Checking Out for a Long Weekend, A History Boy, 27/07/2016

Today, I'm vanishing from the internet for five days. GF and I are going to Eclipse Festival to enjoy the woods, dance to ridiculously intense and funky music, and read under our makeshift gazebo for the holiday long weekend.

I’m bringing a few books in the same backpack as my clothes, because I’m kind of mad. There’s For Marx, the collection of Louis Althusser essays that I haven’t quite finished reading. 

There’s Etienne Balibar’s We the People of Europe, an appropriate book for these post-Brexit times. I also plan on using it for Utopias, as I’m interested in exploring Balibar’s approach to pragmatism as a political philosophy. And depending on how much useful material I find there, I’ll track down his 2010s work on the concepts of citizenship and culture.

I've already read his book on Spinoza, which had a lot of fascinating ideas from a perspective I hadn’t quite worked through before. My route to Spinoza was through Gilles Deleuze and Antonio Negri, so Balibar’s take was another wonderful angle.

There’s Let the Great World Spin, a curious book by Colum McCann. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve returned to Irish literature, a tradition that has always been important to me. That’s true for several reasons. 

Growing up in Newfoundland and having a close family member born and raised in Belfast, Ireland is one of the two European countries (along with Italy, of course) that I have strong patriotic feelings about. I read a wonderfully cheeky article in the Irish Times that imagined a fascinating future for the islands. 

Fintan O’Toole called it SCINI, but on the walk home from work yesterday afternoon, I imagined a bright future for (official name) The Federated Celtic Republics of Ireland, Scotland, and Ulster. Along with a BBC shared between the Celtic Republics and Britain, enriched with the contribution of Irish money and talent. 

Talent like the novelist Colum McCann, who I’m still reading after that odd tangent. It’s one of those bewitching polyphonic narratives that I love reading (and writing), twisting through different perspectives on the same story. Exploring the world through many monads at once, if you’ll let me get a little Leibnizian.

The musicality of his prose is something I’ve always enjoyed in Irish literature, and which I think Irish-inflected voices inject best into the English language. It’s what I love most about James Joyce. A trilling dance that can suddenly flick a spray of acid into your gaily laughing mouth.

Black American authors can inject a similar musicality into English prose, as well as the few African authors I’ve read in English. 

I’m looking forward to immersion in the artistic and social atmosphere of Eclipse Festival  as well. I love the idealism and joy of hippie culture, even though their political values have become corrupted and misdirected by a complex collision of forces and corporate deceptions. But I still see potential in that community to harness the power they used to wield.

But there’s a lot I’m skipping out on this weekend. And I don’t just mean work. 

I won’t be writing the blog for one. But I hope to have plenty of ideas after this weekend from reading in the gazebo, listening to music, absorbing plenty of utopian, fantastical art to fill its space. 

I won’t see Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech (though I’ve seen enough of the Democratic National Convention to know that they’re bringing out enough living expressions of hope and optimism that I have no doubt they’ll win by a landslide). 

But I’ll watch it on youtube after I get home, to see if she can pull together the campaign of her life to stop Donald Trump from destroying American democracy with his spectacular dictatorship. And if her coalition continues to contain the multitudes of liberatory forces – Black Lives, Occupy values, the resurgence of social democracy in America – that will win her the election and curb her worst impulses. 

And I want to see the United States take the subversive attacks from Russia seriously, and fight by living up to the ideals of their nation. As well as funding and supporting democrats in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. 

Polyphonous voices. Each perspective singular, a unique value. That’s the concept of democracy, and it’s what drives my own work in art and politics. 

See you next week.

Tainted Left VI: No Necessity But Faith, Research Time, 26/07/2016

Continued from last post . . . I started this series a week ago with some reflections on an essay about the perennial critique and doubt that left-wing politics always faces. The contention that all progressive politics leads to government control over daily life, the most extreme expression of which was Stalinism. 

The essay was by Louis Althusser, writing in the 1960s. He faced a more intense problem than democratic progressives typically have, because he was actually a member of France's Communist Party, and a pretty prominent activist in the Paris branch. 

There are people out there who take this image seriously.
But lately, all progressives in Western democracies face that accusation, that we’re really all wannabe Stalinists. That’s rooted in the radical libertarianism of the alt-right, the most powerful grassroots reactionary movement in decades. 

Althusser’s defence against this accusation rests on an argument about the contingency of history. It's a difficult concept for him to straddle, because he also dismissed the democratic notion that all individuals – no matter how poor or marginal – contribute in some small way to their society’s historical development.

Althusser dismissed that idea as a bourgeois illusion to hide the genuinely abject nature of most human existence. In other essays in For Marx, he argues that civilization’s cause and engine is a product of its superstructure. That civilization is a grand machine that dwarfs the actions of human individuals. 

It's some pretty unforgiving structuralism, at least that's the sense I get so far. But you don’t have to embrace that conception of what drives social change to land at history’s contingency. If anything, Althusser’s extreme structuralism is in a pretty intense tension with his arguments for history’s contingency.

As I said yesterday, history’s contingency is a function of its overdetermination. Every event has a ton of different causes, more causes than would be needed to bring it about in isolation. So you can tell a huge number of stories about how the world got to be the way it is.

If there’s no necessity to the development of history, then we can keep trying different attempts at building a just society where people don’t have to live in poverty. All the hardcore dictatorships of the alleged proletariat fell apart? The soviet councils all fell to pieces and were purged by a totalitarian dictator? The Great Leap Forward caused a massive famine when it turned out farming villages were shit metallurgists?

No situation is ever perfect, but you have to marshal all
your powers to assess what you've done, see what can be
done, and get to work. Sometimes, you just don't win
the vote, but that doesn't mean you can't ever succeed.
Well, it looks like those plans didn’t work. But if history’s development is contingent, there’s no reason for you to presume that every attempt to wrestle the state into becoming an actual servant of the people will fail. One day, we can get it right and make it last. 

That's the engine behind the basic income movement and the revival of social democracy that the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Occupy movement has driven in the United States. It comes down to the faith that we can build a better society together.

