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What Is Wrong With Us?


All around we see an incredible amount of anger at the defining institutions of society, particularly government and corporations.

One might expect so much dissident anger to produce a tremendous opportunity for activists with carefully developed analyses and commitments. One might expect long time left activists and newcomers too to unleash tremendous energy aimed at developing lasting mechanisms for change.

And indeed, we have seen some of that. Syriza’s rise in Greece and that of Podemos and Die Linke in Spain and Germany and most recently the French uprisings, the Corbyn and Sanders trends in the UK and the U.S., resistance in Chile and Turkey, and turmoil in many other parts of the world have pledged themselves to last. So too have the Occupy uprisings, and, more specific to the U.S., the Black Lives Matters uprisings. But mutual aid among all these phenomena and more are sparse and the pledge to last too often turns out to be just a pledge.

Are we working sufficiently to help the rising resistance solidify into lasting, effective, left progress? My guess is many would say they are doing just that, and certainly some are. But is it enough? And what form does it take?

Sadly, the more experience we radical leftists have, the less energy we seem to be feeling, and the less our focus seems to be on doing what is most needed not merely to pursue very particular local agendas, but to create lasting mechanisms for change beyond local issues. Instead of addressing what is needed now, when we muster energy to engage at all, too often we seem to be saying the same old things about capitalism, racism, and so on, but little that aids innovative possibilities.

We warn that elections typically soak up too much time and resources. We then write effusively about elections often emphasizing what our readers already know from countless other sources. Do we write enough write about what is different and hopeful? Do we write too much about how horrible so and so candidate is – or even, and this is worse – how horrible so and so’s voters are. How often do we repeat how horrible such and such a party is, but without teaching anyone who is reading us anything new?

Sanders you should do this, Sanders you should do that, say people who  often have little or even no idea what circumstances and means Sanders has available. Far less often do people say, here is what I will do that is different, and here is how I hope it will help. Which long-time left activists acknowledge the obvious – that we haven’t accomplished remotely what Sanders has regarding raising consciousness and awareness and values and feelings – even as we call for the importance of doing just that.

The point is, the ease with which we on the left who have not built the kind of lasting organizations and structures that would, if they existed, be able to help the Sanders outpouring (and other upsurges) develop in lasting, sustainable, directions, blame him, them, or broader social relations…for the Sanders outpouring not doing so, which outcome we simply take as inevitable. But Sanders is just who he is. He is doing way more than any of us could have imagined him doing. Likewise, social relations are what they are. They obstruct any positive developments and there is nothing new in noting that. The more relevant fixable shortcoming seems to me to be, us. Organized, aware, experienced leftists haven’t been ready to advance current potentials.

Here is a personal example from just moments ago that I think bears on the problem noted. The example doesn’t point to Sanders, the police, mainstream media, or corporations – but to us as a possible site of shortcomings. Of course there are many other critically important factors we could point to as well, but let’s consider this one.

I work at Z Magazine, ZNet, and ZCommunications, plus diverse related endeavors that change over time, like the summer school we did for many years, or an online school, or trying to create new tools for social media, and many other efforts. I have done these things, with Lydia Sargent and Eric Sargent, for 30 years, and before that for 10 years our focus was South End Press. And here is an email I just got – and it is quite typical and really just an instance of an endless stream of similar communications that occur all around the left, and of an even larger reservoir of such views that are never put on paper, but flourish nonetheless.

Here, then, is the whole of a letter I received:

Why don’t you make your zmag articles public? How can you expect social change if you don’t make your info accessible for the general public? I mean, if your goal is to help the poor, why do you make it hard for them to read your stuff? I used to be a fan, but no more. You people have become part of the problem.

I think this letter manifests two of the many problems that plague us and particularly our prospects for working effectively together in sustained ways, and that, luckily, are entirely within our power to relatively quickly rectify.

First, setting aside the actual details, the critic reflexively dismisses people he should consider allies without thought or evidence. Second, and now accounting for the details, the critic reveals a more recent component of left difficulties, which is the notion that there is no pressing need to actually support left communications and even that doing so or seeking such, is retrograde.

Here is the reply I sent to the critic – with minor clarifications for this article.

