Archive for the Articles Category

Peroxide in the Scablands

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2019 by Magadh

[History has always fascinated me, so I can’t stop writing about when I know anything at all about it. I wrote this when I was supposed to be writing a review of Move, the new disc by The Proletariat for Souciant.com. After getting into it, I realized that I was getting way too far off topic. But I think this is an interesting story. The music of The Proletariat ran like an electric wire through my youth, shaping the lexicon of my disaffection in ways that it’s still difficult to parse at a distance of years. It’s impossible for me to tell that story without telling the story of those days, of that weird set of kids in that weird little town in a valley in the high desert of eastern Washington. This is a part of it, albeit a small one, and there is much more to say about it when I have the time. Maybe I need to tell this story to let the people who grew up in bigger and more central places that we were dialed into what they were doing. But it’s also the story of the kids who grew up in Tri-Cities, and Moses Lake, and Twin Falls, and Moscow, and Ellensburg, and dozens of other little towns in the backcountry trying to find a way to exist and to rebel in the cultural wasteland of Reagan’s America.]

On a hot Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1983, I let my buddy Brian convince me to go to Hot Poop. In those days, Hot Poop was a weird sort of combination record store and head shop jammed into one half of a tiny building that they shared on with a beauty parlor on a part of Alder St. well away from the commercial main drag of Walla Walla, Washington. My mom had warned me repeatedly about going there, which of course made the joint completely irresistible. On previous visits, I had come away with the Blue Oyster Cult classic Agents of Fortune, copies of Heavy Metal magazine, and the first copy of Maximum Rock n Roll that I had ever actually seen. The place was tiny, no more than 200 square feet and absolutely packed to the gunwales with vinyl of every description. There were Bowie bootlegs and Hendrix records in plenty. But on this particular occasion, I was a man on a mission.

Brian had turned me on to a few things in the preceding years since we had met in 7th grade at Garrison Junior High in 1981. These included The Clash, Black Flag, and smoking hash. There was a tiny but committed punk scene in Walla Walla, Washington in those days, comprising maybe ten or twelve kids. We only sort of knew what punk was. We had access to a lot of the standard early punk material (Never Mind the Bollocks, London Calling, Unknown Pleasures, etc.), and every now and then a new item would break into our little cultural zone and give us some more reference points. The arrival of VHS copy of the UK punk documentary UK/DK resulted in a lot of mohawks that otherwise might never have been. In any case, by the summer of 1983, I was looking to start buying punk records and Hot Poop provided me with the opportunity.

Walla Walla is a town of around 35,000 people in the southeastern corner of Washington state, maybe ten miles from the Oregon border and a hundred or so from Idaho. People hear Washington state and they think of evergreen trees and rain. That’s the soggy side, as we sometimes like to call it. But eastern two-thirds of the state, separated from that by the Cascade Mountains, is mostly high desert, with wheat, pea, and onion fields, apple orchards, and a geographical formation called channeled scablands. Part of eastern Washington is commonly referred to as the Inland Empire. There’s probably a precise designation for what it comprises, but no one I knew at the time knew what it was, nor did we care that there were parts of California (and Texas) that claimed the same moniker. We also knew that we lived in the Palouse Country, a region of rich farmland stretching south roughly from the Spokane Valley down into eastern Oregon and east into Idaho. Out beyond the fields, among the scrub brush and the butte lands, you sometimes feel like you are looking at the surface of the moon. Growing up as teenagers, my friends and I often felt like we were living in a place that was hardly less isolated.

These days, Walla Walla is known, at least regionally, for the wine trade. But back then there were really only three things of note in and around the town. There was (and is) the Washington Maximum Security Penitentiary, home to some of the worst offenders in the state and lit bright as day at all hours, so that the valley gives off a glow at night that can be seen from at least thirty miles away. There’s also Whitman College, quite a good little liberal arts college, where my dad was for years the Dean of the Faculty and where many of my friends’ parents worked. And there are the onions. Forget what people say about Vidalias, or whatever they’re growing down in Chile these days, the Walla Walla sweet onion is king of the hill. No, I am not fucking kidding. It is just a superior sweet onion. Really, ask anyone. It’s just objectively fantastic.

An hour’s drive from Walla Walla would get you to Tri-Cities. Richland is home to the Hanford nuclear reactor. Pasco, I’ve been told, was named for the Pacific Steam Ship Company, which seems kind of odd since it’s located several hundred miles from the ocean. But of course, this is on the route of the mighty Columbia River, a gigantic artery of commerce linking the hinterland with the coast and markets beyond. Then there’s Kennewick. I’ve never actually been there, so far as I’m aware, and I haven’t the faintest idea why it’s there. Three hours drive to the north is Spokane. I only ever went there a few times, mostly for like debate team trips and such. One of my high school friends moved up there, but most of us would never have considered it. It would have been a lateral move, like going to Boise or Moscow, just a bigger version of the same shit. We all wanted to get to the coast, either to Portland or Seattle (or San Francisco if one were particularly ambitious), where things were actually happening.

But even in those pre-internet days, little bits of culture filtered into us and Hot Poop was the nexus point for us. In all times that I’ve ever been in Hot Poop (which still exists in new and more salubrious premises in downtown Walla Walla) I’ve never thought to ask the guy who runs the place why it was that he started stocking punk records. But he did. Not a lot, but over the years I did come out of there with some real gems, including Black Flag Damaged, Bad Brains Coptic Times/I and I Survive, the first Clash album, the Flex Your Head compilation, and (even weirder by my lights) Hell Awaits. On this particular day, I just wanted to buy any punk record. The first one that came to hand was a compilation of Boston bands called This is Boston, Not L.A. I hadn’t heard of any of the bands and, for that matter, I hadn’t the faintest idea of why anyone would care whether it was Boston or L.A. or anywhere else (all of those places being about as proximate and familiar as the surface of Mars to me). But the cover looked cool: one of those crowd shots of kids who looked a lot cooler than me moshing all over each other, so I bought it.

Listening to it was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. The punk that I had been exposed to by that point was mostly the rock n rolled flavored variety offered up by the British punk bands of the 77 era. Even Black Flag didn’t move all that fast. This is Boston opened with six cuts of truly blazing thrash from Jerry’s Kids, absolutely dripping with aggression and executed at a speed that I had simply never heard before. There were also some pretty savage blasts from The F.U.’s and Gang Green. At the time I wasn’t quite in the right place to grasp this, although I came to really dig all those bands. I was more sympathetic to the music of The Freeze. It was at a tempo that was more familiar to me and had choruses that me and my friends could sing along to, or shout at passing cars.

But what I found most arresting was the three songs by The Proletariat. They sounded different, not only from anything else on that record, but from anything I had ever heard in my life. It would be another year or two before I would be introduced to Gang of Four, and years after that until I came to understand the complex ways in which they functioned as a precursor to The Proletariat. I had heard The Clash singing about politics. But their music had an element of foreignness, not least because it has such a pronounced sense of time and place. The Clash were the sound of London in the mid-1970s. I had no idea what the Westway was and only the vaguest idea where Mayfair was or why one would have a meeting there. I found The Clash really fascination. They were, and continue to be, one of my absolute favorite bands, but it wasn’t until I learned who Dillinger and Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson were (and really until I moved to the U.K. in 1986) that I would really grok their music.

The Proletariat were political too, but in a way that was absolutely straightforward and unmistakable. When I heard Richard Brown singing in “Options” about choices like military service, or factory employment, or welfare assistance, these were things that I understood immediately, even though as a small college faculty brat I was unlikely to have to confront any of those prospects myself.

Then there was “Religion is the Opium of the Masses”. I’d read a bit of Marx and other socialist literature by that point, and although I didn’t really understand it all that well at that time (and as a child of the late Cold War I was inherently suspicious of it), I did know where the quote came from. Walla Walla was a really churchy little place. Hardly a weekend would go by without the devotees of some loopy sect or other coming to one’s door, although my father’s habit of inviting them in to torture them with his extensive knowledge of the Greek and Latin texts of the Bible (products of his intensive training at the hands of the Jesuits) meant that we didn’t get as much of that traffic as other people on our block. Needless to say, although my family were confirmed atheists, I had developed a sort of habitual deference to religion. I had never heard any human actually utter words like, “Religion is the opium of the masses, the blind will follow like sheep.” The effect on my head was electric.

