on the Soviet invasions and who had their doubts about dialectical materialism and on the ability of a bureaucratic workers state to be progressive to shift that 'tide of history' commitment to a different state power as vector for global revolution - the United States. This may be unhinged perhaps but it is consistent in its insane way.
The key figure, of course, is James Burnham who argued as early as 1937 that the Soviet bureaucracy was not a caste (as Trotsky suggested) but a new exploiting class so that the Soviet Union was not a degenerate workers' state but represented bureaucratic collectivism. He was almost certainly right but this revisionism which caused major splits in the Movement showed how Trotsky's use value in America was not as independent Marxist thinker at all but as an anti-Communist.
If you condemn bureaucratic collectivism, it soon gets to mean that you are inclined to prefer individualism if you cannot de-bureaucratise collectivism. The trajectory to free market internationalism which is central to the current Western project was embedded even at this very early stage in the thinking of the Marxist revisionists of the late 1930s. Patenaude must be thanked for helping to elucidate some of the background to the transformation of American ideology under conditions of empire.
Max Eastman, initially a great admirer of Trotsky and always a friend, represented the tendency, you might call it romantic-radical, to be moved deeply by the revolution itself but to hold great doubts about its results and about the German Idealist theory of dialectical materialism, especially that of Engels, that underpinned it. As Trotsky understood, there was no Marxist-Leninist revolution without dialectical materialism and that's why the Kronstadt mutineers had to be executed.
But Eastman must be seen in the context of Dewey and American pragmatism and progressivism. Trotsky intellectually feared American pragmatism with great justification. In the end, we have a problem for Trotsky that could not be resolved in his favour - the largest number of Trotskyists were in the US, Americans were indelibly pragmatist, ergo Trotskyism could either be dialectical materialist or it could be at the heart of the American Left but it could not be both.
The struggle went on for some years (most notably in the debates between Eastman and Sidney Hook) but, with dialectical materialism captured for the global Communist Party, Trotskyism did not stand a chance as a credible political movement in the American century. As I suggested above, Trotsky was trying to be a better Communist than the Communists when history wanted him to be a better anti-Communist.
In the end, Eastman, Hook, Burnham, Dewey, Wilson, Shachtman - all the leading thinkers of the American Left of Trotsky's last years who were opposed to the Stalinist capture of the Revolution from their different perspectives - rejected dialectical materialism as a credible philosophy. End of game for Trotsky intellectually. The Old Man was past it!
I have not written much of Trotsky himself in this review because we want to avoid spoiling the strength of the book, the characterisation of a man who comes out of the pages of this book as a real person, warts and all. There are some excellent photographs from these years in exile.
I think I would have enjoyed meeting a man who was undoubtedly exceptionally intelligent - a political Einstein in some respects - but this was not a man to be followed unless you were prepared for your bones to whiten on some far off plain. This was a man, like Napoleon or Hitler, who saw other persons as adjuncts to his ideas, expendable in a cause in which he, supreme egotist, must live regardless of others because of the values and beliefs he embodied.
British intelligence agent Bruce Lockhart cruelly wrote of Trotsky in full-on revolutionary mode: "He strikes me as a man who would willingly die fighting for Russia provided there was a big enough audience to see him do it."
The surprise is not that people like him exist but that there are so many mugs in the world prepared to subsume themselves under such people. It's much more than the banality of evil expressed in Milgram's depressing experiments, it is also about the determination of many people to embody their myth of the world in a person (whether Pope or dictator) to whom they give up their autonomy as an act of 'heroic' self denial.
For a husband or wife to do this may be simple love but for a man to sentence his children (in effect) to death for his ideals strikes me as either wilfully stupid or inhuman while for fit young bright men and women to throw themselves, their labour value and their lives at the feet of others in the way that they did for Trotsky is just plain stupid if the price is a complete suspension of their critical faculties. But is it any more stupid than joining the military for patriotic reasons? I suppose there may be a marginally greater reason in dying for a better world than the profits of Wall Street - but not that much!
The relationship between Trotsky and Natalia (his wife) is touching and that between Trotsky and Frida Kahlo amusing but his relationships with the rest of the world were often as exploitative as those of the capitalists and feudalists against which he warred.
