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Why “Vaguely” & Why “Radical”??

December 31, 2012

The overall purpose(s) of this blog will become clear as I fill in some details and flag a few important essays that ultimately are informing my own writing contributions, but I want to take just a few minutes to explain what I mean by referring to myself and to this blog as “Vaguely Radical.”

There is a definite sense that these two words are contradictory or setup a kind of paradox; “vague” is indefinite, or poorly defined, while “radical” gets to the root of things (especially disease or rot) and is extreme, denoting a commitment to fundamental change – especially, in my case, as relates to the functioning of our “political-economy.” In some sense, there is nothing “vague” about being RADICAL and nothing “radical” about being VAGUE. Therein lies the paradox, a paradox I fully embrace and intend to work through over the course of this blog and through the books that spring from it.

Part of my vagueness is that I have only recently made the leap into anything that could be called a truly “radical” mindset, and that came about over the course of the last three years, trying to understand what went wrong in the economy, and what might be done to restore economic health (if not “prosperity”)… In an effort to hold onto the advantages of not being deeply embedded in a particular political or economic ideology (at the outset, at least), and owing to many years of meditative and “Eastern” religious exploration, I intend to “radically” hold onto my “beginners mind” as these explorations unfold. That is to say that I will do everything in my power to avoid the pre-packaged, sterile political sloganeering that passes for public discourse. That means I will not always have fully formed opinions; things may have to remain vague and uncertain from time to time. Such is the price we must pay in order to get closer to the root of our problems.

Another part of the vagueness rests in the fact that “Isms, in my opinion, are not good.” Now I veer off course from Ferris Bueller on this; it isn’t that believing in an ideology is bad, it is that our ideologies are not particularly very good right now. I don’t believe our political “brands” line up very well with reality. This is a far-reaching topic – a radical rethinking of political speech – that will be carried out bit by bit as we proceed, but even the briefest of thinking on the matter should illustrate: political words don’t really mean what they used to. For example, it is very difficult to pin down a “liberal” economic perspective; “liberal” means something very different in most places (and historically) than the (now mostly defunct) “Lefty” connotations in American politics. This leads to ideas like “neoliberalism” which is extraordinarily difficult to pin down as a political philosophy, even as it has remade the entire world economically in little more than a generation. And to try and paint “Lefty Democrats” who adhere to “Neoliberal” policies as “Socialist” is to truly render the entire discussion meaningless. On the other end of the spectrum, I find new types of socialists who agree quite readily with old time “conservatives” about various power structures (community based and such) that exist outside of markets and also outside the state (holding both in check, to a degree); associations that facilitate more robust participatory democracy. When corporate friendly democrats, adhering to fairly radical (neoliberal) “free-market” theories are branded “socialist” while old time conservatives seem to agree with new-fangled socialist thinkers, it is time to step back and reconsider what we mean by our political slogans and labels, where we are trying to go, and how we mean to get there. So, in that sense, any truly “radical” thinking in our present age should probably get used to some vagaries of political labels and ideas, at least for a little while – until we sort this mess out.

And the final reason I find my budding radicalism to only be “vaguely radical” is that most of the conclusions I have come to so far are not really aimed at a “radical” remaking of the social order, or even towards a return to an idealized, mythologized past, but rather seek to prevent (and roll-back) a radical “universal project” that is already underway, aiming simply to preserve and expand some recent institutional “compromises” while resuming what appears to be a fairly well demarcated path within US & World history. In other words, I see my “opponents” as far more radical than myself, even though they have managed to normalize their “radical” worldview over the last generation or so – to the deeply disappointing result that we see now; to the point that asking very pertinent, even common-sensical questions feels like a thought-crime (if you spend too much time immersed in corporate media).

There are a number of deep questions we must confront in order to truly grasp the nature of politics and economics – questions that go far beyond the technical models, constituencies and institutional “norms & reforms” that occupy most of our thinking about the political-economy. We have to realize that the political-economy springs from a moral vision, a worldview, a series of values, and some kind of an answer to that philosophy-101 koan: “what is the meaning of life?” This question is much easier to answer and much more concrete than we tend to believe in our post-modern, fractured age of semiotic nihilism and deep, deep narcissistic individualism. We will concern ourselves with a whole category of thoughts and thinkers from across the ages, and how they have agreed more than disagreed when answering that seemingly vexing question. But this is no mere academic exercise; the lack of a coherent vision to counter the “One Market Universal Project” is at the heart of our problem… and answering that question coherently will, eventually, help move my radicalism from vague to definite.

That sounds like a bold statement – no coherent “Lefty” vision? – so let’s finish off this post by looking at a piece on the “Rally to Restore Sanity” as the desperate eulogy of a dying urge towards politics on the left. There is nothing “vague” about Mark Ames’ radicalism. He wrote this piece back in October of 2010, and it captures the problem of a disenchanted, postmodern, hipster-ironic generation (or more) of people who mostly agree about how life should be facilitated by the political-economy, but have somehow bought into “individualism” as more effective (or is it just safer?) than actual political organizing. Not to introduce too much psychologizing at this early stage of my blog, but Adler correctly identified defense mechanisms (“safeguarding”) as defending the socially validated “Self” (self-esteem) by taking one of two directions (across numerous strategies); either going on the attack with aggression or withdrawing. The postmodern, ironic-hipsterism can serve both functions as well as any of the strategies Adler identified. There is the in-your-face hipster accusation that you are uncool for caring (caring is creepy) and also the defensive withdrawal of, like, “whatever, bro…” When it comes to the political economy, more than an entire generation has made a secular religion of safeguarding behavior and declared themselves awakened. Yet being present has always meant taking the middle-path between aggression and withdrawal – risking the “shameful lameness of reality” and not simply finding a socially acceptable defense mechanism to elevate to the status of (pseudo) enlightenment.

