September 14, 2013

Notions of Syria: Mass Escapism on the Part of the Left

Filed under: American Revolution, Corporatism — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 5:32 am


I’m starting to think that the whole obsession among leftists with the Syrian civil war, a problem which they can’t possibly do anything about, and where their positions couldn’t possibly be more irrelevant, is a kind of mass escapism on their part. All the furious disputation is so much meaningless sound and fury, since no one’s position could possibly have any effect on events whatsoever. The people, on their own, are opposing any US intervention just fine, without any help or influence from “the left”. The leftists might as well be hammering one another over what political form the US colony on Saturn’s moon Titan should take.
Why this irrelevant obsession? It’s an issue where the fiercely disputed positions (it’s not really clear what they’re fighting about, since almost no one among them advocates US intervention) are just so much competitive navel-gazing. I think this is exactly why the issue is so charming to them. Perhaps it’s a consolation for their general feeling of helplessness in the face of the corporatist onslaught. 
By contrast, the whole welter of anti-corporate struggles force upon them the feeling that in principle there must be something they can do, and yet they just can’t figure it out, or else just can’t get organized to do it. It would require lots more hard work, and they’re demoralized at the failure of all their efforts in recent decades. Obsessing on Syria is more like playing a game. The very fact that they can’t possibly do anything about Syria is the main attraction of the thing.
The whole Syria tempest-in-a-teapot is more evidence that the pre-existing Left is defunct.
I’m writing this toward my basic point that existing political categorizations are worthless, are artifacts of the Oil Age, and must be transcended.



  1. “existing political categorizations are worthless” totally agree… the common man must see who the tailor is of this historical stitchery that is being woven. Hunger for power is the master of our carnal desires and obesity from it is evident in a few players who ruthlessly sacrifice human lives to get that hunger filled. The vulture culture of defense contractors and arms sellers are licking their chops while we play the fools and die for no Reason other than to say our creator is only ours…and we have the power to prove it by killing you too…

    Comment by Dave Outlaw — September 14, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  2. We can spread information, among other things. Don’t be ridiculous about “not being able to do anything”. We are human beings and our potential is huge: every single person (never mind groups) can do A LOT about most things, maybe not enough, we’ll see, but definitively SOMETHING. After all generals, armies, governments and corporations are nothing but associations of people like you and me (just that quite evil).

    Comment by Maju — September 14, 2013 @ 8:51 am

    • I didn’t say we the people. This entire blog has been one big call to the people the take matters into our own hands.

      I referred to the establishment Left, retrograde Marxists and other dogmatists, who are making such fools of themselves either quibbling over details of the Syrian war, or earnestly arguing with those who do. Obviously I agree with your basic point, which is why I’m dedicating my life to the cause of anti-corporatism and Food Sovereignty, even though it looks like my role will be primarily as a publicist, because there may not be much opportunity to be more than that in America during what’s left of my younger years.

      But today part of spreading information and, more importantly, anti-corporate ideas, is speaking to the people that exist, not to the fictions of ideology, and certainly not having a handful of ideologues shouting at one another in a hermetically sealed chamber. Marx himself said you can have a revolution only according to the forces that exist.


      But in spite of all the decades of ideology (or because of them), and in spite of all the education and preparation, today our Marxists and other orthodox leftist types are not spreading information. They’re having increasingly hermetic and juvenile shouting matches among themselves.

      Comment by Russ — September 14, 2013 @ 10:41 am

      • “… because there may not be much opportunity to be more than that in America during what’s left of my younger years”.

        As I see it, that’s not the attitude, especially in the context of this generalized crisis of Capitalism, to which North America is not at all impervious to (but rather at the epicenter of).

        “… today our Marxists and other orthodox leftist types are not spreading information. They’re having increasingly hermetic and juvenile shouting matches among themselves”.

