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“A Nullity…An Empty Void”

Stalin is the outstanding mediocrity of our party…Stalin is a nullity..an empty void
​    —Trotsky, 1932

Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person.
​    —Stalin, 1927

1.

“Thank you mama, for your kind letter,” Stalin wrote to the 70-year-old peasant woman, offering over her cow. “I do not need a cow because I do not have any farmland—I’m just a white-collar employee, I serve the people the best I can, and white collar types rarely do their own farming.” [emphasis mine.]

“I have just come from seeing Koba. Do you know how he spends his time?” Nikolai Bukharin wrote Trotsky in 1922. “He takes his year-old boy from bed, fills his own mouth with smoke from his pipe, and blows it into the baby’s face. ‘It makes him stronger,’ Koba says.”
“That’s barbaric,” Trotsky replied.
“You don’t know Koba,” Bukharin said. “He is like that—a little peculiar.”

By the end of the first two volumes of Stephen Kotkin’s monumental Stalin trilogy, an image, like a half-developed Polaroid, begins to emerge of the kind of person we are dealing with here.

He is the hardest worker. He takes on the most responsibility, makes sure the paperwork is filed, deadlines are met, makes the trains run on time. He advances rapidly within the institution, perhaps becoming the managing editor or the editor-in-chief.

He is easy-going, personable, and very, very reliable and accountable to the higher-ups. He strives to appear selfless and to be a mere executor of the will of the CEO and the spirit of the corporation—he is the all-around fixer and doer. 

When the CEO or founder of the company gets sick, he goes to his house more than anyone else to cheer him up with jokes, to reassure him, to receive his instructions. The boss relies on him. He is the one that puts in the emotional labor. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the underlings from on high, he leverages his personal relationship to grow his stature within the organization.
 
His own will is singular, he is not split in any way—his will is to execute the founder’s will and stated principles. He lives for the job, nothing else. It is his life. He has never had any other dreams or goals or paths he could have taken. This is it.
 
He takes no vacations, never leaves town. The other leaders always seem to be convalescing at some nervous ailment health spa or reading French novels. He becomes indispensable to the company. His will melds with the company’s will, they become one.

He likes people and cultivates relationships with everyone around him, particularly his subordinates, who adore him. With each passing day, he creates more dependents, loyalists, people who rely on him for their positions and livelihood. In this way, he builds a no-bullshit organization within the organization. “Stalin’s power flowed from attention to detail but also to people—not just any people, but often new people,” Kotkin writes. He himself comes from nothing, a dirt-road backwater, and he has a bawdy sense of humor. The back-slapping, chew-chaw faction he builds resent and relentlessly mock the more pretentious, intellectual Harvard-Yale faction within the organization. This other group of Bolsheviks have lived in Europe. They've discussed philosophy in the coffee houses. Stalin and his team have never left Russia.

It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik organization happened. One recognizes his outlines from upper management and co-workers in various white-collar work environments where one has worked. We’ve met this character before. He is cunning, works very hard, presents himself as insignificant. During the interminable meetings, he keeps his cards close. He lets the people with strong views and positions have their say, and wear each other out fighting. At the very end, the view he puts forward is a middle-of-the-road synthesis, a compromise of all of the positions that have already been expressed by others. If you want to survive in a hierarchical, white-collar office environment, you learn to play the game, to keep your head down. You sublimate your ego, you keep your superiors happy, you appear busy and important, you flatter and undermine your colleagues—that’s it. That’s office politics.

A nothing, a nobody, the one in charge of the paperwork. No one particularly resents him or views him as a threat. His job is administering the bureaucracy and chairing the meetings.

He is a working-class ethnic minority from the periphery of empire—a diversity hire for the Bolsheviks, brought in to pad the ranks of the mostly white, urbane, and bourgeois leadership. He is simultaneously underestimated and tokenized. “Every time [Stalin] attended a major Party Congress in the company of his Bolshevik faction, he would be confronted with a thoroughly Europeanized culture, against which his Georgian features and heavy Georgian accent stood out,” Kotkin writes.

No one ever expects the quiet, back-of-the-room functionary, who makes sure the records are kept, to be put in charge. But really, who better to be in charge? Who better knows the organization and can make sure the deadlines are met and trains run on time? The one who has put in the most work, the one who has made themselves most indispensable. No one wants an ambitious, self-focused person to run their organization. A leader is expected to be selfless and stabilize the ship, not be a preening, mercurial egoist.

Lenin, on his deathbed, receiving an affectionate letter from Stalin, brushes it off, telling his sister: “He is not at all intelligent.” An American specifically, one who has lived through Trump's dismissal and subsequent rise, knows better by now—everyone should know better by now. Woe be to those who underestimate the underdog.                   

2.

Let us take a closer look at this person, get to know him through his own words, in his unguarded moments.

Letter to Voroshilov, 1932: “Have the bombers been sent to the East? Where, exactly, and how many? The trip on the Volga was interesting—I’ll say more: magnificent. A great river, the Volga. Damn.”

On the value of human life: “The loss of airplanes is not as scary (the hell with them) as the loss of living people, aviators. Live human beings are the most valuable and most important thing in our entire cause, especially aviation.”

On being asked to promote literature: “I am decisively against writing prefaces only for pamphlets and books of literary ‘big-shots',’ literary ‘names’…We have hundreds and thousands of young capable people, who are striving with all their might to rise up from below.”

On conflict with the imperialists: “We would be the bottom of the barrel if we could not manage to reply to these arrogant bastards briefly and to the point: ‘You won’t get a friggin thing from us.’” [emphasis mine.]


3.

He has a face you immediately like. When younger, he was very handsome. But very short. The swarthy bankrobber with the famous haircut. Paralyzed in one arm. He worked nights at Tiflis Observatory, attempting to organize the meteorologists. He had been a poet, even got published. Was he still thinking about poetry, watching the stars and the planets cycle overhead until daybreak, up in Tiflis Observatory? Or had he already determined to give up on the path of art, the true path, and venture into the grubby world of organizing and polemics and politics?