“Allegiance”, their third cut, constituted about as thoroughgoing a critique of Americanism as I had ever heard in those days:

True Americans refuse to question
The self-serving tactics and utopian efforts
Nationalist cheerleaders lead the parade
The infectious chatter, a conservative rage

I don’t want to be like them
Mindless conformists, token brigades
Issues are secondary in this age

God bless America they instinctively say
Divine providence an unexpected fate
Apolitical figures quote the scripture
Today’s sermon a repeat, repeat

I don’t want to be like them
Crusading for justice, holy reign
Public apathy deeply set in

Without regard for loss of life
We infiltrate their countries amid chaos and strife
The American ideal to preserve democracy
Has turned against us no one else to blame

I don’t want to be like them
Russian roulette thousands of men
Code of ethics that promote bedlam

This is Boston was the only punk record that I owned for a while, although my man Brian soon supplemented it with cassettes dubbed from his own ample collection of the likes of Dead Kennedys, The Effegies, Blitz, GBH, and other random stuff. But I listened to This is Boston a lot, and specifically to those three cuts. There was something that set them apart even from other political punk at the time. Sure, Jello Biafra sang about politics and was really critical of a lot of the bullshit that was going on. But his take on it was heavily enmeshed in his advanced cultural references and a way that took a bit of parsing. With The Proletariat, knew exactly what they stood for and why. They gave to me and my friends a language for dissent. I was pretty privileged, and so were a lot of (but not all of) my friends in the punk scene. Listening to The Proletariat went a long way toward equipping us with a language of dissent, and a mirror in which we could see our privilege, at least to an extent.

A couple of years later, and equipped with a much more extensive knowledge of what punk was all about, I drive with a bunch of my friends over to Tri-Cities to see my first actual live punk show. We were going to see a band from Walla Walla, The Ambitions, who weren’t really punk (they were big fans of The Jam) but that didn’t matter much. We hopped in my pal Kathy’s van and made the hour-long drive on a Friday night, swilling beer all the way. The gig was at a dumpy little joint called The Saddle Club. We didn’t really know anyone else there, except the guys from The Ambitions (who were a little older than we were). We hadn’t yet hooked up with the punks in Tri-Cities, as we would do in the years that followed. But everyone was cool and soon the music started.

There were only two bands on the bill that night as I recall. The Ambitions played first. Then came a band from Richland called Diddly Squat. They are hardly remembered these days but they were fucking awesome. If they are remembered it is because their bassist was a wiry kid named Nate Mendel who would later go on to playing in Brotherhood, Christ on a Crutch, Sunny Day Real Estate, and then, much later The Foo Fighters. They later put out a really awesome demo tape called Peroxide in the Scablands (from which the title of this piece is drawn). Even later (while I was living in Nottingham) they broke up after Jason, their guitarist (and a real salt of the earth kind of guy) drowned while swimming in the Columbia.

Anyway, Diddly Squat came on and rocked pretty hard. The had some cool originals and we started a small slam pit. Then they busted out with a cover of “Options”. What followed was a sort of weird moment of recognition between the Walla Walla and Tri-Cities kids that we had a common reference point, over and about the normal punk standards, and it was a crazy band from southeastern Massachusetts. Diddly Squat ended the night with a truly spectacular cover of “Moon Over Marin”. We all knew the lyrics and sang it together. Then someone tore a sink off the wall in one of the bathrooms. The joint flooded, and we all had to go home. But it was one of the earliest points of intercity contact among punks in eastern Washington, and it would open the way for a lot of interesting things that happened later. We could all shout “Tell me the options!” to each other, emulating Richard Brown’s slightly robotic delivery, and each knew what the other meant without having to articulate it more fully.

Over the years, I would time and again come into contact with The Proletariat’s music, and almost invariably it would function not only as a bridge to political understanding, but also as a marker indicating that one had accessed a secret culture of rebellion. “We lived what the others never understood” the Berlin punk band Die Ärzte would sing some years later. When I heard that I really knew what they meant. Later I would pick up Soma Holiday and Indifference, The Proletariat’s two absolutely essential LPs, after I moved to Portland to go to college in 1986. I would hear “Marketplace,” its haunting opening passage blaring out of the studio of the college radio station in the basement of my dorm, having wandered down at two in the morning in a stoned haze. Even after all these years, that still makes the hairs on my neck rise.

And then, out of the blue, I heard that they were getting back together. I knew that they’d gotten all of the original members back together under another name (Churn I think) at some point in the 1990s. But then I heard from a friend that they were doing some shows to celebrate the reissue Soma Holiday. I have to admit I felt a sort of bitterness. I lived in Boston for three years in the late oughties. If they were going to get back together, what couldn’t they have done it then? As a side note, they recently played a gig with a reformed version of Moving Targets (my other favorite Boston area band) at a venue literally ten minutes walk from where I used to live in Somerville. Needless to say, my level of bitterness went through the roof.

But, in all seriousness, the news that broke a few months ago that they were going to come out with an album of new material filled me with excitement and apprehension in equal amounts. Few bands have changed my head in the way that they have. But I’ve heard all too many bands try to recapture the magic of earlier decades only to damage their reputation, sometimes irreparably. The product of their reformation, Move (recently released on Bridge 9 Records) was the most pleasant of surprises. It’s like meeting a friend from your youth and finding out that they shared the ideals and feelings that drew you together originally. In these days, when so many good things and so many hard-won victories seem to be spiraling the bowl, that’s a bit of inspiration to hold on to.

Magadh

The Dark City

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , on May 1, 2019 by Magadh

Dark CityI am riding, alone, in the dark city. The city is vast. Sometimes I see it in daylight, but it is dark in the sense that film noir is about atmosphere. It comprises fragments of all the cities that I have ever inhabited: Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York, Berlin. Or, perhaps, it is more correct to say that they are manifestations of a place that only exists in totality elsewhere. I don’t know where I’m going. Or I do know where I’m going, but the topography has changed in unexpected ways, and somehow my errands become knit together with other stories that don’t conform to the linear structures of the workaday world. Most compellingly, I can glimpse at a distance the outlines of people I know, some of whom I haven’t seen in years, some of whom have sloughed off this mortal coil entirely. But I can’t find them, and once again the tides and momentum of the dark city carry me on to other avenues.

I dream like most people. Or at least I think I do. I’ve had the standard dreams that you hear discussed: showing up unprepared on test day, falling, getting chased and not being able to run, dreams of desire and satisfaction, dreams of fear and terror. When I was working on my PhD and had occasion to make a deep dive into the literature on the Holocaust, I began to have (and still occasionally have) dreams of pursuit by Nazi goons or mass executions. I think these must be, in some sense, normal. The trauma of surplus horror needs to be discharged somehow, and the sleeping brain causes it to coalesce in order to dissipate its force.

I have been told that it is possible to retroactively affect your dreams. More than one person has told me that, after waking, it is possible to think through the dream, employing this is or that strategy that would have resolved the problem. Freddy Krueger chasing you through the night? Just wake up and imagine yourself armed with an M-32 grenade launcher and see how threatening he looks once you’ve vaporized everything but his little finger knives. I don’t know how this is supposed to help in the case of showing up for the test completely unprepared. Maybe I should get up and read a book. In any case, I’ve never actually been able to make this work. The existential aura of the dreamscape remains until the fragments of the dream have disintegrated like ashes in the wind.

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I’m riding alone in the dark city, in a part of town that looks like a cross between Belltown in Seattle and the far south end of downtown Portland. The streets are mostly empty and the streetlights illuminate the streets in the sort of harsh glare that makes everything look kind of yellow. I know that I am working, and this I have jobs on. Far ahead of me, I see Henry Hellbender, OG from the Portland punk scene of the early 80s, long time bike messenger, my friend from years ago in my courier days. Henry died several years ago, in his sleep, from a problem with his meds or something like that. I’ve felt his absence ever since. Like an amputated limb that keeps aching.

