27 November 2016

Remembering Holy Great-Martyr James the Persian


Great-Martyr James the Persian

Today in the Church we remember James the Sawn-Asunder, the great-martyr of the Persian people and a towering spiritual model of fidelity, truthfulness, courage and perseverance for the Holy Orthodox Church, along with the luminary saints of his illustrious nation who followed in his footsteps, such as Ražden, Dometius and Eustace.

James was a high-ranking military officer in the service of the Persian Šāhanšāh Yazdegerd I and his successor Bahrām V, born into a well-to-do Christian family. He married a particularly devout Christian woman and loved her dearly; they had a number of children whom they raised dutifully in the Christian faith. He was mild-mannered and good-natured, and did good and honourable service under both kings, and his services to the Persian nation were well-honoured and beloved; he was so dear to both Yazdegerd and Bahrām that they kept him in their retinue constantly and showered him with gifts and gratitude.

Like most mild-mannered and good-natured men, he had a certain weakness: James was unwilling to ‘rock the boat’. Both Yazdegerd and Bahrām had plied him with riches and honours for so long that he began to waver in his faith, being seduced not only by ease and wealth but also by the understandable desire to be genial. In the end, he offered sacrifices in the Zoroastrian temple in the presence of Emperor Bahrām, to the shame of his faith.

When his wife and his mother heard of James’s weakness, both women were quite put out. They sent him a missive berating him for shaming his nobility, for exchanging falsehood for truth, and for defrauding the Christian faith in pursuit of glory and temporary rewards; they told him bluntly that they would disown him if he did not repent of his sins and return to his former observance. When he read this letter, James, greatly distressed, began openly lamenting and weeping, imploring Christ to forgive his iniquities, ‘in imitation of Manasseh and Peter’s repentance’. He studied the Scriptures and contemplated his end; and he could not stop the flow of tears, of which jealous and wicked officials in Bahrām’s service took notice, and discerned the reason for his distress. Seeing an opportunity for advancement in James’ downfall, they reported to the Emperor that James had not abandoned his former faith. Infuriated, the Persian Emperor summoned James to him in Gondēshāpūr, and inquired if he were a Nazarene. To which James answered boldly: ‘Yes – I am a servant of my Lord, Jesus Christ.

As he had done formerly, Bahrām again tried to ply James with gifts and favours, but to no avail. When this failed, he threatened James with horrific tortures and punishments – but James would not again falter in the faith he had professed. James spoke boldly to Bahrām:
‘O King, do not waste time importunely. Do not frighten me with torments, nor insincerely compliment me with tributes and gifts, because I despise from my heart all temporal enjoyments, empty glory, decaying riches and bodily sensuality, in order to inherit the true wealth and the honour, inexpressible delight and bliss. Wherefore, gladly I divest myeslf of wealth and glory, friends and relatives, mother, wife and all the pleasures of the body. And not only these things, but I am prepared to meet with ten thousand deaths, only not to injure my sweet Christ, the Beautiful One among the sons of men, Who fashioned the sun, moon and the remainder of creation, and Whose divine will is equal to His power. He who denies Him goes to endless death.’
Bahrām, hearing these words, became enraged, realising that no inducements of pain or pleasure could be brought to bear upon the Great-Martyr. One of the wicked counsellors who had betrayed James recommended to the king that he be dismembered by the joints, starting from his fingers and working back to his limbs, and the impious and ungrateful tyrant agreed to this sentence – but James himself did not flinch or cower on hearing this judgement, but went to his death with joy and eagerness.

Even as he was at the execution-ground and his arm was placed on the anvil to be subjected to the hideous punishment, and the executioners themselves tried to persuade him at the last moment to abandon his faith, he berated them and told them to weep not for him but for themselves, as their idols and temporal pleasures would not avail them in the end. He prayed to Christ before the sentence was carried out, that he would be strengthened in the struggle.

As the body of the Great-Martyr James was destroyed in this heinous manner, however, he did not utter a single word of anger or hatred toward his executioners, but instead offered at each cut a prayer to God, a verse from the Scriptures or a song of praise. When they had dismembered his fingers from his hands, his hands and his feet from his limbs, and his limbs from his torso, he still remained alive, but the executioners and the counsellors and the emperor who beheld him were all unnerved and frightened by his not having uttered one cry of hurt or anger or rage. When at last they ordered him to be beheaded, the Great-Martyr bowed his head and gave thanks to the Holy Trinity that he had been able to endure all, and prayed that even he, having been made a ‘branchless tree without roots’, might not be abandoned in the final moment.

The worldly leaders of the Sasanian kingdom ordered the martyr to be put to death at last by beheading, having had their worldly powers put to shame by the Great-Martyr’s uncomplaining perseverance. His family and his fellow-believers came to Gondēshāpūr and collected the relics of Saint James, where they interred them with the reverence befitting such a spiritual athlete.

It is meet and fitting and important to remember such a martyr and saint in his own right, because he was subject to all manner of ordinary and understandable struggles with which the ordinary believer can easily identify, in addition to the horrific tortures which ended his life. But it is also important to remember not the king and counsellors who destroyed him but rather the fact that the spiritual principle of the Iranian people – the great uncompromising, truth-seeking, poetic and personalist genius of that great civilisation – shines with great brilliance in her saints of the Orthodox faith.

You listened to your faithful wife
And contemplated the judgement of God, holy James;
You despised the threats and commands of the Persians,
Accepting the cutting of your body as though you were a vine.
Therefore you were revealed as a martyr worthy of honour.

