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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Tiresome Tiresome anti-cancel culture and what it is all about


I am a big fan of certain reactionary writers. Of pedophiles, racists, misogynists and a buncha sorry ass mandarins. At the same time, I am aware that criticism of these people for being pedophile, racist, misogynist and otherwise showing a sorry ass vibe is true, and that those who consider such criticism part of “cancel culture” have a very odd view of reading and what it entails.

Where does that view come from?

The cancel culture debate is so flatheaded and without fizz that it is stale pop all the way down. The interesting thing about it is that it connects to the current crisis in academia. Namely, in the humanities and social sciences.

 The Cold War policymakers in the West and East saw big advantages in funding academia. The massive expansion of higher education has had enormous social effects, one of which is, in my opinon, understudied – I’d call this the scene of reading.


Read the autobiographies of the poobahs of the 19th century – and in particular, women – and you will find that it was not done in a classroom. It was done in Papa’s library, or with books from a lending library; it was done through buying newspapers, it was done in cigar factories by readers, it was done on the hoof. As far as recent literature is concerned, there was no teaching of it in universities. It was only in 1919 that Oxford deigned to produce a syllabus that allowed for the study of 19th century literature. Compare that to universities today:  Oxford now offers a contemporary literature course. Berkeley offers, in its 125E course, the following texts: Diaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Egan, Jennifer: A Visit from the Goon Squad; Harding, Paul: Tinkers; Johnson, Adam: The Orphan Master's Son; McCarthy, Cormac: The Road; Strout, Elizabeth: Olive Kittredge; Tartt, Donna: The Goldfinch.

 This easy acceptance of the latest novels would have given a heart attack to the dons of 1919. Is this philology? They would have moaned.

 In the heyday of the cold war humanities departments, there was a search for transgression. It was, it must be said, a strange search: how could you “teach” the transgressive in an institution that would give you a degree with which you were credentialed to join the great middle managerial class? But the paradoxes of that period of managed capitalism seemed, at the time, less a thing of paradox and more a resolution of the affluent lifestyles to which we were all heir.

 Well, neoliberalism put paid to that notion. The great universities are now run by the same kind of people who run businesses – flatheads looking to stuff their pockets with money and increase the endowment. As for the humanities, that is now a loss leader, a headache for the real job of the university – signing contracts with big pharma, keeping the business school growing, and buying property on which to build unnecessary monuments to donating plutocrats in a win-win of tax avoidance.


Unfortunately for the administrators, not all the students, yet, have been roped into taking business inspiration 101 and going on to accounting shenanigans 404. Some of them still tiresomely want to read whole books, often fictions, and even poetry – which is all very fine for 3 minutes a week on the NPR, but otherwise, can you imagine taking it seriously?

 The cancel culture controversy is absurd on so many levels, but the one that truly amuses me is the conservative knuckleheads, who barely got through that Tom Clancy book, and have since gotten their entire knowledge of the maitre from video games, lamenting that we no longer teach, I don’t know, Charles Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend anymore in our classrooms. They have temporarily skipped trolling tweets about you studied fucking English instead of engineering? LOL! They will go back it, though. We live in a time where they armies of ignorance occasionally stand, arms akimbo, to reproach us for boycotting Roman Polanski’s art films from the fifties. Among other reasons, this is why I love cancel culture – it so rouses up the yokels!



Thursday, April 08, 2021

the slave world


One of the oublis of the Nazi state was the accelerated construction of a slave economy – the so called “forced laborers” – Zwangsarbeiter.  There are various estimates of the number of forced laborers – by 1944 there were thirty thousand labor camps and over 8 million forced laborers. The extent of the slave system and the speed with which it was set up to intersect with every industry and service in Germany was astonishing. By 1941, 1.5 million Poles were slaves; 1 million French war prisoners were slaves. 2.5 million Soviets, by 1944. 50 percent of the Poles and Soviets were women.

The full awareness that this is what a slave state does – that what the Nazis did in 3 years were what the French, Portugese, Spanish and English did to West Africa for 300 years – seems to have been erased, or at least largely left aside, from the general discussion of slavery. There is a rhetoric among white nationalists in various countries that occasionally discovers white slavery, such as was enormously present in the Mediterranean slave markets of the early modern period; but the claim of ancestral victimage is really just a rhetorical ploy. The real enslavement of one’s grandfather/mother is not claimed, because, I think, the shame of it has a long effect.  The enormous generational shame of, for instance, the French slaves in Germany. The use of slaves everywhere, from the horrors of Peenemünde to the IG factories, is a difficult collective matter to comprehend.  Slavery operates not only as brute force, but a massive campaign to interiorize shame, to create, through beatings and yelling and the regime of humiliation, the untermenschen soul.

