Losing One of the Family, Advocate, 18/08/2017

I was originally going to write more about the psychology of political consent. But I’ll pick that up on Monday. Instead, I just want to write a short post about a tragedy I read about yesterday.

Gwynevere's Facebook profile is now a memorial.
One of the reasons news of their death stood out to me in the noise
of tragedy in our world lately, is their name. They chose the name
River Song. They was part of my community, of people who
love Doctor Who.
The news showed up on my Twitter feed. It was a link to an article by The Advocate. “Texan is the 17th Transgender American Murdered in 2017.” Transgender people suffer violence at a disproportionately high rate. They face discrimination, severe psychological torture in everyday life from the casual hostility of ordinary prejudice.

Trans people are the targets of discriminatory practices from the sidewalk to the halls of state legislatures. When I read about one who was murdered on Saturday night, it hit a little closer to my heart than a lot of the other sad news I hear about murder and violence.

Their name was Gwynevere River Song.

I’m something of a Doctor Who fan. I haven’t swum the murky depths of dankness that you find on the Gallifrey One forums in a really long time. I visit often enough to get depressed and leave again.

I’ve been involved with the fandom often enough to know the awful dreck of a lot of Doctor Who controversy about gender and sexism issues over the last few years. The Moffat Hate brigade is a prime example that I think is very important for the show (or any show), but is so intense that they drive people away from considering their points.

Yes, there are plenty of mistakes when it comes to gender and sexuality that Steven Moffat has made, in the show and in interviews. He puts his foot in his mouth all too frequently, sometimes so deep that it’s like his skull is dimensionally transcendental. But he’s not evil.

Most inspirational part of the Smith era if you ask me. I'm not the
only one either.
Doctor Who has made more progress in its feminist and liberatory perspective under Steven Moffat than ever before. Short form, his arcs for the female characters built a more complex life and a more powerful agency than a companion character had in the whole history of the show.

Despite all the justified and reaching criticism Moffat’s characters received, they all connected deeply with a female and feminist fandom.

You can see how deeply Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who connected with some of its fans when you hear about a trans person from the heart of Texas and see that they’d chosen to begin their new life by adopting the name of Moffat’s greatest character and Alex Kingston’s most epochal performance.

I wish we could have learned about Gwynevere for some other, non-horrible reason. That Song could have lasted longer.

Kill Your Idols VIII: The Best Raw Deal, Research Time, 17/08/2017

Here is the sort of political activism you need when you understand how complex the relationship between society, culture, and state is.

Your activism has to aim for hegemony. This is more than just control of the state. In fact, hegemony means a lot of different things. The term ‘hegemony’ whose meaning is continuous with present use, began in international relations theory in the 19th century.

Boys at war.
Essentially, the theory that sees all relations between nations and peoples as states at war. Whether by military or some other means. Conquest, dominance, hostility, suspicion, mistrust, fear, and hatred.

The language of what’s called realist IR theory is dispassionate, almost meditative. They talk in terms of interests, calculations of different risks and their mutual impacts, game theory. But I’ve long heard a whisper, an implication in a little too much of this talk, which sounds like little boys in a park playing at war.

Hegemony here is the dominant power – the state at the centre of military and economic power for an entire region or the world. The state to whom every other government pays loyalty if they know what’s good for them.

Antonio Gramsci’s innovation was to adapt the term to a domestic political context. He was thinking of states, cliques of oligarchs or aristocrats, and classes. Hegemony here means the power of a ruling class through the state to force obedience through violence, or else seduce them into it.

This is where those institutions come into play. Most of them – especially in Gramsci’s own time and place, early 20th century Europe – were organs of the state. The different military and police bureaus could force you to obey. One important reason (among many) why Gramsci’s revolution in Italy failed was because the Italian Communist Party thought those violent institutions were all that mattered.

Nothing phallic about this at all.
Consent of the governed is a much more powerful force. Many people who were desperately and inescapably poor under the current way of doing things in 1920s Italy – factory workers, farmers, labourers – simply weren’t up for revolution. They were okay with the way things were.

There are a lot of people who, in situations of terrible injustice, are still okay with things. They can see the real circumstances of wretchedness that the status quo results in, and they’ll just make excuses, or simply act as though it doesn’t matter.

You want an example? Introduce yourself to a middle-class white Canadian from a reasonably affluent suburban community. Ask him about the number of Indigenous rural communities don’t have access to a clean water source.

He’ll be filled with excuses, half of them blaming Indigenous people themselves for not having a basic government service we take for granted everywhere else in the country.

Now why would he believe that? These are ideas that proliferate culturally – in conversations and mass media, whether some media platform or channel is state-run or private. They’re the conversations that condition public morality.

Yeah, I'm going there. At least for a little while.
Powerful institutions, organizations, and sometimes even individuals can control channels and platforms. Effective political activism has to work on all these forces at once. Agitating against unjust government actions isn't enough.

Maybe it’s through direct ownership – the state runs the CBC, Facebook is a company that shapes our online life, several oligarchs become think tank funders or outright buy media companies. Maybe it’s through influence, building a profile in these media or influencing people in states and private organizations.

Together – say it with me now – all these forces manufacture our consent.

So is Noam Chomsky just warmed-over Antonio Gramsci? Pretty much, and not even as interesting. But I think I’ll go into more detail why tomorrow.

Kill Your Idols VII: States Can Be Idols Too, Research Time, 16/08/2017

When I wrote Monday’s post, I was still planning to follow it up with what I’m writing tonight. But I was going to start a new little series. Then I realized that I was still circling around the same problem. I’m jumping into it from different angles. Some work better than others for getting to the point.

That point is pretty simple. It's what I had in mind when I started. Political thinking tends to make an idol of the state, which is dangerous, destructive, and incomplete. What are some ways this idol-casting happens? How can we play Moses to this process and smash that idol before people get too attached to it?

Parliament Hill, one of the institutions that one brand of too-patriotic
Canadians worship. I'm glad we live in a democracy, but we shouldn't
make idols of our institutions and gods of our governments. That
worshipful attitude erodes democracy with scowling, preening
desires to supplicate and submit.
I mean, people are already attached to this idea. It’s the obsessive centre of almost every problem and concept in two separate millennia-old traditions of political philosophy – Western and Chinese. Imagine what would have happened to Jewish culture if God had kept Moses on Sinai for 3000 years.

