What Is Left?

Culture, Economy, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Uncategorized, War and Politics

NOTE: This piece was originally published without my consent by a now-dissolving publication in March of this year. With the permission of my friend and former editor from that publication, who was fired along with his striking editorial colleagues during that labor dispute, I am posting it publicly here.

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Bernie Sanders presumptive loss of the Democratic Party nomination for president demonstrates the limits of electoral politics for the left. I have already seen some pre-postmortems speculating that Sanders simply arrived to soon, that his staggering margins among young voters presage a socialist wave of the future, perhaps a decade or two from now, when the rising left-leaning generations become a majority of the electorate.

This is bad analysis on two fronts. First because it under-credits Sanders’s catalytic impact on the consolidation of a collective political identity for the socialist left. The two decades leading up to Sanders’s 2016 run were marked by a number of powerful and public anti-establishment protests, from the street-fighting of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, through the Occupy movement in 2011, both ultimately put down by paramilitary police brutality. But these popular movements never coalesced around an explicit left-socialist program, and there was always the risk that their fringes would spin out into vulgar anarchism or libertarianism, and the rest subsumed into milquetoast Obama-style consensus liberalism.

Sanders, then, was a figure around which some fairly diverse left tendencies could coalesce to form a coherent popular bloc and legitimate mass movement at a time when the inextricably linked phenomena of neoliberal economic austerity and dire social atomization seemed as impregnable as they have ever been. There’s no need to indulge in crass great-man speculation in order to note that Sanders served as a necessary agent in the consolidation of socialist tendencies into an actual socialist movement. If he were not here, now, then it becomes spurious to imagine some future incarnation could capitalize on a political project that no one had organized in the first place. Whatever else it may be, history is contingent.

But the second reason this analysis fails is that it indulges in the same fantasy that has dogged Democratic politics for the last forty years at least, which is a crude demographic determinism that assumes that if we wait long enough, just until today’s youth are a majority, or until the country is “majority-minority,” or until women vote as a single bloc, then historical inevitability will kick in. Yeah, well, remember what I just said about history.

A more dispassionate analysis says that there is no reason to believe that demography is destiny, no reason to believe that a popular movement that reflects—what, a quarter of the country?—will either this year or twenty years hence have the power to wrest control of the state from all of the interests and resources that will continue to be aligned against it.

Nor is it “realistic”—to use the frequently disingenuous bugbear of conservative Democrats—to imagine that this is a simple problem of communication and outreach. If polls are to believed, a majority of Democratic voters and likely voters strongly support Sanders’s policies, from Medicare for All to an at-least-slightly more modest and less militaristic foreign policy, but the evidence is pretty clear at this point: policy agreement did not drive voting choice, certainly not in the numbers necessary. There is at least anecdotal evidence that this was the result of media coverage that obscured and obfuscated the very distinct divergences between Sanders and the rest of the field, and there is polling to suggest that a substantial chunk of voters who ultimately broke for Biden believe that he supports Medicare for All, which he explicitly, aggressively does not. But again, there is no reason to believe that this media landscape will be better or fairer in the future. If present trends in media continue, it will be worse and less fair.

The left may continue to make up marginal ground in legislatures, where campaigns are still run on a smaller scale and the pavement-pounding democracy of knocking on doors in a single district really does have advantages over mass media manipulation. (You can see this in races like the one that brought Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to office, where the incumbent has effectively decamped permanently to D.C. and has only a kind of absentee-landlord connection to their ostensible home turf.) But if we are being—here is that word again—realistic, then we have got to admit to ourselves that on a national scale, in a country the size of this one, a country with two centuries of imperial inertia and a vast, entangled complex of corporate finance, media, and national security bureaucracy, the prospects of winning a free and fair election is very, very small. (Swings in exit poll data in a number of American states, including Massachusetts, during the current primary season, are already strongly indicative of direct vote manipulation, or would be taken as such if they were observed in any other country but our own.)

All of this leaves a conundrum for which I have no prescriptive answer. Labor organizing is the obvious suggestion, since it seems to present the only path to a locus of non-state power, but that will be a decades-long project at least, given the parlous state of American labor. I could of course, write, optimistically, that there is nothing inherently wrong with a decades-long project, that if the left is going to think in historical terms, it had better get used to the fact that history is rather long by definition. But, of course, the ice caps are melting; Siberia is thawing; the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached white.

But the feel of historical acceleration that we all feel, the sense that the long duration of time is compressing before our eyes, with whole relative eras passing in the cycle of a day’s news, may herald some kind of break, a tectonic juncture in which one plate slips and a few things rattle loose. I don’t hope for catastrophe, but I do think the present COVID-19 outbreak, a symptom of the same forces driving climate change itself, of a metastasizing human civilization bumping in ever closer, weirder ways against the natural world in an age of near-instantaneous travel, heralds . . . something. Maybe the best and only hope for the left is to tighten our grip on the rails and steer the prow into unpredictable times.

Corona

Culture, Economy, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Sports, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

for Matt Christman

The liberatory quality of not knowing
shit is quite honestly the strangest bit
of living indoors in hopes of avoiding it.
By it, I mean the damp and fungal growing
sense that the wheel of time, far from slowing
has slipped the axle. Calm is counterfeit
joy; real happiness is fear knit
together with the inevitability of going
anyway: the green ruined future
made beautiful by all the strange and new
life bursting from the cracked curbs and stairs,
effervescent blood from a torn suture
strikes the sidewalk where once weeds grew
and turns to flowers in the now-clear air.