That faith rests on the principle that not every attempt to push society toward a more utopian existence will fail, that it is actually possible to figure out how to get it right. 

It’s a faith that refuses cynicism and fatalism. That embraces the potential of humanity, even in the face of our most cruel and violent impulses, from the individual to the civilizational. It looks into humanity’s greatest abyss and demands that we make light shine, no matter how difficult.

I’m not a religious person, but that’s the only faith I have. 

Tainted Left V: More History Than We Can Understand, Composing, 25/07/2016

Today’s post won’t wrap up this “Tainted Left” series. That’ll be tomorrow’s post when I string together a few semi-connected thoughts on how progressives can overcome the legacy of the worst mistakes made in the name of our values.

Today is, instead, a first go at answering that question I ended with on Friday. “So what does a theory of history that embraces contingency completely even look like?”

Today will be a very pure form of what I originally conceived the blog to do. Adam Riggio Writes is a lot of things – a simple, utilitarian home for thoughts on the internet, a cheap branding device, in its original purpose a motivator to overcome the hopeless doldrums of depression. And I’ve come up with quite a few other ways to use this space since then.

Every post is a walk through the woods with a pen and paper.
But I conceived this blog as a space to think through ideas as I was researching and writing larger projects. Writing out a rough draft – in total transparency, where anyone could see my process of developing ideas. Not even a rough draft, but a notebook. 

A public notebook. Being in public would force me to develop the notes more intensely than if they stayed in my binders and files. And, I hope, the resulting larger, more formal works would be suitably more conceptually rigorous and fine-detailed. Ideas begin as very vague suspicions, and it takes time to refine them.

One of the worst philosophers I ever met during my time working in the academy used to attack aggressively every idea someone would throw out in a conceptual conversation as if it was a final draft. A brainfart doesn’t survive if it’s attacked as if it were a fully-thought-through philosophical system. But if you give it room to grow, it can become brilliant.
• • •
Continued from last post . . . History begins as human experience. Experience as a society is constructed as an aggregate of the experiences of all the individuals that make up that society, interacting in trillions of complex connections. 

The development of a society is a massively complex web, its changes being the shifts in connections and macroscopic shapes. We remember those massive shifts – the transformations of the human world itself – as history.

But how does the macroscopic appear in daily human experience, which always occurs on an individual scale? The macroscopic – the civilizational, the structural – is real because it’s the wider context and network of our life. Our individuality would be impossible without existence at this scale. 

It's inescapably pretentious to refer to Marcel Proust in any context of
conversation, but he's a genuinely insightful theorist of memory, and
will probably be important to the concepts of Utopias. And I think I've
left the pretence train leave the station long ago.
We could no more live without our social environment than we could without the physical. We’d be adrift in an airless emptiness. 

The necessary shift in our perspective as thinkers comes in bringing ourselves from considering what it is to be civilizational to an individual human life. How can we bring our deeply local thinking to the scale of the macroscopic? 

In the experience of our daily thinking, humans engage with the past as memory. Now, memories themselves are disjointed and fragmentary, and our recollections can be just as shattered. But our identities are rooted in the coherence of our pasts. 

That coherence comes from building a narrative of our chaotic memories. We thread them together with stories. But that storytelling doesn’t reflect the fragmentary nature of our actual memories. 

All narratives of our own lives involve more creativity than fidelity – we make otherwise separate moments fit seamlessly together, place events next to each other to reveal how one may have caused the other, make theme and purpose emerge from brute fact.

It makes our histories constructed, but it doesn’t make them lies. Narrative is the common human way of making sense of the world. They are fictions without being lies. Truths with less than absolute fidelity to the source material. “Based on a true story” but still condensed to a succinct season of television.

Looking at real events on a macroscopic scale, you end up having to do a lot of the same that you did to make sense of your memories. Tracing past events, you have a lot of concurrent developments all interacting in complex ways. 

But they’re also largely disconnected from each other. Some are recorded in more detail, but others are sketchy, hazy. Mere traces in dust. You want to discover a coherence in them, so you assemble a picture, a narrative, a timeline. A set of causes and relationships, along with their shifts as those relationships affect each other. 

Life is a narrative, wrote Hannah Arendt. Well, really,
life is a whole ton of narratives and logics fitting all
their pieces together. That's history's overdetermination.
You can make more than one narrative from all these fragments, and all of them would correspond to the evidence that assembled them. You just concentrate on some details over others, think one cause more likely than another for some coincidence.

But if you stick to that raw material in the construction, all the narratives you can tell are faithful to the material of history. From the same events, you can construct many different narratives. 

This is what Louis Althusser means when he talks about history as overdetermined. You can construct a narrative from the same fragments of history according to many different logics. There is more than one logic to the construction of history, so more than one logic could connect all these events themselves. 

If there are, simultaneously, many different logics operating in the causes of human society, then some future event can be the product of many different logics. There is always more than one cause for the same event. That event could turn out to be many different things, depending on what historical logic is in material play at some decisive moment to shape the future. A single history can have many outcomes.

Now we begin to see the ground for repudiating that old accusation of progressive politics. “Your socialism led to totalitarianism, so that’s what socialism does!” Well, no, not necessarily. And ‘not necessarily’ is the best anyone will ever be able to say. . . . To be continued

Tainted Left IV: History Without Logic, Research Time, 22/07/2016

Today is a late post simply because I came home from work so tired yesterday that I could only watch some TV with GF and go to sleep. Today, I’m feeling a little better, but I still woke up in the middle of a dream.

I was wandering around a huge bookstore looking for their sci-fi section. But all they had were rack on rack of too-mainstream pablum, enormous technical cartography books (one of which was written by Ernob Bal, a name too similar to an old friend), and expensive history hardcovers whose texts were scrapbooked handwritten notes recollecting the events themselves. Even from hundreds or thousands of years ago.

And the bookstore’s mascot was a two-foot-tall yellow slug with the personality of a puppy. I have weird dreams. Anyway, what about history?