It would have been a lot harder to break that idol worship than just knocking over a cow statue and yelling.

Antonio Gramsci’s work expresses a powerful tension of this attempt to break up those idols. He was part of a revolutionary political movement that tried to overthrow the Italian state in the turmoil after the First World War.

In prison, he examined how aspects of society that weren’t agents or products of direct state action played a role in their defeat. His major concern was to understand these forces so his successors could take some kind of action on them. Social and cultural aspects of society were the blind spots in marxist thinking until Gramsci realized that his revolution failed because of them.

But it was difficult to grow political philosophy beyond its myopic focus on the state. Here’s an example in Perry Anderson’s essay. One of Gramsci’s focusses in the Prison Notebooks was to examine the ideas of Italy’s leading philosopher, Benedetto Croce.

Benedetto Croce looks like the most
stereotypical early 20th century European
intellectual you've ever seen. Until you look
up photos of Henri Bergson. Oh, fuck.
Croce carried into Italy the mainstream tradition of Germany’s philosophy. His central influences were Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Friedrich Schelling. His politics followed Kant’s, his thinking on society, culture, and psychology followed Hegel, and his ontology followed (at least one of the several) Schelling.

He was the leading liberal intellectual of the newly-united Italy until his death in the mid-1950s. He'd been a resister of fascism since its early days arresting (like Gramsci) and assassinating left-wing opponents. The murder of socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 was Croce’s turning point against Mussolini.

This historical info is all just one level of sourcing away from Wikipedia. I started with Britannica, actually. I’m not all that familiar with Croce’s philosophy – I found Nietzsche much more productive for the directions that I wanted to pursue in my own research. And when I was a student, the courses I took on that tradition concentrated on Kant and Hegel themselves.

Gramsci’s essays in prison engaged with Croce’s philosophy as a political theorist. Croce articulated a tradition of thought that saw the state at the centre of politics, of society, of human existence itself as an ontological principle. In this, he was following a conservative perspective on the ideas in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

In Croce’s philosophy, the state – metaphysically speaking – pre-exists humanity itself. The state is an ontological principle universally necessary to harmonious and unified human life. A given society and culture is the expression of the state.

This is a bit much for Gramsci, as it is for us. But I am not surprised that totalitarian politics and philosophy grew in the Western tradition where those right-wing Hegelian ideas were so influential.

Gramsci was concerned to critique this idea that culture was an expression of the state. That presumption that a change in the nature of the state would change the culture was part of what led his own movement, philosophically speaking, to its failure.

So what would this more complex relationship of society, culture, and state be?

The Will to Destroy, Composing, 15/08/2017

I’ve been looking back through the old posts for my book of essays on Capaldi era Doctor Who, and I wanted to talk about “Into the Dalek.” I remember the general reaction to this story as being fairly muted.

A lot of my original review of "Into the Dalek" consisted of my own
quick takes on the successes and failures of Dalek stories throughout
the history of Doctor Who. Short form – Dalek stories work when
there's something more interesting than Daleks in them, when the
Daleks act as a catalyst for a more multidimensional narrative that
is the part of the story we can actually give a crap about.
The Daleks are creatures of hype, at least in popular culture. Every time they appear on contemporary Doctor Who, they seem also to get a Radio Times cover. If not that, they end up on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine. So the reception of a Doctor Who Dalek story always runs the risk of underwhelming.

DALEKS!!!! YEAH!!!!

Then it turns out that the storyline is kind of bollocks – a riff on Fantastic Voyage? Seriously? – Returning to The Invisible Enemy as a well worth drawing? Holy fuck. Plus, the characterization is utterly non-existent.

The letdowns can keep you from seeing what was good about the episode, because Dalek stories are connected with such hype.

It didn’t help that Daleks were portrayed at an operatic pitch for so many high-profile episodes of the Russell T Davies era. I feel like one of the reasons Steven Moffat began shifting Daleks away from the centre of Doctor Who adventures throughout his tenure was to make the ‘ordinary Dalek story’ a conceivable story choice again.

Mainly, however, this is a post about how I’ll update those original Doctor Who reviews from 2014 for the current version. There are two directions I could do with “Into the Dalek.” One is to follow along with the ideas of my first review, discussing different ways to make the Daleks actually interesting in a story.

Because it’s really easy to write boring Daleks. “Exterminate!” is all the characterization you need to do. Your entire episode’s plot consists of running away from Daleks and blowing them up. These stories haven’t been exciting to most people since the 1950s.

Another aspect of the Capaldi era that I want to explore in Essays
Critical and Temporal
 is the possible meanings of Peter Capaldi's
hair throughout his era. His rather conservative haircut of the first
series slowly grows into a wilder mess. It seems to parallel the
development of his character in a similarly relaxed direction. As I
remember from an insightful Gareth Roberts tweet, it was only by
his last year in 2017 that they finally wrote Capaldi's Doctor as the
Doctor instead of some angry old man.
But most of my initial review stuck to looking through examples from the show’s history, mining them for good and bad ways to approach Dalek stories. Useful, interesting, but I don’t think as interesting as it could be.

No, what I want for the book version of the “Into the Dalek” essay is to meditate a little longer on the core philosophical conflict of the story itself. Dalek nature is the totalizing will to destroy – so I’ll explore what it means to will destruction, whether Daleks are a death drive in the Freudian sense or something far more horrible.*

* Hint. It’s totally going to be more horrible.

I also want to explore what a profound transformation Rusty makes of his own nature in “Into the Dalek.” He understands the radical principle that there can be an exception to that totalizing will. The central confrontation of the story is the Doctor pushing him one step further in the argument – that an exception to the totality proves its falsity.

If there’s at least one thing not worth destroying, then nothing is worth destroying. At least not as a Dalek does, as an existential mission.

Some potentially deep philosophy going on here.
• • •
If you want to support some of that potentially deep philosophy in this book project, you can start giving to my Patreon. I’ll post a rough budget for the Capaldi Era book project – probably by September. It’ll lay out some basic costs: buying quality copies of the episodes with creator commentaries, printing and production costs. I’ll probably claim the cost of my InDesign subscription for the time I’ll be assembling the book.

