Author Archives: Cmsciabarra

DWR (9): Woke Warriors and Anti-Woke Crusaders: The Ominous Parallels

This Notablog post is another installment in my ongoing “Dialogues with Ryan” series, an index to which can be found here. Ryan Neugebauer is a very dear friend. I recently highlighted his wonderful interview on The Enragés [YouTube link].

In considering the topic at hand of “Woke” and “Anti-Woke”, let me just say that the very word “Woke” verges on becoming what Ayn Rand once called an “anti-concept” insofar as it entails some kind of “’package-deal’ of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context”. Indeed, at this stage, it has become a mere pejorative, which in the hands of its ‘opponents’ is used as a bludgeon against any legitimate social justice cause.

Given these conditions, I’d like to state upfront that my values are fairly in sync with the causes of social justice. When I hear prospective GOP presidential candidate Governor Ron “DeSantimonious” tell folks that the “free state of Florida” is the place “where woke goes to die” and that he’d like to extend his anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-“CRT”-bullying to the country-at-large, I want to puke. Not because there aren’t problems with some of the Woke Warriors (I’ll get to that in a minute), but because his agenda is blatantly authoritarian and no friend to the cosmopolitan cultural values requisite to the sustenance of a free and civil society.

That said, over the course of the past few months, my dialogues with Ryan have focused on several things that need qualification and clarification. Because from what I’ve seen from both the “Woke Warriors” and the “Anti-Woke Crusaders”, I think there is a “false alternative” at work, which is rarely if ever acknowledged. As Rand often said of many of the conventional dichotomies we face in philosophical, cultural, and political discourse: “These two positions appear to be antagonists, but are, in fact, two variants on the same theme, two sides of the same fraudulent coin …”

And in the case of the Woke Warriors and the Anti-Woke Crusaders, the parallels have become all too ominous.

Some of this was touched upon in my previous discussions with Ryan over the problems with cancel culture, but so much more has come to light in the wake of two recent events: 1) the release of the Hogwart’s Legacy video game, which prompted a call to ‘boycott’ that game and all things related to J. K. Rowling because of her strident anti-trans views and 2) this past weekend’s 95th Annual Academy Awards, which prompted condemnations right and left. The Oscars are typically dismissed by conservatives for their ‘woke ideology’ that caters to “inclusivity”. Some of my Objectivist pals went so far as to condemn the Best Picture-winner, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” for its alleged “postmodern incoherence”—perhaps a sign that their “crow” was overloaded, and that they couldn’t quite compute a storyline steeped in nuance and complexity. Some keen observers have interpreted that unique, if challenging, film thru the lens of ‘metamodernism’, in which chaos and catharsis meet, providing us with a reaffirmation of shared values that underscore our common humanity (“we are all useless alone”), our need for efficacy (“it’s only a matter of time before everything balances itself out”) and our yearning for connection (“I will always, always want to be here with you”)—all gloriously sentimental lines that one could not possibly find in a film derided as “nihilistic.”

But then there were those among “cringey ‘progressives’”, as Ryan calls them, who dumped on Best Actor Oscar-winner Brendan Fraser, who starred in “The Whale”. Why? — you may ask. Because he portrayed an obese gay man, while being neither obese nor gay in real life. The Guardian went so far as to call the film “a joyless, harmful fantasy of fat squalor”. Such cringey ‘progressive’ attitudes ignore the remarkably humane, moving, and heartbreaking performance of its lead actor, who embodied (in more ways than just the physical) a character full of regrets, trying to bridge the gaps in his life among family and friends. Along the way, that film confronts not only issues of sexuality, grief, disconnectedness, and alienation, but also the tragic consequences of religious bigotry, and how it can erode the human soul.

Alas, all of this is symptomatic of a deepening cultural divide. While Anti-Woke Crusaders on the right have been trying to suppress every and any mention of ‘the other’ in libraries and books, in classrooms and even in Disneyworld—a clear swipe at people who are not white, male, heteronormative, or otherwise ‘normal’ and ‘decent’, the Woke Warriors on the left have been trying to denounce and suppress anything that does not fall perfectly in line with their social justice ideals. And if can’t be suppressed, then it must be ‘sanitized’ and ‘rewritten’ to conform to those ideals. What we continue to witness is a ‘take-no-prisoners’ culture war, where each side is so caught up in its own narratives, so undialectical, that they blind themselves to the fuller context of any specific issue they address.

Can “Bad” People Create “Good” Art?

Back in 2019, in an article entitled “Michael Jackson, Ten Years After: Man or Monster in the Mirror?”, I addressed the issue of whether people whom we perceive as “bad” can in fact create good art. I am the first person to stand up for the principle that our understanding of any artist or thinker is deeply enriched by understanding their life and context (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, anyone?). I am also of the belief that it is possible—even necessary—to be able to separate the creator from the creation. It’s a hermeneutical truth, as Paul Ricoeur would have emphasized, that every creation is “detached from its author and develops consequences of its own. In so doing, it transcends its relevance to its initial situation and addresses an indefinite range of possible readers.” Every time any creation—be it a book, idea, or artwork—enters the world, it leaves the domain of the creator and begins to speak to countless individuals in myriad ways. And every time each of us, as “readers”, is exposed to that creation, our response to it remains deeply personal, profoundly entwined with our own emotions and life experiences. And that is as it should be.