In old age, his face is preferable. It is expressive, cratered with smallpox scars, the comically sloping mustache. A warm smile. His eyes are dense animal black. “In the Kremlin, on the ancient throne of orthodox czars, sat a small man with short arms and shiny black eyes,” Curzio Malaparte put it.

The face of a feline man. Intelligent, cunning. More cat than man. A cat who has somehow become a man. A person who has learnt how to play the game of life.

It is not a decadent and artistic face, like Hitler’s, the over-artistic Wagnerian conductor. It is the face of a person who views life with a bit of distance and irony. He loves cowboy movies, thermal baths, and novels. He understood that life was not some grand performance art. It was work. Just endless work. 

4.

It is hard to tell whether his self-pity was an affect, to garner sympathy, or if he genuinely believed that he was insignificant and small. 

“Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person,” he said, during a critical politburo showdown against Trotsky. When his fixer and flattering loyalist Lazar Kaganovich suggested that Stalinism should replace Leninism, Stalin would violently rebuke him. “What is Lenin? Lenin is a tall tower! And what is Stalin? Stalin is a little finger. Sometimes when he made this remark he substituted an analogy, which, shall we say, isn’t suitable for recording here,” Nikita Khruschev remembers. He referred to himself as “shit” next to Lenin. Did he mean it?

A nothing. A chode. A nobody, a non-entity. 

Then there were his constant threats to resign as General Secretary—a job nobody wanted to do. When cornered on some issue, he always offered up his resignation. At one point, Stalin asks to be relieved as General Secretary and sent to Kazakhstan. With all this, he seemed to be saying: this job is terrible, it's just white-collar drudgery, I’d rather be doing something real even if it meant being relocated to the periphery.

On the left, and specifically within Bolshevism—where all values and morals are inverted—there was much power to be had in appearing small, marginal, just a hard worker, just quietly do what you do, contributing in your small way, anonymous, without egoism or pride or approval or adoration-seeking. Leaders were expected to live modestly, work insane hours, and shun personal recognition. 

These constant threats of resignation were a way for them to stress-test their political and social capital. To see who their friends and enemies were. They kept track, they remembered everything.

5.

The paradox of power is, of course, that power repels those who grasp for it. People shrink from neediness, ego, and big personalities.

In this cruel, fallen world, there are hard people and there are soft people. Take for example, writers and editors. Writers work on the outside of institutions and editors work on the inside. They are symbiotic with each other, they need each other. Creative people with creative temperaments can be soft and sensitive, but to work on the inside of an organization requires a person to sublimate their ego and become hard. There is an attraction of opposites and mutual appreciation between these two groups, the hard and soft. Hard people often find themselves repulsed by other hard people—in fellow careerists and glad-handers, they see their own artifice and manipulation reflected back at them. But they tend to have a soft spot for soft people, for those who’ve managed to stay a bit on the outside and uncorrupted by the world. 

Many he would later have killed seem to have earnestly appreciated him, even looked up to him and relied on him as an editor and a friend.

 In 1928, Nikolai Bukharin and Lev Kamanev still felt like they were close friends with Stalin. They had been on the same team for a long time. Bukharin was the prolific theoretical wunderkind of the party. Stalin was the organizational head and editor. There seemed to be a little bit of a kid-brother dynamic to their relationship (you could imagine Stalin giving Bukharin a noogie) but Stalin clearly admired the younger man’s talents, before taking a position, always asking “Which way did Bukharin vote?”

Stalin moved Bukharin and his family into the Kremlin apartment next to his. Their wives and kids were close. Bukharin rode around in Stalin’s Packard. Their families were close. Bukharin thought they were friends, until they broke over collectivization—then Stalin began to sadistically manipulate his affections and trust. First, he gave him the silent treatment. Then he helped break up his marriage. Then he began to break the brilliant writer and theorist by tasking him with the most mundane assignments possible like drafting party program documents, crossing them out in red pen and rewriting them from top to bottom. 

Yet, when Bukharin was threatened to be expelled from the Central Committee, Stalin became his protector. This was his customary move—two steps forward, one step back to show mercy. It seems that for Stalin revenge was a slow process of pushing people down and then pulling them back pretending to be their savior, like a medieval torture device. 

There was a manipulative component to this friendship. In 1930, Stalin wrote Bukharin, “I have never refused a conversation with you. No matter how much you cursed me, I have never forgotten that friendship we had… We can always talk, if you want.”

People need each other and want different things from each other, but in the end, editors need writers less than writers need their editors.Writers can sometimes put their editors on a pedestal, respect them too much, see them as a father figure. Bukharin was the editor of Pravda, but sometimes the true interpersonal dynamics between people defy official status and position in the world. 

Bukharin never quite shook the kid-brother-to-his-older-editor dynamic—even at the very end, when Stalin had him in prison, awaiting the Show Trial after which he would be executed. In 1937, he wrote many letters to Stalin, keeping him apprised of his literary efforts. He even asked Stalin to write the preface for one of his prison works. This is the editor as a cruel sadist. In the end, he resorted to begging his old friend to preserve his last book for posterity:

I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear…Don’t let this work perish. I repeat and emphasize: This is completely apart from my personal fate. Don’t let it be lost!… Have pity! Not on me, on the work!

After being shot in 1938, Bukharin’s four prison manuscripts were sent to Stalin for inspection and then deposited into his vast personal archive, where they sat and gathered dust for nearly sixty years, until being exhumed by an American scholar.

6.

There is an old Soviet joke about the 1920s leaders of the Central Committee. They go out together and have a picnic. Once they get a little loose and day-drunk, someone asks, “What’s the best thing in the world?” 
“Books,” says Lev Kamenev.
“A woman, your woman,” says Radek.
“Cognac,” says Rykov.
and Stalin?—”revenge against your enemies.”