Claim? What do I mean by that? You’re my (potential) Patreon supporters. Not my tax accountant.

Anyway, if you like the sound of my project – Essays Critical and Temporal: Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who** – you can subsidize it with regular donations to my Patreon. Perks, thanks, and gratitude galore.

** Working title. You like it? Let me know.

Kill Your Idols VI: Needing to Get It Right, Research Time, 14/08/2017

I find it sadly fitting that I’ve spent the last week talking about the complex connections between state violence and fascist militias, then we get hit with an actual fucking Nazi riot. The fascist revolution of America appears to be here.

See, all these thoughts in my all-over-the-place analysis of patriotism’s psychology all had a central point. I’m drifting around a really curious concept of hegemony that Antonio Gramsci develops.

This weekend makes me wonder if the United States of America has
reached a turning point, whether it's no longer possible for extremist
white nationalists and multicultural pluralist democrats to live in the
same country and live loyally to the same institutions. It could be
either the beginning of the end of the American experiment, or the
threshold of a new era of freedom and justice. Or it could end up
being just one more flare-up in a long and terrifying history of
American racist violence.
There’s been a ton written on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in the last several decades of academic political philosophy. So I don’t want to get into a discussion over whether it was really Gramsci’s, or whether Anderson’s books got it right. Because I’ve been thinking this while reading some of Perry Anderson’s books on Gramsci and the Western left-wing tradition.

He’s a brilliant historian of ideas. The only thing that frustrates me about his work is that he’s such an accurate historian that I have no clue what his own philosophical ideas are. At least not in that abstract sphere of pure concepts.

I read his book on the politics and philosophies of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule, and he had plenty of his own ideas. But those were about political stances – the Hindu-centric nationalism of the Congress Party caused disasters, ethnic cleansing, and immense suffering among Indian Muslims and Dalits.

Anderson is, as you’d expect, not cool with that. His ideas are in the insight of his moral stances in his writing. But when it comes to philosophical concepts, he’s a very meticulous mapper of others’ territory. He doesn’t build his own worlds.

So his map of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is very insightful. In his long essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, Anderson was very faithful to Gramsci’s ideas as they are in the text. He even describes them as paradoxical and contradictory because Gramsci developed a very slippery conception of hegemony.

Sometimes, he spoke of hegemony as if it were about state control and influence of other states through the military. Domestically, sometimes he thought of it as state violence. Sometimes, it was the soft power of the state through cultural institutions. Sometimes, hegemony was ideological. Sometimes, it was just a matter of sanctioned gun violence.

It was rather difficult for me to find a good picture of Perry
Anderson where he didn't look kind of depressed. These days, I can
understand where he's coming from.
If the meaning of a term seems to contradict itself, then it can’t be valid. Fine for a historian, but it’s a rule that makes for terrible philosophy. Oddly enough, Anderson's big history book on the Western Marxist tradition more generally tends to give Gramsci more slack on this hegemony concept. Maybe because his focus is on how the concept changed over time and place.

Look again at all those definitions of hegemony that occur across the Prison Notebooks. What do they have in common? The projection of power as the ability to control and influence. There’s always a hub to that projection, a centre of power.

That power centre is sometimes very blunt, and its projection simple and direct. Think about the Russian Revolution of 1917. It could succeed relatively easily (once it got super-lucky) because there was only one vector of power – from the Czar to the masses through the aristocracy and military elite.

Power centres can also be dispersed. Think about a country and society like the contemporary United States. Institutions and networks of influence all over the country spread a morality of patriotism, love of country and the institutions of the state.

Americans don’t believe in this simply as a matter of following orders – schools, television networks, cultural industries of all sorts spread the moralities of American patriotism, America as an ideology. That ideology itself can come in contradictory forms – racists and pluralists can exist in the same country. They have for centuries.

They’re loyal to the same institutions – American democracy, just as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison described in the Federalist Papers. Even though they believe in radically different moral visions of what those institutions should do.

But it’s always a network of control and influence with a hub, the state institutions themselves. That’s the most philosophically tantalizing take I can find, figure out, or think of for Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. It’s the one that I’ll use in my own work.

Hegemony as the dominant projection of loyalty to a state.

Kill Your Idols V: The People's Violence, Research Time, 11/08/2017

So what do you do with a few million people who unconditionally and uncritically love their country?

It’s a legitimate question to ask. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that straight-up patriotism and paranoid jingoism was once the most frightening political current surrounding the White House. Those were the days.

The September 11 attacks and George W Bush’s reaction to them was the cataclysmic engine of this whole messed up century. Millions are dead and the world has been radically transformed through the events that the attack and W’s war set into motion.

I thought we'd remember George W Bush as an epochal man, the 20th
century's first bumbling monster. Yet how quickly he's been forgotten,
overshadowed.
Back then, I saw this orgy of patriotism as an act of love for the American state, its military, and George W Bush. When I would see how patriotic, viciously pro-war American people acted on questions of politics, I did see some weirdly sublimated acts of love for those bombs.

I was disturbed and depressed at the knowledge of millions of dead Iraqis in a terrifying insurgency. I knew that, as far as the Middle East was concerned, this was the beginning of – minimum – two decades of conflict.* But I was sure that the effects on American culture at least were limited to aggressive country music criticism.

* Right now, I’m betting on four decades. So we’ve got about 25 years to go. Time to start getting ready for some serious refugee movements. I doubt we’ve seen the end yet.

Now, we’re dealing with a genuine authoritarian takeover of the American government to render it a one-party state, and a radical white nationalist political element (with unnerving shades of anti-Semitism) dominating the White House.

Donald Trump’s politics aren’t only about state-based authoritarianism through immigration crackdowns, unrestrained police violence, and a revived War on Drugs.

Independent militia groups on the far right are growing fast. Now, when I read Anderson’s book on Antonio Gramsci, there’s a discussion of the pro-fascist militias of 1920s Italy. Even though Anderson was writing this book long before Donald Trump was even on TV, his words engaged with the same problem of whether patriotism would inspire popular violence.

Because it's a penis, Donald. It's a giant penis.
Gramsci himself gave an account of the social power of patriotism to inspire violence. In Italy, these gangs of young and middle-aged men would attack socialists and other left-wingers.