But things are never quite as they should be.

On February 10, 2023, after the Potter video game was released, my friend Ryan remarked in a Facebook post:

I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to enjoy Harry Potter stuff while opposing JK and her transphobia. I’m tired of puritanical nonsense in social justice circles. There are people who would say that if you grew up enjoying those movies and got a set of the movies before you knew anything about her transphobia, you’re still expected to give up watching and enjoying them. I find that so utterly absurd.

When Ryan wrote that, it was as if the world stopped spinning on its axis for a few folks; many people became incensed over it. And so, I not only came to Ryan’s defense, but took it a few steps further:

This whole thing is INSANE. And now, I’m just going to get on my soap box and let the chips fall where they may! I understand people’s concerns over this issue of putting money into the pockets of those whose views or actions we find abhorrent. Everybody is entitled to make their own decisions on this. But … I have every Harry Potter book, audio book, and DVD, not to mention all the soundtracks to every one of the films. I even bought Harry Potter figurines for loved ones who were in love with the Potter franchise. I despise Rowling’s anti-trans views, but dems de breaks. In the wide scheme of things, my dollars mean little. But if I had to stop myself from purchasing the products of artists / intellectuals who have had moral and legal issues, FUHGEDABOUDIT. I might as well start climbing down into hell right now.

Michael Jackson may very well have been a pedophile, even though he wasn’t convicted in a court of law. I love his music and have bought every MJ release in history; I saw him in person twice, and even saw “MJ: The Musical”. Roman Polanski is a fugitive from justice for having been arrested for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl; I have purchased DVDs and Blu-Rays of some of his greatest films: “Chinatown”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, and “The Pianist”. Frank Sinatra may have been involved with the mob and may have been a notorious ‘womanizer’; I can’t count the number of CDs or the number of films of his that I have purchased over the years.

Suppose the estates of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Richard Wagner were still collecting royalties. Those notorious anti-Semites! Woops… I own a lot of the literature of Proudhon and Bakunin and some of the great music of Wagner. To hell I shall go! (I’ll sidestep Kanye West, because I’m not a fan!)

I’d like to find other means of procuring stuff so that it doesn’t appear that I’m “sanctioning” flawed human beings. (Christ, that sounds so Randroid!) But if I can’t, I won’t, and I sure as hell will NEVER censor my aesthetic responses based on the fact that so many people who have contributed to the art and thought of this world are terribly flawed human beings in real life. It may be easier in this day of YouTube to create playlists of musicians without having to pay for it, and I’m all for getting things for less money or for free. But finding pirated copies of films to substitute for the real thing typically doesn’t work; their quality sucks. And in the end, life is too short. I’m just not going to deny myself the pleasure of enjoying the things I love because some of the people who create these works suck as human beings. I’m sure if people look into my past, they’ll find a few skeletons too. “He who is without sin” and all… and yep, I’ll die on this hill.

Moreover, I lamented that —

We live during a period where intolerance of difference has become a virtue. And I’m NOT saying that tolerance requires us to hug Nazis and Tankies; I’m only saying: let’s cut each other a little slack. It’s possible even for people who share broad fundamental values to have lots of differences between them. I relish that! Celebrate the differences, be open to discussing and learning from one another, give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not all “black-and-white”; life is often an exercise in many shades of gray. And moreover, life is too short.

Greater Clarity

The following day, Ryan observed:

Since September 2018 (when I made this account), I’ve been unfriended by several Left-Libertarians and several Conservatives. Funny enough for different stances on the same issues. The Left-Libertarians unfriended me over my lack of puritanism around their conception of identity politics and the Conservatives unfriended me for my defense of Trans/Non-binary identities. Most recently, a right-wing moron from my high school days unfriended me because I called out his stupidity on Trans/Non-binary people. And yesterday I got unfriended by a Left-Libertarian for defending my continued consumption of Harry Potter content. You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t submit to someone just because they throw a fit. I’d rather people who you have to walk on eggshells around take themselves out of my life. I don’t enjoy being around such suffocating energy. … I don’t kick people out of my life who go to Chick-fil-A, despite my issues with that company donating to anti-LGBT causes. If you do, that’s your prerogative and I won’t shame you for it. But I don’t think these are healthy ways of relating to others. … People who have a certain rigidity on social justice discourse … act like religious conservatives who are investigating thought crime.

Upon reflection, that last sentence, which I’ve highlighted, struck a chord in me: indeed, it is the key to the title of this post. And it wasn’t until after Brendan Fraser won his Best Actor Oscar that it all became clearer. As Ryan remarked:

I swear, some people spend all their days looking for things to be outraged about or to critique. And they cannot stand when others are not in agreement with their critique. …

Just as I call out and condemn the right-wing for their “anti-wokeness” and bigotry, I try my best to call out what I consider absurd, cringey, and outright wrong social “progressivism”.

There’s a contingent of people who will shit on just about anything that doesn’t meet their conception of purist standards. On their view, only a gay man can play a gay man. Only a Trans person can play a Trans person. And so on. Some critique this film [“The Whale”] because Brendan Fraser used prosthetics. First of all, his character was supposed to be like 600 lbs. Goodluck finding a solid actor who weighs that much and can actually do the role without negative consequences. Not to mention, I don’t think any of us would say that’s a good state of affairs to be in (it’s objectively unhealthy and a serious situation).