For Stalin, revenge was everything. To never forget a slight, to live long enough for the tides to shift and be able to destroy someone who tried to break you. Before they both ended up on the chopping block, Bukharin wrote to Kamenev: “Stalin knows only one means: revenge. Let’s call it the theory of ‘sweet revenge.’” 

Kamanev and Stalin had known each other since 1900. They had been in exile together. It was Kamenev who, in 1904, gifted Stalin a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Malaparte, the archcynic's droll assessment: “Kamenev was a harmless man, but one doesn’t have the right to be a harmless man when among the leaders of a revolution.” 

In the end, they couldn’t find the ruthlessness within themselves. In a 1926 politburo meeting, when Kamenev said that he could have destroyed Stalin years before, Stalin shouted, “Why did you not say it?” Kamenev said, “Because I did not want to employ such methods.” The big secret about the Old Bolsheviks is that they lacked nerve when dealing with their own. They still believed in friendship and good faith, even when unbeknownst to them, they had a wolf in their midst and the time for that had long since passed.

Tryhard Latecomers

These past years, I have been witnessing a strange thing. A hidden subculture that shaped me and my friends, our politics and entire worldview, has been discovered and embraced by a new class of people. There’s no other way to put it: tryhard latecomers, second and third-generation zealots, late-adopters, everywhere. People who the day before yesterday were politically-speaking, babes in the wood. They have quickly picked up the appropriate subcultural language and learnt to weaponize the language of identity. In the darker recesses of the recent past, when it was all being formulated, these are people who just weren’t there. And all these decades later, they’ve turned over a rock and found a thriving little ant colony, and they’re amazed. But they don’t act amazed; they act as if they are now and have always been. 

Only the weary old weirdies who have been around the block long enough to get a bit tired—who now look and talk the way they, the fresh converts, used to look and talk—take notice. And who would listen to them anyway? Like Narodniks who stayed in the village too long, they were changed by the mass, rather than the other way around, as they had intended. They fell into the gravitational pull of common life. They have families. They wear white t-shirts and watch football.  By contrast, the latecomers seem and look so much more like the rebels now: they talk and act and dress in the appropriate way. It’s incredible, really. They caught up, finally, and blended in, and only an asshole would point out that they were drawn mainly by the subcultural magnetism—society had to get to a certain point for them even to consider it as a possibility for themselves, you see, these latecomers.

And yet, it is annoying. They talk loudly, saying things that you’ve heard a million times before. Talking loudly and not thinking deeply, they quickly ascend to leadership positions, and have the same immediately fall into the same battles that have been occurring for decades. The old guard linger bitterly in the backs of the rooms or at home, having their lives, preferring not to have the same debates and fights they’ve already been through with a new generation.

As Jenny Holzer put it: chasing the new is dangerous to society. 

They have been drawn into the tractor beam of something that was not theirs; they are new and they have that new sheen of self-righteous dogmatism because they discovered it just yesterday. Time hasn’t yet worn out the novelty of this new plaything for them.

They are not tired, because they were late. They were late because they were not on time. For whatever reason, they were politically and developmentally delayed. Being late is not a crime. They were somewhere else: working, paying off debt, a libertarian party, campaigning for Hillary, in the army, in the church—just being a person in this world. There is no shame to just being another person in the world.

Then the world changed and all of a sudden they saw the Pauline light. And the light is brilliant and blinding.

Of course, any decent person's first reaction should be: “Good! I’m glad our ideas are contagious and peoples’ consciousness is changing, the more the merrier—we wanted to be a mass movement all along.”

For these fresh recruits, this plaything is so exciting. A whole new language. A whole new world of decolonizations and pronouns to correct and power to deconstruct and redirect into horizontalist non-hierarchical autonomist insurrectionary peoples movements. So many Verso books that must be read. Uncovering a new hidden world to get absorbed in.

While there is nothing wrong with being delayed with finding your true calling, it is extremely annoying to be very late, and then be shouting from the hilltops. There is a reason Jesus's Twelve disciples were the Twelve disciples, and the Old Bolsheviks were the Old Bolsheviks—they were there when it was difficult, when they were persecuted for being what they were, through thick and thin, from the beginning.. When the situation becomes clear and a winner becomes apparent, the opportunists pile in: they want to be Christians now, they want to join the political party that will clearly predominate.

Like living, breathing human beings, ideas and movements have a childhood and an adulthood. They start out as larvae, enclosed in a safe cocoon, and one day emerge out into the mainstream. This process can take months, years, or decades. In the larval stage, ideas are nourished in small, supportive microcosms. This is called subculture. The ideas forged in subculture are often years or decades ahead of their time. The participants are below the radar. They know they are ahead of the curve. They are marginal, yes, but this superfluousness gives them a sense of superiority.

The subculture is ahead of its time and is aware of it. The subculture does not want to subordinate its will to the majority. It wants to pursue its own quixotic independent path, forging ahead, far ahead of everybody else. That's its preferred state.

The anarchists, always being young and ahead of the curve, have always been the advance guard of society. They push the farthest, adopt the earliest, take to the farthest periphery. Long before Me Too, before “accountability,” before “Latinx” had been incorporated into the mainstream liberal framework…long before “trans rights” or “transphobia” had become household words, the anarchists built callout culture from nothing—they built it to protect their own world from cops, womanizers, manarchists, crypto-fascists, careerists, and police agents.

Today, your average former liberal has learned to speak anarchist, without even knowing they’re speaking anarchist—these ideas have flumed up from deep underground. If you had told them “in fifteen years, Hillary Clinton will be talking just like you,” they would have laughed in your face. The legitimate world didn’t care about this stuff. The bad things you “couldn’t say” within anarchist communities in the late 90s and early 2000s—you can’t say them now if you’re a CNN host or a Kentucky Republican. Poor whites, completely outside this world, are caught on social media and judged based on this now-dominant framework. Its a framework that dominates the great Western cities. It’s a remarkable achievement of “hegemony.” You would think the anarchists would be happy.