Now these gangs got a few kickbacks from the fascist government and many graduated into the police and the military. So Anderson concludes that the gangs were effects of the state. It’s a kink that I see in his thinking – very twentieth century. As soon as the state’s action appears in any social situation, it dominates that situation.

But the militias weren’t like that. In a way, they co-opted the state. Those militia groups in Italy had existed since the end of the First World War. Mussolini’s coup was an independent radical nationalist militia group that overthrew the Italian government through an armed insurrection in the heart of Rome.

Radical white nationalist militia groups have existed in America pretty much since the Reconstruction and advent of Jim Crow laws. The Trump campaign for President was when the core media personalities and executives of American white nationalist media took over the executive branch through their faction of the Republican Party.

Nationalism is patriotism twisted into a screech of racializing bloodlust. Patriotism is a function of popular morality. The state inculcates it through education, but once it’s a popular morality, its development is beyond state control.

In Italy, the radical nationalists wear their best suits to overthrow the
government. Steve Bannon can't even put his shirts on straight.
Governance through legislation and policy means that intentionality is always an aspect of state systems. Its action can never be chaotic – its capacities are primarily in direct action. That’s a great vulnerability.

The possibility of revolution, in fact. People organizing themselves politically into a dynamic movement – a morality spreads, consciousness of that shared morality spreads, and people coordinate direct action for change in their society and institutions.

In 1920s Italy, all the communists knew, from their theories, that their revolution was coming. Then Mussolini marched on Rome.

I remember how happy I was when Barack Obama was elected. The deranged patriotism of the Bush years looked like it might be coming to an end. Then Donald Trump brought the Birther Movement to national television.

Kill Your Idols IV: Let Daddy Hurt You, Research Time, 10/08/2017

That’s probably my ickiest title in the history of the entire blog. We live in icky times.

But the past few posts about the ideas I had reading Perry Anderson’s book on Gramsci, comparing it to my own notes on the Italian have returned to the central critical question of Utopias. Why do we fight for our slavery as if it were our freedom?

One critical question we in democratic countries should always ask is this: Are we democratic enough? Or can we build a more free and prosperous society?

You know you live in a pretty damn democratic society when your
public broadcaster devotes money and a really solid time slot (at least
in its first season) to a show as weird and deranged as Kenny Vs
Spenny. Plenty of powerful countries devote their public
broadcasters to ridiculous propaganda.
Once we start taking that question seriously, we can ask another one, a matter of strategy and planning for our real-world activism for more democracy: What makes people love our country when we could be so much better? What’s the ground of a population’s loyalty to a country?

Antonio Gramsci found himself asking that when he was imprisoned by a government far more brutal than any government we have in Canada,* which inspired incredibly loyalty among Italy’s population.

* Well, non-Indigenous territory in Canada. Our federal government isn’t very kind when it comes to governing them. Our leaders have mostly blamed poor Indigenous people for the pathetic state of basic infrastructure that our government built.

We were taught all our lives since elementary school that Mussolini was a monster. But for most of the two decades he ruled Italy, Mussolini’s popularity as a political leader could go as high as Justin Trudeau’s and as low as Donald Trump’s. But that’s still the support of millions of Italian citizens.

Gramsci’s analysis is rooted in the powers of the state. It’s how, in part, he develops his concept of hegemony. He accepts the idea that one of the central powers of the state is violence. We all learn in basic political theory that the state is the only agent of legitimate violence in a society.**

One day, maybe we'll remember Donald Trump the way Italians
remember Mussolini. With ironic kitsch paraphernalia and
deranged media mogul politicians admiring his virility. Oh God.
** Too bad we’re never asked in those basic political theory to discuss why even state violence is legitimate in the first place. Seems an even more basic question to me.

But it’s all too easy to think of violence as the only function of the state that matters. Think back to the Russian state’s vulnerability in 1917. Hell, how about the Syrian, Libyan, Egyptian, and Tunisian state’s vulnerability five years ago!

When the only way a state can actually encourage the population’s loyalty is violence, it’s already lost. Or at least, there’s not much beyond revolution, or civil war, or both as the only ways forward. Violence and the threat of violence is a very ineffective weapon precisely because it’s so destructive.

Most of the work of loyalty building for the state doesn’t come through its violent institutions. The most efficient institutions of loyalty are the soft power institutions. Schools, naturally, are the most powerful – we learn the national anthem, basic stories about Canadian history and culture, Canadian values.*** We learn it all as children, impressionable creatures whose basic habits and personalities can still be moulded.

*** Maybe they’re left-wing Canadian values of universal brotherhood in infinite combinations. Maybe they’re right-wing Canadian values of more conventional patriotism. Still Canadian.

It has never gotten less subtle.
Plenty of other state institutions help take care of this value-building process too. Public broadcasters for news and entertainment, film development boards, and museums. Working together, schools and cultural institutions are powerful tools to weave patriotic loyalty into a population.

Deeply democratic cultures and governments let their state-run cultural and education institutions bring up problems the country faces – for instance, poverty or a past of crimes against humanity. But these institutions can also be used for pure indoctrination. Of course, they’ll work best if they’re subtle about it.

Still, indoctrination from such powerful institutions can sometimes be so heavy-handed it’s a form of violence itself.

When all these institutions of soft power and values training have done their work, you have a significant chunk of the population whose political reflexes are their belief in the unconditional good of the country.

Now what do you do with those people?

Kill Your Idols III: Why You Love Your Country, Research Time, 09/08/2017

So things got away from me a little bit yesterday. It happens sometimes. Part of the experimental nature of the blog. I think I swung a little too fast and loose from the very abstract to the straight-up historical. Then I think I swung back again.

In 800 words. That’s what I call whiplash.

Freedom to say what you wish and turn back the most monstrous ones
with the light of truth. A society that allows you this fosters the
strongest patriotism.
Let’s talk history, and what we can learn from history. What Antonio Gramsci learned from the history that just got him thrown into prison. One more pass.

For Lenin to win out in the Russian revolution, all he needed to do was break the aristocracy. More accurately, take advantage of a breaking aristocracy.

For Gramsci to win out in an Italian revolution, he would have needed the following sectors and interest groups of his country to collapse simultaneously. 1) The aristocracy; 2) All the other political parties; 3) The business and merchant elite; 4) The social democratic trade unions; 5) The military; and the fraying of all the friendships and professional bonds across all these groups and institutions.

