Category Archives: Politics

Pope Francis and Catholic Politics Today

The following, in an edited form was published as a letter in  Socialist Worker as a belated response to the Pope’s ‘liberal turn’ on the question of homosexuality. Admittedly, the content is somewhat superficial insofar as it attempts to be too comprehensive:

On July 29th, Pope Francis shocked the Western media by striking a conciliatory tone toward homosexuality. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” the Pope asked, speaking in Italian but using the English word ‘gay.’

His words were immediately seized on as a sign of new liberality within the Catholic Church. The New York Times praised the Pope for his “compassionate tone,” while other liberal outlets in the West have seized on his remarks as a sign of the “revitalization of the Church.” The Huffington Post stood out with its headline proclaiming “Pope OK with gays.”

The Pope’s new teaching certainly marks a departure from the tone of his predecessor Benedict XVI. However, some progressively-minded people may rightly wonder if this is a departure from Benedict in anything but tone.

The context for the Pope’s remarks was an ongoing debate in the Church about whether to allow gay priests. In this sense, Francis was remarking that the Church as a body has no problem with priests who are gay.

Progress? Of a sort, but not any kind that marks a real change in Church teaching. The Church has never explicitly disallowed gay men taking holy orders – though Benedict XVI certainly did strike an uncomfortable tone with his statement that “men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not become priests.” In Catholic teaching, however, orientation of homosexuals is not a sin– it is homosexual acts that are condemned, a fact that traditionalists in the Vatican and Catholic establishment worldwide were quick to seize on.

In other words, while the Church allows men who are attracted to other men to take the cloth, it forbids them, as well as any lay faithful who feel similarly, to act on their completely natural urges. (It also, for the record, continues to teach that heterosexual sex that takes place outside of marriage is a sin.)

Francis’ remarks on homosexuality, as well as on the participation of women in the Church– where he still maintains women have no right to the priesthood– do strike a more conciliatory tone than that of Benedict, somewhat reminiscent of his predecessor, John Paul II. John Paul (who is expected to be recognized as a saint by the end of the year) like Francis, struck a more liberal posture in dealing with the Church’s ongoing problems with women, the LGBT community, and other religious groups, than did Benedict, who spoke of homosexuality as “a strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil,” and said of Islam: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

In other words, both John Paul and Francis represent a more liberal, tolerant face of what is otherwise an incredibly conservative and unchanging Church doctrine, while Benedict’s teaching represented a more extreme and intolerant version of the same doctrine that seems incredibly out of place in a world in which women, LGBT people, Muslims and other faith groups are making more progress toward acceptance in the world and in the Church’s traditional heartlands. But it is essentially the same message.

Jorge Bergoglio’s election as Pope Francis earlier this year is an example of this pattern. Up until the Pole Karol Wojtyła was elected as John Paul II, Italians had had the papacy for centuries. While Joseph Ratzinger or Benedict XVI was a German, Francis is the first Pope to come from outside Europe since the early centuries of the Church, when a few popes are said to have come from north Africa.

Understandably, many Latin Americans in an overwhelmingly Catholic region were excited to have a Pope come from their part of the world. Nevertheless, Bergoglio, a second-generation Italian immigrant from Argentina, is as white as could be, and many progressive Latin Americans sympathetic to liberation theology may have been more than a bit perturbed by his past cooperation with the Argentine junta during the “dirty” war in which thousands of left-wingers and opponents to the regime, including some clerics of Bergoglio’s own Jesuit order, suffered torture or death at the hands of the military. His background does not suggest a break with the demographics or the inclination toward defending the interests of the powerful of Church higher-ups that many faithful may have hoped for.

To understand what exactly is new in Pope Francis and his teaching requires an understanding of the Roman Catholic Church as a deeply conservative institution, that only changes when it feels it absolutely must, and even then very slowly.

The idea of the Church as a body with essentially unchanging dogmas, promoted both by Catholic traditionalists and some anti-Catholic bigots, has long been recognized as a fiction. While the Church considers abortion a mortal sin these days, termination of a pregnancy did not receive so much as a mention in the canon law until the late 18th century, around the start of the Industrial Revolution. At about the same time, the Church held for some years that the consumption of caffeine, considered to have demonic properties, was a sin.

In fact, Catholic Church, perhaps the world’s strongest and most populous religious institution, has never been quite so monolithic as it tried to present itself. While a centralized bureaucracy in Rome has dominated the official workings of the Church for centuries, at its outskirts Roman Catholicism fractures into a number of separate “Churches.” While some maintain loyalty to Rome and absolute traditionalism (the infamous Opus Dei in Spain, and the Knights of Columbus in the U.S.) some of the faithful are dedicated to an idea of the Church as tolerant, accepting and serving the poor– such as the liberation theology tradition of Latin America.

The Italian revolutionary Marxist Antonio Gramsci expressed this contradiction at the heart of Catholicism in his Prison Notebooks: “there is one Catholicism for the peasants, one for the petits-bourgeois and town-workers, one for women, and one for intellectuals which is itself variegated and disconnected.” Catholicism has always had to struggle to make itself relevant to the many different groups of the faithful, and this process not infrequently escapes the boundaries set by the hierarchy centered in Rome.

In the contemporary Church, it is hard to overstate how much relies on the Papacy in terms of setting the tone. The role of a Pope is to present a doctrine which sounds coherent but is just ambiguous enough for very different groups of Catholics to find something acceptable in.

At the same time, the role of the Vatican bureaucracy– byzantine, incredibly wealthy, and extremely intolerant of anything threatening its position– severely threatens the Church’s relevance in the modern world. It is this institution that has horrified many of the faithful with its cynical failed cover-up of the clerical sexual abuse scandals in Europe and North America.

The resignation of Benedict XVI, which grabbed worldwide headlines as only the second willing Papal resignation in the 2000-year history of the Church, in fact had a more sinister context than merely that of an old man who no longer felt capable of guiding the One True Faith. Shortly after his resignation, the Vatican quietly announced that Keith Cardinal O’Brien, head of the Church in Scotland and a Church politician of immense stature, would not be attending the conclave to determine Benedict’s successor. Some weeks later, Cardinal O’Brien stepped down as the archbishop of Glasgow, as a result of several reports of his long record of sexually abusing seminarians who were under his jurisdiction.

The Church, especially in the developed West, now faces many deep crises which it so far has been unable to resolve. On the one hand, the longstanding problems with sexual abuse by clerics continues to develop with ever more horrifying revelations. At the same time, in the West the Church struggles to survive even in its former bastions, such as Ireland, Spain and the United States. Archaic dogmas on women and homosexuality compound these tensions.

In the U.S., for example, the Church in the early 20th century held sway ideologically over millions-strong communities of Irish-, Italian-, and Polish-Americans.So much has changed that now, the Church has to import priests from Asia, Africa and Latin America to serve rapidly dwindling numbers of the faithful.

In this country, the Church is a shadow of its former self. It faces a rank-and-file rebellion of nuns, who were recently threatened with takeover by the American bishops’ hierarchy for deviating from Church teaching on same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and other social issues. Recently there has also been an uprising of the faithful regarding the right of women to receive holy orders. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who served for forty years as a priest, social worker, and activist was defrocked and excommunicated for participating in the ordination of women in 2008. Bourgeois said in his statement of defense to the hierarchy that “Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination against women, in the end, it is not the way of God, but of men who want to hold on to their power.” Hundreds of priests signed a letter supporting Bourgeois against the hierarchy, and the National Catholic Reporter carried an editorial declaring, “Barring women from ordination to the priesthood is an injustice that cannot be allowed to stand.”

Progressives and socialists, especially those without any religious belief, may question the relevance of those like Roy Bourgeois, the American nuns, and others who struggle to change the Church. It would seem reasonable to ridicule the idea that the Roman Catholic Church could ever be changed to reflect more progressive ideas– or indeed, given its historical character as a defender of the powerful, that anyone should try this.

To do this would be to ignore the millions of Catholic faithful with progressive ideas who nevertheless revere people like John Paul II and Francis. Marxism has always recognized religion as an alienated expression of human consciousness which can, under certain circumstances, point toward the emancipation of the oppressed.

In this regard it remains important to recognize the courage and sacrifice of those left-wing faithful who struggle to change the Church. The more tolerant tone the pope takes toward gays is a reflection of the changing reality both outside and inside the Church, and we should hope to strengthen those who point it toward the future rather than the past.


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The Crisis Upside Down: Review of ‘Down the Up Escalator’ by Barbara Garson

This review was published in the summer 2013 issue of New Politics:

Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession
By: Barbara Garson
New York: Doubleday, 2013, 276 pp., $26.95

Reviewed by Bill Crane

The financial crisis that began in 2008 has accelerated many economic trends already at work in the neoliberal period of capitalist development. Wages continue to decline, the class struggle bursts out in contradictory fits and starts at the same time as the societal value of work, and therefore the people who do it, continues to depreciate.

At the same time, the global crisis of capitalism has found a corresponding crisis of ruling-class ideology. More than ever before, people need something explained to them — most fundamentally, why we are in this predicament. This has led to a renaissance of financially oriented books that seek to explain the economic crisis in the most basic terms. While journalists seek inroads into the rough waters of finance, renowned economists seek a more popular medium as means to acquire a mass audience their profession denies them.


Fundamentally, the role of these books is an expression of the deep mystification of economics. As it is taken for granted that the science of economics is too “complicated” and therefore closed off to the understanding of the public, the burgeoning library of financial journalism offers to patiently explain what’s wrong and how it should be fixed.

Most of this outpouring of literature is of course nonsense. One does not have to really know anything about economics to publish a book on the financial crisis.

One example of this trend is a man by the name of Michael Lewis. His most recent book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World took on the crisis as it expanded from the housing bubble in the United States to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and “boomeranged” back to the austerity and misery during the first three years of the recession. From Lewis’ point of view, the enigma of the crisis has a simple answer: Western society is spending more than it can reasonably afford. The culprits for this are numerous, and they include states, civil society organizations such as the church, and finally the working class, particularly organized labor.

Typically, Lewis finds Greece to be the outstanding example of all this overspending. Though he reserves some ridicule for the politicians, he retains special ire for the Greek working class. “If there were any justice in the world,” he writes, “Greek bankers would be marching to protest the morals of the ordinary Greek citizen,” which include such offensive things as desperately trying to maintain their plummeting wages, benefits, and standard of living in a country whose basic social services are rapidly being shut down. Lewis and those like him don’t feel the need to interview the European or American workers they blame for the crisis. That would be demeaning when they could instead learn all they need to know on a glamorous morning run with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the final pages of his book he announces what really stands in the way of resolving the crisis in the United States: public-sector unions.

Now, however, into the field steps Barbara Garson, a journalist and playwright with a long past in social movements from the 1960s onward. Her book comes as a welcome contribution to the muddled and anti-working class, not to mention anti-democratic, mood of the vast majority of economic and financial journalism. It deserves to be widely read and publicized.

The title is Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession. In itself, this suggests many themes taken up in the book. Written in the aftermath of the Occupy movement, Garson takes its slogan of “the 99%” as a starting point, documenting the cases of all those screwed over by the recession: the homeless, warehouse workers, urban professionals, and failed bankers and entrepreneurs alike.

The phrase “we are the 99 percent” from the Occupy movement of 2011-12 was, and still is, deeply relevant. It is, however, incredibly contradictory. On the one hand, it expresses the very basic class-based sense of injustice that has always been a part of working-class consciousness. At the same time, the “them” in the conflict was never really meant to include the whole capitalist class, but the small minority of financial profiteers who ran the economy into the ground. The capitalist owners of really productive enterprises were never really included in the formula.