And now I can see him, as I so often did, spinning along smoothly on an Eddy Merckx road frame. And I know that I can catch him, because Henry never moved that fast, probably because he never wanted to seem like he gave a fuck. Just a few hard spins and I will be up to him, and we can meet again on the dark streets, and I can tell him that I miss him, and thank him for all the things I learned from him. But I can never quite close the gap. There is traffic in the way, or I see somewhere that seems like my destination, and when I look up again he has darted off down a side street and is gone again. In the dark city, resolution is always tantalizingly close, but always out of reach.

I dream, as people often do, of times long gone. I think that these dreams are like the revenants in old ghost stories, desperately trying to work out the residuum of unfinished temporal business. One of the most common settings for my dreams is the campus of Reed College, where I spend my days as an undergrad, or its environs. I have the normal range of failure dreams (today is the last day of class for a course that I haven’t managed to attend all year), but more often I dream about the series of decrepit houses that I lived in during that time. And, as usual, I dream of people that I haven’t seen since then, many of whom I will never see again, and I’m still looking for a way to reply to something they said that showed how much smarter than me they were (and probably are).

I dreamed of a town that could have been Walla Walla, Washington, where I grew up. I saw people I knew there, but as adults, going here and there. But all the time the dream centered on a cave that looked like a crack in the bank of a fallow wheat field that I knew we had all hung out in back in the long, long ago. Something terrible had happened there, but I couldn’t remember what, and I was drawn to it an repelled by it in equal measure. In the end, there was no resolution. Just long drives down empty roads on the outskirts of the dark city, where its suburban reaches give way to a vast emptiness.

I am riding alone it the dark city, in a part of town that starts out like inner southeast Portland, but then turns into the Rixdorf section of Berlin, a place where I never road a bike in my life (although I lived there). It’s raining and as the scenery shifts to Berlin I notice that the streets are cobbled, so I need to mind my p’s and q’s to keep from going over. It is twilight and the lights and neon signs from businesses along the way wash the shining streets in color. I realize that I have just passed Big Frank, sitting astride his bike on a street corner, as I so often saw him when we were messengers.

Frank, wearing the Vietnamese peasant’s broad-brimmed hat that he often wore (never a helmet). Frank, who was half in the bag a lot of the time. Who showed up at my apartment one time with a half rack of Rainier and a bottle of Vikings and who, after how down two pills and four beers in half an hour I had to tell that if he was intent on suicide he would really be doing me a solid by croaking somewhere else. In all the time that I can remember, he never got so much as a skinned knee, which was weird because every bike messenger falls occasionally. And then he sobered up and became an actor, and tripped on some stairs at a workshop in Columbus and died. And I thought, “How fragile is the flame,” for all the reasons just mentioned.

I see Frank on the corner, sitting on his top tube, legs akimbo, watching the cars go by. Square jaw, dreadlocks, ebony skin, and a smile that could be kind of threatening, at least until you got to know him. I want to talk to him, about Marx, or Heidegger, or the Bulls, or Shakespeare, or any of the hundred things that used to chase our friends away. But I can’t stop, because braking on wet cobbles is a recipe for a fall. So I decide to go around the block, But by the time I come back around I’m somewhere else and Frank has disappeared into the twilight.

dc5The dark city is not in all my dreams. But there are dreams when I know I’m there, when I know I’m in a twilight landscape that is both familiar and deeply uncanny. From all my visits there, I cannot escape the suspicion that perhaps I have things backwards. Perhaps it is the dark city that is true, and that all the landscapes and environments that I inhabit in waking life are but fragments of the totality that contains and combines them all. Perhaps the living and the dead, the waking and the dreaming are simultaneously there and elsewhere, or are only there and flash in and out of the daylight world. Somewhere, in some corner of the dream time, my true self is spinning, trying to make that one last delivery before the offices close, or my ride breaks, or the lights go out.

Wonder Woman

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , on June 2, 2017 by Magadh

gadot

I was, I must admit, a bit apprehensive when the full Wonder Woman movie was announced. DC doesn’t really have a very good track record in my book. I find the Superman movies insufferable and the Batman movies pretty uninspiring. If I never see another Scott Snyder directed movie it will be too soon. Still, Wonder Woman’s cameo was pretty much the best thing in Batman v Superman.

Why was I nervous about this movie? Well, if you’re reading this then you probably already know that there have been a real dearth female-led superhero movies. These, in fact, have not been all that inspiring. Supergirl (1984) was pretty much a trainwreck. Elektra (2005), which I’ve just actually rewatched, is not as bad as I remember. It’s just sort of boring. It didn’t make a lot of money, and I think that this confirmed in the minds of people running studios that centering superhero movies on women was a “risk”.

Of course, it’s not like there were a lot of choices to begin with. Comics have been, up until the last ten or fifteen years, very dude-oriented. There’s a lot to be said about how little girls might find reflecting themselves in the major comic imprints, but I won’t get into it here. You can just take it as read that the choices for girls have been pretty thin. The fact that this has started to change in the last few years is, I think, a key element of the backstory of the making of this movie.

Given all of this, one can easily see why this movie is a big deal. A studio has decided to center a project costing some $125 million on a female character and to entrust it to a female director to boot. If this thing had turned out to be a dog, the consequences for female-led movies, and for the chances of girls and young women seeing themselves reflected in the superhero culture would have taken a big hit. Fortunately, that is not the case. What follows is a few thoughts on what we have here and why it is important.

This is an important film, for the reasons noted above, and many others. I happened to see it in the company of a group of ten or fifteen teenage girls. What did they think of it? Well, if the fact that they were all talking selfies with the life-sized cutout of Gal Gadot in the lobby is anything to go by, I think they dug it.

You have to be willing to let go of your commitment to facts. This movie takes some big liberties with the history of the First World War. I do not care. I have a doctorate in modern European history. I know very well how Erich Ludendorff died (here’s a clue: not by getting stabbed with a gigantic sword). This is a superhero movie, not a documentary. Don’t get hung up. Focus on the story that is being told.

I would love for every girl in the country to see this movie. It shows that women can be a lot of things. They can be hard, or soft, or both, and it’s ok. Women can be empathetic without it being a source of weakness. In fact, it’s a source of strength, giving Diana a firmness in purpose and commitment.

Single sex communities are a thing. It’s ok boys. All the foolishness resulting from some places doing women-0nly showings illustrates the utter stupidity of the dudebro crowd. Listen gentlemen (and I use this term advisedly), sometimes women just want to hang out with each other. This doesn’t mean that they hate you (necessarily). Sometimes they just need some solidarity time. They’re in a different historical and cultural position than we are. If this upsets you, perhaps you could meditate on all the ways that women get the shit end of the stick in our society.

If I have to listen to one more person complain the women-only showings are discrimination I am going to barf. Look, suppose you’ve just eaten lunch and you’re standing next to someone who hasn’t eaten in a week. If someone presents you with a ham sandwich, it might occur to you that the starving person needs it more than you do. It doesn’t mean you’re individuality or personal worth is diminished. It just means that their historical location is different than yours. Is this discrimination. Yes. In fact, every moment of perception involves discrimination. Pretending that you don’t understand the difference between the descriptive and critical senses of that term suggests that you’re either stupid or dishonest. Just don’t bother.

Does Diana need a man to actualize her humanity? No, she does not. Steve Trevor works with her, but she has her own mission and her own moral compass. And she is strong. Incredibly strong. And fearless. And committed to helping people who need it, irrespective of the cost to herself. These are useful lessons for everyone. For young women coming up in our society, they are essential. I like the fact that this movie doesn’t make the common mistake of making the female lead into an appendage of her male colleagues. She has power and agency. And she hands out some really epic ass-whippings, which you’ve got to like.

The fight scenes are really well done. This is important because a lot of what’s good about this movie wouldn’t work if the beatdowns weren’t compelling. But they are.

Maybe the most important thing about Diana is her willingness to speak her mind. She simply will not allow herself to be silenced, or to be told where she can’t go or what she can’t do. That is a great example to set.

