Havana Notes

It is early afternoon in Havana, and someone hands us a small flier. It reads: 

We are a collective of artists that come together every night at a small, dark and decadent underground hideaway. It also happens to be the best dance floor in the city. Looking for something with a little more edge than La Bodeguita or El Floridita? Come find us. 

In a few hours our large group – mostly white and indigenous United Statesians – are headed to the address provided. We walk down narrow, partially lit cobbled streets nestled between tall, ornate Old World buildings, past families playing dominos on card tables, countless stray dogs and cats, and the municipal headquarters for the Cuban Communist Party in Old Havana.  

There is, every few blocks or so, a building that is a shell of itself. Whether it is being renovated or torn down is difficult to tell. Investment for development and construction is painfully slow to come in. What’s more the city’s administration is determined to maintain as much of the aesthetic integrity of its architecture as possible. This means not just construction workers but artisans trained in crafts that haven’t been needed for most buildings in decades. Recently the government has set up colleges and arts schools dedicated to training young students in these crafts. But again, there are few resources with which to keep these institutions running.   

Occasionally, there are buildings that simply cannot be revamped or rebuilt, and these are to be demolished in order to put in a park or garden. In Old Havana – an area where structures are as much as five hundred years old – there is a notable lack of green space.  

The underground club is, as promised, small and dark. We each pay five dollars or convertible Cuban pesos to enter. We are given a free drink. After that each one is four dollars. Compared to what I am used to paying for alcohol in Los Angeles, this is a steal.  

There are two cozy rooms, one for the bar and one for the makeshift dance floor. In the middle of the latter is a small vinyl covered sofa. By the end of the night there will be perhaps a hundred people crammed in there, dancing to a mix between hip-hop, reggaeton and roots reggae. Our small group is likely the only American presence and, other than a couple of English rugby players, probably the only non-Cubans in the place. 

The artists’ collective hosting us is, for tonight at least, showing off its creative talents primarily through the medium of dance. The ceiling is criss-crossed with strong metal bars, not too unlike a lighting truss over a stage. Throughout the night, several young dancers will jump up on the sofa, grab the bars and perform moves that are physically remarkable whether you know dance or not. Dances that don’t merely employ the legs or hips or torso, but rely on the strength and flexibility of arms, necks, the ability to tangle and un-tangle one’s self from their partner in mid-air. 

There is a rather straightforward gender dynamic. Plenty of same sex couples dance with each other, and there are several non-binary dancers in the room. They are far from a marginal presence. In fact it is they who are often seizing the spotlight in the center of the room throughout the night. We sweat, we gyrate, we lose track of time for the sake of a place whose distinct air we have never breathed before. 

Catching my breath by the bar, I notice that as my friends and I come up, we happily pay the requested four dollars for a beer, a glass of wine, a shot of tequila, a mojito or Cuba libre. However, when someone from the neighborhood comes up, speaking Cuban Spanish, they aren’t charged a thing. Has this night been put on “for us”? Not exactly. We’ve been invited here to pay what are, by American standards, very cheap prices in order to pay for their night out, their revelry.  

And we have no complaints. We have been shown something of Havana that is quite separate from the official narrative. Something of the social rituals and leisure of people whose desires and stories have been shown to American eyes only through the most manipulated lenses. 

* * * 

I won’t romanticize Cuba, no matter how enchanted I found myself during our short visit. But neither should anyone concerned with the imaginary of human liberation dismiss it. Suffice it to say that in twenty years as a Marxist I’ve never encountered a theory that seems to satisfactorily explain the Cuban socialist experiment. The leftist realm of “critical support” seems to be entirely occupied by those either entirely uncritical or woefully unsupportive.  

The closest to an exception I’ve come across is that of CLR James and his co-thinkers. He understood that revolutions are less events than they are processes, and that processes can be shaped one way or the other by any number or combination of social forces.  

As such, his “critical support” of the Cuban Revolution was both genuinely critical and actively supportive. He was clear that the 1959 revolution had made massive gains in kicking out western imperialism and American interests, in redistributing resources to the poorest Cubans, but also that it had failed to put decisive democratic power in the collective hands of working people. He also gladly participated in the January 1968 Havana Cultural Congress, which was one of many such gatherings held in the city during the era of anti-colonial rebellion.  

This process – a process countless radicals found worthy of their participation – grabbed the imagination of people across the world during this era for a very good reason. For many Caribbean revolutionaries – not just James but Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Claudia Jones and countless others – the significance of the Cuban experience was found in the possibility it presented for the forging of a new, independent Caribbean identity. Specifically one that radically departed from the path of colonialism, subjugation, and genocide that western capitalism had imposed on the region.  

This vision is a powerful one, and it has endured through countless events and actions that could undermine it. Even as the Cultural Congress was underway, black Cuban writers and intellectuals critical of the government’s lack of action around racism were prevented from participating. In the later summer of that same year, hopes that Cuba might present a model of development independent from Moscow were dashed when Fidel supported the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. And yet, the idea of Cuba as a locus of Caribbean liberation continued. Not because of what it had become, but because of what it might have the potential to be. 

Now, of course, that process is both isolated and stalled. Its horizons have been narrowed greatly. Not just by the fall of the Soviet Union, but the sclerotic imaginations of those who have inherited leadership from Fidel and the slowly dying original generation of revolutionaries. Miguel Díaz-Canel, president and likely successor to Raul Castro as First Secretary of the Communist Party, was born in 1960. He has little actual memory of the revolution or the dynamic processes it unleashed.  

The Pink Tide that briefly gave Cuba much-needed oxygen in terms of ideas and resources has receded. Chavez is dead and Venezuela is in crisis, thanks largely to US meddling virtually identical to what Cuba has been subjected to. Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, now has a far-rightist in at its helm; he routinely threatens to sever diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

All of which needs to be kept in mind when considering the new travel restrictions imposed by the US this past Tuesday. Sixty years of these types of restrictions have done very little to destabilize – let alone dislodge – the Cuban government. It is worth asking whether they are in actuality even designed to. Cruise ships, private and corporate flights have been banned, but commercial flights are as of now unaffected, and people are still allowed to go to the island for business trips.  

