The Displacement of Freedom

Academic freedom = cloistered freedom of speech and therefore thought. Academia, institutionalized as higher Education, is the singular, prime, and symbolic location of freedom in its most concrete, explicit form. As the requirement for modernity to justify itself as Progress, it is provided a space where thought is expected to be protected from political and social incursions. At the same time, following the medieval heritage, it embodies the fundamental and binary social division of labor of mind over matter. Namely, the aim is to give those symbolically representing the mind the power of officialdom to make consequential judgments about those representing the matter of society–ourselves.

The sign that capital and its social order are in serious trouble is that the cloister has now been stripped of its freedom, or rather, beginning in the 70s, it has abandoned its autonomy by an internal revolution. This anticipated its service to the changing social order, deeply in need of ideological support. The sixties showed that the center of revolt would henceforth be this bastion of free thinking. At the same time it was clear that capital needed precisely what it alone could supply, a trained, postindustrial working class, which meant that the academy would have to expand beyond the elite professional-managerial class that had a stake in power. This would require bringing in some of the common herd, those outside the tradition of class privilege, who had previously fueled the antiwar movement, and that was a risky situation.

The convergence of revolt potential and new blood required a radical transformation, and the academy, endowed with the task of reproducing the social order through Education, adapted to it, begining in the late sixties. The new generation of academics came up with a way of thinking, inspired by French thinkers, which would eventually be called simply Theory. It would turn academics, regarded socially as intellectuals (the free mind and Reason) into univocal and explicit ideological defenders of the social order, despite their appearance as critics. Instead of attacking the social order they would aim in a direction the liberal establishment was already committed to, targeting racism, sexism and homophobia. These were certainly contradictions to the equality ideal of democracy, but did not touch the social order per se. When decades later, the summer of 2020, Theory burst its academic hothouse confinement and appeared in street protests and riots, it found an echo in political power –the achievement of Foucault’s “knowledge is power,” one of its prime tenets. As a result, the advance of capitalist social relations, although still shaky, is more secure than it would have been otherwise.

An amazing reversal has taken place over the past fifty years: the term Critical Theory, which Marxists originated who were opposed to both Stalinism and advanced capitalism. This has become the title (along with Critical Race Theory) for an ideology not only useful for the survival of capitalism but as doctrinaire and intolerant as Stalinism ever was.

The other result of the ideological realignment of academia is that public acts of authentic freedom, independent of any reward or credentialing, have been put outside the door, hidden and detached from the system of social legitimation. This applies to any art or expressed thought that lacks career motivation, for career orientation is the first step to legitimation. Previously the social order institutions allowed a space for freedom within official culture, a prime example of which was Jazz and then sixties Free Jazz); this was not noblesse oblige but necessary so that “freedom” could be co-opted ideologically during the Cold War period. At least by the eighties, such freedom was being denied cultural recognition and replaced by a simulacrum–free jazz, classic jazz, and the rest of managed art. Now that the process is complete, it is impossible for the institutions (media, venues, etc.) to turn around and welcome those playing freely outside the door. They have continued to explore beyond sixties music and its imitators, and for them to be publicly acknowledged would destabilize the established musician hierarchy. This would not happen anyway, since instead of waiting for the flattery and bribes of cultural significance, the free players have been enjoying their freedom and have a stake in it. Their freedom is doubled; not only are they free to make whatever noise they’re inclined to, as were the sixties musicians, but they’re also socially free of institutional management and the role of entertainer-producer of consumed articles.


Apart from its output, academia has all along been the officially-designated simulacrum of freedom, a fake version of absolutely free inquiry. It has always followed trends internal to its membership and useful for personal advancement. Now under political censorship it is no longer even a fake. Despite many works of inspired critique, its freedom was already conditional. Academics have been in the business of producing statements of Knowledge under the sign of scientific principles, which over time were extended from the natural sciences to the humanities. Science calls for verification by peers, which has worked well for the empirical, natural sciences, where meritocratic credentialing can be calculated and objective. New theories can be proven to advance over older ones.

In the humanities, however, Theory considered the need for academics to relate their findings to empirical material a mistake, replacing focus on the material with theories about Theory. The central issue of credentialing became the individual’s political orientation, as if they were applying for membership in a political organization. This made the validation of academic knowledge circular and hermetic, and removed its knowledge statements from any possible verification, use or comprehension by outsiders. Free inquiry is then constrained by conditions, which is an obvious contradiction in terms, which makes its statements of dubious value. Yet as before, what comes from outside the cloister (extra ecclesiam) is not sanctioned as knowledge but untrustworthy lay opinion, which originates in the demos–ourselves.

This situation has a history. In a few sentences, beginning in the postwar fifties, independent intellectuals, who wrote for anyone curious and literate (ourselves, the public), were being deprived of a political audience and therefore their livelihood by anticommunism and the shift away from critical thinking in the midst of prosperity. Later called “public intellectuals,” they were forced indoors, confined to academia and given the role of discoverers and educators of Knowledge rather than stimulators of Thinking.

The split and antagonism between the free-floating, inquiring mind and the social order is potential and risky for any social order. In this case was warded off by a reward structure–prestige of the professoriat hierarchy, and later public celebrity status as pundits and high salaries for the winners. The potential friction between free inquiry and the social order has now been eliminated by the “soft” merger of the university-based woke movement, directly derived from Theory, and the political and institutional order (the Democratic Party, social media, corporations, billionaire philanthropy, and compulsory education). The social order, through its political and institutional elite, now owns “freedom,” but since freedom always finds a way—it is the very principle of modernity, the need for a “new” that is “different”—it is only displaced, outside the system of social control, hierarchy, and bribery of its former professional class.

Besides free inquiry, for the academy to become politicized it had to abandon its other birthright claim, Reason, which by definition is free to come to its own conclusions and is available to us all. Thus wokeness is free to ignore arguments against it, having the circularity of religious belief and now the authority of Power. The postmdern left’s attack on the Enlightenment tradition, in which fact and value are distinguished in order to validate truths, is not surprisingly also central to fundamentalist Christianity of the political right. This is a regression to premodern thinking and an advance at the same time. The modernist notion of linear progress has been replaced by a spiral, whereby the old recurs (the merger of fact and value, as in pre-Enlightenment religious cultures) but clothed as the new (dismissal of opponents as obsolete).


These notes are inspired by Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, p. 147-8, which is his immanent critique of Marxism. I first read this when it came out in translation in 1975 and am rereading it now with renewed interest for its contemporary applicability. Although the book mentions some of his more familiar themes, it has been buried under his works on simulation and hyperreality, which have been interpreted in a way that supports postmodern relativism and contemporary art, much to his chagrin. Also of value was Theory’s Empire, ed. Daphne Patai and Will Corral, 2004, an essay by Stephen Adam Schwartz, “Everyman as Ubermensch, the Culture of Cultural Studies,” p. 360

Otherwise, the writing is a brief summary of conclusions I reached over a summer of research, under the impact of the predominant-left movement and its mainstream absorption. It reflects earlier projects of mine, one of which is the transformation of late-modernist art music (sixties Free Jazz) into its postmodern simulacrum (today’s free jazz) and the survival underground in the US of free playing. That study (which includes other topics) is to be found in my book of 2017 The Free Musics (which I now offer to mail you at my cost plus postage). The second project has been the evolution of postmodern Theory as the extension of a branch of sixties New Left radicalism into a political movement in defense of the social order.

I was on the academic path to professorship until 1972, engaged in political activism, and then as a musician saw myself as expanding upon sixties Free Jazz. This has made me personally involved in these historical patterns and working to understand their relationship. My forthcoming book, Shaky Ground, besides being a re-writing of a private journal from the mid-90s, will include the results of this study and expand on it. Tentative publication Jan. 2021, and hopefully resuming touring soon thereafter.

What’s Problematic is to be Safe

Any time you open your mouth with some spontaneous insight outside the norm, someone will surely pipe up and accuse you of being “problematic.” That’s especially true today, when the culture has set people free of earlier civic restraint, and the ethic is not to tolerate things that bother you about others. Immersed in that culture, most of those educated to be “critical” attempt to be as unproblematic as possible when talking, acting, and even thinking. Risk-averse, they will surround themselves with a wall of others they’ve tested as safe, who nod in suport to their expression of needs, providing a guard against the displeasure of being accused, should that happen. They are then free to be critical of others, denigrate and dehumanize them, so long as the criticism promises to be echoed by the walls of the group surrounding them.

This is the contemporary version of conformism, based on the hope that one can slide through life as free of ugly disturbance as possible, even come out on top. Indeed the world has gotten rougher for many reasons, and the encouragement to denigrate others from behind the wall is part of that trend. Away from their group the tiniest “microaggression” will remind them of past trauma, and they are encouraged to think avoidance is the way to go. For them the self is a fragile vase they carry around out of sight, being careful nobody bumps into them–“I hurts me to hear it…”

When “problematic” is a person it is someone who is either ignorant of standard thinking, which is rare, or knows they are transgressing it. But for me the most interesting ones are in some way problematic to me, to others, and to themselves. They can be trouble-makers, as I am at times. They tilt me off balance a bit, say things that prompt me to think; I’ll have to adjust in some way, maybe rethink something. There’s one guy very “problematic,” who has periodically attacked me since the seventies, distorts what I’ve said and done and has a serious axe to grind, but he apparently gives me something I need, even if I tip over and fall down. Against conformist logic I’ve concluded that, in the long run, the wounds he and others have given me are a blessing not a curse. So this little essay is by no means a complaint.

I know about “problematic” because I grew up in the late forties and fifties, a culture of group-think widely discussed as “conformity” and “adjustment,” society was ironing the wrinkles out of the sheets. It was enforced by shaming and intimidation, but also a hint of envy, like, “Weren’t you afraid to say that; what’s it like out there?” I was one of those who fit the strait jacket, I did my best, but had some things inside that were irksome. I hid them pretty well; no one suspected a thing. Long story. Then in 1969, under the impact of storms greater than those today, I struggled to get out of my bonds. It took me a while; I almost didn’t make it. It was like Tony Curtis in the Houdini movie I saw in 1953; that scene where he gets free of the strait jacket by contorting himself out of his normal shape . That figure stuck in my mind before I knew why, as if Houdini was whispering to me– you too can do this. 

We are social beings; we can’t get completely free of wanting to be what others need us to be. To our dying day we’re not free of fearing that the world will form a circle around us, spitting at us and demanding that we confirm others’ image of us. We can’t control what the world will do to us and the image it needs to create  of us, but the world’s needs are not our needs. I still get intimidated and sent to the isolation tank, where I stare at my death. I get rudely jostled and my fragile vase of a self is about to smash, and I look around and see the ground littered with the smashed vases of others. Yes, there is comfort in that, compassion for others’ brokenness reflects back to us.

The first time it happened I was sixteen. I froze, as if the slightest movement would bring more pain, as if I could disappear. I reacted badly, but that wasn’t the end of it. At least I knew better than to ask the world to love me; that is to be enfolded in its arms and have the life crushed out of me.

When it happens now, after a time I begin to thaw out, I find a dance that restores my balance. If I can obey the contract that says, “Don’t return hate for hate,” then the reward starts pouring in; I’m even more free to be what I am, and to let others think whatever they need to think of me. And maybe, like in that earlier era, the other will feel a little envy of my freedom from others’ judgment; that hint of their freedom will be my gift to them. For this is all symbolic exchange, though others might never imagine how their hate did not cripple us but was their gift.

P.S. I’ve described a certain common situation these days but it’s misleading; as a template for responding to an assault it is limited. What if the accusation is true? This takes a moment of “as if” thinking, trying to see how it could be true, which is quite possible, even if expressed with full venom. The “where there’s smoke there’s fire” approach. In that case, once past the shock I need to treasure it, an insight from outside my self-image. Sure, I will apologize and thank them, without getting into an argument, but that criticism probably has roots and branches that would be interesting to explore. It’s good to remember it in that way, though it will always arouse the shame of having violated some goodness I think I possess.

But what if it’s factually wrong, or more likely I’ve been wildly and irretrievably misinterpreted, and any evidence I see confirms me and not the other? Am I to doubt myself to the extent that I believe what I know isn’t true? I might sink into that hole, but that is true craziness; a limit of bending the truth to appease the other is reached. When I go through this process, am able to recover from the surprise blow, and can escape the desire for revenge, then my focus shifts to the accuser, and what I see is suffering I can do nothing to alleviate. It’s like hearing of a friend who drowned and you weren’t there to save them. I don’t need to know why he or she has projected on me, what their “real” problem is; it’s just clear this person is suffering more than me and could use the kind of stability and self-assurance I have (and not always had!). They were fragile and felt unsafe long before they met me, and if there is anyone to weep for it is them.

With God on Their Side

The news is so chock full of interesting stuff to comment on I’m tempted to do just that all day long. F’r instance. this one on the “meat industry” feeds a thought I’ve been dwelling on. There’s of course no statistics on the percentage of virus deaths that are Trump Republicans, but I’ll bet they’re very low. They and Trump know it, and it figures into Trump’s decisions. How many Trump voters would you find in the categories that have been dying at the highest rate–prisoners, people in nursing homes, poor blacks, and people with medical conditions who have been heavily dependent on gov’t supported health care? And how many flag-waving Republicans would be found working in meat-packing plants? And of course none at all in Mexican manufacturing plants that Trump is pressuring to stay open, where the virus is spreading and the Mexican gov’t is working to close them. Who is most likely to suffer from the openings of businesses, Trump Republicans or those spending the most time working with customers?

That’s where tribal loyalty fits in–a tribe protects its own against all who don’t belong. (It’s a pretend tribe at that, not based on a kinship or skin color tie; after all a majority of those the virus is taking down are still white-skinned, and somehow they’re not in the tribe.) To think of us all as just ordinary human beings is no liberal idealism; it takes some twisted reasoning to think otherwise—“elitist” would apply quite well. That twist is provided by good old American Exceptionalism boosted by fake Christianity, whose original texts preach universality against tribalism. It’s a deadly mix. I just listened to Dylan’s early “With God on Their Side,” a stinging rebuke to the War Against Vietnam. Today it speaks directly to the fundamentalist and tribalist denial that the human condition is all of us or none of us.

Reality Checkmated

At the instigation of Evan Lipson (my co-conspirator of bold thinking and free music partner) I’ve been digging into Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism of 2010. I don’t really criticize Mark or his book; rather, I don’t know what to do with it, where to go with it, and with the virus in the air that matter has dropped in our laps. This is the problem of all the best analysis out there, which is one of my virus-realizations. (Yes, the virus is penetrating our collective mind and throwing all normality off-kilter, giving us a burst of new thinking when we thought we were already being creative enough!)

By contrast, Marx/Engels’ most read and famous work was both analysis AND manifesto, an incitement for people to think clearly about their situation and create a different world. By chance it was published right before the Revolutions of 1848, and though it played only a minor role, it kickstarted revolutionary movements for more than a century. It was a call to consciousness that aimed to draw people into an organized body that would lead to a new social order. The details of that were purposely never explored; it wasn’t up to the analyst to say what we would create, any more than analysts today. It awakened me when I read it 110 years later, at a time when revolution seemed the farthest thing from possibility.

This is what frustrates me today with these fucking bright leftists who are all good writers, but can merely point to how terrible things are. I come out of reading them with “So What?” Give me crude writing that at least is awake to the open situation we have now and speaks directly to others, and I don’t mean the clan of other analysts. Without that, analysis becomes itself realist in the sense of saying, “This huge Leviathan is what we’re up against.” It is too easily read as “This is all that CAN exist,” a position of impotence that closes off the future, just like Maggie Thatcher’s slogan 30-some years ago, “There is no alternative.” These writers don’t even mention the weak spots in the enemy, and here we have capitalism on its knees. Meanwhile waiting in the wings are austerity and taxes beyond belief, since the $32 trillion stashed in tax havens can’t be touched (see economist Paul Masson’s recent article).

I’m sure Fisher felt that weight of what he was writing as part of his depression after the 2008 crash, which contributed to his suicide in 1917, not just a mental illness. It’s what the general rise in depression is about over the past couple of decades–not the oppression of elitists, whites, males, narcissist politicians, or you-name-it, but of capitalist reality, which is “too big to fail.” Well, now the International Monetary Fund, in the reading of Paul Masson (above), says what’s coming down the pike is more horrendous than the Great Depression. Apparently, reality is not too big to fail after all. Is that depressing?

I suppose that’s why I’m bouncing wildly between depression and bursts of inspiration these days–reality itself has broken the hold that reality has had on ourselves. We can be both unbalanced and rebalanced as we’ve never been before. We can’t help but be mistaken when we take things to be what they looked like a few months ago–doesn’t everything written pre-virus seems tainted by obsolescence? Every thought needs to be re-thought, all that is solid melts into air, which is capitalism’s promise to us, as Marx said in 1848, and he said that was emancipatory. That’s how I remember the spring of 1968, when the world was turning upside down and no judgments from before were worth much of anything. Did we fail? Would that stop it anyway, if we saw it as “inevitable”? Caution has ALREADY been thrown to the wind.

Is capitalism a God that is complete, in control, and can satisfy itself? It looks so when analysis is at its sharpest and most convincing, since it can’t help but project the present into the future. But when the virus is calling the shots it’s time to find out what’s possible that wasn’t before and jump in feet first. That billboard slogan urging kids to “Make History” was saying “Find a place for yourself in Reality.” Now that reality can’t even tie its own shoes.

Here We Are

I’ve been revisiting the private highs and lows that I thought were a thing of the past, a crash one day opening up space for an explosion of feeling and expression the next. Today I was in a deep feeling space and even tearful, which is very rare for me. Then I read this article and it opened the floodgates.

In an earlier blog post I said that I love my country, but it felt awkward, lacked concrete meaning. Reading this made it all clear. I am an American among Americans and we are suffering, the sick of course but also the well.  OK, not the rich, but forget about that for a moment. And blame the government– sure, go ahead, but the first thing to hit the gut is the lines of people waiting for food, and the food is running out. We can say, well, it’s not going to be starvation, but in the Depression people starved to death and nothing stands in the way of that now.

Yet the point is not exactly that. I remember, it was in ’68 while watching the Chicago cops attack the Democratic Convention protesters on TV, someone said “I’m not an American, I’m a citizen of the world,” and I went along with that. It was common among the left, and not long after that I abandoned it. I was touring America and that Walt Whitman feeling of the grandness of this people filled my music.

Neither “nationalism” nor “patriotism” are fit words to describe the feeling when you see the prospect of your countrymen in such terrible, life-threatening need on a mass scale. I was born into this large family, and what they are is what I am; when our ship goes down there will be no life-raft to safety. “Give me your tired, your poor” gets thrown around as if they were someone else. They are not; they are us.

Looking Back on all This

I’m back to reading in one of my earlier fields of study, the Old Regime of 18th c. France. There are obvious points of difference between what preceded the French and Russian Revolutions, as well as the mass political turmoil of fifty years ago. No revolution has had the same form, such that whatever transformation is coming down the pike for us today is likely to seem as novel as those of the past did to their participants. However two things united those of the past: the spark that began them all was immediate material suffering, and the authority of the government claiming to be in charge of things collapsed. Whether the government was fully responsible for the suffering or not was irrelevant.

Louis XVI headed the French government and was generally popular, widely accepted as enlightened, instrumental in the American colonists’ victory, and a champion of modernization and scientific progress. He was not responsible for the poor grain harvests that led to the famines that fueled the revolution. That changed the world for all time to come, yet not a single person on record foresaw this. You can say Louis didn’t prepare for the possible famine, but no government in his time had considered doing that to the extent needed. He was deposed and guillotined for a complex of reasons, yet the train of events would not have moved without that widespread suffering for which, in all honesty, he cannot be blamed. What can be called the most necessary cause, the sine qua non of revolution, is this irrationality. It may have only opened the door, but that was enough.

Today, Trump is faced with events not of his making, material suffering that by all accounts is only the beginning. Of course he could have been better prepared for the virus and economic collapse, but even the most liberal government would have been unable to sustain itself against all this. After all, every government takes responsibility for the economy and wellbeing of the public; Trump just brags about it.

At this crucial moment Trump declares “I am the authority,” as if daring all this evil to fall on his head. It’s like some ancient Greek tragedy, as if he knew what he had to say to fulfill his historical role and was reading the script. In my opinion, his fate is sealed. For power to be corrupt and hated by half the population, for it to sustain the widening gap of rich and poor, as all American governments have done for the past forty years, for power even to allow moderate reform, as in previous administrations—these are conventions of political life and don’t cause any major upheaval. Power is something we can point to and see in action, and it changes hands, like the baton in a relay race. Authority, on the other hand, is invisible and can even undermine power, for it is a vague sense of what gives power its right. Power claims ownership of authority, but it’s like owning the air, sometimes referred to as “the higher power.” One can test, exercise and extend one’s power, but can never take one’s authority for granted. In certain historical moments authority falls into the hands of those who had never imagined they were the true authors of their world.

For the length of his short reign, Trump has been a mockery of what authority is supposed to look like according to the norms of American history. That’s not been enough to topple him; he has withstood every blow of legal, ethical, rational and conventional thinking as summed up in the impeachment, and was able to come out unscathed. Power is there but now authority is collapsing under the weight of a microbe. There’s not a vacuum of power but of authority. Science is an authority proving itself daily; every misstep is simply “we never told you our predictions were absolute”—what science always says. Yet science is merely functional, it cannot fill the hole at the center that is imploding. Like other periods of shocking collapse (for instance, when in ’68 Johnson announced his political failure), this one opens the door to us, the many.

The peasants of 18th century France were 70% of the population. They were not all poor, but they did not rule, nor were they the political actors of the revolution, the deliberators and names we read about. But once the myth of their masters’ authority was broken they let loose such revenge on their masters that all Europe was shaken to the root. As for our society–as the wealthy run to their safe preserves, where they get immediate and special medical treatment, and everyone else waits in long lines and get the worst–the class divide is in such graphic evidence as never dreamed by any muckraking journalist.

Imagine a future historical museum has just opened a new diorama of “The Era of Virus: 2020.” On one side the economic class would be depicted calculating their profits from the virus event, and the political class figuring their advantage as well. On the other the dead bodies in makeshift morgues, the lines of people waiting for food, for tests that aren’t there, for treatment. The diorama is accompanied by charts showing the relative discrepancy of death and illness figures. People will gasp, “How did people stand it?” The next diorama cannot be described, for we are the ones who will make it real.

The Old Life and the New Life

I’m inclined to ask the questions that statistics don’t answer and the press can’t imagine. For instance: people are anxious about the economy and are likely to say to others, including pollsters, that they hope things start up soon so they can get back to work. That is the reasonable and conventional thing to say, and people imagine that others want them to think that way, so they can nod their heads in agreement. The line is, “We’re all in the same leaking boat,” and “Nothing ever changes.” But how many secretly desire what makes no sense for their livelihood—that the entire normality of work will crash for good—the never-enough income, debt, stupid management decisions, speed-up, lack of overtime pay and vacations, you name it.

It is not so farfetched that people think things like this yet hesitate to say them out loud. Remember that Biden won his delegates not because a majority liked him or his policies; a large, perhaps deciding number said they preferred Bernie’s ideas about what was best for themselves and the country but thought he couldn’t defeat Trump. Like those answering polls and talking to friends about their hopes and anxiety, they have been thinking in terms of what they thought other people would do, based on what other people had supposedly wanted in the past. They were casting what they were led to think was a reasonable, collective decision instead of being individuals making a choice based on what they wanted. Yet significant numbers of those others thought the same about Bernie. This makes the “collective of responsible voters” a fantasy that distorted the result. What if they had done what the concept of a democratic society prescribes, to trust your own opinion and vote for it?

The virus, through no will of its own–and certainly not the will of the political class, the business class, and the professional class–has ordered physical misery and death for many but also forced the government to legislate a subsistence-level vacation from normality for the majority. Excuse me, not including those servicing the food supply chain and medical staff, most of whom are living under conditions of high vulnerability and forced-labor conditions, while the rich high-tail it to their retreats—two different responses to panic. The class lines of this country are sharper than ever, and the service and industrial workers, the homeless, the prisoners, the high-debt students, those in care facilities, the medical people and the supermarket checkers didn’t have to raise a single fist to achieve the visibility of their common condition.

Here we are: pre-virus and the post-virus coming up next–two different worlds. We know the first, we don’t know what is coming, nor do the classes that are used to running the show. It’s realistic to think that people will be changed by all this, and not in the ways the pundits are hoping to see. Will people still think and act “reasonably” and return to the status quo, as they will be told once again is “in their best interests”? Might not some express disgust for the old life and rage at the suffering they and the vast majority have had to put up with? Will there be no ears to hear that and join in? And since globalization has provided the perfect environment for the virus, what if that rage is reinforced all over the world? Or when people do go back to work, and find conditions even worse than before, isn’t it possible people will say, as a new kind of collectivity: Fuck this, we’re not going back to that shit!

the virus has a mind of its own …and so do we

Looking ahead, one thing should be clear: if we treat this period as something we must suffer through, or just get angry about, we will fail. We will be impatient to return to “normalcy,” then tempted to think we’re on its track, and inevitably disappointed with another wave. Not only will this make us miserable wrecks, but we’ll be turned towards events external to our will and thinking —the battles of politicians, government, and experts—as controlling what is possible and unable to achieve any clear sense of direction for ourselves. We would have wasted this time, like sleeping through it and waking up incapable of grasping the new reality. We’ll be missing what seems obvious to me: This virus is a gift of energy, of re-thinking to the root the situation of our lives.

We are living inescapably in the present, and it’s a new experience. It’s like being born into another world: what the fuck are we doing here? What knowledge of the past will guide us into the future? The 9/11 moment was not nearly so predictable as the pandemic but once it came, and it was clear no new attacks were coming, the future was predictable. The Afghanistan invasion was obvious, and it was highly likely to expand into the forever-war situation we’re still in. The pandemic had recent, smaller precedents and a massive one was predicted as “not if but when.” That governments would be taken by surprise was also predictable, based on their past behavior with pandemics—as soon as one was over, the certainty of the next one would be ignored.

We’re in a situation now where the future is unpredictable, for unlike the 2008 Great Recession our rulers are in a rock and a hard place situation and have no unified position. Back then, with the collapse of the pillars of neoliberalism by their own doing, spreading ruin to all but the wealthiest, the license of that social order to run things became a political issue for the very first time. “Too big to fail” was its counter-threat of nihilism, the total collapse of life’s essentials. Absolute rather than relative ruin was effective in pressuring us to accept the bailout. Occupy created a unique combination of indignant protest and egalitarian community but refused to challenge power with power, which it moralized as inherently evil, and institutionalized that refusal as a virtue. It feared that if we used that moment to envision a different social order we would be seen as utopian; moreover, the value placed on the primacy of each individual voice would have prevented unity around any one vision. The virus, on the other hand, speaks with the non-human voice of nature. It is like climate change, only immediate and not gradual, and it has no consciousness or means to attend to our debates. Now nature is too big to fail, a third and uninvited party, reducing our rulers to equal ineffectiveness with us. Just maybe, the ball is in our court.

In the absolute present the past gives no guidance and the future is totally unknown, including how we will feel about ourselves six months or a year from now. We are like the classical musician, who knows how to read the score but for the first time is given a blank sheet and told to play it. It is frightening, and that’s what this version of “Be Here, Now” is about. It is the dark twin to ecstasy, literally, to be outside of stasis, the normal struggles and conflicts of life that we’re used to handling. In the dark side of being in the present all bets are off. Normally we are gambling that tomorrow will be somewhat like today; our routines and habits are built on that kind of bet. Now the gambling tables are closed–at least very few cards and chips.

We can be certain at this point we haven’t peaked yet, but every expert is saying “That is the limit of our knowledge.” They even change the rules they’ve given us to cope with this, demonstrating how confused and in error they have been right before our eyes. They don’t know any more than they’re telling us–we are their equals of the experts in this regard. When has that happened before? Are we just waiting for their next press conference? Then they will tell us we’ve peaked and will start planning the return to normalcy, which would be the reestablishment of our trust and dependence on them. Yet they won’t know if it’s too soon, and their judgment will be upended; they can only think of trying to look like they’re in control of events.

Fully in the present means that what we, the human populace, can be and do is up to our widest and wildest imagination. Yes, we are physically restricted as never before, but freedom of movement isn’t all there is to life; there’s more, and the more becomes a huge expanse as soon as we turn to it. The present has revealed our fear of freedom, of loss of routine, but the flip side is to think what has been unthinkable, to feel what has never been felt, and to be what has never been. This is a good way to go.

The public health scientists use reason and evidence to predict the pandemic’s course but they are not taking our creativity, our thinking and possible action into account. Nor has it been their concern to analyze the larger picture of political and social forces. The unspoken assumption of the government, the scientists, and the economic giants is that they are the only forces, too big to fail. The worldwide spread is no accident and the larger picture shows why, and why the expert’s plea of “Next time, listen to us” will either be forgotten once again or become just another thing we’ll have to pay for.

This below is an attempt to construct that larger picture, which is the means to see our true options, on which thinking and action can ground itself. It is focused primarily on the US but can be critically expanded by other voices working collectively:

The dispute over the approach to the pandemic is a continuation and expansion of the red/blue political divide. We are no more a unified nation than we were during the Civil War, only not quite as clearly divided geographically. But almost. The initial coronavirus map was roughly the political map, as if superimposed over the map of those most concerned for climate change. As for that, the blue states are coastal and the continued existence of their largest cities, except for a few in the Midwest, is threatened by the rise of oceans. Realistically, that matters little to those of the red states. Blue states are also the most urban and populated, and so right now are the most prone to coronavirus.

For Trump this is a game of winners and losers. He is gambling that red state populations would, like himself, not be terribly upset if a lot of democrats suffered and even died, then were weakened in time for the Nov. election. He has been encouraging his followers to think of themselves as strong, and he’s the tough Father. They’re better able to withstand the virus than his enemies, on whom he continually projects weakness, dependency. His delay was not a conscious strategy to bring this about, but given his public expressions of vindictiveness and mafia-boss cruelty, when the virus first appeared on the West Coast he was doubtless thinking “Aren’t those states against me; why should I care?”

Besides that, he is not just interested to win the election; he needs rallies to satisfy his sense of himself, and the sooner he can selectively open the red states the sooner he can hold them. That’s his expectation; the daily “briefings” are just a temporary substitute. He counts on the continued intense resentment in the red states towards “the liberal elite” on the two coasts, even heightened by the belief that the lockdowns have been a political conspiracy against Trump. Of course they don’t want the anti-Trump coastal populations to actually die, but we’re all capable of showing compassion with one hand while the other wants the dig our enemy’s grave.

Trump’s strength is that he has no ideology. He operates on personal need—to be re-elected and to be surrounded by yes-men, and beyond that cheering crowds. He acts like an unenlightened absolute monarch, bothered by the claims of traditionalism, such as the Constitution. This is not what capitalism has needed, which has used government to mask its rule (which Biden would represent). For instance, the time span he is working with, the November election as the terminus, is shorter than the corporations’, which know that long-term planning to keep profit alive means being realistic about this virus. Investors in the stock market, which he sees as the index of his political fortune, are more realistic in assessing what will happen if the virus causes the coastal cities to need to continue the lockdown, and would be unable to resume full-scale corporate activity.

There’s a practical concern here. Can the corporations and stock market be run entirely from the burbs and second homes to which its employees have fled? Can they get up to speed without actual face-to-face meetings, any more than the schools and every institution? Are they going to move their headquarters to Indiana? Can the economy be said to function with only rural populations going back to work while the big cities are idle? And on the other side of the equation, will even the most avid Trump followers be willing to risk their lives by going back to work, as they will be urged to do before the virus is completely eradicated?

The third bill that passed congress is not a stimulus but a stopgap; the virus will recede and return, as it has elsewhere, and the market will plunge again. The Chinese government did not put Wuhan through the lockdown in order to save lives but to put itself in a more competitive position by getting people back into production as soon as possible. The aim was to get a jump on the others, which they knew would be even more crippled. The same goal animates Trump’s economists, who are thinking correctly but only in terms of the immediate needs of Trump’s reelection time frame.

The weakness of that is not just that we, the populace, will want more checks to pay our bills but that we will take a look at “work,” especially a life of two jobs and continual insecurity, and say “we’ve had enough of this shit.” I doubt the economists are thinking that could happen, any more than the public health scientists, but we can.

This is being treated as a crisis for humanity, but before that it is a crisis for capitalism. Capitalism no more than the feudal order it replaced can function by considering human life as its value. The government is not in a position to question this, it can only put a human face on this system, and do its best to keep people from imagining any other arrangement.

No government can ignore that the world order is based on ensuring the continual flow of surplus value (profit) back into the hands of capital, motivated by the constant never-enough-security of the rulers. Government has no other reason for its existence. This affects every epidemic; this one and the ones that are coming. Under the globalization of capitalist social relations, the first priority of every government is to keep their interdependent economies expanding or at least not retreating. When there is no immediate demand, or demand is “soft,” such as the concern for human life or the planet, there is no legitimate reason for industry to crank up production of things like ventilators and masks, or for government to pay for it or to expend the effort to put make adequate preparations for it. The government response to climate change has been working the same way; so long as oil is cheaper than the alternatives, the responses to it will merely mitigate the damage, slow but not flatten the curve, just as now containment of the pandemic must be abandoned and mitigation is all we can expect.

It’s not ideology or greed, it’s the very internal laws governing every corporation and business to maximize profit. The system operates through competition of the major corporations, not only to go as far as the law allows but to make the laws through its representatives, the government. To say, let’s just do away with this, stop this nonsense–fine, but we would not get housed, fed, entertained, and satisfied.

What the virus has done is what people have been unable to do politically: it has stopped the nonsense. The violence of that microbe has substituted for the violence of revolution. It’s the virus that has called for a General Strike, and we’ve obeyed. That raises the question for every individual on the planet, do I want to start it up again? We are in trouble but so is capitalism and the governments on which it depends. Here then is the rock and the hard place, the contradiction. To get our assent governments have pledged to protect human life, which means they must not only slow and stop the virus but provide the material means for us to live. Your check is in the mail, not that the legislators care about you but because otherwise consumption, rents, credit, etc. will create instability. The situation is reversed; we’re now the landlord who can feel justified to bawl out the tenant: “Where’s my money! And next month too, every month after that!” People will be hard pressed when the government tells us, “Oh, that check we sent? It actually comes out of your pocket.” On the other hand, to get elected and stay in office, government is pledged to protect an economic system that cannot concern itself with this.

Whether governments can make good with the hand it’s been dealt and fulfill both obligations is more in question now than any time in memory. Thrown into the mix is that fewer and fewer of the world’s population have been able to share in the profits of globalization. It’s not just “the poor we shall always have with us” but what used to be called bourgeois society, the middle class, further stripped of its equity and security by the 2008 crisis. At this moment the corporate planners see how they can use this situation to further automate and eliminate jobs, beyond what capital has done the past twelve years. And capital is readying itself to take over the small businesses that will surely collapse, and turn them over to chains, reducing workers to Walmart and McDonald’s employees. It is realistic to think that a significant number of people will become more alienated from the social order as the loopholes are closed and they become more like slaves to it. Will the patterns that began when neoliberalism was introduced in the late seventies simply extend? Is this the only possible outcome?

Poems from 80s-90s I.

A trail shows hazard time

gives the flat sense its due

a nose to bridge a nose

and back again, occult,

recollecting things of things

the air for grief, burns

on the take, out gets caress of

 willow-sized, bit

the arrows heaven petrified

  slime and goop across

 casualty fever so miniscule

 gasp in the lake

 misbegotten atrophy with

halter pending, apple blue

 saves a writched life

and awaits comeuppance


this nowhere of a hairsbreath                             

pours for a fountain wish                                       

  immaculates gross feelings

  imbibes its silver time


 sliver-rich dirigible of

box nail length

 vacuumed our porch-dog

 gave him what to think


some garrulous people

bleeped out the neighborhood

 trusting the animal business

[The above from 1990-91, inspired by Chris Culhane]

The Happy Home of Free Improvisation

There’s a notion common among improvisers, drawn from the sixties heritage of self-affirmation and positivity (today’s “good job”): Don’t criticize your playing, and be humble in not defending it as well. Free improv has no established standards, so whatever we do is OK. (And the corollary–“I’m OK, you’re OK,” don’t judge others, or they will judge you—which I am violating here.) This happy home is a recipe for stagnation, endless repetition of lame clichés, making us bored with what we do without noticing it. It provides a certain security but is a far cry from the wild adventure that originally attracted us to improvisation. Identified with “my music” I stick to it and hesitate to do something I might not like. The excitement becomes just the fact of playing another gig and not what we play moment by moment.  The small improv audience reinforces this. It consists mainly of supporters, not people looking to be excited by something they haven’t heard before.

Self-satisfaction is the hole, indeed the pigeon-hole, in which free improvisation finds itself, and has for many years. (I said something similar in The Improvisor magazine almost 30 years ago.) For this musical approach in particular, it is possible to move into what we’ve never experienced—and perhaps what others have not experienced either. Yet improv musicians are typically like a society of explorers meeting in comfort and no longer facing the unknown out in the field. We’re only humble because there’s nothing to be proud of besides our refusal to heed the siren call of public success. However essential that is to art, if critical self-judgment is lacking it doesn’t prevent complacency. The standard critique of free improv is correct: self-indulgence.

The escape from the comfort zone is simple but not easy, and it promises to bring us back to our original interest in this strange musical approach. It is a self-imposed discipline: Playing privately, we start from scratch each time, just like the blank canvas or page. However, we find that every sound is familiar, and instead of turning away we allow ourselves to feel the revulsion, the disgust with our confinement. This meets the criticism of “self-indulgence” head on, for we are the first to accuse ourselves of it, having accepted what we can no longer tolerate. The risk of arousing this sensitivity is that we might quit playing altogether—a necessary option. Or we might search for years, feeling there must be some way we can truly and justly become excited by our playing in a very specific and concrete sense. We might not be proud of what we’re doing musically, but we’ll have a sense of commitment to wandering through the wilderness on a path of our own making.

On the other hand, that revulsion might immediately intensify the pleasure we get in the act of playing by narrowing it down to near-disappearance. Instead of all-inclusive self-acceptance or vague disquiet we’re then on a very thin tight-rope, where we must pay exclusive attention to avoid falling off. There’s not even room to think, “Here’s a good sound!” With this concentrated intensity we find ourselves  twisting each sound out of its familiarity, altering its context, turning it into something we have not yet experienced. All the while, to stay on that tightrope we must not allow that new thing to become itself precious, but must twist it again as it comes around. The familiar becomes alien, then joins the family and is in turn bent into a new shape. Playing that had lost its claim to spontaneity has, in staying balanced on this tightrope, regained it.

Whatever path we’re on, we are overcoming the fear that we will ever reach the end of discovery. The North Pole can be absolutely anywhere, for it disappears and goes into hiding every time it’s discovered. Like all art, musical work that has met the high standard of critical-in-the-moment playing is an achievement we have every reason to be proud of. The search outside our “safe place” takes us outside the bounds of music-as-we-know-it. It is what free playing is  all about, its mobile home, where it has every right to bask in its triumph.