By 1937, though he fought on gallantly, clinging to his already outmoded beliefs, Trotsky was already an utter political failure whose death in 1940 possibly came at the right time to maintain his credibility for his remaining supporters. He was running out of money, increasingly politically irrelevant, with supporters who were beginning to walk away from ideas honed in the struggle against feudalism at the turn of the century.
Had he lived through to the late 1940s, his fate might have been to have been picked up by the anti-communists of the Cold War era and be turned into a political Vlasov - a convenient tool to goad Stalin and split the Left, an old and weak king with a subsidised court, a Jacobite in a world of Hanoverians. Maybe it was best that he was forced to move on and died a martyr to his cause. ...more
Notes are private!
Mar 26, 2010
Jan 01, 2005
Sep 29, 2005
Published by Conspiracy Books, an opportunistic publishing brand created by Collins & Brown, in 2005 at the height of the post-9/11 conspiracy hys Published by Conspiracy Books, an opportunistic publishing brand created by Collins & Brown, in 2005 at the height of the post-9/11 conspiracy hysteria, you would think that this book on the Illuminati would be hokum. It is not.
Lindsay Porter provides a sober history of the idea of the Illuminati and its influence, showing that it did indeed exist as a rather rum extremist (by the standards of the day) intellectual cult in Southern Germany in the 1780s.
However, what is more interesting is how this short-lived phenomenon became a potent idea of dark conspiratorial forces (in direct opposition to the later left wing trope of ineluctable economic forces) that fuelled the paranoia underlying both populism and the periodic witch-hunts of authorities faced with social phenomena for which they had no explanation.
This book gives us the narrative of that process from the intellectual white terror that saw the arrest of Cagliostro and a fear throughout clerical and dynastic Europe of 'Masons under the bed', through its emergence as nervous populism in the early years of the American Republic (where it seeded today's vigorous political paranoia) to the rise of its anti-semitic half-brother that, in turn, played such a major role in Slavic and Germanic resistance to modernisation.
The second half of the book concentrates on the meme's role in modern American history - as cousin to communism (giving us that Bolshevik-Jewish-Masonic plot that underpinned much of the paranoid Mid-Western and Far Western populism that gave Nixon and Reagan their electoral base), as partner of the Christian Right and as close associate of New Age irrationalism from ufology to pyramidology.
There are better books on the detailed history of any of the particular groups, movements and themes of this book and we still search for better accounts of the phemonenon from a political science perspective. The editing is also occasionally sloppy: errors such as 1798 for 1789 for Cagliostro's arrest slip in and confuse the subsequent narrative. But this is a level-headed book that we can strongly recommend.
The book does not go much deeper than its narrative but it does, perhaps unwittingly, act as a corrective not only to the idea that there are likely to be complex conspiracies ruling our lives (most of our ruling classes seem to be incompetent at very basic things like getting the economy to work, or ensuring barely adequate national security, to permit them the honour of guiding us forwards, through some competent inner circle of Bilderbergers, let alone Illuminati or reptiles from Sirius) but to the prevailing idea of the Left and the Academy that there are no conspiracies, only movements and social forces.
The truth lies somewhere in between as always. There are great economic, cultural and social forces which drive the lives of individuals, but there are also tight cliques (equivalent to the dynastic courts of Cagliostro's Europe) and conspiracies to corner resources and truth of just the type that that most sensible of men, Adam Smith, identified as likely whenever men (or women) huddle into a corner and calculate their interests against those of the larger mass of humanity.
The tendency of academics, especially centre-left academics understandably worried that populist obsession with conspiracy will create an anomic, defeated, suspicious, inactive and irrational mass on which the elite can feed like political vampires, is to be so dismissive of conspiracy theory as to miss the point.
In fact, conspiracy theory is generally false theory to try and explain a truth. Most people's destinies are guided by surprisingly small groups of wholly unaccountable persons who are highly clubbable and who bludgeon each other into group-think about what is right and wrong for the rest of us, often using dodgy science and theory themselves.
In this context, a conspiracy looks more like the bumbling High Command of New Labour or the dodgy world of security and NGO collaboration in international affairs than anything so extreme as the Illuminati. The populist masses have grasped at a truth but the academy in general does its best to deflect them from enquiring further by trying to prove that there are no conspiracies. There are but 'not as we know them, Jim'.