In the history books, the forced labor of prisoners is not generally described as slavery. There are many gradations between regimes of forced labor; prisoners of war in the twentieth century, and prisoners in general, are often made to work. The Soviet gulag was a grotesque monstrosity of forced labor. In the case of the Nazi regime, the “prisoners” were not given sentences – the idea that they could one day become, again, free laborers was not even considered by the Nazi legal system. To have a sentence, even a death sentence, is to be recognized by the state. The Nazi regime created a vast system of non-recognition – of social death. Forced laborers were once resistors, or were of the wrong ethnic type – gypsies, Jews, Slavs – and they were captured, herded together packed up and sent, by train or oxcart, to concentration camps, from thence being farmed out to tasks that brought no reward. More than that, ill treatment was often the larger point – forced laborers were marked for death at some point. Although Himmler apparently assured the other Nazi leaders that these subhumans would not be mixed with or seen by the German population, this soon became an impossibility. They went to places like the Heinkel Airworks in Oranienberg, where the population of forced laborers swelled to such an extent that they could no longer be housed impromptu in the cellars of the factory complex, and a camp had to be  built, since they needed at least the laborers to survive at least temporarily; or to Dora, in the underground, where the excavation of the tunnels went on in conditions that were freezing, dustfilled, dark, and low, a true hell into which a force of starved and beaten inmates selected from Buchenwald and tending, statistically, to be French, was jammed.  It was common, in Dora, for the slaves to be assaulted when they went into offices of the German functionaries there, who relaxed from their stressful days by stabbing them with scissors or pencils or beating them with broomhandles, whatever came handiest. Memos were written cautioning functionaries not to do this, since it increased the mortality rate, which thinned out the herd of slaves and impeded the pace of construction.

At some point, we will have to think of the KZ world – a world that overlapped with the extermination camps – and the world of the Gulags and the prison colonies that popped up all over beginning in the late 19th century as elements of the same general phenomenon. Emancipation, to my mind, is the model of what is positive about the Enlightenment – and the way the Enlightenment was financed, directly or indirectly, by slave labor is what made the Enlightenment a shaky ideological phenomenon. But emancipation does not happen all at once, in a decisive lightning stroke. It is revocable, incomplete, and easy to attack. Slavery is always just below the surface of even our contemporary politics. It is not far from us at all.


Saturday, April 03, 2021

The limits of clarity


Clarity – or clearness, a word that blemishes the clear, slightly, with the -ness – has an almost universal claque. It is the rare soul who says anything against it. Such applause for something that is at once so direct and so... hard to define, even vague, is a phenomenon that is worth looking at. There are few papers out there entitled: against clarity. Alison Stone wrote a paper entitled the “Politics of Clarity” (2015) which tries to sort out the utilization of clarity concerns by “analytics” to deflate “continentals”. It is a good paper, and it makes good points about how the call for “clearness” is often used to enforce an ultimately patriarchal norm.

“Pushing this concern further, we might say that the notion of clarity is itself a myth. "Clear" thinking is merely thinking that fits in with, embodies, and fails to challenge the hegemonic power relations of the surrounding society. Such thinking seems "clear" merely because it is familiar, and this is because it is thinking in which dominant power relations are naturalized. To celebrate clarity is to mask the real issue: power.

Stone’s paper is built on an opposition between “transparency” and the “mask”. Clarity has long been caught up in this opposition – it easily shifts to transparency. It is interesting that the clarity-transparency terminology, when applied to speaking, only work as “masked” metaphors – as metaphors referencing light and vision. Joyful things, one would think. So why is it that clarity so often comes with a ruler to rap the student’s blundering hand – or the continental philosopher’s?

Bryan Magee, writing about clarity in philosophy, makes the argument that clarity is a property of the structure of the philosophical text, and not of the elements – the sentences – that make it up (which sentences instead of paragraphs is one of the unclear things about the essay.) He also inserts a rather astonishing  understanding of these issues through the example of Kant:

“Some philosophers, most importantly Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, lay out a structure like this with the utmost clarity, yet in unclear sentences. In his case it was because he had spent many years thinking his critical philosophy through, but then wrote it down hurriedly because he was afraid of dying before he finished writing the book. The result is clear thinking expressed in unclear sentences.

I am not sure what this account references. Kant spent years “thinking his critical philosophy” would seem, to me, to mean Kant spent years writing notes on what he was thinking. But for Magee it seems to mean, literally, that Kant built it up in his head, like it is said that Mozart heard his compositions – although unlike Mozart, who supposedly wrote down his compositions without an erasure, Kant, afraid of death, rushed his work. This might be the most doubtful account of the Critique of Pure Reason I’ve ever read – especially in as much as Kant made significant changes in the editions of the Critique, not a thing a man fleeing death tends to do. If Magee were correct, the correlary would be that Kant’s Vor-kritische Schriften are probably written more clearly than his Critical work. I don’t know who claims this – I doubt Magee has actually made the comparison.

However, the notion that the approach of death tends to lend a premonitory obscurity to one’s writing is very much part of the “myth of clarity”. Clarity requires some lifting of stress – a bourgeois insight that, I think, could help us think about what clarity is, why its desireable, and what its limits are.

In Stone’s essay, she points to a classic instance of polemical “clarity-making” – Carnap’s analysis of Heidegger’s phrase, Nichts nichtet – nothing nothings. Stone moves from this to Adorno’s notion that clarity, attached to “common sense”, has a repressive function. It should be noted, though, that Adorno was quite as convinced that Heidegger was speaking “jargon’.

This points to the problem with taking the “analytic” and “continental” schools as homogenous blocks, rather than didactic fictions that arose in the post World War II academic scene. Jargon, Adorno’s word, points to the connection between slangs and subcultures – Adorno’s own prose, to a certain ear, is incorrigibly Weimar-ish, the mixture of Karl Kraus’ attempt to discipline all thought into the bounds of the epigram and sociological terms derived from not only the Marxist but the Simmelian and Weberian traditions.