In some ways “we are the 99 percent” is a perfect slogan for the unique politics of the United States, which due to various historical reasons has never had social class as a significant part of the political discourse to the same extent it is in most other countries. To a certain extent Marxists find it contrived to talk about “the working class” in the United States when there is not, except in exceptional circumstances, a stable body that sees itself this way. “The 99 percent” seems to fit better the confused but radical consciousness of many American workers. As I mentioned, one of the compelling reasons for a book like Garson’s is that in a society whose basic economic functions remain mysterious to those who are affected by them, we can often better understand and relate to personal stories and anecdotes that show the underlying economic processes better than we can to statistics.

The panorama of those she interviews is an impressive cross-section of American society. In her book, we find the stories of a black mother who has struggled all her life to hold onto her family and home, only to face losing both, an upwardly mobile Filipino immigrant family that suddenly finds itself “riding the down escalator,” a group of suddenly unemployed New York City professionals, a laid-off hedge fund consultant, and everyone above and below them.

The book thus lends itself well to a division based on the struggles to maintain that are central to the lives of the contemporary American worker: sections on “our jobs,” “our homes,” and “our savings” follow each other in an incredibly detailed treatment that does not lose sight of the totality of American economic life.

The assault on the working class underway is multifaceted and can be seen across these three areas. Therefore no one struggle among these is more important than the others; unfortunately, I can’t hope to address each section as it deserves in the space of this review. The section on jobs elicits my interest the most because it tends to show most directly the trends Garson seeks to explain.

Garson describes four scenes in the life of a single man whom she “met forty years ago and caught up with him on three more occasions.” The life of this American worker, whom she rechristens Duane, “should have been enough for me to predict the Great Recession.” She first encountered Duane as a GI back from Vietnam awaiting his discharge. When she caught up with him again several years later, he had moved home — to Ohio — and found a job in an auto factory, was married and expecting a child. Years later, she encounters Duane again. He has left the auto industry because of layoffs and has become an expert machinist. By the time she looks up Duane again, however, he has already passed away. Constantly staying ahead somehow, Duane got into the software industry and had moved to Arizona before he died, leaving behind a large and loving family and, unfortunately, an even larger mortgage. Duane’s life encapsulates many of the socioeconomic trends Garson describes in her book. In one man’s life story we get the tale of deindustrialization which causes Duane’s several career changes, the financialization of the American economy which affords working-class America a standard of living through credit even as its wages decline, leading finally — in 2007 — to the housing bubble which popped and the extended recession that has followed.

Garson situates her analysis firmly within Marxist economics, which allow us an understanding of what has happened in the lives of Duane and other working-class Americans at the same time their stories contribute to our deeper understanding of what can seem quite abstract at times.

The general process Garson tries to come to terms with is in the title: “down the up escalator.” As she writes, during the century and a half from the early years of the republic until the end of the 1960s, American wages rose every single decade. This is probably unique to the history of this country, and it ended during the 1970s.

Since the seventies, American wages have been stagnant or have declined. This is due to many factors that the readers of this journal will no doubt be somewhat familiar with. The point is that at the same time wages fell, productivity continued to increase at the same pace or faster. Duane was one of the lucky few of the American working class who managed to “keep ahead” of the trends of layoffs, offshoring, and deskilling, right up till his death.

Therefore, the American working class has in general been “traveling down the up escalator.” Where formerly American workers could expect a higher standard of living than their parents, and their children could expect theirs to be even higher, this is no longer the case, and has not been for four decades now. The impact of this contrast between expectations and reality is almost impossible to overstate.

The impact has, of course, been highly contradictory across the American working class. One example Garson gives is in the second chapter, “Down by the Banks of the Ohio,” where she tells a story of class resilience across a generation.

Chuck and Michael Kenny (not their real names) are a study in contrasts as a father and son. Where Chuck has a strong work ethic and loyalty, devotion to God and solidly middle-class Republican politics, his son Michael is a liberal agnostic with dreadlocks, and has gone out of the workforce after short-term jobs as a manager at a staffing agency and an XM Radio salesman. He now designs and sells Grateful Dead T-shirts for a living. Chuck has never been out of work since he was twelve, but at the end of what should be a long and productive career with a peaceful retirement ahead, he finds himself as lower management in a warehouse working over twelve hours a day. Despite this, his superiors are maneuvering to push him out before he can really collect well on his retirement plan and give his job to a younger employee who will merit less in pay and benefits.

One of the great strengths of Garson’s journalism is that she allows a man like Chuck, whose life expresses many of the defeats dealt out to American workers in his unrewarded work ethic and right-wing politics, to give voice to the challenges affecting millions of people in his generation. When he says something like “we have not been living paycheck to paycheck since we decided to give God back a tenth of what he has given us” (on the subject of his decision to tithe to his church), we understand just to what extent his faith has given him the strength to endure the many roadblocks he has faced.

Unsurprisingly, Chuck doesn’t understand many of the decisions his son Michael has made, either in his lifestyle or his career. To Chuck, someone like Michael would be well advised to take even the most miserable of the career paths available. “You go to work in McDonald’s, you apply yourself, you can get into their management program,” he says. “[My company] hired several fast-food managers as supervisors because they have experience where it’s fast-paced, quick, and very regimented.” But his son, who unlike Chuck has grown up accustomed to riding down the up escalator, has chosen not to play. One can hardly fault his choice: his father has worked all his life only to find he has to work longer and longer hours for the same paycheck, and stuck with a disloyal employer who will replace him at the soonest opportunity with someone cheaper.

There is probably a very interesting problem for economic analysis, especially the kind of analysis that seeks to change the world rather than just understanding it, in the different choices made by Chuck and Michael. In a situation in which thousands of working-class men and women like Michael are giving up on a stable occupation to scrape by in the world of temping and self-employment or dependence on family resources, what is the likely impact on class consciousness and class struggle? How do we understand and mobilize a class that is increasingly atomized and whose expectations are going steadily down rather than up?

Some have referred to this process as the “disarticulation” of the working class. The term seeks to describe a situation in which organized labor seems unable to effectively mount the most basic existential defensive struggles (in Wisconsin and Michigan), and the most radical arenas of struggle lack a coherent class base other than that of “the 99 percent.” There is no doubt much to be studied here, and it is to Garson’s credit that she manages to illustrate it in a work of limited journalistic scope.

Though a clear articulation of the ways forward for struggle are beyond the scope of Garson’s book, the wide array of concerns, struggles, and hopes of the people she interviews are something to take into account for those of us who want to change things. Might not struggles over housing or savings become just as or more important than the arena of overt workplace struggle in constructing a radical left pole of attraction?

The stories of Michael, Chuck, Duane, as well as the others who populate her book all illustrate her central point: “how the 99 percent survives the recession.” We find that this happens in many different unique ways. Some like Chuck return from work to find comfort in their families and the Church. Some struggle to maintain the little that they have; among those who are successful are Susana, a black matriarch who manages to maintain her home in Brooklyn after the death of her son and lengthy foreclosure proceedings.

Whatever ways these people find to survive are sources of ongoing nourishment and hope against an increasingly hostile world. Small victories that maintain us or set us back a little bit less than before even are something to be grateful for.

Garson has done an excellent job showing how the 99 percent survives during the Great Recession. The question we are left with at the end of her book is how we will do better than survive.

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Positive Developments

(This review of season four of Arrested Development, which became available for screening on Netflix on May 26, was originally published in Red Wedge Magazine.)
I’m going to go ahead and say what few diehard Arrested Development fans have dared to: the new season is pretty damn good.

Of course, there are some problems. Now that they’re adults, the show’s writers seem at a loss for what to do with George Michael and Maeby. Before George Michael’s straightlaced behavior contrasted brilliantly with Maeby’s attention-seeking antics; now, they don’t have much to separate them from their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

The first episodes definitely did not take a running start, and even midway through the fifteenth episode, things had only somewhat begun to cohere. I’m sure one could find many lists of these and other faults of the fourth season online in fan communities, so I won’t bother to write another one here.

Nevertheless, for having been off the air seven years, the show had a remarkably strong return. Of course any group of fans which can be counted on to appreciate the intricate amount of detail that goes into Arrested Development-style humor might have some trouble looking at the big picture, but should nevertheless try.

After all, we could have passed another seven years, or the rest of our lives, without another scrap of Bluth wit, wisdom and folly. This isn’t an argument that anything at all is better than nothing – but anyone with half a brain in their head could surely see the fourth season of Arrested Development is much better than nothing at all.

I have only watched it once so far, obviously the first of many times, but the play on words, multi-level puns, self-referential treatment, inside jokes, etc were all there in spades. The new season is practically a love letter from the show’s creators to the fans who waited so long for its return.

The show, as all of us who travelled with it through its abrupt termination and then seven years in the wilderness no doubt recall, never gained a huge following. At its very highest it had a few million watching some episodes, even during the relative “golden age” of the second season. If as it’s been said that ten people locked in a room could convince themselves of anything, surely the thousands of AD fans could convince themselves the whole world watched our favorite show. This was sadly never the case.

Though we may be flippant about the return of a TV show in an era which has given us the return of both brilliant and awful shows post-cancellation on network TV, it says something that a show like Arrested Development could be revived. In a modern capitalist economy where TV (yes, even Netflix) goes for the highest profits, what makes AD-style humor relevant?

Still Relevant

I’ve tried to briefly analyze Arrested Development before in terms of the truly epic levels of governmental and ruling-class hypocrisy that characterized the early Bush years. This makes sense for a show that ran from 2003 to 2006. But what makes it seem like a realistic prospect in the age of Obama?

My earlier comments certainly require some broadening out. It wasn’t the case, for instance, that the crisis of the Bluth company merely responded to the Enron and WorldCom scandals of the early zero years, although this was one context.

It surely did not miss the show’s writers this time around, as it could not have then either, that the Bluths are housing developers as opposed to any other number of businesses they could run. Though the collapse of the housing market occurred a full year and a half after the show’s initial cancellation in early 2006, this gave the show an eerie prescience in retrospect, which could have only strengthened its prescience in the collective unconscious.

GOB Bluth, the tragicomical magician, stripper and sometime (P)resident of the Bluth Company, had in the second season urged his brother Michael to build fake houses with “nothing on the inside” (tapping his own skull as he did so) as a show of confidence to investors, but this itself took on tragicomic proportions when the housing market went underwater in 2007. Nationwide, houses and the housing business itself truly had “nothing on the inside.”

A few of the Bluths at pawnshop/restaurant/Marxist-Leninist commune Swappigans.

In the new season, we see George Michael as a latter-day Mark Zuckerberg. Though his software “Fakeblock” starts out as one of several woodblock apps for smartphones, it goes through a mistaken Michael’s belief that it is designed to protect online privacy (based on the observation that poor George Michael’s Facebook page “doesn’t have a single friend on it”) and becomes “the anti-social network” after George Michael sees the opportunity to impress his cousin Maeby, still the object of his incestuous desire. Just like that, young George Michael has become an online entrepreneur.

Of course, we can’t expect a one-to-one correspondence with reality. The Facebook IPO went down with a whimper last year, and does not seem poised to spark another round of financial crisis.

But we have something here that points to the absurd level of financialization in the late developed capitalist economy, where every absurd scheme by the ruling class to generate a windfall of profits (of which there are many) threaten to shipwreck the economy just as Lucille Bluth shipwrecked the Queen Mary. This has changed none since 2006, and it is one thing making the return of Arrested Development plausible in 2013.

Correspondingly, we have the horror show that is contemporary American politics. Lindsay, after a brief affair with a lifestyle anarchist with whom she squats in her mother’s apartment (echoes of Occupy) is inadvertently pimped by her daughter to Herman (Cain) Love. Love, who seems to care little for actual politics, charges George Sr. just as much for adopting a positive stance on a border wall with Mexico as he does later when George Sr. asks him to retract his support. “It’s 50 [thousand] for the flip, and another 50 for the flop,” he says.

