E-Crises and Andidotes, All the Way Down

If you’re an American and in any way invested in the political system and political developments, then you are probably in your own e-crisis…

A few days ago I was washing dishes and listening to a podcast from the Trillbilly Workers’ Party.

I started listening to them this year, during Spain’s lockdown, when I’d take Alqo into the woods for a momentary escape. Hosted by Tanya, Tom, and Tarence from Appalachia, Kentucky (Tarence is a transplant from New Mexico), their perspectives as three marxists from a rural and conservative area are illuminating. Every so often, they reference the e-crisis, or epistemological crisis, that haunts the United States.

A crisis or knowledge. We cannot agree on basic, foundational knowledge or facts in the political, social, or religious realms. With heightened stakes for progress (societal and perhaps planetary survival) from pandemics, rising acceptance of authoritarianism, climate inaction, and many of us being ‘more online’ than ever, we’ve entered a new phase on how we relate to each other and the wider world. Obviously, disagreement spans centuries and geography, but the last decade’s technological and algorithmic advancements have given us our own finely-tuned informational vacuum that is not shared with even our closest neighbors.

We, the United States, with all our social and economic contradictions might be at the stage of the Weimar or late Roman republics. I say this knowing full well my own family does not see it like that. Granted, I tend to speak in extremes. Am I seeing something differently, (or missing something) because I live abroad?

But I also see the e-crisis in myself. I’m more annoyed and sarcastic when I scroll through Twitter in my morning. Why? Because all the outrage and governmental ineptitude is on full display right when I wake up. There’s no joy filter I can turn on. I just have to muster the willpower to log off.

Before I though of this crisis as collectivized, generalized. I had not considered to think deeply about my own internal epistemological crisis.

In this particular episode, one of the hosts, Terence, started dissecting the 21st century Marxist motto “A better world is possible”. He questioned this:

We’re constantly in this space where we think we can change the world, philosophically, … but we know deep down, empirically, that we can’t. That’s the e-crisis. It’s the space between those two things.

He continued by saying that some days he wakes up feeling inspired and optimistic about the future. If we keep on working towards something positive and democratic and for the benefit of all, good things will start happening. But other days, he wakes up with the grim thought that there’s not much those of us who hold no power or sway over large institutions can do.

The contradictions are stacking up, but for all we see with what’s happening (specifically in the United States), it is not producing the mass discontent, radicalization, and organizational action of people needed to overthrow the capitalist system. So Tarence ended his monologue with:

It would probably behoove you to get into religion, some sort of spiritual practice, or something.

From previous episodes and an article about them in the Bitter Southerner, I know that two of the Tarence and Tom are ex-Christians.

As with any book or podcast that’s meaningful to me, I started reflecting on my own trajectory over the last few years. In Mauritania and Mexico I had turned away from the (neo)-traditionalist form of Islam that seemed solid to me. In the end, I could square the legalist, non-mystical, and non-materialist framing that the celebrity imams and my Mauritanian friends seemed convinced of with my reading of the Qur’an and Islamic history. Even though I was relatively late to the party, I chafed at the sectarianism online and offline. But really, I was only rebelling against my own shaky conceptions of what it meant to be Muslim.

I had read a good deal about Sufism but did not consider myself one. My first encounter with Islam was through Rumi at university. I had never felt the ineffable mystical experience that the spiritual masters and poets described until my night with the chakruna in Peru.

That night healed my broken heart for the dīn, that way of life given to us by The One That is Closer to Us Than Our Jugular Veins and elucidated by the prophets since the first Homo sapiens, willingly adopted as my own. It also gave me the drive to start opening up about things that I consider incredibly complex and important. I don’t have all the answers obviously, and perhaps I’m wrong about many things. But I have enjoyed the path.

But if I’m being honest, I have become distracted from the ineffable. I externalized my peace of mind and happiness into the material with the Bernie campaign, wishing for improvements that might never come. I’m probably not alone. But with getting older, reading closely the arc of history and progressive movements. Sometimes the shoe never drops. I could live out the rest of my days with the anticipation of the sudden collapse of the global financial capitalist system that never comes. Tarence wasn’t suggesting religion to move away from fighting those necessary battles; racial injustice, the climate emergency, the neo-fascists. He was giving us a bigger anchor to hold on to.

I look to the Qur’an and Islam as one might look to Jesus and Christianity to steady myself and see the long game. To read the allegories of the prophets and the pronouncements for me is to gain a larger, more cosmic perspective of things. In the end, Justice will be served. It is up to us and in the same way, not up to us.

After I finished the dishes, I picked up my copy of Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? It was a field-changing book for Islamic Studies. I’m still in the introduction but in it, he picks apart the the conception of what is Islamic. Are wine-cups from the caliphs with Arabic inscriptions on them considered Islamic? Why do we consider the juridical perspectives of the great imams more Islamic than the philosophic-religion like Ibn Sina or Ibn ‘Arabi?

But it wasn’t necessarily the contents of the book that comforted me that night. It was the convergence of hearing someone remind us of the importance of a larger spiritual worldview to strengthen ourselves for the important materialist fight for earthly progress and an important scholar exploring what it really means to be Muslim, using examples of practices and people who are occasionally considered heterodox (outside of the fold of Islam) that lifted me.