There’s something to be said for opposing fatphobia, but there’s also something to be said for not glorifying truly unhealthy situations. You don’t castigate and dehumanize people, but you also don’t sugarcoat brutal realities. And in fact, the most HUMAN person in the whole film IS Brendan’s character. This movie made me tear up throughout the entire thing. It addressed multiple difficult issues that intersected (struggles of coming out, a family broken up, struggles with intense weight, grief, etc.). It also involved an actor who was abused in real life. Seeing him triumph, as a survivor of sexual assault myself, was a beautiful thing that made me tear up all over again.

Seriously, if you can only think in such a narrow, one-dimensional way, I feel sorry for you. It cheats you out of the much more messy and complicated (and RICH) realities of actual life. And it leads to, in my opinion, overly rigid and hasty condemnations of things that aren’t even given a fair shake. If you don’t like the film, that’s fine. But if you just want to write it off as a flop that is only about “a fat man” portrayed with prosthetics and nothing more, then you’re just so wrong. It’s so much more than that! Brendan deserved the award, not out of pity due to his very real struggles, but due to an actually brilliant performance!

As a parting shot, he added:

St. Augustine supposedly self-flaggelated himself for essentially just being horny in his teens. Though, I can imagine today a cringey secular “progressive” violently whipping themselves for enjoying imperfect works of art. Or a Conservative “anti-woker” doing similarly for enjoying an actor who is Trans that they didn’t know was Trans. …

Ryan’s comments brought me to a realization about the nature of this conflict between the Woke Warriors and the Anti-Woke Crusaders, “two sides of the same fraudulent coin”. Not quite a “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” (which wasn’t even Hegel’s formulation)—but a necessary insight nonetheless. I wrote:

In truth, I have friends who are among the ‘anti-woke’ crowd and the cringey ‘progressive’ crowd, and I’ve noticed that they are almost two sides of the same coin, offering a false alternative of sorts. And you see this just in their reactions to a film or a performance alone. Each sets up an “ideal” of what they think is “right”, and they will censor their responses to art and deny every emotional reaction to anything that conflicts with their chosen ideal. And then, they’ll attempt to shame others who don’t respond similarly.

When we look at the craft of filmmaking, we can certainly judge some things “objectively”: the authenticity of the costumes, the quality of the cinematography, visual effects, sound effects, etc., in other words, the science of the craft of filmmaking. But when it comes to things like the performances by an actor, yes, there are technical “rights” and “wrongs”, but if the performance doesn’t speak to you, if it doesn’t get you ‘RIGHT HERE’ (in your heart, soul, etc.) … you’re just not going to respond to it positively. That’s where the “subjective” response of the viewer, who has a lifetime of emotional responses to countless events and experiences, either connects with what they’re seeing on the screen … or not. And ultimately, that’s what the response to art is about on a profoundly personal level: Do you connect with it?

I sometimes think that the “anti-wokesters” and the cringey “Woke Warriors” are trying to sever that connection on the basis of “principles” that they themselves can’t practice on a personal level. God forbid they react positively to something that “in principle” they denounce. They’re forced to twist themselves into ideological [or psychological] pretzels in order to justify how “awful” something actually is. They will engage in an act of self-censorship if that’s what it takes, or in an act of shaming those who have positive reactions to the things that they’re so busy denouncing. The Anti-Wokesters and the cringey “Woke Warriors” end up becoming mirror images of one another.

My response to art is never going to be dictated by ideology; I either like it or I don’t. I can give credit where credit is due to a technical achievement, but I think all this howling from both sides is so counter to the very human connection between the viewer and the artwork. If the art speaks to me, it speaks to me. Rigid ideologues be damned.

And that’s the bottom line: The Crusaders and Warriors, right and left, are ultimately adapting a rigid ideological, quasi-religious manner of engaging with the world.  And on this, I’ll give the final word to Ryan:

If the “anti-woke” crowd and cringey “progressives” tore each other apart on an island somewhere, I think the rest of us would go on living in peace.

Amen, brother, amen!

Postscript (19 March 2023)

A H/T to my friend Michael Zigismund for bringing to our attention an article by my friend Cathy Young in The Bulwark, published on March 1, 2023. In “Ron DeSantis’s Illiberal Education Crusade“, Young writes:

In some ways, red-state “anti-woke” bills are broader and cruder in their attempts at speech regulation: No campus policy against “discriminatory speech” has ever tried to kill entire academic programs and majors the way HB 999 would kill critical race scholarship and gender studies. (Here, DeSantis is taking a page from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the proud champion of “illiberal democracy” and the darling of American “national conservatives,” who signed a decree effectively banning gender studies programs in Hungarian universities five years ago.)

One may debate just how bad things have gotten in the academy. (The Knight Foundation, which has done annual surveys on the campus climate for speech since 2016, finds that close to 60 percent of students believe freedom of speech is more important than for a campus to be made “safe” from offensive speech or ideas.) But in any case, the notion that political pressures on the right can “fix” the damage from political pressures on the left is deeply misguided. The most likely result of these interventions in Florida—and similar legislation now being proposed in other states following Florida’s example—will be further polarization and wagon-circling. The left will brush aside critiques of speech suppression by institutional power and cultural diktat, arguing that only censorship by the government matters. The right will defend political interventions as the only way to curb the progressive stewards of culture and academe. This particular culture war may turn into a race to the bottom between the “red” and the “blue”: legally and institutionally coercive crusades to squash “wokeness” on the “red” side, knee-jerk defenses of “woke” institutional and cultural coercion on the “blue” side.