The principled opponent of Love’s over-the-top rightism and corruption? None other than “Lucille 2” Austero, who makes her campaign promise to usher in an era of — you guessed it — “Austerity.” This could not have happened before the multiple rounds of bipartisan budget cuts under this name — a term that did not actually enter into popular discourse before 2010.

This marks one significant change in the show’s political discourse: whereas the first three seasons played well to a liberal audience fed off of hatred for Bush and claims that a Democrat would do better, Arrested Development in 2013 has to deal with the actuality of Democratic Party rule, and acquits itself rather well.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the absolutely horrifying prosecution of the war on terror. In the show’s first three seasons, we saw George Bluth being prosecuted for (“light”) treason, in an hilarious extension of the American political class’ hobnobbing with Saddam Hussein and other Middle Eastern autocrats before they outlived their usefulness, when the houses he built in Iraq became the focus of a government desperate to find the elusive WMDs by any means necessary.

The war on terror has undergone some great changes since Fox cancelled Arrested Development. No longer do we launch full-scale invasions; our enemies, who include American citizens as well as Waziri peasants, are surgically eliminated through the merciful use of flying death robots. We now have a president who talks about the dangers of creating an endless war mentality and the merits of other cultures instead of about “axes of evil” and how “you’re either with us or you’re against us.”

Style versus substance, of course. While the focus of the fourth season is rather more domestic than that of the first three, we see Buster returning to Army devastated after the imprisonment of Lucille. His loss of a hand rendering him useless for physical combat, he becomes a drone pilot, believing himself to be playing a video game.

His partner, confused and somewhat horrified at Buster’s enthusiasm as he takes out children and even a wedding party from the sky, remarks that he should watch out after he nearly misses a museum in Madrid. “You could have hurt some innocent people there,” he says. “You mean I’ve been hurting guilty people?!” answers a shocked Buster, who promptly becomes the first on-the-job casualty in the history of drone warfare.

A Communist Utopia?

Arrested Development excels at displaying the ignorance, perversity, greed and barbarity of the American ruling class; in the era of Obama it has shown it can do this better than ever, and better than all other contenders.

We don’t get much about a different kind of society in Arrested Development, though there are hints in Lindsay’s affair with Marky, an obnoxious meth-addicted lifestylist and ostrich farmer, especially in their visit to “Swappigans,” a restaurant that in the words of a waitress “combines a pawnshop with a restaurant with a Marxist-Leninist commune.”

It’s probably fortunate that Arrested Development mainly limits itself to vicious criticism of our ruling class rather than trying to portray resistance; one could think of many examples of TV shows whose attempts to show anti-establishment activism (such as the usually brilliant Joss Whedon’s attempt in Dollhouse) which fell more than flat.

In this light we should well consider the recent piece by Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Queck, two editors of the leftist magazine Jacobin, for the blog of the Washington Post with the title “Arrested Development was a communist utopia, and season four ruined it.”

The column in some respects makes me wonder whether Sunkara and Queck are those type of diehard fans who would never be pleased by the fourth season – I admit to having some tendencies in that direction. But if they think that “the spirit of Arrested Development is the latest casualty of the recession,” then, as I have outlined, we must have been watching different shows, or at least had remarkably different expectations.

The first three seasons, they say, followed ensemble sitcoms in being “inherently communist in form… When this logic is at play in society at large, you have the Marxist ideal put to life: The free development of each is the condition of the free development of all; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

In shows like Seinfeld and Friends, they say, “the comedy is generated from a cast of equals… characters have the freedom to be truly different and exist fully in their own right, following their own path rather than laboring to merely advance the story of a main character.”

It’s a somewhat common misconception on the Marxist left that a collective of main characters versus an individual protagonist can be assigned respective positive and negative social content. Even Victor Serge, the great anarcho-Bolshevik polemicist and novelist, discoursed at length about his hatred for the pronoun “I,” making his novels ensemble projects for the sake of revolutionary politics.

Yes, of course, the single individual subject is in the final instance a creation of bourgeois society- however, transcending these forms is just not as simple as proposing a collective protagonist. Even in the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union this was demonstrably not the case. This is why Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, for all its technical brilliance, comes off as cold and clinical compared to Pudovkin’s The Mother, a more simple story of a mother caught between her loyalty to her husband in the Black Hundreds and her love for her revolutionary son amidst a worker’s uprising at a factory.

In the second place, I dispute the idea that so very much has changed in the format of Arrested Development. Whereas before we got intersecting lines in the course of a single episode that come together, the Netflix episodes have extended this dynamic to a whole season. The fourth season might almost be a single mega-episode. This method of plot construction meant a lot of lag in the early episodes, it’s true, but the ending of the season left me in tears of laughter- and as always with AD, desperately craving more.

If as Rosa Luxemburg said that the highest revolutionary act is to boldly say what is happening, then Arrested Development is a truly revolutionary TV show. Sunkara and Queck would do well to watch the new season again with this in mind. Come to that, we would all do well to watch it again, and again and again, until we finally (maeby?) get the movie.

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On Vivek Chibber’s Critique of Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies


Debating Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital

Only two months ago, Verso brought out the much-anticipated (by me, if no one else) book by NYU Marxian sociologist Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. Appropriately enough, the debate has commenced with Chibber’s interventions at the Historical Materialism Conferences in Delhi and New York – at the latter of which he debated Partha Chatterjee, a leader of the Subaltern Studies school which is his main target.

Chibber, previously known for his erudite intervention on the Nehruvian developmental model of the postcolonial Indian state[1], had earlier announced his intention of dismantling the dominance of postcolonial theory in his essay “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies.”

This aim was nothing if not calculated to be highly provocative toward people working in South Asian studies, the study of the postcolonial world (Asia, Oceania, Africa, Latin America) in general, and the numerous social science and humanities disciplines which have felt the impact of the work of people like Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak.

It should be seen as doubly fortunate therefore that Chibber’s book has drawn interest from across the spectrum of the academic left, and specifically Marxists working both inside and outside academia. His book offers us an opportunity to broaden and internationalize our theory at the same time it gives us a chance to deepen our oft-maligned analysis of the varying development of the “East” vis-a-vis the “West,” a preoccupation of Marxist thought that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and others have shared.

There are also, however, some dangers that should not be ignored. The arguments so far show far more abstraction than is appropriate. This was on display at HM, where Chatterjee’s response to Chibber’s charge of Orientalism was that Chibber wasn’t really a Marxist. I think these are the terms the debate is being drawn into, far and away from the concrete realities of South Asia in which postcolonial theory first arose.[2]

I will attempt to draw out some of the most relevant terms of debate in the following way. First, I will describe the socopolitical context of Subaltern Studies and its associated scholars as it emerged in the late 1970s. Secondly, I will describe the debate over the term “dominance without hegemony,” crucial to the Subalternist project, and put forth an alternative view from those of both Subaltern Studies and Chibber. Before concluding with some remarks about a proper Marxist foundation for the debate, I will try to describe what is most significant about the argument of particularism versus universalism.

The Historical Context

I feel the need to restate that it is easy to misunderstand Subaltern Studies if one does not have the background on the historical context they operate in. This is what is missing in much of the debate so far. A debate on abstracted values independent of context turns far too easily into another boring event of Marxists tilting at postmodernist (or postcolonial) windmills.

The journal Subaltern Studies began as a project by several left-wing Indian historians in the late 1970s. At this point, as Chibber underscores, its members (Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyanendra Pandey, Gautam Bhadra and others) all considered themselves Marxists, influenced in particular by readings of Antonio Gramsci that had become popular in European academics.

The Subalternists’ project cannot be understood, as some have suggested, as merely a desire to transplant European “history from below” (particularly that of E.P. Thompson) into India. They were responding to specifically Indian events and Indian history. We can’t understand their project without therefore knowing a bit about postcolonial India.

In particular, the events that perplexed the Subalternists began in the late 1960s. After a two-decade period of relatively peaceful state-led development, things began to unravel. Poverty became a problem demanding the attention of the highest levels of government, and rural unrest exploded at a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal in in 1967, followed by a brief and violent period of Maoist (“Naxalite”) insurgency.

In 1974, Communist-led railway workers launched a national strike which paralyzed the country but went down to bitter defeat. Finally, PM Indira Gandhi (daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister) used constitutional measures to impose her rule on every Indian state, inaugurating a bloody personal dictatorship, in 1975. The period is called “the Emergency,” and forms the background of Rohinton Mistry’s well-known novel A Fine Balance.

Though a mass movement overthrew Gandhi’s dictatorship in 1977, she returned to power democratically just two years later. She was assassinated in 1985 after using brutal measures to suppress the Sikh nationalist Khalistan movement in the Punjab.

Concomitantly, Hindu communalism, sidelined since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse, returned to prominence as a fascistic mass movement. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broke the Indian National Congress’ single-party rule in [3]

This history suggested several things to the founders of Subaltern Studies:

First, they agreed that the Indian bourgeoisie, which was the force behind the independence movement and the post-independence Congress Party rule, was in a fundamentally different position than the Western bourgeoisie. Unlike their predecessors in Europe, they had not achieved hegemony over Indian society. This was made clear enough by the outbursts of resentment from below, including the peasant wars, worker insurgency, etc that characterized the crisis of Congress Party rule.

This posed larger questions about an Indian modernity as distinct from an English or Western modernity. Unlike in Europe, it seemed that the Indian bourgeoisie was forced to rule with sheer force rather than consent. Ranajit Guha, the editor of the early issues of Subaltern Studies, called this “dominance without hegemony.” Forces below the ruling class still chafed at its grip. Crucially, India’s independence, unlike the bourgeois revolutions in Europe, had failed to banish religion as a force of societal reaction – as shown by the rise of the BJP.

In its first decade at least, Subaltern Studies produced some startlingly original and prescient Marxist analysis of Indian colonial history. I would in particular direct readers to Pandey’s article “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhjopuri Region, 1888-1917” which remains an excellent and thoroughly documented class analysis of the origins of Hindu and Muslim communalism. Another article, Bhadra’s “Four Rebels of 1857” on the Mutiny wears its Marxist colors so proudly that the author chooses an epigraph from The Holy Family.[4]

Eventually, most of the Subalternists did by and large move away from Marxism and toward cultural interpretations of history which Chibber is correct to criticize. Their final conclusion was that the lower classes of India, peasant and worker alike, did not share in the “bourgeois consciousness” of their Western cousins. They were not dominated by an Enlightenment worldview, and resisted their ruling class in violent outbursts even as the traditional ties of religion and caste held sway. Chibber emphasizes this and makes it the main target of his criticisms.

I will take it up substantially later. For now I am more interested in the development of the school, especially their trajectories after determining the problem of “dominance without hegemony” on the subcontinent. I think without an understanding of this debate we fail entirely to understand the development of Subaltern Studies as a project, not to mention any of its quite substantial influence outside South Asian studies.

Dominance without Hegemony: A Third View

For Guha, the key to understanding the postcolonial Indian nation was that the Indian bourgeoisie had not achieved “hegemony.” What did he mean by this? 

Most basically: Guha relied on a certain view, very orthodox Marxist at the time, of the bourgeois revolutions in Europe. The revolutions in Holland, England and France had brought the bourgeoisie to power at the head of broad democratic coalitions including workers and peasants. To secure their leadership, the bourgeoisie had enacted land reforms and guaranteed democratic liberties to the subaltern classes. Their support in hand, they proceeded to conquer political power and destroyed the feudal order, founding the democratic republic with the consent of the governed subaltern classes.

In India, Guha saw a contrast to this “classic” model of the bourgeois revolution. The Indian bourgeoisie, he noted, should have replicated this pattern during their own revolution, the independence movement of 1921-1947. Instead, they compromised with the feudal landlord (zamindar) class, earning the distrust of the Indian peasantry. Thereafter they ruled without popular support – from the uprising of Naxalbari, to the rail strike and Emergency, the events with which Subaltern Studies was directly concerned.