But like anyone who is before their time and doesn’t get full credit for it, they are mostly bitter; besides, being anarchists they’re constantly on the move, they’ve already moved on to the next thing. The indignities that those before their time have to suffer are endless. There is no benefit for those who shout, “we were quietly way ahead of our time!” No one cares. It’s mostly a psychological strategy for combating irrelevance. People don't care who was first, they adapt begrudgingly to what is. 

The old guard never coalesced, it dispersed into a diaspora and went back into the normal world of jobs and life and became more normal and mostly ceded the territory—aside from a few of the most committed elements which have clung on like barnacles to give a sentimental education to the new recruits. The old guard—not just the particular generation I feel affinity with, but also the silent old weirdos from the 1940s, the 70s, the 90s—have a similar outlook to that Viktor Frankl noticed among his fellow concentration camp survivors: “We dislike talking about our experiences. No explanations are needed for those who have been inside, and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now.”

A box of unique generational experiences, locked, chained and cast into the sea., Because of the shame of being involved in a lost cause, a dissipated and ineffective prequel to the far more impactful future events. It would lead any humble person to silence.

Its a tragic fact that in politics (just like in love), people are irresistibly drawn towards elusive objects of desire—they always want what they can't have. For the cubicle-bound professional class, the anarchists exuded a persistent cool and mysterious and sense of being ahead of the curve in all things. As they they do, the liberals—mostly online professionals working in culture industries—fastened onto what the anarchists had built, a little too late, and fetishized what was marginal. They secretly felt like losers, who had ventured in the labyrinth of bureaucracy and compromise, and wanted to be as cool as the anarchists, but did not have the courage to live their ideals the way the anarchists did—for whatever reason, their lives had forced them to watch from the sidelines. They came to represent the elusive object, the path not taken.

They picked up through the anarchist leftovers with ardor, five or seven years too late, and like vultures devouring entrails. They embraced what they found there: call-out culture, trans liberation movements, cultural anarchism in the vein of Chris Kraus and zines. These latecomers birthed a new liberal call-out culture and wider cultural program that was not entirely understood, but having been vetted by the professionals, was then embraced by the Democratic Party, which knew which way the wind was blowing. Whatever plays to the kids. Whatever the liberal leadership's PMC sons and daughters informed them was going to be the Next Thing.

Before the first Bernie campaign, socialists and communists were considered the leftover dregs of a previous era, so obsolete and marginal as to be a joke. A nursing home. Anarchists were still considered the icebreakers of all social progress. But the tractor beam of the Bernie campaign shifted the terrain—socialism was in, electoral politics was in, pure anarchism was out. Both the old anarchists and the new PMC former liberals ventured into the cool new “socialist tide” moving it in their direction with a hodgepodge of tendencies and deviations that they brought with them into the big-tent of "socialism."

And that’s how the ultras have become superimposed on the media and culture mood, and influenced the political left and center. Being normal, sublimating oneself to the vast mass of humanity, is far less appealing than assuming an exciting new identity as a rebel. The complicated, subcultural worldview is built to be unappealing to the vast majority of people—it tends to repel the reasonable-minded and uncommitted—but it attracts intellectuals, grad-students and other marginal, cottage-industry types who find themselves almost instictively drawn toward what is small, hidden, obscure, or unpopular. Its like catnip for the fully-invested, freshly minted "radical" who is looking for a way to define themselves personally and socially through politics, in opposition to the embarassing masses of humanity they just escaped from. That's the paradox: the people from the masses of humanity are flowing into ultraleftism or "anti-fascism" to escape their blendedness and anonymity, and lots of the old guard has left the subcultural realm of political work and disappeared into the realm of normal working people. And so you have people looking to actually disconnect from their class or previous community to join a subculture, coming in the in door. They see being strategic and normal or "being popular" as a pivot toward the center—the place they are running from—they are looking to let the flag fly. They have no interest in making their ideas palatable to vast numbers of people. To do so, they would have to admit the unpopularity of their ideas, which they refuse to do. They think they're right, and the framing is fine, which it is, among the set of people they run with and regard as valid and legitimate. Its hard to remember that its never the forerunners or the old guard or the embittered and weary who are the most zealous and sadistic. Its always the tryhards…the second-generationers latecomers who truly missed the boat, and feel they have something to prove, who end up being the most dangerous.

West Columbia

Back here in the city brush, I find the house I grew up in.  The windows are fogged up with dust and its long sun-baked driveway is splintered with fault lines.  It yawns at me hauntedly, set back from the leafless Martian trees of the city park.  There are cars parked in the front yard, but I ignore them.   I walk around the side of the house and find the old sandbox that I would play in almost naked, where my parents took Polaroids of me when I was happy.  I go around back and there’s the deck where I stood outside eating Jello and watching the dark clouds swirling during Hurricane Hugo, which turned the neighborhood to rubble.  There’s the screened-in porch—one year at Christmas the front doorbell rang and my parents sent me out to run and get it.  When I opened the front door, no one was there.  When I turned around, I saw Santa Claus coming through the Chimney, several seconds I will describe as the most magical in my life.  It could be argued that Santa came in the back door through the patio, but that would be purposelessly crushing dreams.  Inside, the big living room with the bay windows where we would open presents and where I was really happy.  There’s the banister staircase where I waited and could feel the strange ambient anxiety when my parents came in the house with my newborn brother Ben.  Up the huge, distortedly big stairs is my bedroom, where I would have dreams of seeing through the house’s thin walls and out into the clear cold sky; in the brisk dark sky, what I saw was terrifying, a giant hand, with long green fingernails beckoning me to come out and join it.  I piled deeper into my blankets, and I could see it all happening without having to look—I would’t go to it, so it was coming to me.  The monsters flooded in from outside, tearing down the doors into the house and piling up the stairs, knocking and splintering at my door before coming in like a swarm and overtaking me.  The other dreams and alternate realities of childhood-through the black gates I can’t tell what was real and what was fiction.  Getting chased down dirt roads on bicycles.  A video that we watched about a girl who could go through a looking-glass, and ended up in a middle of nowhere cow pasture.  The cow pasture turned out to be a metaphor for death, as in “putting someone out to pasture”, because her grandmother had just died and the movie suggested that she would be reincarnated as a cow.  The girl went back through the looking glass to the attic of her mother’s house, and dealt with her grandmothers death in a respectful and mature way.