If you have daughters you should take them to see this movie. But you should also take your sons. They have to learn about what’s up with women too and there are some very useful object lessons here. Are the more complex elements of the nature of gender relations that they will need to learn? Of course there are. But it’s worth getting it fixed in their minds that women can be tough and dedicated in exactly the same measure as men can.

I hope this movie makes a ton of money. It’s just the sort of thing that could actually kick DC’s movie wing out of the doldrums in which it has been mired in the last few years. Here I’m obviously speaking culturally and artistically, since Batman v Superman did rake in like $827 million. This is a movie that needs to prove itself. It shouldn’t have to, but it does because it’s carrying the torch for a change in culture that really needs to happen. It’s a good sign that they’ve managed to come out with a thoroughly enjoyable superhero flick. Hopefully there will be more to come.

An Excerpt from the Putney Debates

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , on March 22, 2017 by Magadh

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I’ve been reading John Rees’s new book, The Leveller Revolution (which I’ll review either here or on Souciant.com pretty soon). Sometimes I think that if I had it to do over again (and by “it” I mean by academic training) I would have done early modern England. I still would be out of academia, but I think I’d be a lot less depressed. Studying modern Germany will do that to you.

This is not to say that there weren’t a lot of grim things associated with the English Civil War. Popular memory has to a great extent elided the brutality and atrocities that went on during the nearly a decade of warfare up and down the country. On the other hand, it is fair to say that our democratic traditions in the English speaking world (such as they are) are very much rooted the popular radicalism that took root in the middle years of the 1640s.

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Perhaps the most crucial moment in the whole period was the series of debates that took place at St. Mary’s Church, Putney, in October and November 1647. There, the agitators of the New Model Army met with army leadership to discuss how the English state was going to be structured. Already there was an important faction that saw a future not only without the King, but also with Parliament elected on a much broader franchise than had ever been imagined. I’ve reproduced a section of the second day of the debates here. The principle figures are Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, one of the most radical democrats of the period, and Henry Ireton, who at the time was a relatively conservative defender of the rights of property and the existing institutions of the state (although he did later side with the regicides). I think this is worth everyone’s time to read, as it really gets to the roots of how we think about the relationship between political rights and property.

 

Ireton[asked]:

Whether those men whose hands are to it, or those that brought it, do know so much of the matter as [to know] whether they mean that all that had a former right of election [are to be electors], or [that] those that had no right before are to come in.

 

Cowling:

In the time before the Conquest. Since the Conquest the greatest part of the kingdom was in vassalage.

 

Petty:

We judge that all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in elections.
Rainsborough:

putney4I desired that those that had engaged in it [might be included]. For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that, when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, insomuch that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no, that should doubt of these things.

 

Ireton:

NPG 3301; Henry Ireton copy attributed to Robert Walker, after  Samuel Cooper, and  Sir Anthony Van DyckThat’s [the meaning of] this, [‘according to the number of the inhabitants’]? Give me leave to tell you, that if you make this the rule I think you must fly for refuge to an absolute natural right, and you must deny all civil right; and I am sure it will come to that in the consequence. This, I perceive, is pressed as that which is so essential and due: the right of the people of this kingdom, and as they are the people of this kingdom, distinct and divided from other people, and that we must for this right lay aside all other considerations; this is so just, this is so due, this is so right to them. And that those that they do thus choose must have such a power of binding all, and loosing all, according to those limitations, this is pressed as so due, and so just, as [it] is argued, that it is an engagement paramount [to] all others: and you must for it lay aside all others; if you have engaged any otherwise, you must break it. [We must] so look upon these as thus held out to us; so it was held out by the gentleman that brought it yesterday. For my part, I think it is no right at all. I think that no [54] person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here—no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom, and those persons together are properly the represented of this kingdom, and consequently are [also] to make up the representers of this kingdom, who taken together do comprehend whatsoever is of real or permanent interest in the kingdom. And I am sure otherwise I cannot tell what any man can say why a foreigner coming in amongst us—or as many as will coming in amongst us, or by force or otherwise settling themselves here, or at least by our permission having a being here—why they should not as well lay claim to it as any other. We talk of birthright. Truly [by] birthright there is thus much claim. Men may justly have by birthright, by their very being born in England, that we should not seclude them out of England, that we should not refuse to give them air and place and ground, and the freedom of the highways and other things, to live amongst us—not any man that is born here, though by his birth there come nothing at all (that is part of the permanent interest of this kingdom) to him. That I think is due to a man by birth. But that by a man’s being born here he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here, and of all things here, I do not think it a sufficient ground. I am sure if we look upon that which is the utmost (within [any] man’s view) of what was originally the constitution of this kingdom, upon that which is most radical and fundamental, and which if you take away, there is no man hath any land, any goods, [or] any civil interest, that is this: that those that choose the representers for the making of laws by which this state and kingdom are to be governed, are the persons who, taken together, do comprehend the local interest of this kingdom; that is, the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies. This is the most fundamental constitution of this kingdom and [that] which if you do not allow, you allow none at all. This constitution hath limited and determined it that only those shall have voices in elections. It is true, as was said by a gentleman near me, the meanest man in England ought to have [a voice in the election of the government he lives under—but only if he has some local interest]. I say this: that those that have the meanest local interest—that man that hath but forty shillings a year, he hath as great voice in the election of a knight for the shire as he that hath ten thousand a year, or more if he had never so much; and therefore there is that regard had to it. But this [local interest], still the constitution of this government hath had an eye to (and what other government hath not an eye to this?). It doth not relate to the interest of the kingdom if it do not lay the foundation of the power that’s given to the representers, in those who have a permanent and a local interest in the kingdom, and who taken all together do comprehend the whole [interest of the kingdom]. There is all the reason and justice that can be, [in this]: if I will come to live in a kingdom, being a foreigner to it, or live in a kingdom, having no permanent interest in it, [and] if I will desire as a stranger, or claim as one freeborn here, the air, the free passage of highways, the protection of laws, and all such things—if I will either desire them or claim them, [then] I (if I have no permanent interest in that kingdom) must submit to those laws and those rules [which they shall choose], who, taken together, do comprehend the whole interest of the kingdom. And if we shall go to take away this, we shall plainly go to take away all property and interest that any man hath either in land by inheritance, or in estate by possession, or anything else—[I say], if you take away this fundamental part of the civil constitution.

 

Rainsborough:

Truly, sir, I am of the same opinion I was, and am resolved to keep it till I know reason why I should not. I confess my memory is bad, and therefore I am fain to make use of my pen. I remember that, in a former speech [which] this gentleman brought before this [meeting], he was saying that in some cases he should not value whether [there were] a king or no king, whether lords or no lords, whether a property or no property. For my part I differ in that. I do very much care whether [there be] a king or no king, lords or no lords, property or no property; and I think, if we do not all take care, we shall all have none of these very shortly. But as to this present business. I do hear nothing at all that can convince me, why any man that is born in England ought not to have his voice in election of burgesses. It is said that if a man have not a permanent interest, he can have no claim; and [that] we must be no freer than the laws will let us be, and that there is no [law in any] chronicle will let us be freer than that we [now] enjoy. Something was said to this yesterday. I do think that the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them. And truly, I think that half a loaf is better than none if a man be anhungry: [this gift of reason without other property may seem a small thing], yet I think there is nothing that God hath given a man that any [one] else can take from him. And therefore I say, that either it must be the Law of God or the law of man that must prohibit the meanest man in the kingdom to have this benefit as well as the greatest. I do not find anything in the Law of God, that a lord shall choose twenty burgesses, and a gentleman but two, or a poor man shall choose none: I find no such thing in the Law of Nature, nor in the Law of Nations. But I do find that all Englishmen must be subject to English laws, and I do verily believe that there is no man but will say that the foundation of all law lies in the people, and if [it lie] in the people, I am to seek for this exemption.