I should also mention that an Italian revolution would have needed to unite a drastically divergent regionalism in a country that had only been a single state for about 40 years by the time Mussolini took over.

That’s what I mean by redundancy in a society’s networks. There’s a special relationship in democratically-governed states, which gives an extra strength to those networks. Democracy.

All of popular culture – or at least enough of it to be unavoidable – gets consumed by political discussions. Party alliances, policies, philosophies, the place of your country in the world, the place of you as a citizen in your country.

We must have the right to yell. There's no more powerful human
freedom.
The process all ends with this massive public ritual of the vote – you mail your ballot or mark one at a live location, then everyone gathers around the media of their choice to watch the results. The aggregate of all those ballots actually determine who occupies important government jobs.

All those conversations about politics – both among people and from government and institutional sources – serve a major purpose. They disseminate and accustom people to the public morality of representative democracy.

It’s the most impressive way to earn legitimacy for your state institutions – actually get them involved in discussions about how those institutions should be run. In a democracy, you’re free to have conversations that let off steam in public about your frustrations with the government. As well, you feel like your ideas can contribute in some small way to how your government is run.

That’s the foundation of a powerful personal investment in your government. When you have this emotional connection to the state, you feel like you’re part of it, and it’s part of you. The state matters to you when you can participate in its work and decision processes. Even if ordinary citizens can’t do that much, just that small amount builds so much love and loyalty.

Even if you’re offering a better idea than any of the options the state has available, that loyalty is seriously difficult to overcome. Maybe even impossible. Democracies never fail when citizens feel like they can take part.

I wonder how people can accustom themselves to a police state. To me,
living in such a society feels like living with a constant, never-ending
skin infection all over my arms that caused the most horrific itching
all the time. That is how much my soul would chafe and dry out.
They’re overthrown in wars and military coups, but that’s usually a matter of force. It’s not a revolution. A revolution is a popular overthrow of the state. Do you expect a people to overcome their own love, when they really love their country?
• • •
I once met a guy who was legitimately considering working for Bashar Assad’s government. He was fascinating in some ways, but in others, he was the most boring man I’d ever seen.

Any public statement he made about political matters was an empty platitude to the value of humanitarianism. There’s no PR copy more vapid and dull than what comes out of the mouth of a dictator’s loyalists.

“Hey, man, don’t you love your country? I love my country. You should love it too.”

A friend of mine got that line from a secret police agent. Thinking about my conversations with Assad loyalists, Syrian democrats who’ve had to put up with Assad loyalists, I realized something about democracy.

By encouraging people to think about politics in deep, complicated ways, as if your decisions could effect the course of your country, you make smarter, more adaptable, loyal, enthusiastic, patriotic, and generally just plain better citizens.

The open question – Do you want your country to have citizens?

Kill Your Idols II: Power to Which People? Research Time, 08/08/2017

Does the world run like a clockwork, with simple, easily predictable events and processes? Reality is really much more complicated than that.

We may be able to understand the underlying mathematics behind how the world changes, but the relationships of all those actual, ongoing processes cause so many dynamic effects that it becomes computationally impossible to account for them all.

Predictions only occur in laboratory conditions – pristine environments where all relevant processes are controlled. The world is no laboratory. Too much is beyond our control once all the world’s ongoing processes start interacting with each other.

A representation of Ananke, the Greek Pagan name for the necessity
of reality itself, the determination of fate.
Okay, now let’s scale back a bit from the abstract. Step down from this web of time analysis and look at some real historical situations here. That way, we can see how tripped-out abstract thinking is directly and practically relevant to material matters of politics and life.

Let’s go back to Italy in the 1920s. My grandparents are children growing up on farms in the middle of nowhere in Calabria. They know nothing of this, even though this political instability will lead to the wars that determined their coming of age.

Antonio Gramsci is arrested by Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, as one of the leaders of the Italian Communist Party. He’d eventually die in fascist custody, thanks to the failure of his health in their wretched prison conditions. While dying slowly over ten years, he writes a masterpiece of political philosophy.

He’s wondering where he went wrong. If the time of successful revolutions to build communist societies had begun, why were all the ones in western Europe shut down?

Marxist orthodoxy in early 20th century Europe was that the factory-based proletarian labourer class would gain consciousness of themselves as a class, including their raw deal under capitalism, and that the Communist Party vanguard would lead them into a whole new economic system.

The first I ever learned about the Russian revolution was the story
of Doctor Zhivago, which was one of this movie nerd's favourite
films, even when I was a young kid. The film had an intense hold
on me, sucking me into every scene even though it was nearly
three hours long and I saw it for the first time when I was nine.
That sounds awesome! It never happened. Not even in Russia, where you had an actual Communist Party’s revolution actually being successful.* There was no factory-based economy there to speak of. Most of the country was agrarian and pretty much feudal.

* Sort of. Heavily crippled by a massive civil war in which every major western European power sent armed battalions to help put down Lenin’s government. Causing Lenin so much stress that he died of a stroke shortly after the civil war, and was never able to build institutions around community workers’ councils. Josef Stalin just built a huge secret police state with a bunch of massive collectivized farms. Fuck.

The Russian Revolution itself broke from the doctrinaire marxist script, the script that said human economics and society had a life cycle as natural as an oak tree.

The end of capitalism would come from the industrialization of society and its breakup into a 1% of oligarchs and a 99% of slave-wage factory labourers. The labourers realize their raw deal and the force of their numbers, overthrow the oligarchs, and govern society equally through workers’ councils. The ever-more abundant production of industry would lift everyone out of poverty and we’d live as equals.

Yet the first successful revolution was in a feudal economy, because Czarist Russia had a social division of oligarchs and slaves even more stark than the England whose industry was Marx’s own model for Capital.

To understand time, you mustn't think of it as a necessity, as clockwork,
but as the collision of processes, where even the smallest change
alters the entire system.
European industrialization had taken a turn away from the extremes of the 19th century. Their societies stayed complex, or developed new complexities as the old loyalties and identities fell away. Politics never reduced all the way to economic classes anyway.

Gramsci was stuck in prison trying to figure out why the world wouldn’t go according to the script. Why the conditions of a successful revolution were so different from what he encountered.