It’s a silly example that can only make sense to me, with all the things rattling around in my head. But I’m sure there are others who have similar experiences of different stimuli that converge at the exact right moment they need them to produce a personal mini-breakthrough. I needed that this particular night.

My own e-crisis will remain, I’m sure. I can’t turn it off and dive so fully into my own surroundings and hobbies that I forget about what goes on outside my family, my tribe, my spiritual community, or country. But reframing my thinking and using a “larger anchor” that I had momentarily forgotten have gifted me more acceptance for what might come. And for that I am grateful.

“We Have Nothing to Give You But Your Own Freedom”

I thought the quarantine would allow me to read more books than I have. Old habits of only starting longer books, or becoming distracted by articles or tweets, die hard.

But having Deleted Twitter™ (once again) and consciously making time to read every night before bed, I finished Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed yesterday.

And I loved it.

A good friend of mine gave me his copy when I was last in California two years ago and it’s been with me since, yet sitting. On a recent FaceTime call, where we inevitably discuss all that’s interesting to us in a hodge-podge of rapid-fire questions, quips, and segues of politics, culture, history, etc., he mentioned he had reread it. I vaguely knew the premise;

170 years after a group of anarchists settled a capitalistic planet’s moon after a successful revolution and absolutely no interplanetary contact, one comes back.

As usual, whenever I make time for fiction, the stories that draw me in occasionally have more profound thoughts than some dense book of theory or history.

What do social relations look like in a planet where there is no government, no currency, no prisons, no law? Where everyone consciously chooses what to do but with the awareness of themselves as part of one social organism, scrappily making a life out of a planet with very little natural resources?

Le Guin’s imagination and the big ideas in the book were much more interesting to me than how she wrote them. The book oscillates between the Shevek’s (the protagonist and Anarres’ most brilliant physicist) life on his native Anarres and after he lands on Urras.

The story was good, but for me, the book’s what-if scenario drew me in the most. What if there was a successful anti-capitalist social revolution? What if the victors win concessions, like almost two centuries of uninterrupted peace?

“We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into the world, into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life. You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.” — Shevek

The end of the book was easily my favorite part. A mass demonstration, the consequences of when popular unrest meets the ruling class, a meeting and conversation with another planet’s ambassador, and a revolution inside a revolutionary state.

I sped through the last forty or so pages to catch my friend on FaceTime and discuss it. In our long-winded way, he touched on the book, the moment, and everything else that we fancied. Then he dropped another recommendation; *Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Another author who I’m aware of yet have never made the time for. This one is an alternative history if the Black Death had wiped out most of Europe and speculating on the last 700 years if Islam and Buddhism were the major poles of power on Earth.

I think I might just go to him for every fiction recommendation.

But first, Murray Bookchin’s The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy.

An American State Organized on Fascist Principles

Fascism is capitalism in decay.
Maybe Lenin but probably R. Palme Dutt

There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People
Umberto Eco

The past week has laid bare all of America’s growing contradictions. The contradictions of mythical American exceptionalism, late-stage gig economy services capitalism with 40 million unemployed, a pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color with little-to-no federal response, an incoming climate crisis already visible but ignored, consolidated financial capital for the 1% while growing misery affects all of the working class. It is a country that cannot, or will not, provide a social safety net to working people nor appropriate equipment to medical personnel during a pandemic, yet will happily mobilize a militarized police to crush any legal right to voice discontent with widespread violence and impunity. Ironically, it will designate anti-fascism as a terrorist ideology.

While both conservative and liberal media hyperventilate about looting, no one has bothered questioning the heavy-handed actions of the police apparatus as perhaps initiating a response by people looting. In fact, many articles coming out in the Spanish press are praising police taking a knee with protestors. Which is absurd, because thirty minutes after these photo ops, they start tear-gassing again.

Adam Weinstein for The New Republic:

It is time to embrace the parallels, to be unafraid to speak a clear truth: Whether by design or lack of it, Donald Trump and the Republican Party operate an American state that they have increasingly organized on fascist principles. It is also time to consider what else the fascists may yet do, during an unprecedented pandemic, amid unprecedented unemployment, faced with unprecedented resistance ahead of an unprecedented election. The Republican Party wants to make “antifascist” a category of terrorist; whether or not it actually uses active-duty soldiers to round up this new class of undesirables in the “national emergency,” it has at its disposal every police officer who flies a Punisher or Blue Lives Matter flag above the U.S. flag, every armed vigilante and Oathkeeper and Proud Boy who craves the boogaloo.

America is in a deep crisis, and it has little to do with some people looting some stores. Far from the cries of police reform of more body cams, the people on the streets understand that any posturing by politicians with these ideas are totally insufficient. We have past that long ago. We are seeing this level of uprising precisely because the authorities have ignored this for decades.