And truly I have thought something [else]: in what a miserable distressed condition would many a man that hath fought for the Parliament in this quarrel, be! I will be bound to say that many a man whose zeal and affection to God and this kingdom hath carried him forth in this cause, hath so spent his estate that, in the way the state [and] the Army are going, he shall not hold up his head, if when his estate is lost, and not worth forty shillings a year, a man shall not have any interest. And there are many other ways by which [the] estates men have (if that be the rule which God in his providence does use) do fall to decay. A man, when he hath an estate, hath an interest in making laws, [but] when he hath none, he hath no power in it; so that a man cannot lose that which he hath for the maintenance of his family but he must [also] lose that which God and nature hath given him! And therefore I do [think], and am still of the same opinion, that every man born in England cannot, ought not, neither by the Law of God nor the Law of Nature, to be exempted from the choice of those who are to make laws for him to live under, and for him, for aught I know, to lose his life under. And therefore I think there can be no great stick in this.

Truly I think that there is not this day reigning in England a greater fruit or effect of tyranny than this very thing would produce. Truly I know nothing free but only the knight of the shire, nor do I know anything in a parliamentary way that is clear from the height and fulness of tyranny, but only [that]. As for this of corporations [which you also mentioned], it is as contrary to freedom as may be. For, sir, what is it? The King he grants a patent under the Broad Seal of England to such a corporation to send burgesses, he grants to [such] a city to send burgesses. When a poor base corporation from the King[’s grant] shall send two burgesses, when five hundred men of estate shall not send one, when those that are to make their laws are called by the King, or cannot act [but] by such a call, truly I think that the people of England have little freedom.

 

Ireton:

I think there was nothing that I said to give you occasion to think that I did contend for this, that such a corporation [as that] should have the electing of a man to the Parliament. I think I agreed to this matter, that all should be equally distributed. But the question is, whether it should be distributed to all persons, or whether the same persons that are the electors [now] should be the electors still, and it [be] equally distributed amongst them. I do not see anybody else that makes this objection; and if nobody else be sensible of it I shall soon have done. Only I shall a little crave your leave to represent the consequences of it, and clear myself from one thing that was misrepresented by the gentleman that sat next me. I think, if the gentleman remember himself, he cannot but remember that what I said was to this effect: that if I saw the hand of God leading so far as to destroy King, and destroy Lords, and destroy property, and [leave] no such thing at all amongst us, I should acquiesce in it; and so I did not care, if no king, no lords, or no property [should] be, in comparison of the tender care that I have of the honour of God, and of the people of God, whose [good] name is so much concerned in this Army. This I did deliver [so], and not absolutely.

All the main thing that I speak for, is because I would have an eye to property. I hope we do not come to contend for victory—but let every man consider with himself that he do not go that way to take away all property. For here is the case of the most fundamental part of the constitution of the kingdom, which if you take away, you take away all by that. Here men of this and this quality are determined to be the electors of men to the Parliament, and they are all those who have any permanent interest in the kingdom, and who, taken together, do comprehend the whole [permanent, local] interest of the kingdom. I mean by permanent [and] local, that [it] is not [able to be removed] anywhere else. As for instance, he that hath a freehold, and that freehold cannot be removed out of the kingdom; and so there’s a [freeman of a] corporation, a place which hath the privilege of a market and trading, which if you should allow to all places equally, I do not see how you could preserve any peace in the kingdom, and that is the reason why in the constitution we have but some few market towns. Now those people [that have freeholds] and those [that] are the freemen of corporations, were looked upon by the former constitution to comprehend the permanent interest of the kingdom. For [first], he that hath his livelihood by his trade, and by his freedom of trading in such a corporation, which he cannot exercise in another, he is tied to that place, [for] his livelihood depends upon it. And secondly, that man hath an interest, hath a permanent interest there, upon which he may live, and live a freeman without dependence. These [things the] constitution [of] this kingdom hath looked at. Now I wish we may all consider of what right you will challenge that all the people should have right to elections. Is it by the right of nature? If you will hold forth that as your ground, then I think you must deny all property too, and this is my reason. For thus: by that same right of nature (whatever it be) that you pretend, by which you can say, one man hath an equal right with another to the choosing of him that shall govern him—by the same right of nature, he hath the same [equal] right in any goods he sees—meat, drink, clothes—to take and use them for his sustenance. He hath a freedom to the land, [to take] the ground, to exercise it, till it; he hath the [same] freedom to anything that any one doth account himself to have any propriety in. Why now I say then, if you, against the most fundamental part of [the] civil constitution (which I have now declared), will plead the Law of Nature, that a man should (paramount [to] this, and contrary to this) have a power of choosing those men that shall determine what shall be law in this state, though he himself have no permanent interest in the state, [but] whatever interest he hath he may carry about with him—if this be allowed, [because by the right of nature] we are free, we are equal, one man must have as much voice as another, then show me what step or difference [there is], why [I may not] by the same right [take your property, though not] of necessity to sustain nature. It is for my better being, and [the better settlement of the kingdom]? Possibly not for it, neither: possibly I may not have so real a regard to the peace of the kingdom as that man who hath a permanent interest in it. He that is here to-day, and gone to-morrow, I do not see that he hath such a permanent interest. Since you cannot plead to it by anything but the Law of Nature, [or for anything] but for the end of better being, and [since] that better being is not certain, and [what is] more, destructive to another; upon these grounds, if you do, paramount [to] all constitutions, hold up this Law of Nature, I would fain have any man show me their bounds, where you will end, and [why you should not] take away all property.

 

Rainsborough:

I shall now be a little more free and open with you than I was before. I wish we were all true-hearted, and that we did all carry ourselves with integrity. If I did mistrust you I would [not] use such asseverations. I think it doth go on mistrust, and things are thought too [readily] matters of reflection, that were never intended. For my part, as I think, you forgot something that was in my speech, and you do not only yourselves believe that [some] men are inclining to anarchy, but you would make all men believe that. And, sir, to say because a man pleads that every man hath a voice [by right of nature], that therefore it destroys [by] the same [argument all property—this is to forget the Law of God]. That there’s a property, the Law of God says it; else why [hath] God made that law, Thou shalt not steal? I am a poor man, therefore I must be [op]pressed: if I have no interest in the kingdom, I must suffer by all their laws be they right or wrong. Nay thus: a gentleman lives in a country and hath three or four lordships, as some men have (God knows how they got them); and when a Parliament is called he must be a Parliamentman; and it may be he sees some poor men, they live near this man, he can crush them—I have known an invasion to make sure he hath turned the poor men out of doors; and I would fain know whether the potency of [rich] men do not this, and so keep them under the greatest tyranny that was [ever] thought of in the world. And therefore I think that to that it is fully answered: God hath set down that thing as to propriety with this law of his, Thou shalt not steal. And for my part I am against any such thought, and, as for yourselves, I wish you would not make the world believe that we are for anarchy.

 

Cromwell:

putney5I know nothing but this, that they that are the most yielding have the greatest wisdom; but really, sir, this is not right as it should be. No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but [that] the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy; for where is there any bound or limit set if you take away this [limit], that men that have no interest but the interest of breathing [shall have no voice in elections]? Therefore I am confident on’t, we should not be so hot one with another.

 

Rainsborough:

I know that some particular men we debate with [believe we] are for anarchy.

 

Ireton:

I profess I must clear myself as to that point. I would not desire, I cannot allow myself, to lay the least scandal upon anybody. And truly, for that gentleman that did take so much offence, I do not know why he should take it so. We speak to the paper—not to persons—and to the matter of the paper. And I hope that no man is so much engaged to the matter of the paper—I hope [that] our persons, and our hearts and judgments, are not [so] pinned to papers but that we are ready to hear what good or ill consequence will flow from it.

I have, with as much plainness and clearness of reason as I could, showed you how I did conceive the doing of this [that the paper advocates] takes away that which is the most original, the most fundamental civil constitution of this kingdom, and which is, above all, that constitution by which I have any property. If you will take away that and set up, as a thing paramount, whatever a man may claim by the Law of Nature, though it be not a thing of necessity to him for the sustenance of nature; if you do make this your rule, I desire clearly to understand where then remains property.