The types of traveler affected most by these restrictions appear to be the tourist and the student. Steve Mnuchin, he who helped design Donald Trump’s slow-motion economic catastrophe in the US, claims the rules are designed to “help to keep US dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.” Except that these are visitors who are most likely to spend their money in ways that go most directly to ordinary working Cubans. For example, our ability to support a small artist collective. Pointing once again to the gap between the actual impact of sanctions and embargoes and their stated targets. 

These restrictions are, along with the above, an easy propaganda boost for Trump. Not just in terms of the saber-rattling against Venezuela, but in his renewed push to prove that “America will never be a socialist country.” Imperialism is talented at turning the economic into the ideological, and it has a readymade reserve of support in the most hardcore segments of Trump’s base. For these people the mere presence of a welfare state in Cuba is enough for them to denounce free education and healthcare as “communism” anywhere in the world. That such social programs are now popular demands among large swathes of young people in the US is all the more reason to punish its presence anywhere. The free movement of people and ideas be damned.  

Photos by Kelsey Goldberg

Potemkin Village Lifestyles

“In her world, this is what her social circle did… Everyone’s life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phoney. And money was made on hype alone.” 

So says the defense attorney for Anna Sorokin – aka Anna Delvey. Sorokin was convicted last month of what amounts to one big scam of New York’s social elite. Three counts of grand larceny, one count of attempted grand larceny, four counts of theft of services. She was sentenced on Thursday to a maximum of twelve years in jail. ICE have also confirmed that Sorokin – who has German citizenship – will likely be deported at some point.  

Reading through the list of her escapades, you can’t help but be impressed. Socialites, five-star hotels, even a hefty loan from City National Bank. Over the course of four years she managed to bilk them out of around $275,000. She got others to pay for luxury rooms, private jets, vacations to Morocco, and lavish nights out while having barely a cent to her name. All by convincing people that she was heiress to a $67 million fortune.  

She isn’t. Her father is a truck driver and her mother is a housewife. Who said millennials lack ambition? 

Sorokin’s conviction and sentencing have, predictably, been the source of vigorous buzz and chatter. For some she’s been the object of derision and spite, for others she’s cause for the gleefullest of glee. Fashionistas have gandered at her choice of clothing throughout her trial. Shonda Rhimes is developing a series based on Sorokin’s story. Lena Dunham is working on another. 

Still others have wondered why it is that the New York District Attorney has gone after Sorokin with such viciousness while in the past he has failed to prosecute the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn for more serious crimes. Some suspect sexism afoot, and I reckon there is something to this. 

What interests me the most though is what Sorokin’s lawyer means when he says “her world.” Because, after all, the life of the rich and privileged wasn’t “hers.” It’s precisely this that in the end got her into so much trouble. In Sorokin’s case it is less about the amount of money she stole than who she stole it from, who she pretended to be. At the core of it, her biggest crime is the crime of false pretense. 

In some ways, though, it was her world. If her place within it could be so easily adopted and faked, then perhaps that says more about the world than her. Sorokin’s actions didn’t just rely on aestheticization. They were, in their entirety, aestheticization. Delvey never existed. She was made up, invented, carefully curated and skillfully plotted.  

Ben Davis writes of how the art world was the circulatory system through which Delvey ran her scams. She promised an arts center to potential financial backers, featuring art from Koons and Christo. Her Instagram presence (as she is sure to have learned from so many Rich Kids of Instagram) was patiently crafted and constructed. It suggested that Sorokin had a deep appreciation and love for art and aesthetics. Though as Davis has also pointed out, this could itself be an act; for all we know of Anna Delvey, Sorokin could have known and appreciated as much about art as the average Wikipedia reader.  

Whatever the case, Sorokin has if nothing else closely studied the ways of the rich and spoiled. Her ability to convince those around her that she was an heiress reflects how perceptive this study was. But it also reveals that there isn’t a whole lot of difficulty in aping the upper crust, in convincing them that you are one of them. There is no substance to fake, no authenticity to mine, just an image to cultivate.  

Yes, it is old hat to point out that the lives of the rich are, behind the glitz, empty and banal. Or that social media aids in the cultivation of these full spectrum poses. But there is also something particular about the timing of Sorokin’s story, falling as it does in an era also marked by the Fyre Fest fiasco, by Elizabeth Holmes, by the specter of the “millennial scammer.” Compare this crop with those behind the Enron or WorldCom scandals of the early 2000’s, and you start to see an added element in play.

It is more than generational turnover. More than just conspicuous consumption. The global slump of 2008 was a foundational crisis in neoliberalism, exposing not just its inner machinations but thusly forcing sections to reassess how it maintained cultural hegemony. If financialization required the basic workings of exploitation to be obscured, aestheticized, then the crisis of this template required an intensification of neoliberalism’s specific relationship with the culture industry. 

Take, as an example, the rich people of reality television. Not long before the ‘08 crash, production studios had begun to lean heavily on reality TV. This was most immediately an adaptation to the four-month writers’ strike that put countless scripts on hold. But the strike itself was indicative of much larger rifts that were opening up in Hollywood’s business model. And so Hollywood also stumbled on a very profitable lesson.  

Today, reality TV is far more bankable than scripted shows. Labor costs are lower for them and their ratings are on the whole higher, but they also reflect and encourage a peculiarly voyeuristic kind of moralism. Among them a special place is held for shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Real HousewivesSouthern Charm; shows that dramatize the idleness of the pampered. Their mundane pettiness is wrapped in the pretense of high drama, and in such a way that it wouldn’t be if they were of a more common socioeconomic stature.  