Could any coherent law of historical development have
predicted any of this? Really?
Continued from last post . . . So what is the antidote to this too-simple version of history as having a necessary logic? The appeal of that philosophy is that it offers us a simple science of human history. 

The logic of contradiction and progressive reconciliation gives us a basic law by which we can understand humanity’s development. The problem is that the real events of history develop differently than that simple law would show. History is contingent, the world a cobbled-together assemblage of conflict, peace, and general confusion.

Given last night’s formal ascension of Donald Trump to the top of America’s Republican Presidential ticket, I don’t think anyone in our age can have any doubt that history has no fundamental or predictable order. I think no one would have said 20 years ago that America would seriously face the possibility of a spectacular dictatorship within a generation. But here we are.

When you read Althusser as a theorist about the contingent nature of history, he draws on different examples than I can, of course. He was writing in the early 1960s from the position of a French Communist activist and researcher. He also died in 1990.

So he was speaking to what was, at the time, the primary historical event for the position of Communist Party members in Western Europe – the Russian Revolution. Because according to all the simple laws of history’s logic that marxist activists embraced at the time, it shouldn’t have happened.

Trump's style of spectacular leadership
actually has its closest precedents in the
post-communist dictatorships of
central Asia. Trump has a personality
quite likely to build a giant gold statue
of himself that rotates to face the sun.
Like this statue of Turkmenistan
dictator Saparmarat Niyazov.
The first communist revolution was supposed to have come in an advanced industrial state, where capitalism had advanced to such a point that its own logical contradictions couldn’t stand together anymore. Yet the first successful revolution was in Russia, a mostly rural country whose society in 1917 still operated more like feudalism.

Althusser derives his new theory of contingent history from this example, as the result of decades of reflection in the marxist community about its meaning. The first starts with Lenin himself, with his concept of “the weakest link.”

Basically, revolution happens not where logic says it must, but where circumstances say it can. A communist revolution isn’t a collision of logical premises, but of material conflicts. Communist revolution in the real world didn’t find its potential in any direct element of capitalist industry. Its key condition had to do with the world’s greatest conflict of imperialist politics: the First World War.

The war turned the social conflicts of the participating countries up to a terrifying intensity. The Russian situation was the most vulnerable, least able to handle such intense social destabilization.

The war fuelled democratic political pressure against the Czarist system – the Russian people were suffering terribly in the war, and everyone knew it was a battle of imperialism. 

With more knowledge about the wider world coming to people, even uneducated people, from the industrialized societies of Europe, they knew what they were missing out on. And people knew the imperial elite kept them from that kind of prosperity because it would mean giving up their immense wealth.

There was also a conspiracy of the Russian aristocracy against the monarchy at the same time, again exacerbated by the war. These anti-monarchist aristocrats saw the economic devastation the First World War was wreaking, and were turning against the Czar.

Lenin’s own revolutionary organization was also the best organized group of communists in Europe. There was also a lot of groundwork for revolutionary activity in Russia, thanks to the previous attempt in 1905 that failed. These are all contingent conditions that are rooted in the particular situation of that place and time. 

So what does a theory of history that embraces contingency completely even look like? . . . To be continued

Tainted Left III: Good as a Crystal Ball, Research Time, 21/07/2016

Continued from last post . . . When I was reading Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks a couple of years ago, I noticed a frequent target of his criticism. It was the idea that history’s development was inevitable. 

A little more detail. History developed according to a logical order: the creation and reconciliation of contradictions. This is the Hegelian vision of history, the necessary development of progress. The marxist reading was that history inevitably progressed to the terminal crisis of capitalism and the emergence of communist institutions and society.

From a march of Italy's many different communist parties,
in solidarity with Greece's Syriza and other resisters to
the European Central Bank's austerity regimes.
Notice, I said ‘marxist,’ without capitalizing, or referring explicitly to Karl Marx. That’s because, as Gramsci repeated and Louis Althusser demonstrated through some intense analysis, Marx himself didn’t think this way about history at all.

Gramsci found many of his fellow Communist Party activists in Italy frustrating because they had essentially become quietists. Not because they had given up on building a new order in society, but because they believed that it would come about through the superstructures of capitalist human society. And not through any direct doings of their own.

Now, it’s not as though any subversive activity at all would do. Fyodor Dostoyevsky could teach us the futility of subversion done in the wrong way, in the wrong place, in the wrong time, or just plain stupidly. That was the story of both his own life and his classic novel Demons

His own anti-Czarist campaigning was at the wrong time. Stepan’s intellectual democracy activism was in the wrong place, under the condescending dotage of the Russian aristocracy. His son Pyotr’s violent revolutionary terrorism was the wrong way, needlessly killing people and burning down neighbourhoods because he believed it would provoke mass unrest. 

And they were all stupid about it, Dostoyevsky implies. I mean, they got so much wrong. 

Where does this historical necessity come from? It’s a false necessity, of course, but it’s still a concept, and so we can ask about its mechanics. There’s no ontological necessity involved in this vision of reality – no clockwork parts here. 

Instead, the ontology of a necessary path for history’s development flows from a philosophical principle – the principle of history’s narrative on the Hegelian account.* Basically, it’s the notion that history has a single dominant narrative at all. That there’s a story of human history and society that is literally THE story.

From the 2014 television adaptation of Dostoyevsky's
Demons, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko.
* At least the bog-standard Hegelian account that most of the Communist Party activists in whose circles Gramsci and Althusser moved believed. It's not Hegel’s own thinking, which is much more complex than a lot of its most enthusiastic inheritors conceived. It’s the Hegelian idea of history’s logic reduced to dogma.

I’m not even sure I should have separated that last footnote, because its central idea works just as well in the main text of this post. When a complicated philosophical concept or idea gets turned into a dogma, it’s reduced to platitudes, too-simple matters of faith, the emptiness of common-sense truths. 

A dogma no longer provokes thought, but simply has to be believed. And that’s kind of what happened to Karl Marx’s very complex engagement with Hegel’s and the Hegelian concept of history’s logic. 