        Sectarianism, I guess. Obviously not the way to go but rather the way to weaken the worker movement. However I can only imagine that there are all kinds of leftists (Marxist or Anarchist or Autonomist or whatever) and IMO the key is to gather the best ones and ignore (as much as possible) the nutheads. There are always dogmatic nutheads, just send them back home to the armchair where they belong: those won’t change anything, ever!

        Comment by Maju — September 14, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

      • I agree, no dogma is worth anything now. What’s needed is a willingness to cast off calcified ideology and look at everything as it is, facing the facts as they are. But, for example, whether they think fossil fuels are infinite, or whether they think some magic replacement will be found, the people I’m talking about all seem to agree with capitalism that this extreme ahistorical level of energy consumption will continue indefinitely. This is, to say the least, not a helpful attitude where it comes to creating a new political philosophy and developing a political and economic strategy. It leaves everyone but that handful of dogmatists thinking that there’s nothing to choose between capitalism and the alleged alternative to it, since they both “promise”/threaten the same centralized productivist future of slavery.

        That’s one example of the kind of necessary discussion, probably painful if one wants to hold onto various sacred cows, which is being ducked in favor of diversions like all the nitpicking over who is who in Syria and who’s doing what. Meanwhile the people are opposing Western intervention on their own, and we’re seeing an interesting division among the 1% themselves.

        Comment by Russ — September 14, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

      • … “the people I’m talking about all seem to agree with capitalism that this extreme ahistorical level of energy consumption will continue indefinitely”…

        Yes, typical Marxists especially seem to pay very little attention to the ecological contradiction, probably because Marx was quite oblivious to it and they are often square-minded about basing their ideas only or almost only on Marx. For me that is a fundamental problem because there are not just human (social) contradictions in Capitalism but also very serious contradictions with the ecology of the planet, which are derived from the very same exploitative nature of Capitalism.

        Marx is very interesting but not any prophet and I bet he would be outraged of the lack of criticism and innovation of many Marxists. Especially in our time we do need to reformulate everything, not just because Marx has been dead for quite more than a century and we cannot just rely on the thought of a single man, no matter how genial, but because Marx was outlining as well as he could the crude description of Capitalism and its social contradictions (Marx could not really see beyond these because he was victim of his own Humanism and Ricardian heritage – well, there were no ecologist back in those days: the environment and the planetary limits were not yet understood by anyone I know of).

        However I would not describe the problem in mere terms of energy because with solar and other renewables it’s theoretically possible to produce almost infinite amounts of energy. The problems are more of sustainability: we do depend on the planetary environment on things as basic as clean water, non-radioactive air or, well, bee polinization. And Capitalism just doesn’t care about these issues because they are externalized costs or “valueless” elements that are property of nobody. Not just it does not care but in fact it loads those “external” unappropriated niches with the costs of economic growth.

        We can’t be just socialists, we must also be ecologists. But we can’t be just ecologists because there’s no realistic way, I believe, to make a workable eco-capitalism (although admittedly many in Germany are trying hard). For socialism we need ecology and for ecology (sustainability) we need participative (radically democratic) socialism.

        Comment by Maju — September 14, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

      • PS- I broke one sentence in the previous post, messed up by the ranting in parenthesis. I meant that:

        … “but because Marx was outlining as well as he could the crude description of Capitalism and its social contradictions” (…) and we need to build or at least to plan ahead for the post-Capitalist outcome itself.

        We can’t be satisfied with Capitalism collapsing (that’s the basis, not the goal), we face the challenge to build something for Humankind after Capitalism, something half-decent of course.

        Comment by Maju — September 14, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

      • I think Food Sovereignty, as described by Via Campesina and other grassroots movements of the farmers and indigenous peoples of the global South, is not only a necessary part of building this better world for humanity, but must be the foundation of it. It’s also the only possible ecological basis of agriculture.


        And although the political and economic modes that follow from it are flexible to some extent, they’re still necessarily more decentralized and democratic than any supply-driven mode of agriculture.

        While centralized communism was perfectly synched with its own version of Big Ag, democratic socialism could arise only from a decentralized, decommodified agriculture based on agroecology. Indeed it’ll have to be a combination of pastoralism and horticulture.


