The Necessity of History, the Tragedy of Aesthetics

When we tear down statues, it is an attempt to alter the trajectory of history. Not history as just “what has happened,” which we can never change as much as reinterpret. No, this is history as a great unfolding, as something that is taking place and will take place on one route or another depending on what is done in this moment. You can hear it in the reactions of the right. In their barely contained apoplexy, their cries of “you can’t erase history,” they are, however unwittingly, announcing that there is consequence to how that history is experienced in the here and now.

Aesthetics, particularly those that exist as part of public space, are never merely about how something is rendered. Symbols and tributes that are hegemonic enough cannot simply have the channel changed on them. The more all-encompassing an aesthetic is, the easier it can hide in plain sight, the more urgent it becomes to reveal their machinations and expose the possibility of ripping it up and starting again.

A book everyone should read (daunting though it may be given its density) is Tom Bunyard’s Debord, Time, and Spectacle. Summing up the book here in any detail that does it justice would take more space than I currently have available to me, but, briefly…

Bunyard examines the thought of Guy Debord, the primary mover and theorist of situationism. Probably the most referenced aspect of situationist thought is that of “the spectacle.” Primarily, this is understood through a media studies or anti-consumerist lens, and this version of it is best captured by slick advertising, the kind that is designed to paper over the inequities of a product or service by making us feel we have an emotional investment in it. The product is fun, it will fulfill you, so best ignore that it was made in a sweatshop on occupied West Bank land and that its CEO has his name in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book.

It’s a useful understanding on its own terms, but as Bunyard argues, it’s also exceedingly narrow. It siphons off art/culture/media from economics/politics/sociology, as if each general realm responds to wholly different laws. Bunyard excavates, through Debord’s study of Hegel, how the concept of the spectacle was a critique of all aspects of life under capitalism. In essence, the spectacle is full-spectrum, the ways in which culture, economy, politics, and aesthetics all conspire under the sway of capital to divorce the individual from history and therefore control over their own lives. It is not so much that media comes to replace politics as it is that politics becomes highly mediated, aestheticized, the illusion of being under our control so that our own subjugation is more easily consented.

In this respect, the toppling of statues is of profound importance. We might understand such acts as de/re-aestheticization from below. Or, bringing in Walter Benjamin, the way in which fascism’s penchant for aestheticizing politics is inverted by communism’s ability to politicize aesthetics.

In this framework, no artistic work or gesture is politically neutral. Any signifier that comes from a moment of uprising can be co-opted and rehabilitated by the establishment. But unlike some who see this as a reason to surrender the realm of aesthetic struggle, who insist such engagement is a fool’s errand, Bunyard’s argument necessitates we do aesthetics better, more collectively, attempting to get in front of detournement whenever we can, just as we always have to do with our understandings of economics and politics. Aesthetics are not divorced from these realms. Ceding them to convention can have serious implications.

The kerfuffle over the “Black Panthers Revolutionaries Atlanta Chapter” reveals in a painfully trenchant way how the spectacle, the aesthetic uncoupling of people from their subjectivity, plays out. It’s surely one of the most bizarre episodes of this current resurgence in Black Lives Matter. Pictures and reports of young mostly black women and men dressed in all black, wearing berets, and carrying semi-automatics at a BLM march in Decatur, Georgia two weeks ago went instantly viral. To some it was a sign that the spirit of black militancy had revived the most iconic black revolutionary groups in American history.

To others it was confusing. They seemed to dress and carry themselves quite differently from the anti-semitic poseurs of the “New Black Panther Party” that have been around for the past twenty-five years. But they had no web presence, nobody seemed to have heard of them. Some observers pointed out that their patches were not those of the original Panthers but of the 66th Infantry Division. That there were also photos of these Atlanta Panthers posing arm-in-arm with police (!!!) was just doubly confusing.

Then came the truth: the small group of armed Panthers were, in fact, actors. They had purchased the clothes and guns, and had shown up at the demo to, essentially, cosplay. All seem sincere in their apology, and going out of one’s way to denounce them seems a waste of energy. But the fact that remains that the whole sequence is utterly baffling. What could possess this group of young men and women, presumably in sympathy with the aims of Black Lives Matter, to do something like this? It would be one thing to attempt a refoundation of the Black Panther Party, however confused such an attempt might be, but this wasn’t that. These were people pretending to be Panthers, consciously choosing to do so. What’s more, they were doing it badly. Nobody who knows anything of substance about the Black Panthers would ever think any of its members would pose for a smiling photo op with a police officer. The cops, after all, were their most well-known and visible enemy.

