Tuesday, March 03, 2015

17 Questions for Revolutionaries

I'm a big fan of The 36 Questions that come from Mandy Len Catron’s recent Modern Love essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” In the article she refers to a study by the psychologist Arthur Aron (and 4 co-authors) that explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. But the essay got me thinking -- if progressive politics are central to one's life (as they are for many of us) what questions would we want to ask each other to build intimacy while deepening consciousness? In some ways these questions feel like a cliche of so many radical political discussions over the last 100 years. And yet these are the things that I want to know so here goes:

Part I, Sex, Desire, and Gender

1. What is your idea of manhood?  What is a good man? Have you read Wendy Brown's Manhood and Politics. If not, let's read it together and discuss.

2.  What is womanhood? What is a good woman? Have you read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex?  If not let's read them together and discuss.

3. What is sexy?  Seriously what is sexy for you?  How do you think desire has been socially constructed in your life?

4. Is egalitarianism sexy? If so, what exactly makes it sexy? Is difference sexy? If so, what exactly makes it sexy?

5. (I cringe to even ask this but I want to know and there is only one way to find out so here goes) if gender is socially constructed, how do we explain the hard biological determinism connected with the idea of "transgender."  

Part II, Economics

6. If capitalism is so abundantly and evidently flawed, how has it managed to persist so long and continue to expand?

7.  What does the revolution look like for you?  What does the world look like when we win?

8.  What explains the failure of communist states in the 20th century?  If you are going to claim that the Soviet Union et al were not true communism, then what is true communism for you?

9.  What's the difference between true communism and libertarianism? Is ideology a spectrum or a circle?  

10. How do you overcome the problem of Hayek/Foucault? Namely, if value really is subjective for each individual, aren't the liberal assholes right on some level? (Bonus: is postmodernism a CIA plot to destroy the left?)

11. Aren't Marxism and modern ecological concerns in conflict? 20th century Marxists really thought that we could solve the distributional problem and even outgrow capitalist states through central planning. But now we argue that growth is the problem and that we should aim for zero growth to save the planet. Isn't zero growth theory in response to global warming actually in conflict with Marx?

12. What do you make of the fact that most revolutions have in fact been carried out by elites? Wasn't Marx fundamentally wrong about the notion that the proletariat would surely rise up?

13.  How do you explain the fact that so many communist revolutions ultimately devoured their own? Stalin imprisoned over a million revolutionaries (killing 3/4s of them). The main torture center during the Khmer Rouge was devoted to killing people who had actually participated in the overthrow of the previous government. Why are radical lefties so completely awful to each other (and how can we stop that)?  (Bonus: why are the anarchists and communists always fighting each other, doesn't that ultimately just serve the interests of capital?)

14. "From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs," how exactly is that evaluation and distribution supposed to be carried out? Aren't the roots of totalitarianism built into that sentence? What's a better organizing principle for the revolution?

15. Aren't unions as they currently exist today just rentiers?  They simply want a bigger share of the capitalist pie -- but they are often just as committed to the perpetuation of the capitalist system as any CEO. And yet so many progressives keep acting like unions are going to save us. When we talk about the radical conscious wing of unions (the ones who actually have risen up in the past) aren't we in fact talking about something distinct and different from unionism as it currently exists?

16. So many of us love Paulo Freire. But is he actually correct? Radical consciousness is not innate and peasants don't necessarily have more or better consciousness than anyone else. Radical consciousness is socially constructed through years of painful study. Isn't Freirian pedagogy disingenuous on some level -- claiming to be honoring peasant consciousness while in fact shaping and instilling a hard won progressive elite consciousness about gender, politics, and economics?

17.  Are people fundamentally good or bad?  How do we explain the persistence of evil in the world?  How should societies prepare for and respond to evil?

And then if you are still speaking to each other at this point (lol), stare into each other's eyes for 4 minutes.  Oh my.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Pollyannaism is an act of submission

Okay so I finally figured out why I hate pollyannaism.  There was always an enormous disconnect for me -- because the most pollyanna people I know are also the most depressive.  And so the gap between how they insist that they (and everyone else) see the world (everything is awesome!) and how they are surely feeling inside is quite jarring.  But I always felt bad about distrusting pollyanna people because after all, they were only guilty of being overly sunny, surely they were not hurting anyone -- fake it till you make it right?

But it finally clicked for me the other day -- pollyannaism is an act of submission.  Pollyanna people insist that instead of acting on the information right in front of us that we slip instead into a fictitious alternate reality (a coma really) where everything is always awesome.  The ONLY possible outcome of pollyannaism is to leave the status quo in place.  Strategizing is impossible with pollyanna people because they purposefully ignore the facts in favor of an alternate Candyland reality.

Pollyannaism is an agnotological project -- it is the willful construction of ignorance by weak people who don't want to be burdened with the discomfort and responsibility that comes from realizing that we have a moral responsibility to challenge the status quo.  Pollyannaism is a surrender to protect elites and to show elites that we really mean them no harm.  Pollyannaism is thus a form of totalitarianism, a system where one is not only required to be obedient to a ruling regime, but is required to actually believe, upon pain of death, the fictions of the regime.

To be clear, there is an enormous difference between pollyannaism and the "positive self talk" that athletes engage in.  Positive self talk is a tool for staying focused in the moment to propel one to even greater actions.  Pollyannaism is the opposite of all that -- jumping ahead to a happy conclusion (we always already won already) so as to prevent action even in the midst of conflict.  Elites thus love pollyannaism because it signals surrender and they hate positive self talk because it shows that we are still engaged in the fight.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

So there is still the problem of violence

People seem to be talking about a Universal Basic Income Guarantee. I think the conversation is a good thing and this idea may indeed be the revolution.

But it seems to me that there is still the question of violence.  The entire global economy is founded on violence (of varying types and degrees). There is the direct violence of U.S. (and soon to be Chinese) imperial wars to control natural resources and markets.  But there is also the internalized violence that causes most people on the planet to get up every day and go to jobs that they don't want to be doing. The market is violence -- if you fail to follow the rules of the market (go to work, earn money, pay you bills), you and your family will be evicted, jailed, homeless, starving, and/or left outside to freeze.  So we internalize the violence and force ourselves to do unpleasant things in order to avoid the (even greater) external violence.

A universal basic income guarantee rightly aims to remove violence from the system. But literally, once you take violence out, no one picks strawberries. And garbage collectors would need to make $100,000 a year. Which might be fantastic. It would get rid of all the bullshit jobs that David Graeber talks about.

Okay, fair enough.  But if the universal basic income is adopted in only one country (or just a handful of rich countries) -- don't most of the lousy jobs just move to poorer countries? And don't rich countries then have even more incentive to oppress poor countries in the attempt to keep prices down? So in solving the problem of bullshit jobs in one country -- have we merely moved them to another (which is what we do already, but this would just accelerate that trend). Said differently, does a universal basic income lead to even more neocolonialism rather than less? Does removing the internalized violence in the first world just amplify the external and internal violence in the third world?