        So that’s in a nutshell how I arrive at my strategy for building the democratic socialist and ecological society.

        Comment by Russ — September 15, 2013 @ 9:53 am

  3. There’s a Left in this country? Really? Here – read this despicable piece by Ralph Nader, the hero of the Greens. When are these “Leftists” going to stop believing in the tooth fairy??

    Comment by Paul — September 14, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    • That’s pretty pathetic. Typical liberal drivel.

      As for “the left”, there’s still lots of people who espouse principles which ought to lead to their fighting for the people, including taking an objective look around to see what the real fights now are, and how they can be fought. But you’re right, and it’s part of what I’m getting at with this post, that too many of them have sealed themselves off from any kind of real experience or action and are merely playing out the ideological disputes of long-gone alleged glory days.

      That’s why the real battle lines of our time, humanity vs. the corporations, and above all the war of food corporatism upon humanity and the Earth, are basically lost upon them.

      That is, except for the ones who still channel their inner Stalin and worship totalitarian Big Ag, as long as it’s nominally owned and controlled by a communist state.

      Comment by Russ — September 14, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  4. I’ll add that, as it looks like Obama is caving in and won’t dare to follow through on his self-indulgent bloodlust, if the left had presented a solid anti-imperialist front all along, it could take credit, however hyperbolic this would be.

    Instead we have the spectacle of everyone – peoples, parliaments, corporate media, factions within the US military, and on – having opposed this attack except for Obama’s liberals and a loud faction among the left. Very discreditable.

    Comment by Russ — September 14, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

    • What blew me away was that the New York Times, always a reliable supporter of Democrats and liberal causes, published an Op-Ed article by Vladimir Putin that took Obama to task for his Syrian stance. That’s pretty remarkable. I used to think that the NYT was worth reading. I don’t any longer – it’s just as bad as the WaPo.

      Comment by Paul — September 15, 2013 @ 12:00 am

      • They’re all awful, although there’s been some splitting on the prospect of this war.

        Comment by Russ — September 15, 2013 @ 9:55 am

  5. @Russ,

    When I was in law school, I realized that the First Amendment existed largely to help people who were dangerous to the state to self-identify. I have since come to realize that that is but one of its many purposes, and perhaps the least important one. The single most important purpose of the First Amendment is to encourage what I’ve been calling “now-opia” for a couple of years. I think this paragraph sums it up:

    So I abandoned the Project and focused on engaging in the political directly. And that was disillusioning in its own regard. I found many fellow travelers, or thought I did, but most of them stopped their journey when they found a new comfort level, which I view as unwarranted as the last comfort level. Yves Smith is a perfect example of this phenomenon, as is (to a much smaller extent) Barry Ritholtz before her. Both seek to work completely within the system to effect change, to reform the system to make it fair. This is impossible, and as Russ said today, nothing short of abolition is required. Incrementalism has been and always will be doomed to failure. Unfortunately, people like Yves and Barry fail to see how the “now-opia” of “progressive” rationalism bogs them down, forcing them to make the same arguments over and over again, all the while legitimizing the counter-arguments against them. After all, you wouldn’t be arguing if there wasn’t a legitimate difference in opinion, right?

    Now-opia encourages us all to believe that “tsk-tsking” passes for action, and so the “progressives” and “liberals” always seem to move on to the next crisis without ever solving the current one.

    I don’t know if you have had a chance to pick up Philip Mirowski’s latest book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalizm Survived the Financial Meltdown. If you have not, you should. His “full-spectrum response” model of Neoliberal political action is spot-on and clearly at work in the GMO debate. You will need a strategy for responding to or neutralizing that model. Happy to discuss by email.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — September 17, 2013 @ 1:35 am

    • I realized that the First Amendment existed largely to help people who were dangerous to the state to self-identify.

      It also helps such people identify themselves to one another. Very important considering how the corporate media tries to convince each such person that she’s all alone, an isolated freak.