Basically you are asking, why can’t we work, full time, for nothing at all. Do you really not know why? Before concluding that we are part of the problem – presumably meaning that we don’t really care about getting out information, we just want to aggrandize ourselves – did you think to yourself, wait, why is this the situation?

We at Z have tried over and over to actually solve financial problems of the left – proposing and even undertaking various projects designed to get fellow leftists to each recognize everyone’s situation and collectively address it. We have done that at great cost to our own efforts. Virtually no one responds. Virtually no other operation tries anything but saving themselves either with ads or with big donors or by their staffs working for nothing – all three of which are real problems when writ large.

All that said, the only thing people interested in our content have to pay for is recent Z Magazine content. And if you wait a little, that too becomes free. Donate monthly, a low amount, and it is available free immediately.

At any given moment roughly 99.99% of our content is immediately free, and you can get the rest too with no delay if you plunk down a periodic small donation…but you think all information ought to be entirely immediately free.

So, ask yourself this – if you think that the small part of our operation that is not immediately accessible other than to donors needs to be immediately accessible to everyone – do you donate to help make that possible? I do. I donate my life, my work time, and what would be my income if I chose to work in any other place.

And yet you say, we are part of the problem. I think you ought to reconsider that, not with a reflex reaction that parrots some silly things that various people now seem to routinely argue, but by actually trying to make a case for your views, with some evidence.

He replied. And here is the whole of it.

Uh, no. I don’t think those with money will stop buying your mag, if you let poor people have free access to your articles.

“Basically you are asking, why can’t we work, full time, for nothing at all.”

Now you sound like a typical right winger. If you want to make moola, go into banking or sell crack. If people want the tangible magazine, they can buy it still. It’s a shame that you see social justice as a business opportunity to make a quick buck. Like I said, you are now part of the problem.

I have a kind of obsession. I feel that when I get email it is my responsibility to reply, and so I virtually always do. And I also think I ought to not just be paternalistic and say, sure, you are right, of course, and have a nice day, or thanks for your comments we will study them later, but to offer what I actually think. And since I think a great many people have views close to those the emailer enunciated, I add here, my follow up reply:

You don’t have any real idea, do you, of our choices – and yet you leap to say we are part of the problem.

Since the magazine is just a fraction of the content we provide – there is the minor problem of paying not only for it, but for the site. And since sites make it easy for people to think they are getting good information for nothing (or more accurately for enduring ads and having their lives bought and sold which few, even on the left, seem to consider a problem) people begin to cancel their subs so that keeping the print alive for those who want it also requires funds beyond what those who want the magazine will pay for it. So there is the difficulty of getting funds for the site and also for the print magazine. And we have tried permutation after permutation of ways to do it – other than taking ads…that is.

Here is a point you might wish to ponder.

You are telling folks who have given their lives to left activism and information dispersal that they are part of the problem, and you make that incredible leap without asking a single question, without the slightest serious investigation, and despite knowing virtually nothing at all about their actual situation. Doesn’t that give you pause?

Doesn’t it give you pause that these people you now call part of the problem built South End Press, first, working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for years, for room and board, all living and working in the same place to make that even doable? People who could easily have earned a great many times more, working far fewer hours?

Of course we have tried every imaginable combination of providing free materials and materials for payment to find a mix that can work and keep limitations minimal.

It is sad that someone who is apparently left in values and thoughts, at least to some degree, comes up with what you seem to be saying here.

I wonder, as well, why you think it is okay to charge for a print magazine. Is it because of the cost of the paper? The delivery? Do you think, however, that the work should be done with no income? Online material has different component costs, bandwidth, programming, etc., but also labor. Perhaps you think leftists don’t need to eat.

Suppose you have a job and get income. You work, let’s say, a forty hour week. You think it would be far more socially valuable for you to do left media, or organizing, or whatever. So you quit the job you have, or could have, perhaps it was really high paying, or perhaps really interesting and suited to you, and you begin to work full time at the socially valuable pursuit instead.

Should you do that, without income, until you expire, after not very long, assuming you don’t have some independent support? Did you make that choice? If you didn’t, why not?