There is at least a partial explanation in the fact that they are actors. I don’t say this as any kind slight or dig against actors themselves. The entertainment world applies immense pressure to conform to an ahistorical view of the world. I was told by acting teachers that the best actors know nothing about history, politics, or current events.

This is not unique to acting though. In fact it’s inevitable in the commodification of any craft, which is to say literally everything. The breakdown of skill into measurable and hyper-rationalized components removes each gesture and action from their context. Everything becomes an empty signifier. Flowing inevitably from this, events and history become performance, the blurring of the lines between actually making history and just, well, acting like you are. As a friend and comrade said, “I hate when Baudrillard is right, but Baudrillard is right.”

The flurry in Atlanta confirms this as a phenomenon that goes well beyond the ranks of the left, but it also presents a specific challenge for us given that it is our job more than anyone else’s to change history. There is nothing wrong with cosplaying or LARPing in general, but when the shape of this same practice comes to shape how you do politics, it becomes at best laughably ineffectual, at worst dangerous. The “best” are those who have read enough books about this or that revolution and think that all that is needed now is rote replication, a practice recognizable in any innumerable toy-Bolshevik group today. As for the worst examples, it is best captured by the practices of the Red Guards. They think they are recreating Shining Path; all they’re actually doing is the cops’ job for them.

There is, to be sure, a liberal version of this confusion, and it is one that most corporations are becoming very good at lately. Spotify and Netflix release Black Lives Matter selections and playlists, though they obviously won’t call for the abolition of police. Chase gives its employees half a day off for Juneteenth, but won’t pay reparations despite having demonstrably profited from slavery. That these companies are saying anything at all publicly has everything to do with the arrival of sustained mass protest, but they are also done out of cynicism, in the hope that appearances can be mistaken for substantive concessions.

If events are ultimately the real content of history, we can take heart in the fact that it didn’t take long for the Fake Panther story to fall off people’s timelines. They are replaced by far more consequential, significant, history-making stories. Not just the bringing down of statues (and the profound transformation it brings to public space), but the move by teachers unions to ban cops from schools, or by labor councils to kick out police unions. Or the Supreme Court rulings which bans the firing of queer and trans folks, or blocking Trump from ending the DACA program. In the grand scheme, they are small victories, trivial compared to the wholesale abolition of police or the closure of the ICE detention centers. But they will also make material difference in people’s lives, how they view and experience the world, their notion of what it is to fight and win. And they also came courtesy of a moment of mass protest.

Which brings us back to the toppling of statues. What exactly is it that makes this wave so different from cosplaying or the corporate push to co-opt? For one thing, bringing down a statue has less to do with how we change ourselves and more to do with how we change ourselves by changing our surroundings. It is a radically ontological act first and foremost, effectively acting upon the unique and specific role that aesthetics plays in politics.

When our public lives are lorded over by celebratory likenesses of slave owners, genocidal colonists, and murderous eugenicists, it enforces a kind of floating spatial apartheid. Even outside of redlining and other forms of physical segregation, in spaces that are supposedly neutral, their presence affirms the dominance of one version of history over another. The “great men” of a society killed, tortured, raped. And when enough people grasp this, particularly people descended from those who were abused by these men, then they become less welcome in this space.

To reject and reverse this ethereal domination, to tear down these specific symbols, is not merely symbolic. It leaves a hole in the perceived order of a space, a hole left by the people who did the toppling. Ponder that hole long enough, and you start to wonder what other parts of everyday life are informed by exploitation, by vicious repression. If you brought down this part, what’s to stop you from doing so with the others? What might you replace them with?

Remain Indoors

For the past month we’ve come to grips with this strange yet somehow familiar feeling: history happening without our permission. Of course that’s always been how it is. How many of us have ever truly felt we’ve had definitive control over events? Damn few of us, that’s who. But still, in our schedules, our social engagements, our celebrations and obligations and deadlines, we we’ve always been able to cobble together some sense that things move along. That something called a future is, despite everything, still in store. And with that, something called hope.

