Thursday, February 9, 2012

The vanguard left and the academy

The trouble with the vanguard is the trouble with leadership on the left. One of the most vexing problems on the left is the issue of leadership and the vanguard. I admittedly am writing this at a time when I have become more sympathetic to the idea of the vanguard. Though perhaps this is because, due to circumstances, I would most likely be IN IT. And I suspect that most advocates of a vanguard driven left are in a similar position.

I've often thought about the nature of hierarchy. My general power framework operates around a 'power triangle' that I use to visualize elites, a secondary line of "coordinators" which i've pulled from Mike Albert's insights from Parecon and elsewhere. Some concepts of divide and rule, which I probably pulled in from Howard Zinn, personal experience, and elsewhere. I use a general Chomsky frame because Chomsky is much faster at framing an issue in terms of digesting it for many people, and speed is crucial when it comes to understanding power. Chomsky has always provided something that seems to lack on the left, especially the academic left and that is scope. I understand that depth is important, but scope is where the action is. If you cannot get a sense of proportion in your message, then it's a tree falling in the woods. And on the subject of a tree falling in the woods, my power framework around race and class was solidified by Adolph Reed, who I met and took seminars with at the New School in 2002-2004. The Reed case is an interesting one, because he's the lesser known figure on the left, but resonated with me in large degree with his opposition to "post-toasty" cultural studies bullshit that took over the academy and still seems to run rampant, coming at the expense of any semblance of a popular mass project. Not that this isn't to be expected. Cultural studies is a symbol of a losing democratic left. It's a symptom, a symbol, a vanguard killer to the extent that it takes some smart people, splits them all into manageable identity groups, and scatters the ashes to the wind chasing a phantom goal that has no win option. And for a popular movement, winning means everyone saying the same thing at the same time. You can still lose if you produce 20 thousand cultural studies self identified libertarian socialists cherry picking from 10 thousand great ideas, and they may be genuinely great ideas, but if you can't demand them all at once at the same time, they are meaningless. Reed also provided a class framework for race that resonated with me because it cut through much of the bullshit, and added a great deal of off beat history on race class and culture to my framework.

I went to predominantly black schools in the early 80s, 2nd generation after desegregation, getting bussed into 95% black schools until I was 12. Then moved into a much more racially violent middle school in 1990 where it was 'mixed' and by mixed I mean racial violence was much more prevalent, at least for the poorer sections of the population. This was prior to the gun violence in schools so jumpings, sucker punching, and random beatings, were fairly common. This was fairly normal until probably the time I was half way through high school and an in school race riot created mass expulsions because it garnered too much press attention or some other factor that I don't know about. It always seemed to me, that the nature of violence in the school system was beyond neglect, but one that was a tolerated by product of social management in education. A not-that-well thought out strategy of divide and rule. And basically that by allowing Lyndon Johnson's prediction of the black south that "If you have had your foot on the neck of a man for three hundred years, and then take it off, do you expect him to get up and thank you?". Well, if you were born after all that, you don't really know one thing from the next. All you know is that people are going to jack you, and that you need to protect yourself by trying to be tight in a posse of future little thugs for protection purposes. And this didn't mean that everything was a straight racial line. A sizable subset of the white kids WERE the black kids, culturally and behaviorally that is something that is probably a god damn perplexing concept to college aged hipsters in cultural studies programs in Minnesota learning about their white privilege, but ask anyone who went to school down here in the 90s who and what the "wiggers" were and you'll probably get a range of interesting answers . So that's pretty much how the culture of violence operated. The people I knew when i was a kid are either in prison, or in and out of prison, for a variety of violent charges, drugs, or other bullshit. I ended up graduating, went to community college, then a state school, and basically stayed out of trouble while I was in school, and this ties things back to the race and class work I did with Reed at the New School. By the time I was finishing reading my backbone of Chomsky when I was skipping what I was supposed to be reading for my methods classes at UCF, I learned the basic narrative of the civil rights movement, the black power movement, the women's movement, American Indian, and Chicano rights movements in the 1970s and how this transitioned into the right wing backlash to those movements. By the time I ended up in graduate school (I only ended up in graduate school because I had fallen in love with a woman and just applied to see if I could justify moving to NYC) Reed provided a key critique that made perfect sense, that race is a power relationship, and ultimately a class relationship like anything else in this country. And furthermore, by promoting the cultural side of it, it simply REPLACES a class critique with a cultural one, and not just an ordinary cultural critique, but one that is filled with "race hustlers" and "hucksters" and what not that exploit it, and basically serve as the top of the little triangle in my Big Triangle/Little triangle framework. He had this running beef with Cornell West in a combative style, and covered an expansive range of history of how races were invented, then vanished from the face of the earth out of political expediency. I had never heard of Cornell West until I met Reed. I had never heard of any of this whietness studies stuff until I met Reed. Had any of the cultural studies people come visited some of the 1990s public schools in South Florida, I probably could have directed them to some gold toothed crackers who would listen to the preachings on "checking white privilege" where they could preach the virtues of 'white skin privilege' to them as they are being run over by their own cars after they get car jacked. So all of this resonated with my instinct and street level theory that the rich people moved their kids out of the public schools or at least into the safer slots WITHIN a school, and allowed a giant gladiator environment which was obviously reproducing racial tension by allowing everyone to terrorize each other using packs of people in one giant lord of the flies social experiment. For people who've sat through one of my lectures, this was the top of the triangle, creating the conditions for the bottom of the triangle to be divided by having all energy focused on each other as it fights inside of an environment, and none of that energy is focused at the top. By the time you come out of an institution like this, the last thing you are thinking about is forming a giant social bond of solidarity.