Activists and media workers too often make essentially that choice about our part time efforts, or we accept modest income from full time left pursuits, and as we age even opt for social security and no income – but honestly, none of this is something for any activist to brag about or even just think desirable or admirable. Left activists should instead have a good solid income to live on. Left activity should not have to be a sideline pursuit even for a young person just entering, and certainly not for people with families. That left work can’t provide good incomes is a horribly harmful failing, not a virtue. And that there are people on the left who think otherwise is pretty incredible.

I think the above exchange displays some factors bearing on issues entirely within our means to alter that I think severely diminish our prospects of generating sustainable left structure and organization and even activist movement.

1. An utter disdain for the actual conditions of work of people on the left from, yes, other people on the left.

2. A more specific belief that left communications need not be supported, and even should not be supported because information should be free.

Apparently, we should all use Twitter and Facebook only, relying on or even celebrating massive multinationals who are taking over communications in ways debilitating not only to substance but even to our attention spans and of course vastly expanding surveillance – while independent media operations beyond those venues dwindle and disappear. We should all watch substance unravel into minuscule messages swamped by tsunamis of noise and overseen by gigantic centers of power.

So, is there a connection between the attitudes fueling the email I received on the one hand, and the problem of left insularity and incapacity to become more diverse, collective, and solidarity on the other? Does our style of engagement with others contribute to the left’s inattention to developing sustainable effective mechanisms for large scale lasting change?

You tell me.

5 Comments

  1. Tomislav B May 19, 2016 8:20 pm 

    I’ll tell you.

    The demand for instantly free articles seems to be the same type of demand that

    Žižek rejects from what he calls “left-liberals” who call for “open borders” of

    Europe:

    “The greatest hypocrites are those who call for open borders. They know very

    well this will never happen: it would instantly trigger a populist revolt in

    Europe. They play the beautiful soul, superior to the corrupted world while

    continuing to get along in it.”(1)

    This cynicism from the critic comes from the cognitive dissonance enabled by

    extensive access to knowledge in the world, but unable to affect their every day life

    in a way that counters the crushing pressures of neoliberal thanaticism(2). (You

    argue of course, that it is possible to “quickly rectify” this.) The criticism’s

    moral basis requires that blame be put on some body or bodies after which the

    critic can absolve their own complicitness or “getting along with it” in their

    context in the world. This cognitive dissonance is in part possible via the

    conditions enforced by the dual nature of abstract labour: [self-/collective-

    determined] concrete doing vs. [compulsory work] of abstract labour. The

    compulsory work of abstract labour forces us to wear a “character mask” which

    allows us to submit ourselves to the forces of compulsory work which we depend on

    not to exist (existing just happens) but to survive and sustain ourselves within

    capitalist social relations. This character mask, identity, or image that we are

    forced to create and fit into in order to ensure the flow of capital in our

    “actual working conditions” damages the excesses (from a standpoint of capital)

    of being human. Holloway calls this over-flowing of humanness a shadowy figure,

    or la mulier abscondita.(3) Being damaged by the compulsory social relations of

    capital, he says, there is no beautiful soul or pure human underneath once liberated from the character mask.
    A combination of this damage through compulsory labour and moral basis of

    critique looks for character masks to blame instead of nurturing some sort of

    genuine relationship with los muliers absconditas in each other. This can be

    observed frequently: Some figures are removed from power as a result of crisis

    and systemically things continue as they were with slightly different details

    and new figures or identities. Žižek argues elsewhere that its not some inherent

    human flaw like greed that corrupts individuals in some universal psychological

    sense, but that those individuals, in order to survive in their neoliberal

    oriented context, must adopt these illicit behaviors precisely to keep their

    position within the thanaticist/capitalist conext or be systemically

    ostracized.(4) This ostracization, or separation from capito-thanaticist social

    relations, in a way, seems to be exactly what we want: a disentanglement from

    acceleration and subsumation of self and collective determination to compulsory

    work. Though when I look in this direction, it seems like an insurmountable

    void(5), that in a sense would be destructive: If I don’t sacrifice much of my

    concrete doing to socially counterproductive abstract labour, I can’t afford to

    pay rent and lack a substantive support network to provide housing if I don’t

    work. If I can’t pay for rent, I can’t also pay student loan payments to state

    and federal lenders which monthly amounts to a greater sum than my rent; and I’m

    fortunate to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment to myself. If I can’t pay

    my debt, I default, and creditors start looking to retrieve the money elsewhere.