We are moving too far away from the book. In fact, 2005 already seems like a high point in one of those periodic waves of political paranoia that rise and subside, moving from fringe to mainstream and back again. Nurtured by the growing New Age interest in the esoteric and the irrational (ably documented in several books by Gary Lahman), becoming mainstream with the massive popularity of the X-Files and appearing to become real with the psychological assault of America on 9/11 and the conduct of the industrial-political lobby that captured foreign policy in America under Bush II, the movement now seems to be subsiding again.
Part of this is down to some successful re-assertion of simple common sense, part to the public's mature appreciation of much conspiracy theory as an entertainment phenomenon, part to the maturing of the internet as a source of information, part to the realisation that some nonsense is delivered to our minds by the very people who are said to be the conspirators (the media) for commercial reasons, part to the growing realisation that conspiracies are much more basic, less competent and less well organised than the fantasists would like to believe and part because the election of Obama and the credit crunch have shifted the balance of opinion back to movements and blind forces as the motors of history.
But I hope that we do not lose our interest in the phenomenon of conspiracy both as an instrument of the powerless which the market cynically serves (covered elsewhere in our reviews) or in the actual fact of conspiracy against the public interest that is implicit in self-appointed unaccountable elites. Washington, Brussels and London are riddled with such networks and it must be a major project for the future to get researchers and the academy to stop fretting about restoring 'pure reason' to politics and start getting anxious about the practical and moral competencies of our ruling castes. Until this is done, the public will always want their conspiracy theory and their need for it is a standing challenge to those who purport to represent their interests.
Notes are private!
Jul 05, 2009
Apr 15, 2009
May 15, 2009
This is a solid, if occasionally unnecessarily polemical, account of what Professor Ronald Fritze, clearly an heir to the liberal Enlightenment, consi This is a solid, if occasionally unnecessarily polemical, account of what Professor Ronald Fritze, clearly an heir to the liberal Enlightenment, considers to be unacceptable versions of history and of those constructed versions of science and religion that have no basis in the reality in which certainly he and probably most of the rest of us lives. Fritze believes in 'facts' and that the world views of minds should conform to those 'facts' as far as possible.
The book deals successively with that old warhorse, the existence of Atlantis and then with the mythic modern narratives of the discovery and settlement of America. From there, Fritze looks at the use of pseudo-history to sustain extremist models of American politics - first Christian Identity and then the Nation of Islam.
He moves on to the pseudo-science and the pseudo-archaeology of a number of well-known characters in modern popular culture: Velikovsky, Von Daniken, Hapgood and Hancock. He closes with an evisceration of Martin Bernal's 'Black Athena' hypothesis where he finally lets himself down with an onslaught on post-modernism that loses the book a star. Frankly, the rest of us actually want a solid argument based on (ironically) the facts and not yet another air strike in the Culture Wars.
Nevertheless, this book has its virtues - not least the amount of background detail on extremist political movements and some very good material on how writers respond to the market. The notes at the book are a mine of useful references.
What this book teaches most (to the extent that one heartily wishes that Fritze had spent more time on the mechanics of meme-marketing and less on bursts of prissy outrage) is how academics weaken before the blandishments of cynical publishers and how, once a theme proves profitable, a sort of conspiracy of need and pleasure develops between the writer (rarely a member of the formal academic establishment) and a public hungry for sensation. This is brokered by the real villain of the piece, the publisher keen to sell books. It is all rather grubby with the public being by far the least villainous in the author-publisher-public nexus.
The section within the book in which he forensically unravels the marketing operation behind the nonsensical '1421' thesis of Gavin Menzies (which postulates global voyaging by the late-medieval Chinese empire) is well judged. The writer and the public are not the villains here, the publishers are - although if you consider this sort of pseudo-history as a form of popular fiction then maybe we should all loosen up and just enjoy it.
We are aware of a version of the Necronomicon being published as non-fiction (for sales purposes) when its authors were determined on its fictional status. In the same way, the publishers of '1421' must have been fully aware of the thesis' dodgy status as peer-reviewed history and should have had the decency and honesty to publish it as a hypothesis that was questionable at best and openly as pseudo-history at worst. The point is that the publishing industry, like the media in general, marketing and politics, have institutionalised fiction as fact with the effect that we no longer believe what does pass for fact any more.