Now then—I would misrepresent nothing—the answer which had anything of matter in it, the great and main answer upon which that which hath been said against this [objection] rests, seemed to be that it will not make a breach of property, [for this reason]: that there is a law, Thou shalt not steal. [But] the same law says, Honour thy father and [thymother, and that law doth likewise hold out that it doth extend to all that (in that place where we are in) are our governors; so that by that there is a forbidding of breaking a civil law when we may live quietly under it, and [that by] a divine law. Again it is said—indeed [was said] before—that there is no law, no divine law, that tells us that such a corporation must have the election of burgesses, such a shire [of knights], or the like. Divine law extends not to particular things. And so, on the other side, if a man were to demonstrate his [right to] property by divine law, it would be very remote. Our [right to] property descends from other things, as well as our right of sending burgesses. That divine law doth not determine particulars but generals in relation to man and man, and to property, and all things else: and we should be as far to seek if we should go to prove a property in [a thing by] divine law, as to prove that I have an interest in choosing burgesses of the Parliament by divine law. And truly, under favour, I refer it to all, whether there be anything of solution to that objection that I made, if it be understood—I submit it to any man’s judgment.

 

Rainsborough:

To the thing itself—property [in the franchise]. I would fain know how it comes to be the property [of some men, and not of others]. As for estates and those kind of things, and other things that belong to men, it will be granted that they are property; but I deny that that is a property, to a lord, to a gentleman, to any man more than another in the kingdom of England. If it be a property, it is a property by a law—neither do I think that there is very little property in this thing by the law of the land, because I think that the law of the land in that thing is the most tyrannical law under heaven. And I would fain know what we have fought for. [For our laws and liberties?] And this is the old law of England—and that which enslaves the people of England—that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all! [With respect to the divine law which says Honour thy father and thy mother] the great dispute is, who is a right father and a right mother? I am bound to know who is my father and mother; and—I take it in the same sense you do—I would have a distinction, a character whereby God commands me to honour [them]. And for my part I look upon the people of England so, that wherein they have not voices in the choosing of their [governors—their civil] fathers and mothers—they are not bound to that commandment.

 

Petty:

I desire to add one word concerning the word property. It is for something that anarchy is so much talked of. For my own part I cannot believe in the least that it can be clearly derived from that paper. ’Tis true, that somewhat may be derived in the paper against the King, the power of the King, and somewhat against the power of the Lords; and the truth is when I shall see God going about to throw down King and Lords and property, then I shall be contented. But I hope that they may live to see the power of the King and the Lords thrown down, that yet may live to see property preserved. And for this of changing the Representative of the nation, of changing those that choose the Representative, making of them more full, taking more into the number than formerly, I had verily thought we had all agreed in it that more should have chosen—all that had desired a more equal representation than we now have. For now those only choose who have forty shillings freehold. A man may have a lease for one hundred pounds a year, a man may have a lease for three lives, [but he has no voice]. But [as] for this [argument], that it destroys all right [to property] that every Englishman that is an inhabitant of England should choose and have a voice in the representatives, I suppose it is, [on the contrary], the only means to preserve all property. For I judge every man is naturally free; and I judge the reason why men [chose representatives] when they were in so great numbers that every man could not give his voice [directly], was that they who were chosen might preserve property [for all]; and therefore men agreed to come into some form of government that they might preserve property, and I would fain know, if we were to begin a government, [whether you would say], ‘You have not forty shillings a year, therefore you shall not have a voice.’ Whereas before there was a government every man had such a voice, and afterwards, and for this very cause, they did choose representatives, and put themselves into forms of government that they may preserve property, and therefore it is not to destroy it, [to give every man a voice].

 

Ireton:

I think we shall not be so apt to come to a right understanding in this business, if one man, and another man, and another man do speak their several thoughts and conceptions to the same purpose, as if we do consider where the objection lies, and what the answer is which is made to it; and therefore I desire we may do so. To that which this gentleman spake last. The main thing that he seemed to answer was this: that he would make it appear that the going about to establish this government, [or] such a government, is not a destruction of property, nor does not tend to the destruction of property, because the people’s falling into a government is for the preservation of property. What weight there [is in it] lies in this: since there is a falling into a government, and government is to preserve property, therefore this cannot be against property. The objection does not lie in that, the making of the representation more equal, but [in] the introducing of men into an equality of interest in this government, who have no property in this kingdom, or who have no local permanent interest in it. For if I had said that I would not wish at all that we should have any enlargement of the bounds of those that are to be the electors, then you might have excepted against it. But [what I said was] that I would not go to enlarge it beyond all bounds, so that upon the same ground you may admit of so many men from foreign states as would outvote you. The objection lies still in this. I do not mean that I would have it restrained to that proportion [that now obtains], but to restrain it still to men who have a local, a permanent interest in the kingdom, who have such an interest that they may live upon it as freeman, and who have such an interest as is fixed upon a place, and is not the same equally everywhere. If a man be an inhabitant upon a rack rent for a year, for two years, or twenty years, you cannot think that man hath any fixed or permanent interest. That man, if he pay the rent that his land is worth, and hath no advantage but what he hath by his land, is as good a man, may have as much interest, in another kingdom as here. I do not speak of not enlarging this [representation] at all, but of keeping this to the most fundamental constitution in this kingdom, that is, that no person that hath not a local and permanent interest in the kingdom should have an equal dependence in election [with those that have]. But if you go beyond this law, if you admit any man that hath a breath and being, I did show you how this will destroy property. It may come to destroy property thus. You may have such men chosen, or at least the major part of them, [as have no local and permanent interest]. Why may not those men vote against all property? [Again] you may admit strangers by this rule, if you admit them once to inhabit, and those that have interest in the land may be voted out of their land. It may destroy property that way. But here is the rule that you go by. You infer this to be the right of the people, of every inhabitant, because man hath such a right in nature, though it be not of necessity for the preserving of his being; [and] therefore you are to overthrow the most fundamental constitution for this. By the same rule, show me why you will not, by the same right of nature, make use of anything that any man hath, [though it be not] for the necessary sustenance of men. Show me what you will stop at; wherein you will fence any man in a property by this rule.

 

Rainsborough:

I desire to know how this comes to be a property in some men, and not in others.

 

The Neoliberal War

Posted in Articles with tags , , , on March 16, 2017 by Magadh

drone1The drone is the perfect tool of liberal warfare. It is notionally the most precise means of taking the war directly to the enemy. It allows U.S. forces to avoid the niceties of international law and the vulnerabilities that arise from putting boots on the ground where they are not wanted (which, let’s face it, is practically anywhere). The representatives of the U.S. security apparatus are conveniently insulated from any blowback from their actions. Safely ensconced in the air-conditioned shipping containers at Creech AFB, the  front line agents of this end of the conflict are far out of range of any direct retaliation by enemy combatants. Never again the smoking ruins of Khobar Towers, or the Marine barracks  in Beirut, or the gaping hole in the side of the U.S.S. Cole. More importantly, no more flag draped coffins and Gold Star families.

 

The central lesson of the Vietnam wars has finally been fully metabolized by the U.S. Government. Counterinsurgency warfare is dirty and difficult. It has the capacity to generate unpalatable images of people not easily classifiable as enemy combatants killed, maimed, covered in napalm. Lacking the underlying basis of legitimation in the defense of Western civilization that made the World Wars, the process of acquiescence is further disturbed by their propensity to generate dead white people. While non-white bodies can pile up like cord wood, the will to fight even for the most noble of causes deteriorates each time another Wally Cleaver comes home in a sack.

 

drone2To most Americans, the drone war is invisible. To its victims it is omnipresent. Each facet implies a psychological benefit to the overall process. Those in the conflict zones live life in a Benthamite panopticon, their lives reduced to mute pantomimes that might at any time call for a Hellfire missile from the empty air. Every act undertaken under the open sky (and sometimes within buildings as well) is translated into a symbolic code to deciphered in the cool darkness of a distributed military architecture. Each individually generated fragment of code synergizes with thousands of others, independently generated into a mosaic of life and threat. In most cases it is simply impossible to know when the flows and eddies of information will map lethally onto the ineluctable logic air to ground fire.