Gramsci wrote the template to reintroduce contingency into the marxist tradition of thought. He did more than just do that, though. Because you couldn’t just deny necessity. That becomes a shouting match.

No, Gramsci had to reveal to everyone who philosophized about politics and society the source of contingency in the human realm. That source was the mind of humanity itself, when we all think and talk together. That source is our ethics, values, and morality. It was philosophy in action in the thoughts of every member of a community.

So yeah, no big thing to figure out there. . . . To Be Continued

Kill Your Idols I: Followers, A History Boy, 07/08/2017

When I first started blogging my early research for Utopias, I was concerned to stay away from conventional marxism. I was going to write a very left-wing book, but it wasn’t going to stick to the typical answers of the left.

Yes, I was concerned about oligarchy, just as I am now. I’ve since developed a more communitarian side to my political thinking – the strength and resilience of social networks and bonds of brotherhood throughout a community are the foundation of a healthy culture.

All the typical nationalist idols – religion, ethnicity, language, beliefs in national myths – don't mean shit, if I can put it in technical terms. Solidarity is built from actual friendships among people – from working, playing, clubs, school, partying, volunteering, whatever. The resilience of a society’s networks are its strength.

The basic idea of this series of posts is: If you want to
progress your society, and how you understand the
world, you need to kill your idols.
When I started this blogging project four years ago, I was still sorting out my more political ideas. At the time, I often said I very much wasn’t marxist, for a variety of reasons.

Here’s one anecdote from the time. When I got my proposal reviewer’s notes from Palgrave on Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, he kept on talking about marxism, and telling me I should include more marx in a book about environmental philosophy.

He did that because the word ‘alienation’ is really important in a lot of environmental ethics approaches. They’re talking about the different ideologies and concepts humanity has used to separate our self-image from nature. We literally make ourselves alien to the Earth.

But this reviewer kept thinking I was a marxist. All he knew of the idea was Marx’s conception of alienated labour.

At first I was nervous that my book would be rejected because of this misunderstanding. But I got some good advice from my colleague who’d connected me with Palgrave. So I gave my usual response to reviewers who clearly didn’t know what they were talking about. I told the book series editor that the reviewer had no idea what he was talking about.

The bigger question is: What does it mean to be a marxist anyway? I don’t think I’m one, but most folks on the right wing of politics today would call me a cultural marxist.

See, I’ve met some self-identified communists and marxists over the years who are kind of genuine in their very doctrinaire belief in the very basic processes Marx himself was describing. Some see the economy as continuing to cleave into producers and proletariat. Some believe that they can affect a revolution of the working class from an academic’s office.

But people in the communist movement believed all this in Antonio Gramsci’s own time, nearly 100 years ago. They thought that all of Europe was going in the direction of the Russian revolution because they believed in a very doctrinaire marxist theory of the totally deterministic nature of human history.

They ended up being horribly wrong, and a lot of them – including Gramsci – paid the price with their freedom and their lives. Why would someone believe something just because it’s in a theoretical, scientific book?*

* That’s a very complex, multifaceted book that’s open to many interpretations. Most of these folks were following a blueprint from Capital, and Capital was never meant to be a straight blueprint in any universal sense. Yet it still became one.

Here’s the truth about social change. Revolutionary change can come from anywhere in society, if the particular conditions are right to enable some class or community to understand that it can act, then actually act.

Civilization is dynamic, always open to change, never clockwork in that too-simple sense of how people used to think about reality. Am I giving people too much credit by not presuming them to believe in a clockwork reality? . . . To Be Continued

The Faint Odour of Sorrow in the Alleys, A History Boy, 06/08/2017

It's been a few years since I last did a pleasure-reading challenge that I’d been doing for myself since about 2006 or so. I call it my big ridiculous book challenge. Around winter, shortly after the New Year, I’d start a novel that had a reputation for being big, difficult, or a little bit insane.

When I read Mahfouz, I feel like he's always been
an old man. He didn't even start publishing his
fiction until he was well into middle age.
I’d been reading crazy difficult books since my teens. But I decided, mostly for self-indulgence really, to put some conscious effort into it. I only recently finished the book I’d started this winter. But here are some other examples to show you want I typically pick.

A couple of weeks before my 26th birthday in 2009, I bought myself all of In Search of Lost Time. It took me six months to read that thing, and I took breaks. Beautiful writing, dense with ideas. But that narrator was such a little prick that I had to get away from him for a while now and then.

I think I took breaks to read other literature after the second and third books. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and The Guermantes Way saw that narrator becoming truly insufferable. His snobbery, classism, and ego were unforgivably intense.

I mean, his behaviour was worse and way more immoral and malignant in The Captive. But at least it was shorter and was followed up by The Fugitive, the beginning of the narrator’s path of contrition that would last for the rest of the series. Marcel Proust was brilliant, but his amazing prose sometimes feels tortuous when it renders such a misogynist pig too faithfully for me to keep my lunch down.

A couple of years later, it was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. That was just plain fun. It didn’t even feel that hard. Two reasons. I’ve been reading parodic, over-the-top postmodern novels all my life already. This was just the model. The year before, it was Don Quixote, which I’m pretty sure is the model for all of them.

The other reason is that I’d already read Against The Day a few years ago after I got it in a campus bookstore for $6. 1100 pages for $6. And I laughed through most of it. Similar situation the year after Gravity’s Rainbow when I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons. I’d read some of his other epic novels, and Demons was just the most intense.

The entire trilogy covers about 35 years in the life of this family, as they
live through the social and political transformations of Egypt's
independence from the British Empire, the violence of the Second
World War, and finally the first years of the nationalist government.
This winter, it was The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, which I got for one dollar each in a United Way book sale fundraiser at the liquor store. It’s one of those stories that isn’t really about anything other than ordinary life. It’s a detailed depiction of the men (and occasionally the women) of one family, the Jawads.

Patriarch Ahmad rules his family with iron authority, harshly disciplining all his children. He’s a strictly conservative religious household head – he doesn’t even allow his wife Amina or his daughters to leave the house beyond going to the roof. He’s one hell of a patriarch.

He’s also a huge hypocrite. When he’s out in the community running his general store, he’s a gregarious, charming businessman. Then when he’s out partying with his friends – and he parties almost every night – he gets drunk, sings, dances, plays music, bangs musicians. Luckily, he’s a charismatic hypocrite.