The argument requires some detailed unpacking. As it revolves around a certain understanding of the idea of bourgeois revolution, I don’t think it is inappropriate to outline some of the more recent debates on this concept within Marxist theory.

First, we must understand the concept of hegemony in its original and distorted contexts (the latter being Guha’s understanding.) “Hegemony” during the seventies was widely equated in Marxist discourse with “consent of the governed,” and understood to originate in the thought of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Gramsci, it was thought, had differentiated two strategies for the working class conquest of political power in the following way. In the “East,” such as  Russia, the state was undeveloped and relied on coercion as opposed to consent. In such a situation, the proletariat could conquer power through an all-out assault (war of manoeuvre). Whereas in the developed West, where the ruling class ruled through consent, the proletariat was required to slog through the trenches of civil society that surrounded state power and thus acquire “hegemony” before the conquest of power.[5]

I’ll return to hegemony in a bit. I think it should be clear first that in his understanding, Guha was a fairly orthodox. In the Indian case, the idea that the bourgeois revolution was not complete related to the conceptions of the Stalinist CPI and later CPI(M) of the independence movement. The idea that the political landscape of India failed to match that of the developed West equated to the Stalinist notion of the bourgeois revolution being somehow “unfinished.”

In particular, incomplete land reform, the persistence of caste and “feudal” relations in the countryside meant the revolution was still to be completed. The fact that labor in the cities was not completely free and political parties were sometimes subject to restrictions on their liberty, as during the Emergency, meant that the democratic revolution, rather than the socialist one, was on the agenda.

The idea of a bourgeois revolution being “incomplete” based on some Platonic ideal (usually the Great French Revolution of 1789) can be said to have played a role in the Marxist thought of many countries outside India. Where East German historians sought to explain National Socialism as a partial product of the “unfinished” bourgeois revolution of the 1870s, English leftists in the 1960s sought to connect the decline of British world hegemony vis-a-vis America with the supposed failure of the English bourgeoisie to displace the aristocracy. Even most of the American left understood Jim Crow as a failure of the US bourgeois revolution, from which it was concluded that the bourgeois revolution was “incomplete.”[6]

The debate has advanced far enough these days as to make such conceptions seem a bit silly. As I see it, there are two main camps that one falls into on the question. 

Chibber aligns with the “political Marxist” school of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, accusing Guha of having a “liberal” or “Whig” theory of the bourgeois revolution, in which it is (falsely) claimed that the bourgeoisie granted political liberty and land reform to the subalterns. In fact, he argues, the English Civil War and French Revolution (neither of them, it is claimed, are “bourgeois revolutions” in the traditional sense) established “bourgeois oligarchies.” Political liberty is due to the constant struggles of the subaltern classes themselves. Therefore, in contrast to Guha who faults the Indian working class for not having a “bourgeois consciousness,” Chibber says that in the developed West, the working class played a key role in the development of the “bourgeois,” or liberal, political sphere.[7]

Chibber’s approach has the merits of drawing our attention to the role of the subaltern classes themselves in fighting for the achievement of democracy. This enables him to draw the, in my view, substantially correct conclusion that “what Guha sees as pathological,” i.e., the Indian bourgeoisie’s failure to confront the landed classes and resort to coercive methods of rule, “should instead be seen as normal in the construction of bourgeois political orders.”[8]

Chibber is able to develop this into an argument that takes on the idea key to the later Subalternist project that capital has “failed to universalize” in the global South, and the idea that Marxist categories such as abstract labor do not capture the diversity of capitalist and non-capitalist labor processes in India.

His arguments find support from the most sophisticated Marxist analyses of India and the rest of the world. In particular, we might turn to the work of Jairus Banaji, whose essay “Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the late 19th Century” relies on Marx’s distinction between labor’s “real” subsumption to capital, and its “formal” subsumption in which capital has annexed the means of production as well as the formerly independent producer, but has not yet moved to “really revolutionize” the labor process.[9] This type of analysis perceives the capitalist essence of the productive relations, in the spirit of Marx, rather than expecting Indian society to match the highly abstracted picture provided in volume one of Capital.

The upshot, in so many words, is that capitalism does not need to do anything that the Subalternists were expecting it to do in India. As I pointed out, this is a confusion that comes directly out of Indian Stalinism. Capital can be perfectly happy with old forms of production and social relations. As Chibber points out, old divisions of laborers along the lines of religion, caste and language might be incredibly helpful to capital’s need to divide and control the working class.

I do not, however, share the Brenner/Wood conception of capitalism that Chibber deploys. I would in particular argue that the “consequentialist” view of bourgeois revolution, which Neil Davidson has been doing so much to develop, would explain the problems of India’s bourgeois revolution much better than the Brenner thesis. I have tried to develop this at length elsewhere.

Davidson’s view that the anticolonial and independence movements that follow the Second World War can best be thought of as bourgeois revolutions is particularly relevant. Deploying the analysis used in Alex Callinicos’ seminal article “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,”[10] he argues correctly that what unites the earlier revolutions in England and France with 20th-century independence movements is their “consequence” of creating an independent center for capitalist accumulation, whether this is carried out from above or below.

Davidson’s book is also key for bringing back into the debate the Gramscian notion of a “passive revolution,” itself connected to Gramsci’s development of the earlier Marxist concept of hegemony, which the Subalternists relied on a distorted version of.[11]

In my view Gramsci’s real views on hegemony are very helpful for conceptualizing India’s state-building project. Gramsci in fact argued that both consent and coercion were necessary in creating the hegemony of any ruling class: coercion used toward the antagonistic classes, and consent solicited from the allied classes. In his words:

the ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical regime of the parliamentary régime is characterized by a combination of force and consent, which counterbalance each other, without force predominating exclusively over consent; rather, it appears to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed through the so-called organs of public opinion. 

Consent and coercion, therefore, form a dialectical unity in the operation of the state. As Peter Thomas writes, “in parliamentary regimes, coercion is the ultimate guarantee for consent, which in turn legitimates what could be described as a type of ‘coercion by consent.”[12]

To understand the economic and political development of the India after independence, we need to properly conceptualize how the independence movement produced a democratic state while ensuring state-capitalist development at the same time. In my view, Chibber’s reliance on the agency of subaltern classes alone in ensuring democratic liberty under capitalism in both Europe and India is not particularly convincing. Leaving aside the nonsensical conception of England and France’s revolutions as alternatively “non-bourgeois” or “non-capitalist,” he does not sufficiently address why India failed to develop into a “bourgeois oligarchy” like them.

This relates to something in his text which worries me. Though Chibber does not explicitly state it, I feel as though by drawing parallels so sharply between Indian history and the history of Western nations, he comes very close to endorsing a unilinear model of societal development, which is antithetical to the Marxist tradition.[13]

Gramsci’s original Marxist conception of the passive revolution as part of the broader revision of the concept of bourgeois revolution gives us the best tools to understand this process. We can use it to understand how Indian capital has incorporated middle-class elites as well as significant parts of the subaltern classes into a democratic developmentalist regime, without ever sacrificing its ability to use coercive methods, as in the Emergency, and today in Kashmir, the Northeast and in Operation Green Hunt. 

The Views and Influence of Subaltern Studies Today

What in particular of the culturalist assumptions of Subaltern studies? In the debate, Chatterjee attempted to deny he was a culturalist, but “outed” himself at the end of the debate by referring to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India as a phenomenon of specifically Indian culture.

It can sometimes be hard to understand, particularly to those outside of the academy, the unique power of the cultural turn, that is to say the idea that non-Western subaltern classes act politically based on primordial notions of communal over individual needs, in particular those of locale, caste and religion. Chibber subjects this concept to a fair and searching critique focusing on Chatterjee’s essays on peasant resistance in colonial Bengal and Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working-Class History, a seminal Subalternist work disputing the Marxist notion of class consciousness among early-20th century millworkers in Calcutta.

Chatterjee, for instance, argues that we need a specifically “Indian” conception of peasant resistance over concepts inherited from the West. What is needed, he says, is “an Indian history of peasant struggles” that recognizes Indian peasants’ “consciousness [which] has its own paradigmatic form… in fact the very other” of Western “bourgeois consciousness.” When peasants engage in collective political action, therefore, they do so as a primordial community, in which solidarity is guaranteed through conceptions of “the necessary duty of groups bound together through kinship.”[14]

Remarkably, Chatterjee extends this thesis as far as the claim that Indian peasants are incapable of transcending these primordial solidarities even when it harms their struggles. As he describes the divergence of interests between poor peasants and kulaks (jotedars), he advances the idea that “the peasant-communal ideology” was inadequate in providing a “perceptual guide for the identification of friends and enemies.” Peasants, he writes, would only be capable of identifying exploiters internal to their communities if they had an “alternative ideological system,” namely that of “bourgeois consciousness.”

As I said, it’s hard to grasp the prevalence of this notion. It is likely the one thing (in America, at least) that undergraduates will take away from a class on postcolonial literature or theory. It seems elementary to many in academics that we cannot simply assume the subalterns of Asia, Oceania, Latin America and Africa have the “same interests” as Westerners. Community, religion, language, ethnicity/race and caste are everywhere said to dominate over the Western interests of the individual or socioeconomic class.

This follows from the logic of the “dominance without hegemony” thesis. The bourgeoisie in India has failed to achieve hegemony therefore Indian subalterns remain tied to traditional worldviews that are untouched by “bourgeois consciousness.”

It is an interesting argument, and one well worth our time to explore. As Chibber indicates, primordial worldviews influenced by religion, caste and other communities are not antithetical to capitalist development. But instead of drawing on the large amount of work done by Marxists on this point, he chooses to lay out a  mechanical apparatus of “interests” (class-based and personal) as distinct from “culture” (which he dismisses as a significant factor). This led into some perplexing detours on the subject of individual as opposed to collective interests, which led into further detours on the subject of universalism vs. particularism. I fail to see these as significant referents for any real debate.

I’m not sure I’m competent to debate this to a satisfying conclusion, but I think some basic orientations can be provided by the dialectical method. I think, personally, that our method can evade entirely the dilemmas of individual vs. collective interests, as well as universalism vs. particularism. Dialectics signifies that abstraction across the global political economy means nothing and falls apart without descending now and then into the concrete realities of one or another place- say, South Asia. And this is a region in which many traditional assumptions of Marxism have, to put it mildly, been thrown out of whack.[15]

What about the claim of Orientalism? In one of his sharpest formulations, Chibber writes

Chatterjee seems unaware that he is reviving a well-established Orientalist notion of the East as a culture in which actors are essentially other-oriented, lacking any notion of individuality, unmoved by their material interests. The West is the site of the bounded individual, while the East is the repository of Community. Chatterjee explicitly warns against assimilating an analysis of Indian peasants into a general theory of peasant action – Indians require their own theory, he asserts, because they do not think like other agents, especially those in the West. They need a theory of their own, sensitive to their particular psychology. All this has a drearily familiar ring to it, even if dressed in radical language, for it harks back directly to nineteenth-century colonial ideology, not to mention contemporary reifications of the unchanging East.[16]

This is an interesting statement, and I sympathize with what he is saying even if I don’t agree with it entirely. In particular, Chibber seems to elide a significant distinction between Orientalism, an ideology constructed as a justification for imperialism, and Subaltern studies, a project with decidedly radical origins and which saw itself as trying to advance a Marxist critique from below. 

Subaltern Studies certainly would not have attracted the attention it has if all it were doing was rehashing Orientalism. Its turn away from Marxism has been taken by many in the field as a license to revive racist and imperialist tropes. But in my view this has more to do with the in some ways neocolonial power dynamics in global academics.