The line between content and form becomes blurred, and it is used against us. Our emotional investment in the petty behaviors of the privileged mirrors the way in which our own lives are financially tied up with the maintenance of their lifestyles. Yes, the vacuity of the rich has been laid bare, but even in schadenfreude, we are made complicit in that same vacuity.  

This dynamic doesn’t merely apply to gulag bait reality TV. But the specific form exhibits a logic that has been widely instilled in neoliberalism and accelerated in its later, post-crash iteration. The internet, social media, the generalized on-demand-ification of our cultural artifacts, even the rise of a mundane surveillance state; all have instilled in public consciousness that we somehow have a purchase in the lives of others. And if it seems as if the lives of the more well-off have more weight in that purchase, well, then you probably also have understood the double meaning behind the word “purchase.” 

What we are talking about then is a huge innovation in glamour, in the psychology and aesthetics of envy. Glamour and envy in the way that Berger described them almost fifty years ago: 

Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams. 

Telescope this forward to today. The means of reproducing the day-dream have been revolutionized and innovated a thousand times over. Yet the means to democratize daily life haven’t just failed to keep up but have been coerced from us.  

What happens when someone decides to not merely stay in the daydream, but make it their reality at any cost? The answer is found somewhere in the gap between Anna Sorokin and her avatar Anna Delvey. With the desires of the first unrealizable, the invention of the second becomes necessary. And the only skill needed is a convincing con game.  

It is not just that the lives of the rich are empty, it is that this very same emptiness has become its greatest source of strength. The void has gotten bored of staring back. Now it’s devouring us whole. And when we finally get to its center, there’ll be nothing waiting for us but Lena Dunham.  

Here In the Empire

Poway, California. The final day of Passover. 

According to one eight-year-old child in attendance, the shooter aimed for the kids first. 

The rabbi was shot through the hand, losing his index finger, and reports say that at first he attempted to continue speaking from the front. A member of the congregation, sixty-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, the only one to die, jumped in front of him.

The rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, will later write in a New York Times op-ed, “today should have been my funeral.” 

Anyone who refuses to feel some combination of shock, despair, and absolute rage at all of this has no business reflecting on the politics of it. 

* * * 

To what degree is America willing to let antisemitism simply exist as part of its landscape? How often must something be “unfortunate” and “senseless” for it to finally be deliberate and structural?  

The former two are in the vocabulary of rehearsed dismay, of those who see bigoted violence as sorrowful but inevitable. There is a deception – unconscious or not – in such a routine. It obscures the way in which atrocities always fit somewhere into a system’s necessities. 

Make no mistake: antisemitism, the oppression of Jews, is very much a structural phenomenon. Though it predates capitalism, it took on a very specific role in its rise and the concomitant spread of European imperialism. Sai Englert, in his 2018 article for Historical Materialism, illustrates how the rise of capitalism and the modern nation-state subjected European Jews to “colonial processes of racialization,” excluding them from the national identity while conversely promising political liberty through assimilation.  

That process reached its crescendo in World War II and, inextricably bound up with the conflict itself, the Holocaust. The demotion of most European nations to, at best, junior partners in an ascendant American empire after the war’s end was part of a global rearrangement in the geopolitical terrain. Maps were redrawn, new walls were thrown up that in some cases left the most powerful nation-states in disarray. But the images of the ghettoes, the concentration and death camps, of industrially perfected genocide, left a mark on global consciousness that took the form of the refrain “Never Again.”  

Of course, refrains always run the risk of being empty words. Plenty of antisemites and antisemitic ideas ran and continue to run through the halls of American industry and politics. Look at any strain of reactionary thought over the past seventy-five years – anti-communism, opposition to civil rights or queer liberation – and you’ll find tinges of the same modern/classic judeophobia. 

Antisemitism never went away. It merely had its place in American life shifted. Its current “return” is both an intensification of this shift and a reemergence of the old in the age of a very troubled empire. 

Empire, it should be emphasized, is not a conspiracy. Conspiracies are conducted and decided behind closed doors. Empires are hidden in plain sight, built in the brazen light of day, sewn into our routines and perversely grafted onto our sense of a stable future. As such they push and pull on our conceptions of self and other, on the boundaries of identity and subjectivity. It also, quite frequently, weaponizes them. 

* * * 

John Earnest, the man who shot up Chabad of Poway, made his motivations clear in his manifesto. He praised Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, and Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant. Like them, he sees Jews as operating in concert with Muslims, non-whites generally, “cultural Marxists” and others as undermining whites and Christians.

Against the backdrop of Christchurch, Tree of Life, Charlottesville and beyond, ignoring the obvious is impossible. But you can still minimize it. It is unsurprising that Meghan McCain and Ted Cruz are blaming Ilhan Omar’s criticism of AIPAC for the events in Poway, brushing aside the proof that Earnest was also likely behind the Escondido mosque arson in March. It is a narrative that deliberately ignores the assault on Muslims, as well as the rejection of AIPAC by so many American Jews.  

It is not simply that it is easier to convince an Islamophobe of antisemitic ideas. Islamophobia is deeply entangled with contemporary processes of racialization, the delineation between “good Jew” and “bad Jew” proffered by the establishment right. These same processes, it should be noted, are also pushed by an Israeli apartheid government that is cozying up to the global far-right

Fascism is by its nature a distillation of imperialism’s most virulent logic; each sees in the other a funhouse mirror version of itself. If it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the rhetoric of the mainstream right from its fascist counterpart, this is why. Both rely on a vision of the repressive state as the only reasonable bulwark against the brown hordes lapping at America’s gates. 

Consider how Trump responded when he learned that Jonathan Morales, the Chabad member who chased off Earnest, is a border patrol agent. “Sincerest THANK YOU to our great Border Patrol Agent who stopped the shooter at the Synagogue in Poway, California,” he tweeted. “He may have been off duty but his talents for Law Enforcement weren’t.” 

Capitalizations are Trump’s own. 