Walter Benjamin, in his “Theses On the Concept of History,” insists on the superiority of calendar-time to clock-time for this reason. He writes that “the calendars do not measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness…” The punctures and ruptures of unique events, the times when one day something unexpected and earth-shaking happens; these are the building blocks of history. Not a history of one fucking thing after another, still less history as “what has already happened and cannot be changed,” but history as a process of unfolding. One which we may, should we so choose, push one way or the other.

Now the slightest vestiges of this have evaporated. Whether we are forced to expose ourselves to a potentially lethal virus by going to work or are bunkered in our homes, we are, in essence, reduced to doing nothing more than waiting. There are no events in our lives. Just cosmic random variables, perhaps in the form of a layoff notice or news that a loved one is sick or dead. And yet, on our newsfeeds, things somehow continue to happen, increasingly more estranged from us, reduced to unreality on our screens, but still managing to move us around even as we stay put.

If you want to understand why people are upset that Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the presidential race, then this is it. The point of entry and level of involvement vary, but for millions of predominantly young and working-class people in the United States, the reason for support and involvement was clear: something is very wrong, crisis-level wrong, in myriad ways (the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, a looming third world war, the obstacles to a decent living, ten years to salvage the climate, etc.). Here was an opportunity to take control and put events on a different track. To find, in Benjamin’s words, an emergency brake for history.

Sanders’ “Not me. Us.” rhetoric and ethos on the campaign trail made these people feel welcome and drew an important connection in participants’ minds: that collective solutions require collective engagement. Yes, there are severe limits to just how much one can be collectively engaged through the prism of modern electoral politics. Particularly with all of the ways in which late capitalism has narrowed and attenuated the organs of mass democracy over the past forty years. But this only makes what the Sanders campaign has been able to achieve more impressive rather than less. The mass canvasses, the huge rallies, the use of a platform to urge support for strikes, protests, and struggles – these were, for many young people, a first foray into meaningful political engagement. It was turning people toward socialist ideas the way none of us had seen or been capable of.

And for a short moment it looked like it might work. Against all odds, it looked like it might actually fucking work. A string of early primary wins, high-profile endorsements, and a center that at the time appeared to be letting its own ineptitude win; these were all enough to think that victory might be in the cards. If it were, then a meaningful shift was too. For sure, a Sanders presidency would have had the entire weight of American capital thrown at it, every possible subterfuge to undermine it from all sides. In this case, was it really all that difficult to imagine the kind of popular upsurge this systemic sabotage might have provoked? That the struggles ahead might be actual, two-sided, struggles? That millions of people, upon feeling something better was within reach, might want to fight, tooth and nail to make it a reality? In any case, our horizon of “the possible” was being widened, history exposed as pliable to popular forces.

Then came a global pandemic. And with it the sudden stoppage of everything. No more rallies, no more canvasses. No more seizing the time, just time putting us back in its place. Work continued, as it must, including on the campaign, but its vitality was cut off from it. There was the option of phone banking, but with a larger and larger number of primaries being pushed back, the feeling of historical traction was up in the air.

Watching Sanders address us through online fireside chats and virtual town halls was a pale substitute for campaigning. It was also a lifeline at times. A reminder that something lay beyond the overwhelmed hospitals and death cult politicians that now chide our helplessness us from a nearby screen. With Biden either missing in action or whipping up incomprehensible word salads, there was even a glimmer of hope that the delayed primaries might present us with something of a mulligan, a chance to restart things more on our terms. That’s gone now. The cord to one possible, very exciting future has been cut. Now what are we waiting for, other than for our worst fears to be confirmed when we finally go outside and take it all in? What is there other than the urge to run back inside?

And so, here we are. If the quiet seems more foreboding now, more menacingly empty, that’s because it is. We face a choice between, as some have put it, a senile sexual assailant with palpable disdain for working people and fondness for segregationists, and Donald Trump. When we say this isn’t much of a choice, what we’re pointing to is this false historicity, the idea that Joe Biden will do anything substantive to set in motion a different sequence.

Many will hold their nose (through their masks of course) and vote for Biden in the hope that it will be enough to get Trump out. It will most likely not be. Trump has been able to puff up his approval rating during what should have been a death knell for his presidency because Biden has refused to offer any meaningful alternative. Biden could not even muster a solitary word of opposition to the Supreme Court’s criminal decision to let the Wisconsin primaries go forward on Tuesday. Trump’s second term will come not because he is offering anything better than Biden, but because he is offering something, horrifying though it may be, against Biden’s complete nothingness.