Dogs

A dog sits in a window of an ivy-covered row house in the historic Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, DC. A schnauzer. He looks regal but sad, like all of the diplomats and policy wonks and advisers—cold and half dead, warmed only by cognac or wine within his bitter little circle of trust. Just down the cobblestone street, on the main drag of Georgetown, mannequins stare out of the windows of American Apparel and Aeropostale at the beautiful, autoeroticized passersby, striving to emulate the cold sensuality of the window front displays. Flush-faced people down at the Potomac eat dinner at expensive restaurants, talking excitedly about situations, minutiae from their daily lives and relationships, experiences they won’t remember in seven years. Beautiful preppy men and women were sunglasses that denote their class—young party animals park their boats down by the riverfront, blast music and drink beers, trying to lure women onto the boat to party, the kind of girls who hang out by the Potomac looking to get on a boat. A couple rolls around on the grass intertwined, like puppies fighting. The President sits up in the White House and gets debriefed with information that is prescreened for him and will always be conveyed in an upbeat, timely and constructive manner, that will never point to the impossibility of some things ever being resolved. The people conveying this information are the kind of people who want to advance their positions and have given their tacit support to the idea of a hierarchical totem pole where to “move up” one must “pay their dues”.

Magnetism

How certain people can charm you and make you laugh no matter what they say. How their popularity just builds and builds until someone becomes a symbol, a cult of personality, and they can begin to plagiarize themselves. How certain people’s bedrooms, no matter what kind of sucky shithole they are living in possess an ambient aura of creativity, inspiration, or interest, while other people’s bedrooms feel more dead and transient than rundown hotel rooms. How everyone has their moment when ‘they are a magnet some of the time’, when there energy is focused and powerful and draws the others around—the crowds come rushing. The e-mail box is always full. The popularity doesn’t gather person by person, it grows exponentially, like a shadow being thrown on a wall. This person is good, this person is the one, look at how everyone loves this person, if I don’t get in on the ground floor with this person I’ll be missing the boat. Everybody wants a piece.

Bannon and Airports

Last night was the beginning of something. People mobilized spontaneously and acted and it felt like something new was being born. Normal people acting together gave courage to lawmakers and governors and mayors.

We can generate power through common life.

After the protest, it was reported that Steve Bannon will now sit on the National Security Council. He has been a strong figure in the Trump White House and seems to be the rising figure within the operation. I stayed up late after the protest and watched again Steve Bannon’s documentary “Occupy Unmasked.” The film is poorly made synaptic propaganda (hosted by Andrew Breitbart, who looks like he has a coke hangover) but I believe its important to watch Bannon closely to understand where he comes from, how he views the left, so we can better anticipate his moves and outmaneuver him the future.

My takeaway is that Bannon fundamentally misread Occupy. He does not have a strong understanding the left. Like many conservatives, anyone on the left is by default a “liberal” and blind dupe of Obama, Hillary, the Democratic Party machine. There is no room in their vision for something else because they do not know something else exists. They are just now only beginning to grasp what the Bernie phenomenon was. Its easier for them to do the traditional “snowflake” attack, which basically suggests that young liberals come from rich, culturally elite families or are indoctrinated in universities. Liberalism is something they were born into, or brainwashed into at Bennington or Swarthmore or the Upper West Side or wherever. This is topped off with a dabbing patina of the threat of “violent” “dirty” anarchists.

Bannon sees himself as a class-warrior. He’s waging a war of the 99% against the elite liberal .001% who made him feel weird or whatever.

His main talent as a strategist is revealing the glaring hypocrisy of the Democratic Party. You saw this with bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to the third debate. Now that the Democratic Party is in remission, its unclear how this talent will be put to use. Everything he does springs from this “gotcha” move: “If we’re so bad, why didn’t you complain when Hillary/Bill/Obama did the same thing?"

This is the signature Trump coalition move, along with the new and unoriginal move of accusing protestors of being paid by George Soros.

This is not seven-dimensional chess. This is 101 level strategy. It’s childish but crudely effective. Attack the “snowflakes” and congeal the base. And its remarkably easy to hate on the elitism and vested privilege of Clinton liberals.

Bannon has not graduated to 202: He doesn’t know how to reckon with the broad left opposition beyond Clinton/Obama liberalism yet. He didn’t even really understand Occupy beyond the “dirty snowflake” model.

In “Occupy Unmasked” they interview a socialist woman, the only person they don’t seem completely dismissive of and overly curious about: “How did you get into this? Who taught you?”

They then fall back on the outmoded toolkit: she got it from her elite family, she got it from graduate school professors who “indoctrinated” her. They don’t know how to escape their own premises and can’t imagine something else more confounding or hegemonic.

I guess an argument could be made that he understands better than he appears to understand and is simplifying. That he purposefully painted Occupy in broad strokes to more effectively draw out simmering anti-elite resentments. But my impression is that he simply does not understand. For example, they portray Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard were essentially the Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht of Occupy. Fundamental misreading of the situation. They don't even engage with the real vanguard of Tiqqunists and Graeberites that were at the heart of Occupy.

I truly believe that his Achilles heel will be an anti-elitist socialist coalition of the kind Bernie fostered, pulling in liberals like a whirlpool. This bloc has the wind at its back and also its a bloc that Bannon has given no indication of having a maneuver for.

Without sounding too triumphalist or self-congratulatory in this totally defensive time, I am strangely optimistic because in the long run all the pieces are there. I do think if the cards are played right, the American socialist left can outflank Bannon and eat him alive.