23 November 2016

Remembering Holy New Hieromartyr Grigol of Georgia


Holy New Hieromartyr Grigol (Peradze)

On the 23rd of November we commemorate a brave monastic, scholar and abbot of the Georgian people, Archimandrite Grigol (Peradze), who resisted the Bolsheviks in his own country, and later suffered under the brutal persecution of the Nazis, and died protecting his fellow inmates from an unjust reprisal for the murder of a prison guard. Archpriest Zakaria (Machitadze) gives his hagiography in the Lives of the Georgian Saints thus:
Archimandrite Grigol (Peradze) was born August 31, 1899, in the village of Bakurtsikhe, in the Sighnaghi district of Kakheti. His father, Roman Peradze, was a priest. In 1918 Grigol completed his studies at the theological school and seminary in Tbilisi and enrolled in the philosophy department at Tbilisi University. Three years later, in 1921, he began to teach at the university, but the Georgian Church soon sent him to Germany to study theology. From 1922 to 1925 Grigol studied theology and eastern languages at the University of Berlin, and in 1925 he transferred to the philosophy department at the University of Bonn, where he received a doctoral degree in philosophy for his dissertation ‘The Monastic Life in Georgia from Its Origins to 1064’. Grigol continued to attend lectures in theology at the University of Louvain until 1927.

In 1927 Grigol moved to England to continue his career in academia, and there he became acquainted with the old patristic manuscripts that were preserved in the library collections of the British Museum and Oxford University. In July of that year Grigol was named an associate professor at the University of Bonn, and he returned there to lecture on the history of Georgian and Armenian literature. In 1931 Grigol was tonsured a monk, ordained a priest, and appointed dean of the Georgian church in Paris. A year later he was invited to Oxford to lecture on Georgian history.

A new period in St Grigol’s life began later in 1932, when the Metropolitan of all Poland, Dionysius Waledinsky, invited him to be a professor of Patrology and the chair of Orthodox Theology at Warsaw University. He often delivered lectures at academic conferences and in academic centers throughout Europe. He sought tirelessly for ancient Georgian manuscripts and historical documents on the Georgian Church. His searches took him to Syria, Palestine, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, Romania, Italy and England. As a result of his labors, many long-lost Georgian manuscripts surfaced again.

Humility and industriousness characterized the Hieromartyr Grigol throughout his life. In difficult moments he often repeated the words of St. John Chrysostom: ‘Glory be to God for all things!’ In the 1920s, as the Red Army was securing its occupation of Georgia, the nation’s treasures were carried away to France for safekeeping. Later, in the 1940s, Georgian society was unaware that, due to St Grigol’s efforts alone, many treasures of Georgian national culture were spared confiscation by the Nazis in Paris. Risking execution at the hands of a firing squad, St Grigol wrote in the official documentation presented to the Nazis that these items were of no particular value but were precious to the Georgians as part of their national consciousness.

Nor did most of Georgian society know that, in Paris, Archimandrite Grigol had founded a Georgian church in honor of the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Nino and a parish journal called
Jvari Vazisa, or ‘The Cross of Vines’.

In May of 1942 St Grigol was arrested by the Gestapo. The priceless Georgian manuscripts he had preserved and many sacred objects that had been crafted by ancient Georgian masters and collected by St Grigol during his travels (in hopes of returning them to Georgia) disappeared after his apartment was searched.

Archimandrite Grigol was arrested for sheltering and aiding Jews and other victims of the fascist persecutions. He was incarcerated at Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, and deported to Auschwitz at the beginning of November.

In the camp an inmate killed a German officer. The guards drove everyone out of the barracks absolutely naked, forcing them to stay in the below-freezing temperatures until someone confessed. St Grigol decided to take the blame for the murder, thus saving innocent prisoners from freezing to death. The guards let loose the dogs on the martyr, poured gasoline over him, and lit him on fire. Then they said, “Poles, go warm yourselves around him, your intercessor.” According to the official German documentation, Grigol Peradze died on December 6, 1942 [November 23, old style], at 4:45 in the afternoon. In the end, like Christ Himself, Archimandrite Grigol died for having taken upon himself the sin of another.
Thy soul rejoices with the holy Apostles,
O Father Grigol, crown of the martyrs.
Through thy prayers make us worthy of everlasting joy!

22 November 2016

Sobornost’ and the state – a partial correction


The recent Social Matter essay by Mark Citadel on the topic of sobornost’ is an interesting one, though there is a certain level of misunderstanding which pervades it regarding the key theorists of sobornost’: Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. One would walk away from this essay thinking they were in total agreement, and indeed in ideological lockstep, with the likes of Count Uvarov and the ‘official nationality’ which Tsar Nicholas I propagated throughout his Empire. Yet far from being taken in by the state, the Slavophil theorists – every one of them, from the elder of the movement Khomyakov down to the youngest of that generation, Yuri Samarin and Ivan Aksakov – were hounded and censored by Tsar Nicholas I. Why is this?

I have written, in fact, a mild critique of Dr. Susanna Rabow-Edling’s thesis along the same lines as Mark Citadel has here. I have some deep misgivings about hewing too closely to the line that the Slavophils were devoted anarchists – even Berdyaev (devoted anarchist that he was!) was willing to credit the Slavophils with some subtlety, and did not shy away from the reactionary-hierarchical tendencies within Slavophil thought. But decontextualising Khomyakov and Kireevsky from the intellectual and social ferment that Chaadaev set off with his philosophical letters as Citadel does in this essay, is to do them a grave disservice. Chaadaev had issued a challenge to the entirety of the Russian lettered classes in the wake of the Decembrist Uprising, that Russia had nothing to offer the world in the way of moral or technological or civilisational advance, and that Russia’s duty now was to fall in line with the received wisdom and habits of the West from which they had been so long divorced. The entire idea of sobornost’ as a key contribution of the Russian genius to human civilisation came forth out of these intellectual disputes.