Am I saying the limits of clarity are the limits of my own subcultural group? This goes too far, I think, exaggerating how far from the main these subcultures are. I admit that Heidegger’s riff on nothing can be danced upon with some glee, but that “analytical” philosophers go all reverent with admiration when Tarksi comes out with the news that a metalogical truth is possible

“A materially correct truth-definition logically entails all instances of the form: (T) «(A) is true if and only if A*, where '«(A)' is a name of the sentence A and 'A*' is its translation into a metalanguage.”

A veritable font of unclarity for the laity,  starting with “materially correct” and moving onto “translation” and “metalanguage.” The notion of the translation seems, uh, to make this whole thing rather  circular – in the best Heideggerian tradition.

Is there a form of clarity that can take into itself our deathhauntedness and our tendency to make explanations more important, and more cumbersome, than the object of explanations? A question for philosophers.  


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

note on the cold war: the defector

In Sir Thomas Ellyot’s dictionary of English from 1559, there is an entry for defector: “he that so departeth or rebelleth, or goth from one to an other.” It goes back to a group of latin words that mean weakness, lack, or desertion – relating the word to defect. It is, to say the least, interesting that desertion, going from one to an other side, and lack are so conjoined. The word lies there in the general linguistic bank, from Ellyot’s time to the 1940s, when suddenly its time arrives. New words or phrases, I have found, can be plucked from the archives of the New York Times by their quotation marks. They are swaddled in these marks (“defector”) due to the New York Time’s linguistic gentility – they have not yet grown up enough to walk around without quote marks. Other newspapers and magazines will either use the baby word enough that the quotes disappear, or the word itself disappears.

In Russian, similarly, there is a word that applies to the set of agents covered by “defector” – “the one who does not return”, nevorzvrashchenets. Which implies a going forth – a movement. I have no idea if the etymological journey of that word is similar to that of defector, or it is was brought it into prominence in the late forties. It would not surprise me.
The cold war was many things to many people – newspaper articles, the spread of automatic military rifles, the triumphant entry into colonial capitals of victorious, ragtag guerillas, oil pipelines, synthetics, planned economies, missile building, the stretch from the concentration camp Dora to the walk on the moon, etc. - and one of the things it was was a period of defectors. The defector and the cold war are twins. Of course, I am tempted to say: every period gets the heretics it deserves. Which is the kind remark that is also rooted in a cold war thematic: the identification of ideology with religion. This was considered, at the beginning of the cold war, a decisive and cutting insight – communism is a religion! The idea being that the atheists were deceiving themselves. And, of course, you can’t build a social order on a deception. It also explained the stubborn adherence of smart individuals to evidently illogical and horrific ideologies. It was that irrational thing, faith.
A little of this can dissolve more than its users orginally intended. One could begin to doubt that any social order can be built on foundational logic and rationality. This doubt started to bubble up from the depths in the 60 in America and Europe.
What need did the word “defector” meet?
It seems prima facie that the two “camps” – the non-communists and the communists – needed a word to convey something a bit different than traitor for those who came over, went forth to their side. The grinding gears of presenting a soviet defector in the press as a ‘traitor” made a softer word necessary. However, this was more than a case of Orwellian manipulation; for, indeed, the notion of treason in the cold war was under pressure, along with the notion of the unilateral state.
It might seem easy to label Klaus Fuchs giving the Soviets America’s “atom bomb secrets” an act of treason. But this would imply a relationship between the soviets and the U.S. that was certainly in play in the forties, due to the fact of their military alliance. Furthermore, the whole base of the atom bomb program was built by, among others, exiles who technically were “betraying” their various countries of origin, which countries had fallen into Naziism or fascism. As twentieth century states grew bigger, developed elaborate intelligence agencies, militaries, and welfare agencies of all kinds, making it harder and harder to “locate” the state, particularly as it intersected with giant corporations and other states. If Klaus Fuchs is a traitor for giving America’s nuclear secrets away, what are we to say of the method by which Israel developed its nuclear bombs? The relatively unknown Zalman Shapiro, who helped build the first nuclear powered American subs, is suspected by some of having smuggled uranium to Israel from his Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo Pa. Others, namely Seymour Hersch, suspects that it was material that was just carelessly lost in Apollo – a much worse crime, in my opinion.
I imagine that if Shapiro did smuggle the uranium, he did not do it, in his own mind, as a traitor.Just as I imagine – and imagination is important here – that Harry Dexter White, who gave documents to the Soviets while he was at the State department, did not think of himself as a traitor. Rather, in both cases, there was a sense of do it yourself foreign policy. There's a long tradition of this in the U.S. - and in other countries undergoing radical political change, defined by one of another faction in the country.
What happened at Apollo is interesting. Here's a link.
Defector arose as an answer to a conceptual puzzle about sovereignty, but it never really provided a satisfactory answer. Oddly, as the corporation globalized and the wall fell, the defector also retreated as a figure of current interest. Straight out for money sales of arms and secrets seem not quite to fit the defector imago – nor do they speak to the revenge of the traitor.
As the state gets mistier, the betrayal of the state gets mistier. We defect, now, from Amazon, not the free world, and we defect to other media platforms, in a world that is same as it ever was.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Poetry and industrial accident


 Muriel Rukeyser responded to the American jitters in a poetry collection published in 1938,  US1. The book is most famous for the “documentary’ poems known as the “Book of the Dead.” Like other artists at that time – I am thinking of Dorothea Lange’s pictures of Great depression miseries, or James Agee’s Let us now praise famous men - Muriel Ruykeyser saw in the Depression not only a great rebuke to capitalism, but, as well, to the modernist focus on a certain sort of subject – infinitely cultivated, infinitely melancholy – and sought to bring modernist shock tactics into the field, so to speak.

