Wednesday, March 08, 2023

The miniaturist of the apocalypse: Alfred Polgar


Alfred Polgar is a name that rings no chimes in the good old Anglosphere. His great fan, Clive James, the Australian essayist, tried to remedy that situation in his mini-encyclopedia, Cultural Amnesia; however, the effect of his article on Polgar is to make him seem untranslateable and forever in the corner pocket of the Habsburg Empire freaks out there. Unfair!

From the classic New Yorker talk of the town piece to Nicholson Baker, miniaturism has had an honourable place in English language lit. Polgar has a distinct family resemblance. His great period was in the interwar era – which, for German writers, ended in Germany in 1933, and in Austria a little later. Polgar was resolutely modern, a cinephile, a presence at the great modernist theatre events, Piscator and such. He was, ultimately, a reviewer – except what he reviewed was often a moment of streetlife, a smell from his childhood.
The quintessence of his art is in a little piece entitled “Orange Peel”. Here he reviews the reaction of a legless beggar to a man throwing away an orange peel. That’s the show, people. He explores the beggar’s motives for yelling at the man for throwing away the orange peel. Then he reviews his own motives for writing about it. Then he puts in doubt his own witnessing, as the evening was approaching, the light wasn’t right, and perhaps the beggar wasn’t legless after all.
“But let’s leave open the question of why the beggar’s soul slipped on the orange peel. Let us leave the small event, around which bloom psychological, social, ethical and cosmic perspectives, uninterpreted. Since, even so, the same circumstances broaden out and occur in heaven and on earth and between the two, we can surely authorize the question why just this story of the orange peel had to be written. Oh, whatever stuff must be written! My literary credo is that one should not write anything which a person cannot read with interest and implication an hour before her death. But that leaves not much other literature than the Bible and the stock market report (Kurszettel).”
Between God and the devil, the bible and the market: now that is an apocalyptic place for a minimalist writer! I love it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023



According to the Littre, the word grève – strike – comes from the Grève – the strip along the Seine behind the Hotel de Ville where, in the 18th century, people hung out looking for work. There are places like that in all cities – in Austin, Texas, for instance, I remember working for someone who picked up day laborers down near I-35 in the center of the City. I believe that has moved since I left that town. But they will be somewhere – the day-by-days, the desperate, the Barbaric Yawp you can hire for minimum, pick em up at 8, drive em down there at 5.

That, according to Littre, the grève became a linguistic extension of that desperation – the worker becoming, voluntarily, the non-worker – is an etymology to be pondered.

Michelle Perrot, a historian known for her feminism, wrote a book in the wake of 1968: Workers on Strike in France, 1871-1890. Her purpose, besides the strictly historical one, was to understand the strike not as an empty form, but as a social complex. At one point she writes:  “It took May 1968 to remind us for a brief moment that a strike can be something other than a well-run economic scenario, that it can in fact be an expression of latent desires and repressed dreams, a freeing of both word and action, a festival [fete – party] of the assembled populace.”

That the great strikes are great parties is a shock to the Anglophone world. Parties are assigned to the upper class, the style section, the peeps with yachts. A strike – stopping work, by God! – has to be accomplished with solemn faces, with “ideals”, with a certain sense of sacrifice. The strike enters into the sacred realm.

But that realm just is, as well, the realm of the party. The party-sacrifice. Everybody’s pay is docked. Everybody blows trumpets and marches to a reggae beat, or to rap, or to the smokey arty songs of the 50s. To the great disgust of the bourgeoisie. It is by this disgust that you can diagnose them – it is alright to ask the boss for more wages, humbly, and it is all right if the boss, being a self-made man in a dog eat dog world, refuses the request and even institutes a healthful mass layoff – but to bring out the balloons and the saucisse sandwiches! It shows that you are really enjoying the idleness – and centuries and centuries have gone into the message that enjoying the idleness is reserved for the top ranks, only.