In a world in which power structures inherently favor the global North as opposed to the South, it is likely that this dominance will be reflected either starkly, as in the discipline of economics, or softly, as in other humanities disciplines where postcolonial theory has taken off the most. Though Chibber correctly points out many Orientalists in the Northern academy took the chance provided by the cultural turn to transform themselves into “postcolonialists,” this should enable us to draw a critique of academics in Europe and America rather than India.[17]

Certainly, the Subalternists deserve blame for not distancing themselves from this process. But we fundamentally need to see their critique as “from below,” which is not the same thing as Orientalist “from above” work, even if some of their assumptions overlap. 

Chibber is certainly correct to criticize what has become a commonsense view: that the subalterns of the global South respond to communal ties of religion, caste (where applicable) and other primordial notions. We might say a couple things about this.

First, that not all those associated with Subaltern Studies believe this and it’s a strawman to paint them as if they do.

Second, that on the face of it, it’s blindingly obvious that traditional ties continue to have some hold over the minds of Southern subalterns. It’s a worthy path of investigation to question why this is so.

Third, the idea that motivation to political action by traditional ties is inconsistent with motivation by the more “modern” ties of class, nation and so on is baseless. Aside from Chatterjee and Chakrabarty at their most radical, none of the Subalternists has claimed that it is. Marxism tells us that modern struggles  (to use the most obvious example, struggles by the working class over pay, conditions, and even power) can be mediated through older notions of community involving religion, language, race, etc. There is a wealth of Marxist scholarship on this. Chibber does not seem to acknowledge it, referring only to how communal divisions can hurt class struggle by dividing workers, although it would seem to be a logical corollary.

Fourth (and I’ll expand on this in the next section), it is dangerous to counterpose precapitalist consciousness to capitalist consciousness for the reason that, quite simply, capitalist notions like the individual or the nation are just as irrational as the ones that preceded them. Marx and Engels’ entire critique of the Enlightenment from The Communist Manifesto onwards pivoted on the idea that the bourgeoisie had constructed a society as unjust, riven by conflict, and yes, as irrational as what came before.

In sum, then, we should be able to see a way out of the argument over whether the workers and peasants of the global South have “bourgeois consciousness” or not to an investigation of whether subalterns anywhere (or anyone anywhere) has “bourgeois consciousness” as it is typically understood. The persistence of racism in both the US and Europe would seem to make this case for us. On their own, the categories of individual and class community are insufficient for saying anything substantive about the mentality of the working classes anywhere, not just in the South.

What Kind of Enlightenment? And What Kind of Marxism?

I want to conclude with some brief notes on what I believe are the weaknesses of Chibber’s approach to Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory. While his book has opened the salvo against culturalist approaches to the global South, we can hope that it will be the first of many which will broaden and deepen the lines of critique he has laid out.

Chibber’s Marxism as he shows it in the book can be interesting because it is a curious mélange of many different academic currents, from the “political Marxism” of Brenner and Wood, to the type of analytical Marxism endorsed by Erik Olin Wright. I don’t have much time for either conception, which in my view distorts Marxism and tends to gut its dialectical core in favor of being somehow more “rigorous.” But that is a debate for another time.

What concerns me more about Chibber’s approach than his analytical tendencies are certain approaches he seems to import tout court whenever it suits his analysis. In particular, Chibber adheres (“proudly,” in his words) to Rawlsian social-contract theory.[18] He also praises the modernization theorist Amartya Sen as an “eloquent and consistent defender of some core values”and comes in my view dangerously close to endorsing Guha’s deployment of rational-choice theory in his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in India.[19]

In the book, Chibber is often at pains to say that he is not offering any specific Marxist alternative view of some subjects (or Enlightenment view, for that matter), that his criticisms are meant to show that these “rational categories of European thought” can be used to explain the politics and economics of the Global South, and that therefore they maintain their value. Presumably Chibber therefore deploys these concepts to make the most solid case possible that the Enlightenment tradition, as well as specifically the Marxist tradition, remains valuable as against the anti-rationalism of much of postcolonial theory. But is this a really worthwhile project?

Chibber is a bit coy about his own affiliations within Marxism.[20] But no matter. My concern is more that not all Enlightenment thought can or should be used in analysis. This is especially true of rational-choice theory, an apparatus which was imported fully-formed from Hayekian neoliberal economics into political science and sociology.

Leaving that aside, there is the problem of “rationality” in the debate. Chibber seems to regard the worst effect of postcolonial theory as that it has abjured the responsibility to be “rational.” 

Much of what we could say about this has already been covered in endless anti-postmodernist tracts. I don’t regard anti-rationality as a serious problem. It may be popular in some sectors of the academy, but, not to put to fine a point on it, reason works, and you can’t go many places without it. I just want to point out one thing – that Marxism does not have an unproblematic relationship with Enlightenment rationality, as Chibber comes close to suggesting at times.

It has often been ignored that Marx may have been the first to present a “subalternist” critique of enlightenment thought. His metaphor of commodity fetishism is a case in point. By connecting the bourgeois’ greed for gold with the African worship of “fetish” objects, he attacked the very bourgeois rationality he is so often employed in defending. What was more rational, Marx was asking, to worship something you can see and touch, or to worship the exchange value in gold, which is hidden and inaccessible to the senses? This does not just equate two forms of fetishism – Marx deliberately and provocatively argued that fetish worship was more rational than commodity worship, without for a moment romanticizing African society.[21]

To Chibber, an analytical Marxist, the argument of commodity fetishism may not hold much weight. But it remains part of the Romantic, even anti-Enlightenment, component of Marxism that has very often been ignored. 

As one perceptive critic has pointed out,[22] Marxism seeks to, in Hegelian terms, “sublate” the categories of Enlightenment thought: to identify their liberatory core and push them to their most radical conclusions, which means overcoming Enlightenment thought in the process. The proletarian worldview of Marxism is in fact the Enlightenment’s “very Other.”[23]

Whether eliding this distinction makes Chibber “not sufficiently Marxist” doesn’t really concern me. But I have to sympathize with claims that he is uncritically deploying the categories of Enlightenment thought which most deserve a thorough critique instead of rehabilitation.

After all, the promise of liberty made by the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment was negated by the reality of capitalism, which meant exploitation and oppression of the world’s vast majority (most prominently the people of the Global South, who we are concerned with here) for the individual liberty and freedom to accumulate of a few. Critique of these conditions does not involve a revival of notions of individual freedom and choice, but an enlargement of the category into the concrete freedom and needs of all society.

Conclusion: Assessing the Debate Thus Far

If the debate between Marxists and subalternists/postcolonialists (as well as those who consider themselves to be both) is to go far, it has to provide the most concrete foundations possible for discussion.

This has not been the case thus far. The debate between Chibber and Chatterjee showed this, where each became for a moment the exponent of the abstract values of “universalism” and “particularism,” independent of the South Asian context in which they were arguing. Neither of them did themselves any favors in this exchange, which came off rather as a dialogue between the mutually deaf.

In particular: many from Chibber’s camp misunderstand the context of these debates. It isn’t Chibber’s fault; he tries as best he can to give the historical context of Subaltern Studies. But two chapters isn’t nearly enough. It also isn’t his supporters’ fault that they misunderstand the context of debates in South Asian history, it is rather a reflection of the miserable ultra-specialization academia enforces on us all. But we need to place the argument on a concrete footing if it is to go anywhere.

Observation largely confirms Chibber’s view that many of the assumptions inherent in postcolonial studies may be seen as a revival of Orientalism. But the cultural essentialism of Subaltern Studies even at its most extreme does not equate to Orientalism. Chibber and his followers can be faulted for failing to draw the distinction between the intentions of Subaltern Studies and its influence. Of course, Chatterjee and others involved in the project are themselves rapidly trying to distance themselves from it, particularly their own radical origins.

Chibber’s critique, therefore, comes dangerously close to letting Subaltern Studies off the hook when it is most in need of critique. Debates about individual or communal interests, or between provincialism and universalism have just this effect. In my view these are mainly false dichotomies.

Overall, I think this debate will be most beneficial if we can relate it back to the concrete realities in which Subaltern Studies arose, and even contrast it significantly with research about the United States, Europe, and other areas. First, however, we need to have a little humility towards South Asia studies. In that spirit, I hope what I have written can be appreciated as tentative rather than final in any sense.


1. Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006).

2. The debate off Facebook has produced the following interesting pieces: Chibber’s interview with Jonah Birch in Jacobin, Chris Taylor’s review for his blog “Of CLR James,” and Paul Heideman’s response to Taylor on Verso’s blog.

3. Chibber provides a balanced historiography in Chapters 2 and 3 of his book.

4. Gyan Pandey, “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129 and Gautum Bhadra, “Four Rebels of 1857,” in Guha and Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary (London/New York: Oxford UP), 129-178. Chibber could not possibly be unaware of this quite substantial body of innovative Marxist historical work that characterized the early issues of the journal. His critique, unfortunately, only focuses on Guha’s editorial statements from the first several issues, after which he turns to Chatterjee and Chakrabarty’s work (published outside the journal) from the 1990s, after both had found academic appointments in the United States. This is unfortunate as it skips over practically the entire course of the school’s development.

5. Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 160.

6. See Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), and E.P. Thompson, “The Peculiarities of the English.”

7. See Chapter 3, “Dominance without Hegemony: The Argument Assessed.” Though Chibber presents the Brenner thesis as the only legitimate Marxist conception of the capitalist transition, it most emphatically is not. Readers would do well to consult Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), chapter 18, “Capitalist Social Property Relations” on “political Marxism” and how it differs from the classical Marxist tradition.

8. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 90.

9. Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 277-332.

10. Alex Callinicos, “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43 (Summer 1989), 113-171.

11. Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? particularly Chapters 14, “Classical Marxism (3),” 19, “Consequentialism,” and 22, “Patterns of Consummation.”

12. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 160-63.I don’t invoke Gramsci here to accuse the Subalternists of being insufficiently Marxist, but because I feel that Gramsci’s real notions cleansed of distortion are very helpful in conceptualizing the history of the independence movement and postcolonial Indian state.

13. Chibber’s discussion of the post-feudal “bourgeois oligarchies” in Western nations begs the question whether the Emergency might have been just India following the same path as the developed West. We need the sharpest break with any such idea. This is one place where Chatterjee’s critique is on point: “Europe and America, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery.” The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993), 5.

14. Chatterjee, “The Nation and its Peasants,” in ibid, 158-172.

15. I hope I’m not taken as saying that Chibber’s work is worthless because he rejects the dialectic. I rather want to point out some ways in which the classical Hegelian-Marxist view of society as a differentiated but mediated totality can be helpful in giving us the tools to avoid some of the less worthwhile arguments.

16. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 161.

17. Chibber, “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies,” 376-78.

18. Chibber, Chatterjee and Weinstein, “Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies.”

19. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 205 and 163 fn. Sen is guilty of the same essentialism about Indian culture that Chibber has set about trying to correct. See The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Picador, 2006), which attempts to draw connections between the historical tolerance and liberality of the Mauraya and Mughal Empires to the maintence of India as a modern liberal democracy, as against the BJP’s religious fundamentalism.

20. Though he said in the debate with Chatterjee that he “didn’t care” if his conceptions of capitalism differed from Marx’s or those of the Marxist mainstream, he writes in the book that “[Subalternists’] Marxism is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be recognized by most contemporary Marxists” (Postcolonial Theory, 10). He can’t have it both ways.

21. David McNally draws this out at length in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 126-132.

22. Chris Taylor, “Not Even Marxist” (ref. above, note 2.)

23. At the current conjuncture it seems to me that we would do well to emphasize the anti-Enlightenment trend in Marxism. As we have seen, unproblematic paeans to Enlightenment thought can lead to some strange conclusions. The Platypus Affiliated Society, for instance, is in the process of tearing itself apart over the (thoroughly unsurprising) revelation that its leaders believe that racism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has a rational core.”

Works Cited

Banaji, Jairus (2010). Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Chicago: Haymarket.