The coming weeks are going to be traumatic. We are heading into what is, in the United States, expected to be the peak of coronavirus cases and deaths, when what passes for a healthcare system in this country is pummeled between a wave of the gravely ill and the rock of not enough beds. While some of us wait in our homes under the hopeless warnings of remain indoors, friends working on the front-lines will be telling us stories of one disaster on top of another, until events seem to be nothing more than a grand wreckage of catastrophe. And indeed, they will be. They always have been.

Which is not to say that that there is no “what next?” to ask. There always is. There must be. One of the supreme ironies of using Benjamin’s theses to understand the Sanders campaign is that Benjamin wrote them as a polemic against the kind of social democrat Sanders has always been. In Benjamin’s view, social democracy (and, for that matter, Stalinism) saw socialism as inevitable, social progress as linear, an excuse for the incremental reforms that allowed party and union leaders to become careerists. What made Sanders’ campaign feel so very radical, like an historical rupture, was partially the decline of this old reformist tradition and the workers movement as a whole since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Between the end of the Sanders campaign, the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and the impasse most left electoral fronts across Europe now find themselves facing, it would appear that the model of left populism has run its course. Maybe the writing was on the wall when Syriza capitulated to European austerity five years ago, but something more had to be accomplished. And something has. Not as much as we deserve but something nonetheless. The networks of self-identified socialists that didn’t exist before do now. Many of them, including in the Sanders campaign, have become involved in mutual aid networks, or organized their buildings into tenant organizations, helped initiate rent strikes. And, of course, there is a new flurry of strikes among the “essential workers” who are either quite obviously non-essential or are outraged at their company’s refusal to ensure their safety.

These actions are not being taken to win more, let alone for some high ideal. They are being taken for simple survival, so that those taking them can stop themselves from getting sick, keep a roof over their head, so that they aren’t saddled with even more crippling debt or the threat of eviction when the pandemic passes. Will they simply fade into the background when that day comes? Maybe, but we should seriously ask ourselves if this likelihood is predicated on things “going back to normal” when the pandemic fades.

This is a highly suspect assumption, given the havoc this virus is wreaking economically. Some businesses are already beginning to permanently shutter, unable to find a way to weather the next several weeks. By the end of this, a third of all Americans could be out of a job. Some states are panicking that they will not be able to pay all of the unemployment claims that have poured in over the past few weeks, and that number is very likely going to balloon. Governments that already are being forced to break with neoliberal orthodoxy and provide some kind of state intervention may have to rely on even more in the coming years. Not to make things better, but simply to keep them stable.

In short, the empty time we are already experiencing, this specific kind of boredom run through with an almost paralytic anxiety, may still be waiting for us on the other side. We can look in the faces of Great Depression photography to see what this looks like: that twitchy kind of desperation. People unable to relax even though there is never anything to do. The knowledge that tomorrow will be filled with the same shiftlessness as yesterday, the day before, and the day before. The calendar becomes meaningless and the clock takes over. Each day bleeds into the other, nothing to really look forward to because it’s all integrated into the same futureless trajectory.

And yet… Can we dare to say there is an “and yet”? Is there such a moment when the weight of emptiness becomes too much? Is it possible that the clusters of radicals that have coalesced over the past several years are being steeled right now, aside from whatever set of initials they go under? What if the memes of Berniecrats being shaped into communists overnight aren’t just a wry joke?

Word is that within five hours of Sanders’ announcement, five hundred people joined the Democratic Socialists of America. What does this mean for radical organization after shelter-in-place begins to lift? What does the small wave of strikes for basic survival mean for labor movement, or the rent strikes for the possibility of a stronger tenant rights movement? Is there the potential for mutual aid – even in its more depoliticized form – to serve as the scaffolding for something more akin to solidarity networks?

Our history, after all, is filled with people who at one time or another decided that they were tired of events only happening to them and not the other way round. The family crippled by anxiety of eviction is suddenly able to pull neighbors around them form a barricade when the cops show up. A human being beaten down by unemployment one day can find the strength to occupy a relief office the next. Something turns, something changes, something about survival one minute becomes more existential, more infused with visions you wouldn’t let yourself have just days before. If they are to be effective in any kind of long term, they are the impulses that need to be corralled, nurtured, maintained. In other words, organized. And in such a way that it can contend with the juggernaut of state power.