When a complex philosophical concept is barmy and ultimately unworkable – like Hegel’s concept of history’s logic – becomes a dogma, we end up with a movement of people making themselves into idiots. As in the quietist revolutionaries of Gramsci's Italian Communist Party.

In super-short form, the concept of history’s logic runs like this. Hegel developed a structure of logic – simple concepts (like Being and Nothing) contradict each other, but you can resolve that contradiction to create a more advanced concept. This process keeps going until you reach a single concept that includes the entire range of human knowledge and potential, the absolute.

Hegel’s Logic mapped this progression. He wrote it concurrently with The Phenomenology of Spirit, which mapped this progression of concepts onto human history and psychology. He found embodiments of these ideas and movements all over human existence. Of course he did – he was looking for them.

Hegel mapped his Logic onto human existence through abstraction. He reduced a complex and complicated human self-consciousness of a given event, society, or era to the pure abstract of a philosophical diagram. It understood reality along very clean lines, but that understanding no longer had anything to do with real life.

So how are you going to act in the world if your thinking is no longer connected with the messy complexity of real life? Let alone change the world? . . . To be continued

Tainted Left II: I Am Not Responsible, Composing, 20/07/2016

I started thinking through the ideas of this post series when I was reading Louis Althusser, as I mentioned yesterday. The dilemma I described left-wing people as facing – opponents who believe that even their most innocent ideas like a national health insurance plan is a totalitarian communist institution – is uniquely American. 

Maybe North American at best, now that the right-wing libertarian ideas of the United States have established themselves so deeply among the community of Harper supporters.

Louis Althusser was a very dour man for most of his life.
But Althusser was working in France, and the context of that country was very different. For one thing, communism was pretty mainstream in Europe as a political party at the time. It still is in some countries on the continent.

That didn’t mean being a communist wasn’t controversial, of course. I mean, the essays of For Marx were written in the early 1960s. The Cold War was at its height. The wider world was beginning to learn about and process psychologically the horrific crimes of Stalin. The gulags, purges, accidental and intentional mass famines. 

While Althusser was producing these essays on marxist theory, the development of Karl Marx’s thought, and the philosophy of history, the war of espionage and global tensions between the Soviet Union and the West was threatening to destroy Earth. Literally. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened while Althusser was working on several of these essays.

So the question remained an imperative. But the frame was different in France, mainly because the ideas of Friedrich Hayek had not penetrated French culture by the 1960s. Nowhere near as ever-present as in contemporary America.

Hayek’s idea was that progressive, socialist, or broadly left-wing politics was all – literally and self-consciously – totalitarian communism, because state control of any aspect of human life is totalitarian communism. A bit much, if you ask me, but widely enough believed to be politically powerful.

Althusser confronted the question in the framework of history. His question was not whether progressive ideas – even ideas that fall squarely in the framework of marxist philosophical traditions – were literally totalitarian. 

The problem is, does this picture and others like it
represent a genuine continuity of ideas, activism, and
ideology? Will marxism lead inevitably to the crimes
of the world's most famous (at the time) communist
government.
He instead considered whether any communist activism in the present would inevitably lead to totalitarianism in the future. This is a question about history. It was about whether, once Marx himself began to develop the ideas that we now call marxism, the descent into Stalin’s terror was necessary.

Here’s what I find interesting as a writer about the essay where he considers this problem. It’s one of the longest essays in the whole collection, but he doesn't make this central point of what it’s really been about until the conclusion.

Instead, Althusser’s been talking about causation, the development of human history, the nature of ideology, and the problems of understanding the world narratively. I imagine that this was a matter of rhetoric. If he revealed what his game was from the start, he’s risk alienating even the soft opponents who are the targets of his argument.

If you feel like you’ve reached a conclusion about something, you won’t take kindly to someone confronting them with a contrary argument. You certainly won’t be all that disposed to believe what they say. 

But my keeping so much of the discussion in the abstract before revealing what’s been the essay’s fundamental problematic – proving that there can be a communism that doesn’t lead to Stalin – skirts around an audience’s potential skepticism. 

Accepting an idea in the abstract form, and then being told that it has a practical application that undermines something you’ve always thought was true. That’s certainly a problem. The listener might feel betrayed or angry, but even in the worst case they’ll be in a more sympathetic position than if you got their defences up in the first place.

So that’s the setting at the time, and the fundamental practical problem. We’ve also taken stock of the similarities and differences in these two problematics on the inevitability of Stalinism in the left. 

In particular, we’ve established a solid sense of Althusser’s motivation for writing that essay "Contradiction and Overdetermination” as he did. Even in that more intellectually open era of the 1960s in Europe, ‘marx’ was still a dirty word. 

He wanted to sneak in the essay’s most important implication – why he was writing it in the first place – to overcome popular prejudice about the nature of Karl Marx and marxism. So what did “Contradiction and Overdetermination” spend a lot of its word count doing? . . . To be continued

Tainted Left I: Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Research Time, 19/07/2016

My two-year online friendship with a pair of radical right-wing libertarians was one of the most philosophically enlightening relationships I think I’ve ever had. 

I don’t mean this in the sense that it made me an equally doctrinaire right-wing libertarian, even though that was their goal. Our relationship was a micro-level anthropology of North America’s radical right – I saw Trumpism in its embryonic form, a new fascism waiting for its catalyst to blossom.

What Sandifer explored through his critical analysis of neoreaction’s central writers (Mencius Moldbug, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Nick Land), I saw unfold before me in two real people. 

There's one particular memory I want to share with you, as an introduction to what will probably be a whole week talking about a problem inherent in any kind of left-leaning politics in the West. An image Libertarian G shared with me on the anniversary of Jack Layton’s death.

He wasn't even really all that radical in what he fought for.
It was a picture of Vladimir Lenin, with a short, respectful caption lamenting Jack’s passing.

At the time, I thought his equivalence of Jack Layton with Vladimir Lenin was just a joke, a ridiculous exaggeration for me to laugh at. But after several months more of almost daily interaction, it struck me that G really believed that. And as I learned more about right-wing libertarian society, I discovered that virtually all of them did too.