Modernist shock was out there in the tools and industry. The book of the dead is based on a typical bit of All American skunkery: a company, Dennis and Rinehart, hired miners in West Virginia to drill a tunnel under a mountain to divert a river to an electric plant. Discovering that there was a mass of silicate heavy rock under the mountain, the company – wanting to exploit the silica – had the men dry drill that rock in particular, instead of using water hydraulic drills, which were the legal standard. Dry drilling creates dust clouds of silicate, and silicate is inimical to human lung tissue.  A thousand or so died of silicosis, a peculiarly horrible condition that strangles you.

“-What was their salary?

- It started at 40 cents and dropped to 25 cents per hour.”

 Unfortunately the miners’ families, instead of being grateful that the U.S. wasn’t run by Stalin, actually stooped to lobbying to have the company investigated. Congress eventually investigated, and did nothing. The workers sued, and the courts decided a workers’ life is maybe worth a generous thousand dollars. Stalin, however, never ruled America, it should be pointed out. And Rukeyser, due to her “communist sympathies”, was duly attacked in the fifties, with the American Legion sponsoring a campaign in 1958 to get her fired as a “red influence” from Sarah Lawrence University.  

The book of the dead poems are about an industrial accident. It is interesting to look across the divides – between, say, the aesthetic and the medical – and notice that industry in America, for the greater part of the century, was designed by white men trained in a certain way, among certain institutions – military, educational, corporate - while much of the countervailing work – the work of understanding the hazards of industry – fell to women who were often outsiders in those institutions. Muriel Rukeyser wrote a review of an autobiography by one of those women – the unjustly forgotten Alice Hamilton. In the obituary of Hamilton published in the NYT, it was noted that she and her two sisters were brilliant, each in their own field. Indeed, her sister Edith Hamilton is probably better known than Alice today – millions of American students got their knowledge of Greek mythology from her book on the subject. Rukeyser, in a famous early poem, rejected “Sappho” for “Sacco” – although that early gesture was not definitive of all her work. Still, I like to think that Rukeyser, the Hamilton sisters, and Rachel Carson form a mini-tradition of American dissent that truly did rage against the machine. Alice Hamilton was the first woman, I believe, to teach at Harvard; she was a pioneer of industrial medicine, and she was unafraid to campaign politically for workplace safety; she wrote to her friend,  Gerard Swope, the president of GE, about the dangers of asphalt as early as the 1940s; and of course she was investigated as a Red by the FBI.

Rukeyser’s on the road poems, unlike Kerouac later on, did not take the road as a natural given, but as a created thing, sprung from industrial design, equipment, materials and human body tissue. In her review of Alice Hamilton’s autobiography, Rukeyser expressed an aesthetic/political credo that I like a lot: that the work place is a “testing-place of democracy.” And Rukeyser saw, as Alice Hamilton did, the explicit gender terms under which the human product was turned out in the  treadmill of production:

“It seemed natural and right that a woman should put the care of the producing workman ahead of the value of the thing he was producing; in a man it would have been thought sentimentality or radicalism,” writes Dr. Hamilton. The manager of a big plant said to her that a man would see in his own workmen only a part, and a bothersome part of the plant’s machinery; but a woman would see them as individuals, as so many fathers and husbands and brothers.”  Of course, this grossly ignores the women who worked in the factories, from seamstress to the pecan shellers of San Antonio, whose strike in 1938 was a precipitating event in Texas’s history of anti-labor union law. However, the gendering of a view of the human as a “part” is an important, and missing element in the history of the American century that is falling to pieces right in front of our nose. It deserves some more sweeping treatment.  


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

History of antifa

 Anti-fascist seems like a bland title, at least in the U.S. After all, the mythology of American power was based on the largest anti-fascist operation in history, called World War II. Alas, after world war II the U.S. decided to make a sort of posthumous alliance with many many Nazis, who were invited into the war against the Soviets. From the mass murdering scientists who tested poison gasses at Ausschwitz to Eichman's chief subordinate, these characters came to the U.S. and even gained cover stories via a CIA that has never released all its records on this part of American history.

There are many books about this. One of them, The Nazis next door by Eric Lichtbau, chronicles the career of America's first antifa agitator in the Cold War: guy named Chuck Allen. A wasp, a lefty, and an organizer of protests against Nazis, who were now just "anti-communists" - which, according to the FBI, which spied on him, made Allen a communist. He didn't give a fuck. His demonstrations against Lithuanian, Polish, German Hungarian and other Nazis and fascists brought out of the woodwork the ancestors of Trump's people, who would engage in counterprotests and assault. Often revealing, in the meantime, their own far right comittments.

So many reasons that a rightwing intelligence and policing cohort in the U.S. would love the fascists! Here's a story. In the fifties, the military and the state department decided that Hitler's advisor, Dr. Gustav Hilger, who had done exemplary work in the Eastern Front, was just the man to advice America on the Soviet threat. No sooner said than smuggled in, with more than a smidgeon of covering up the record.