Bloom

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bloom

Bring in the boss and sit him down. The head
of the table is perfectly appropriate.
It is the last head that we’ll ever let
him have. Yes, I’m saying we’ll kill him dead.
Lop off his noggin. Weigh his body with lead.
Throw it from the gunwale of a midnight motorboat.
See if all that money helps it float.
Go home and kiss the kids and put them to bed.
“How was your day today?” inquires your wife.
“It wasn’t bad at all,” you say, and then,
quietly, so as not to wake the children,
make the quick, familiar love of a long-shared life,
watch some TV, say a quick prayer, amen:
better to live than to hoard a hundred billion.

 

White Rabbit

Culture, Media, Poetry, Science, Uncategorized, War and Politics

If the CIA had a pill that would make me not
gay, I would crush it and mix it with alcohol,
drink it and head to a nearby men’s room stall,
wait for a horny dude who was very hot
and into the thrill of nearly getting caught
to wander in from the under-peopled mall,
broad-shouldered and very, very tall,
quite DTF, a DILF, perhaps a THOT;
I’d wait for his foot to tap beneath the bland
three-quarters-height partition; I would then
stand on the toilet seat and peer across;
I’d say my spy vocation had unmanned
me; saved me from a life of loving men.
He’d shrug, and tug his dick, and say: Your loss.

Axes to Grind

Books and Literature, Culture, Media, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Capture

Being intersectional also means
existing where two plotted lines will cross,
where X plus A is Y you’re at a loss
to please the fascists and the communistic queens,
stoic farmers and mewling teenage scenes,
both wheat and chaff, both gold and foaming dross,
Israel’s psycho settlers and Hamas,
faculty and staff, adjuncts and deans.
Be everything to everyone, and at
all times tell every multitude that they
are self-contained within your sprawling mind:
each man and woman, goldfish, dog, and cat,
aspiration, measure, cloud, and day
exquisitely together, unaligned.

Ukraine

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

I’d like to have a single, perfect call.
You on your side of the sea, and I on mine;
I with my morning coffee, you with wine;
the flights of fleeing geese, and chilly fall’s
first breath across the window pane. It galls
me: not to be very special, very nice;
not to be able to, friend to friend, entice
you not to be a criminal at all.
It isn’t fair. It isn’t true, nor good
when friends, such as we are, cannot aspire
through conversation’s friend, the telephone,
to be vague and yet completely understood:
what is it to talk, if not to conspire
against corruption’s favorite word: alone?

The Turd Rome

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Media, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

We are drifting, in the absence of mind and will, toward a moment of civilizational self-negation.” -Bret Stephens

Western Civilization is a college
course invented by a claret-stained don
whose half-remembered Greek and passing knowledge
of the Gothic, Punic Wars, and Aragon
lulled the drowsy Bridesheads of the year of nine-
teen something into a vague embrace of beauty,
truth, and another glass of fortified wine:
then told themselves they had a solemn duty
to the plays they hadn’t read; basilicas
they found a little gaudy; philosophers
forgotten once they’d lost the syllabus;
spoken Latin; naval officers.
In town, Idomeneo, King of Crete
plays to an opera house of empty seats.

Retirement

Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Education, Media, Poetry, Uncategorized

By 30, you should have a decent chunk of change saved for your future self, experts say — in fact, ideally your account would look like a year’s worth of salary, according to Boston-based investment firm Fidelity Investments, so if you make $50,000 a year, you’d have $50,000 saved already. By 35, you should have twice your salary, the firm said.

By the time you’re thirty-five you should have loved
one or two emotionally stunted men,
broken up, and immediately done it again.
You should have had a plantar wart removed.
You should have stood too soon and furiously shoved
your way off of a crowded plane. You should have ten
single unmatched socks. Most of your friends
should be better off, do yoga, self-improve
while you’re still at the bar five nights a week,
still smoke when you drink too much, get stoned, and tweet,
sill plan to plan to write a book, still drive
the car you bought at twenty-six, still seek
sensations strong enough to mask defeat.
You don’t tell anyone you’re thirty-five.

The Princess and the Peon

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We need a Disney Princess who one night
awakes in a sweat in her vast, cold bed to find
a prickling guilt in the back of her lovely mind:
what she has inherited is neither just nor right;
out in the fields of wheat, the peasants’ plight
is that his labor and his wealth are unaligned;
the commons closed, his status thus declined—
the owners took the surplus. Where Princess might
once have called the maid for milk and gone
back to bejeweled dreams and tiny snores,
this time she rushes to the palace’s marble stairs,
cries to the dawn that there will be a dawn,
princes brought down to raise up beggars and whores,
collective ownership, and headless heirs.

The Simp-osium

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Media, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

dank

Democracy dies in dankness. A ring of smoke,
it goes wafting to the ceiling of the studios
you share with several twenty-something bros
you sort of knew in college; another toke,
and then the conversation turns baroque:
what if all the mind believes it knows
is just a holograph? can we suppose
that Croatan were aliens at Roanoke?
What were we saying? Yes. Democracy.
Boy-fucking Plato thought it was a bad
idea, mostly, prone to demagogues;
reason crowded out; stupidity
inevitably ascendant; even a mad
king better than a congress of rabid dogs.