They believed that all left-wing people – no matter their real diversity of mind – wanted government to act as a fully collectivized communist totalitarian state. 

It seemed ridiculous, like a complete delusion. Finally reading Freidrich Hayek made it clear where this idea came from. From him, naturally. Because he says it – explicitly and repeatedly – in The Road to Serfdom

I sincerely believe – given what’s become an immensely powerful political movement in our time – that every academic philosophy department should include The Road to Serfdom in its political curriculum. And they should require students to attack its arguments with all the critical vigour and aggression they can.

Even though The Road to Serfdom can read like a work of philosophy, and be philosophically interpreted, you can make a strong argument that it isn’t philosophy. Following a concept Louis Althusser develops in For Marx, it’s ideology. Specifically, ‘mere ideology.’

We should all study the book critically because it is probably the most influential single book of political thought of the last 100 years. From the ideas of this one book, and the network of think tanks he built with Milton Friedman and other academics to spread their ideas to the wider public, came the foundational orthodoxy of modern conservatism.

The face of a bestseller, the most
influential political thinker of the last
hundred years. He can't be ignored.
A cut-down version of Road to Serfdom was published in Reader’s Digest of all things in 1945, and reached a huge popular audience across America. Hayek wrote the book as an explicit warning about the danger of totalitarian ideas, as the sustained confrontation of the Cold War was looming. 

That popular idea about left-wing people spread to all of society through conservative partisan political messaging for the rest of the 20th century. It spread through everyday conversation with people who came to accept it. It’s an opposition every progressive has to defend against, and can appear at any time.

“How are you not a communist!?” he shouts. 

For the next few posts – however many it’ll take me to work through the idea – I’m going to work through my impressions of how Althusser handles this in For Marx. He asks it specifically about marxists, of course, because he was himself a lifelong communist party activist in France. 

But today, we know the same question applies to everyone on the broadly left side of the political spectrum. How are our ideas not of the same path as the crimes of Stalin? . . . To be continued

Beyond the Academy's Style: An Outline, Composing, 18/07/2016

I’m about halfway through writing the draft of an article that will appear at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. It’s a reply to one of the many pieces analyzing the different aspects of Brexit that SERRC co-founder Steve Fuller has published and posted over the last few weeks.

Primarily, it’s a response to his most philosophical article in the bunch: his argument that the best theoretical system to make sense of the Brexit phenomenon is Vilfredo Pareto’s theory of politics as the circulation of elites. I pitched it to Steve and Jim Collier the other co-founder and chief editor, as a Negri-inspired response to his proposition.

At heart, there's a positive argument behind my critique. I don’t write critical essays unless there’s a really strong alternative way of thinking about the same event or idea. I never present it as an either/or. I’d never argue that Fuller is wrong about this, because I think he’s exactly right.

Steve Fuller in his video "What Is Brexit?"
But in terms of what we can learn philosophically, epistemologically, and politically from Brexit, Steve’s insights aren’t comprehensive of all that we can learn about it. When I bounce my own thoughts off his, the illumination makes them more clear. 

That – to me at least – has always been my preferred kind of criticism. In academic philosophy, we were socialized largely to argue against as a form of critique. Disprove. Attack. Tear down. Not my style.*

* ‘Then what were you doing studying and working in philosophy for so long?’ you might ask. It interested me because even though a lot of the journal articles being written and submitted were of that style, the primary texts that were the discipline’s real heritage were largely written in my style. Why join a field if you don’t aspire to the same greatness as its greats?

So what's the lesson I want to take away from Brexit, given the launchpad Fuller’s ideas gave me? My essay is going to explore the epistemic requirements of increasing democracy. 

It begins with my own take on stage setting, describing in my blog-honed tone of intelligent contempt the political movements and jockeying that resulted in Brexit. At the same time, I also give my major takeaways from Fuller’s Pareto-inspired analysis.

Then my interpretation of the rhetoric surrounding the referendum. My most important result is the paradox of considering the Brexit vote morally and politically binding when the UK’s constitution itself – parliamentary sovereignty – fences the referendum into a strictly advisory capacity. 

The reason for this moral/political power is that a referendum is a more democratic state activity than parliamentary sovereignty. The notion that parliament can be sovereign above citizens or residents causes weird paradoxes with democratic ideals. Antonio Negri demonstrates in Multitude that parliamentary representation isn’t really an expression of the general will. 

I very much hope David Cameron doesn't leave behind
a political dynasty. Still, if he did, you could only go up
from his achievements.
Instead, it creates a government of elites that churns more quickly than it used to. The elites now aren’t hereditary aristocrats, but political party operatives and candidates. And you still see the return of hereditary norms. Being Canadian, I’m no stranger to political dynasties of all stripes

Rousseau’s idea falls flat on its face once you put it into material practice. In actual parliaments – not just our imaginary and ideal ones – representation builds a barrier between people and their representative. Many layers of institutional mediation.

A referendum doesn’t have that same distance because it’s a direct expression of the will of a people. There are two problems with this. One is temporal, which is that any vote is the expression of a population’s political tendency at the precise time of the vote.

The most important is epistemic. A referendum is political campaign, subject to the same manipulations of public knowledge and the cultural imaginary as any election. And a referendum like Brexit with such high stakes meant that the side with the most desperate, committed partisans were willing to do absolutely anything to win.

That was the Leave campaign, by the way. It was the reason for all the lies about the true nature of EU regulation, single market access, and the mass mobilization of open, aggressive racism

Instead of informing and dialoguing with your public on a matter of immense importance, the sides of a referendum campaign have an incentive to become lying demagogues. An ostensibly (or ideally) more democratic route becomes even more corrupted than the creation of a parliamentary elite.

With referendums open to such terrible flaws, is there any democratic alternative for momentous, national-scale decision making? We don’t have one ready to pull out, fully formed, at a moment’s notice. But we can think of one. And I think I have a pretty good idea.

The full potential of political and community organizing.

