Tag Archives: Marxism

Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context


1) Given that it has been a central concern of the left for three centuries, it should surprise no one that a letter supporting free speech rights was signed by leftists. It should also surprise no one that various neoliberal ghouls whose demonstrated contempt for free speech is exceeded only by their capacity for hypocrisy also signed it.

2) One might think that the overwhelming response by the left would be to expose the latter, citing their cynical and opportunistic brandishing of a right to free speech they routinely deny to others.

3) Alas, what has occupied many of us has been something entirely different albeit familiar, namely issuing a constant stream of denunciations of those on the left who signed. Most of these targeted Chomsky, probably the most high profile signatory but also the most predictable with a sixty year record of signing similar appeals.

Continue reading Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context

The Idiot Left Speaks


A Facebook comment by a well known radical journalist denigrates Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges for not being real leftists.

Why?

Because they “don’t want a violent revolution.”

“Real leftists” according to him, “want a violent revolution.”

It needs to be understood that his position goes well beyond the longstanding Marxist assumption of violent revolution as inevitable. Those who have accumulated wealth and privilege, so the story goes, will necessarily deploy violence to defend it and the working class should prepare itself to respond in kind.

While it might be a mistake, regarding violent revolution as a regrettable necessity is rational.

Wanting one, as the leftist in question does, is the opposite of rational.

It is insane.

To see why, it is worth itemizing what he can expect if his wish is fulfilled, which includes some if not all of the following:

**Witnessing your sister or daughter sodomized with rifle butts.

**Being chained to a wall while having electric cattle prods attached to your genitals.

**Subsisting on a diet of whatever rotting vegetables, raw oatmeal and canned food you managed to hoard during a famine precipitated by the breakdown of the food production and transportation systems.

**Not knowing for months or even years the whereabouts of friends and family only to discover that they were summarily executed by an informal revolutionary tribunal.

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Recognizing that this is what a real -as opposed to fantasy-violent revolution entails raises a question: what term should we apply to those who want these and other atrocities to materialize?

Before answering it, it’s worth mentioning that this comment occurred within a thread bemoaning Amy Goodman’s failure to book the leftist in question to promote his new book on Democracy Now.

This points to an underlying “materialist” explanation (as the Marxists put it) for this kind of high dudgeon rhetoric.

It is a category mistake to understand it as in any way political.  Rather, it is  commercial-nothing more or less than a sales pitch to differentiate this leftist’s “brand” from the competition, i.e. other left media “product” available to us “consumers.(1)

It designed not to convince, but simply to move units among his target demographic.

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And with that in mind, it is pretty easy to answer the question posed above. A one word description for this and other leftists in this line of work is not one they will want to hear but it is the fact of the matter. The word is capitalist.

The term idiot suggested in the title turns out not to be applicable to them since they know exactly what they’re doing.

It applies more to their followers who imagine that by feverishly clicking their assent and maniacally forwarding their rants to their network of followers they are doing anything other than helping to destroy the left.

(1) See here for some reflections on the ambiguities confronting left journalists in connection with the work of iconic left journalist Alexander Cockburn.

Updated 11/9: Minor editorial alterations for clarity.

Ugly is as Ugly Does

image of eric alterman

A recent Facebook exchange brought to mind what always struck me as a significant etymological fact having to do with the German word for ugly.

That word is “hässlich,” an adjective derived from the verb “hasse” which is literally translated as to hate.

When we derive adjectives, an ambiguity is sometimes created in that the characteristics of the adjective can be projected onto either the implied subject or the object of the verb. This is apparent, for example, in the English adjectives “tolerant” and “tolerable.” The former designates an individual who is able to tolerate other individuals or situations while the latter refers to a person or thing able to be tolerated.In the case of hässlich, the adjective is generally understood as referring to the object, namely, a hated person or thing, more or less equivalent to the English word “hateful.”

But also possible is a translation of the adjective which attributes hateable characteristics to the subject. Those who reflexively hate are, by this definition, ugly. All this is directly relevant to a comment on my previous posting which weighed in in support of Eric Alterman’s despicable albeit impressively honest admission that he’s “totally cool with . . Trump voters los(ing) their health insurance, their clean air and water . . . Fuck their economic insecurity.”  Asserting her belief that “Eric is right” the commenter went on to note that we “couldn’t pay (her) enough to be concerned about their well being.”

That the commenter was a self-described revolutionary Marxist was one more data point supporting the conclusion that while professing much mutual contempt for each other, the neoliberal and radical left share common ground, among other things, in their contempt for those who voted for Donald Trump.