    Since family members who effectively believed in the “American Dream” co-signed

    on my debt, they risk losing their only source of income-social security-and

    their property if I am unable to pay, essentially destroying their lives, which

    is a conclusion I seek to avoid. So I keep working, and keep propping up the

    very compulsory capito-thanaticist social relations I abhor.

    Why the lack of support? Why is every body stuck and prone to adopt this

    debilitating cynicism?

    It seems to me that this is an active transgeneration project to undermine

    empathy and solidarity. Franco Berardi sees this as a shift from primarily

    conjunctive concatenation in social relationships to connective concatenation of

    interactions in social relationships. (6)(7) The difference between the two is

    an intimate affective disconnect facilitated the increasing use of isolating-

    by-design technologies which substitutes in-person interaction (with all of its

    human and non-linguistic subtleties) with the instant and immediately

    dicipherable coded language of status updates or text messages.(8) “Social

    solidarity is not an ethical or ideological value: it depends on the

    continuousness of the relation between individuals in time and in space.”(9)

    Somewhere where I can’t recall, Berardi says the project of developing

    connective concatenation is a direct response to solidarity and social

    organizing in the mid to later 20th century (conjunctive concatenation).

    Some thing else at play here is a sort of deception which contributes to the

    cynicism. The small city where I live is in the middle of speculative economic

    bubble under the influence of the “creative class” ideology thoroughly

    formulated by Richard Florida as an economic driver in the world of

    financialization and disposession by accumulation. This period of economic

    growth and ‘urban revitalization’ has the support of a young, predominantly

    white middle class looking to ‘cash in’ on recent trends like the “sharing

    economy”, biotechnical higher education and pharmacudical companies, “start-up”

    technologies, public-private partnerships (regional technology councils &

    partnerships between higher education and corporations) and increasing

    privatization of public services (schools and land for instance). There is a ton

    of sociological research done on these developments in places like Milwaulkee,

    Oakland, Lausanne, Hamburg, Berlin, etc that probably isn’t neccesary to go into

    here. In short: Gentrifying, business-oriented organizations in the guise of

    democratic community groups work to enact american libertarian, neoliberal

    business friendly policy through people who appeal to democracy-minded young individuals. Even though there are so many studies which point to

    the failed outcomes of such policies, these efforts are wholly supported by the

    local business groups, realtors, developers, and

    artists/”creatives”/”bohemians”. Where I live, we just witnessed the business

    community hand select a candidate (several “Independent” candidates who may as

    well be Republicans or Libertarians actually) for city government who as a

    business owner and developer, has propelled themselves into office on the backs

    of artists and other people. Any discussion of these trajectories, even from

    supposed artists and locals who consider themselves “liberals” gets a response

    such as, “Just get on with it.” [Support these popular thinly veiled pro-

    business candidates.] (10) My point is here that this kind of neoliberal posing

    as pro-community without asking which community can leave some of us wanting

    some genuine solidarity jaded.

    So, I’ll tell you.

    You’re right to say this attitude is destructive to collective sensibility. I have seen myself take on this kind of cynical attitude, even while desiring

    some kind of more substantial and meaningful existence, but only surrounded with

    a couple of people in my immediate community with whom I can engage in this

    discussion. (I’m in my late 20s by the way.) We need to re-learn how to connect with people in a way that’s not

    just a monetary transaction within and without the left, whatever amorphous

    social body that may be. How to engage with people with the anger diverted into some kind of constructive energy rather than divisive egotism and remain vigilant about that diversion? What is affective? What is effective? How do others deal with these issues psychologically; individually and collectively?

    (1)http://www.lrb.co.uk/2015/09/09/slavoj-zizek/the-non-existence-of-norway/

    (2)http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/birth-of-thanaticism/

    (3)https://libcom.org/library/crack-capitalism-john-holloway/

    (4)https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/297762/against-the-double-blackmail/

    (5)For an equivalent sense of void within the heteronormative monogamous couple

    form, see Hannah Black, with “The Loves of Others” in The New Inquiry:

    http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-loves-of-others/

    “The couple represents an unforgivable privatization of love, but refusing it

    doesn’t necessarily make love any more freely available. Despite the efforts of

    radical groups and the bravery of marginalized communities, it mostly remains

    the case that in turning away from the couple-form of love, we are turning

    toward nothing.”