So Reed to me was an in depth academic. He broke things down to the extent that it offered a serious alternative vision to the conventional wisdom on the left when it came to race. But he didn't have the speed of a framework that Chomsky has, and this ties into my broader thoughts on academic practice, life, and purpose. He either didn't care, or didn't know how to push his model to a wider range of people. Partly because the people in the academy that he would need to go through are less willing to accept his thinking for a variety of reasons. And partly because as time passes, a new generation enters the society with a different view on race than the older generations.

So I developed my basic academic and political framework which was shaped predominantly by the above influences and life experience. I run most social information though this model, and i've certainly gotten some mileage out of it. It's fast and reductionist and suited to a community college environment, but what can I say, speed and scope might be more important than depth, to the dismay of the people who consider themselves to be serious academics and value depth over scope. But the problem with academic life in the social sciences is that the entire program is inherently political. Even if you come up with a solid set of ideas or a better framework, the hurdles to dissemination of it are always tied to how easy the model is to spread. The easiness may be motivated by money (i.e if somebody comes up with a model that concentrated money really thinks makes concentrated money look good, then the money can promote the idea), but if you have good idea on the left--which means an idea that can only be opposed by concentrated money, then you must find other avenues. But then there are 20 thousand other vanguardist, self important academics who think they've got the framework too. This is an irony of the left inside of the academy. It's almost a weakness because by having so many voices and frameworks in competition, the potential for a narrow coherent voice is much less possible. So how in the world does any of this stuff make a difference when there really is no machinery in place to sort out the better ideas into a hierarchy of ideas?

One of the more absurd elements of academic life is the territorial nature that people guard their ideas with. Like, nobody is going to give you credit for having a great idea on the street. You can't patent a social theory, or a style of communication. Chomsky isn't going to sue me for using the propaganda model, or even stealing the model and using it without citing it. This sort of tolerated normal academic behavior is a problem not out of the principle (I understand the principle, person A comes up with idea, person A should be rewarded for being smart and clever) but out of the reality of how ideas spread. It reminds me of the RIAA's position on "content theft", which based on the idea that ideas can be owned because it is a commodity. Capitalist production tends t0 create artificial scarcity, defying economic reality in order to have that extortion power as the controller. But we do it to if we're constantly engaging in a citation festival of all things written on whatever narrow little focus we work on. Finding some new small niche isn't useful in the social realm, at least not for me. Small advances are for people that are developing nanotechnology, big and simplified frameworks to push a giant unity coalition require people to be...well united. The people who are coming up with frameworks might not always be the best suited to deliver the frameworks and disseminate them, but in order to win, do most people on the left not agree that if we are going to push for the power of the 99% or even just the bottom 80% that we are going to need a large section of at least 50 million people on our side? And this brings me back to the vanguard. And I will re-state my critique of the vanguard before defending it. The problem with the left is that it's basic idea is to level power between people. The more common wording for this is democracy. When the left comes to power, it means democracy is coming to power. And what the libertarian end of the left has built into the culture on the left is this strong fear of "leadership". Everywhere you go, it's a game of "i'm not trying to be the leader here", nobody is taking charge, because taking charge makes you look like the leader. There is a problem (obviously) with this, but it is rooted in a good place. Once you develop a program and have leadership, all kinds of opportunistic dickheads filled with testosterone and confidence, will show up and say "hello, I am here to be your leader". This whole culture pumps out wanna be leaders, alpha males, glory lovers, and things like that. And the second major problem with leadership is a classic one. Once the leadership gets in, you can't get the fuckers out. And a 3rd major problem with leaders is more fundamental. If you are going run around asking people to join you in a potentially risky struggle to end the oligarchy and install a new power distribution, what kind of ideological argument is it to basically be asking them to trade one type of leaders with another? As Corey Robin notes in his book on right wing thought, the right attempts to create a mass project by using what i always describe as "big triangle/little triangle". He frames is as offering some small place to rule, over the home, the kids, the slaves, etc... So you may not get to run the whole thing, but elites will give you your little fiefdom. This makes left ideologies problematic if they are statist, involve hierarchy, because it creates this internal problem. Why should people trade one group of leaders for another?

The counter argument, can be seen from the occupy movements. Occupy came in with these councils, voting practices, a system of twinkle fingers to speed through meetings (not speedy enough obviously because you will be in one of these meetings for like 4 fucking hours talking about something that you will not remember by the time its all over) and things like that. Democratic planning, it seems to me, is at best, going to need to be an outcome--not a tactic and not even a strategy. It is an objective. It is winning. And I understand Mike Albert's points about trying to build your movements in ways that reflect what you want to see when you win. But when you try to carry out actions without some degree of leadership, the speed problem hits. Democratic planning is many things, and one of those things is that it is slow. Especially in an authoritarian country where people's interests and views are almost never heard, and everyone wants to have their say. For all of the criticisms of hierarchical power systems of all stripes, they have a crucial component to them and that is they are faster than horizontal power systems. To deal with the back and fourth debate, the potential tactical decisions that will arise once movements grow, and for a variety of other reasons, a vanguard is needed to win. It isn't the end in and of itself, and I think an excellent compromise will be to have a clear deal about what and where the vanguard needs to go once you win, but I don't see winning without some degree of leadership. So there it is.