Another point of comparison has to do with affective style as much as substance. So suffused with hatred is this combined leftist element that they couldn’t stifle their id for a brief moment-parading the ugliness of their views for all to see. These were made more pronounced by the season when even the least charitable are expected to at least give lip service to the gospel sentiment of “peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

While they are, of course, the last to recognize their own ugliness, anyone who has experienced their outbursts has a good visceral sense of it.

And those tendencies, I submit, have a lot to do with why we lose.

But ugliness in the sense in which it seems applicable here is, fortunately, not an inherent characteristic which we are powerless to fight against.

Rather it is a common behavior which we have the collective ability to control.Doing so would go a long way towards building the foundation on which we will need to wake up from the perpetual nightmare we will be living through for the foreseeable future.

On Jazz Music, Jazz Politics and “Failed Ideas”

New Music Box, the house organ of the composers advocacy organization New Music USA has issued a two part request: that I respond to a posting attacking my article Jazz after Politics, and that I do so on their site, “subject to . . .  editorial review”.

As for the former, as it is mostly composed of trivial misrepresentations which I have dealt with previously, what I have to say about it I will deliver more or less in passing.  What is worth discussing is the latter: why it would be impossible to convey my reaction under New Music Box editorial auspices. The reason is that doing so requires broaching the main subject which I have been writing about over the past few years, namely, the relationship of the high arts to traditional elites of the past and present. Given that the organization has declared what I and others have to say on this matter essentially off limits, as I will observe in the following, it will be necessary to convey the substance of my position on this matter and on others relating to it elsewhere.

That NMB has imposed and maintains a de facto ban on these subjects may have passed unnoticed by most of its readers, though those who read it carefully will have recognized that something of the sort might be the case.  More conclusive is behind the scenes evidence provided by two episodes from my own experience with them.(1)  The first concerns their having commissioned me to write on composers’ reaction to the Occupy movement which was then attracting considerable attention.  The piece I submitted was initially enthusiastically received by the editors.  However, when it was forwarded it to higher-ups for approval, a problem was detected in that it “named names” of certain dubious financeers who are also funders of new music. Mentioning this rogues’ gallery would, according to them, draw an unfavorable response from their board possibly having financial consequences for their organization.  And so they rejected a piece they both commissioned and approved-or to be more precise, they censored it.

A second piece submitted to them on the subject of the historical relationship between composers and socialist politics was also initially favorably received, albeit in draft form. Unfortunately, the edited version they returned to me eliminated entirely the introduction where the subject of composers’ current relationship to the plutocracy was connected to prior epochs.  The result of this cut and others was logical and rhetorical hash which failed to convey what had been the article’s main point, so I decided to publish it elsewhere.

***

While it might initially seem otherwise, I should stress that I am not mentioning these facts to criticize either New Music Box, its parent organization New Music USA, or to criticize them for running this article.

We all make various compromises to manage within the brutal economic realities which capitalism in its late, neoliberal form imposes all of us in the 99%, including artists and arts organizations. When it comes to composers, it has always been the expectation that we keep our opinions to ourselves about the hands which are feeding us and to stifle our inclination (insofar as we have one) to bite them.  In the current climate, what is required goes beyond this traditional arrangement in that what is increasingly expected by elites in exchange for their largesse is not only the suppression of ideas they find unpalatable but actual cheerleading.

That is the context in which the following assertion from the article, which claims to be a defense of jazz against what it sees as my attacks (2), is to be understood.

“It’s The Man who preserves failed ideas—like Marxism.”

While I was initially annoyed by this, in retrospect I’m grateful that the sentence, tying together de rigeur bashing of academics with no nothingist red baiting, appeared.  For if nothing else, it removes any doubts that a hipster variant of rightwing ideology has penetrated into new music circles.

It also serves a nearly perfect illustration of two of the major points of the piece.  The first of these is that jazz has long since lost any connection with a past in which it was taken, at least by the left, to serve as a vehicle for radical, or at least minlmally progressive sentiments.  Long gone are figures such as Max Roach, the “Marxist Mozart” Teddy Wilson or Fred Ho who would have quickly dismissed the description of Marxism as a failed idea.  Now, whatever its purely formal musical virtues, and I heartily agree that these are substantial, jazz has become politically neutered and arguably reactionary, a development the author seems to approve of. (3)

What is likely behind the shift to the right is a second point discussed in the piece, namely, the substantial corporate funding jazz institutions have received over the past decades. A primary objective of this support is that just mentioned: to co-opt potentially dissident voices who might use their reputations to challenge the domination of the 1%.  It has been known for years that making artists aware of who pulls the strings is a guarantee that they will be less likely to exercise their independence, so this tactic should by now be familiar.