 

So far as the American public is concerned, the invisibility of the conflict eliminates the necessity, at least for most people, of thinking of it at all. Out of sight and very definitely out of mind, the invisibility of the drone war forestalls the need to soothe (or one might even say to embalm) one’s conscience. Otherwise reasonable (and reasonably critical) individuals can simply block out the reality of the situation through an assumption (more often than not simply tacitly made) that the people who get vaporized in drone strikes must have done something to deserve it. Collateral damage (i.e. surplus corpses) there may be. But if the good wars of the 20th century teach us nothing else, they teach us that the death of a few innocents is an unavoidable, if regrettable, concomitant of traversing the path of greater good.  And if those collateral losses outnumber the actual targets of (at least in some sense) legitimate violence by more than 25 to 1 the end must still be seen as justifying the means.

 

drone3The drone war reflects, in a certain sense, the perfection of limited, asymmetric warfare. Ideally, if not in every case, the application of violence can be limited to those who demonstrate by their actions malign intent. Rather than requiring the deployment of massed bodies of soldiery to far off places, the conflict can be bracketed, undertaken by a small cadre of anonymous joystick jockeys who have graduated from ninja level Mass Effect skills to the ‘leetest of the ‘leet. The relationship between this cadre and their opponents is both destructive and symbiotic. Prevented from striking back directly, the forces of Al Qaida, ISIS, and whoever else are limited to acts of pure terrorism against soft targets. Here the designation pure indicates only that it is not covered under the aegis of states sanction. State terrorism is different, more complicated in the sense that the actions that constitute it might, in some measure, be covered (less likely legitimated) by international law. Viewed in human terms its outcomes are hardly less grim. In any case, the perpetration of public atrocities facilitates the continuation of a conflict that benefits both sides. The cycle of violence is self-perpetuating and the medium is quite clearly far advanced in the process of becoming the message.

 

The capacity of this sort of warfare to cut off the malice at its source is touted every time it is announced that some important (though heretofore generally anonymous) member of the enemy hierarchy has been dispatched in a strike as surgically precise as the excision of a tumor. Perhaps it has, on a time, occurred to the agents and facilitators of this mode of conflict that they are fighting a postmodern enemy, one which has no center and thus one whose command and control structure is extremely difficult to degrade no matter how many explosions one causes. In fact, the state of continual war that this entails is functional to the complex of class fractions that run advanced capitalism, as it tends to occlude the pathways of democratic control that promoters of the neoliberal order find so pernicious.

 

In the industrialized world, warfare itself is in the course of becoming neoliberalized. This process was already far advanced by the self-reinforcing dynamic described above. War is a profit center. The other motivations that have at times governed its dynamics: religion, nationalism, racism, etc., have increasingly become epiphenomenal to the process of accumulation. The process is now, also, fundamentally different from that of accumulation by dispossession, in which war was undertaken for the control of resources or territory. War has now become a matter of the circulation of capital. It is the return of Keynesianism, but as if it was run by Darth Vader.

 

At its leading edge, war is decreasingly a human process. Rather, the goal is to make it a matter of autonomous, AI-governed systems making decisions and undertaking actions in the basis of merciless and unflinching algorithms. In the future, war will become like the weather, an event experienced as natural, sine ira et studio, an event for which there is no humanly comprehensible reason. It is becoming both hypercomplex and brutally simple. The technology, especially as current capacities and systems synergize with developments in artificial intelligence, is becoming increasingly prone to internally generated dynamics of such complexity as to far outstrip the abilities of human beings to understand them or to predict future outcomes. As artificial intelligence develops to the point that it becomes self-conscious and self-reproducing, it may turn out to be the case that it has goals and inclinations beyond the reaches of our souls. When that happens, capital itself may become autonomous and self aware. When that happens what place humans will have in the resulting order can hardly be guessed.

 

 

Punk as Absence

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by Magadh

blackflagI discovered punk rock when I was in eighth grade (which would have been in 1982 or so). My buddy Chris introduced me to it. In seventh grade he’d turned me on to Iron Maiden. At that point I thought Number of the Beast was the most transgressive thing ever recorded (and so I was fascinated by it). One day, toward the end of eighth grade, Chris said to me, “Iron Maiden is ok, I guess, but Black Flag is way better.” Our mutual friend Brian (who we all called Chauncy for reasons I never quite understood) hooked me up with a tape that had Damaged on one side and the Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables on the other. I was hooked.

dksThe music spoke to me in a way that metal never did. I always thought of metal as kind of thuggish, and that was never me. Strangely, punk didn’t seem that way to me at all. I got hassled at school all the time and I was pretty much a social pariah. Punk gave those experiences a meaningful narrative. The jocks and the rednecks and the cool kids and cute girls who made my life unpleasant were all scum. I and the few friends I had who’d tumbled on to this thing were privy to a sort of secret knowledge, of bands and scenes and signs and movements and languages. There’s a line from an old song by the German punk band Die Ärzte that goes something like, “Wir haben erlebt was andere nicht mal ahnen [We experienced what others don’t suspect].” That summed it up quite nicely, although I only heard it later.

It was only later too, once I’d learned a bit of the history of the cultural formation with which I had aligned myself, that I started to wonder what it was really all about (i.e. was it about what I thought it was about or something different). It was in the course of this that I worked out that talking about “the” punk scene was really a misnomer. The punk scene, like the underground scene more generally (and probably most cultural formations) is not a cohesive organization but a set of overlapping micro- and macro-scenes. There is no central unifying text or positive content, only a set of more or less overlapping networks.

Once I realized this, the culture of punk seemed to me to involve a paradox. People spent a lot of time and spilled a lot of ink in the 1980s trying to figure out what punk was and (what often seemed more important) what and who it wasn’t. If you read the letters section of Maximum Rock n Roll in those days you would see at least one or two, and more often significantly more, assertions that someone was a poser, or that some band was bunch of posers, etc. Even when I was 14 that stuff seemed like a stupid, sterile thing to argue about. In any case, this grated harshly against the ideals of freedom and the varieties of aesthetic expression that were fundamental to my attraction to punk at the most general level. On the one hand, authenticity was key. On the other, there was no such thing.

lydonI remember in this context reading an interview with John Lydon in which he asserted that anyone calling themselves punk at that point was being fundamentally inauthentic. There was a certain sense in which he had a point. From his perspective, he and a few dozen people in and around London in the mid-1970s had created a thing, which had then died (on an electrically tense night in the Cow Palace in San Francisco if not before), and they had moved on. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.

The London punk scene of the mid- to late 1970s was influenced by the sort of glam/art rock scene in New York, radiating outward from the New York Dolls, which was itself heavily influenced by bands like the MC5 and the Stooges. The more you dig into it, the more you find that each of these scenes was connected (sometimes by personnel, sometimes by style) to bands and scenes that had gone before. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus makes the point quite effectively (pace Stewart Home’s rather nasty critique in Cranked Up Really High) that there is a line of cultural connection that can be drawn connecting Dadaism, Lettrism, Situationism, and a bunch of even less well known movements for the revolutionization of art and civilization, with the various punk-related scenes of the 1970s.

yotIn the early 1980s, I and my friends took part in inscribing the hardcore punk scene into the culture of small town eastern Washington. By that point the denizens of the “original” scene of Lydon and his compatriots had mostly moved off to serious musical careers, straight suburban lives, or spiralling drug addiction (or some combination thereof). By then too, the original impetus had fragmented, leading to the formation of complexes of microscenes in Los Angeles, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and dozens of other cities (and hundreds of small towns) in the U.S. and around the world.