Indeed, the illiberalisms of left and right are slowly eroding the cosmopolitan values upon which a free and open society depends. The conservative right goes crazy when it hears that the books of Mark Twain or Roald Dahl are being sanitized, but instead of standing up for preserving the integrity of texts or contextualizing them for the importance of historical authenticity, it strikes back with policies that try to eliminate all mentions of “wokeness” in the curriculum, such that one publisher, Studies Weekly, has now gone to extensive lengths to publish “multiple versions of its social studies material, softening or eliminating references to race — even in the story of Rosa Parks — as it sought to gain approval in Florida,” as the New York Times has reported. When will the madness end?

JARS: The 2023 Grand Finale Arrives!

I am delighted to announce the publication of a special blockbuster 2023 double issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies that constitutes the final volume in our twenty-three-year history. As I write in the introduction to this very special issue:

In 2020, when JARS celebrated its twentieth anniversary, I provided an in-depth tribute to all those who had contributed to this project. Here, I will only repeat that this journal was the brainchild of the late Bill Bradford and that it is to him that we owe our creation. And it is to the hard work of all our editors, advisory board members, peer readers, and contributors that we have owed our continued success. Since 2013, we have been grateful for the remarkable support of the Pennsylvania State University Press family, which has led to our greater visibility as the only globally accessible academic journal devoted to Ayn Rand and her times.

In these more than two decades of our existence, JARS has been a trailblazing periodical that has both reflected the growth in and furthered the dissemination of scholarly discussions of Rand’s work. There is barely a topic that this journal’s contributors haven’t touched upon over these many years; we have featured articles examining significant issues in ontology, epistemology, methodology, ethics, aesthetics, politics, economics, social theory, culture, literature and literary criticism, psychology, sexuality, history, anthropology, and the natural sciences, truly exemplifying the interdisciplinary nature of our project.

From the beginning, we have been committed to introducing at least one new JARS contributor with every issue that we’ve published; in this issue, we add three new contributors to our ranks, for a final tally of 191 authors, who have written 422 articles in the span of 23 years.

Among those articles, there have been 129 formal book reviews. But when one counts the many scholarly surveys that we have featured, which have traced Rand’s impact on everything from literary fiction and popular culture to progressive rock, our contributors have examined well over 200 works relevant to Rand studies. There are still dozens of books that we never got around to discussing here. But this only underscores our conviction that Rand studies has grown so extraordinarily that not even we can keep up with the demand for reviews of that expanding literature. It is more apparent than ever that Rand has truly become a part of the scholarly canon.

We are proud of the role we have played in creating the first forum for the critical scholarly discussion of Ayn Rand’s life, thought, and legacy. We leave this field in 2023 a far better place than it was in 1999, when our first issue was published.

Our deepest appreciation extends especially to our devoted readers, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Our Grand Finale features the following articles and contributors:

Introduction – Chris Matthew Sciabarra

ARTICLES

What She Left Behind – Pavel Solovyev

Ayn Rand’s Years in the Stoiunin Gymnasium – Anastasiya Vasilievna Grigorovskaya

Epistemology According to Rand and Hayek – Robert F. Mulligan

Check Your Presuppositions! A New Kind of Foundationalism in Objectivism – David Tyson

Life is not a Machine or a Ghost: The Naturalistic Origin of Life’s Organization and Goal-Directedness, Consciousness, Free Will, and Meaning – Marsha Familaro Enright

How We Live: A Dialectical Examination of Human Existence – Roger E. Bissell

Ayn Rand’s Novel Contribution: Aristotelian Liberalism – Cory Massimino

BOOK REVIEWS

On Grounding Ethical Values in the Human Life Form (Review of The Women Are Up to Something by Benjamin Lipscomb and Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman) – Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl

Freedom’s Three Furies (Review of Freedom’s Furies by Timothy Sandefur) – David Beito

Retaking America’s Universities (Review of Retaking College Hill by Walter Donway) – Raymond Raad

Ayn Rand and Russian Nihilism Revisited (Review of Ayn Rand and the Russian Intelligentsia by Derek Offord) – Aaron Weinacht

Ayn Rand, Fascism, and Dystopia (Review of Ayn Rand e il fascismo eterno. Una narrazione distopica by Diana Thermes) – Luca Moratal Roméu

Postmodern Rand, Transatlantic Rand (Review of Questioning Ayn Rand: Subjectivity, Political Economy, and the Arts, edited by Neil Cocks and Out of a Gray Fog: Ayn Rand’s Europe by Claudia Franziska Brühwiler) Roderick T. Long

Index to Volume 23

Master Author Index (Vols. 13–23)

Check out links to the abstracts and contributor biographies of this truly grand finale. Subscription information can be found here. The issue will be available in approximately two weeks on the Scholarly Publishing Collective and will be mailed to print subscribers thereafter. Follow-up announcements will be posted.

Also see the Facebook announcement.