"A decade earlier, as the Nazis’ top specialist on Moscow, Dr. Hilger had been with Hitler in the Nazis’ headquarters for the eastern front after Germany’s murderous invasion of Russia. He was He was implicated in the roundup of Jews in Italy as well. After the war he was wanted in Europe for war crimes. Yet George Kennan at the State Department and Frank Wisner at the CIA had arranged in 1948 to spirit him and his family away to safety in Washington, where he became an éminence grise on all things Russian. “We were very glad he was here because we were worried that if we didn’t [bring him over], the Soviets would get him,” Kennan said. At the CIA, Hilger met secretly with analysts every two weeks to assess the latest developments in Moscow and he could often be found at the and he could often be found at the Library of Congress, researching his memoirs as part of his CIA cover story. Raul Hilberg, a leading Holocaust researcher, would sometimes spot the ex-Hitler advisor working nearby in the federal archives, whereupon Hilberg would walk out in silent protest."

Hilberg, so anti-American! My question would be: the denunciation of Stalin in America justly puts heavy emphasis on the pact Stalin made with Hitler in 1939, which revealed the corruption of Stalin's supposed anti-fascism. All true! Yet what does one say about a country that imports genocidal Nazis after the war and gives them cushy jobs and cover stories? Here, silence is in order, some crickets, and then some talk about the free world.

Trump was, in reality, simply taking up a line urged by Edgar Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, and a pack of other high officials during the Cold War. When antifa became uncool.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Cretinism and more cretinism: the French right and Islamoguachisme


I spent the 00s in a froth of indignation, and my frothing found a home on my blog. But no matter how I whipped the hypocrisy, cretinism and downright pig ignorance of Bush’s administration and the general bipartisan DC foreign policy set, I got no satisfaction – it just went on and on, through the blood and mire, until gradually the seachange came, we all agreed Iraq was a mistake, and we all agreed to forget all about it. The Obama administration letting the CIA burn its little torture tapes in order to decide that it couldn’t, like, judicially do anything about torturers (just as it couldn’t find a single bankster to prosecute in that unfortunate 2008 financial meltdown thingy) should have taught me a lesson: the plebs will never be heard. Ever ever ever.

So I am doing my best to ignore the hilarious islamo-gauchiste campaign in France, even to the extent of deciding not to finish the incredibly dumb, no good, absolutely disqualifying rant of Pierre Jourde, late of Commentaire, in the Nouvelle Obs. Why froth when spring is here? The birds have their nests, and the son of man, or at least this son of a woman, has a place to lay his head, so whistle while you work.

But I am too tempted by the devil here. For really, what France should have been talking about for, oh, say the last twenty to thirty years is Islamo-Droiteism, otherwise known as the French foreign policy. While Jourde is in such a rage at the likes of  Clémentine Autain or Emmanuel Todd that he can’t be bothered to name one instance in which they have materially helped the Islamicist cause, or Islam in general – it is very easy to put names and dates together for the material and military helping of the great wen of Islamicism, the founder, the center, the om and omega, called Saudi Arabia. From 1956, when France was part of the military team that attacked Nasser’s Egypt – Nasser’s, you will recall, was the first secularist Middle Eastern revolution – to the French military team that was dispatched to help the Saudi royals in 1979, when the great Mosque in Mecca was attacked, all the way up to France bombing Daech on behalf of a coalition consisting of a few “secularist” fronts and a lot of Islamicist fronts – including al qaeda – in Syria, France’s foreign policy has been islamicist to the core. Not one word, of course, is said about this in the French press. After all, to doubt the King’s foreign policy is to doubt royal perogative at all! But this is how it is. After Holland’s disastrous neo-con turn in the Middle East led, predictably enough, to attacks in France, did anybody ask: what was the point of that? No. Dots are not connected if they are inconvenient dots.

If you want to track the growth of Islamacism – or, simply, the Saudi approved school of Islam – in Europe, you would do much better to read the Monthly Newsletter of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington DC than Olivier Todd. There you can see wonderful photo ops of various Saudi royals conferring with various European officials, like Chirac in the 90s, about affirming “cultural relationships” – or, in other words, allowing the Saudis to flood the zone in Europe with mosquebuilding money, and propaganda against any other Islamic school. It was through that money that traditional mosques in Bosnia were taken over, razed, and rebuilt with an entirely new message for their congregations. This was seen with a benevolent eye by French politicians who saw weapons sales to the Saudis as an El Dorado, and who definitely were on the petroleum mainline. No, it is not Olivier Todd who is flogging French arm sales, but, gasp, those warriors against Islamo-gauchisme at the Elysee, the government of Macron. Here’s a little precis by AmnestyInternational of who is really promoting islamicism in the world. Hint – it isnot the faculty at the Sorbonne.

I can froth all I want, I know, and it won’t make a gnat’s ass difference. Still, even a gnat has a right to a horselaugh at the moronic inferno called the “french intellectual scene” every once in a while.

Friday, March 19, 2021

For Peace ... and the Draft


In 2006, Harper’s Magazine sponsored a forum on the possibility of an American coup d’etat. Among the participants in that discussion was one Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.  Dunlap was part of an interesting exchange about the composition of the military.