Even more luckily, he’s not the only point of view character. He’s a major one, but Mahfouz has a Dickensian touch in being able to draw a nuanced personality through detailed descriptions of the ongoing thoughts and actions of a character.

In fact, I’d say he’s better than Dickens, because Mahfouz relies on none of the cheap sentimentality the English writer would use to build sympathy with a character. As well, he had none of the transparent moralizing of purity and corruption in Dickens’ stories. He never got over that until his last book, Our Mutual Friend.

The Cairo Trilogy also shows the aspirations and hypocrisies of
Egyptian politics. One of Ahmad's teenage children spends the
first book Palace Walk as an activist with the Wafd Party,
demonstrating for Egyptian independence. By the end of Sugar
Street
, two of Ahmad's grandsons are arrested for their own
dissident activity against an autocratic nationalist regime.
Mahfouz doesn’t seem to have that moralizing attitude at all. He lets the actions and personalities of his characters to speak on their own terms, and you understand their goodness and moralities on your own as a reader.

The nice thing about the huge canvas of this 1200 page trilogy – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, all named after streets in Cairo's Al Husayn district – is that we have the time for every major character to get some measure of comeuppance for their hypocrisy. Mostly just through the time it takes for age to make a mockery of our egos.

It happens to everyone if they live long enough. Sometimes, there’s justice to it. Like when Ahmad ends his last affair with the knowledge that he’s just too old to keep up with the energy and demands of younger courtesans.

Sometimes, there’s no justice at all. Like when Ahmad’s egotistical, knows-she’s-that-hot daughter Naima marries a wealthy heir for his money and eventually loses her husband and children to disease and medical conditions.

Time gives us what we deserve. It's a terrifying prospect. Beautiful books, though.

Replicating Glory III: The Material Details, Research Time, 04/08/2017

How to revolutionize a society so densely layered with different classes, business and civil relationships, political parties, cultural communities, trade unions and associations.

You know what civil society is? Redundancy in the social networks of an entire country. It does for societies what redundancy structures do in electrical power grids and different server hubs of the internet.

Let’s contrast Czarist Russia during the First World War. There was only one way to inculcate a sense of loyalty to the Czarist state – fealty to the class hierarchy of the Russian aristocracy. Break the people’s faith in that, and you’ve got a nationwide civil uprising.

The progressive politics of mid-20th century Western liberalism
transformed Canada from a polite northern jewel in the crown of the
British Empire, into a culturally more independent country. The
cultural currents led into Canadian state politics by Lester Pearson
(liberal internationalism), Pierre Trudeau (personal liberty), and
Tommy Douglas (brotherhood) literally built the new national
ideology of the Canadian people.
Now look at a society like Canada today. We’re a democracy with regular elections and media highly critical of government. And we have plenty of media criticizing our oligarchical class. Reporting on corporate crime is a popular demographic.

We’re also highly multicultural and permit people to speak whatever language they want in their private lives, and worship freely as long as nobody gets hurt. There are many places in the world where this never happens.

My country is also built on terrible injustices, like the slow, creeping, institutional genocide of Indigenous people. That’s what the Canadian state was designed to do in 1867.

The liberal reforms of the Pearson-Trudeau-Douglas era of Canadian leadership made some major progress on the foundations of a plural society. My generation is on the verge of a similar step, overturning the popular racism against Indigenous Canadians. Like the 1964-84 social revolutions, Indigenous liberation will probably take at least that long.

We’re in year five, if you’re counting.

But look at what this happy, diverse, plural, democratic society has – so many ways to become loyal to the Canadian state. As Antonio Gramsci would say, so many ways I’m loyal to a capitalist power structure.

I just described the exact way I’m loyal to the Canadian state, or at least the institution of Canada. I’m not about to overthrow the state of Canada and its entire economic system, like Lenin in 1917. I’m ethically invested in Canada.

Canada today is facing another revolutionary pressure, just as the
country did in the 1960s. That's the movement for Indigenous
liberation and reparations. It will mean tearing down the last,
most brutal and cruel institutions of the British Empire in Canada:
the reserve system and Indigenous race laws. We'll need leaders of
the same mettle as Douglas, Pearson, and Trudeau Sr. Will Justin
Trudeau have the same fortitude?
I doubt it. Let me put it to you this way. I think the best modern
philosopher to use in understanding Justin Trudeau is Jean
Beaudrillard. Justin Trudeau: the world's first hyperreal PM.
That’s what I mean about redundancy. There are so many different ways to be loyal to Canada that someone like me can exist peacefully with someone like the arch-nationalist, army-worshipping, neo-Loyalist Stephen Harper. He didn’t have to kill me to take power. I’m just in the NDP.

Back in Russia in 1917, the only way you could ethically invest yourself in Czarist Russia was to be loyal to the Czar and subservient to the landed aristocracy. One quick strike in a weak moment and the whole structure could fall to pieces.

If one path to ethical investment in multicultural democratic Canada falls apart, there are still plenty of other routes for the country to earn people’s loyalty. That’s why you need a ‘war of position’ in Gramsci’s terminology.

You need to be a strategist, exploring and analyzing each of these routes of loyalty to Canada. You have to look at each path to a person’s ethical investment in the country and the way things are (or could be with tweaks). Their structure, and their dynamics – the ways in which those loyalties can change but remain strong.

An activist and an ethnographer. A philosopher’s critical eye on ideology with an expert communicator’s power to make people of all stripes understand it. A social scientist who’s also an ambitious experimenter in society. That’s what you have to be to win the ‘war of position.’

That’s a bit of a tall order for a resumé. I think I can understand why this has not been very successful. That’s why Gramsci seems like such a pessimist, I guess.

Replicating Glory II: Strategy Games, Research Time, 03/08/2017

So you want to overthrow your government and entire economic and political system. Fair enough. There are crazier goals out there.