The Magnets: Between New York and North Carolina (The Towner)

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Late at night, the empty highways of central North Carolina achieve an oceanic placidity. Padded by vast swaths of pine forests and illuminated by the diffuse glow of light pollution from the sprawl, a kind of privacy, a stillness descends on the landscape. A strip mall parking lot, a pharmaceutical campus in the woods, the lights of the big stores glowing after the employees have gone home for the night, squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows, like a Mondrian painting. The road is empty, punctuated only by the occasional headlights of another car, the driver turning to stare as they glide past, both of you alone in the pines. A thick matte of kudzu engulfs the power lines. Civilization and nature come together like an old married couple, slowly approximating each other’s natures.

North Carolina has long been wedged between competing spheres of influence, almost like a Eurasian country in the way it is trapped between the South and the North, trying to plod some middle path. In keeping, the North Carolinians of my generation exhibit a certain bipolarity, an ambivalence and discontent, somehow always geographically and culturally in-between, always seeking and never satisfied. Of course, some stuck around, had kids and bought houses. And some moved away and never came back. But the vast majority of people I have known have boomeranged back and forth, moving away to Baltimore, DC, to New York to Portland then coming back to Raleigh, returning, always returning exhausted to catch their breath, to recover their finances, to reconnect with some aspect of themselves that they felt was neglected in other places.

I think of my old friend Doug back in Raleigh saying, “Every time you come back home to visit I realize how badly I need to get out of here.” I think of Katherine, moving back to Durham from Asheville to attend grad school saying, “It’s so different here now.” I think of my old friend Little Bear, moving back into the split-level house to take care of her dad, making chain mail jewelry on the faded carpet of her childhood bedroom, and riding her bike with the little blinking red light alone down those empty streets at night. Even those who you thought had experienced some degree of success and made a new life elsewhere sometimes surprise you. Like my old friend Walt, who after a couple of beers one night on some yellow bulb-lit front porch said, one day maybe, in that nebulous future when all is settled, then he would move back. I think of the lyrics to his haunting accordion songI drove up in May…all the roads were clear…and my eyes seem so aware…The buildings they change, like they always change, but only enough to make me feel not quite at home.

Read the rest at The Towner

The Genius and the Laborer (Lapham’s Quarterly)

"Let me tell you my life; it won’t take much of your time—you ought to know it.
I am a weed, a foundling, an illegitimate being.”

—Maxim Gorky, 1908

“As a writer, I am not ‘great’; I am simply a good worker.”
—Maxim Gorky, 1928

Attempting a friendship with one of your heroes is always a risky undertaking. Some cherished illusions have to be sacrificed to reality, some disenchantment unavoidable. Maxim Gorky was thirty-two when he befriended Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who was seventy-two and well into his heretical-prophet phase after a prolonged spiritual crisis decades earlier. The first night they met in 1900, Tolstoy took him into his study, criticized his stories in a torrent of expletives (while arguing that fifteen was the age of consent), and then gave him a hug and kiss, declaring: “You’re a real muzhik! You’ll have a hard time rubbing elbows with our writers, but don’t let anything intimidate you. Always say what you feel—if it comes out crudely, don’t worry.” Gorky left the encounter with mixed feelings. “It was as if I had met not the author of The Cossacks, ‘Strider,’ and War and Peace, but rather a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’ and this tended to upset my idea of him.”

Gorky had recently become famous after the publication of his first fiction collection, Stories of the Steppe, which depicted the hobos and tramps, itinerant populists, and lumpenprole dregs he had encountered during his youth. He had tried to meet Tolstoy years before, when he was just a vagrant with a distinctive face that one commentator noted stuck out among intellectuals but blended in with a group of workers. Back then he had made a pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polanya to ask the prophet for a small plot of land—any foundation upon which to build the stable foundations of a life. Leo Tolstoy was not around, but Sonya Tolstoy fed him tea and buns, complaining that all kinds of sketchy individuals had been asking for favors from her husband, before sending him on his way.

Gorky was acutely aware that his fame was less a result of what he had written than what he represented. Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, his parents died young, leaving him in the care of his newly declassed maternal grandfather, a ruthless and abusive disciplinarian. When he won a book prize at age nine, he sold it to buy food for his ailing grandmother. His grandfather forced him out of school at eleven, and kicked him out of the house soon after. He wandered and worked all kinds of jobs—shoe clerk, icon-maker’s apprentice, cook’s assistant—eventually falling in with revolutionary populists and becoming a writer. The orphan autodidact, the populist revolutionary with an arrest record, the bard of the underworld, became a token for Russia’s highborn literary elite. They could believe they had discovered a new type of Russian writer, that the sphere of cultural production was diversifying. “Here was a writer who actually emerged from ‘the people’ who wrote of and for them with none of that pious sympathy for suffering traditional among the intelligentsia,” the scholar Donald Fanger noted in a brilliant introduction to his fine translations of Gorky’s literary sketches and ephemera, Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences.

Gorky and Tolstoy were at crosscurrents, representing separate and opposed phases of Russian political radicalism. The aristocrat Tolstoy was a great romanticizer of peasant and country life, along with the late nineteenth-century populists and Narodniks who moved to rural villages to organize and agitate. After his well-documented spiritual crisis, he fled the salons and renounced his class, reinventing himself as an ascetic peasant and heretic. Gorky grew up bathed in the populist and Socialist Revolutionary milieu but became disenchanted with the dogmatic, peasant-fetishizing populists who tokenized him as a “man of the people.” He drifted from job to job, eventually becoming a Marxist not from reading Marx but from actually working, as a baker’s assistant in Kazan. There he met locals who “spoke with hatred about life in the countryside, thus contradicting his mentors, the populists,” Tovah Yeldin wrote in Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. After despair over the death of his beloved grandmother led him to attempt suicide, he gave small-town agitation one last try, moving to the tiny village of Krasnovidovo to work at a radical store where proto-Maoist populists were organizing around issues of police brutality. The experiment was an unmitigated disaster. The local authorities and kulaks burned the store to the ground. Gorky was driven out of town and nearly killed, according to Yeldin. For the rest of his life, he loathed the peasantry and the countryside. He spent the next five years writing short stories and wandering, surveilled and periodically arrested for propagandizing among students, before landing a job at the Samara Gazette in 1895. The position allowed him to write commentary and polemics—often against the populists—from within the populist fold. Gorky’s stories and commentary garnered him cult status among the young Marxists and the attention of important editors, critics, and writers. In 1902 the thirty-four-year-old iconoclast was nominated to the Imperial Academy of Sciences, to stand alongside Gogol and Pushkin. It was a cultural coup on par with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tsar Nicholas II personally annulled the nomination, writing, “He is under police surveillance. And the academy is allowing, in our troubled times, such a person to be elected!”