It would be an act of suicidal optimism to be triumphalist about any of this, to act like it’s a sure bet. Or to act like the answers are already self-evident, without any work to make them so. Right now, the best we can do is find the right questions to ask. Maybe in sitting with the ambiguity we can accept that a great many things are still unwritten. And that maybe we can write them.

Pessimism, Not Despair

“We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.” – Buenaventura Durruti  

It was never going to be this easy. They were never, ever, going to let us have it, just throw their hands up and admit defeat. That is not in the emotional or intellectual wheelhouse of those who unjustly have more than the rest of us. For sure the smug sharing of memes of Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman reminding us that the rich will never let us vote their wealth away are irritating, but they speak to a truth about class warfare in the United States. Namely that it is, indeed, warfare.  

Days before Joe Biden and his sister-wife-confusing-brain took the lion’s share of Super Tuesday delegates, when we were so much more confident that Bernie Sanders would take them, we were still discussing the possibility of a brokered convention, along with how to fight it. Why? Because we knew that even when an insurgent campaign within a bourgeois party is was successful, it was still a bourgeois party. Because what we are doing is experimental and contradictory and laden with countless pitfalls. Going into enemy territory is all of these things.  

And that’s what we’re doing. We are venturing into enemy territory. Not just in terms of the Democratic Party, but in terms of the wholesale transformation of society. It’s not just their party, it’s their state, their economy, their system. They own it. They run it. We exist within it and now we are starting to move in a direction they dread and despise us for. We were always going to face massive and disorienting obstacles; ones far more violent and despicable than mere rat-fucking. Even with the best of outcomes on our horizons. 

Should it become reality, a Sanders presidency would face obstacles that make what we have seen in the primary thus far look like a mild scolding. He will face the wrath of all of American capital: the industries of healthcare, oil, real estate, retail, arms manufacturers, agribusiness and many more will stack every deck they possibly can against him. And with the fealty of most centrist and liberal senators and congresspeople (along, of course, with conservatives) they will do so with very little “official” political resistance. Which is to say nothing of the police, the military brass, or the roving gangs of the alt-right who will still be skulking around the political and social landscapes.  

A Sanders presidency has always, in practice, been primarily about winning some much-needed breathing room. But even with that breathing room, the tasks for the young US socialist left will still be the same: building up infrastructure to defend ourselves, to win what we’ve been promised and what we deserve, to teach ourselves the language of general strikes and mass civil disobedience that have lain dormant in the collective psyche of working and poor people. We would do well to remember that neoliberalism, the form of capital that has been dominant the past fifty years, came about through brute crushing of insurrectionary movements of women, of black and brown and queer people. It thoroughly defanged a labor movement that had already weakened itself through its compliance with anti-communism. It made footholds through military coups and invasions around the world.  

So, once again, it was never going to be this easy. We are left now, in the scope of things, the relatively easy task of assessing how things have changed since Super Tuesday, now that the Democratic establishment is at long last falling in line behind Biden and giving his campaign a much needed boost. Sanders has gone from clear favorite to an underdog once again. There is no shame in admitting Tuesday to be a defeat. We do ourselves a disservice to think it a crushing one, as if there is no hope left, or that all momentum has been dashed, that a socialist vision has once again been pushed into the wilderness of American politics.  

Sanders won California, along with Colorado and Utah, two mountain states with large Latino immigrant populations. His loss of Texas is a shock, but note that he carried a majority of counties along the border, where the outrage of ICE raids and kids in cages has been the sharpest. What does this mean in terms of his coalition as the primaries now shift back to the rust belt, including states Sanders won handily in 2016 and discontent among a dispossessed former industrial working class remains unresolved. What does this mean in a broader view in terms of “coalition”?  

When we ask this question, we should make sure we are framing it correctly: coalitions, after all, do not just apply to elections. They apply to the kinds of alliances needed to disrupt. To really disrupt, with the possibility of fundamentally reshaping what is at hand. Which is where the other end of our project comes in: the infrastructure of dissent. 