On one aspect at least, Mr Citadel gets the idea of sobornost’ very much right. The original focus of the Slavophils, inspired by Saint Isaac of Nineveh and by the Optina monks, was indeed on the Orthodox Church, as an organic collectivity based on mutual love and dynamic participation in a life built on a shared, common experience. But if they had left their analysis here – that is, if the Slavophils’ intellectual frenemy (the proto-Westerniser) Aleksandr Herzen’s barb about them ‘seeking the living Rus’ in the Chronicles the way Mary Magdalene sought Jesus in the tomb’ were indeed true – then the Tsar would not have any reason to consider them a threat. But in truth, they carried sobornost’ a great deal further than that, and began to read their concepts into Russian history in a creative and even subversive way, which is precisely why they fell squarely under Imperial scrutiny.

Pace Citadel, the basic unit of organic society to which the Slavophils pointed as the living and breathing archetype of sobornost’ was not the state, but the commune (or obshchina). It is not possible to understand the ideal of sobornost’ without first understanding the Russian peasant commune, the organic and dynamic collectivity of the village life which was described in such intricate and loving sociological detail by August Graf von Haxthausen. For all its meticulously-documented faults (the illiteracy, the superstitions, the child marriages and so on – Haxthausen was, after all, possessed of the typical German perfectionism), Haxthausen recognised in the Slavic peasant village the very principles of dynamic free participation, of love, of living collectivity, of customary life enriched by each generation’s living in it, of a truly organic communism in land and property ownership persisting down generations, that the Slavophils were at pains to highlight. And though Haxthausen saw in the communes a patriarchal power vertical at play with the batushka as the undisputed head and ruler of the household wherein everything was held in common, he also noted a definite disconnect: an independence of the life of the commune from the hierarchies of the state. This disconnect was also taken up by Khomyakov in particular as evidence that servile obeisance to lords and rulers was something foreign to the Slavic Russian national character – and Khomyakov and Kireevsky both looked to the Chronicles to confirm the fact that their rulers had indeed originally been foreign adventurers from the Nordic countries.

Citadel incorrectly reads Kireevsky when he asserts that the state was held to be an organic mode of collectivity. Indeed, reading Kireevsky’s essays in On Spiritual Unity, he attacks nothing with such gusto as the idea that the state and its laws are ‘given’, and he insists on nothing so strongly or so stubbornly as the idea that the laws of the state must be brought into harmony with the unwritten, customary constitution which is written on the hearts and in the elder ways of its people. For Kireevsky, the state is simply a shell and a shelter – it is not a living organism, but the object of that living organism’s free creativity which best expresses that organism’s character. And for Kireevsky and Khomyakov, Tsarist autocracy was not a supreme good in its own right (not in the same way that, in their view, the obshchina was a supreme good), but rather it was a contingent good conditioned by the demands of Russian history and the Russian character. The Tsar was Russia’s batushka, but his authority was given by the weight not only of divine command but also by the whole weight of Russia’s history down from Ivan III., and the whole weight of Russia’s popular custom, of its narodnost’. Though the Slavophils may have agreed with the letter of ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, populism’, they weighted these concepts in such a way that they in fact subverted the Westernising pressure that same autocracy was bringing to bear on Russian society.

Sobornost’ is ultimately a doctrine of communities, of families and villages. It is not a doctrine of states. In the doctrine of the Slavophils, states serve a needed purpose, but they are static, necessitarian, objects. The life of the narod is not to be found in dusty lawbooks or beneath gavels. It is to be found instead in the rites, in the songs and stories told by the elderly to the young, in the love of a husband for a wife, in the care of a mother for her children, in the honour of a host for his guests. That is where sobornost’ is born and can thrive.

It is therefore necessary to resist, as the Slavophils themselves did, the temptation to absolutise loyalty to the state (to say nothing of that insatiable, amorphous and inhuman idol of the ‘market’), or to view politics as the final battleground. And if we want to recover sobornost’ we will not do so by professing loyalty to some abstract bureaucracy or to some cult of personality, but instead we must do so by privileging the local, the immediate and the particular over the national, the abstract and the falsely-universal.

15 November 2016

A queue for the realist left, from Slovakia


The Right Honourable Róbert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, is someone I consider to be a (fairly) successful leftist, and one whom more on the left in America and elsewhere should seek to learn from. Fico (the leader of the Direction – Social Democracy party) came to my attention a little over a year ago, in 2015, after he was mentioned on Bill Mitchell’s blog as a critic of Germany’s austerity policies which reduced Greece to the status of an ‘EU protectorate’.

Even though his early policies accommodated the EU financial and foreign-policy line to a very significant extent (including, sadly, joining the Eurozone), Fico has proven himself to be a competent steward of Slovakia’s social and business environment, as well as a staid defender of welfare-state policies which many of Europe’s other nominally ‘socialist’ or ‘social-democratic’ parties have abandoned. He built his base of support on an unabashedly populist platform, mostly by loudly condemning the business élites of his country and their enablers in the Dzurinda government for their aggressive neoliberal postures against wage labourers and the elderly.

Prior to Fico, Slovakia had a regressive flat tax on income, which Fico changed (drawing the ire of libertarians and foreign businessmen) to a rather more progressive two-tier income tax supplemented by the more Western European-standard VAT tax. Largely under the influence of his party Direction’s agitation, Slovakia also implemented a Robin Hood Tax on bank liabilities. On matters of health insurance, even though Fico was blocked from instituting a public health mandate, he nevertheless instituted punitive legal measures which would prevent private insurers from price-gouging (a component which is notably missing in Obamacare). He has also done a great deal to protect the elderly on the public pension system. On transportation, Fico has pushed for what might almost be called a distributist cost-accounting measure – raising tolls on (especially international) freight whilst not levying tolls on passenger vehicles. Unfortunately, he was able to implement this measure only after negotiating a fuel subsidy with a truckers’ association. He has made some similar compromises on austerity measures, but for the most part maintained his status as a critic of the austerity regime on the margins of Europe. In spite of these populist stances, though, Fico is still very much a left democratic socialist rather than an agrarian or a Tory. He has fought to keep food prices down in the cities (a stance which represents one of the unfortunate breaks between ‘red’ and ‘green’ in the united Czechoslovakia under Antonín Švehla).