A Celebration of Ski

A memorial service and celebration of the life of my sister, Elizabeth Ann Sciabarra (aka “Ski”) has been announced by the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation. It has been scheduled for May 6, between the hours of 3 pm and 5 pm. It will take place in the Leonard Riggio ’58 Auditorium at Brooklyn Technical High School (29 Fort Greene Place, Brooklyn, NY 11217).

Though the event is free, reservations are required. Folks can register here for either in-person or streaming options.

Song of the Day #2041

Song of the Day: The Fabelmans (“Mitzi’s Dance”) [YouTube link] was composed by John Williams for the 2022 autobiographical Steven Spielberg-directed film. I have no clue if this soundtrack will win in the Best Original Score category at the 95th Annual Academy Awards tonight, but it’s still worth noting that this is the Maestro’s 53rd Oscar nomination, second only to Walt Disney. He’s won 5 statuettes over his illustrious career, and he is the oldest nominee in Oscar history. This gentle, romantic, and heartbreaking cue reminds us how gifted he remains.

Spider-Man … Only in New York

Check out this sweet “Time Out” story about kids writing to Spider-Man, long after his “address” was published in 1989! It was also featured on WABC-TV Eyewitness News here.

A Review of a Review of a Companion—to a Big Book

Having mentioned the Center for a Stateless Society earlier today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the challenging essays that my friend Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at C4SS, has been posting for eons. As a coeditor of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, I was very proud to include Kevin’s essay, “Formal vs. Substantive Statism: A Matter of Context,” in that anthology. Kevin always brings to the intellectual table a unique perspective on a multitude of issues and that essay is no exception.

Today, he posted a review of David Harvey’s book, A Companion to Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’ (Verso, 2023), which I’ve not read—but which I’m looking forward to reading thanks to Kevin’s review! My brief discussion here serves as both a promo for Kevin’s work—and my own (but I do it in less than 30 paragraphs!). Still, I realize it may fall into the category of tl;dr—but I had fun writing it!

For those unfamiliar with the Grundrisse, Kevin provides a summary of its controversial position in the literature:

“The Grundrisse itself amounts, more or less, to a voluminous collection of notebooks or commonplace books, filled with Marx’s notes and commentary from his readings through the 1850s. Its relationship to Capital is a major point of contention between the various factions and sects of Marxism. To put it in quick and dirty terms that will probably offend just about everybody, the interpretations fall into two broad categories. The first is dominated by the vulgar Marxists, and particularly adherents of vulgar Marxism’s highest expression in Marxism-Leninism; members of this category see the three volumes of Capital as essentially a completed, stand-alone work in their own right, and dismiss the Grundrisse as yet another of Marx’s ‘juvenalia.’ The other group, among which autonomists like Antonio Negri and Harry Cleaver figure prominently, sees Capital as only one component of a larger, unfinished project envisioned in the Grundrisse.” 

Kevin places Harvey closer to the second camp—a camp with which I, myself, would identify, as a scholar of Marx’s work. Through my graduate and doctoral years, studying with my mentor, the great Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman, I came to appreciate the Grundrisse for providing more insights into what made Marx “tick” from a methodological standpoint than any other work in the Marxian canon. As I write in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia:

“Like [F. A.] Hayek, Marx focuses on the mutual interaction of the parts within an ‘organic whole,’ which must be understood systemically and historically. In the Grundrisse, Marx writes: ‘While in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development.’

“The Grundrisse was not meant for publication, though it was a serious attempt at self-clarification for Marx. And yet, it provides a profound insight into Marx’s method. For Marx, the methods of bourgeois science reify the fragmented reality of capitalism. Marx’s dialectic attempts to transcend social polarities by identifying them as historically specific to and organically expressive of, the capitalist mode of production. It attempts to transcend the fragmentation within the object of its scrutiny by viewing the system as a totality of dynamic and contradictory processes. The identification of structural contradiction is not problematic for dialectical method. It is fundamental to its framework.”

Kevin perceptively highlights not only this theme in Marx’s work but in Harvey’s treatment of Marx’s Grundrisse:

“One recurring theme on which Harvey does place special emphasis, however, is the dialectical character of Marx’s thought. Even the most concrete functional analyses of capitalism are within the context of Marx’s understanding of capitalism as a totality with a beginning and an end, and changing over time. Human society as a whole is in a process of change; relationships within it change along with the larger whole, and the nature of individual entities is defined by their functional relation to the whole. 

“This necessarily entails the recovery of history, in the face of bourgeois liberalism’s largely ahistorical approach (e.g. the origin of private property in peaceful individual appropriation from the common, the original accumulation of capital through abstention, and the predominance of the cash nexus as the result of an innate tendency to truck and barter). Marx rejects ‘robinsonades’ or ‘bourgeois nursery fables’ in which the institutions of capitalist society emerged spontaneously in prehistory from the voluntary interactions of individuals. All human productive activity, going back to our earliest history, has been within the context of an ongoing set of organic social relationships. And — contrary to liberalism’s view of human relationships being governed by ‘eternal natural laws independent of history’ — the specific character of that productive activity has been defined by its relationship to the social context. The social model which bourgeois liberalism framed as natural — one of atomistic individuals relating through contract — was constructed through the forcible suppression of earlier social relationships. And those natural laws, far from being eternal or independent of history, were the conditioned outcome of a historical process.