There is a romantic idea that certain editors or literary people have of the “true” self-contained genius who spends all his or her time alone writing one brilliant novel after another, floating like a snowflake above the vulgar world of politics, petty journalism, and reviews. But Gorky was immersed in the battles of his time, too contrarian and idiosyncratic to be fully contained by a party and periodically lashing out at all factions to remind them that intellectual vanguards were worthless compared to the will of the people. First a partisan for the populists, he eventually fell in with the Marxists, and soon thereafter the nascent Bolshevik faction. Perhaps more than with any other writer, Gorky’s life paralleled the rise and spread of Marxism in Russia, his fate intertwined with those of his contemporaries who would eventually come to power in 1917. Yeldin wrote that Gorky was referred to as “the herald of the coming storm,” adding that “it was as if Gorky and the Russian proletariat had been born at the same time.”

While Tolstoy fled to the countryside, away from the world of culture that was his birthright, Gorky, an outsider and a poor kid, crashed the literary party uninvited, charmed everyone, and became the guest of honor. He cherished culture with a zeal that only someone not born into it can possess, perhaps accurately sensing that it was all he had. In the late 1920s he wrote in a half-finished draft letter to an unknown correspondent, “For me, culture is something dearer and more intimate than it is for you. For you it’s a habit of yours, something into which you were born and as necessary as trousers.”

Gorky avoided both introspection and narcissistic self-disclosure in his writing. In all of his memoirs and sketches, he appears as a roving eye, a distant first-person voice without internality. He viewed literature as a vocation and himself as an industrious, if not particularly talented, worker. This sense of himself as a laborer fit in with his later Bolshevism and his professed belief that art was not only for the elect and that all people had talent. Yet there was a harder side of his personality that could write off whole groups in defense of the regime, calling for the “enemy to be exterminated ruthlessly and without pity, paying no attention to the gasps and groans of the professional humanists.” (He also was responsible for the literary whitewashing of the White Sea Canal, Stalin’s notorious Great Pyramids–like forced-labor project.) His life and work were eaten through with still-unresolved contradictions—hating and resenting the intelligentsia while wanting to be part of it, he was both the humanist Bolshevik and the anti-Bolshevik Bolshevik. He was also the writer who ignored his own genius to support and even save the lives of other writers, the gulag lover who was always the first to weep at poetry readings. Fanger quotes Anna Akhmatova’s comment from the 1960s: “It is customary these days to curse Gorky. But without his help at that time we would all have died of hunger.” In his work, he occasionally could be masterful in depicting moral gray areas. But the constant suppression of his own internality and soul led to accusations that he was a shrewd operator and opportunist. He was ultimately more interested in communication in service of an ideal than in individualistic self-expression, a primary tenet of the socialist realist literary tradition he helped found. At one point, the poet Alexander Blok confronted him for sacrificing his idiosyncratic artistic vision in order to build socialist realism: “You hide yourself. You hide your ideas about the spirit and about truth. What for?” Gorky had no good answer. Fanger quotes the scholar Shentalinsky, who concluded: “Gorky’s constant waverings between the desire to preserve his spiritual independence and the fear of falling behind the locomotive of revolution…these are the contradictions that run through his whole life and constitute his tragedy.” Late in life, when Gorky gave in to the decadent act of scribbling down a few fragments explicitly about himself, he wrote, “Sometimes I feel an urge to write a critical article about Gorky as artist. I am convinced that it would be the most malicious and the most instructive article ever written about him.”

Read the rest of the essay at Lapham's Quarterly.

Shopping At Target (2009)

Lines at the Target store, filled with products, anything and everything anyone could ever want or need. All needs are provided for, all desires fulfilled—we no longer have any variance in the economic system. In the future all economies will be the same, serving the purpose of making the all-comforting technocapitalist machine smaller and more efficient, less noticeable as all products become more altruistic—30% recycled! All organic and fair trade! Some proceeds go to benefit breast cancer awareness! In line, with my batteries and aluminum-free deodorant, I smile at the lady in front of and behind me, and they don’t return my glance. As the bearded guy at the register opens the clear magnetic chamber box that seals the DVDs, I can’t help but think of homo habilis—fiddling with tools, trying things, attemping.

“What if a thief had one of those keys?” I asked the bearded man.

“More power to him.” He doesn’t skip a beat. “Swipe your card,” he demands. I do. “You sure have a lot of ways you can pay,” I say, making conversation. He lowers his eyes conspiratorially. “Yeah…” he shakes his head and grimaces, “Wish we just took cash.”

“Yeah, the good old days…”

“Yeah…the good…” he mutters, his glasses sliding down the nose. “I wish we could just…you know…get back to bartering…”

“No economy, no jobs…”

“A sense of community…no more stupid uniforms” he says, toying with the lapel of his bright red shirt.

“Trading…we could trade all of our old junk in rather than sending it to the landfill.”

“We could trade…” he says

“I wouldn’t have to give you a plastic card” I say, delighted

“No money” he says

“No money” I repeat. He puts my products in a plastic bag. I stare into his bird-like eyes. “No bag for me, thanks” I pull them out of the plastic, “you save this for the next person,” I smile, satisfied with myself for reducing my carbon footprint, for my non-participation.