Perrot has a nice sense of the counter-seasonal reality of industrial labor, which is always being pushed back by the worker. Thus, the importance of May, of Spring, when working in a dusty building seems to go against human nature. She mentions a strike of the largely female work force at a glove factory:

“The women loved dancing. Their strikes took on the outward appearance of dances. At Ceton (Orne) where the Neyret glove factory employed a large female labor force (100 in the workshop, 600 in their own homes), “the day following the strike declaration, the whole population went to a meadow… and they danced there until dusk. At Ablain-Saint-Nazaire the stikes, female flint gatherers, went through the village streets led by a band, singing and dancing. They waved pocket handkerchiefs and aprons attached to long poles as banners… The day ended in an open-air dance.”

In The Age of Betrayal, Jack Beatty outlines the way labor was crushed in post-bellum America by the combination of media, the courts, Congress and the Executive. The joke of it all was that the highminded motivation here was “freedom” – free markets – and to uphold this freedom, workers were deprived of the freedom of association, speech, and in general of any activity that the establishment did not approve of. The New York Times, in the 1870s, was suspicious that labor strikers were actually not laborers at all, but “tramps” – how the NYT loves the unverified, country club rumor! Beatty digs out the particulars of the Railroad Strike of 1877 in Pittsburg, where the casualties amounted to around 40, the state guard gave the strikers the “rifle diet”, as the president of the railroad called it. Beatty does a good job of connecting the crushing of the strike and the ethnic cleansing going on in the borderlands. In both cases, what was being attacked was an older version of rights and properties.

It was the Homestead strike of 1892 that Beatty singles out as the turning point – a sort of Wounded Knee for the working class: “Homestead was an axial event. It portended the end of the skilled workers’ control over the pace of production, the eclipse of the nineteenth century entrepreneurial economy, and the triumph of corporate capitalism.” Homestead was a steel mill built on the plan of a prison or concentration camp, a place surrounded by barbed wire. Inside, conditions of work were such as to diminish the lifespan of the workers. “Fifteen to twenty men died a year at Homestead.”  But the workers, given the sweat and blood they literally spilled there, considered the plant their territory in some essential sense. As contemporaries wrote, and as Beatty asserts, the spirit of the skilled laborer took the skill as a property, with all its rights, against management. When the workers struck and occupied the plant, Carnegie Steel sent a private militia of Pinkertons against them. The ensuing battle was, really, a battle: the Pinkertons brought a cannon with them and bombarded the factory. The workers, armed, shot back. Since the Pinkertons were on barges on the river where the factory was located, the workers devised the strategy – probably taught to them by fathers who fought in the civil war – of sending rafts on fire against the barges. When the Pinkertons surrendered, the workers revenged the rifleshot and cannons that had cost them seven dead and sixty wounded by making the Pinkertons run the gauntlet in town. Women lined the streets and beat the Pinkertons, something that absolutely shocked the establishment.

The defeat of the Pinkertons was an excuse seized by Capital to get the Governor to call in the troops. And for Frick, who was running the steel company, to recruit strikebreakers. He preferred black strikebreakers – a clever strategy in the race war of the Jim Crow era. They were paid less, but as that pay was more than black workers could get in the South, they accepted it. Northern unions, who refused to accept black workers, paid for their racism with the use of the strikebreakers. Which of course led to the combination of racist and worker discourse, much to the satisfaction of the utterly white upper class. That strategy has been in place for a long, long time. It was in this way that the party of Lincoln reconciled the radical Republican demand for racial equality (in the South) with its middle and upper class demographic.

The strike has become old fashioned – such is the wisdom in the U.S. among the centrists. Indeed, the strike has become overloaded by government supervision, especially guided by a Supreme Court that, besides guarding white supremacy and female subordination, takes it role as crushers of worker associations for capitalist very, very seriously. We have still not seen the combination of strike and civil disobedience that is coming someday. In France, today, the cops are out in full. The reactionary Interior minister has, of course, seen to that. It is a grand tradition: when the right demonstrates, the cops leave them  a respectful space, when the left demonstrates, they are up in your face.