Be that as it may, overall he has managed to implement a broad array of real, old-school leftist goals, even as the broader trend of the European Union has been towards neoliberal ‘reforms’, privatisation and marketisation, at the expense of the weakest members of society. At the end of the first Fico cabinet, Slovakia had one of the lowest rates of income inequality in the world (alongside Norway, Belarus and the Czech Republic).

In terms of foreign policy, Róbert Fico has taken some truly brave and moral stands. He has been instrumental in withdrawing Slovak support from the Iraq War, a venture which he called ‘unjust and wrong’, and ‘only motivated by oil’; at the same time, he emphasised that Slovaks would serve in Afghanistan only in a non-combat capacity. Channeling the independent spirit of Canada’s ‘Red Tory’ premier John Diefenbaker, Fico refused to accommodate any part of a revamped American missile shield in his country – and has also denounced plans to build the missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. He lambasted Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia’s former right-wing dictator) for committing acts of aggression against Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia. Though he was silent on the subject of the Crimea referendum, Fico has nonetheless been a vocal and unrelenting opponent of EU sanctions against Russia.

He has had to walk a fine line between preserving the Catholic, Christian culture of Slovakia in the face of unbridled immigration on the one hand, and the rise of right-wing nationalism both in Slovakia and elsewhere in Europe on the other – and many of his Western colleagues would argue that he hasn’t been very good at walking it. It is true that Fico has said some fairly harsh and uncompromising things, on the topic of Islamic immigration into Slovakia. But Fico has also unfailingly denounced vigilantism and the perpetration of violence upon immigrants in Slovakia by right-wing groups – and most of his supporters (correctly) say they want to help Islamic populations by opposing the imperialist policies which create refugee crises in the first place! As a result, many of these right-wing parties, which are driven by hatred rather than by realist concerns, want nothing to do with Fico (and the feeling is evidently mutual).

Last but not least, Fico’s strongest and most consistent base of support is in Slovakia’s far east – among one of Slovakia’s national minorities, the Rusyns of Transcarpathia. The Rusyns have a cultural and religious identity which is quite distinct from the Slovaks – linguistically, they speak a language which is on the Czechoslovak continuum but which shares many elements with Russian and Ukrainian, and which is written in Cyrillic. Religiously, they belong either to Uniate (Byzantine-Catholic) communities or, increasingly, to the Orthodox Church in the Czech Lands and Slovakia. Politically, the question of why the rural and heavily-Rusyn areas of Svidník, Stropkov and Medzilaborce in Prešovský kraj lean so overwhelmingly toward Fico is an interesting one, and I have a couple of educated guesses. The first is that these areas have a strong historical, cultural and religious affinity with Russia, to which Fico has appealed strongly with his foreign policy of ‘Slavonic solidarity’. The second may be that many Rusyns, particularly the older ones of working-class and peasant background, remember fondly the interwar arrangement and land reform under the early red-green coalition of Švehla which allowed their families to own and farm their own land rather than working for a big landlord or corporation, and therefore have warm feelings toward the populist and left-wing politics that Fico and Direction represent.

Obviously, America is not Slovakia. And left-wing realism will take on a far different shape here than there. But Fico, for all his flaws, is a good example to have in our back pocket, so that we can learn from both his failures and his successes.

09 November 2016

Dear Democrats

I know you’re feeling pretty bummed today. Well, I don’t blame you. You just lost the House, the Senate and the White House – all three in the same night. But you’re not alone: I feel the same way. And I bet the last thing you’ll want to hear right now is an angry lefty blogger telling you ‘I told you so’. But if you don’t want this to happen again, please, please hear me out.

I’m a ‘white’ (see below) male Christian millennial and an economically left-of-centre Wisconsin native on the very bottom rung of the middle class (for clarification: I live in an apartment, have no credit score, and spent the last year and a half functionally unemployed and separated from my family). I am exactly the sort of voter you couldn’t afford to lose, and you not only lost me, but you actively chased me away for genuinely believing in the important things (a realist foreign policy, a rejection of needless austerity measures and voodoo economics, universal health care, a fair and stable economy that works for everyone rather than just the privileged few) that Obama represented when he came to office in 2008. As such, I went third-party. But at certain points I was tempted, and could very easily have, gone over to the bloviating orange-faced grifter in anger and frustration, as many in my respective demographics did.

For a little bit of personal context, I write this as, last night, I got a letter back from my DFL senator Amy Klobuchar, who – when I wrote expressing my concerns that either this administration or the next would get us into a potentially disastrous war with Russia, and asking her what she planned to do about it – sent me back a form letter that says absolutely nothing pertinent about my question, but talked about the need for ‘targetted strikes’ against Daesh and the need to welcome Syrian refugees into Minnesota. As a result, I went to sleep thinking the Democrats deserved to lose all the way across the board in this election. And boy oh boy, last night did you ever get it. And you know what? I’m nowhere near close to happy about that fact.

Why am I not happy? Well, where to begin? Trump has no intention of doing a damn thing to protect the interests of people like me, let alone the folks worse off than me: the white working stiffs who gave him their votes, and who would be well-served by things Trump has no interest in – like a reformed money system that doesn’t take us back to the dark ages, and decent, publicly-managed infrastructure and services. For another thing, I belong to the (((wrong kind))) of white people. For yet another thing, I’m married to a Chinese immigrant who (with some difficulty and no small amount of time invested) came here legally. I know the rhetoric is that Trump only cares about getting rid of illegal immigrants, but for some reason I doubt either he or his supporters are willing to countenance such minutiae in practice. For still another thing, I happen to have a deep affection for Iran, her civilisation, her art and her people, whereas Trump sees them all as terrorists and wants to go to war with them over ‘rude gestures’.

So here’s a bit of real talk from a realist. If you don’t want another election like this one (and I know I don’t), perhaps you’ll listen to me. But I’m going to break it down point-by-point for you.
  1. Cut the ‘narrative’ bullshit. Give us the policies. I don’t want to hear, and I honestly couldn’t care less, about how hard Clinton had it coming up through the Walmart executive ranks, or about how women ‘identify’ with her. But that’s a huge portion of what I heard from the Salon, Vox, Jezebel and New York Times crowd in this election cycle – how she’s always faced a double standard in her career, how she should be given a break because she’s a woman, and how I personally am a sexist for disagreeing with her policies. Well, you know what? I give women way more credit than that. I think (most) adult women can handle a few tough questions about policy, no? Which leads me to my next few points:

  2. Stop supporting the damn bankers. Let’s get back to basics. Stop taking their donations and their endorsements. They’re clearly not doing you any good. Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, CitiGroup and the rest of them clearly don’t give a damn about us in flyover country. So how does it look to us when our representatives and senators do everything they can to bail them out, and don’t lift a finger to help us out with our credit problems? (And believe me, we still have credit problems!) Don’t tell us that Bernie’s plans for reforming the banks and providing public postal savings banking are somehow pie-in-the-sky, or aren’t feasible, or aren’t realistic. I’ve lived in China – I did research on the PSBC for Positive Planet China, for crying out loud. I know how well they work for rural people, especially when they are compared side-by-side with the big privately-owned banks. What’s lacking isn’t know-how; what’s lacking is political will, and the big bankers stole that from you a long time ago with the temptations of lucre.

  3. Take a better stand on providing decent public goods. You know, like health insurance! Practically every other nation with an advanced economy – and even several others without – have universal health care policies that work just fine and that most people are happy with. Hillary Clinton’s new-public-management muddling, triangulation and incrementalism are precisely the wrong kind of signal that needs to be sent in a campaign season when ordinary folks are worried about their premiums going up, and not being able to afford the privatised health insurance plans that you made them buy!

  4. Support domestic manufacturing. And actually listen to the unions while you’re at it. You really screwed the pooch on this one, and let Trump outflank you from the left. If you want to win us back in the slippery Midland states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, well, this is how you do it. Again, it’s not a matter of ‘can’t be done’ – we have plenty of need for actual things in this country that people want to buy. Including high-tech things. We don’t need to outsource manufacturing to make those things for ourselves at an affordable cost; we just need the manufacturers to accept slightly-lower profit margins instead of chasing down the cheapest possible Southeast Asian near-slave labour. We could create a domestic manufacturing boom tomorrow by shunting some of our misbegotten military budget into, say, NASA and space exploration, and give guarantees to laid-off contract workers that they can take their union benefits straight into those space jobs! (And no, I’m afraid extraction-based boondoggles that ship overseas don’t count as supporting domestic manufacturing.) Or, better yet:

  5. Write a job-guarantee policy. Set out a plan to actually implement the Humphrey-Hawkins Act which is already on the books – a solid piece of Democratic legislative craft which deserves to have a far more distinguished legacy than it does. Putting Humphrey-Hawkins into practice will involve some necessary changes to monetary policy, though, be forewarned – and in the short run those changes may be fairly painful. But the long-term benefits will be very, very much appreciated by the people whose votes you ought to be trying to win.

  6. Stop getting us into all these hare-brained wars. Stop rattling the sabre with Russia over a former piece of the Ukraine that isn’t going back anytime soon. Stop funding and arming the Saudis – they’ll just sell the weapons to crazy people. Stop bombing the Houthis, the Pakistanis and the Afghans. Stop supporting colour revolutions and ‘soft coups’. Stop saying ‘Assad must go’ when clearly he isn’t going anywhere. Stop creating needless refugee crises that we then have to ‘fix’ by (selectively) opening our borders. Stop making Trump – a man who wants to go to war with Iran over ‘rude gestures’ – look like a voice of reason on foreign affairs!

  7. Allow room in your party for pro-lifers. You don’t ever need to lose another election if you stop worshipping at the altar of Moloch. I’m completely serious about this. Every single one of those Western European social democracies you profess to admire so much has far more stringent legal restrictions on abortion, particularly late-term ones, than we do – and they provide first-class health care and welfare services for new mothers! The future working-class demographic shouldn’t be artificially and brutally pruned with eugenic family-planning policies designed by the upper class, and we’re not monstrous misogynists or the enemies of women for saying so!

  8. Stop hating on gun owners. I’m all for common-sense restrictions and gun licences that keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the same way and for the same reason we keep cars out of the hands of drunks. But guns are a tool, just like cars are. The fact of owning a gun doesn’t make one a child murderer or a brute or a troglodyte. But generally:

  9. Stop telling people you disagree with to FOAD. Dismissing people as ‘racists’ for failing to conform to the latest highfalutin academic missives on white privilege might make you feel good and virtuous, but for obvious reasons, it’s not good politics in any sort of representative system of government. Same with calling people ‘sexists’ or ‘bros’ for daring to oppose a woman with bad policies, on the grounds that her policies suck. Same with telling millennials that they’re being spoiled brats for supporting a politician with actual values. Same with ganging up on people on Twitter to shout them down for tacky fashion choices. Same with trying to get people fired from their jobs for disagreeing with you. Cut that classist bullshit right out.
Well, there it is. If you don’t want this to happen again, then I humbly suggest get back to the values that you once stood for. Bernie Sanders (who, by the way, would have wiped the floor with Trump in the states you needed to win) left you a signpost, even if he didn’t take that road all the way. It’s up to you to follow it now.

Sincerely,
Matthew

08 November 2016

Oh dear, oh dear

Tenzin Gyatso is at it again.

This time, he’s penned a joint op-ed in the New York Times together with (wait for it) Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, which seeks to address and assuage the ‘angry’ (presumably elderly, presumably laid-off) Trump voter in the American election.

Gyatso and Brooks manage to take a very valid anthropological observation (people need to be needed and they need to be engaged in useful and meaningful labour), and proceed from there to draw some rather frightful conclusions. This op-ed piece of theirs manages to take the white lifestyle-liberal obsession with ‘mindfulness’ and desiccated, domesticated and atomised ‘Eastern’ ‘spirituality’ which Gyatso has proven himself so expert at bilking for moral capital (and which, not coincidentally, capitalist praxis has found an enormous amount of use as a tool for managing expectations downward and coping with the feelings of powerlessness that pervade a proletarianised workforce), and wedded it to a social vision which is – you guessed it, gentle reader – overwhelmingly managerial and technocratic.

In a grim way, it’s really a rather impressive feat. Between them, Gyatso and Brooks manage to trot their way through practically the entire lexicon of lifestyle-liberal buzzwords which presumably make New York Times readers feel all tingly, fuzzy and warm (‘inclusive’, ‘compassionate’, ‘conscious’, ‘tolerant’, ‘mindful’, ‘inner peace’, ‘collaboration’, ‘dialogue’), in the service of a vision of society which is nakedly pro-corporate. They believe it’s important to ‘make sure global brotherhood and oneness’ are ‘not just abstract ideas… but personal commitments that we mindfully put into practice’, but don’t give any practical advice on how that is to be done. Nothing about community, nothing about rootedness, nothing about particularity or propinquity, nothing about extending the love we learn in the family out toward those we meet in our daily lives being necessary to the meaning of labour or of any other social activity. And then they move onto a model for the ‘compassionate society’ which looks suspiciously like the one which left many of these angry and frustrated voters behind in the first place. A ‘compassionate society’, in their view, is one which can ‘create a wealth of opportunities’, which can ‘provide children with education and training… and with practical skills’, but which ‘do[es] not trap people in misery and dependence’ with nasty policies like a safety net, and which can only be built with ‘innovative solutions’. For those of my gentle readers playing along at home, that’s code for ‘private sector’ – because in Brooks’ view especially, only privately-owned companies and individuals can ‘innovate’.

Watching the Dalai show is generally entertaining for a time, for precisely the reasons mentioned above, but it does have a tendency to disturb my own inner peace. The remedy for which, of course, is to simply turn it off.

06 November 2016

A brief, belated warning about Trumpism

This article comes late in the day – I think now perhaps too late. But it needs to be written, and it needs to be written before the election. Part of the reason that I hesitated in writing it is that Donald Trump gives voice to some very valid concerns and worries on behalf of his part of the electorate; another reason is that I genuinely like his stances on trade and (Atlantic) foreign policy. But even though I have discussed before the post-modernist reality-TV nature of Trump’s persona-driven politics, and even though I have likened him in a classical analogy to the Athenian politician Kleon (as opposed to Peisistratos) in the primary season, a blunter and more direct approach is needed.

First, I would still highly recommend the history, Democratic Promise, written by Lawrence Goodwyn about the Greenbackers, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Populist movement in America. He is excellent at building some of the needed awareness of the bitter struggles of common farmers against bankers and furnishing merchants, and the relation of these struggles to the monetary politics of the time that characterises postbellum 19th-century rural American politics. He relates admirably how the farmers of the American interior were helped by Abraham Lincoln’s and Salmon P. Chase’s policy of providing government-issued credit to them in the form of ‘greenbacks’, and how the post-war decommission of the ‘greenbacks’ and return to the gold standard beggared many of these farmers, who were then forced to turn, hat-in-hand, to furnishing-merchants – essentially petty usurers and loan sharks – for seed, equipment and daily necessities, and who were forced to use their own future crops as collateral. Many of these farmers just picked up and moved west.

The People’s Party was built out of the Farmers’ Alliance – an organisation that was devoted to both educating farmers about economic and monetary issues, and building collective and cooperative ventures (producers’ unions, consumers’ unions, organised boycotts). The Party was a response, in part, to the failure of these collective ventures to bargain effectively with furnishing merchants, being thwarted by the big Eastern financiers who were bent on bringing the farmers in line with their modernis They were not averse to having a strong federal government discipline capital and bring infrastructure (like rail and telegraphs) under firm public control, but their primary concern was farmers’ self-help. They wanted to give farmers the collective and individual tools they needed to escape from the debt trap they were being kept in by the collaboration of both Northern and Southern economic élites. And to do so, they were willing to ally with the urban underclass (in particular the Catholic-inflected Knights of Labor) and with rural blacks, who were doubly oppressed by debt and by Jim Crow.

The growing power of the People’s Party in the American hinterland (and especially the American South) alarmed both the economic élites and the party duopoly. In the South, the Confederate-sympathetic Democratic Party – the party of the furnishing-merchants – took two different tactics. The first was intimidation, violence, property destruction and extrajudicial killing – the self-same ‘tool-kit’ the Democrats and the KKK used against the black Republican vote in the Deep South. The second was co-optation: and here is where the parallels with Trump begin to make themselves apparent.

The politician fielded by the Democrats specifically for the purpose of take the wind out of the Populist sails was ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman, who managed to get himself elected governor of South Carolina in 1890 on a platform which spewed venom against (certain, individual) members of the élite class, but also against blacks. By using this form of demagoguery and directing it toward the members of the Farmers’ Alliance, directing political energy away from the Populist platform (in particular monetary reform and the Subtreasury Plan) and into hatred against specific members of the élite class, he managed to outperform the other high-profile members of his own notoriously racist party, and in addition pursued tactics of voter intimidation and persecution (speaking in defence of lynch mobs, for example) which guaranteed a Democratic victory and a diminished Populist presence in his state for the following decade. Another politician, East Texas’s James Hogg, used a similar tactic of Jim Crow demagoguery to sway potential Populist voters into the Democratic camp. In both instances (and in the election of 1896 as a whole on a larger scale), Populist goals were thwarted and third-party politics were actively crushed by major-party politicos who used populist-sounding language in an attempt to head off genuine organising.

The parallels between Tillman and Hogg on the one hand, and Trump on the other, should not be taken too far. For one thing, even though Hogg put on the same larger-than-life Barnum and Bailey act that Trump does, both Tillman and Hogg were essentially pro-establishment politicians who used fire-eater language to outflank and destroy a genuine third-party insurrection. Trump is a showman through-and-through. Also, Trump’s ‘racism’ (insofar as it exists) is not to be compared with that of Tillman or Hogg; Tillman and Hogg were true blue white-supremacist Dixiecrats, whereas Trump, I suspect, doesn’t have any such beliefs except insofar as they can benefit him politically.

But the danger of Trumpism is that it distracts and detracts, just as the Tillman and Hogg candidacies did back in the day, from genuine populist political goals and methods. The Populists of old wanted not just ‘clean government’, but also public ownership of infrastructure, a transparent and democratic fiat money system, a progressive income tax, a fully-funded pension system for veterans, the establishment of postal savings banks, and an end to large corporate ownership of land in favour of domestic smallholders and nuclear families: these goals were outlined explicitly in the 1896 Omaha platform. And to achieve these goals, they were willing to build a workingmen’s coalition of American small farmers with the urban, domestic working classes.

Trumpism, on the other hand, is a vague, mercurial and chimærical mix of amorphous nativist sentiments and personality-cult politics, and should not be confused with populism. Most distressingly as far as conscientious greenbackers and modern money advocates are concerned, Trump flirts with goldbuggery and has taken on at least one goldbug, (NED director) Judy Shelton, as an economic advisor – which fairly reliably rules him out as a voice of common sense (let alone advocacy for the vulnerable rural working class) on monetary issues. Even on finical issues, his instincts are very demonstrably not populist! Trump has taken stances on privatising pensions and on making income taxes more regressive, with the vast majority of the benefits of his tax plan accruing to the one-percenters. On the subject of infrastructure, the question Trump is tackling is one of spending rather than one of long-term management; and he’s not even talking about bringing telecom and rail back under direct federal control. On issues facing rural Americans in particular, Donald Trump is not a friend to the small family farmer. On the postal service and public credit, the one man who took a leaf straight from the 1896 Populist playbook was one Senator Bernard Sanders. And on more general cultural tactics, Trump is far from bridging the gulf between the urban and rural working classes, but is instead leveraging that gulf for electoral gain. Nothing could be further from the Populist spirit of 1896.

None of this is to say, of course, that Trump’s major-party opponent is much better from a populist standpoint. If the closest analogues to Trump (however imperfect) are to be found among the fire-eating Southern Dixiecrats, then Clinton represents, almost to a ‘T’, the meddling managerial and financier-friendly politics of Woodrow Wilson (the man responsible for the Fed and the First World War – or at least America’s part in it). And Clinton’s cultural politics are every bit as divisive and adversarial as Trump’s. Make no mistake: yours truly still plans to vote third-party.

And, as I said earlier, Trump’s overhauled the ‘free trade’ groupthink, and he’s stuck a thorn in NATO’s paw. That tickles me a bit. But, speaking as a Midwesterner and a populist, the pretense that Trump is ‘one of us’ is as unconvincing and as sickening now as Jim Hogg’s pretensions to the same, a century and a quarter previous. Honest-to-God prairie politics are not being represented in either major party in this election, and Trumpism is nowhere near close to the real McCoy.

04 November 2016

The thin red line

We Americans should not be averse to considering socialism in far more depth than we do, rather than simply using it as a curse word or a dismissal. Socialism is a long, rich and diverse history of economic thought. It encompasses movements which have been heavily nationalistic, alongside those which have been every bit as stolidly internationalist. Socialists engage in whimsical flights of utopian fantasy, and they embrace the reality of the downtrodden in all its grit – sometimes even within the same strand of thought. Socialists hearken back to ‘when Adam dalf and Eve span’, and they look toward an apocalyptic future wherein the proletariat finally seize the means of production and herald in a classless society. Socialists focus on the local community; they also advocate for a single, centralised government over the whole world. Socialists embrace parliamentary democracy and they produce some of the most acerb critiques of it. (Likewise with totalitarian, personality-cult dictatorships.) Socialists embrace and reject violence as a means of social change.

Each of these debates has merit. Some, though, I would argue, are merely surface-level distinctions, while others carry far greater import. It’s generally assumed among those of us in the West that ‘democratic’ socialism, or ‘social democracy’ (two different things in themselves, by the way) are preferable to that old hideous Soviet beast, which trampled down freedom under a brutalist iron-mailed fist of centralist dictatorship. It’s still common in American liberal and radical circles, for example, to hear discussions about whether reform is tactically preferable to revolution (though how that revolution would occur is too often a question beyond the scope of these radicals). I would argue, however, that these distinctions do not get to the heart of what distinguishes a healthy socialism from an unhealthy one.