* * * 

More news as I was still writing the above: a shooting on the last day of classes at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, killing two and injuring many others, and the murder of a Sikh family of four in West Chester, Ohio. The suspect of the UNC shooting is in custody but there is no word of a possible motive. There is no known suspect for the West Chester killings.

I could write that this is one of those weeks where America appears to be coming apart at the seams, but that would be to imply that there is something unique in the terror. There isn’t. It is by now utterly quotidian. Utterly American. 

Debating gun control offers very little. Yes, this country has become a murderous parody of itself, the place where André Breton’s eighty-year-old description of “the simplest surrealist act” has come to life. And there are influential political forces who have aided in making this a reality. 

But what we are witnessing would eventually, even if all guns were to vanish tomorrow, find some other equally violent expression. Empires are ruthless places while in turmoil; they require outsiders, an us and a them, and the kind of atomization that makes these acts inevitable. 

Similarly, the liberal ideal of multiculturalism is a poor ideological defense against racialized terror. A different conception of identity is called for. There is something to be said in what Robin DG Kelley refers to as “polyculturalism,” a framework that allows for both the autonomy of cultures and the inevitability that they will converge, morph, and redefine themselves.  

All cultural transgressions create new foci and axes, which then collide and bend and create new ones still. What this points to is an interpretation of culture not as a series of untouchable monoliths but as a process (a cultivation if you will) ultimately shaped by humans. The question then becomes “which humans?”

Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in pre-war Jewish radical ideas, those that informed and came out of the socialist Bund and other similar groups. It’s seen in formation like Jewdas in the UK, the Jewish Solidarity Caucus of DSA, in books like the recently republished Revolutionary Yiddishland. Prime among these ideas is that of “doikayt,” the Yiddish word for “hereness,” expressed more lengthily in the slogan “vauhin mir lebn, dos iz aundzer khoumland” … “Wherever we live, that’s our homeland.”

Again, refrains always run the risk of becoming no more than rhetoric. The critical charge of this one, its actionability if you will, is in its implication of militant recognition. A rejection of the meek quietism of “thoughts and prayers,” “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If it echoes other mantras of revolution and self-determination – the Black Panthers’ “community control” or the Zapatistas’ “¡Ya basta!” – then all the better. Those who survive the empire can also redefine themselves without its permission.

Civilization Never Happened

I.

There is a truly noxious moment in Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC documentary series Civilisation. The art historian, knight, and life-peer stands across the Seine from Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral and ponders the meaning of the series title.  

“What is civilization?” he asks before peering over his shoulder. “I don’t know, but I think I can recognize it when I see it.”  

It isn’t roads or agriculture that define Clark’s civilization, not plumbing or shelter, modes of production or complex systems of governance. Not even the grand buttresses and spires he is obviously referencing as he glances across the river. 

Just “I can recognise it when I see it.” Almost the exact same phrase used by a US Supreme Court Justice to describe pornography five years before. “I know it when I see it.” The definition is in the definition.  

“I know it when I see it.” The refrain of the charlatan. Of they who believe that their level of education is its own argument, regardless of how much attention they may or may not have paid during class. Everyone who has ever been in a position of unchecked power has their variation of it.  

It was fitting that Lawrence O’Donnell included Clark’s words in the closing segment of his MSNBC show on the night of the Notre-Dame fire. It was followed by an assertion from French President Emanuel Macron (he who has spent the past five months trying unsuccessfully to quell a full-on insurgency in his own country) vowing to rebuild. The message is clear: Notre-Dame is a symbol of this great thing we call civilization, and civilization must be maintained.

Which begs the question: how the fuck do you rebuild something you can only know when you see? How do the blueprints for something like that work? Or is civilization itself, like so many other words and phrases, simply a convenient concept for the powerful huckster? Convenient because its aesthetic trappings can be so easily unmoored from actual meaning? 

II. 

Five years after Clark’s special, the BBC showed John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Berger’s four-part documentary was intended in part as a rebuttal to Civilisation. While Clark’s series was imbued with a noblesse oblige version of “everyone has a right to culture,” Berger asserted that the right to culture also meant the right to shape and contribute to culture. He investigated how the photograph had revolutionized our interaction with the aesthetic. The transmittable image provided not merely the ability to bring an object’s representation to whoever might pick up a magazine or photo album, but the ability to manipulate the object’s meaning, to make it either conform to power or reveal the potentials of the radical democratic.  

What one finds when they look at aesthetic history through this prism – the radical democratic, the socialist in other words – is that there has not been a single artistic-cultural item that has remained untouched by it. And why would it? History happens. Nothing and nobody are exempt from it. Particularly when humans themselves become the motor of historical change.  

During the French Revolution, Notre-Dame’s look and feel, its meaning, all had a question mark placed over them. With the church’s power now openly challenged, openly threatened in fact, crowds of revolutionaries and laborers periodically stormed the cathedral and ripped down its statues. It was not mere anti-religiosity motivating this iconoclasm. Tearing down and decapitating 28 statues of the biblical Kings of Judah had an obvious anti-royal resonance to it. 

In 1793 the cathedral hosted the Festival of Reason. Notre-Dame de Paris had become the Temple of Reason. Its busts of religious icons were replaced with those of Enlightenment philosophers and radicals. Robespierre’s naïve-but-admirable attempts to renovate every aspect of material and spiritual life were in keeping with temporal rupture, not erasing the past so much as changing history, its trajectory altered as the masses stormed it.  

III. 

Neither politician nor historian have any clue what to make of moments like these. They have wasted millions of words and pages equivocating, attempting to parse the “good” from the “bad” in the French Revolution. It is a watershed for Enlightenment ideals, but gave way to excesses of the rabble that any unchecked ruler would find monstrous. During the revolution, reason and rationality carried with them the possibility for humans to collectively control their own destinies. Now they are less thrashed out than benevolently bestowed. 