We have no opposition party left in the Democratic Party, with its means-tested focus-grouped solutions. And the Republican Party has been wholly capture by Trump and his brand of vacuous machismo. These contradictions necessitate systemic change, and it starts with overthrowing capitalism. Vote for whoever you want in November, but regardless of who ascends to the highest office in the land, our crises go beyond the ballot box. Our decaying empire and its sprawling military will still be there if Joe Biden is president. We will still be left with structural racism and a trigger-happy, violent police force that believes themselves to be an occupying force in American cities, because they live in the suburbs. We will still have concentrated capital for a small group of oligarchs that offer shitty jobs with no medical or social protections. It is time to start understanding that reality and act accordingly.

Unified Veranda Theory

It’s my Saturday today. I’ve been out on the terrace, watching the fig tree away with the breeze. There are more insects buzzing, snails crawling up the stone walls, and birds darting between the electrical and phone lines that surround our house. I’m also playing around with the vintage camera app Vooravo for some retro-looking photos around the house. I’m bored of photographing the same trees from the well-worn paths of the monte.

This is one of those weekend mornings that reminds me of my years in Sierra Leone; the unhurried day, the privilege of watching time and life of the village pass by from a veranda, the warm sun on my body, the ability to read as much as I want to.

Grateful and guilty, which has been a recurring tension during the lockdown. Grateful to have had the privileges and opportunities to organize my life in this manner, and guilty knowing that not everyone is so lucky. But I know I’m in my head a lot, and that guilt will lead to paralysis or unnecessary suffering.

I misread a quote from some article a few weeks ago. In my head in went something like;

The best safeguard to life under late capitalism is withdrawing from it.

But it actually wasn’t that, at all. It was a critique, that the privileged ones, the ones with an inessential, work-from-home job are the ones who can safeguard themselves from coronavirus.

I recently talked to a friend, a madrileño musician from West Africa with a similar practical philosophy. He mentioned the protests in barrio de Salamanca and the incessant material desires that nag certain classes of people in the capital. It feels foreign, otherworldly. That wasn’t always the case, but a product of half of my life, maybe started after they extubated me. Who’s to say. But I think it’s possible that most can come to the conclusion that infinite growth on a finite planet is illogical.

We can thread the needle, withdraw from the capitalist mentality without completely withdrawing from society like Christopher McCandless; plant a garden, reduce costs and discourage consumption habits, prioritize immaterial experiences, read books, go for walks, re-valorize the countryside, or enjoy voluntary frugality in the city. Flatten the curve of coronavirus and of climate change by socially distancing and driving less, flying less, removing animal products from my diet, eating seasonally and locally. Prefigure a better world by thinking, talking, and planning other ways of organizing life and social relations. Want less, need less, and perhaps work less because of those priorities and that organized withdrawal.

For now, I’ll “do praxis” by non-participation, as much as I can, and theorize by writing into the void, ruining conversations with family and friends by talking climate, and reading Bookchin in my hammock. And I’ll never forget to enjoy the conference of the birds on the phone lines.

Marx Predicted Our Present Crisis, and Points the Way Out

“We need more robots, better solar panels, instant communication and sophisticated green transport networks. But equally, we need to organise politically to defend the weak, empower the many and prepare the ground for reversing the absurdities of capitalism. In practical terms, this means treating the idea that there is no alternative with the contempt it deserves while rejecting all calls for a “return” to a less modernised existence.”

“Capitalism’s reach is so pervasive it can sometimes seem impossible to imagine a world without it. It is only a small step from feelings of impotence to falling victim to the assertion there is no alternative. But, astonishingly (claims the manifesto), it is precisely when we are about to succumb to this idea that alternatives abound.“

In light of world governments pushing their citizens to “reopen economies”, the oncoming financial crisis sparked by lagging consumption and massive unemployment, and the further consolidation of capital from firms like Amazon, Yanis Varoufakis‘s Guardian article on the Communist Manifesto (adapted from his introduction of a recent edition) for the old man’s bicentennial is as relevant as ever:

If the manifesto holds the same power to excite, enthuse and shame us that it did in 1848, it is because the struggle between social classes is as old as time itself. Marx and Engels summed this up in 13 audacious words: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

From feudal aristocracies to industrialised empires, the engine of history has always been the conflict between constantly revolutionising technologies and prevailing class conventions. With each disruption of society’s technology, the conflict between us changes form. Old classes die out and eventually only two remain standing: the class that owns everything and the class that owns nothing – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

This is the predicament in which we find ourselves today. While we owe capitalism for having reduced all class distinctions to the gulf between owners and non-owners, Marx and Engels want us to realise that capitalism is insufficiently evolved to survive the technologies it spawns. It is our duty to tear away at the old notion of privately owned means of production and force a metamorphosis, which must involve the social ownership of machinery, land and resources. Now, when new technologies are unleashed in societies bound by the primitive labour contract, wholesale misery follows. In the manifesto’s unforgettable words: “A society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

Everyone reading this has lived in the capitalist realist world with no first experience of anything else. Marx was born at precisely the right time in history to see capitalism being born. As such, his analysis is relevant to us, even if he didn’t understand ecology, gender, and technology in quite the same way we do now.

It is the end of ‘the end of history’. There is an alternative to the unequal American reality, regardless of what the political and capitalist classes say. You can see it for yourself in the human-centered responses.