With the obstacles of the establishment now clearly and obviously lain in front of us, the question of what shifts we have to make is pressing. And we would do ourselves equal disservice to think that these are just a matter of canvassing, phone-banking, and other sheerly electoral forms of organizing. The explosion of Democratic Socialists of America since 2016 is a fruitful starting point. Tens of thousands of young people had to introduce themselves to the very difficult and painstaking tasks of building in communities and workplaces. Now we have the chance, the responsibility, to deepen this knowledge. What does a similar shift toward more grassroots forms of organizing mean now, in this context, without abandoning the still-viable possibility that Sanders can win the primary? How can the two approaches compliment and strengthen each other?  

How can a redoubled resolve on the road to the Democratic Convention parlay into the question of mass demonstrations outside of it in Milwaukee in June? How can the promise and actuality of such a demonstration shape what takes place inside, if it can at all? What could be done with the strengthened and expanded networks that come out of the entire experience moving forward in resistance to Trump, Biden, or whomever? Dare we speak of a third party? Given the dominance of the DNC and the pronounced red-phobia within large and influential sections of its voting bloc, we hinder ourselves by refusing to at least soberly discuss the notion. 

To look at the current situation with pessimism is not to look at it with despair. It is to acknowledge that thoroughgoing transformation of society is neither a cakewalk nor a zero-sum game. It is to refuse shortcuts, and acknowledge gaps in our approach. Most of all, it is to follow through when unexhausted options are still in front of us. We deserve as much. We deserve a lot more too, but right now this may have to do.  

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

Of Unfinished Revolutions

Here’s a series of questions for my “fellow” Americans. Answer honestly. Do you really need to know what Prince Harry and Meghan Markle named their son? Should you even give a blue shit? Is the fact that you have twelve years to stop your city from sinking underwater in any way impacted by the naming habits of people who have space reserved for them in the nearest sealed doomsday biodome?  

The answer to all of these questions is, naturally, no. And yet you know his name. It’s Archie, the little bastard. You may wish that part of your brain was occupied by more useful information, but there you have it.  

Gertrude Stein once said something to the effect that the United States is the world’s oldest country because it was the first to enter the 20th century. A fascist-sympathizing hack she may have been, but she was onto something when she said this. History never moves in a straight line, and as nations surge ahead their dominance creates complacency that soon renders them anachronistic. But we Americans love our linear time. It’s behind every single sanctimonious parable of American exceptionalism. And it’s why we’ve given the world some of its most insufferably thick historians. 

We love to talk of progress. But the contradiction of progress is that in a society where resources are so unevenly distributed, it is always incomplete. The same progress can merely widen the gulf, transforming the mildly backward into a jarring rift in space-time.  

And so it tracks, perfectly and tragically, that in a time of abject cultural decay, we have this homuncular notion of American culture that not only tolerates monarchy, in all its long history of parasitism, but outright celebrates it.  

It’s an even more brazen example of what I described regarding Anna Sorokin. Industrial society moves toward democracy, stops halfway. That society has a need to valorize its limited social mobility compared to a system dominated by divine right. But as its organs of democracy both formal and everyday continue to atrophy, this valorization mediates the gap between the haves and have-nots. It obscures the gap’s causes by blurring the lines between meritocracy and self-entitlement. Divine right, mutated by two hundred years of partial sunlight, once again rears its head.  

And here we are at the current conjuncture. When billionaire reality TV stars can become president despite losing the popular vote, when Kylie Jenner is defended with a straight face for “earning” her billion dollars, is it all that surprising that the British monarchy is the object of this particularly American form of fawning? 

Yes, some of it is a reciprocation of the royal family’s twenty-year-long “We Didn’t Kill Diana” PR campaign, in which “commoners,” even American actors can seize the throne. For sure, it has made things easier on the royals themselves. Eighty years ago the king had to abdicate before marrying an American and meeting with Hitler. Now, all a royal has to do is dress like Hitler before marrying the American! 

The American revolutionary experience was, to put it mildly, an uneven one. It hadn’t the involvement of plebeians or women that we saw in the French Revolution. And naturally its insistence on maintaining chattel slavery was one of the reasons that the Haitian Revolution and eventually the Civil War became necessary. If there is anything that it had going for it, though, it was its anti-royalism. Its belief that a bunch of oblivious, inbred, gout-ridden toffs had no business telling anyone what to do.  

And now these same remorseless cretins have danced under the radar back into your hearts? Where is your spine? Where’s your sense of dignity? Where (sweet merciful crap, I never thought I would write this) is your patriotism? 