Bhadra, Gautum (1988), “Four Rebels of 1857,” in R. Guha and G. Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary. London/New York: Oxford UP, 129-178.

Callinicos, Alex (1989), “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43, 113-171.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000). Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chatterjee, Partha (1993). The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chibber, Vivek (2006), “On the Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies” in Critical Asian Studies 38.4, 357-387.

Chibber, Vivek (2013a). Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. London/New York: Verso.

Chibber, Vivek, Partha Chatterjee, and Barbara Weinstein (2013b), “Debate: Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies. Historical Materialism Conference, New York.

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

McNally, David (2012). Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket.

Pandey, Gyanendra (1983), “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129.

Sen, Amartya (2006). The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. New York: Picador.

Thomas, Peter (2010). The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. Chicago: Haymarket.


Filed under Culture, History, Politics

Towards a Holistic Revolutionary Critique of Art

China Miéville’s talk on “Guilty Pleasures: Art and Politics,” delivered at Socialism 2012, points socialists in some interesting directions as regards our critique of art. As there have been some interesting arguments on Facebook recently that I’ve participated in – particularly around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but also things like Homeland which I’ve written lengthy critiques of before – I thought now would be a good time to remind everyone, including myself, of the outlines of China’s critique.

China says that one axis of our appreciation of art (for which term, let’s include every cultural product regardless of medium or quality, just for the sake of utility) is the political worldview a certain piece of art has underlying it. As socialists, we are particularly sensitive to this category for obvious reasons. We know, for instance, that art is never politically value-neutral in class society. It can reinforce patterns of class, gender or racial/national domination, and in capitalist society most of the assumptions of artists as a special breed of intellectuals have this effect on their work.

At the same time, however, another piece of art can propose a politics of liberation in a broad or narrow sense. Most art doesn’t lie entirely on one side or another of this axis, but somewhere in between based on countervailing pressures of the official ideologies or Gramscian “common sense” and the equally common notions the oppressed or exploited have pointing toward their liberation.

It is common for socialists to recognize a particular piece of art embeds politics of oppression in some way or another. There are two typical responses to this.

The first is we can swear off any art that does this, condemn it and refuse to appreciate whatever relative merits it may have. Logically, this position tends to reduce itself to absurdity. I have seen some leftists write that they refuse to watch The Wire because the worldview it embeds is based on a strange breed of Fabianism which believes structures of domination such as the police department can be reformed with the right people put in charge.

As a result, I think that more often than not this reductive, agitational position is only in very rare cases completely consistent. Because all art, or nearly all art, in class society reflects the influence of systems of domination, to embrace it completely means we wouldn’t ever be able to enjoy anything that doesn’t spring fully-formed from the mind of a revolutionary socialist.

This means concretely, I think, that people who embrace this position are highly selective about where they apply it. The consequences of this can look somewhat bizarre. In the past couple months I have heard a person condemn the film Lincoln because it doesn’t include any black characters and in the next breath claim Django Unchained as an anti-racist masterpiece – despite the fact it reduces the talented tenth to the talented ten millionth in the case of the title character, while the only other options for slaves laid out were to be completely passive or to actively collaborate with the slaveowners, as in the case of Samuel Jackson’s character.

I say this without accusing anyone in particular, because my appreciation of art has been equally deterministic at times. Well after I had transitioned from scifi and fantasy geek to revolutionary socialist, I looked back on my youthful infatuation with the work of Tolkien as a particularly regrettable part of my past. The homage to feudal, courtly values paid in every page of his work kept me from seeing the reasons I’d once appreciated the professor – his wonderful devotion to world-building, rightly so influential, and his keen sense of adventure, romance and myth which has made him a hero to generations. It was only after reading pieces by China and John Molyneux that I was able to arrive at a nuanced appreciation of The Lord of the Rings, long cherished books and movies that I had rejected.

So what I’m saying in other words is that a perspective that uses the axis of “progressive/reactionary” as its main determinant is more often than not applied incredibly selectively. This works both ways, jumping from politics to quality and from quality to politics. We might assume a work is bad because we find its political worldview distasteful, as in the example I gave of my changing appraisal of Tolkien.

I have had less success thinking of an example of the reverse, since fiction with an agitational purpose is usually only interesting in how it fails. I have never been particularly fond of Upton Sinclair, the socialist author most famous for The Jungle. As someone smarter than me once said, allegorical fiction (which includes agitational fiction) is hard to take seriously, because even its own characters realize what they’re doing isn’t real. (Of course, this only really applies in fiction. Poetry, theater, music etc. I don’t think are forced to abide by the same limits.)

So if we don’t like a film or a book, this may have a conditioning effect on how we see it politically – it will probably be negative. Similarly, the reverse is true: art we do like can be discovered to have good politics on a somewhat shaky basis.

An example. I really enjoy Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I think the books are very entertaining and am glad in a general sense that a series that speaks so unabashedly for women’s liberation – even using force – has had such an effect on mass consciousness. At the same time as a revolutionary socialist (which Larsson was as well at one point in his life, being a member of the Swedish section of the Fourth International) I find the absence of any notion of collective struggle rather disturbing for a work of its nature, as I do with storylines that put the main characters in the position of collaborating with “progressive” people in the Swedish state apparatus against its own security forces and the far right.

I also don’t happen to think that as art, Millenium ever really rises much above the level of pulp – a fact due in no small part to the central character, Mikael Blomqvist, who seems to me a male fantasy rendered in a very unfeminist way. Somewhat oddly, I seem to agree more with the hypersectarian World Socialist Website on this than my own organization. Even if they are a scab operation run by half-psychotic scum, broken clocks and so forth.

In a conversation I had with some comrades and other general left-leaning folks a while ago, I mentioned these things when the subject of Millennium came up. One comrade whose company I’ve always cherished had the most curious response, the gist of which was that Lisbeth Salander’s lovingly described vigilantism had a progressive purpose because in the context of the books she stood in for the working class. I found it hard to formulate a response to this.

But I digress. The other axis of our chart is quality in the most general sense. Obviously the judgment of quality is a very subjective affair, the reasons for which I’m not very interested in. We can get around this by dealing in terms of works whose quality or appeal is generally recognized, which I’ll get to in a second.

Laying emphasis on the axis of quality over the axis of politics also leads in some strange directions. The most popular one we are very familiar with. Something like this: I like x even though x is reactionary, rightwing, reinforces power relationships of class/gender/race-nation-ethnicity. Obviously this can be a legitimate response to the distorting impact of relying overly much on the political axis. But I would argue its effect is just as distorting.

To return to the example of Tolkien, I have heard people who are generally very leftwing absolutely refuse to consider the reactionary attitudes to women and non-Europeans in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was on the record about this: “they [orcs] are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (It’s less often recognized that the dwarves are in part an equally racist caricature: they represent the Jews, who in Tolkien’s mind had an irrational love for gold, spoke their own languages and never really tried to fit in with the larger society around them.)

There may be hardly any women, and orcs may represent a more than vaguely Sinophobic caricature, it’s said, but why should that detract from our appreciation of it as a text. I think to argue this is to place a barrier in between ourselves and a true appreciation of Tolkein’s universe – which surely requires us to appreciate the mind of the creator and how it was affected by the surrounding class society with all its prejudices. To say this doesn’t involve the intentional fallacy, the application of which by postmodernists has tended to turn a useful piece of advice into its opposite.

What I’m arguing for in short is a holistic revolutionary socialist approach to art and culture. This is very much in the tradition of literary revolutionaries like Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lukács, Brecht and Benjamin, who argued that the understanding of the conditions of production for any work of art was key to the understanding of the work of art itself. Neither the political critique can be allowed to trump the critique of quality, or vice versa in this form of inquiry.

I’ve been overusing it lately, but I think the phrase “concrete analysis of concrete conditions” put forward by Lukács is really the secret of the Marxist method, which includes all criticism, but specifically for us cultural criticism. So we have – the concrete analysis of concrete art.

One example I find incredibly useful, raised by China in his talk, is that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On the one hand, this is a wonderful book, in my opinion among any reasonable “top ten” of English-language literature in the modern era. On the other hand, Conrad explicitly intended his book as a plea for the “enlightened colonialism” of Britain, his adopted homeland (a point of view given voice repeatedly by Marlowe, the narrator) as against the supposedly more savage rule of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo.

Heart of Darkness is a work of such importance that using just one or the other axis of critique I have outlined will not suffice. This has not stopped the literary and political left, however, from praising it as a work of literature while pointing to the supposedly limiting conditions of its imperialist politics, a critique advanced much by Chinua Achebe and other postcolonial African writers.

What China says about Heart of Darkness is that we should consider another avenue of critique. As the novella is a product of a colonial culture, what were the things that made it compelling in a society whose common sense regarded colonialism as a positive? In other words, Heart of Darkness may be compelling precisely because of its reactionary stand on colonialism. Form and function are, after all, united in a dialectical whole – which should get us to consider that Conrad’s book is compelling for the same reasons it is politically reactionary.

The water gets even more muddied, however, if we take a closer look. At the same time that Conrad’s implied author is a proponent of colonialism, the characters and events in his own novel revolt against this view. Much has been speculated about the character of Mr. Kurtz, whose brilliance is told of from the beginning of the book, but when he appears, he barely says anything. I refer most of all to line that is as famous as it is misunderstood: “The horror… the horror!” (Part of the misunderstanding is of course based on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which seems to adapt the novel only in how Coppola misinterprets every part of it in the most systematic way one could imagine.)

Now as someone who loves Heart of Darkness, what I understood Kurtz means by “the horror” is not the horror of the darkness and barbarity he has been reduced to in the “savage” Congo – it is his realization that the comfortable, sedentary bourgeois way of life he enjoyed back in Europe is based on the systematic acts of exploitation and barbarism he engaged in as a colonial official in Africa. Surely one could not ask for a better literary condemnation of the system of imperialism, even if it is only implied.

Lukács was noted for his view that literature was only progressive if it exposed the dynamics of the whole society – the capitalist system as an internally mediated totality. Based on this notion, he tended to reject all forms of literary expression outside realism as reactionary. His view has often been reduced to the point of caricature – it is never noted, for example, that in the context of the struggle against fascism, Lukács’ view was linked to an attempt to salvage Enlightenment rationalism, something that he thought for better or worse was part of the Marxist heritage. Nevertheless, his views did incline to a certain purism which was not helped by his embrace of Stalinism – see for example his incredibly unsubtle denunciations of writers of such stature as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Rabindranath Tagore.

I don’t mean to comment on the long-running debate between Lukács and Brecht – I’m not sure I fully understand it, although Brecht’s notions seem closer to my own impressions of the truth. But Lukács’ notion that we can judge art in terms of how it exposes the totality of social relations strikes me as a useful guideline or at least a reminder of what good art can accomplish. It is also a useful corrolary of Marx’s and especially Engels’ own views on art – that good political art does not accomplish its point through propagandizing, but through subtle subversion of the existing social relations. This incredibly hard goal has only been reached by a very few political authors, among whom I might mention China himself.

Another way of putting the case is the following. We would never have to think about art in a nuanced political way if there were no good fascist artists. Which is of course not the case. To restrict ourselves to literature alone, there have been some wonderful authors of the far right. Some of these, off the top of my head, are Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Knut Hamsun, Gabriel D’Annunzio and Yukio Mishima.

To describe their art as an intervention in society – that is, political in a fundamental sense – should not stop us from appreciating what they do, and especially how they do it. Trotsky’s essay on Céline (some excerpts here) pointed to the contradictions inherent in the author’s worldview, as shown in his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Trotsky concluded that the disgust with the hypocrisy and barbarism of bourgeois society that drips from every page of Journey could go one of two ways. Céline would either see the light of revolution, or he would adapt himself to the night. We know it retrospect which way this played out.