Liberation had an account of the utterly vapid thinking process in Macronie yesterday, which I’d recommend to anybody who can read French.  The Great Man has lept ahead of the “reform” – consider it done! What are people going to do, vote in people to undo the “reform”? Impossible! So now the Macronists are “brainstorming” for other hills to climb. Of course, ultimately they want to rely on the Le Pen card – go down the neolib road and lose your life in futile gestures nudged by thinktankers and business consultants, or you face – the Le Penists! Like Frick with his use of black strikebreakers, it is a strategy based on cynicism, hypocrisy, and the bottom line. Lets hope it blows up in their face before it is too late.






Sunday, March 05, 2023

Longtermism - it's a gas


It is weird, to me, that philosophers and pundits think of “human extinction” as some kind of rapture. Would it be bad, would it be good?  There's a typical example in Aeon which is so high minded it leaves the mind completely.,

The go-to people regarding human extinction are not philosophers. The go-to people are engineers especially in petrochemicals. I want to say: read a book! Specifically, Alan  Weisman’s The World Without Us. Weisman, unlike such sage philosophers as William (best friend of Elon Musk) Macaskill and Derek Parfitt, actually noticed a few things. For instance, “one of the most monumental constructs that human beings have imposed on the planet’s surface. The industrial megaplex that begins on the east side of Houstaon and continues uninterrupted to the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles away, is the largest concentration of petroleum refineries, petrochemical companies, and storage structures on Earth.”

This was written in 2007. There are probably larger concentrations that have been built since then. Anyhooo … what happens if there are no humans? Things go back to groovy nature? Fat chance. “Huge pockets of gas in the Gulf of Mexico or Kuwait would maybe burn forever. A petrochemical plant wouldn’t go that long, because there’s no much to burn. But imagine a runaway reactin with burning pllants throwing up clouds of stuff like hydrogen cyanide. There would be massive poisoning of the air in the Texas-Louisiana chemical alley. Follow the trade winds and see what happens.”


The particulates in the atmosphere could “create a mini chemical nuclear winter “They ould also release chlorinated ocmpounds like dioxins and furans from purning plastic. Andyou’d get lead, chromium and mercury attached to the soot. Europe and North America, with the biggest concentrations of refineries and chemical plants, would be the most contaminated. But the clouds would disperse through the world. The next generation of plants and animals, the ones that didn’t die, might need to mutate in ways that could impact evolution.”

All the human extinction movies that treat the industrial structure in which we all live – the gaspipes, the electrical plant, the nuclear plant, etc. – as a mere stage set for zombies and teenagers seem to have been adopted by “serious” philosophers pulling numbers for the possibility of human extinction out of their serious assholes and pondering them. It is as though philosophy has taken the spot that used to be inhabited by “experts” on “security” in the OOs, with their infallible advice about intervening in the Middle East and the life – although of course said experts never learned a word of Arabic. Similarly, the longtermist and existential risk crowd seem to think they move around smoothly in the natural world. They should ponder the more than five hundred salt domes underneath the Gulf of Mexico where we are storing our chemical shit.

This is, incidentally, one of the great effects of neoliberal culture – the distancing and detachment  from production. The overthrow of an ideology that spotlighted labor – Marxism – has drastically removed the spotlight – but not the labor.  The only production allowed in our entertainment is software tech. In reality, though, production has just been repressed in our collective unconscious. Nobody gets dirty daily on any tv sitcom anymore. But in reality, it still happens, and billions depend on those dirty handed wretches.  

As for the clean-hand crowd, palling around with oligarchs – I don’t have a word hard enough, succinct enough in my vocabulary of contempt to throw at them. Although I’ve been through trends in my life, and I know longtermism is short term.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...