Fritze is rightfully outraged by this culture of lies though it is the business side and not the writers who are really at fault here because it should know better. He fails to see that it is culturally systemic and cannot, as the good liberal often does, be laid at the door of a few individuals who push things to the limit. The writers that he castigates are merely the eccentric extreme of a culture that supplies disinformation and misinformation right from its very heart - churches, states, political parties and businesses (although it has to be said that modern business is by far the most ethical of this miserable quadrumvirate of purveyors of absurdity).
So why does this book slightly irritate? On three grounds - it patronises the public's love of sensation, it takes such a rigid position on the question of 'what is truth' that it loses the argument and it makes little attempt to understand the mechanics of these phenomena.
In particular, Fritxe, in his outrage, fails to question why disempowered people choose to lose themselves in fantasy, how it functions as a political tool and why the 'truth' as Enlightenment liberals understand it means bugger all when you are in a vulnerable dead-end job at the mercy of forces that you do not control.
His po-faced rectitude is that of intellectuals for intellectuals and this cuts little ice - especially as the academic world comes out of this story none too well. The story of how academics attempted to censor Velikovsky through some pretty foul means is an object lesson in why we should be wary of any Establishment's claims to truth.
If the public want this material and the market is willing to supply it, then the real question (unanswered by Fritze and by all the liberal tomes expressing shock and horror at irrationalism) is WHY they want it. The implicit suggestion is that the mob is stupid and ignorant and needs to be brought into the light, but the truth is that a choice of the irrational, of pseudo-history, of extremist narratives, of conspiracy and of fantasy is a very rational choice where ordinary people are not given full information.
What information they do receive is filtered, laundered, censored and manipulated by an editorial and intellectual class whose first duty is to the order created by those who pay them.
If information flows are nothing but top-down narratives in which reason has become a tool for control and only 'the best and the brightest' of the disempowered (and less and less of these since the introduction of neo-liberal economics) are let into the kraal through their mastery of these tolls, then the mass of those left behind have not merely a right to their irrationalism. They almost have a duty to considerthe fantastic as an act of resistance and insurgency to a system that has forgotten them, that uses and abuses them and then expects them to be grateful for the exploitation.
There is one other complaint. Martin Bernal's thesis of the Egyptian origins of Greek civilisation does not stand up in its radical version to reasonable peer scrutiny and it has become ridiculously politicised by some dim-witted or manipulative identity politicians but the attack here is excessive and almost, at times, silly.
Without going into the ins and outs of Fritze's argument, he is far too dismissive of Bernal's assessment (which I oversimplify) that the 'silences' in history are as important as the noise left behind by the victors. The whole notion of fact in history is not problematic because there are no facts - of course there are facts - but because not all the facts are there. They have been pre-selected.
This parallels the problem with facts in political or social life. I have written on this issue in relation to political analysis and 'conspiracy' in Lobster 50. Bernal is right to consider possibility as reasonable alongside probability where the probability has been skewed by the way that facts have been left in the record and the way that past interpretations have accumulated a sort of group-think that has permitted 'given' ways of seeing the past that may be a little more unstable than academics like Fritze think. History, in short, is not and cannot be science or be subject to pure reason.
That's enough - in case this review becomes a counter-polemic. The book is one for the library and is useful but it is, ultimately, a disappointment. ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 03, 2009
Nov 01, 2008
Nov 01, 2008
Gary Lachman has carved himself a niche as popular historian of counter-culture. In his 'Turn Off Your Mind', a critical view of Sixties counter-cultu Gary Lachman has carved himself a niche as popular historian of counter-culture. In his 'Turn Off Your Mind', a critical view of Sixties counter-culture, he was not afraid to remind us of the dark and even silly side of the Age of Aquarius. His general stance is liberal, steering a fine line between genuine sympathy for the search for meaning in the irrational and an urbane anxiety about where the irrational may lead once it leaves the commune and enters the wider culture.