The question of fascist art might be a bit of a heavy example to use. So I will end with considering a different one – that of cultural kitsch, especially in its reaction to the war on terror. I mean primarily Homeland, which I seem to keep coming back to in my writing.

From my perspective, Homeland is an enjoyable show. It is not great art, but so little TV is. TV is functional – it is meant to entertain and explain at a very basic level. This Homeland does admirably. I see it as very compelling and interesting even as I recognize what it does is to reinforce and justify the intervention of the US government into foreign countries and its repression of native Arab and Muslim communities – it’s fundamentally racist and imperialist, which I would hope would be obvious.

Unfortunately if you praise the merits of a show in this genre among socialists, in my experience, you tend to get accused of sharing some of its values or at least ignoring them. This is very different from what I’m trying to do. At a fundamental level, most cultural products of the Homeland variety share the same values. But surely we should have a bit more to say about them than “that’s racist” or “that’s imperialist”? Shouldn’t these declarations (perfectly true, mind) be followed by some sort of exploration of how racism, imperialism, etc are perpetuated?

This brings up something else, very important I think, in China’s guidelines. The idea of art as a “guilty pleasure,” he says, whether the guilt comes from bad politics or poor quality, is fundamentally dishonest. There is no real guilt in pleasure, excepting the kind that is staged and performative in the declaration of a “guilty pleasure.”

It’s related to the tendency among people – not just socialists – to take something amiss when someone else disagrees on cultural and artistic preferences. All to quickly, a civil discussion on x cultural product can turn into something along the lines of “You don’t like x? You bastard!” (or, of course, the reverse, which I have experienced). Something which, as China says all too rightly, is an expression of commodity fetishism – to prove his point, many of us hissed during his talk when he mentioned he dislikes The Wire.

One caution I have here is against sort of relativism that China’s critique implies. As an example, I think there are some really great left-wing movies out there: Reds, Matewan, Norma Rae all come to mind. Would it be a complete distraction to believe that some of their appeal comes from the very clear way in which they propose a politics of liberation? I think this would be to miss the point in a pretty major way. The reverse of this is, as China mentions, that if all your favorite books are written by fascist authors, it likely says something about your worldview.

I don’t mean all this to be systematic, much less advisory in any way. I would only offer my hope for a deeper and more systematic critique of all art on an intelligent political basis. Conclusions can be drawn as the result of further conversation.

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Thoughts on the Relevance of the IS Tradition

The crisis in the SWP, which many of my readers are no doubt aware of in excruciating detail, has raised a lot of questions about the tradition it comes out of – the tradition of British International Socialism which I and many others in the ISO identify wholeheartedly with. I’m not in a position to comment on the crisis myself (though I will say I stand fully behind the statement made by our Steering Committee, as well as articles by Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato). What I can contribute are some thoughts on the issues it raises with the general tradition.

The ISO has its convention coming up this weekend, and for our preconvention discussion I wrote a fairly lengthy document on the continuing significance of the IS tradition, with special emphasis on the British part of that tradition. My document is and will remain an internal matter, but some of my conclusions were along the lines of the following:

1) The conception of the IS tradition held by many in the SWP and even my own comrades is too narrow and restrictive. We can speak of a general International Socialist current in both Britain and America, although each differed in key conclusions made on matters of importance (i.e., seeing the Soviet Union as state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist).

2) Nevertheless these two united on a method that attempts to salvage the classical Marxist tradition in light of the crisis of Trotskyism, tied up with certain predictions Trotsky made toward the end of his life and the mistaken conceptions of which were compounded by his more devotional followers in the leadership of the Fourth International. We can call this the International Socialist method, which emphasized above all that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, leading to the slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism.”

3) Despite its current crisis, the British IS tradition out of these two was the only one to create something stable both in terms of intellectual output and organization, and therefore it’s vital we take on board much written in that tradition – methods of class-struggle unionism and Leninist party-building come to mind – even as we revise much of what is wrong our outdated in the writings of its leaders. This is the same approach Cliff and other leaders of the SWP used on Trotsky’s writings, and it would be in his words “the greatest tribute we could pay to them” to critically examine their ideas.

Suffice it to say, I think there is much valuable to learn from in the history of the British IS tradition, and it would dismay me to see comrades draw the lesson from this crisis that we need to upend our whole theoretical apparatus.

This is not to say there haven’t been major failings within the tradition. The fact of the crisis over “Delta” and that the CC have been able to use the word “feminist” as a curse word against the opposition draws our attention to something deeply disturbing within the SWP as regards its history on the question of women’s liberation. It is a fact that Tony Cliff had to be hit over the head repeatedly to see the importance of this question. And even when he did, this is what he came up with:

Only in the struggle to transform social relations do people change. It is the workplace that opens up to women the widest opportunities to struggle to organise and hence to change themselves. It is through involvement in social production that women, like men, are anchored as workers into the relations of production which are the pivot of class society. Marxism is about class power, and in the workplace this comes into sharpest focus.

In other words, Cliff’s position in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, despite whatever historical importance the book has as a document, ends up reducing the fight for women’s liberation to a question of class, in which their oppression as women rather than as workers was negligible or could be discounted. I would hope that even members of the SWP as currently constituted would not share this position.

I would like to note in passing that in our tradition, thankfully others did not allow Cliff to have the final word. This includes the articles of John Molyneux in ISJ, who insisted again and again, as against Cliff, Lindsey German and Sheila MacGregor that there was in fact a real material advantage derived by working-class men in the oppression of women; David McNally, formerly of the Canadian I.S. has also done some interesting work in our tradition that engages with the work of Marxist feminism of Johanna Brenner and Martha Gimenez, with the conclusion that relations of labor to capital are all genderized as well as racialized. And to recent articles by Sharon Smith and Tithi Bhattacharya in our own SW.

Basta. While I’m deeply interested in the question of Marxism and women’s liberation (and I hope to have something more substantial to say about it here eventually), my aim here is a bit broader. I was interested to read the commentary of “Roobin,” an SWP member who maintains the blog “Through the Scary Door,” and has contributed to Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb on occasion. Here is what Roobin has to say on the question of the relevance of our tradition:

The old ‘orthodoxy’ such as it was, was the three pillars of the IS, state capitalism, permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution. The last two are now void and the first isn’t such a tremendous intellectual head start any more. The SWP has no programme. What makes the party different and how? Why is it a distinct organisation?

This interests me because I worked toward the question of the relevance of our tradition in an almost entirely different way. But let’s take what he says as a useful starting point.

Roobin says that the permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution “are now void.” This may be true. I have yet to fully wrap my mind around the debate, but Neil Davidson’s notion of the fading relevance of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (as expressed in his article, “From the Theory of Permanent Revolution to the Law of Uneven and Combined Development” and his book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions) does seem to invalidate any future “deflected” permanent revolution as well.

To use one example Davidson gives, Paul Blackledge at one point refers to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1978 as a “doubly deflected” permanent revolution.” In other words, Cliff’s original notion was that the permanent revolution had been deflected by conditions in the Global South guaranteeing the working class would be unready to seize power when presented with the opportunity. But in the case of Nicaragua, the working class remained for the most part passive throughout the whole conflict between Sandinistas and contras. Thus, “double deflection.”

But as Davidson says, this is conceptual overstretch with a vengeance. There are cases in which a permanent revolution was indeed deflected: the classic case of China in 1927, and one might also note Iran in 1979, in which the working class effectively crippled the Shah’s counterrevolution but did not possess the organization to contend for power properly. But can a notion of “deflection” really apply to cases in which the working class never entered the stage?

I would say this poses greater problems for Cliff’s theory than just irrelevancy. In fact I have written about one of the cases Cliff considered in his classic article: that of India, where the working class due to various reasons that he himself identified never played a consistent role in its bourgeois revolution from 1921-47. I would think the work of Davidson requires us to take a further step back from all notions of permanent revolution in the world today; much as Cliff’s article took a huge step back from Trotsky’s original theory.

As for the permanent arms economy. This was a notion developed mainly by Michael Kidron, and after he rejected its implications by Chris Harman; the idea being that during the postwar boom Western capitalism had avoided crisis by shoveling vast amounts of profits into arms, which counteracted the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. I agree with Roobin that this particular “old orthodoxy” is now entirely faded in relevance. It simply does not apply to our world anymore. We no longer live in a bipolar world of two capitalist camps, but in a monopolar world of increasingly multinational capitalism, and we require new theories to deal with this reality.

But I would reject any notion that because of this, we should no longer pay attention to the theory of the permanent arms economy. Although we live in a fundamentally different period, the method used in approaching this concept may still have a lot to teach us. Furthermore, it was the work of authors within the British IS tradition, Harman and Callinicos, who gave us the tools we need to understand the decline of the permanent arms economy. Their work points out the roots of the crisis of the late seventies and early eighties, in which the dominance of the US was challenged by the resurgent economies of West Germany and Japan, which relied on American military might vis-a-vis the Soviet Union while they expanded their exporting power against America itself. This might have a lot to teach us about the current period.

Roobin says of the last “old orthodoxy,” that of state capitalism, that it “isn’t such a tremendous intellectual head start any more.” I conceive that this statement is based on the collapse of the Eastern bloc; the notion being that Soviet-style state control of the economy is for the most part dead and buried. There are only five remaining Stalinist countries; of these three (China, Vietnam and the so often neglected Laos) have gone the way of the market, while Cuba is preparing to go on the same path. Which leaves North Korea all alone in an increasingly archaic form of state capitalism.

So it may be true that Stalinist-style state capitalism is dead. But saying this makes our theory of state capitalism irrelevant is to do the theory itself a great injustice. The theory as I understand it is, to abuse a phrase, that state capitalism is not a thing diametrically opposed to market capitalism, but a tendency inherent in all capitalist societies. Cliff’s original theory was based on the contributions of Lenin, who noticed the wartime management of the German economy; but more importantly Bukharin, who described the cartelization of capital and predicted a scenario in which a world economy could be made up of competing national capitalist cartels (nation-states). This, wrote Cliff, was what had come to pass in the Soviet Union, the glacis states, China, Indochina, Cuba and parts of the Middle East and Africa.

But to say this is the end-all-be-all of the theory of state capitalism would be doing it a disservice. After all, this type of state management of the economy was a tendency all over the world. Chris Harman during his polemics with the Militant noted, with not unjustified glee, that if countries like Burma and Syria which had nationalized “the commanding heights of their economies” were deformed workers’ states, then surely Britain, with its nationalized education, health and other sectors was a workers’ state as well. We could say that Keynesianism is an incomplete manifestation of the tendency toward state capitalism – one that in the current world is being very rapidly broken down.

But this leaves out other countries. India, my first love, has never gotten much attention in this field. But after the bourgeois revolution of 1947, India had a state sector that could compete on good terms with those of the explicitly Stalinist countries, and its leader Jawaharlal Nehru justified this in terms as explictly “socialist” as those of Stalin, Mao or Castro. It was a mixed economy, to be sure – but we should remind ourselves that Stalinist states such as China, Hungary, Yugoslavia were never themselves entirely free of the internal market compulsions.

What I’m saying, in other words, is that a lot of work still remains to be done on the question of state capitalism. We might use the insights developed by Cliff in analyzing the CP-led market economies of China, Vietnam and Laos. This is a gaping hole in our tradition. Or we might turn our attention to the various eras of state policy in capitalism – at one time, the vicious pursuit of primitive accumulation to establish it (developed by Davidson as well as Henry Heller), to the era of imperialism as described in Lenin/Bukharin, to state capitalism as pursued under Stalinist and Keynesian guises, to the current era of multinational capital and the state gutting itself under the doctrines of neoliberalism.

