Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sublimated rage, or Notes on fighting, and the possible

I'm seething. I'm feeling rage. We've forgotten too much. We're doomed. Fucked. We don't know who our friends are. We don't know who are enemies are. We flail against an unjust system and a brutal state. We choose to allow attacks on ACORN, one of the few groups actually remotely effective at mitigating the damage, at working for solutions. (An angry submission: FOX News should have its broadcast license revoked. Should long since have. But liberals are overly obsessed with the sanctity of the First Amendment; such a thing is therefore unthinkable.)

In my post last Fall about the then-upcoming Presidential election, I wrote that I had been persuaded by Steven Shaviro's argument to vote for Barack Obama, though I knew very well that he did not and would not come close to representing anything positive that I believe in. I sort of went on at length in that earlier post, but in a nutshell, I voted for Obama in solidarity with African Americans. (Even in the booth, though, I hesitated--would I vote for Nader again? But even Nader, I felt, as much as I would have preferred him, and knew his criticisms of Obama were largely on point, even he barks up the wrong tree--seems to miss the bigger picture.) What to do? I don't know. I don't know. (An angry aside: just as Clinton and Kerry refused to stand up and defend the only good things they were ever associated with--Clinton's protesting against the Vietnam War; Kerry's role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War--and allowed those efforts to be diminished, distancing themselves from their youthful selves, watch how Obama allows ACORN to be smeared, and says nothing, does nothing. Shameful. You might say Obama has bigger things to worry about. No doubt. Still it speaks volumes.)

There was another part of Shaviro's post that I'd thought to include in the passage I excerpted, but decided against for a variety of reasons. Here it is:
There is an essential moral difference between Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin; just as (in a comparison that Zizek, to his credit, does not shy from), there was an essential moral difference between Stalin and Hitler. Zizek condemns the currently fashionable habit of lumping Stalin and Hitler together as totalitarian dictators. The difference, as in the Presidential race today, has to do with hypocrisy. Stalin professed support for human rights like free speech, for self-determination, for peace, and for harmony and equality among individuals and peoples regardless of race, ethnicity, etc.; all these principles are enshrined in the Soviet Constitution of the 1930s. Of course, in fact Stalin was a megalomaniacal tyrant who ruled arbitrarily, violated all of these ideals, and put millions of people to death; but Zizek is entirely right to suggest that such hypocrisy is morally superior, and far to be preferred, to Hitler’s overtly racist and anti-democratic ideology — which he unhypocritically put into practice. It’s for this reason that American Communists of the 1930s-1950s (observers of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath from afar, just as Kant was an observer of the French Revolution from afar) are far more honorable and decent (for all their ludicrous idolization of Stalin and sleazy maneuvers against other factions on the left) than the anti-Communists of the same period.
Shaviro in this paragraph is referring, of course, to Žižek's 2005 essay, "The Two Totalitarianisms", one of the few Žižek pieces I've actually read. And, in fact, the overall post itself is an elaboration of an argument made by Žižek elsewhere, and clarified by Jodi Dean. This was one reason I didn't include this passage: I was persuaded by Shaviro's version of the argument, and didn't want to bring Žižek in, muddying things up. The paragraph as a whole has many distractions from the main point I wanted to make, but I include the whole thing here to give the context for the bit I want to address.

The final sentence of the paragraph can be re-configured, removing parentheticals and introductory context, as "American Communists of the 1930s-1950s are far more honorable and decent than the anti-Communists of the same period", and it is this obviously correct notion that I want to talk about.

The sentence reminds me of a monologue we attended a couple of years back (in those dark, pre-Existence Machine days) by Josh Kornbluth. I remember I attended this performance somewhat reluctantly and later was delighted I'd gone. The monologue was titled Citizen Josh and purported to be notes towards fulfilling the final requirement, 25 years late, for Kornbluth's undergraduate degree. It was more like a rough draft, and I believe it's since been converted into a show with actual set design and so forth (see a description of the show here, with links to some audio excerpts). In short, I found Kornbluth inspiring. I use that word occasionally around here: inspiring. Why? I've tended to be inspired by those things that suggest the possible, in a world in which the possible has been apparently foreclosed, whether it's moments from the past, cultural artifacts, whatever. When community has happened. Where and when democracy, communism, anarchism (which all amount to the same thing, finally) has been in action. Where people do what needs to be done. Kornbluth grew up in an actively leftwing family, a communist family. His people did things.

In his talk, Kornbluth was often moving and very funny. He spoke about action--how does one act? How does it happen? Where does it come from? He quoted Hannah Arendt, who called action a miracle. And he said some things that are echoed in Shaviro's lines above. He noted that it is true that the American Communists, like other Communist Parties around the world, received funding from the Soviet Union. It is true that, on some matters, they received orders. It is true that their faith in the Soviet Union was tragically misplaced. But, most importantly, it is abundantly true that these people changed things for the better. Perhaps you've seen the bumper sticker that reads something like this: "The Labor Movement--The People Who Brought You the Weekend". The point is that such things like the weekend, which we now take for granted, people fought for. In fact, they fought for far more--the 8-hour day, the weekend, these were merely compromises, agreements. Further battles were lost--indeed, further victories were foreclosed, in part due to the efforts of a co-opted labor leadership, in part due to the onset of neoliberalism, which has been a reinvigoration of the class war, 35 years of roll backs.

But the point is that people fought for these things, and those people were working people, and they were often, if not usually, communists or anarchists. They fought the good fight--and they were hounded by the forces of reaction, blacklisted, slandered, slighted, marginalized, impoverished, often killed. Their memory deserves better than to let everything they fought for vanish into thin air.

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