I Can Speak New Democrat, Advocate, 15/07/2016

This is the text of a post that will appear on Ontario NDP blogging venues soon, promoting my workshop series LEAPing Beyond. I've written in more detail about the first workshop in south Etobicoke and my plans for the entire series in earlier posts on this blog.
• • •
When we New Democrats set out to discuss the LEAP Manifesto as our convention mandated, its content turned out to be less radical than appearances (and the mainstream media) suggests. As you can see in the NDP Renewal Guide, most of LEAP’s ideas were reflected in our established policy already.

Given this, what distinguishes LEAP is primarily its sense of urgency. But transforming our industry, economy, and society as fast as we can doesn’t mean we’ve done it as fast as possible. Such a radical change, rushed with the inspiration of the Manifesto’s call, would meet massive resistance and stumble more than it succeeded.

This July, I began the first of several workshops with Toronto-area activists about the values and limits of LEAP. LEAP’s broad scope holds it back from thinking through the grit of daily life and action. So I set out to do some public philosophy – discover our city’s values and create some new ones.

I learned three important lessons so far as we build an ecologically sustainable and prosperous new society for the 21st century.

1) Energy efficient housing is affordable housing. And massively increasing the energy efficiency of our homes is inseparable from building and protecting a regime of fairness and openness in real estate development all over Canada. Greed must not be the motivator of new housing, or else the only new homes will be mini-mansions.

2) Not only must we build new public transit infrastructure in and between all our cities, we must properly fund it and overcome the snobbery that looks down its nose at transit. There is no war between transit and the car – a city with an efficient and effective public transit system makes more room for those who choose to drive because people who’d rather not take a car become a bus or train driver’s passengers.

3) Leave our tired old oppositions behind! The first one we thought of was car vs transit. Then we thought of one all New Democrats know – principle vs power. Another one we know from the Harper years is environment vs economy.

All these oppositions are false. We don’t have to choose between them. Instead, embrace the imperative to shatter all these binaries as the lies and cultural illusions they are. They’re the fences that divide us. Rip their stakes from the ground and let’s build a new house for all people together!

I’ll explore all these ideas and more as my workshop series continues. Our next venue will be Christie Pits, at a date to be determined in August.

Creative Miscellany: Reading Writing Replying Networking, Jamming, 14/07/2016

Just a general update today, since today turned out to be pretty eventful – in both a good and a less good way. Some projects have had some wonderful boosts, new opportunities for smaller works have come up, and one big project got a setback that I think could ultimately be for the best.
• • •
My first “LEAPing Beyond” workshop for the New Democratic Party went quite well, as you could probably tell from the last two posts. This weekend, I’ll be writing an official update on the first workshop to go up on official channels of Toronto’s NDP. 

I like the aesthetic of holding these workshops in parks,
islands in concrete that pretend to be wilderness. It
provokes the kind of juxtaposed thoughts that I want
to encourage with my words as well.
I’ll also make contact with riding associations presidents in the heart of Toronto, to promote the next workshop in early to mid August. I think Christie Pits park will probably be the best location. 

It’s less mainstream than Trinity-Bellwoods, and so offers a little more peace and quiet. I also like that Christie Pits is always within reach of road traffic – I think the urban oasis nature of most smaller city parks reminds us of the delicate relationship that a city must maintain with its green spaces.
• • •
I finished my first read of Phil Sandifer’s Neoreaction: A Basilisk, and secured a slot for a review of the book at the Reply Collective. I’ve already brought Sandifer to the hard drives of the Collective, as he was a significant interview for “Beyond the Academy.”

But this is the first time my American colleague’s work will have been brought for a review. Part of my mandate from the Collective’s Review’s editor – my old friend SD Card – is to keep the social epistemological parts of the book at the forefront.

That won't be hard. As I collect my thoughts and notes for the first pass at the review, quite a lot of what I’m thinking about revolves around ways of knowing. The book is, from the start, a critique of the traditional concept of rationalism from a variety of angles.

You wouldn’t think that was necessary anymore. But if you thought that, it was a sign that you’ve been reading too many progressive epistemology journals, and not enough neo-fascist pro-slavery blogs or anti-feminist Reddit or 4chan forums.

I'm also waiting for the supplementary material (thanks
to a ridiculously successful Kickstarter campaign),
especially Theses on Trump.
Now, I don't blame you for not reading these things. Part of what I find awe-inspiring about Phil and his work is his level of commitment. This man – with his deeply held political, moral, and ethical beliefs – sat down and read the neo-fascist pro-slavery rambling tangents of Mencius Moldbug. 

Tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of words written by the most vile, self-absorbed, and unrestrained avatar of the genuinely neo-fascist pro-slavery software engineer Curtis Yarvin.

Phil has dived into something that most of us who thought that traditional conceptions of reason and rationality had been thrown on the dust-heap have ignored to our peril. This religion of pure reason exploding through right-wing online forums has become the dominant ideology of North America’s newest and most prominent reactionary social movement.

From Gamergate to the shock troops of the Trump campaign, the rank and file of American reaction in the 21st century have made a vision of purely objective rationality their sole epistemic yardstick. We have to grapple with this ideology, and that’s what I see Phil’s book as doing.

More details in a few weeks when the review actually goes up.
• • •
I’m working on another piece for the Reply Collective. This one is a reply to a recent piece by my favourite dialogue partner in the group, Steve Fuller. In this case, I want to write a response to his account of the Brexit phenomenon.

And Boris Johnson still won't go away.
Now, Steve has a few advantages over me on this. For one thing, he actually lives in Britain, and can see the media landscape daily through direct experience. I only see snippets and flashes from North America. So I don’t want to get into too many of the details.

Basically, I plan on responding to Steve’s perspective on the role of elites in political life, and whether the British constitution of parliamentary sovereignty has passed its sell-by date. It will come from the Negri-Foucault trajectory.