“WASIK: I want to address the question of partisanship in the military. Insofar as there is a "culture war" in America, everyone seems to agree that the armed forces fight on the Republican side. And this is borne out in polls: self-described Republicans outnumber Democrats in the military by more than four to one, and only 7 percent of soldiers describe themselves as "liberal."
KOHN: It has become part of the informal culture of the military to be Republican. You see this at the military academies. They pick it up in the culture, in the training establishments.
DUNLAP: The military is an inherently conservative organization, and this is true of all militaries around the world. Also the demographics have changed: people in the South who were Democratic twenty years ago have become Republican today.
BACEVICH: Yes, all militaries are conservative. But since 1980 our military has become conservative in a more explicitly ideological sense. And that allegiance has been returned in spades by the conservative side in the culture war, which sees soldiers as virtuous representatives of how the country ought to be.
KOHN: And meanwhile there is a streak of anti-militarism on the left.
BACEVICH: It's not that people on the left disdain the military but rather that they are just agnostic about it. They don't identify with soldiers or soldiering.
LUTTWAK: And their children have less of a propensity to serve in the military. Parents who describe themselves as liberal are less likely to make positive noises to their children about the armed forces.
DUNLAP: Which brings up a crucial point. Let's accept as a fact that the U.S. military has become more overtly ideological since 1980. What has happened since 1980? Roughly, that was the beginning of the all-volunteer force. What we are seeing right now is the result of twenty-five years of an all-volunteer force, in which people have self-selected into the organization.

 I was recently in an exchange with a member of a supposed resistance to war group that posted a Reason Magazine article against the draft. I am for the draft. I think the draft puts the burden of war solidly on the people. If that doesn’t happen, we soon see the military becoming a praetorian group for itchy fingered presidents. And we also see, as in the capitol riot, that exmilitary people in a self-selecting armed group veer towards the right. This isn’t just the American experience – it is the French, British, German and Italian experience. It is the experience of Latin America and Japan. The rightwing tend is only countered by the formation of “people’s armies” – basically, the draft.

There are a number of political externalities, in the U.S., that came with the draft. One of the undiscussed ones is how much the draft contributed to the collapse of Jim Crow. The military was the first government organization that officially integrated, under Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981  issued on July 26, 1948. I think one could even argue that, given the draft, to which iall young American men were subject at the time, this order did more to integrate America and kickstart the very much incomplete march towards racial equality than Brown v. Board of Education. There is a reason that white libertarians at Reason, Milton Friedman and Reagan were all on the anti-draft side – as well as on the white supremacist side, at least in practice.

I doubt we will have Selective Service again, unfortunately. And I also doubt that the Capitol Riot is a one-off. America runs under the delusion of its own exception to social patterns in history – hence, the bizarre belief that one can spend 700 billion per year on the military and still maintain an apolitical military force. The draft was a counter-vailing force – and its abolition has had just the effects you would predict – a heightening of rightwing military sentiment, an inability to stop wars – Iraq kicking the U.S. out was a rare favor accorded to us in this respect, otherwise it would be Afganistan – and an inability to adjust to changes in the global order. It was interesting to see the neolibs under Obama try to whip up sentiment for the no good, very terrible Transpacific Trade pact by militarizing the issue – we must stop Red China before it takes over a few ten square mile islands in the China Sea! That kind of thing is a D.C. specialty, now.

You feed the monster until the monster feeds on you.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Biography of a price - the argument from adventure



We live in an epoch in which objects have taken one of the attributes of kings - that is, they get biographies. The biography of the fork, the pencil, Wall Street – the transfer of the life story from the human to the inhuman has become quite fashionable, as though, since we all know about the pathetic fallacy, we are allowed to systematically commit it. I jest, ho ho – and in fact, I have to admit that there is something life-like about these things and their passage through our lives. If they aren’t alive, they still have mana – a lifelike power. They become totems.

However, noone, so far as I know, has done a biography of a price. Ah, there’s a subject! One would first have to wrest it from the enormous mystifications of the economists, who know what a price must be without often looking at what a price is, and one would have to restore it to its true nature, its genesis, its type.
Scratch a price and you find an adventure. We’ve become accustomed to thinking that the adventure it encodes is determined by a thing called a “market” – and so mystery calls to mystery. The mystics of capitalism have shamelessly spoken of the “magic of the marketplace” – which serves as an alibi for our adventurer. In fact, all adventurers deal, at one point or another in their careers, with magic. From Raleigh to Cagliostro, from the average American politician to the Spanish conquistador, all have used magic to fill in the gaps, biographical and strategic. But the biographer’s strong suite is a counter-magic: a grasp of details. While the adventurer sheds one persona for another, one claim to effects at a distance for another, one spectacle for another, the biographer, that dogged leveler, reconnects the membra disjecta with a thousand and one facts, with fine filaments of cause, deliberation, association and purposes (a plural that covers serial disappointments, self-subversions and incompatibilities – for the biographer is not your rational expectations robot, explaining that all can be explained through a system that explains anything. A biographer who seeks to explain a life is a biographer who has gone mad).

The critic Harold Innes claimed that the story of modernization in the west is the story of the penetration of the price system. This is an insight that holds together a truth and a falsehood. Just as there are no solitary human individuals – every mother’s son or daughter of ‘em must be a mother’s son or daughter – so too, there is no single price. Price’s came into the world en masse, rather than as a single prototype – no caveman hammered out a price, held it up, and said, now what will this be goood for? But Innes’s insight is also false, in that it treats price system as something autonomous – it is as if, with the word “system”, we move from the puppet to the puppetmaster.