How are you going to do it? Well, a hundred years ago, the Russian Bolshevik Communist Party did it thanks to the widespread civil unrest as the First World War rippled through their society. That popular uprising against the Czarist regime of the Russian Empire didn’t have much leadership two political parties, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

The biggest problem democratic governments and cultures face is
the idea that elections and parliaments are all you need for
democracy. This notion killed pretty much every ham-hocked
attempt of the George W Bush administration to install democracy
in the Arab Middle East, and it led to some unfortunate
complacency against the surreal autocracy of Silvio Berlusconi's
humiliating leadership of Italy.
Communists all over Europe were so inspired by the (eventual) victory of the Bolshevik Party that they planned exactly the same kind of revolutionary action. Antonio Gramsci himself offers an excellent example of how most of them ended up.

Needless to say, one of Gramsci’s main intellectual occupations in prison was a question many of us have asked at one time or another. Where did I go wrong?

In short form, the failed revolutionaries were dazzled by success that they didn’t see the real differences between their own countries and Russia. All you needed to do to throw Russian society into chaos in 1917 was engulf the country in an unwinnable war that ruins the power of the aristocracy.

Small potatoes. Happens every other Thursday.

You couldn’t pull that kind of revolution in Italy, France, or England because there was more to the establishment than just the throne and a bunch of landed gentry. The rest of Europe had already gone through bourgeois revolutions. Sometimes several. They’d built parliamentary institutions, constitutional monarchies.

There were trade and business owners’ associations. The shorthand term is civil society.

The industrialized – even sort of industrialized – countries of Europe even had trade unions that were perfectly happy with this arrangement. Or at least not so upset that they wanted to overthrow the whole society. If you read any radical communist texts from this period, you’ll see them talking up a storm about “the reformists.”

You know who those people are? Trade unions. If I can steal a term from my old country, it’s the b’ys from OPSEU local 2079. They have the big barbecue tables at the annual town regatta. They just want better wages, health benefits, and better attendance at next year’s regatta barbecue. Nothing wrong with that.

This photo of Turi Prison in Apulia* where Antonio Gramsci spent
virtually all of the last decade of his life. It was taken in 1928. I'm
amazed that any creativity was possible here, let alone some of the
most remarkable left-wing political theory of the last century.
* That's the boot's heel, if you don't know Italian geography.
Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that, unless you want a revolution that upends the entire social, economic, and political system. Asking people to take resources away from the regatta barbecue? That’s a pretty big ask.

Seriously, though – in Italy by the time Gramsci died, even the folks organizing the regatta barbecue would have been rotting in a sunless cell. But even in secure democracies, the order of the day was under no threat.

Democracy – even one with ruthlessly unequal and discriminatory social structures – allowed people enough voice in their institutions that they saw routes to solve their social problems short of total revolution. Maybe they’re false routes, but there are still possibilities open to folks that stop short of that extreme risk.

The risk that paradise could become Stalinism.

So what do you want to do if you can’t achieve the total mobilization of everyone in a society, as the Bolsheviks did? You stick to what Gramsci called the “war of position.” A complex game of public relations, targeted direct action, attacks on concrete injustices, and complex, multidimensional political lobbying of every other interest group in the society to join an alliance with you to change the raw deal you all experience.

The problem is, if you’re doing all this, are you still a revolutionary? Or are you just another political party, with a bit of a more radical end-game program than the others? Does it even make a difference anymore?

To Be Continued . . . 

Replicating Glory I: Knowing What Kind of War You’re In, Research Time, 02/08/2017

So, like I said I would on Monday,* on to a few more words about Gramsci. It’s so nice to explore these ideas. It’s not a matter of my political sympathies alone, at least not in terms of making it only personal.

* I meant to post this yesterday, but it was actually a super-tiring day with other stuff that I had to do. By the time I was able to sit down with the blog, I was too tired to think.

Italians really know how to throw a communist party.
There’s a greater insight in a minor perspective than a majority’s. You learn more from a perspective that’s under the boot of power than you do from the ones who wear the boots or cut the leather. The ones who have to be wily are more creative, less predictable.

They twist major language and culture to make a hidden space. Call it a safe space. Or not, because the life of the strange is always a little dangerous. This is one of my personal favourites of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts – the minor.

I’m twisting it when I use it to talk about Gramsci, but I think – when I sit down and write Utopias – I’ll weave together some of what Deleuze and Guattari wrote about the literary voice of the minor cultural perspective with the position of Gramsci as a political prisoner and maybe even as a Sardinian.

What’s nice about reading Perry Anderson’s books about the history of Western marxism, is that he emphasizes the ideas in Gramsci that were immediately important to the community of communist activists and marxist academics. So the ideas that gained Gramsci his quickest fame were his arguments on strategy for revolution.

There’s a dualism at the heart of this strategy – war of maneuver and war of position. When Antonio Gramsci was a young man building the Italian Communist Party in the aftermath of the First World War, communists all over Europe looked to the Russian revolution of 1917 as a model for victory.

As you know, that didn’t really work out. Gramsci learned the hard way that it wasn’t going to work out. Italy was the first of the major European powers to install a reactionary conservative government after the war. Mussolini’s ideology and propaganda literally invented fascism. The left-wingers never stood a chance.

One of the famous images of Vladimir Lenin during his ultimately
victorious revolution of 1917. Look at the size of that crowd, then
understand that Lenin is trying to make himself heard over that
entire square. There is no microphone. He's just standing on some
rickety stage screaming as loud as he can.
The short version of that story is that Gramsci spent just over a decade of his life in prison, until it ended. Both the prison sentence and his life, in 1937 at the age of 46.

Communist revolutionaries, high on Lenin’s victory in St Petersburg, thought they would replicate that victory in exactly the same way. The Bolsheviks mounted a blitz against their own government when all the state institutions were wracked by the most intense crisis in the history of Russia as an empire.

It almost seems like common sense to me that such remarkable circumstances weren’t going to happen in the rest of Europe. Russia was a very different country than the other major European powers. Russia’s culture and political society was still dominated by the monarchy and the aristocracy that surrounded it. And there was no moment as singularly intense as the height of the First World War.**

** With so many themes from the First World War appearing in my research for Utopias, I feel like one basic idea in my own book will be putting the terror of that war at the forefront of political thinking. Hitler’s war, as horrifying as it was, was a creature of the epoch that the imperialists’ war began.

European powers like Germany, France, Spain, Britain, and Italy all had well-developed, complex class structures. It amounted to a redundancy in the society itself. A resistance to overthrow. So what’s a revolutionary going to do?

To Be Continued . . .