      The analysis of reformist types is right on. I spent endless comments at Naked Capitalism and Baseline Scenario talking about that same endless back-and-forth attrition, even assuming the best case scenario of some real reforms being temporarily enacted and enforced. The reforms are then inevitably rolled back, we have the same resurgence of unfettered corporate crime, then the same movement for reform, ad nauseum. And THIS destructive cycle is what they call “progress”? On the contrary, anyone who actually was progressive would be looking for a way to end the cycle once and for all. Ironically, just as anyone who’s truly conservative can’t call himself a “conservative” in this political environment, so anyone who’s truly progressive can’t call himself a “progressive”. Neither of those terms refer to anything remotely like what they’re supposed to mean in plain English.

      By now I think, however, that most liberal/progressive types actually support rather than ineffectually oppose the criminal corporatist system. They realize that only this props up their own parasitic lifestyles, even as their middle class position is now being liquidated by that same system. They merely mouth the verbiage of reformism, which is ineffectual by design, for no purpose other than to assuage what’s left of their “conscience”. They’re too cowardly to go all in supporting Monsanto, Wall Street, fracking, etc., so they instead embody a soft support masked as impotent opposition. The Democrat party, and for some an “alternative” like the Greens, is the political home for them all.

      What Project were you referring to? I sent you an e-mail the other day. I look forward to hearing more about the Mirowski book.

      Comment by Russ — September 17, 2013 @ 5:12 am

      • The first time I left corporate life, my goal was to create a new type of “idea exchange” that uses fiction across multiple media types to have conversations that “conservatives” and “liberals” (or atheists and theists, etc.) can’t have with each other in the current environment. The Da Vinci Code, a truly horrible book that nevertheless had Catholics questioning their faith, proved to me that the willing suspension of disbelief creates the opportunity to get past our preconceived notions of the other. I also wanted to wrap that idea exchange inside an anti-corporate and pro commons package that gives all who participate an opportunity to profit from their contributions. In addition to trying to understand common cultural and political themes, I have been developing the fictional universe that forms the basis for the conversations. All this combined is what I call “the Project.”

        Originally, a major goal of the Project was to encourage the concept of human perfectability, i.e., the notion that we can and should always seek to improve ourselves. I realized early on that most people are happy with exactly who they are, and who am I to tell them otherwise? The primary goal now is to help those people who want to understand the world to ask better questions while entertaining the crap out of the people who are happy to just sit there and vibrate.

        P.S. I replied to your email yesterday.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — September 17, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

      • I like the Project idea, and I agree that the goal isn’t “perfectability” (always a road to hell paved with good intentions, requiring all sorts of coercion, and as you say unlikely to succeed anyway), but simple freedom, prosperity, and happiness. I think a lot about how to use fiction as well, although I suspended my own crack at a novel a few years ago because I thought it was going poorly. I’ll take it up again at some point, though, with a refined focus. Maybe my writing will be better.

        I also agree that the goal isn’t great literature but anything that works. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a pretty lousy novel as well, from a literary standpoint, and Chernyshevsky’s “What is to be Done?” was downright awful.

        Sorry I didn’t get to your e-mail yet, but I’ll do so shortly.

        Comment by Russ — September 18, 2013 @ 5:27 am

      • @Russ,

        My plan is to stick to writing non-fiction. I am just architecting the fiction and will hire published fiction authors to bring my “seed” stories to life, at least initially.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — September 18, 2013 @ 10:35 am

      • Yes, I didn’t think you were saying you were going to write fiction, just that you were interested in fiction as a potent vehicle for political ideas. What you said about fiction being a pathway for people to become interested in ideas they’d be prone to reject in straight polemical form sounds logical.