“The conflict between these two approaches was at the heart of the so-called Methodenstreit, a dispute over economic methodology in the German-speaking world in which Menger (a founding father of Austrian economics) posited fundamental economic laws which were good for all times and places. Menger was the winner in this dispute, to the extent that mainstream capitalist economics operates from the same assumption. But it does so largely by concealing power relations behind the appearance of neutral relations of exchange. And despite this ostensible victory, the institutional school continued to explore the actual power relations which marginalist orthodoxy attempted to hide.”

Kevin’s work, highly critical of those ahistorical and atomist characteristics that can be found in the liberal narrative, has gone a long way toward clarifying what I’ve called ‘capitalism: the known reality’, rather than ‘capitalism: the unknown ideal’. He has been relentless in exploring the historical, dynamic, and structural relations of power within the actual system that exists.

My appraisal of Carl Menger and the Austrian school (including Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, and Murray Rothbard) appears to differ somewhat from Kevin’s (though see below!), insofar as I view that tradition as a complex product of diverse intellectual influences, which separate it from other neoclassical schools of thought. In Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, I devote Part II to a critical exegesis of Rothbard’s work, who, influenced by Mises’s organic understanding of the trade cycle, develops the rudiments of a theory of class conflict that is rooted in the historical interpenetration of capital and state (especially in the state-banking nexus and in the genesis of the entire regulatory apparatus). One can agree or disagree with Mises or Rothbard and still appreciate the dialectical unity of theory and history that is entailed in the approach.

Despite my praise for this radical, dialectical aspect in Rothbard’s analysis of power dynamics in state capitalism, I am highly critical of those aspects of his thought that are undialectical, dualist, reductionist, atomist, and ultimately utopian (insofar as they apply to ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’ on earth, which is what the word ‘utopian’ actually means).

Still, one of the chief themes in Part I of Total Freedom—the finale of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (which began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical)—was to rediscover those kernels of dialectical wisdom in the classical liberal tradition. And while Menger might be criticized on a variety of levels, I think the picture that emerges of him is far more interesting from a dialectical standpoint.

In Chapter 3 of TF, “After Hegel,” I argue that Menger’s view of social reality was profoundly organic and relational and could not be fully appreciated outside the continental traditions that influenced it. As Pete Boettke has emphasized, “The Viennese soil was fertilized by the philosophical writings of Wilhelm Dilthey, Franz Brentano, and Edmund Husserl.” The German-born Brentano’s Aristotelian pedigree drew from the writings of F. A. Trendelenburg, who taught Dilthey, Kierkegaard, Feuerbach, and Marx.

Let’s not forget that it was Aristotle who was the father of dialectical inquiry, and for many, Hegel’s thought has been viewed in significant ways as a revival of Aristotelianism. Menger embraced many of the same essentialist, teleological, and dialectical insights of Aristotle. As I argue, for Menger, as for Hegel, social life is

“an organic totality teeming with living institutions and processes, such as language, religion, law, the state, markets, competition, and money. Both see this totality as the result of ‘natural’ and spontaneous forces that generate ‘unintended consequences’ from intentional human actions. The parallels between Marx and Menger are even more pronounced. [Max] Alter goes so far as to characterize these thinkers as intellectual relatives, for ‘when we compare the conceptual apparatus of Marx with that of Menger we can easily see that Menger is much closer to Marx than any other bourgeois economist. The kinship between the two is, indeed, so strong that one could easily talk about Marx and Menger as distant cousins’. Menger’s methodological techniques parallel Marx’s, insofar as they deepen understanding through a hermeneutical spiral: returning to the object of one’s study from different vantage points and on different levels of generality. This assessment is not unique to Alter: [Barry] Smith has emphasized that ‘Marx and Menger share an Aristotelian antipathy to atomism,’ and O’Driscoll and Rizzo recognize that ‘Marx’s conception of social science was, of course, similar to Menger’s.’”

I spend a bit of time in the rest of that chapter detailing the ways in which Menger’s work can be appreciated through a dialectical lens.

I’d like to say that this is the smallest quibble you’ll find in this review of a review of a companion to a big book! But in truth, I’m not sure I’m quibbling at all. Because in his own discussion of the Methodenstreit, which I highly recommend, Kevin shows a deeper appreciation of Menger’s work. Indeed, he credits Menger for calling for a method of explication that applies “the basic, or simplest, economic laws in the context of the phenomena of a particular historical phase”—but argues that this is “precisely what marginalist economics by and large has not done since his time.” He sees in Menger somebody who, at his best, merged a realistic/empirical dimension with a theoretical dimension, providing a glimpse into their organic complementarity. In Kevin’s view, Menger’s approach “had the potential for being the intermediate body of thought that bridge[d] the gap between fundamental or pure theory (‘exact’ theory), and the concrete analysis of economic phenomena in different societies or historical epochs. … This, however, was not the approach taken [by] … [t]he heirs of marginalist economics.” Take a look at his larger discussion of the Methodenstreit, because he’s got a wonderful section in that work where he calls specifically and dialectically for “Restoring Context” so as to grasp the historical, institutional, class, and power dynamics that were all too often obscured by the neoclassical theorists.

In any event, do check out today’s review by Kevin and the volumes he continues to churn out with amazing energy. Prepare to have some of your most precious ideological beliefs challenged!