A century-old ideological movement, Liberalism: once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit—now it’s been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners…and to the Liberals’ credit, they’re clearly on top. Sure there are a lot of problems out there, a lot of pressing needs—but the main thing is, the Liberals don’t look nearly as stupid as the other guys do. And if you don’t know how important that is to this generation, then you won’t understand what’s so wrong and so deeply depressing about the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity.

As a committed, “no bullshit lefty,” this was clearly too much for Ames to endure. Lamenting the death of something important in political life, he continued:

It’s an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party  for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown. Not a figurative clown, but by a clown–and Liberals are sure that this somehow makes them smarter and less lame–and indeed, they are less lame, because they are not taking themselves too seriously, which is something they’re very, very proud of. All great political struggles and ideological advances, all great human rights achievements were won by clown-led crowds of people who don’t take themselves too seriously, duh! That’s why they’re following a clown like Stewart, whose entire political program comes down to this: not being stupid, the way the other guys are stupid–or when being stupid, only stupid in a self-consciously stupid way, which is to say, not stupid. That’s it, that’s all this is about: Not to protest wars or oligarchical theft or declining health care or crushing debt or a corrupt political system or imperial decay—nope, the only thing that motivates Liberals to gather in the their thousands is the chance to celebrate their own lack of stupidity! Woo-hoo!

Ames goes on to pillory South Park for being the libertarian Daily Show, or else the Daily Show for being the liberal South Park, and if I am honest for a second, it becomes perfectly clear that there is something here that really made me uncomfortable with both of those mockumentary staples of my “extended youth”… Both seemed to be our way of engaging the political by saying we’d hold ourselves humorously aloof, which is non-engagement masquerading as superiority, and that is practically the word-for-word definition of “safeguarding behavior.” Is the high culture of this generation just one big defense mechanism? How sad would that be?

It was this same lack of ironic self-awareness (or rather, this absence of any sort of mockery-avoidance technology) that led my generation to pillory the hippies and progressives–that’s why we were South Park Republicans before we were Daily Show Democrats: because back then, standing for liberal values meant something, and that made you look lame. Only now, when Liberal ideals have vanished into mythology and all they stand for is “not as crazy or stupid as Republicans” is it safe to camp out with the Democrats. They put nothing on the line ideologically, which perfectly jibes with this generation’s highest value. And that makes it perfectly safe to go to something like a large political rally like Stewart’s—you side with a hollow movement stripped of ideology or purpose, and then you gather to celebrate your own hollowness at a rally whose one promise is “You won’t open yourself up to mockery if you attend this rally” and whose goal is to show how not-stupid “we” are compared to the mockable activists on both the right and the left..

The entire piece is a worthwhile reality check for “lefty liberals,” and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already seen it, but his final, numbered, 4 points are worth reiterating – the first two in their entirety:

1. Collective action is the only possible way to change shit. Large numbers of collectivized nobodies rallying to demand what they want–a better cut of the pie, and a better world to live in. It’s the only thing that power-elites fear and the only way to get them to negotiate. There must be thousands of billionaires’ unions—whether the Chamber of Commerce or the gazillions of libertarian networks—and the only thing they hope and dream about and invest their effort into is planting a seed into your vain Gen-X brain that makes you think it’s lame to collectivize. That’s it, that’s the only thing they care about while they’re plundering away. You’ll have to stomach being around people who are lame, and who say lame things, and you’ll feel lame—so you’ll have to decide which is lamer: the fear of being lame, or forming an alliance with people lamer than you in order to struggle against people far meaner, far more greedy and destructive than the lame people you hate—people who have no qualms about being lame when they collectivize, so long as they destroy you and grab everything they want. Tough choice, I know.

2. The problem with the Left wasn’t that they were too fixated on proving they were right, or that they didn’t make enough noise before the war about the lies that led us into that war…the problem is that the Left doesn’t stand for anything Big because it’s not guided by a vision or an Ideal. What does the Left stand for? Let me suggest a few things in people’s own personal interests in these decaying times that the Left should stand for: first, people need money. Then if they have money, they need Life. Then they might be interested in “ideals” set out in the contract that this country is founded on. Ever read the preamble to the Constitution? There’s nothing about private property there and self-interest. Nothing at all about that. It’s a contract whose purpose is clearly spelled out, and it’s a purpose that’s the very opposite of the purpose driving Stewart’s rally, or the purpose driving the libertarian ideology so dominant over the past few generations. This country, by contract, was founded in order to strive for a “more Perfect Union”—that’s “union,” as in the pairing of the words “perfect” and “union”—not sovereign, not states, not local, not selfish, but “union.” And that other purpose at the end of the Constitution’s contractual obligations: promote the “General Welfare.” That means “welfare.” Not “everyone for himself” but “General Welfare.” That’s what it is to be American: to strive to form the most perfect union with each other, and to promote everyone’s general betterment. That’s it. The definition of an American patriot is anyone promoting the General Welfare of every single American, and anyone helping to form the most perfect Union—that’s “union”, repeat, “Union” you dumb fucks. Now, our problem is that there are a lot of people in this country who have dedicated their entire lives to subverting the stated purpose of this country. We must be prepared to identify those who disrupt and sabotage our national purpose of creating this “more perfect union” identifying those who sabotage our national goal of “promoting the General Welfare”—and calling them by their name: traitors. You who strive to form this Perfect Union and promote General Welfare—You are Patriots.

His point #3 is to basically call out the Libertarians on their nonsense (which we will do in detail, in due course). Point #4 quotes Blade Runner, pointing to the fact that if we do not get our acts together and remember that the political-economy is a collective enterprise that no amount of humor or smug irony can exclude us from, “Then we’re stupid, and we’ll die.”

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