In short form, elite management of politics always risks disenfranchising or generally separating people from the institutions that hold incredible power over them. But contemporary communications technology and the political organizing it enables can bring that power to the people. Our era – thanks to our communications abilities – can open the most true and thorough democracy of all.
• • •
Finally, the partner I’d been working with on the development of You Were My Friend and I parted ways professionally yesterday. She’s still a fantastic actress, and I’ll probably still cast her in the same role she played in the theatre version. 

But I think our aesthetic instincts and priorities were a little too different for us to keep on the same page. Each of us had different ideas of what we thought were the most promising aspects of this story. I didn’t communicate my own such ideas clearly enough. And I still don’t quite understand what her own such ideas were.

So now I’m looking for a new director. And it has to be a woman. I need a female director so that the entire production can understand that You Were My Friend is a women’s story – with all that entails.

The First “LEAPing Beyond” II: The First Answers, Advocate, 13/07/2016

Continued from last post . . . And you can have a look at the post leading up to the first workshop this weekend to see a little more context if you want. 

It was just a small group in this workshop, which is what I like because it means the conversation can plumb the depths of our topic while everyone has the opportunity to be involved. 

As well as Dynamic and Bauhaus, a couple of NDP activists joined us from up in North Etobicoke. And they were impressed enough that they invited me to do a workshop later on in their region. I just need to get a ride up there because transit from the north to south end of this borough is garbage.

Toronto's drivers are not known for taking friendly
suggestions well.
And transit was a major issue in our discussion. We didn’t even really discuss it that much, because we were all on the same page – improved transit infrastructure would cut down on emissions, pollution, and improve quality of life for many working-class people across the city.

The most enlightening conversation when it came to practical activism was our discussion about affordable, energy-efficient housing. This is an important part of LEAP Manifesto’s anti-poverty ideas, since building homes – apartments, townhouses, and detached houses – that are use energy more wisely also makes them cheaper. 

But the current behaviour and interests of many institutions and actors that govern and influence housing developments in Toronto mitigate this. It’s an effect of short-term greed, the usual reason for destructive human activities.

A property developer can make more money more quickly by building plots of enormously expensive mini-mansion housing as extensions of already-existing suburbs. Investment capital can’t reach the types of projects that we need to build to make our cities ecologically sustainable.

Mini-mansion suburban housing developments strain already-underfunded public transit systems. When public transit can’t reach a new, far-flung neighbourhood, it encourages the residents to drive single-occupant cars everywhere for work, chores, and leisure.

Our workshop walking through Sam Smith Park in
southern Etobicoke.
Urban development has to make a city’s population denser, so that we leave more wild space outside the city or threaded through the city. We have to make more income-accessible housing energy-efficient, while mixing those accessible homes with places pitched to wealthier owners. That way, we build smarter, more vibrant homes, communities, and cities for everyone.

New Lesson #1: Fair and open development of urban real estate, so that energy-efficiency contributes to overall affordability of homes in diverse neighbourhoods. Combining with physical accessibility through public transit and solar panels to contribute to the energy pool instead of only drawing from it, community spirit augments ecological wealth.

One of the biggest rhetorical weapons against any progressive proposal like energy efficiency, public transit, or affordable good-quality housing comes as a dichotomy. If you don’t let self-interested developers have their way, they’ll all walk away; mass poverty will be the only result.

In other words, we face a choice between development and decay. I call shenanigans. In the context of housing, all the reasons I’ve described above constitute the foundation of greater wealth than could ever line the pocket of a housing developer, no matter how many isolated miniature estates he might finance on the outskirts of Oakville and Waterdown.

And this choice occurs in many different contexts, all of which have a common theme running through them. If I can evoke the New Democratic Party’s friendly ghost,* it’s how someone tells you that it can’t be done.

Or maybe Smiling Jack.
* Let’s not call him Christ-like. There was no sacrifice here, only the most cynical gesture of idealism and inspiration. Jack is no redeemer. More like a guardian spirit. Herne the Hunter. Jack-i-the-green.

Affordable energy-efficient housing in financially and culturally diverse communities? Either do exactly what the greediest developer wants or collapse into inescapable poverty. You can either protect the environment or you can grow the economy. Choose one or the other. How often did we hear this during the Harper years?

Even in the rebuilding year of the NDP, we keep hearing the same idea, even from our own quarters. Do we want to hold fast to our principles, or do we want the power of state control? 

All of these are false disjuncts. Making you think there’s a stark choice of one or another, when you can have both if you do things right. 

New Lesson #2: Well, not quite false. But the choice isn't stark, and it isn’t absolute. If you’ll let me riff on Deleuze a little bit, it’s about creating a disjunctive synthesis. Developing a practical logic that brings two sides of an either/or together, and their interaction is more productive than their existence alone ever would have been.

You can hold even the greediest developer’s feet to the fire until they finance a mixed community that continues to create capital and community wealth, like Bernie Sanders did as mayor of Burlington Vermont. You can build an ecologically sustainable and creative economy, as the vision of the LEAP Manifesto sets out.

You can hold on to your principles and still gain power when the people come to share your principles. This is the real victory of any of us who still hold optimistic visions for the future of humanity.

The First “LEAPing Beyond” I: Why These Workshops? Advocate, 12/07/2016

This Saturday, I hosted the first in what will be a series of workshops on ecological values and policy. They’re part of my role as Vice-President of my riding association for the New Democratic Party. 

At our convention this Spring, we decided to discuss the LEAP Manifesto, Naomi Klein’s set of principles for building a civilization free of fossil fuels. This discussion has a few inescapable problems to deal with, though.

One is that a kind of schism has opened up in the New Democratic Party because of LEAP, at least in wider public perception and the media clickbait surrounding our Edmonton convention. 

An image of the Alberta oil sands from the air. From the
CBC Nature of Things documentary, "The Tipping
Point
."
Basically, the NDP is torn. There’s a grassroots environmentally-minded membership that generally agrees with its call to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible and tear down their extraction infrastructure. And there’s the government of Alberta, which is NDP, led by Rachel Notley, a prominent member of one of our party’s political dynasties.*

* As is Avi Lewis, the less important member of the Klein-Lewis duo. Klein is the philosopher of the group. Lewis is her cameraman.