7secsGiven this process of fragmentary diffusion, it is not surprising that the question of what it all meant seemed so crucial. But, of course, there was no there there, at least in the sense of a coherent cultural something binding it all together. Even within the subgroups there was immense variation. Looking at straight edge, just as a for instance, the scene that grew up in D.C. around Minor Threat was much different than that in New York around bands like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, and both were different than the scene in California (Stalag 13, Uniform Choice, and others), and from the one in Reno centering on 7 Seconds. [NB. If you’re reading this and thinking that different bands might be more representative do bear in mind that I’m just tossing this stuff off the top of my head. If you know better (or think you know better) feel free to write your own blog post.]

stalag13This didn’t stop people from arguing about it, often quite nastily. A lot of it was social. The scenes that existed were often projects or projections of groups of friends, mostly high school or college age. These sets are fractious at the best of times, so it’s not at all surprising that charges of apostasy of various kinds might be made, especially when there was the possibility of amplifying them by having them printed in MRR, or Flipside, or whatever. These social dynamics synergized, once again, with the fact that the culture being appropriated was diffuse and acephalus. And so the grousing and griping spun on and on without ever really bottoming out or discovering very much that was fundamental.

Ultimately, the work of defining what punk was and wasn’t was left unfinished because the moment of its realization was missed. Green Day came along, and grunge, and the powers of the recording industry once again became convinced that there was some coin to be made. What it all meant became a matter of supreme indifference to any but the most neurotic purists and zine writers. Just what was punk? “Let’s make lots of money, and worry about it later.” So it has continued, although renewed corporate interest has not, in fact, managed to kill off the residual fragments of the punk scenes of what you might call the “intercommercial” era (i.e. the period between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s during which records types didn’t care very much about underground music). And still the devotees of crust and other abiding punk forms know what they are doing and with whom they share common ground without having to have an overarching theory to explain it.

And so, perhaps, it has come to this: punk was (and is), at its heart, an absence. If punk ever meant anything, if it was ever worth anything, it was because it created a space in which identities to could be created and explored (mostly) outside the hegemony of the dominant cultural forms. This did not mean that these identities were created sui generis. Nor did it mean that coercion was entirely absent. Some of the identities that people created were racist, sexist, homophobic, or chauvinist, the persistent influence of these tendencies distorted and constrained the cultural space of the underground. But still the space endured, not unique and certainly imperfect, but still a place where kids who were weird, or gay, or feminist, or otherwise marginal could take a hand in making themselves rather than merely reproducing images of what they were supposed to be.

Wynonna Earp

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , on August 5, 2016 by Magadh

earpAround the middle of May, my friend M. texted me.

“I’m just going to tell you that I am obsessed with Wynonna Earp.”

A lot of my friendship with M. centers on comics, and we had talked about whether we might watch the show in the months before it premiered, if only because it was being heavily advertised in the books we were both reading.

M. thought that the original comic hadn’t been that impressive and so she wasn’t terribly excited for the show. After that we didn’t really talk about it, so I was surprised when I got her text. I know M. well enough to know that if she likes something it’s generally worth checking, so as soon as I got home I fired up Amazon streaming and tucked into the available episodes. I’ll be honest, the opening scene didn’t really grab me. But as the first episode went on I was hooked. I watched the rest of episodes over the course of the next few days I got through the first seven episodes. Then I called M.

“Are you up to date on Wynonna Earp.”

“Yeah. Now I have to wait for the new episode like a peasant.”

True enough, but now we each had something to look forward to on Friday night.

Friday after Friday the show got better and better, and when the credits rolled on Episode 13 M. and I agreed that the people running the show had created a real brilliancy. If only Syfy would have the sense to renew it.

“They’re sending the cast to Comic-Con,” M. assured me. “They wouldn’t be doing that unless they were going to renew it.” I wasn’t sure I entirely shared her confidence, but you couldn’t deny the logic of her position. In the meantime both of us started embracing the world of Wynonna Earp fan culture, especially on Twitter.  I think the first thing that either of us discovered was Oblivious Wynonna (@ObliviousWyn) which is still my favorite of the (many) Twitter feeds out there. As things went on I think we both felt more and more ingrained in the fan community as we (and everyone else) waited to see if Syfy would do the right thing. And, to all of our collective relief, they did.

This is a show that I think more people should be watching. And maybe people who know me will be surprised by this. Well, I thought I might talk about some of the reasons that I love this show, and maybe that will convince some more people to get on the team here.

1. Wynonna. She’s one of those rare figures in modern popular culture: a young woman who takes charge of her own agency. She doesn’t need a father, or a brother, or a boyfriend, or whoever to tell her what to do. She does her best to figure things out and then acts on that basis. Sometimes she makes mistakes. That’s ok. That means she’s human, not that she needs someone else telling her how she should live her life. She has control of her own sexuality as well. If she wants to sleep with Doc, she does. If she wants to sleep with Dolls, she does. And it’s not assumed that she has a capital “R” relationship with either one just because she did. If that happens it will be because both parties want and accept it. And if Wynonna wants to do something else, she will. This doesn’t mean she’s closed off from people. It just means that she wants to do things her way. Society doesn’t like this, from anybody really, but especially not from young women who are supposed to be in need of some sort of guidance and structure. As a character, Wynonna doesn’t give in to that narrative. At all. It’s refreshing.

2. WayHaught. Homosexuality is a thing. It’s normal. People just need to get over it. The community of nerds and scifi fans are no less given to homophobia than anyone else in American society. So it’s pretty cool to see a show in the scifi genre that just assumes this to be the case. The people running the show don’t feel the need to turn it into some kind of tortured passion play. Waverly and Haught are attracted to each other. They’re consenting adults and they act on their attractions. Full stop. There doesn’t need to be anything more to it than that, just two people who love each other. It’s nice to see a show for once treat this topic as if it were a part of normal human experience.

3. Bury the gays. Emily Andras should get the Nobel Peace Prize for the kick to the groin that she dealt this nauseating trope. I’ve got a piece on this topic brewing for Souciant.com, so I’m not going to say too much about it here. But it was nice that Emily Andras has assured the fans that neither Waverly nor Nicole were going to be killed off in the finale. So when Nicole caught a bullet in Episode 13, it was kind of cool in the sense that a) we all knew she was going to get back up, and b) the vast majority of the people watching the show knew that it was essentially a statement that being gay wasn’t going to be a death sentence (as it all too often is elsewhere).

4. The story-telling. In Wynonna Earp the pace of things can seem a little breathless, but that’s because they don’t really spend too much time on back story. They tell you things when they are necessary, but the people running the show see pretty confident in letting the viewers’ imaginations fill in the gaps unless it’s something that absolutely necessary to have nailed down. It’s all too easy for shows like this to get bogged down in the attempt to give the full background of every event. I think that show runners must feel like this makes for nuanced storytelling, but often it just seems to mire the narrative in unnecessary detail. Wynonna Earp preserves a lot of the feel of its comic book origins in the sense that it tells its story in discrete, manageable chunks. Also, they didn’t really bother with monster-of-the-week episodes, by and large anyway. Pretty much everything that happened moved the story forward and that did a lot to keep me feeling like a war rolling along with events.

5. This.

6. The fan community. I absolutely love Wynonna Earp fans. They’re sweet and funny and they are nice to each other. I must be hooked up on about twenty different Twitter feeds, from Wynonna Earp Fans, to Oblivious Wynonna, to Haught’s Handcuffs, to Doc’s Moustache, and many others, and pretty much every day I see something that makes me laugh. I heartily recommend the “Tales of the Black Badge” podcast anyone who wants to dig a little deeper. I guess one thing that I like in particular is that as a group, Wynonna Earp fans are inclusive. I’m a hetero white male. I see myself reflected everywhere in society, and it gets really boring. So it’s nice to be associated with a fan community in which queer friendliness is simply assumed. It’s nice not having to discuss it. And I don’t mean this in the kind of phoney way that a lot of people will say that they’re glad that they don’t have to talk about it because they’re frightened by difference and want to ignore it. I mean it in the sense that it’s just assumed to be a way that people are and it’s embraced by everybody.

I haven’t had many days lately quite as happy as the one when I found out that the show had been renewed. I was driving home from work when M. texted me with the news. She and another friend had been watching the Comic-Con session with the stars of the show on Periscope and let me know in real time. I really should have stopped for a coffee or something on the way home, because I knew that the announcement was happening then and, as it was, a nearly got in a car wreck through sheer joy. They got a ten episode run starting in Spring and I can wait to see what they do for an encore. Until then I’ll be reading Oblivious Wynonna tweets and revelling in the joy of my fellow Earpers.