We have seen, in recent decades, a drift of the social-democratic and democratic-socialist parties of Europe toward the bland, banal centre. This is a drift we have seen in the Nordic countries as the social-democratic parties there have quietly trimmed and privatised public services; and also in the British Labour party under Blair as they embraced both privatisation and the agenda of American-led imperialist warfare for corporate gain. This is a drift which fudges the distinctions between public and private (though always in the service of well-connected private interests) and seeks to calculate everything from the commanding heights; the only functional difference, it often seems, between the average capitalist politician and the average modern Western European socialist, is how much of a bone they are willing to throw to the plebes to keep them sedentary and submissive.

In general, the reaction against this drift has been driven by the elements from the historically-defiant countryside, which even though they are by no means wholly right-wing have nevertheless been easily glossed by defenders of the status quo as ‘populist’ or ‘nationalist’. But the plain-spoken agrarian tendency to decry such violent conflicts has been expressed with archetypal bluntness (several times) by Belarus’s left-wing populist leader Aliaksandr Lukašenka. Lukašenka, far from being a typical Marxist (in spite of the strong state sector, strong presidential power and atmosphere of Soviet reverence in Belarus), pursues policies much more recognisably in line with the protectionist, agrarian programmes of Czechoslovakia’s Švehla and Bulgaria’s Stamboliyski than with his Soviet predecessors – but that is a post, I think, for another time. Even so, the distinction between the relatively-complacent urban social-democrats and the arguably more-radical rural agrarian socialists is a meaningful and important one: much more so than the democratic-undemocratic distinction.

But: the most high-profile critics of the war agenda have been religious leaders. These are leaders within the Roman Catholic Church (with both the sainted John Paul II and Benedict XVI having spoken out against the Iraq War), the Anglican Communion (with Robert Runcie and Rowan Williams having spoken out against it) and of course the Orthodox Church (with many major sees in Eastern Europe and America speaking out against the Iraq War, but in particular Patriarch Alexy II and the then-Metropolitan, now-Patriarch Kirill). In practically each and every instance, these same religious leaders have also spoken out against the excesses of capitalism and the encroachment of high finance and its subservient technocracy on the livelihoods of the common people. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, spoke highly of democratic socialist parties in Europe; Patriarch Kirill has gone a step further and advocated for an economy wherein the physical, real value of labour (rather than the abstracted and – in his words – ‘fraudulent’ value of capital-based checkbook credit) is central.

This reaction against imperialism and against the financial turn of the major Western economies from major religious leaders suggests strongly to me that the distinction between the religious socialists (with values firmly moored in the precedents set by their respective faiths) and those secular socialists who are more amenable to triangulation, militarism and the compromise of truth for political power, is also a highly important one for our time. When certain anti-war socialists are being subjected to wild McCarthyist speculation for speaking up against American involvement in Syria or the Ukraine, it is all the more important to listen to these alternative voices.

02 November 2016

What are we conserving?

The necessity of a confluence between a conservative politics of rootedness and radical politics of conservation is growing painfully evident and urgent, particularly in the Standing Rock standoff. Such a confluence, with an Orthodox theological bent, has been suggested of late by Father Kaleeg (Hainsworth) here. The slogan used by the Water Protectors that ‘water is life’ is one that has profound resonances with Orthodox thinking and iconography – the image of Christ on the Cross, His side pierced, with blood and water flowing from His wound is the one which comes immediately to my mind, as indeed is the celebration of Theophany which Father Kaleeg mentions. As I have said before, the pipeline’s construction has involved grave acts of sacrilege that disrespect both the bodies of the dead and the Sabbath duties of working-class people who are involved in it; whereas those who are involved in non-violently protecting the resources they rely on to survive - not just American Indians but small farmers and homesteaders as well - are in fact engaged in a sophic, shepherding work. Our society’s economic praxis is at war with the demands of conscience for all too many of us, to the point where we cannot move forward without having a serious discussion of values. What exactly is it that we are invested most in conserving?

Is it indeed idealism or pie-in-the-sky fantasy to note that clean water and clean farmland are needed for our survival? Have we lost sight of the fact that we need to drink and eat to live? Do we not realise that even in our factory-farm to supermarket monocultural food-industrial system (a topic for another rant), a great bulk of what we Americans actually eat – particularly our corn – draws precisely from the Ogallala Aquifer, the Missouri and Mississippi basins which water our heartlands, and which this corporate boondoggle of a pipeline directly jeopardises? Do we not understand that what happened these past weeks in Pennsylvania and in Alabama may yet happen again? Are we so tone-deaf both to history and to the demands of future generations that we will trample down some of the few remaining survivors of the conquest of the American interior, simply for the right to turn a quick buck on the global fossil fuel market? Are we so wedded in our disembodied political phantasia to these idols of Progress and Interest and Capital Investment and Global Trade, that we will cling to them to the bitter (I use the term literally, not merely as a cliché) end?

Do not mistake me: I’m neither a Malthusian nor a primitivist; I have no desire at all to see the end of American industry. But even a healthy American industrial base depends, first and foremost, on clean water and clean food. Even by the cold logic of American interest (a logic I’m not averse to, by the way), any economic benefits from a pipeline that pumps oil out of the ground, in part for shipment overseas via the Gulf (not even so Americans will benefit locally!), are temporary and contingent at best, whereas the costs are all too probable and all too grim. And it hardly takes a genius to note that a ‘path forward’ that cannot recognise the primacy of the brute demands of biology and geography over the demands of a disembodied idealised market, is a path which leads straight off of a cliff.