That's why we voted for a discussion instead of an outright adoption. Well, because of that and the second inescapable problem of LEAP and the NDP. Most of the basic principles in LEAP are in the NDP policy book already. 

All the calls for renewable energy and drastic emissions cuts are there – we just didn’t put a timeline on it or call it a manifesto. Or make a big deal about it across our media channels. We've normalized the politics and policies of a renewable energy transition already. 

There’s a larger philosophical issue here too. The problem with manifestos, as my esteemed colleague in blogging has put it, is that they’re inherently reactionary documents. LEAP sets out a vision for the future, but does so from a perspective of rage at the current world. 

Not that the current world isn’t worth raging at, for obvious reasons. But LEAP is simply a statement – this is wrong, it must be fixed, here is how we must do it, this is what the world must look like at the end. It isn’t even 2000 words long. It's a demand. A fist hitting the table. 

To make it actionable, we have to talk through it. We have to figure out how to put these values and demands into practice in our everyday lives. 

Klein's conception of energy democracy is, for me, the
most philosophically interesting part of the entire LEAP
Manifesto. It's a concept that reminds me of some of
Antonio Negri's new theories of the commons.
Which brings me to the last problem with the LEAP Manifesto: It’s only about emissions. Yes, it talks about the intersectionality of a whole host of environmental issues with emissions reduction – pollution, transit solutions, poverty and inequality, affordable housing with sustainable energy use, a glimmer of a truly radical conception of energy democracy.

But after the scream of rage, the ball is in our court to do something about it. That's where my workshops come in, and that’s why they’re called “LEAPing Beyond.”**

** Is it still too much? I still feel like it might be too much. Hey, Dynamic, let me know if it’s too much.

We have to deal with environmental and ecological problems, intersectionally. Because they all intersect. That was the first lesson we took away from the first workshop last Saturday. We can’t reduce emissions without also overhauling energy infrastructure, boosting our public transit network’s capacity and convenience (inside our cities and among them), or changing our city’s entire relationship with housing and home-building.

And since I’ve already rambled so much for my prologue, I guess I’ll dig in to the actual issues and policy ideas we discussed tomorrow. . . . To be continued

Were There Ever Really Any Great Atheists? A History Boy, 11/07/2016

There's a longer series about the nature of history in the works, but that will start tomorrow, because I've had a very tiring weekend. Today, I want to write something a little more personal. Just a small topic like my relationship with God in a few hundred words.

In particular, there’s a passage in Neoreaction: A Basilisk* that got me thinking about this part of my life. He talks about a typically long, rambling post by Mencius Moldbug, one of the intellectual leaders of the American neoreactionary movement – called “How Dawkins Got Pwned.”

* I've written about Phil Sandifer’s latest book before, and I may see if I can write a review later on this summer for the Reply Collective. It may also include some other parts of my interview with Phil from this Winter. And I may also try to sell other versions of it up the chain to different publications. Anyway . . . 

Anyone who refuses to bow to such a cruel,
authoritarian God, no matter the suffering
that refusal would cause yourself, will
necessarily be a hero.
Now, I'm not about to start parroting the ramblings of Mencius Moldbug. You know a little bit too much about my actual political beliefs to think I’m very vulnerable to his ideas. But Curtis Yarvin is still a smart person who, at least when filtered through someone else’s analysis, can make a fascinating insight or three.

In this case, it’s about Richard Dawkins, and the aggressive, contemptuous, rage-aholic New Atheist movement where he sits at the head. Now that Chris Hitchens is dead, anyway. 

As a younger man, I’d meet quite a few friends who were atheists in this loud, frothing sense. Religious belief, goes the convert’s intensity, was a delusion and a disease. A mental and social sickness. A profound stupidity of sincere belief that a magic invisible man who lives in the sky is your perfect authority to be followed.

I don't need to go into any great detail about why this kind of argument is flawed. Essentially, it’s just a big straw man. Taking millennia of philosophical development about what divinity’s nature could be, and casting it as a childish failure of people still dazzled by an adult-targeted version of the “Where’s the Ball?” game for infants.

I don't think I’ve ever been able to accept that massive reduction of intellectual history. To say that there were no valuable ideas or concepts in all this philosophy? To accuse them of stupidity? 

No. Anyone with respect for philosophical history at all must accept the legitimacy of thought and writing about the nature of God and the divine more broadly.

Yet I am an atheist. I was raised an atheist, and that’s always been my default way of thinking about divinity. Even though I believe in divinity and have embraced a relationship with Judaism as part of my family and identity. As an atheist, wouldn’t that seem incompatible.

You might think that no matter what reason I’ll give in the last few paragraphs of this post, I’m an idiot for saying so. That’s frankly your problem. 

He's just a very angry man.
It lies in this key idea that Sandifer dug out of Mencius Moldbug – that Richard Dawkins isn't just a straight-up atheist. He’s an Anglican-Calvinist atheist.

In other words, the self-declared neoreactionary spotted a fellow traveller. He correctly pegged Dawkins’ own beliefs about the nature of the divine as a product of reaction. Angrily turning against the Anglican and Calvinist traditions and beliefs in which he was raised.

This is why Dawkins’ period of peak cultural influence found his religious attitudes so aggressive, oversimplifying, shrill, and dismissive. They weren’t attitudes of a positive, productive identity – they were reactions, pure negations of beliefs.

Because I was raised atheist, my atheism has never needed that aggression. Or that strident refusal to bend, to make what would even risk appearing to anyone else as a compromise.

It’s not an issue for me to say that the material world itself has some divinity, some majesty to it. It’s not an issue for me to say that divinity can arise from profane sources. Like – in the Jewish philosophical tradition – the divine manifesting in ethical principles and good actions themselves. 

A reactionary’s God is the authority figure that sits above us all, judging, punishing, and commanding us. An atheist’s God can be the divinity that arises when people are kind to each other, in each act that treats each other with dignity. That God is no authority, but the grace that emerges from our own nature and the world.