Another tactic, however, is more subtle and more insidious:  by supporting an art form deeply rooted in the historical sufferings and struggles of African Americans, elites masquerade as allies, or at least sympathetic.  The reality, as documented by historians Gerald Horne and Edward Baptist, among others, has always been exactly the opposite: economic elites were the predominant beneficiaries of the slave economy, of the Jim Crow policies which followed and, most recently, by the waves of offshoring, deindustrialization and wage stagnation by which African Americans have been among the hardest hit.

As I noted, waving the flag for jazz does effectively nothing for the five centuries of victims of the past or those of the present.  That we as musicians think otherwise is understandable though, of course, delusional on our parts. On the part of elites, however, it is not a delusion at all, but much worse: it is part of a cynical game by which they exempt themselves from legitimate demands that they return some reasonable fraction of the wealth they have accumulated on the backs (disproportionately African) of those who have produced it.  What they offer as compensation is patronage for a tiny percentage of those involved in the creative arts judged as “worthy”.  That this is a distraction from the unpleasant reality is among the core “failed ideas” that can’t be mentioned in New Music Box, except as a smear.

***

It is, of course, well known that the establishment media functions as a megaphone for the elites agenda while limiting access to those attempting to challenge it. While it does consistently excellent work, like many other mainstream outlets, New Music Box is ultimately part of this establishment.

Given this fact, I hope that New Music Box has convinced its board that composers and jazz musicians’ flirtation with radical, anti-capitalist politics is long in the past.  Let’s hope that nine and ten figure contributions to NMB are in the mail though for reasons I have discussed, I don’t consider this likely.

In the meantime, composers and musicians need all the help they can get. New Music USA plays a vital role in providing it and they should continue in this capacity.

But that does not exempt those benefitting from it from the responsibility to recognize the ultimate taint from which the support derives and the underlying agenda being advanced through it.

 

The article is a useful demonstration of how far we need to go to achieve this awareness.

(1) I have informally recounted some of this story here.

(2) As discussed here, my response to the jazz canon should be seen as normal criticism of the sort which any serious artform should not only expect but welcome.
(3) Rather than applauding jazz’s right wing turn, other response to the piece challenged the claim that jazz musicians are no longer sympathetic to left wing causes. It’s obvious by now that the “concerts that jazz musicians staged in support of U.S. President Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008”, taken as an indication of left sympathies should be viewed as quite the opposite.

Against Left Eliminationism: a Jacobinghazi Review

Last Friday, in a private message David Graeber, requested that I withdraw the following tweet:

“ckilpatrick @DougWilliams85 @DougHenwood are correct that s kendzior+”SJW” contingent should be repudiated by @davidgraeber and left.”

The context relevant to this has been slightly altered in the days since I posted it. Specifically, this involves Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick having 1) forwarded tweets making certain claims relating to Graeber’s eviction from his subsidized Penn South apartment, in particular that it was “left vacant” when he was away renting it on air bnb and 2) his having circulated a photograph of Graeber in a joint appearance with right-libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel.

Charge 1) I know to be false. I visited the apartment in question on several occasions and know for a fact that Graeber had, as he says, routinely made it available rent free to political allies.  It has virtually never been “vacant”.   Charge 2) is drawn from the time honored tactic of guilt by association and is simply ridiculous: by the same debased logic Noam Chomsky can be smeared due to his having appeared with Alan Dershowitz, Jeremy Scahill equated with Erik Prince, Arun Gupta taken as an acolyte of Sarah Palin, or Naomi Klein a supporter of  Alan Greenspan.

This is by no means the first time which Kilpatrick and others from the Jacobin circle have engaged in bad faith argumentation of this sort.  Based on this record, their charges against Kendzior have substantially less credibility than had they emanated from a source with unquestioned integrity.

For that reason, it is reasonable to do as Graeber requests and withdraw the tweet. If Kilpatrick himself retracts and apologizes for the two postings in question along with others in which he has made equally baseless and defamatory accusations I will reconsider my retraction of it, but not otherwise.

I’m posting this to publicly inform Graeber that I am doing so publicly.

I have written some additional thoughts on these matters including criticisms of the parties involved.  I am making these available privately for those interested and who are committed to engaging in a productive and rational discourse on the topics involved, something which those mentioned above have shown themselves to be mostly incapable of.  Please email me at my Bard College address  or post a comment below if you would like to receive a copy.