        Comment by Russ — September 18, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  6. Russ, I don’t want to seem like I’m “butting in” here, but I’d hate to see a discussion between you and Tao Jonesing be taken private. I completely agree with Tao’s thoughts in his comment about Yves Smith, Barry Ritholtz and the mention of Philip Mirowski’s book, which I’d not heard of (or the author, either) before. I scanned Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites last night and the one thought that occurred to me in reference to libertarians and the right wing (Lasch was a conservative in the mold of Wendell Berry) is that they are engaged in a fantasy every bit as delusional as the left: they want to return to an earlier stage of capitalism, a stage that existed in this country between, say, 1800 – 1850. The “left” wants to “perfect” late capitalism and the “right” wants to return to an earlier stage. Neither can imagine a world without</em capitalism. I started a most interesting book late last night, by Joel Kovel, entitled The Enemy of Nature: the end of capitalism or the end of the world?. After reading Morris Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World, it is becoming quite plain that we, like fish in water, simply cannot imagine what it would be like to walk on land. We’d better start imagining, but it might already be too late.

    Comment by Paul — September 17, 2013 @ 7:31 am

    • @Paul,

      I recently asked Russ to connect by email because neither of us posts that much any more, in part because I am looking for ways to work together on other things.

      When it comes to neoliberalism, its origins and its aims, Phillip Morowski and his former student Rob Van Horn are who to look to for answers. The book The Road from Mont Pelerin lays much of it out for all to see. The founders of neoliberalism didn’t hide anything, and if you learn the lessons their actions teach you, you can see that all they did was recast the classical liberalism of Hobbes and Locke to purge the communistic fiction (which was left over from Christianity), and they did so using the same process that those venerated thinkers did. I am convinced that Nietzsche grasped the fundamental truth, which he calls the Double Lie and Mirowski calls the Double Truth, that underlies Judaism, Christianity and Capitalism, which just swaps replaces the theological Yaweh with the secular Market. The Double Lie fractal is the centerpiece and engine of Western Civilization.

      The god of both the modern left and the modern right is the Market. Which one is the Pharisee and which one is the Sadducee is of little consequence. Both the corporate left and the corporate right seek to impose an authoritarian state to extract the value created by the masses for the benefit of a very few. And most of them have no idea that is what they want because they are driven to distraction by the Double Truth fractal. So shiny.

      Comment by Tao Jonesing — September 18, 2013 @ 12:15 am

      • I like the “distinction” of Pharisee vs. Sadducee. Apt in several ways.

        Comment by Russ — September 18, 2013 @ 5:30 am

      • Thank you, Tao, for replying. The university library here (I’m an alumni, so I have privileges!) has The Road from Mont Pelerin and Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, so I will add them to my “check out” list. I’m finding that Joel Kovel also has a scathing indictment of capitalism. I haven’t finished the book yet, but he is highly critical of what he calls volunteerism (fluorescent light bulbs and the like), working within the system (green economics), ecophilosophies (deep ecology) and a whole bunch of other ideas. I’m curious to find out what, if any, answer he has. C.A. Bowers wrote an essay back in 2004 entitled Some Thoughts on The Misuse of Our Political Language that I was unable to understand when I first read it in 2008. Now, I do. He, like you, states that “[t]he god of both the modern left and the modern right is the Market.”

        Comment by Paul — September 18, 2013 @ 9:19 am

      • @Paul.

        I would suggest starting with The Road from Mont Pelerin because it provides a good, broad foundation for understanding Mirowski’s arguments in his latest book, which at times strikes me as purposefully pedantic. Road is more a scholarly endeavor, while Crisis is a polemic.

        I would be careful about focusing on “capitalism” per se as it is just a part of the current version of an ancient, extractive system. I try to focus instead on how that extractive system has morphed over time, and why. For example, the primary difference between classical liberalism and neoliberalism is that classical liberalism pretended that political economy and political science were two aspects of the same thing, while neoliberalism pretends that economics and politics are completely separate. Why? Because when economics and politics are viewed as serving the same end, both must serve the public good, which leads to socialism, which can slow down or even reverse extraction. This “communistic fiction” that economic decision-making must benefit the common good is what the founders of neoliberalism set out to erase, and Road documents how they did it.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — September 18, 2013 @ 10:52 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: