Richard Holbrooke rubs me the wrong way. I imagine he does a lot of folks. Holbrooke cut his imperial teeth in Vietnam where for six years he worked on things like the Rural Pacification Program and became an expert on, well, just about everything. Being best buds with Dean Rusk’s boy did not help to get the job we are sure. After Vietnam he went to Morocco where he ran the CIA’s Trojan Horse, um, Peace Corps and went on to be Carter’s campaign guru on foreign affairs. Carter duly escalated the Cold War, including support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and right-wing death squads in Central America. The eighties saw him develop the business interests that his “public service” afforded him access to.
Anyone who remembers the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s knows that Holbrooke has a special hatred of the Slav, at least Slavs writing in Cyrillic. You can take the warrior out of the Cold War out of the Cold War warrior, but you can’t take the Cold War out of the or something…The Germans’ apparently really appreciated his role in making the Balkans safe for investment, or democracy depending on the dinner party, and awarded him their highest civilian honor. His qualification for being Ambassador and Envoy has been that he is the most arrogant person in whatever room he is in and therefore the most willing to give advice. His voice sealed the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war. Slobo would have signed anything to get out of another day of listening to a Holbrooke lecture.
In or out of government it matters not; Holbrooke butters his bread on both sides. The Bush years saw Dick, as his friends and enemies call him, wallowing in Wall Street where he worked with such sterling outfits as AIG (where he was on the board of directors all the way up until the late summer of 2008 and the ship ran aground), Lehman Brothers (where he was a full time managing director) and Perseus LLC. He made many millions and has his interests everywhere. He’s a player in the big leagues. Among his many titles was CEO of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the idea of which makes me feel sick.
He was Ambassador to the United nations in the late 1990’s and Special Envoy to this and that since then. Now he is again a special envoy this time for Af-Pak as the State Department calls it. His liberal imperialism is on full display when railing against islamo-fascism. Holbrooke is essentially a Cold Warrior and an American exceptionalist. That’s so Twentieth Century.
Now we hear that the venal Karzai has run afoul of the United States and Holbrooke gave a blistering lecture to the dapper dude after the fraud that was the elections last week. It appears that the new comprador for the US may be Abdullah Abdullah. He has the quality of being even more venal than Karzai, Holbrooke likes his Quislings craven after all. Though Abdullah’s propensity for wearing an ascot makes me question his potential longevity; political and physical.
Listening to a Holbrooke tirade may be the most unpleasant thing to go through other than waterboarding at Bagram. I can barely stand the sound of his arrogant voice over the airwaves and I’m a white guy from the US. Imagine being in the same room with him and having the misfortune of not being a paid up member of Western Civilization!
Did you know that Richard Holbrooke, who since the election of Obama plays the role of The Great White Father, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seven times? Well if Kissinger, Begin and Trimble can get it… There are just so many reasons for Richard Holbrooke to win the Rustbelt’s Asshole of the Day that we’ll have to move things around to clear the whole of the month. Richard Holbrooke, August has 31 days and you’ve earned every one.
Some days I am convinced that Townes is the best songwriter of the last 40 years. Today is one of those days.
Myths of Ayn Rand by Phil Hearse
Most people sympathetic to radical politics outside the United States have probably never heard of Ayn Rand, and a brief introduction to her ultra pro-free market views would doubtless be enough to convince them they haven’t missed anything. Yet 27 years after her death, Ayn Rand continues to be seriously debated in the US, her books sell hundreds of thousands each year, her views are propagated by right wing think tanks and foundations and – bizarrely – Charlize Theron is in discussions to turn Rand’s 1088-page magnus opus Atlas Shrugged into a TV mini-series. The Times Educational Supplement claimed in July that the Ayn Rand revival is gathering pace on US campuses. According to the TES:
“The surge in interest has also been propelled by the millions of dollars given to 25 universities by the charitable foundation of banking giant BB&T, run by one of her adherents. But even this funding, handed out so institutions can teach and study Ms Rand and to establish centres for the advancement of American capitalism, has been controversial. The faculty at Meredith College in North Carolina rejected a $420,000 (£260,000) grant because it came on the condition that Ms Rand’s work be taught there, and there was a similar uproar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Even many of the professors who now teach Rand, Dr McCaskey said, “will preface their presentations with, ‘I don’t agree with this, but you should hear it'”.
Helen Mirren in The Passion of Ayn Rand
In her lifetime Rand strongly influenced Ronald Reagan and long-time chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, was part of her entourage as a young man and remained faithful to her views throughout his career (catastrophically so as far as the US economy was concerned). According to The Week magazine:
“Rand attracted a group of disciples, known, with self-conscious irony, as the Collective…It wasn’t just her ideas that inspired the group, it was Rand’s charisma. At the height of her popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s, Rand cut a highly exotic figure with her bobbed hair, Russian accent, dollar-sign brooches, and long cigarettes, smoked through a holder. She saw smoking as a Promethean symbol of creativity and regarded health warnings as a socialist conspiracy. When she died of lung cancer, in 1982, a 6-foot-high floral dollar sign was erected by her open coffin.” (April 16 2009)
Astonishingly, the advent of the banking crisis has led to an upsurge in Ayn Rand book sales, with 300,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged sold last year, and in January 2009 coming in at number 33 in Amazon’s top 100 US book sales. The Ayn Rand Institute argued strongly against state money bailing out the banks, and unsurprisingly Randites have been to the forefront of opposing Barak Obama’s rather mild plans to extend health care insurance.
Ayn (rhymes with ‘mine’) Rand was the pseudonym of Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, an exile from Bolshevik Russia who stayed in the United States after a visit in 1926. She started off writing film scripts on anti-Soviet themes, and her links with the film industry enabled her to get her first major novel The Foutainhead turned into a 1949 film starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neale and Raymond Massey. A film about her love life, The Passion of Ayn Rand, was released in 1999 starring Helen Mirren as Rand and Peter Fonda as her long-suffering husband Frank O’Connor. The same year she was even put on a US postage stamp.
Rand propounded her views through her novels and a series of essays and interviews, but left no major single work outlining her political and social theory. Her appeal and her cult status is based on two central ideas that chime in perfectly with key aspects of American capitalist ideology. These are a) self interest, not altruism, is the highest moral value and as a guiding thread leads to the best outcomes and b) free market capitalism is the system that leads to the best economic outcomes and allows the fullest development of individuals. It spontaneously leads to the best possible outcomes for everyone – this a version of Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’.
Free market capitalism in this version is a system where the only function of the state is to exercise the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, preventing violence between individuals thus allowing business to develop uninterruptedly. Nothing else – not healthcare, not the post office, not education of any type, not fire and rescue services, absolutely nothing whatsoever – is the business of the state. This is ultra-privatisation on a scale probably never seen in the history of capitalism, a point made frequently by Rand herself, although she didn’t understand the significance of this fact.
That self-interest not altruism happens to serve the highest good (though not any ‘collective good’ which Rand regarded as a meaningless concept) is indeed a remarkably fortunate outcome for the many right-wing adherents of her ideas. Just do what’s good for yourself, don’t care about anyone else, and lo and behold you happen to be doing the morally right thing as well!
Ayn Rand’s writings reveal a consistent and utterly naive idea about wealth. Wealth is created by the effort, intelligence and inventiveness of ‘men’ who are prepared to stand out from the crowd and be true to their own visions. For her, capitalists, whom she regarded as a persecuted minority, are always self-made ‘men’ (she was utterly consistent in never using any other pronoun to describe clever people); she did briefly discuss the issue of inheritance, but never acknowledged that power and wealth were due to class positions, rather than individual genius. Once the simple fact that most rich people are rich because they come from rich families is established, Rand’s whole system collapses.
The strivings of the talented against the holding back of the collectivist philistines is the theme of both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The former’s main protagonist, Frank Roark, is an architect who from the time he is a student fights back against attempts to throttle his individuality and make him conform to stylistic fashion and consensus . In Atlas Shrugged, ‘Atlas’ is the talented, the geniuses, the clever people who ‘hold up the world’; their ‘shrug’ is a worldwide strike organised by their international champion, the mysterious John Galt, who unusually for a modern novel makes a 60-page speech explaining what is in effect Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
Rand’s time and context
Ayn Rand became famous through The Fountainhead in 1943, and remained prominent until her death in 1982, speaking at numerous meetings, notably the Ford Hall Forums in Boston and appearing on radio and television. Her great ideological battle was against the mixed economy welfare state model of capitalism – Keynesianism – a battle waged by the American Right during and immediately after the second world war. She described a trinity of ideological opponents – altruism, collectivism and mysticism. It was this latter that got her into trouble with many on the US Right, then as now a Christian redoubt. To give Ayn Rand her due, she loathed and detested religion as not based on reason (obviously). This led her into many battles with more mainstream conservatives, for example William F. Buckley, influential editor in the 1960s of the National Review and a key intellectual behind the extreme right-wing Republican candidate for the presidency in 1964, Barry Goldwater. Ayn Rand was vicious in her denunciation:
“The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive- a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence…Man’s mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God… Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith….The purpose of man’s life…is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question.” (For the New Intellectual).
Rand also annoyed mainstream conservatives with her views on abortion:
“An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn)….Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?”
Rand made many searing attacks on the anti-abortionists not because she saw herself as a feminist – she told a Ford House Forum that on feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment she “disagreed with all that” – but because she saw it as a matter of individual rights. Philosophical individualism is the cornerstone of her system.
Ayn Rand’s system is made possible by a series of fallacies which underpin her system. As she herself said many times about her opponents, these errors are so glaring it’s difficult to believe anyone would make them in good faith.
Fallacy 1 – Wages under capitalism
In her essay Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal Rand uses the following illustration of individual responsibility. Imagine, she says, a “little stenographer” (sic) who spends all her money on lipstick and not microscopes. Her choices are not irrational if her individual values accord lots of importance to lipstick. However, if she later gets sick she may regret she didn’t allocate some money to ‘microscopes’- here a metaphor for medical science and medical insurance. If she doesn’t have the health insurance it’s her own fault.
This of course is bog-standard free market nonsense. The obvious fallacy is that any waged worker under capitalism could possibly earn enough to pay privately for every good and service they might need in a lifetime. As capitalism evolved its neoliberal phase the amount of discretionary income workers have at their disposal has diminished. In Britain privatisation of transport, gas, electricity, most forms of dentistry etc has swallowed up workers’ incomes so that, unlike in Ayn Rand’s time, it needs two fulltime workers to support a household – especially with the astronomic cost of housing. The complete privatisation of healthcare would lead to millions of workers being unable to afford to have many therapies and treatments. Just like in the United States where, as Michael Moore shows in Sicko, insured people are regularly ripped off by health insurance companies that specialise in not paying.
Fallacy 2: The source of wealth is individual effort and talent
Ayn Rand’s world, where the clever and industrious are the one’s who reap the rewards, was always a major caricature, even in her own times. In the neoliberal epoch dominated by finance capital it is ludicrous. Finance capital takes a chunk of the money paid for most commodities in the form of rents, interest etc. It’s money that makes money, and that may involve second order artfulness and gambling techniques, but it probably does not involve anything very clever, inventive or productive.
But even in the sphere of industrial capital Rand’s ideas don’t work. The example of Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man and two years ago listed as the richest man in the world, is highly indicative about the source of wealth today. Slim got his $70bn by owning Telmex, the Mexican telephone and communications giant. He was given it by his close friend Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who as Mexican president in the 1980s oversaw the advent of neoliberalism and privatisation. Rand’s model assumes that corruption and the use of the state apparatus for personal enrichment does not exist. But under capitalism it’s endemic, because the economic power of the capitalists enables them to further enrich themselves through non-economic power techniques like corruption and violence.
Ayn Rand waxes lyrical over the clever, the industrious and those who create things. But the people who make most things, whose billions of hours of labour make the world go round each day, are the workers – in industry, in services and on the land. Rand has nothing but contempt for them.
Fallacy 3: The state, class and society
Millions of people remember Margaret Thatcher’s famous adage that “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families”. This utterly shocking view, that there was no collective good, was highly damaging to Thatcher and the Tories. But it was not an aberration – Ayn Rand said it first:
“The tribal notion of the ‘common good’ has served as the moral justification of most social systems – and of all tyrannies – in history…The ‘common good’ (or ‘public interest’) is an undefined and undefinable concept; there is no such entity as ‘the tribe’ or ‘the public’; the tribe (or the public or ‘society’) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such; ‘good’ and ‘value’ pertain only to a living organism – to an individual living organism – not to a disembodied aggregate of relationships.” (What is Capitalism p20)
Even if we accept Rand’s strange terminology and discuss the fate of tribes – for example native Americans or pre-historic Europeans – it seems fairly obvious that the tribe as a collective had overall interests. For example, it had the collective interest of finding somewhere with accessible food and water; of not being massacred by white settlers; of moving somewhere warmer with the advent of harsh winters; of finding shelter; of not being eaten by predators etc etc. This may seem a small and trivial example, but it goes to the heart of everything that is wrong with Ayn Rand thought.
It was in the interest of each individual member of the tribe to do all the above things. But individuals couldn’t do all of them on their own. So they banded together in groups who produced and reproduced their existence by working together collectively, by collaborating. (The social nature of humanity and the social nature of labour is of course the very basis of Marxist thought. Collaboration for the common good is essential for virtually any type of society to work, including capitalism.
Even under advanced capitalism there are many things that individuals and private companies either can’t or won’t do – or if they do they run into trouble because it’s inherently unprofitable but socially necessary. A classic case is the Channel tunnel linking the UK with Europe. The investment needed was so vast it couldn’t be recovered in fares and charges over any reasonable time to recoup investors’ money. So the company effectively went bust and was bailed out by governments. Which shows that it should have been financed by the UK and French governments all along.
It is possible to argue that every road, bridge and museum should be built by private money for a profit, but then the system of tolls and charges would be so enormous and complex, that people would spend all day sorting out change and things would slow down in a major way. But there is a more important issue, another one that goes to the heart of Ayn Randism. If profit is the sole criterion of everything except the police and the army, then you radically limit the range of things that can and will be done. You will sabotage the arts, education, social security and health – and the quality of life for millions of real individuals. You will have massive unemployment, thousands of beggars on the streets and social explosions so vast that spending on the repressive apparatuses would skyrocket to repress the consequent riots and uprisings.
Capitalism has always needed the state, indeed capitalism was brought into existence in the mercantilist period under the aegis and protection of the state. So long as capitalism subsists there will be a permanent battle about the priorities of the state, especially state spending. As a rule of thumb, the higher state spending the lower the level of poverty.
A linked blind spot for Rand is class. The capitalist class, the working class and the petty bourgeoisie (middle class) are absent actors from her texts. Since there is no such thing as society, other ‘disembodied aggregates’ like social classes as disallowed too. Rand’s individualism is sustained by ignoring real collectives.
Fallacy 4: social solidarity and individual recognition
Rand saved some of her most persistent vitriol for ‘altruism’. This issue divided her from many conservative contemporaries who at least saw charities and some state health and welfare spending as necessary. The sea of altruism – and the unworthy and lazy claiming the wealth of the creative and industrious through taxes to fund social spending – was rotting the moral fibre of America and preventing the adequate recognition of the worth of ‘Atlas’ – the talented and vigorous whose achievements ‘hold up the world’.
Marxists however do not advocate altruism – being generous to the less fortunate in the manner of well-meaning aristocrats – but social solidarity. This proposes that people work for the common good, sure, but not only for that.
Even in an egalitarian, collectivist society, the question of the recognition of individual achievement would be an important one. The need for recognition, for positive feedback from peers, to have personal qualities of skill, hard work and inventiveness recognised by others is something built into human beings, part of ‘human nature’ if you want. And it is clearly part of the motivation for the activity of billions of human beings. The esteem of others is always part of the self-esteem that everyone needs.
Recognition and esteem for individuals is not counterposed to social solidarity or collectivism. Ayn Rand’s vision of this, perhaps best explained in her dystopian novel Anthem, is that collectivism leads to the obliteration of individual recognition and individual personality – even individual names are replaced by numbers. This is a 1984-style vision of Stalinist totalitarianism, the kind of thing that is being wheeled out to oppose Obama’s health reforms, revealing the deeply paranoid style of the American Right.
The question is not whether individual talent and achievement shoul be recognised, but whether hugely disproportionate financial rewards should accrue to those who make major contributions.
Fallacy 5: The capitalist free market equals freedom
According to Ayn Rand, freedom means only one thing – freedom from the threat of physical violence, and it is the role of the state to ensure that freedom. Everything else is a matter of contract – agreements freely drawn up between individuals on the basis of legal equality (Rand was a true daughter of John Locke).
This is an entirely restricted view of freedom, of course. Real freedom is the freedom to develop your own individuality and creativity on the basis of freedom from hunger, from poverty, from disease, from exploitation, from intimidation – and from the permanent exhaustion imposed by capitalist work regimes (it is no accident that the centre of modern capitalist work regime methods, the United States, is the sleep deprivation capital of the world).
People do not confront one another in the market place on the basis of freedom and equality, but on the basis of deep structural inequalities – of class, race and gender. They do not have equal access to education, and as a result the education system in modern capitalist states tends to spontaneously reproduce existing structural inequalities. Social mobility is slowing down, not speeding up. The overwhelming majority will remain in the social class into which they were born.
Marx said that being rich meant being rich in free time, which is what most full-time workers can’t get. The free marketeers point that nobody is ‘forced’ to do a particular job is trivial and puerile. Yes, you have the right to be destitute; otherwise for most people it means having a full-time job, which for most people means an end to freedom.
Objectivism – the vacant heart of Ayn Rand thought
As befitting a cult guru, Ayn Rand topped off her system with a quack philosophy which she called ‘Objectivism. This says that a) ‘Existence exists’ b) People should be guided by reason and not religious faith (mysticism): reason is the method in which information from the senses is integrated and synthesised c) Reason determines that individualism, not altruism, shows the right way to live d) Each ‘man’ must determine their own ‘values’ on the basis of reason, but these values are contingent on time and circumstances, except that they must be conditioned by c).
The real problem which this system is the lack of any determination about what ‘values’ might be, except the dogma about individualism. Lacking any secure concepts about history or society, lacking any engagement with Freud which might have yielded up something about individual motivation, it really says ‘use your reason to determine your own best interests’.
Rand adds an ontology, which is peripheral to her system, but is as it happens completely wrong. She says contradiction in reality cannot exist. A=A. A thing is what it is and nothing else. This of course is a radical rejection of dialectical thinking that sees phenomena not as things in themselves, but in the process of their development and in the light of their interconnections with other phenomena.
It is this dynamic view of phenomena which enables Marxists to understand that everything – including capitalism fortunately – has a beginning and an end.
The cult of Ayn Rand
For a lot of people the success of American cults – like Scientology for example – seems a mystery. How did Scientology manage to recruit all those Hollywood stars? It is less of a mystery when you realise that Scientology is really a self-improvement system. On the basis of mumbo-jumbo, it aims to convince you that you are the centre of the universe, you can do anything, you must concentrate all your energy on being successful.
Thus with Ayn Rand thought. Individuals must be morally comfortable with unbridled self-interest, and use reason to think through the ways they can be most successful. This is deeply appealing because it links in with the great American myth – anyone can make it, on the basis of hard work, creativity, intelligence. It’s all up to you: individual and not collective solutions are the key.
All these systems fall on one central point. Stephen R. Covey says in his multi-million selling ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, “Highly effective people make their own world”. Covey is incapable of seeing that making our own world is just not available to the vast majority of the world’s population. How does a poor women in an Indian village make her own world? Or a peasant in a Mexican village? Or a Russian factory worker? The realities of class, of power and wealth – the deep structures of capitalism – prevent the vast majority of people exercising the kind of autonomy necessary to make real choices.
Capitalism does not make free. It enslaves people.
It has been five years this month since pioneering ecosocialist Walt Sheasby’s life was cut tragically short after contracting West Nile Virus. The top perk of being a commie, in my humble opinion, is the amazing people you get to meet. Though my relationship with him was confined to phone conferences and email around the 2004 Nader campaign in the months before he died, Walt was one of those amazing people that the left affords you access to.
Walt’s work on Marxism and ecology is still unfolding, though much of it has been affirmed by developments since his passing. His political work as well as his writings in Capitalism Nature Socialism and elsewhere (bibliographies here and here) deserve to be studied. Sadly not enough of his work is available on the web, but it is well worth searching out (see if your library has back issues of CNS).
The growth of an ecological understanding within the Marxist movement is due to the work of comrades like Walt Sheasby who have both enriched and, in important ways, corrected the tradition. Below is a wonderful appreciation reprinted from Against The Current of Walt by Joel Kovel. I hope that the work in collecting Walt’s legacy that Joel mentions has progressed. Walt Sheasby, revolutionary, Presenté!
WALT’S PASSING IS a triple loss. Personally he was a very dear friend. Second, as we are hearing, in many different ways he was a true stalwart activist, of immense energy and dedication.
Faith had something to do with Walt’s capacity. One of our speakers spoke of how he persevered in the face of meager returns that are always the lot of those who chose to stand outside the established system. And he persevered to the very end of his days. That is a shining example.
The third way in which Walt’s passage was a loss is in intellectual terms. I think Walt’s contributions have not yet been realized, and I think they were moving into a very fruitful phase. Typically of his nature, he was not concerned to publish a lot or to advance himself in the marketplace of ideas, such as that is. He was concerned for what he thought was the truth, and he was a prodigious scholar.
I do believe that of all the things in this world that he loved most was his copy of the Marx/Engels works; he had the whole thing. He just loved to pore over those books — not as a kind of penance but as a way to find creative force within him.
I knew Walt in several contexts. We met in 1997, at a conference set up by James O’Connor, who was the founding editor of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. In those years I was just one of the editors, and I didn’t know who Walt was. He showed up at this meeting with an essay, called “Karl Marx’s Inverted World,” which did appear in CNS.
This was a real tour de force, a brilliant piece of work, taking off from the economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844 and showing a very profound dialectical grasp of how everything is turned upside down, a “camera obscura” as Karl Marx put it.
At any event, you can read that in the journal. But the greatness of Walt was his ability to do the most gritty day-to-day stuff. There was nobody who would be more present in the creative and constructive sense. I can tell you some of the things he did for me and with me; there are fifty people who could say the same kind of thing, but it would be different.
You would see this immense activity that characterized the man. At the same time he was a profound scholar, for whom the identify of theory and practice was lived, not just a formalism.
Of course, like all of us, he was imperfect. He was struggling. But he knew he had to struggle both in the world to try to change it but also as a philosopher to try to understand it: not to change the world through mindless activism, but rather through profound and in-depth scholarship.
That depth is also given by rootedness in practice. One thing Walt did for me was get me to join Solidarity. I was not a member at the time. We were talking after that editors’ conference. I had never been a member of a group of that sort, and I wanted to. After talking with Walt, I applied for and became an at-large member, because I live in upstate New York, not near any chapter. And that has been very fruitful.
The most important thing that Walt did for me as an activist was give me the idea and encourage me and work very closely with me in the 2000 campaign for the Green Party presidential nomination. At that time — although we both admired Nader, and Walt certainly had an affection for Ralph, then as now — we thought it would be important to run a campaign at least within California, where I was living at the time, to challenge Nader.
Not that we were going to win; I didn’t want to win; we really wanted Nader to win the nomination because he had the momentum, and he was going to put the party together. But we wanted to emphasize several points, one of which was that Nader had refused to be a member of the Green Party.
We thought it was necessary as activists from within the Green Party to run a campaign as well — it shouldn’t just be the Green Party anointing somebody, however grand a figure Nader was and for whatever reason he was refusing to join the Green Party. (Furthermore) Nader wasn’t, never has been, a socialist, and I wanted Green politics to be socialist politics.
So I spent the early part of 2000 mostly just in a car traveling around the state and speaking to whomever would hear me. But without Walt that couldn’t have happened. He was really my rock. He was there. He was consulting all of the time. We had prepared the campaign literature, such as it was, together.
We became fast friends around that. In the year 2003, because of Jim O’Connor’s decision to step down as the editor of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, I stepped up as the editor-in-chief, whatever that means. It means the guy with the most headaches. But the first thing I did was to call Walt and I said, “Walt, this is going to be a big project. We have a very important task ahead of us. I want you to play a central role in it.”
He said, “Absolutely.” He was going to move up to the Bay Area and become a member of one of the editorial groups. There is one in London and Canada — various parts of the world — and the United States. And that was really important, but, alas, that never happened. His personal situation didn’t permit it.
I know that he lived in Sierra Madre as a boy in his family’s house (if I remember correctly, he said his father had actually built it). After a long hiatus he had returned there. It was typical of Walt to take care of his mother who was aged and infirm. So in the midst of everything else, this very dedicated man was there to care for his nonagenarian mother.
Eventually his mother passed on, and he was going to sell the house and use the proceeds to move up to the Bay Area. Included in this scheme, he wanted to get a mobile home. Typical of Walt, there was something unworldly about the guy. I loved him for that too.
I said, “Walt, what are you going to do with your library?” He said, “I’ll figure something out.” Well that is a big problem; some of you who visited his home saw the tremendous library Walt had. It was a fantastic library that filled a big room, thousands and thousands of books and manuscripts of all sorts.
As I said, he never deigned to the publish-or-perish mentality or that crap that passes for academic work in this world. But he had his eye on several truths, and he had that library dedicated towards that.
To repeat, he loved the activism. But I believe that what he loved most of all was being with his books and being a scholar. What was important to him was the truth and making revolution.
The direction that his thought took him in the last years is another reason why this is a very serious loss. There was nobody that I felt more at home with in the development of a point of view which Walt and I have been calling ecological socialism.
We agreed that the only true and rational way of approaching this was from the standpoint that this process was driven by rampant accumulation of capital, and is inherent in the capitalist system in that capital does not simply exploit labor — what the classical Marxist approach took as its canon — but exploits nature as well.
It was necessary to bring these features together and to begin to rethink the radical project as such. I know that Walt believed in this as deeply as I do.
This year, we in fact disagreed about the Nader campaign. This is the last place I would to argue with anybody about it. But the point was that it didn’t affect our personal relationships at all. When we last met in Santa Monica and had lunch in May, we said that we disagreed and that we agreed to disagree, and that we were going to go forward. And the more important thing to go forward was the development of ecological socialism.
The last thing he said — you see, Walt was always more practical than I was in the sense of organizing things — was that as soon as this election blows over, we have to build that ecosocialist listserve. One of his many listserves. Somebody should do a “collective listserves of Walt Sheasby;” it would be quite a lengthy document.
He also wanted to build something called the Green Alliance, which was a major project that he and I shared, although he stayed with it and I drifted away.
I do believe that besides these memories there is a legacy that Walt leaves, which really should be somehow materialized and grounded, and that is the tremendous collection of his papers and books. Israel Feuer saved some from the dumpster, and Sam Fassbinder has some others.
How this is going to be done is a difficult problem. The really true legacy, the memorial to Walt, would be a Walt Sheasby Library somewhere in this great metropolitan area where those books could be useful for scholars and young people. Just the Collected Works of Marx and Engels — he probably converted several brokers’ fees [Walt made his living as a stockbroker] into that set of books, which is fitting, after all.
Of course the other job that is daunting is to make sense of his papers. A lot of them are lost already, but a lot of them are still around. For the sake of the future and also for Walt’s memory these papers must be resurrected.
Walt had in progress during the last year of his life an immense set of articles which was going to be turned into a book, Marx and Nature, the nature of which indicated just how importantly Walt took the project of ecological socialism. The fundamental point of these articles was to establish once and for all that the real living Karl Marx, both in his life and his thought, was deeply concerned about questions of nature, and indeed, ecology.
This year he handed in an immense project. We were going to spread it out over three CNS issues. The first was published in the June issue, the second was published in the September issue, which I have here, and the third was to be published in the December issue. Thus the second installment, called “Karl Marx and the Victorians’ Nature, The Evolution of a Deeper View. Part II: The Age of Aquaria” is his last published work.
The age of aquaria is sort of a play on astrology. But more accurately, Marx was fascinated by — who knew? I didn’t know — by deep sea phenomena. They had built certain aquaria in London and around Europe. Marx used to visit and really study them. Who knew from that? But Walt Sheasby knew.
Joel Kovel, editor of Capitalism Nature Socialism, spoke at the memorial for Walt Contreras Sheasby in Los Angeles on October 10, 2004. Walt Sheasby, 62, died suddenly on August 20 from the effects of West Nile virus. He wrote extensively on independent politics and the environmental movement and was active in the Green Party as well as Solidarity. Many thanks to Scott Ratigan for transcribing this tribute, which we have abridged here.
ATC 113, November-December 2004
…not at Woodstock, but in Harlem. Viva Nina!
Up with the sun this morning catching the news before running off to work. Coffee and Richard and Linda Thompson far too loud for this early. Bombings in the Caucuses, the health care debate, summer storms, Afghan elections, blah, blah. Usually politics takes some time off in August. The health care imbroglio has meant that this August feels like a campaign season.
The Obamaists let it be known in leaks over the weekend that they were going to drop the “public option” from their plan in the hope of getting the Blue Dogs on board. I wonder what concessions they are going to make to the Progressives Caucus’ demands? Oh wait, they’re not making any demands so they get no concessions. Bernadette McAliskey once said that one of the lessons of the civil rights movement in Ireland was that “the less you ask for the less you get”. At this point the progressives having demanded nothing will get nothing in return.
That the debate is skewered right is not by chance. It is, after all, the corporate media that has largely defined the terms of the debate. Thus even though the single -payer position is held by a substantial part of the population it is ignored while the “your health care, your problem” crowd gets lots of time. Even if the single-payer movement were stiffened by some more vertebrae it would be a tough going fight to get the message out. That it is, in far too many cases, equivocating its position just makes it that much harder.
We can talk all we want about alternative media, I support it, but until it is backed up by power it is only information. To make a real challenge requires power, social weight, to back it up. The corporate media have power, that is why they are listened to, even when the majority is opposed to what it says.
I usually don’t call out left groups on this site, but on occasion one must. Freedom Road Socialist Organization, of which Bill Fletcher is perhaps the best known member, having supported Obama “from the left” in an attempt to relate to Obama’s supporters and build a left pole in the Dems milieu have now totally fudged the health care debate and come out for the reform bill, any reform bill it seems, that comes from the desk of Obama in the name of “fighting the right”. The move from relating to the milieu to supporting the policies has been a short one.
I have a lot of respect for many FRSO comrades, but they are building on their mistaken support of Obama. Having to produce straw men to bolster their argument, as they do is this article, only proves that they’ve painted themselves into a corner. The main bogeyman seems to be the “purist”. They deride these “purists” who refuse to support a bill that would, in fact, codify much that is awful in the the health care system shutting down the possibility of real reform. Who are these wreckers? Paper-selling Bolsheviks packing meetings and shouting for workers’ militias to fight for health care? No, they are single-payer supporters who are attacking Obama’s corporate based agenda. If health care reform goes down it will hardly be because of the intransigence of the single-payer folks and shame on FRSO for implying it.
Aside from long term class interests the short term interests of the working class and social movements demand the mobility that independence allows. It seems now that the only alliance FRSO envisions is the one between the left and the liberals. As if that alliance were natural and the only one to be had. Leftists are not just more liberal liberals, we have different agendas, world views, class interests, etc. The alliance the single payer movement needs is with itself first and foremost. That may sound flip, but it is true. You’ve got to work your muscles to get stronger.
“Purity” has nothing to do with it. The working class is, in its way, as “dirty” as the other classes produced by capital. Anyone expecting to remain “clean” fighting within the working class is SOL. In larger terms fighting for independent class politics is not to ensconce oneself in a purist redoubt, but because, and this is elemental for a Marxist, the road from the class “of itself” to the class “for itself” is paved by the struggle for independence. It is through the struggle to define its interests from its own perspective that the working class develops the skills and conceptions necessary to act on those interests; to emancipate itself.
This scattered-brain post doesn’t do the debate a good service and I apologize for that. I imagine that others will comment on the FRSO statement and I’ll try to link to those critiques as I find them. OK, off to work. Let’s hope I don’t get hurt. I don’t have health care.