In his books, Lachman has placed counter cultural thinking in a much wider historical context. We can now see it as a more normal response to the world than we have assumed. He has, with perhaps only very occasional slips into credulity, set the gold standard for sympathetic yet critical rational description of these cultures. And he has brought the conclusions of a wide range of more academic investigators and thinkers to a much wider audience.
'Politics & The Occult' looks at those who believe in 'occult' forces at work in society and who then seek to act on society in accordance with them. Lachman has decided wisely not to look into secret societies. There are many other interesting books on such societies and on the mythology of secret government. We recommend David V. Barrett's fair minded (perhaps excessively so) 'A Brief History of Secret Societies' which we reviewed in Oracle magazine earlier this year (2008).
Some very serious academic historians have been looking into the history of the occult as a cultural phenomenon in recent years, notably the incomparable Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. They have been uncovering more and more about specific groups at nodal points of history and society who have held occult views. Awareness of these movements has been limited by one great truth of history - the winners write it. The pragmatic and materialist view of history, indeed of existence as a whole, is always the winner because it works.
This is not to say that there are not major triumphs by irrationalist or half-rationalist movements - the triumph of Christianity was that of one mystery religion over many, Communism had many occult aspects in organisation and belief system despite its avowed scientific materialism. Yet most occult interventions in politics are literally against reason, attempts to mould reality through will or in accordance with some dream-state, even if it is shared by many others.
Lachman owes a big debt to other writers and acknowledges that debt throughout. He has clearly read deeply in the occultist tradition himself - whether Swedenborg, Guenon or Evola. But the total picture he gives has to be a little unsatisfactory to the reader through no fault of Lachman's. A narrative of a nation may have discontinuities (we may call them 'revolutions') but there is still a continuous recorded tale - history is 'one damn thing after another'.
With occultists there is rarely a proven connection between one set of occult interventions and another. This either looks like the same phenomenon of resistance to the prevailing current repeating itself in a parody of the 'eternal return' or history degenerates into one of those stories where every occult intervention is linked to its predecessor until the whole process becomes a conspiracy theory in which the Hidden Masters can be traced back to the dawn of time.
Lachman's book implies something different (though he does not state this) - a series of genuine occult interventions waxing and waning during key periods in history, rather marginal in most cases but occasionally, like Zelig in the Woody Allen film of that time, appearing at key points in history as more or less important bit-players.
Are there links between one intervention and another? Sometimes, sometimes not? What provides the link is not a 'Hidden Master' or a secret society but the literature that is left behind by one generation to be rediscovered and used by another. Let us take just three stories ...
* There is the Rosicrucian experience which appears to be a reformation within the Reformation. It represented an ideological faction that attempted (much like modern neo-conservatives) to bend pragmatic politicians to idealist ends. They may have persuaded the Elector of the Palatinate to undertake a pre-emptive strike against the Vatican and the Habsburgs that was doomed to fail on fundamentals.
* There is the obscure Masonic experience that was not merely linked to the Jacobite cause (this time oddly in the Catholic cause) but resulted in the association of continental Masonic activity with conspiratorial dissidence. This would lead, amongst other things, to the destruction of 'working class' hero Cagliostro and widespread fear and loathing of the Illuminati as well as the now-proven if exaggerated Masonic link to the founding of the USA.
* There is the antinomianism of the Moravian Brethren and of Swedenborg which, within the general Christian rhetoric of the day, anticipated the sexual revolution.
Yet these are all only minor parts of a much bigger story. The Rosicrucians were only an incident in the struggles between the Habsburgs and their enemies. The Jacobites were soon marginalised, most Masons were thoroughly respectable and Masonic influence was influential in the form the American Revolution took but it did not cause it. As for sexuality, matters got more rather than less repressed in the hundred and fifty years after Blake.
If we see the occult as a back drop to revolt by those excluded and passionate for change, then we see a shift somewhere between the blood-letting of the French Revolution and the pessimism about the world of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. One symbolic figure might be the socialist Alphone Louis Constant who became Eliphas Levy as he discovered magic and made his own disillusioned turn to the right.
Before this time, occultists had represented light and liberation - typical figures would be William Blake or Cagliostro who gave free health treatment to the poor. Something happened at that turn. Occultists became not merely conservative but reactionary. Jews increasingly became a problem whereas, before, they were allies in the general emancipation.