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. 

Lewisham. Charlottesville.

Today is the 40th anniversary of what is remembered in Britain as the Battle of Lewisham. On August 13th, 1977, anti-racist demonstrators, organized primarily by the Socialist Workers Party, faced down with the fascist National Front organization. The NF had been growing in influence and gaining votes by doing exactly what fascists do: exploit acute economic anxieties by pointing the finger at immigrants and people of color. On that day in the London Borough of Lewisham, they were organizing what they called an “anti-mugging rally,” claiming that Black and Caribbeans were responsible for a disproportionate number of muggings and assault. Lewisham, a majority Black and brown area, was chosen for the site as a deliberate provocation.

The National Front were thoroughly routed that day. Five hundred of them tried to march to the town center; they were met by 4000 counter-demonstrators. Many were members of left-wing and anti-racist groups, but they were primarily youth from the surrounding neighborhoods. Police attempted to protect the NF march, but the anti-racists broke through the line several times to chase them off. The fascists ended up having their final rally in a parking lot before being escorted to the train by police. The cops, furious at being humiliated, continued to attempt taking back the streets, but in the end it was the counter-demonstrators who won out.

Here’s David Widgery, writing in his book on Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The mood was justly euphoric. Not only because of the sense of achievement – they didn’t pass, not with dignity anyway, and the police completely lost the absolute control [Police Commissioner] McNee had boasted about – but also because, at last, we were all in it together.

In the end there was a lot that came of Lewisham. The Anti-Nazi League was formed, Rock Against Racism (formed a year earlier) gained greater exposure and momentum, and the NF were faced down several more times before drifting into the background of organized politics. Some anti-racists and Leftists were locked up. Others, like Misty in Roots singer Clarence Baker, sustained life-threatening injuries. Still others, Blair Peach for instance, were killed. But there were also moments like those described by Widgery, including (sometimes literal) carnivals of the oppressed. There were intense and beautiful moments of victory, of seeing an ugly racist threat pushed out of public space and giving way to multi-racial crowds becoming unavoidably aware of their own power, feeling a freedom that is all the more thrilling for it having been fought for. The movement didn’t end racism in Britain of course, but it created space for a multi-racial resistance that was able to push back its worst manifestations.

There is something breathtakingly eerie about this anniversary falling when it does. Calendars have no will of their own of course, but the commemorations they allow are what give us the ability to change the meaning of the past. To see where the unfinished business lies and perhaps identify the link that, if broken, might prevent future history from going in the same destructive circles. Present struggles unearth different meanings of past events that have been hidden under the rubble of ideology. 

Historical parallels are imperfect things and severely limited in what they can teach us. Partially because there is a temptation for them to become inert and predetermined. But if we can step back and look at the possibilities of not just what did happen but what might have happened had participants chosen a different way, the dynamics of what is playing out now start to seem obvious. Watershed moments do not merely happen. Their meaning is shaped and reshaped over time by those who step into a breach.

Lewisham. Charlottesville.

National Front. Alt-right.

Thatcher’s fears of Britain “swamped by people with a different culture.” Trump’s ravings about “bad hombres.”

Blair Peach. Heather Heyer.

The raw organizational materials of the Anti-Nazi League. Those who marched and ultimately outnumbered the fascists yesterday.

There are plenty of open questions thrust upon us by the realities of notions like unity or, more pointedly, a united front. These questions are hard to answer when your own are in the hospital or in the morgue. But they also must be asked. History must be engaged. Not just as the past but as something currently unfolding. Possibility refuses to present itself unless we do. 

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

Synthpop, the Left, and the Future That Refuses to Come

Depeche Mode have long suffered in the synthpop scene from what I call “godfather syndrome.” They aren’t the only act of massive influence who find themselves in such a position. Nor is it entirely, or even mostly, their fault. The irony of popular culture’s nostalgic time-loop is that it never really lets you see even the most influential acts through anything but layer upon layer of distorting filters.

Yes, acts like Chvrches, Grimes, and M83 arguably wouldn’t exist without Depeche Mode, but in the consciousness of many of these groups’ more casual (and let’s face it: younger) fans, Gahan, Gore, and Fletcher likely register as far shallower versions of themselves. They are important in some vague way but not really worth understanding as anything other than sugary predecessors to a genre that has become fuller and more fleshed out. It’s wrong of course, but a very real perception.