The Enragés: Dialectics with Ryan & Eric

I was delighted to listen to a new podcast of The Enragés at the Center for a Stateless Society (to which I was recently added as a fellow). The show is hosted by my dear friend Eric Fleischmann, who interviews yet another dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer, on his enlightening article, “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective” (previously discussed on Notablog here).

I have known Eric since he was a junior in high school, and have had the pleasure not only to read and comment on his work but to highlight his music as well. As for Ryan, we’ve known each other for five years now, and our ongoing dialogue has been a Notablog feature. Ryan has recently begun building an impressive series of self-reflective articles on Medium, detailing his many journeys—intellectual, personal, and spiritual. The courage and vulnerability exhibited in these essays speak volumes.

Aside from my friendship with these two wonderful individuals, they have both been, in many respects, students of my work. The good news is that they have had an impact on my life and work as well; I’ve been challenged by—and learned from—each of them.

The first question out of the gate deals with how we were introduced to one another and on how my dialectical libertarian approach impacted their thinking. It then proceeds into a wide-ranging discussion that lasts nearly an hour-and-a-half. They confront a diversity of issues, including the nature of ‘freed’ markets, the commons, authority, class conflict, and the state. Nearly every political ‘ism’ under the sun is addressed, from free-market-propertarianism and state socialism to distributism, democratic socialism, and anarchism (in all its varieties).

Most pleasing is the way in which they put dialectics to work, focusing on the structural and dynamic problems generated by the system that exists. They both repudiate binary thinking and navigate the tensions we face in our analysis of apparent opposites. And in their exchange, they place high importance on the necessity to adjust to changing contexts in our prescriptive thinking.

Ryan’s fine article is enriched by a commitment to genuinely progressive ideals. But ideals—inspiring though they may be—act primarily as guideposts in carrying forth an agenda for social change. As Eric puts it, Ryan shows that an array of traditions promising social change on both the left and the right often skip the most important starting point for prescriptive thinking: that context matters, that we must begin by asking the questions: “Where are you? What do you have? How did it get there? And what can we do to improve people’s lives in that situation?”

This podcast provides us with a thoughtful exchange that is fully accessible in its substance, conversational in its tone, and not lacking in a sense of humor. Indeed, when Ryan jokingly refers to himself as “Mr. Addendum” or uses phrases like “It depends [on the context]”—he’s preaching to the choir!

Check it out C4SS, Stitcher, Before It’s News, Twitter, and YouTube (see below)!

Daffodils, Shamrocks, Loss—and Love

For those who knew my sister, Elizabeth Sciabarra (aka “Ms. Ski”), it comes as no surprise that she knew how to celebrate a holiday. Even at work, she’d drive the staff crazy decorating the office for every holiday imaginable. At home, it was the same. There was barely a holiday we didn’t commemorate with Uber-decorations.

We weren’t Irish. Not by a long shot. Still, the shamrocks came out in the weeks before St. Patrick’s Day. It didn’t take much effort because like her, I too enjoyed such festivities. And I’m a creature of habit, a keeper of ritual.

For the past 40 years or so, one of those rituals was me walking through the door, sometime in early March, with Daffodils. They were among her favorite flowers (violets being another). But Daffodils were special at this time of year because they were, in these parts, among the first signs of spring. Of life.

My sister died on November 26, 2022. And there isn’t a day, dare I say, there isn’t an hour that goes by when I don’t think of her. We lived together for 3 months less the 63 years of my whole life.

I am no stranger to loss or to grief. I lost my Dad when I was 12 years old, my Uncle Sam, who was like a second father to me, in 1994, and my mother, who died after a 5-year battle with lung cancer, in 1995. Not to mention too many relatives and friends to count (and three beloved pets). Every loss has been accompanied by a unique, if familiar, form of grief. I know all too well the ‘stages’ of that grief, and I’m not the kind of guy who disowns his emotions. I mean, show me a touching Hallmark commercial around Christmastime and puddles of tears form beneath me!

I’ve been very gentle with myself over these last 3+ months, as I deal with a loss unlike any other—more devastating than any I’ve ever experienced. I can’t even begin to properly thank the number of special people who have reached out to me with love and support to get me through some of my most difficult days. The sadness can engulf me with the slightest of triggers: a note discovered, an old birthday card, a photo, a place we dined at, or shopped at, a piece of music, a film or television show we routinely watched together.

And so, as I walked along the street the other day, I came upon our neighborhood corner flower stand, and outside sat a bunch of Daffodils. My eyes watered instantaneously. I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity. I brought them home—to an empty apartment; she was not here to tell me how much she loved me or how beautiful they were or to give me a peck on the cheek to thank me for having gifted us this harbinger of spring.

So, I placed those Daffodils beneath a shining Shamrock, and turned on the lights, and this creature of habit cried … tears of sadness, tears of joy. Because ultimately, these are the rituals that keep her memory alive in my shattered heart. I also know that spring is just around the corner. And, indeed, hope springs eternal.

I love you, Bitty, always …

Check out the Facebook discussion.