“Some people like the bags…” he says, crestfallen, “When it’s raining…”

“Have a good day, Sir” I say, and I mean it.

“You take care!” he commands. Another conspiratorial glance, seems to say We could burn this whole thing down. The automatic doors open soundlessly, releasing me back into suburban pseudo-nature, the rain and mist.

Rage Against the Dying Light (2011)

25c0a96e70c675af7eff6c40a116ba8b Growing up near Raleigh, I spent many years after high school getting lost on the one-way streets in the shadows of downtown. It’s a large inland city with no geographical features or monuments rising above the skyline to help orient you—all directions look the same, skyscrapers and art-deco architecture fading through a border of warehouses into stately old neighborhoods, some of which have been revitalized, others of which are in decay. When you leave the center city it seems to spin like a wheel of fortune, popping you out wherever it sees as fit. One night after a couple of beers at the Raleigh Times, I take a wrong turn in the labyrinth of skyscrapers and one-way streets and pop out in one of the neighborhoods that ring Raleigh—the rundown shotgun shacks, the rusted over country stores on lonesome street corners and the high concentration of guys in wife beaters wandering the streets. Through twists and U-turns, I somehow find my way back out to the escape hatch, broad Capital Boulevard, which shoots through downtown Raleigh like a vacuum tube. On Capital, I turn up the music, roll down the windows, and throw the car into high gear, speeding past the neon lights of the rotted boulevard—old warehouses, fresh-built gas stations, motorcycle shops and late-night Krispy Kreme donut shops. I’ve had a couple of beers and feel warm and relaxed inside, and lean back in the leather seat feeling, finally on the right frequency with the universe—mind and body feeling fresh, awake, and alive, aligned with the magnetic poles of fate. I made my way back to Hillsborough Street, that great college artery through town, which looks so different than when I first drove down it to shows at a tiny little rundown club where the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains used to play called the Brewery. Hillsborough is now cleaned up and redone—the lanes widened, all new businesses, and the old staple and flier-covered grimy old flickering streetlamps now replaced with a bright new energy-efficient model, positioned close together so that the entire boulevard is now brightly lit up like a pedestrian mall—shadows are kept at bay, and danger and darkness has been abolished in the general vicinity. I drive on past all the memories—the campus where I went to college, the street corner where we served Food Not Bombs, a house where I fell in love, on up the rode to the nerve center of the local youth culture, the Cup A Joe coffee shop, where the evening shift baristas are flapping out the rubber mats and emptying the mop buckets. I park right up in front of Cup A Joe and press my face up against the fliers taped up in the front panes of glass. By years of habit, my eyes are instinctively drawn to a photocopied black and white hardcore flier among the silkscreened posters for trivia nights, indie rock festivals and experimental theater performance. Four bands I’ve never heard of and one local band playing at a grimy bar downtown called The Berkeley. The flier says that the show is tonight and in fact started a couple of hours ago.

The thought crosses my mind to just call it a night like every other night—to go home to my mother’s house and read until I fall asleep and then wake up early and do it all over again. I feel old and literary, separated by a chasm from the manic youth energy of the hardcore show. There was a laundry list of good reasons not to go—“you won’t know anyone. You’ll be the oldest person in the room. You’ve already spent 1/5 of your life standing around watching bands, why would you want to spend anymore?” But something inside, perhaps the booze coursing through my veins, urges me to break out from the castle I have built for myself and take action against silent despair. Once the fire of the self-dare is lit it’s hard to put out. I jump back in the car and speed downtown, skidding to a halt at the park across the street from The Berkeley. A couple of deranged looking youth—weird haircuts, big black-frame glasses, laughing, stumbling, outsiders—are hanging out against the brick wall outside of the club. Inside, the familiar grubby darkness and interlude music playing over the club’s speakers and a doorman wearing a Totalitar t-shirt. “How many bands left?” I ask him. “Just one…” he smiles. I reach for my wallet but he waves me in, “Don’t worry about it, go on in” he says stamping my hand. I get a beer from the dead-eyed goth bartender and then head into the cave-like interior of the Berkeley’s belly. The space is half-empty and black-clad attendees mill around idly browsing records and merch. A quick scan of the crowd returns the disturbing fact that I am the only one with a beer and am probably the only one old enough to drink—none of the kids in the crowd have a 21+ armband and they all look like they just got out of high school. So young and fresh-faced, the world of hardcore like an ever-expanding balloon that slowly fills up their lives with purpose. A band of punk kids that look like they’re trying to look like they’re in Judas Priest are setting up on stage—a huge, lead singer with long, flowing blonde hair and a leather jacket, like some kind of Scandinavian incarnation of Joey Ramone is stooped over and awkwardly adjusting the height of the microphone. Sensing that they are about to start, all of the kids move up toward the stage, standing around with crossed arms and backpacks, so excited for the entertainment to begin. “We’re Rational Animals” the singer mutters and they launch into a dissonant Priest-like metal anthem. Raleigh has always been a metal town—Corrosion of Conformity solidified that back in the early 80s and little has changed since then—its as if the town is protected by an orb that repels the corrupting cultural trends of the outside world. In Raleigh, scraggly-bearded, Southern fried metal lives on. When I was coming of age there spending my late nights at the Waffle House there was a brief, fleeting era of artsy hardcore influence but in the intervening years that seemed to have died—Today, the twenty year olds filtered into Raleigh from the surrounding towns of Fuquay, Cary and Apex to see capital-M Metal and hardcore in the classical style, as it was intended.

It was immediately apparent that these kids hadn’t yet dulled themselves down to the point where they came to shows out of ritual, to socialize and stand around with crossed arms not having fun. They were there to feel alive and they weren’t going to waste their chance. Passion burbled up in them from hidden wellsprings and they couldn’t disguise it, couldn’t control it—they were excited and were burning. 

One or two kids started whipping around and moshing and then the rest joined in—a petite little girl tore through the room, scattering the boys, bounding around like a kangaroo ballerina.