To summarize: I think that even if they are no longer relevant to the current era, the “old orthodoxies” of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution may still have insights we would do well to take on in analyzing our current conditions. What I am asking for is for comrades in the IS tradition to employ the same critical spirit of comrades like Cliff, Kidron, Harman and Hal Draper used to establish solid understandings of their period and the kind of Marxism that was required for it – even as they revised the fundamental conclusions of Trotsky and those who went before them. This is nothing less than a plea for the dialectical method: concrete analysis of concrete conditions.

But even if we recognize that certain things in the history of the British IS tradition may have gone by the wayside in the grand historical sense, surely not all of it has. I found it particularly surprising that among all the numerous documents produced by members of the SWP opposition, no one has yet mentioned what the party was historically quite successful at. I mean its methods of class struggle unionism and of Leninist party building. I don’t have the time to develop these thoughts in depth. But it seems to me from my own time in the ISO, it is these two things that come up most often in our work, and go back to the direct experience of the British IS tradition.

Class struggle unionism as proposed by the IS tradition may seem like a fairly uncontroversial proposition. But given the state of the left, it clearly is controversial. The (minuscule, back-biting) American far left shows this well enough. There are any number of approaches to unionism – from that of the Militant tendency (in the US, formerly Labor Militant and now Socialist Alternative) which attempt to gain union office on principle as a way to advance class struggle, to that of the LRP, which punches above its weight if only on the internet, whose approach seems to consist of having their (being generous here) two rank and file militants call for a general strike every other week. This isn’t to speak of the numerous tiny ultraleft and anarchist groups (IWW, SEP, various unsavory groupings thrown up by Occupy) who consider unions a tool of the bosses.

It is only the ISO – the sole representative of our tradition in the US – whose members have engaged in successful class-struggle strategy in the leadership and union rank and file. Surely this is due at least in part to what we learned from the British IS – we certainly know their publications well enough, as they’re cited in all of our articles on the subject.

I don’t have time to go into depth on the question of party building. Last year there was a whole series of exchanges on the subject between Pham Binh, an ex-ISO member with an axe to grind, and Paul Le Blanc, one of our current leaders, formerly of the American SWP and Solidarity. Others contributed to the exchange, which was productive at some points and frustrating at others, particularly when Pham kept insisting despite all evidence to the contrary that there was no separate Bolshevik Party up till 1917. Underlying this is a basic mistake in methodology – a fetishism of organizational forms which may have been appropriate at a certain place and time (revolutionary Russia) but may not be incredibly helpful in 21st century America if we try to ape them exactly.

In other words, what I’m talking about is a search for Leninism as a method rather than a set of organizational forms or precepts. I think in this sense, Cliff’s Lenin biography has significant use, since it draws out Lenin’s method of problem solving in extremely concrete ways. Some have problems with Cliff, particularly his insistence on the notion of “stick bending. I think this is legitimate, as it is to question in general how the SWP ended up where it is now if they were formally at least following what he laid out. To my mind the best contribution on the topic so far is Le Blanc’s recent article “Leninism is Unfinished,” a principled and comradely reply to Callinicos’ “Is Leninism Finished?” which is all the more notable since it comes from outside our particular tradition.

We could note many other examples. I believe the analysis of political Islam in our tradition, provided by Chris Harman in “The Prophet and the Proletariat” is one of the most important of them. The analysis of other traditions has proven worse than useless, as they all end up believing in practice if not theory that Islamism is “fascist” or automatically set on course for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Surely if once again practice judges the truth, it is no accident that the foremost left current in the Egyptian Revolution is the Revolutionary Socialists, an IST group.

I could go on. I have lots to say about current debates within the tradition – the analysis of the current world economy as in the debate between Dave McNally and Joseph Choonara, for instance. Another time. I think I have made my point – it is vital for everyone in the tradition who is not a bureaucrat, hack or rapist to renew the use of International Socialism as a living and vital Marxist method. Abandoning it would be lunacy.

Some references – I am in a hurry here with a new job and don’t have time to be as scholarly as I would like.

Tithi Bhattacharya, “Locating the source of oppression,”

Alex Callinicos, “Is Leninism Finished?”

Joseph Choonara, “Once more (with feeling) on Marxist accounts of the crisis,”

Joseph Choonara, “The relevance of permanent revolution: A reply to Neil Davidson,”

Tony Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party (vol. 1),

Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

Tony Cliff, “The Employer’s Offensive,”

Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia

Bill Crane, “The Bourgeois Revolution in India (Part 2),”

Paul D’Amato, “The SWP Crisis and Leninism,”

Neil Davidson, “From the deflected permanent revolution to the law of uneven and combined development,”

Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket, 2012)

Chris Harman, “Better a valid insight than a wrong theory,”

Chris Harman, “The Prophet and the Proletariat,”

Chris Harman, “The Storm Breaks: Crisis in the Eastern Bloc,”

ISO Steering Committee, “The Crisis in the SWP – Britain”

Michael Kidron, “Imperialism – Highest Stage but One,”

Paul LeBlanc, “Leninism is Unfinished,”

Paul LeBlanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin: A response to Pham Binh,”

Pham Binh, “Mangling the Party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,”

David McNally, Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labor and Liberation (SUNY, 2000)

David McNally, “Explaining the crisis or heresy hunting? A response to Joseph Choonara,”

John Molyneux, “Do working class men benefit from women’s oppression?,” International Socialism 2.25

Roobin, “An ounce of theory is worth a ton of action,”

Sharon Smith, “Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Liberation,”




Filed under Politics

The Return of Arrested Development


Around this time last year, it came to my attention somehow that the show Arrested Development was coming back on the air. Its last episodes (embarrassingly, I can recall the precise date) aired on 10 February, 2006, at which time I was a sophomore in high school. From that time in my life, the cancellation of AD was probably one of the things that sticks out – along with certain more minor events in my life, such as my parents’ ongoing and acrimonious divorce, or my constant ongoing frustration around girls. I cannot recall getting very emotional as a teenager, ever, but the end of Arrested Development brought it out of me somehow.

So when I realized the show was coming back on the air, I was kind of nonplussed, aside from a general positive reaction. There are, as I see it, a couple reasons for this. While the 16 year old me had little better ways of expressing his alienation than the one-size-fits-all outlet of commodity fetishism, the 22 year old me had available a variety of ways to do this, alcohol being the outstanding method. Of course, it’s also hard to get so excited about one show coming back in particular when pretty much every cancelled show gets to come back at some point – those I love (Futurama), and those I hate (Family Guy), excepting of course Joss Whedon’s neglected and perfect Firefly.

I imagine seven years ago, the new episodes would have been one of the few things to make me really happy. Of course, I’m excited to see them in a few months, but this has to be heavily qualified. This is for several reasons. First, despite the short timeframe which they were given, the show’s writers managed to wrap the series and tie a bow around it, which is much better than is possible for many series. And second, because television as a medium of culture is so immediate that it tends to go bad quickly. Which is not to say great TV cannot be made, but as an intervention in society, the cultural products (except for series like The Wire, which being on HBO was in any case free from the constraints of normal TV production) tend to have a short sell-by date based on immediate appeal. And therefore, the best TV tends to emerge as a reaction to and commentary on its period.

For Americans at least, Arrested Development is one of those shows that defines an era. This era was the first administration of George W. Bush. For a number of reasons, it is right to mark these four years or so as a turning point in American history and culture. For the purposes of this discussion, the “high points” of this era are:

  1. The completely obvious and shameful stupidity of our president (the president of “Is our children learning,” “I’m the decider,” and “My Pet Goat”) which marked the decline of our political culture,
  2. The war on terror, the height of which was the plainly phoney war Bush launched into in Iraq, followed by the surreal proclamations of victory – “Mission Accomplished” and so on – against a growing anti-imperialist and anti-American trend all over the world, including the developed West,
  3. The apex of the neoliberal economic boom, followed by its abrupt end. This is symbolized best by the rapid collapse of the energy firm Enron in 2001. This made the most clear latent class anger that has always existed in American society, underlying the precipitous decline of the class struggle since the ’70s.

Arrested Development, I recently realized while re-watching the show for the upteenth time, is most effective as it responds to and critiques the excesses of our ruling class along these lines. The ongoing references to the rhetoric of the war on terror, I would imagine, might make the show somewhat incomprehensible to non-Americans, or those Americans who came of age after that period.

In its setup, AD mirrors almost too well the circumstances of the end of the boom, and its impact on the American ruling class. The show starts with the retirement party of George Bluth, head of the Bluth Company, a real-estate firm in southern California. As his wife and children raise toasts to his career, boats of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) arrive at the corporate yacht to arrest him for investment fraud, an obvious reference to the executives of Enron – Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. The show is incredibly incisive as it mocks the decline of this executive class. It is noteworthy, for instance, that all the members of the spoiled Bluth family continue to demand paychecks from the company even as they refuse to work for it.

Perhaps more significantly, the paranoid slapstick that was the first Bush, Jr. administration is matched by the surreal happenings in AD – and here, it gets hard sometimes to tell fiction from reality. Any except the segment of the American population which has spent the past ten years living under a rock cannot recall the circumstances leading up to the Second Gulf War with anything but a mixture of outrage and horror. Looking back on it now, the press conferences seem staged and pantomimed, with Bush half leering at us as he tells us in complete sincerity that Saddam Hussein has links to al-Qa’eda, has access to yellowcake uranium, is part of an “Access of Evil” with Iran and North Korea. It beggars belief.

Arrested Development is almost hyper-aware of its own backdrop. Throughout the second season (aired in 2004-5, the same period in which Bush’s acolytes were scrambling to find some sort of “weapons of mass destruction” in occupied Iraq) the show’s characters are drawn into the national slapstick. Buster is enlisted into the Army by his mother, who was afraid of being seen as unpatriotic by a Michael Moore impostor. George Bluth, Sr. (whose name, along with that of his son GOB, has a more than coincidental relationship to those of the dynastic 41st and 43rd presidents) is discovered to have built homes in Sadaam’s Iraq that violate the sanctions – a vicious parody of the cozy relationship enjoyed by Reagan, Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other neocons and neocon enablers with the Middle Eastern strongmen they now sought to overthrow.

The woman GOB marries on a dare joins the army as well, and to prove her penchant for daring, becomes a very thinly fictionalized version of the torturer Lyndie England, of Abu Ghraib Prison. In a scene as bizarre as it is hilarious, a map supposedly pointing to WMDs in Iraq actually turns out to be a picture of Tobias’ testicles taken with his camera phone. When Michael, GOB and Buster finally travel to Iraq to clear their father’s name, they discover a warhead in the attic of a model home their father indeed built – but the warhead is just one of the shoddy house’s many Home-Fills.

So I think it’s pretty clear that Arrested Development‘s timeframe is the Bush administration. In one sense, it’s hard to imagine the show outside of that background. Seemingly, at least, a lot has changed. Instead of a silver-spoon fratboy, the face of our government is now a sophisticated constitutional law professor, who happens to be black as well. No longer does the US invade sovereign nations. Scratch that – we still do (Libya, Pakistan, dozens of other countries that host our armed forces) – but when we do, it is with a bit more research than the rationale which was dreamed up in 2003.

As I said, changing times pretty much guarantee changing TV. It would be hard to imagine a show like 24 in the Obama era – Homeland fits our contemporary nation much better. But on the other hand, a comparison of those two shows, which I’ve made before, also remind us of the continuities between the Bush era and the Obama era. We remain at war with a mysterious and brown foe with a bearded face and turban. Our government continues to assault the civilians of other nations on a daily basis. Considering how many flying death robots have been deployed under Obama, it would even seem the war on terror has grown more bizarre and frightening than it was under Bush. Most of all, our economy has returned to a prolonged state of crisis, and as ever, the corporations and financial institutions are bailed out while the working class pays for their losses.

Maybe I was too quick to pass judgment. The Obama administration is as rife with jingoism and hypocrisy as the previous one. I can’t imagine any show better than Arrested Development to take this on – for a new era.

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