Song of the Day #2040

Song of the Day: The Good Son (“End Credits”) [YouTube link], composed by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, is a lush, melodic closing to the 1993 psychological thriller, starring Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood. This cue is more expansive in its motif and variations than the “opening credits” I featured in 2021. And it provides the “end credits” to my Nineteenth Annual Film Music February Festival. My loving thanks to my dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer, for introducing me to (or reminding me of) so many of the films and entries for this year’s Festival. Till next year …

Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981, Part III

Having unveiled the first of three YouTube presentations featuring the late Don Lavoie on February 13, 2023 (on “Immigration”), and the second on February 20, 2023 (“Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism”), I am proud to present the finale to this series today, “Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives: A Discussion with Don Lavoie and Bertell Ollman”, which was recorded at New York University on April 22, 1981. This nearly two-hour dialogue was sponsored jointly by the Center for Marxist Studies and the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society. Because it was such a long discussion recorded on cassette tapes, there are small gaps in the conversation due to the necessity to flip or change the cassettes when necessary.

As I explained in my opening essay to this series, this presentation is, by far, the one dearest to my heart. It challenged me profoundly and motivated me to continue my studies at NYU on the graduate and doctoral levels, with the great Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman as my mentor and doctoral dissertation advisor.

Wherever one stands on the issues discussed herein, it is worth noting that each of these thinkers understood the other’s perspective thoroughly. As I have pointed out in previous posts, Bertell not only knew of libertarianism, but had worked closely with libertarians such as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio in the Peace and Freedom Party, and he was a Volker Fellow under F. A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. Don studied Marxism; he read and grappled with the entirety of Marx’s work, and Engels’s work, and of the broader Marxist literature. This is not a man who would have had the audacity to get on a stage to attack Marx and “Marxism”, while simultaneously admitting that the only work by Marx he had ever read was “The Communist Manifesto” as an undergraduate in college.

Despite their opposing interpretive perspectives, Don and Bertell had a depth of comprehension for the intellectual traditions they engaged. Each makes significant points of methodological, substantive, and historical importance in an atmosphere of mutual admiration and respect. Their dialogue exemplifies a humane exchange of ideas, something that has become an anomaly in today’s toxic ideological environment.

I urge folks to listen carefully to this finale of the Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981; it’s a lesson not only in content but in the art of civility.

On Facebook, in various discussions, I had this to say:

Don’s thinking evolved considerably over time. Many in the Austrian school deeply appreciated his enormous contribution to the calculation debate (his dissertation on “Rivalry and Central Planning”), given his emphasis on such epistemic issues as the role of tacit knowledge in interpersonal transactions and the price system. In later years, they were less enamored of his turn toward hermeneutics and a kind of Hayekian anarchism.

But even in his ancap days, he always championed progressive values, and as I have said on many occassions, he would have been aghast at the right-libertarian reactionary shift. He was among the most humane thinkers and people I’ve ever known.

It should be noted too that at this time, he hadn’t yet completed his doctorate and was even referring to Bertell as “Professor Ollman”, in deference to his position in the academy. And Bertell, given his command and presence, could often dominate a conversation. (As an aside, that wasn’t as much of a problem in later years with me because … well… I have a Brooklyn motor mouth and sometimes he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.)

In any event, I’m really happy that I preserved these materials for posterity. And it was nice hearing 21-year old Chris with the same Brooklyn accent of 63-year old Chris (minus the four-letter words).

One other thing I wish to re-emphasize about this discussion between Don and Bertell. Something a bit more personal.

Bertell knew me as an undergraduate in the NYU Department of Politics, and in my work in the history honors program with the Marxist historian Dan Walkowitz, from whom he heard “wonderful” things about me. He also greatly admired all the campus activism I was involved with in the antiwar, anti-imperialist, and antidraft protesting I was doing with Students for a Libertarian Society. By the time this presentation occurred in April 1981, I had had so many conversations with him but had never taken a single undergraduate course with him. He kept driving home the point that it was less important where I pursued my doctorate and far more important to pursue it with a mentor I could not only work with, but learn from. A mentor who could challenge me. And he wanted to be that mentor.

Having already been accepted to the master’s program at NYU in the Department of Politics, this discussion between Don and Bertell, more than any other, convinced me that Bertell was the mentor I was looking for. When he made that comment that libertarians were “a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza,” it rocked me to my core. As he used to say, there may be lots to choose from, wildly different meals that one can order in a Chinese restaurant, “but pizza isn’t one of them”. He emphasized over and over again: What’s on the menu for social change?—given the real conditions on the ground, the objective conditions and constraints with which we all live.

I chose Bertell as my mentor because I wanted to be challenged; I wanted to think more critically about my own social and political values. I could not embark on a career of writing unless I began with that kind of rigorous critical self-reflection.

And so I took formal courses with Bertell on Marxism, fascism, and, of course, dialectical methodology; I took independent studies with him; he was my doctoral dissertation advisor and followed me thru to the completion of my PhD. He even went on to loudly and publicly endorse all three books in my Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy.

And through it all, having adopted the “dialectical libertarian” mantle, I believe that Ollman’s question continues to resonate and is as relevant today as it was in 1981 when he asked it. I continue to ask libertarians of all stripes: What’s on the menu for social change, what kinds of social changes can we advocate and pursue, given the conditions that exist?

Sadly, so many of the responses I continue to get remain much too ideologically rigid, undialectical, and ahistorical for my tastes. We are all guided by basic values and frameworks, but if one’s values and one’s framework cannot accommodate the complex realities and structural rigidities of our particular time and place, then at the very least, a shift in our perspective on things is requisite to our acting in—and upon—the world we seek to change.