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Challenges With Building a Leftist City

In his classic book, Left Coast City, Richard Edward DeLeon wrote about the challenges that left-winged “progressives” would have in being able to take control of the San Francisco government apparatus while still holding onto their progressive politics under a capitalist regime:

A…reality progressives must face is that a small business economy by itself is inadequate to support a progressive regime…[T]he city’s small businesses are not always beautiful, and its petty bourgeoisie will never be the economic vanguard of radicalism.  Leftist arguments that romanticize small business and demonize big business fail to capture the diversity and complexity of San Francisco’s business community.  In the city’s service economy, what most small service firms serve are big businesses.  To discount the economic importance of large corporations or to view them simply as objects of expropriation is to validate claims that progressives are unable to think strategically about the city as a whole…

Yet the progressives are onto something in their love affair with small business.  Their emphasis on preserving and promoting small firms and neighborhood shops follows logically from a slow-growth perspective on land use and physical development…(172-3, bolded words are mine).

Reference

DeLeon, Richard Edward.  1992.  Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991.  Lawrence, Kansas: University Press Kansas.

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Black Working Class Radicalism in Oakland

Black Panther Party members outside of a Safeway, in the East Bay, during the Safeway boycott (photo by Stephen Shames).

Historian Robert O. Self, in his book on geography, capitalism, and its affects on the Black population in the San Francisco East Bay, wrote:

In the workplaces and communities of midcentury West Oakland, African American residents forged a distinct laborite culture that blended class politics with civil rights.  Based in the Brotherhod of Sleeping Car Porters and other black railroad unions, as well as the left wing of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) on the docks and the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCSU) on the ships, this culture extended its influence broadly through the East Bay…This culture extended its reach across time.  Black longshoremen, veterans of the brutal class wars on the docks in the 1930s, articulated an internationalism that would, by the 1960s, influence Oaklanders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as they founded the Black Panther Party.  Black leaders from the railroad unions established political strategies in the 1940s that would guide a generation of activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  From one decade to the next across the second half of the century, these neighborhoods were home to a rich range of laborite, community, civil rights, and eventually black liberation politics.

Oakland provides an excellent vantage from which to launch an inquiry into this history.  Best known as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party in 1966 and as a national fulcrum of black radicalism throughout the late 1960s, Oakland was also a major seat of African American influence in California politics beginning in the late 1940s and the home of an extensive tradition of black social advocacy and organizing.  Indeed, the generation of black activists before the Panthers developed strategies, alliances, and sources of power that profoundly shaped the political terrain of race in both the East Bay and California as a whole.  Recovering the story of that generation, men and women who achieved none of the national media exposure and fame of the Panthers and faced little of the state-sponsored harassment and investigations, allows us to appreciate both the surprising continuities as well as the jarring divergences between the activists of the 1940s and 1950s and those of the 1960s and 1970s…The long postwar black liberation movement in the East Bay featured a fluid political environment in which philosophies and strategies competed with and interpenetrated one another.  Above all, in the decades after World War II, civil rights in Oakland stood less for civil rights than for economic rights, the foundation on which black American political demands had rested since the 1930s (5-6, 12).

Reference

Self, Robert O.  2003.  American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

The Falsehood of Multiple Modernities

"On White" by Wassily Kandinsky

Critiquing the concept of alternate modernities and its consequences toward understanding universalist theories, Žižek explains:

The significance of this critique reaches far beyond the case of modernity–it concerns the fundamental limitation of nominalist historicizing.  The recourse to multiplication (“there is not one modernity with a fixed essence, there are multiple modernities, each of them irreducible to others…”) is false not because it does not recognize a unique fixed “essence” of modernity, but because multiplication functions as the disavowal of the antagonism that inheres to the notion of modernity as such: the falsity of multiplication resides in the fact that it frees the universal notion of modernity of its antagonism, of the way it is embedded in the capitalist system, by relegating this aspect to just one of the historical subspecieis…

Jameson’s critique of the notion of alternate modernities thus provides a model of the properly dialectic relationship between the Universal and the Particular: the difference is not on the side of particular content (as the traditional differentia specifica), but on the side of the Universal.  The Universal is not the encompassing container of the particular content, the peaceful medium-background of the conflict of particularities…In other words, the Universal names the site of a Problem-Deadlock, of a burning Question, and the Particulars are the attempted but failed Answers to this Problem (34-35).

Reference

Žižek, Slavoj.  2009.  The Parallax View.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Merleau-Ponty on Emerging Class Consciousness

In his existential work, Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), writes about objective conditions of class and their relations with consciousness:

Let us suppose that I have a certain style of living, being at the mercy of booms and slumps, not being free to do as I like, receiving a weekly wage, having no control over either the conditions or the products of my work, and consequently feeling a stranger in my factory, my nation and my life.  I have acquired the habit of reckoning with a fatum, or appointed order, which I do not respect, but which I have to humour…My fellow workers in factory or field, or other farmers, do the same work as I do in comparable conditions; we co-exist in the same situation and fee alike, not in virtue of some comparison, as if each one of us lived primarily within himself, but on the basis of our tasks and gestures.  These situations do not imply any express evaluation, and if there is a tacit evaluation, it represents the thrust of freedom devoid of any project against unknown obstacles; one cannot in any case talk about a choice, for in [these] cases it is enough that I should be born into the world and that I exist in order to experience my life as full of difficulties and constraints–I do not choose so to experience it.  But this state of affairs can persist without my becoming class-conscious, understanding that I am of the proletariat and becoming a revolutionary.  How then am I to make this change?…Social space begins to acquire a magnetic field, and a region of the exploited is seen to appear.  At every pressure felt from any quarter of the social horizon, the process of regrouping becomes clearly discernible beyond ideologies and various occupations.  Class is coming into being, and we say that a situation is revolutionary when the connection objectively existing between the sections of the proletariat…is finally experienced in perception as a common obstacle to the existence of each and every one…Both idealism and objective thinking fail to pin down the coming into being of class consciousness, the former because it deduces actual existence from consciousness, the latter because it derives consciousness from de facto existence, and both because they overlook the relationship of motivation (515-17, 520, bold is mine).

Reference

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice.  2002.  Phenomenology of Perception.  Translated by Colin Smith.  New York: Routledge Classics.

Beauvoir on “Halfway between revolt and slavery”

Writing on forms of logic, ethics, and actions in a male-centered and shaped society Beauvoir speaks of the existentialist position and phenomenological experience of women in that society:

It is understandable why, from this perspective, woman objects to masculine logic.  Not only does it have no bearing on her experience, but she also knows that in men’s hands reason becomes an insidious form of violence; their peremptory affirmations are intended to mystify her.  They want to confiner her in a dilemma: either you agree or you don’t; she has to agree in name of the whole system of accepted principles: in refusing to agree, she rejects the whole system; she cannot allow herself such a dramatic move; she does not have the means to create another society: yet she does not agree with this one.  Halfway between revolt and slavery, she unwillingly resigns herself to masculine authority.  He continuously uses force to make her shoulder the consequences of her reluctant submission…

The woman does not positively think that the truth is other than what men claim: rather, she holds that there is no truth.  It is not only life’s becoming that makes her suspicious of the principle of identity, nor the magic phenomenon surrounding her that ruin the notion of causality: it is at the heart of the masculine world itself, it is in her as belonging to this world, that she grasps the ambiguity of all principles, of all values, of all that exists.  She knows that when it comes to her, masculine morality is a vast mystification.  The man pompously drums his code of virtue and honor into her; but secretly he invites her to disobey it: he even counts on this disobedience; the whole lovely facade he hides behind would collapse without it.

His relations with woman thus lie in a contingent region where morality no longer applies, where conduct is inconsequential.  His relations with other men are based on certain values; he is freedom confronting other freedoms according to laws universally recognized by all; but with woman–she was invented for this reason–he ceases to assume his existence, he abandons himself to the mirage of the in-itself, he situates himself on an inauthentic plane; he is tyrannical, sadistic, violent or puerile, masochistic or querulous, he tries to satisfy his obsessions, his manias; he “relaxes,” he “lets go” in the name of rights he has acquired in his public life (651-2, emphasis in bold is mine).

Reference

de Beauvoir, Simone.  2010.  The Second Sex.  Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovancy-Chevallier.  New York: Alfred A Knopf.

West’s Prophetic Pragmatism

Photography by Stephen Charles (click for photographers Flickr page).

In a book analyzing Cornel West‘s (1953– ) philosophy and politics Mark David Wood writes:

Prophetic pragmatism, one of the most fully elaborated and progressive expressions of post-Marxist politics in the present era, appeals to academicians, politicians, and business leaders precisely because it poses no serious threat to the class of individuals who control and appropriate the lion’s hare of the Earth’s resources and humanity’s collectively generated wealth.

[I]t seeks to implement a reform agenda that attempts to address the needs of both rulers and ruled by establishing cross-class alliances on the grounds of shared moral, parental, or national identity…and…it seeks to solve human problems without challenging the moral legitimacy and social consequences of privatized control of production and planning of social development (185-6).

Reference

Wood, Mark David.  2000.  Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism.  Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Lefebvre’s Dialectical Materialism

Photo by Pablo Secca.

Stefan Kipfer, in the preface to Dialectical Materialism, touches upon one of the key points of French communist philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991):

This preliminary critique of Hegel provides the basis for the second, and most important, part of Dialectical Materialism: Lefebvre’s argument about the relationship between Hegel and Marx. According to Lefebvre, Marx dealt with Hegel’s legacy in two phases. In his early work, most notably the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) and The German Ideology (1845-46, with Engels), Marx lays the foundation for historical materialism. In the Manuscripts, he takes Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind to task for misunderstanding alienation as objectification of the mind, rather than as a form of material dispossession, while mistaking ” alienated life” (religion, law, philosophy) for “real life.” In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels applaud Ludwig Feuerbach’s initial critique of Hegel’s idealism while criticizing his naturalistic, undialectical materialism and his abstract conception of man as a social being. Feuerbach thus fails to place man and things within the web of social relations through which man transforms nature, produces history, and, in class society, gets separated -alienated -from the fruits of his productive activity and fellow humans. Both Feuerbach and Max Stirner fail to see that their starting point (the isolated, private individual) is itself a product of alienation and reification. According to Lefebvre, Marx and Engels’s critique of Feuerbach and Stirner most fully develops historical materialism as ” a unity of idealism and materialism.” (xviii-xix)

Source

Lefebvre, Henri.  2009.  Dialectical Materialism.  Translated by John Sturrock.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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