Take France’s precious laïcitéThe doctrine of secularity, of reason’s ultimate triumph over myth and superstition, is today so arbitrarily applied that it may as well be a myth itself. Teachers can be prevented from wearing hijabs, but when a Catholic cathedral burns the government vows to rebuild. True, the events of the 1790s show that Notre-Dame is a site of history well outside the peculiarity of one religion. But Macron isn’t interested in rebuilding history. He is interested in preserving the past. 

Civilization needs the past. More than roads or plumbing or agriculture or other prosaic markers of society, civilization needs the past. Most pointedly it needs that past to keep its parts static and unmoving, to sit conquered and quiescent while monuments are built on top of it. It needs symbols that withstand the actual ebb and flow of events.  

When the gilets jaunes graffitied the Arc de Triomphe, smashing the faces of statues and busts, liberal and conservative alike swooned. Clearly the working and poor were nothing but nihilists, and that nihilism was proof that their grievances were ill-founded. The great ruptures in the story of France had already happened, and they were to remain in place, their agreed-upon meaning undisturbed. The future of its people – burdened by austerity and chastened by the imminence of a dying planet – were likewise carved from stone. The definition of existence had been decided, those who threatened it were wreckers. 

IV. 

There is something else discomfiting about the triumphalist fervor for rebuilding. Eighteen years ago the Buddhas of Bamyan were dynamited by the Taliban, less than a year before the United States invaded Afghanistan and officially launched the War on Terror. Archeological sites and museums were ransacked during the occupation of Iraq. ISIL, the militarized death cult that was bound to emerge from western-wrought carnage, has destroyed parts of Palmyra, ancient Sufi shrines in Libya, the Green Mosque in Mosul. 

It is not unfair to say that the pressures of empire have uprooted much of what we have come to call “the cradle of civilization.” There was always the risk of Orientalism in this label: the east is ancient and stuck in its ways while the west is modern and enlightened. But again, that’s the beauty of a pliable word. 

Note how few of these obliterated monuments have provoked the same indignation and resolve from western leaders. No refrains of “we must rebuild,” just “stuff happens.” Some parts of the past must be maintained at all costs, recreated if necessary. Others can be merely mourned. 

V. 

During World War II, the Philippine capital of Manila was second only to Stalingrad in terms of the fiercest urban fighting. By then the four-hundred-year-old city had already been rebuilt more times than the ancient city of Troy. The Battle of Manila between occupying Japan and the United States left it devastated. In particular the Intramuros, the “Walled City” of churches and administration buildings dating back to the Spanish colonial period of the 1500s, was almost entirely destroyed. 

It was under the murderous Marcos regime that the Intramuros Administration was founded as a subset of the Department of Tourism and tasked with rebuilding the Walled City. Since then, many urban planners and historians have been openly critical of the IA’s project. They have called the architectural style “inauthentic,” and compared the results of revitalization efforts to a theme park. 

Maybe that’s all civilization is anymore: a theme park. A great big gatekeeping operation of aesthetics, of pasts lionized or ignored, vying for the shape of a straight and uninterrupted march of progress that is ultimately hollow at its core.  

The past is, ultimately, far less consequential than history. Pity that most gatekeepers – be they bureaucrat or politician – don’t know the difference. Notre-Dame will undoubtedly be rebuilt and maintained. The same way that the rides at EuroDisney are periodically. And with it the idea that the past and history are synonymous: buttressed by unbending laws of what should and should not be, understood by a select few, observed and marveled at by the rest of us. The fever dream of civilization continues, and we are trapped in its walls as they are revamped over and over and over. 

Class Struggle and the Limits of the Liberal Imagination

Shutting Down the Shutdown

It looks like Trump is ending the government shutdown without getting his precious wall. Good. There are immigrant families and government workers breathing a sigh of relief right now. Which says a lot regarding a real and material common interest.

It’s a temporary victory, for sure, but a victory. That being said, there is a central factor that is being ignored in the narrative of what ended the shutdown. Some are already spinning it as Trump caving to Nancy Pelosi. It would be a very neat narrative if Pelosi had actually done anything that would have twisted Trump’s arm or put him in a difficult spot. But she didn’t. And Trump was able to do what he does best: turn the shutdown into high populist theater, flooding the White House dining room with fast food and provoking haughty disgust at the prestige of the presidency once again being besmirched. Playing right into his hands.

Power doesn’t concede anything to scolds or upturned noses. It concedes, as someone once said, to demands. And that is what ended the shutdown. One of the reasons that the lesson from this episode is so easily obscured is that it has been some time since anyone of even moderate profile in the American labor movement has uttered the term “general strike.” Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, afforded a fairly modest platform, nonetheless took the opportunity to say that just such an action may be the only thing that ends the government shutdown.

This didn’t emerge from nothing. It came after a growing wave of discontent among government workers that had started to make itself felt already. TSA workers sicked out, IRS employees refused to be sent back to work without pay. Even when TSA workers would go to work, they would exercise their power other ways, for example blasting loud and profane music over the speakers, or just waving people through with minimal checks.

One has to stitch these stories together and view them in their own context to see that there was very concrete workers power being exerted here. It is even harder to stitch them together in our minds today given forty years of attacks on our infrastructure of dissent. Workers, when pushed, can readily understand their interests and how to leverage them. It is notable if not stunning how organically this can happen, even without the intervention of a self-appointed leadership.

This is not to say that organization — specifically socialist organization — is not important. Far from it. It is necessary. Particularly because of the way in which the media can fracture a sequence of events, discombobulate their interactions, and confuse causes and outcomes.

What I am saying is that the assumptions we have so often relied upon regarding what that organization looks like and how it will come about must be reassessed. And on the basis of what we have always insisted is the capacity for workers to wield power.