Lachman has pushed his agenda too far to ensure that he can refer to Campbell (in passing), Jung and Eliade in this context. None of these were truly occultists but Guenon's traditionalism, the Martinists and Synarchists (no, these are not a myth) and Evola are more than on the boundary of the occult. The most interesting figure - at the polar opposite of enlightened humanist reformers like the Rosicrucian Andreae - is indoubtedly Julius Evola. You can taste Lachman's grudging respect for the most intelligent and dangerous thinker of the European radical Right.
But perhaps it is not Constant-Levy but the manipulative social-psychopath Weisshaupt who is the key figure in the turn. The scare about the Illuminati, capable of over-turning all things for a dream, not only affected the dynasts of Europe but, as modernisation and industrialisation took hold, it scared the living daylights of the educated middle class. Revolt against the feudal and the clerical, the natural mode of political discourse for intelligent minor aristocrats and rising middle class intellectuals, suddenly became a defence of their status as priestly class against the collective.
Over and over again, the common denominator in occult political action is an attempted seizure of influence or power by a small group of the educated from people perceived to be less bright than they are. This is the arrogance of the frustrated middle. We have a political syndrome here. Lachman's book gives us the raw material and references for further research
Exceptions do not contradict the thrust of my argument. The harum-scarum Theosophist movement with its passionate interest in anti-imperialism and the 'progressive' counter-cultural movements of Steiner, Ouspensky and others (where basic decency overwhelmed the tight-arsed neurosis of the pessimists) took place in relatively free, open and fluid societies. The latter thinkers would make their way West as Europe closed up into various forms of authoritarianism.
Today we have two competing 'occultisms' - a liberal individualist, almost anarchist, dissent against the 'Man' (the machinery of government and commerce) and a traditionalist and anti-Western tribal approach, based on struggle, that owes a great deal not just to Evola but to Benoist and, latterly, Southgate. Both claim paganism but these two models of the political universe could not be more different. I am sorry that Lachman does not go more deeply into this.
I have only one major disagreement with Lachman's analysis. I think he has got it very wrong on where the 'next threat' comes from. He thinks that the 'occultist' Christian Right represents the greatest coming threat to civilised values. The threat may rather come from the undergrowth of Europe as the economic recession bites. It is a Continent divided within itself, caught between a friend it does not like (USA) and an enemy it needs (Russia). It contains the seeds of nationalism and regionalist revolt in every corner. Racism remains a hidden reality in most parts, certainly compared to the United Kingdom, and populism is on the rise. There is a race against time by the New Right to establish its agenda before migrants become a bloc vote.
How this will play out over the coming years is impossible to predict but it is a safe bet that, in a Europe where Berlusconi is modelling himself on Evola's 'uomo differenziato', the next 'occult' strike will be from a revived Right because only the revived Right has the appropriate cadre or elite mentality and sense of a reality greater than the one the rest of us live in. And only the Radical Right wants to insert the world of Spirit into the very heart of practical politics.
Notes are private!
Dec 27, 2008
Dec 24, 2008
Sep 21, 2004
Dec 30, 2004
A basically sound introduction to Anarchism as a political philosophy and as mode of political action but I have my criticisms.
The disappointment is A basically sound introduction to Anarchism as a political philosophy and as mode of political action but I have my criticisms.
The disappointment is that a cool analysis of an important trend in Western political philosophy is, in the end, bent to appropriate the entire anarchist tradition for a range of current social movements, some appropriately (chapter eight on social and economic protest) and some much less so (chapters nine and ten on federalist and green politics).
Yes, there is a link between the history of anarchism and, say, the green movement but there is a bit of convenient whitewashing going on here - fascistic thinking and technocratic dabbling have played as much of a role in greenery as ever did philosophies of human liberation.
At the end of the day, anarchism is an act of faith in human nature (one that is hard to square with the facts of human psychology) and a general spirit of struggle against oppresive systems - capitalist and state socialist - which is where it is most fruitful. It is also an intellectual deconstruction of great abstractions like the 'nation' although it can sometimes merely replace one set of fictions with another.
Ward's account of anarchism and its meanings is excellent until he gets closer to our own times. Perhaps Ward is just too 'engaged' in his subject. He is a 'veteran anarchist' himself so it is like asking Hobsbawm to write on the history of the Communist Party.