Simon Reynolds, in his own short written appreciation of them, confesses that he himself had to work through a perception of the group – persistent even when they were at their height – that they “lacked substance.” Add in a few decades and a music industry that prioritizes quality-obscuring levels of quantity, and it’s not hard to see why more people associate “Just Can’t Get Enough” with Depeche Mode than they do “Policy of Truth.” While even fewer recall songs like “Master and Servant,” “Blasphemous Rumours,” their strident anti-Thatcherism, or their dark commentaries on authoritarianism and religion.

A hazy memory can easily be siphoned off. When alt-right figurehead and aspiring punching bag Richard Spencer declared “Depeche Mode is the official band of the alt-right,” he might have gotten away with it if not for the direct intervention of the band. The quasi-martial rhythms of synthpop have always, for music journalists who honestly should have known better, conjured fascist affinities. Mick Farren’s label of Gary Numan’s music as the “Adolf Hitler Memorial Space Patrol” still unjustifiably sticks.

As for Depeche Mode’s own sense of their scene’s roots, it is best summed up in their most recent video:

Ultimately, the video is more than a little on-the-nose. As for the song itself, its music is far more interesting than its preachy “message.” Even at their sharpest, Mode have never been very good at talking politics. But “Where’s the Revolution?” also reveals something that is not often discussed. Namely that much of synthpop – particularly in Britain – viewed and positioned itself as an oppositional response to an increasingly right-wing modernity. And, in turn, the song reveals how far removed the cultural landscape is from that.

A recognizable reference point for those who didn’t experience this would be the “Pits and Perverts” concert portrayed in the move Pride, originally staged as a benefit for the UK miners’ strike by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and headlined by the Bronski Beat. This show rather exemplified a deliberate, class-conscious countercultural attempt to aesthetically perceive of working class and queer identities as complimentary of and overlapping with one another. It wasn’t for nothing that after leaving the group, Jimmy Somerville’s next project was named Communards. Nor, for that matter, is it coincidental that Depeche Mode’s own outspoken anti-Thatcherism came within this same time-frame. When the Left was still fighting not be marginalized rather than fighting to break out from the margins. When there was a sense of competing futures vying for influence.

Intentionally or not, Mode’s video comes off as a lamentation for what has become of the organized politics that interacted with this scene and made such artistic moments possible. The Eisenstein-esque usage of well-placed red on black and white film is both a nod to British synth’s constructivist influences and a statement of political sympathy. The title and refrain could be read either as berating the listener or just a kind of despair for the days when there was indeed some kind of opposition posed to the Trumps and UKIPs of the world that didn’t just rehearse the same nostalgic rituals as a method for sustaining itself. Inevitably, with enough triumphalist shouting, the crowd dwindles, ends up talking to itself, and the red flag becomes a useless ornament better left on the ground.

None of this is a done deal. The current environment may be one in which there is increasing room for the Left’s explanations of the world, but it’s also one defined by the stark lack of a force coherent enough to give those explanations corporeal form. Capital – not just its economics but its political and cultural institutions – refuses to relinquish its grip. It also has run out of any significant vision for the future. Earlier today, a tweet from Zero Books pointed out that “The future still sounds like Kraftwerk even though Kraftwerk is more antique now than Big Band music was in the 70s.” Very true. And the fact that so little had managed to sound new in forty years speaks to the kind of nostalgic ritual that neoliberalism has engendered in the cultural landscape.

This is a manipulative kind of nostalgia, particularly because it takes place in the context of very little being new to begin with. It is greatly responsible for the “godfather syndrome” I spoke of earlier, partially because it also makes it far easier for scenes and subcultures to appear unmoored from history. Ask any number of synth fans who are utterly oblivious to the above history. Ask, for that matter, and if you can stomach it, Richard Spencer. Given where many young people’s political opinions are at right now, they may be encouraged to learn about these connections between aesthetics and politics. Richard Spencer not so much.

Which is what makes “Where’s the Revolution?” poignant. Not as a battle cry or even as a sterling example of politics as art, but as a funeral dirge, an acknowledgement of mourning. Mourning that also necessitates a starting point of sorts. As art it succeeds in only the clunkiest way. As politics, it is ham-fisted. But as an artifact for the moment, it’s incredibly apt.

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