Now that power is being actively wielded. Let’s not forget that the actions of flight attendants, IRS and TSA workers are coming in the midst of a growing strike movement among teachers to protect education. These are strikes around economic demands for sure, but also, and in a big part, strikes around social and community provision; not just wages, benefits, pensions, but class sizes, student programs, etc. Conclusions about the social implication of one’s job, along with what what can be expected and/or forced to do on that job, are being generalized right now. They are being generalized unevenly, and with various mixed or backward ideas still being pulled along, but they are being generalized.

When these types of generalizations are made, they also clear the way for conclusions about the organization of key components of capitalism. What is salient in this case is the way in which air travel aids in capitalism’s geographic regulation of itself, both in terms of commerce and in controlling the movement of people. Nobody who has been pulled aside by TSA for “flying while brown” can forget this. Like the wall itself, airport security is a form of enforcement, bringing with it all sorts of racialized implications.

TSA workers, air traffic controllers, and even flight attendants are implicated in that enforcement. This is not a moral judgment but a concrete assessment of how the job is shaped and what is expected of anyone taking it. However, when TSA workers simply wave people through, or even wield some sort of control in changing the conditions of their presence on the job, the potential for them becoming less complicit — even refusing — is thrown up.

Are there still going to be, going forward after these actions, all sorts of backward and racist ideas rattling around the heads of TSA employees? Absolutely, and we cannot be dismissive of this. We are talking about potentials rather than reality at the moment. But in the process of exerting power from the bottom up, as socialists have always been fond of saying, those exerting it begin to confront that potential. And that confrontation, again, has wider social implications.

The class interests represented by Nancy Pelosi are diametrically opposed to these implications or lessons being generalized. This is obvious with Trump, but when it comes to the liberalism’s current socially mediated iteration, class interests can always be magically waved away, buried under shrill accusations and bad faith. At the nasty end of it all, there is always someone like Pelosi to jump out and take credit, robbing us not just of a moment in history but of the potential to shape other future moments like it.

Necessary Rudeness

Aaron Sorkin. Here is a man who never met a moral tautology he didn’t love. To him, integrity and virtue are both self-defining and part of liberalism’s DNA. It is fitting that he is now and will forever best be known as the creator of The West Wing, where he and the cast were able through the Bush years to act out their fantasy of the ideal administration. If few pined for Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett during the Obama years, he has predictably once again become an object of longing in the age of Trump.

But during his recent appearance on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, Sorkin seemed confused, perplexed as to why it isn’t some version of his beloved Bartlett rousing support in the Democratic Party.

I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people, OK? It’s time to do that… I think that there’s a great opportunity here, now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non-stupid party, to point out the difference… That it’s not just about transgender bathrooms. That’s a Republican talking point they’re trying to distract you with. That we haven’t forgotten the economic anxiety of the middle class, but we’re going to be smart about this; we’re not going to be mean about it.

I won’t call it a rationale. Rationales are at least ostensibly internally cohesive. Sorkin’s words read more as a declaration of “I don’t want to play this game anymore.” Let’s call it, generously, a line of argument. Sloppy and petulant as it may be, we are going to be seeing kicked around more and more. Particularly as we head into what looks to be the most insufferable primary season in decades. (Let’s place a bet: how overwhelming will the refrain of “the most important election of our lifetime” become this time around?)

The day after my article on the wonderfully bad behavior of Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib was published at Red Wedge, I received a bit of unsolicited feedback from an older editor. He called the article “molotov cocktailish,” and insisted that nobody will listen to those who aren’t ready to exhibit “responsible leadership.”

I do not bring this up out of ego, and will not be quoting the entirety of the feedback here as that does not seem appropriate. I do, however, find the term “responsible leadership” quite interesting, and worth unpacking. 

What is “responsible leadership”? Responsible to whom? On what basis? Against what metric is it responsible to not yell and pound and disrupt until people without rights finally have them? 

If we are talking of the kind of responsibility synonymous with respectability (and we almost always are when it comes to contemporary liberalism) then to what degree does respectability also become synonymous with compromise? 

Again, compromise with whom? And on what basis? How elastic are such seemingly practical words? And can they be twisted in such a way to oppose the very virtues they apparently embody? If so, then how useful are they in an increasingly cutthroat context?

We can and should easily pose the same questions regarding Sorkin’s even more relative (not to mention condescending) notion of “adulthood.” Particularly because it is placed in a very specific context of “how politics work.” “Young people” have passion and anger (for which we are routinely patted on the head in between our second and third jobs). The “adults” actually understand how the world works because they are adults and they get the rules and if you want to understand the rules then you have to simply become an adult because the rules are something only adults can understand. Because obviously.

Building a line of argument (again, not a rationale) on this starting point exposes some rather uncomfortable truths. The ability for transgender people to use bathrooms is no more “a Republican talking point” than the right of Black people to use water fountains. Economic anxiety is surely real, but centering a nostalgia for a middle class that in fact never existed (at least to the extent Sorkin seems to think it did) leaves very little room for a cogent vision that can capture the imagination of most people as they actually exist and where they actually are.

Much of this argument is easily encapsulated in Ocasio-Cortez’s response: “When people complain about low turnout in some demos, it’s not because communities are apathetic, it’s because they don’t see you fighting for them. If we don’t show up for people, why should you feel entitled to their vote?” Note that showing up for people is directly opposed to finger-wagging and telling them to grow up. 

For sure, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib have both already experimented with exhibiting more “responsible” behavior (see, for example, AOC’s backtracking on Israel). Bernie Sanders is well used to it. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has been more consistent, but his attempt to maintain a precarious balance between a young and left-wing membership on one hand and a moderate parliamentary party apoplectic at his leadership has forced some compromises out of him. This is the gravity of political power as it actually exists in the United States. And it is nothing we should make excuses for. 