It seems to be a trend for publishers to accept books that are ostensibly objective but in fact are partially polemical (see our review of What Pagans Believe) in a contemporary context. Frankly, I just find it hard to trust the assessments in the final two chapters whereas I am very happy to rely wholly on the first eight.
One appreciates that this is a 'very short introduction' but Ward does a disservice to sympathetic readers in producing, towards the very end, after his considerable insights into the nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchist tradition, a rather selective account of its alleged contemporary manifestations which gently merge into what can only be described as implicit and selective policy proposals.
The sweeping aside of the American libertarian tradition in chapter seven is one concern but the adoption of federalist/regionalist and green agenda are just plain a-historical - this is a selective reading of the 'now' for subtle near-polemical ends.
To appropriate anarchism for the concept of a United States (regions) of Europe (implied through a reading of Bakunin), as such a term might now be understood, is disturbingly potty, given current realities, and to believe that anarchists were necessarily going to be into green issues - maybe Nazi Minister of Agriculture Walther Darre should have been an anarchist, huh! - is just plain daft.
Europeanism and environmentalism do have some anarchist elements but not nearly so much as Ward would like to claim - while his earlier attempt to 'diss' modern American economic libertarians as not mainstream anarchists may be true today but many an artisanal Proudhonist and nineteenth century opponent of Marx would have felt closer to them than to the interfering social movement protesters of today. This is the rejigging of ideological history on a grand scale.
We think that this implicit polemic is unhelpful - either the reader deserves a considered assessment from outside a movement or an obviously engaged history that masquerades as nothing else. The book ultimately seems intended to persuade and not to inform. However, it is well written and engaging, with material on the great names and events of anarchist history that deserves to be part of any civilised person's general knowledge.
There are fuller accounts of the history of anarchism (to be reviewed, we hope, later) and there are other more powerful intellectual investigations of what anarchism means today. This book has to be seen as a quick second division guide, a useful and slightly frustrating half-way house, well worth reading for many of the facts, a proper appreciation of the extra-European dimension to anarchism and for some sensible particular judgements and insights into contemporary alternative modes of thinking but it is not to be placed in the first rank by any means.
Notes are private!
Sep 21, 2008
May 01, 1994
A minor academic work by Berlin but an interesting account of an 'irrationalist' whose ideas should not entirely be discounted and who offers an imper A minor academic work by Berlin but an interesting account of an 'irrationalist' whose ideas should not entirely be discounted and who offers an imperfect but necessary critique of the enthusiasms of the Enlightenment. ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 07, 2008
Jan 01, 2004
May 01, 2004
A useful addition to the intellectual history bookshelf. Sedgwick explores the highways and by-ways of that mode of thinking which brings perennialism A useful addition to the intellectual history bookshelf. Sedgwick explores the highways and by-ways of that mode of thinking which brings perennialism, initiation into a tradition and anti-modernism together to make a potent brew that has had effects on areas as diverse as the academic study of religion (Eliade), Western engagement with Islam (Guenon), Italian right wing terrorism (Evola) , Iranian Islamic thought (Nasr) and Russian politics (Dugin and the National Bolsheviks) amongst many other zones of intellectual endeavour.
This is, in fact, fairly marginal stuff - traditionalism has no real role in Political Islam, which largely derives from indigenous rather than Western sources, and most of the political and intellectual directions it took ended up in dead ends or manipulated by third parties for more material ends. The dabblings of some with the SS, the Iron Guard and Italian Fascism also indicate an inherent naivete about the ways of the world.
Too many of the movement's gurus end up behaving like sad old gits looking to justify a tormented sexuality or living in poverty for their ideas, half saint, half mad, all holy fool. Perhaps only the French thinker Henri Hartung was able to use it as constructive critique intended to bring balance to the modern world without the intrinsic hysteria of most, though not all, other such thinkers.
But this is a valuable monograph that adds important detail (though not quite the analysis of its importance or lack of it that I would have liked) to little known aspects of Western, Orthodox and Islamic cultural and religious history. Nevertheless, the book does require that you are already moderately well educated in both esoteric and mainstream intellectual history. ...more
Notes are private!
May 09, 2008
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