 In the first week of April, 1963, Nina Simone and her trio signed a contract to appear for three weeks at the Village Gate for 1500 dollars per week, plus 10 percent commission. We happen to know something about the Village Gate and its prices from an article that appeared in the Village Voice in 1965, which described the Village Gate as one of the few Jazz clubs that was making a profit that year. “Usually two star attractions are presented on the same bill. .. The room is large enough to accomodate a sufficient number of customers to offset a high cost of talent without raising prices to an unreasonable level.” Later on in the article, we learn that the usual cost of the ticket is 3 dollars. The ticket sometimes came with a minimum drink requirement, depending on the event. The price of the ticket, then, is a compound thing – it is a guess at the demand for the performance, which is determined, in part, by the space of the room, and is annexed to other costs and prices – for instance, for drinks. This price is hard to compare, given these variables, to other prices. For instance, we know that in the last week of November, 1969, you could see Nina Simone at Fillmore East, another NYC club, for a ticket price of $3.50, $4.50 or $5.50. This would seem to indicate a very low rate of inflation – 50 cents over a period of 6 years, or around 2 percent per year. But that is misleading since, as we pointed out, the ticket price reflects a compound of other variables. As so often with services, the quality of the good varies wildly.  Fillmore East was the revamped Village Theater, and it flourished until it was closed in 1971, a closing its owner, Bill Graham, blamed on stadium rock concerts – which, Graham claimed, raised the cost of performers and competed on the ticket price with venues that did not have the seating capacity stadiums had.


If we were to do the biography of the price of a Nina Simone concert, we would find that the conditions for it probably satisfy neither the subjectivist economics school – where demand is the sole real determinant – nor the labor value school of economics – where the labor of Simone, her trio, and the staff of the places she sang at combine to give us the base determinants of the price. As if well known, ticket prices defy the demand school – the franchise manager of your local Metroplex movie theater does not try to juice up demand for movies that are unpopular by adjusting ticket prices. It is, normally, one ticket price for every movie. Often this is a condition in the distribution contracts.


All of thse things suggest the adventure school theory of the price. Unfortunately, most economists don’t recognize adventure when they see it. .


Sunday, March 14, 2021

The ides of March, a poem


The Ides of March


Fate’s patent on circumstance

makes a monopoly of accidents.

Me, for instance – isn’t my every hair

counted by God on his golden throne?


Down here below, those that I lose

collect in the filtre de cheveux de drain

In the shower. Out of omen

Out of luck.


“Caesar self also doing sacrifice unto the gods,

Found that one of the beasts which was sacrificed had no heart.”

Myself, untouchable, hairpicker grub

In the soapscum for what I’ve shed.

- Karen Chamisso





Friday, March 12, 2021

Bush years historiography: the axis of evil in the thirties

 Cold War reflections

During the Axis of Evil years, there was a sub-category of journalistic histories that went back over the 30s and the Cold War from a Bush-ite perspective, a search for the Good Guys (Americans, Churchill) and the bad guys (Stalin, communists, useful idiots, the whole nine yards).
Because I’m writing a story about two lives in the cold war – Willi Schlamm and Otto Katz – I’ve been unpleasantly plunged into this literature. A literature heavily marked by the McCarthyism that succeeded the fall of the wall and the end of history decade of the 90s, that decade which was also the end of big government, also humanitarian intervention, and other alsos that led us to march, finally, on Baghdad.
It is a striking thing about this literature that the focus is so entirely on Stalin. There’s little mention of fascist Italy, and Hitler only crops up as Stalin’s secret ally. Much is made of the failure of the communists in Germany to join with the Social Democrats and defeat Hitler, and nothing is made of the curious failure of France, Britain and even Italy to intervene to stop the rise of a leader who quite openly wanted to trash the Versailles treaty.
It is all very curious. You would have to look around for a whole other set of books, usually in German or French, about the connections between businesses and banks in Germany and France or Britain. And if you want to find the literature on what the Anglophiles in the U.S. state department shared with their British counterparts, you will have to file FOIAs yourself – the lack of curiosity in the literature is overwhelming. This, in contrast with the examination of every move of every Russophile contact with Soviet officials. Of the counting of pores on Alger Hiss's nose, there is no end.
The paucity of information about secret contacts with the Italian fascists, not to mention the German National Socialists, is rather appalling. That is why Frances Stoner Saunders’ article about the MI6 file on Eric Hobsbawm struck so many people as a bombshell when it came out in the London Review of Books. The softness of the British establishment and government for Mussolini has been comparatively well known for some time now. But the cooperation of British intelligence and the Geheime Dienst of Hitler’s is still an unexpected news item.
“The week Hobsbawm left Berlin, Guy Liddell, MI5’s German-speaking deputy head of counter-espionage, arrived from London. The fearful symmetry in this – history throwing us a stray bone of coincidence – will become clear. Liddell left London on 30 March, and stayed for ten days. He had been invited to meet officials of the German Political Police, Abteilung 1A, which had installed itself in the KPD headquarters, now conveniently vacant. Liddell was assisted by Frank Foley, MI6’s Berlin station chief, whose diplomatic cover was passport control officer. On 31 March, the two men entered Karl Liebknecht Haus, now renamed Horst Wessel Haus and sporting a huge swastika where only weeks earlier Lenin had stared out from a hoarding.
Liddell and Foley were introduced to Rudolf Diels, head of Abteilung 1A, who explained urbanely that it was his intention to exterminate communism in its widest sense. By this he meant not only the Communist Party and its subordinate bodies but also left-wing pacifist organisations. It was immediately clear to Liddell that there was ‘certainly a good deal of “third degree” work going on’ and that ‘Jews, communists and even social democrats’ were being ‘submitted to every kind of outrage’. Swallowing his distaste (he witnessed a man being dragged into the building while ‘protesting loudly that he had never had anything to do with politics’), Liddell settled down with Foley, in a room placed at their disposal, to examine the files of Abteilung 1A, while their hosts refined their enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees held elsewhere in the building.”
If the visit to the Horst Wessel building had involved one of Stalin’s NKVD men, we would, of course, been told over and over again – a meme in the Bushite silly season – that Stalin was secretly allied with Hitler. This meeting does not mean, of course, that the British were allied with Hitler instead – but it does signify one of the motifs of the interwar period – a fear of communism that overwhelmed the fear of Naziism or fascism. Leaving Berlin, “Liddell was confident that if ‘constant personal contact [were] maintained’, the relationship would persist after the current ‘rather hysterical atmosphere of sentiment and brutality dies down’.”
This is not a pleasant story. It is much more pleasant, in hindsight, to denounce the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, which made a mockery of a decade of antifascist activity by the Comintern, than to ask questions about the Anglo-German Naval treaty of 1935, which cut out France and allowed Germany to build up a navy beyond what was allowed by the Versailles treaty. The latter, of course, has dropped into memory hole.

The past is a foreign country, indeed. Every visit to it is a visit to a new foreign country.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

L’appétit vient en mangeant, la soif s’en va en buvant - Biden's stimulus

 "The Tax Policy Center in Washington estimates that the direct payments and expanded tax credits in the bill would, by themselves, increase after-tax income this year by more than 20 percent for an average household in the lowest quintile of income earners in the United States. It previously had forecast that Mr. Trump’s tax cuts would raise that same group’s income by less than 1 percent in the first year."

Start with stuff. The stimulus package, as we know to our sorrow, did not contain the minimum wage increase. What it does contain, though, is a program that is targeted to award those in the lower income and median income percentiles. This should not be cause for trumpets, but it is. Since the turn in the seventies - the cat's foot creep of neoliberalism - the neoliberal consensus shared by both parties has been: millionaires first. On the Dem side, this was the a real break with the Clinto-Obama paradigm. Set the conditions for working class people to actually see government working for them, and you can get working class people "excited" to garner further gains. The illusion that progressives will impose those conditions from the top by force majeure arises from the despair induced by the age of nudgery. This, though, a temporary stimulus, will increase the desire for a structural stimulus. 

L’appétit vient en mangeant, la soif s’en va en buvant, as comrade Rabelais put it.   

Wednesday, March 03, 2021



Balloon love goes through three stages. First there is the curious rubber minnow, with the strange mouth. Your mom or dad blows it up, because though you try and try, you just seem to end up with spit all over the minnow. There’s a resistance in the balloon’s embryonic form. When your mom or dad blows the balloon up, they too visibly pause after the first exhale. The embryonic state, midway between minnow and blimp, is an important part of the natural history of the balloon. Professionals – who work in malls – seem to have mastered the smoothest of transitions between minnow and blimp. They don’t visibly pause. Of course, these professionals treat the balloon like it is a fluid substance, twisting it into animal shapes. In the evolutionary history of balloons, these animal shapes correspond, on might hypothesize, to when animals first came out onto land, developed lungs and locomotion. The difference is that the animals flourished and diversified, whereas the balloon’s larger destiny, the dirigible, is definitely foreshadowed by the simplest balloon mechanics.

Second there is the tying and playing. When the balloon achieves that equilibrium between too much – popping – and too little – drooping – the adult ties the mouth. The mouth now has the corded texture of a belly button, an ombilicus. There’s a squeeking sound that comes when the belly button is extended a bit so there is matter to tie. The tying is often a complicated matter, since it one of those operation in which the patient can lose its vital fluid, in this case air. Luckily, we are oversupplied with air, so that the balloon can be blown up again.

There are basically two kinds of knots. One knot is deliberately boobytrapped, so that when the balloon is batted around, the knot will untie and the balloon will, enjoyably, turn into a rocket, rapidly deflating as it shoots away. The other kind of knot is more solid. In the end, this is the knot that wins, since the second phase of balloon love is definitely batting the balloon in the air and following it around – at the risk of it or you knocking into furniture – and keeping it flying. This can satisfy both the balloon and the balloon batter for a surprisingly long time. There are variants to this game, but the point is definitely not to let the balloon touch the floor. If it touches the floor, there’s some kind of negative in the invisible scorekeeping going on.

The third and most mysterious phase of balloon love is finding the balloon the day after it was birthed into a big fat blimp. Now, the balloon is in the winter of its being, shrunken, usually strayed to a corner. It is a lesson in old age, the balloon is. There are two options, of course. One is to let the balloon shrink down to nothing. This option is basically forgetting the balloon – it is indifference. The other is to end it all by popping the balloon. There are those who maintain that the popping is best done to a young balloon, which produces the most surprising sound; and then there are those who keep the balloon in play until distracted by one of the ten million distractions that can capture one’s attention in the day. For the latter, the final popping is not as glorious, but it is not un-fun. At this point, the pop will be a little dumpy, a little curbed, but it will make a definite noise.

Pop, it will go, but more quietly than the defiant pops of its maturity.

It can be enough of a pop to surprise someone who doesn’t know you have the balloon and are planning on popping it.

And then the balloon, an exhausted and shred piece of rubber, is thrown away. Or put, for some reason, in a desk drawer, where years latter it will be taken out and thrown away. But throwing away is fate, and who escapes fate?