If anything, highlighting the difference between playing the power game and actually mobilizing people’s minds is going to become far more important in the coming months. It is not an accident that all of the announced candidates for the Democratic nominees have been women with liberal-progressive reputations. Or that two of them have been women of color. A large part of the Democratic establishment is clearly shaken by the possibility of a socialist alternative, and the cynical neoliberal iteration of identity politics that was so quickly (albeit clumsily) brandished by Clinton supporters may yet prove to be the only cudgel left in the DNC’s arsenal of lesser evilism. Which means that anyone raising criticisms of Elizabeth Warren’s love of the free market, Kamala Harris’s “top cop” brags, or Tulsi Gabbard’s admiration fo an anti-Muslim pogromist Prime Minister will be accused, in such an accusation’s mildest form, of having a double standard. The perceived integrity of a single candidate will always, in this worldview, top the needs of actual thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions. 

Which brings us back to the imagination of Aaron Sorkin. Watch The West Wing, or The American President, and you get a clear idea of how “responsible” power is wielded. In the climax of the latter, Michael Douglas’s President Andrew Shepherd exerts force not by bombing Libya (which he does with all due “tough decision” internal conflict an hour earlier) but by speaking an eloquent and fiery speech at a press briefing. He takes his announced Republican challenger to task. “My name is Andrew Shepherd,” he declares, “and I am the president.” He exhibits forcefulness and gravitas, behaving in a “presidential manner.” This, somehow, is different from when a freshman congressperson calls a lack of single-payer healthcare shameful. Ocasio-Cortez rightly pointed out the difference in the same clapback to Sorkin. 

The idea that such gravitas, such appeal to responsibility, can be of any real use with Trump in the White House would be comical if it weren’t so utterly feeble and depressing, and if these feeble and depressing visions weren’t clung to so fiercely by what is ostensibly the #Resistance. Bumbling buffoon he may appear, but Trump has managed to put in motion popular forces terrified of their own decline and willing to do everything from harass indigenous people to assault if not murder queer and trans folks. Forceful words and presidential behavior will not put this genie back in the bottle. 

Politics – actually existing politics that take into account the state of the material world – cannot be reduced to matters of style or rhetoric. Which means that when rhetoric is all that remains, rude and shocking behavior is the least we can do to shake loose an unacceptable state of affairs, to create some cracks in the windowless walls that have been built around our conceptions of the possible. 

So let’s be clear: we are bound to respect no line of argument that ignores our right to a life with dignity. The mere existence of such arguments is offensive at best and at worst complicit in crimes that have an impact well past the limits of discussion. And when the parameters of acceptable discourse are narrowed hazy, wishy-washy daydreams of respectability and prestige, then it is our duty to be as disrespectful and un-prestigious as we can manage, to take “by any means necessary” seriously. It’s not polite, but then neither is the reality that exists outside of Sorkin’s dinner parties. 

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

Dérive 1: Lighthouse Realty Associates

Los Angeles is a city that should not exist. No desert was meant to hold an urban hub of this size. As its fifteen year (we may as well call it permanent) state of drought confirms, it is a non-location, a place that that manages to weirdly persist due to simple inertia over sustainability. The wildfires that grow in size and intensity every season, ever-encroaching into La-La Land, are not only general reminders of a planet that will soon be too warm to contain the current civilization; they feel like deep time retching up a virus contracted long ago. That it is also where the United States manufactures its ego, its own version of cultural relevance, is only too appropriate, as the recent burning of Malibu makes so very clear.

The further one travels from the city’s most famous hearts, however, the more frequent and undeniable the desert becomes, the more Los Angeles seems to become ordinary, pedestrian, completely and maddeningly unremarkable. Take Eagle Rock, wedged between Pasadena and Glendale, two entirely separate municipalities both from each other and from the city of LA, it is something of a transition point from urban to suburban and quickly into exurban. Directly to the neighborhood’s north are several miles of highway and relatively sparse urban sprawl that quickly spill into Angeles National Forest.

Walking along the edges of Eagle Rock is a lesson in how an unplanned city architecturally improvises. The palm trees and cacti are predictably everywhere, incorporated into the landscapes of well-to-do middle class homes and shops. But venture out along Colorado Boulevard in the direction of Glendale; watch the pretense of uniqueness give way to the prefabricated and undeniably utilitarian.

Walk under the highway, perhaps to get a pack of cigarettes from the nearest gas station, and you’ll see the ways in which the architecture of commerce utterly fails in its notion of “welcoming.”

Gas stations may have themselves given up on being welcoming long ago — or at the very least traded it for overwhelming you with the illusion of unlimited choice — but when you turn back around you come to a real estate office: “Lighthouse Realty Associates.”

When I walked by it this past week, I had a very odd kind of flashback, to summer vacations in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The wood on the building’s side is deliberately a bit rough even as it is painted an earthy brown, warm in intent if not in actuality. The bushes out front are sculpted and well kept, but read as a species of plant more native to the American South than that of the West. Even the sign and name of the place appeared as more reminiscent of the east coast. Of course, there are plenty of lighthouses in Southern California. But they do not play as prominent a role in constructing a historical narrative and current imaginary like they do back east.

Of course, there is nothing specifically North Carolinian about this little plot of urban design. To me it only read as such because of the contours of memory that have been left in my own emotional and mental being by a childhood that was uniquely mine. But that’s the point. How many current concepts in the wheelhouse of contemporary office design have made “welcoming” and “cookie cutter” interchangeable? What does this do to our notion and experience of space? Of time? Of our ability to progress on either plane? Are we left with any indication that we are in Glendale other than a bestowed but somehow shared knowledge that we are just… in Glendale?

Turn around. Walk back into Eagle Rock and into Los Angeles, a distinction you can make thanks not to any landmarks or lighthouses, but simply because the signs tell you that you have crossed over from one to another. But then you see an unmistakable reminder that you are back in LA and, in fact, have never left the county: a small encampment of tents under the overpass.

Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis is one of the worst in the US, and one doesn’t have to go to Skid Row, with its 8,000 strong tent city, to be confronted with this. It is on every other block, in every neighborhood save for the richest (where residents experiencing homelessness are hassled along by compliant cops and, increasingly, private security forces). And if that somehow fails to remind you, then at the very least you will see it whenever you try to find a new apartment in your price range.

Which brings us to the real problem. How much of the unremarkable, the quotidian and faceless that tweaks with our sense of time and place, have we simply come to accept and integrate into our daily experience? And how much does this go to prove to us, on however subconscious a level, that the city is beyond our control?

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

Space Madness

Donald Trump wants The Expanse to be real. If there were ever a president who could watch a show about a solar system constantly at war with itself and miss the entire point, it is this man. Picture it: Trump, late at night, holed up in the President’s Bedroom. Crumpled Big Mac wrappers litter the foot of the bed. The curtains are closed, the only light in the room is the ghostly blue of the television. 

Having heard that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently rescued the beloved-but-canceled SyFy favorite from oblivion, the President has decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about. As he watches residents of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt betray, lie, and kill each other off in power grabs, he begins to mumble to himself… “Hmmm… space… yeah, space… force… space force… yeah, space force. It’s a great idea, very important. Space force!”

And thus a press conference is called…

The above did not happen (or at least we don’t know if it happened). Trump has promised a space force before, and despite his official-sounding pronouncement on Monday, he has yet to sign anything like an executive order. Instituting a sixth branch of the military — the first new one for the United States since 1947 — is a massive and expensive undertaking. It will require congressional approval, and when asked about it last year, Trump’s own defense secretary Jim Mattis went on record to say it was a bad idea. 

Nonetheless, the wonders of outer space appear to be returning to a high place in the American popular imagination. Now is about the time in this piece where the author might trot out that overused Fred Jameson quote about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That remains true, but it is also worth considering the following sentence: “we can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” Enter the architects of late neoliberalism’s escape plan.

Today’s most beloved moguls are, rather shamelessly, no mere titans of a single industry. Elon Musk is CEO or founder of no fewer than three companies vying in the worlds of everything from auto to neuroprosthetics. Richard Branson brings us air travel, records, jewelry and more. Amazon has transformed the way logistics are thought about and made obvious that literally every consumer product relies on them. A colleague of mine who worked for a time at one of Amazon’s distribution centers was told on his first day by management “Thank you for helping us take over the world.” Tongue in cheek? Sure, but the kind of thing that makes you shudder with dread too.

All three are, of course, very publicly and enthusiastically engaged in the enterprise of private spaceflight. Bezos announced that Amazon had picked up The Expanse at a conference where he also received an award for “space settlement advocacy.” The lines between fiction and reality become more than a bit blurred in all this adulation. Saving a much-loved sci-fi show becomes symbolic of the future he is supposedly building.

Same with Musk. His proponents and defenders believe in his utopia, pointing to how courageously idealistic he comes across when spouting his dreams of an intergalactic future. And while Musk may appear confused over what exactly makes someone an anarchist, socialist, or capitalist, he reveals much more than he likely realizes in his confusion. When he writes on Instagram of “true socialism,” he puts himself — knowingly or not — in the vein of those who see a just society as a matter of technocratic social engineering. The liberal imagination doesn’t just tolerate but enthusiastically applauds this vision, be it in the shaping of leisure time, the way our brains are wired, or the willingness to colonize Mars. In all instances, the human material is just that. Material.

Musk and Bezos have, it is true, been at loggerheads with Donald Trump recently. To some this is enough to earn them a place in “the resistance.” It’s a low bar when that same resistance can shriek for a continuation of war on the Korean peninsula. America is an empire in deep crisis, or at least an empire being forced to pivot quickly and clumsily as the world changes radically around it. The days of a unipolar world are over. Trade blocs and international communities are in flux. History has restarted, and it’s brought with it the beginnings of a new Cold War.

The emergence of Trekkie Howard Hughes types alongside talk of a “space force” in the midst of this is unnerving. People who remember Reagan’s Star Wars program surely remember how it felt in equal measures laughable and terrifying. In 2007 and 2008, China and the US of the Bush administration engaged in a show of capabilities by firing missiles to down their own decommissioned satellites, prompting a brief worry about an arms race in space. What Reagan and Bush didn’t have were billionaires launching cars and reusable rockets into the atmosphere, pitching a populist tone about how an entrepreneurial spirit will open up the wonders of space to all of us.

All of which is to say that the apparent discord between Trump and today’s captains of industry is deceptive. Enterprise on this massive level needs the state. Musk has already used billions in public funds to build his sprawling empire. The way that industries and private companies combine and interweave with governments to assert their interests around the world is an evolving one, but it is not one that will be going away. When virtually every facet of daily life is already being militarized, there is no reason this should change beyond the stratosphere.

Musk and Bezos pitch their dreams for humanity in space as a solution for a profoundly troubled civilization, riven with inequality and climate disaster and refugee crises. But all of this waxing utopian is only believable if a society’s technological advances can be extracted from the broken bodies that make them feasible. Bezos’ ability to drop a USB cable on your doorstep a half hour after you order it doesn’t happen without distribution employees worked to death. Musk’s lightning fast underground transport tunnels don’t exist without the millions of proles left struggling to get to work on time.

Can we therefore feasibly imagine a colonized moon without all of those left behind to scrape by on an increasingly uninhabitable planet? Or perhaps terraformed refugee camps where children are separated from their parents?

If all of this sounds like a thought exercise, then it is worth remembering that discussion of a Trump presidency felt the same way two years ago. And that’s the point. Dystopia, once merely a feared future, has become reality. And it has shown itself to be far more insidious and sneaky than we thought. It does not explode onto the world’s stage all at once; it unfolds over time, creeping and insinuating itself into the norm, even alongside entirely opposed visions for the future. The sticking point of course is that the latter is dependent on the former. I would say Trump should watch Elysium to have this point driven home, but he is liable to get the wrong idea from it.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.