    (6)http://semiotexte.com/?p=1615

    (7)http://criticallegalthinking.com/2012/09/26/interview-with-bifo-

    reactivating-the-social-body-in-insurrectionary-times/

    Berardi: “We have lost the pleasure of being together. Thirty years of

    precariouisness and competition have destroyed social solidarity. Media

    virtualization has destroyed empathy among bodies, the pleasure of touching each

    other, and the pleasure of living in urban spaces. We have lost the pleasure of

    love, because too much time is devoted to work and vitual exchange.”

    (8)https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-exploit

    (9)http://semiotexte.com/?page_id=1152

    (10)http://www.artslant.com/9/articles/show/38542

    “Political intervention of any form, from public exhibitions and community

    events to occupying a building, seems to be embraced by city politicians as a

    form of subcultural ambience. From Hamburg’s Park Fiction to Berlin’s

    Oranienplatz refugee protest camp, when projects possessing high levels of

    public visibility and implied or overt critique are actively endorsed by local

    authorities, are the real issues at stake being addressed?”

  2. avatar
    Matt Grind May 19, 2016 4:18 pm 

    Hi Michael,

    I just want to say thank you for all your efforts over the years. You and Lydia and all the people at Z have done great work for many years that has been invaluable to many. I’m sorry you get emails full of such idiocy.

    I wish I could articulate a good set of reasons why movement building is so hard, and why well meaning left people tend to constantly fight each other to horrible outcomes. I also wish I knew how to avoid such infighting, and how to build a movement easily. Alas, I don’t know.

  3. avatar
    Ed Lytwak May 17, 2016 4:10 pm 

    IMO, it’s a question of what is the primary driver of transformative societal change, politics or culture? I’m using “culture” here in the ecological sense of the unique way that a particular society makes a living, i.e. provides for subsistence and reproduction of itself. For me, it is culture that is the primary driver of change and politics is a secondary driver, often merely a reflection of societal change. Politics, at least over the last 5,000 years where hierarchical/patriarchal institutions and structures have dominated, has been largely a means of preventing or slowing cultural change and maintaining the status quo. This has led to a situation where many people are apolitical to a lesser or mostly greater degree. Many people intuitively see politics in opposition to culture, i.e. making a living. They understand that politics serves the interests of those who exploit society for their own personal benefit They understand, even if subconsciously, that politics is a hindrance to making a living, and exists largely to maintain a system where the work and benefits of that work are not shared equally. Thus, people who devote their lives to politics, even when their intentions are good and causes just, are often seen as part of the problem not the solution.

    • avatar
      Paul D May 19, 2016 1:36 am 

      So, for you, the overarching capitalist economic system – or “culture” as you would call it has nothing to do with work and the benefits of work not being shared equally?

      Curious, are you at least casually familiar with Marx’s “Capital”?

      • avatar
        Ed Lytwak May 19, 2016 2:09 pm 

        FYI, I’m very familiar with and supportive of Marxism, although in a John Holloway, horizontal kind of way. Of course capitalism, has everything to do with work and inequality. The hierarchical organization of society – political and economic – is the dominant mode of work and root cause of inequality. What I’m talking about is the economic activity that occurs in the cracks of capitalism, the counter culture economy. Small in scale, economic hybrids, such as worker cooperatives that are quietly and steadily building real economic alternatives to capitalism. The way I see it, the political options of the Left and most people for that matter are greatly limited by their colonial dependence on the dominant capitalist system for the means of subsistence and reproduction of society. Until there are viable economic alternatives, most people are tragically tied to piecemeal reforms of capitalism. I see changing the dominant economic system from the top down through revolutionary action as a flawed model, that has never been successful on a large-scale. For me, cultural revolution is about changing the economy from the bottom up, with the change of political institutions following once some degree of economic independence – self-sufficiency and resilience – is established primarily through cultural rather than political action.

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