Review- Thompson, “The Grifters”

Jim Thompson, “The Grifters” (1963) – Gotta say… for a book about grifters, there’s precious little grifting in this one. Jim Thompson was the standard bearer for pulp hardboiled crime fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, picking up where Chandler and Hammett left off (and sharing the latter’s Popular Front sympathies- I’m not sure how he avoided the blacklist, possibly through avoiding writing for pictures?). Among other things, he carried forward the existentialism-inflected psychological bent of earlier hardboiled writers. I’d argue it goes a little too much in the psychological direction in this one.

It makes sense- these sort of noir stories were always more about the people than the crimes. And the particular grifts in this book are almost shockingly banal and small time; stuff like rolling loaded dice for drinks and asking for change for twenties and then pocketing both the twenty and the change. Not exactly interesting crimes here. So I guess from that perspective it makes sense that the book focuses largely on the tangled inner lives of short-con grifter Roy Dillon, his mother Lilly, and his lover Moira.

The problem is, at the end of the day, the inner life stuff is pretty midcentury paint by numbers. A lot of pop-Freud (you can guess what Roy’s relationship with his hustler mom is like), a lot of what we’d now call “generational trauma” but what at the time they’d call something like “bad home environment” leading to antisocial behavior, a little bit of the holocaust kind of wedged in and then left alone. Thompson’s clever enough to play a little with the Code-era combination of leering fascination with squalor and edifying excuses for gawking that both writers and readers indulged. But it’s still feels rote at times.

It’s a brisk 189 pages and Thompson is a good enough prose stylist to keep you reading. Some of the stuff about the milieu — the community of short-con operators, with its oral traditions and fleeting (and inevitably betrayed) connections — and its connections to square society are interesting. But more should have happened. I wasn’t ready to start doodling bongs in the margins, but it could’ve used a little more action. ***’

Review- Thompson, “The Grifters”

Review- Mishima, “Runaway Horses”

Yukio Mishima, “Runaway Horses” (1969) (translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher) – The details of Yukio Mishima’s life and especially his death have a tendency to bleed over into evaluations of his work. Killing yourself after a quixotic fascist coup attempt will do that. Mishima has some advantages in terms of posthumous reputation that the other great fascist writer of the twentieth century, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, lacked. Most notably he had no record of public racist statements. Though lord knows Koreans, Chinese et al probably didn’t find his emperor-worship to be the harmless or merely psychologically tragic affectation as it’s depicted, say, in the “about the author” in the Vintage edition I have of this book, or in the film “Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters.”

The Mishima-biography quicksand is especially grabby in the case of “Runaway Horses.” It’s the second book in the “Sea of Fertility” tertralogy, the last works Mishima ever wrote- he finished the last volume and then set out on his last trip. Moreover, it primarily concerns a young man attempting to mount a quixotic right-wing coup against a corrupt and feckless Japanese government, in this case in the early 1930s, just before Japan took its big leap into war.

You’d assume that what amounted to an extended suicide note by a fascist depicting something like what he planned on doing before dying would basically be a Mary Sue story of strength and violence. Probably the greatest living American fascist artist (which isn’t saying much) is Frank Miller (see?). Imagine how over the top his last comic would be if he had a year to work on it before putting his money where his mouth is?

Funny thing is, that’s not how “Runaway Horses,” or any of Mishima’s work as far as I can tell, reads. For one thing, the main viewpoint character isn’t the young imperialist rebel but a somewhat anhedonic middle class lawyer, Honda. He becomes convinced that Isao, a young kendo student, is the reincarnation of his childhood best friend, who died due a failed romance in the previous chapter. Isao, it turns out, is obsessed with a failed samurai rebellion against the Meiji restoration and organizes some of his high school buddies (with disingenuous help from some army officers) to reproduce the same sort of quixotic uprising. At age nineteen, the only worthwhile thing he can think to do with his life is to die for the Emperor, in a gesture the actual existing Emperor would probably fail to appreciate it. The second clause of that sentence is why I’d earn Isao’s scorn, as do most adults in his world.

There’s a lot of generational repetition and a lot of longing after death. There’s a certain amount of dwelling on violence, but less than you’d think. One funny thing Mishima does is reproduce an entire pamphlet on the historical doomed samurai uprising and have everyone praise it to the skies, despite it being much duller and more didactic prose. Almost everything surrounding Isao’s big move threatens to compromise the purity of gesture he envisions- putting the vision into words lessens it; the planning seems futile and cheap; his inevitable capture and the light sentence he receives for being a good boy overwhelmed by patriotic fervor renders his experience humiliating. Even nobler moments — the support of the other boys and a sort of-girlfriend figure, Honda’s sympathetic quasi-mystical understanding of Isao’s character and fate — become liabilities tying him to earth.

Mishima’s delicate psychological realism meets up with his ideology in the registers of disgust, frustration, and desire for the perfect gesture. The only way out for Isao is to eschew not just his family and social norms — that’s a given — but even his friends and his political goals, if he’s going to get that big perfect gesture/death. Subtler than most fascists, Mishima sees the impediment to beauty and purity of gesture as impersonal forces — time, society, human frailty — rather than a given group. But he shares with them the enshrining of aesthetics — specifically, an aesthetics of death and bloodshed — over morals and norms.

I’ll admit- there’s little more alien to me than the idea of substituting aesthetics for norms anywhere in “real life,” troublesome though that distinction is. I haven’t even really got an aesthetic to plug in there if I wanted to. But it’s a pretty important part of modernist literature (and of fascism), and Mishima lays one way that can go with unusual clarity. ****’

Review- Mishima, “Runaway Horses”

From “Suits and Boots” to “Suits and Shoots” on the Altright…/class-conflict-dividing-america…

A few observations prompted by this article:

– it’s pretty good but basically accepts the altright’s premises about class on face value, undoubtedly without meaning to. They look at class like liberals do- as a set of cultural markers. There’s little structural difference between the TWP people moaning about how altright psuedo-intellectualism turns off the white working class people the TWP seeks (and fails) to organize, and tumblr liberals tsk tsking about the “classism” of serving quinoa at functions.

If you understand class more substantively, as a structural relationship to production, then the whole argument about the issue within altright circles becomes ludicrous. Neither side are working class, either structurally or “culturally” if that means anything — the TWP leadership is all lifestylist voluntarily downwardly-mobile children of petty bourgeoisie — and few of their supporters are, either. The argument is, as the article does manage to get across, all about optics and narcissism. That narcissism does have a real-world effect in terms of what strategies people pursue with the little power they have, and who will work with whom, but…

– it’ll be interesting to see where the street-fighting element of the altright, the “boots” in the “boots and suits” dichotomy, will go in the wake of all of this. My guess will be some of them will continue on, especially the Proud Boys and similar groups, who can bridge the optics divide somewhat- they brawl, but don’t wear swastikas. But for the most part I think the violence level will bifurcate. Groups like Identity Europa and other “suit” groups will attempt to channel their violence through influencing the political and corporate power structures. On the other end, individuals or loose groups like Atomwaffen will occasionally spin out a gun or bomb attack. Instead of “suits and boots” it could be “suits and shoots.”

What should the left make of this? The relatively clear thing is to continue to expose and disrupt the suits (and what “boots” are still around). Keep them off balance. Make them continually adjust. At present, there’s little we can do about the aleatoric violence of the “shoots.” I have some ideas but they’d take a degree of effort and risk we can’t presently afford, especially given the whole “trying to advance socialism” thing we’re trying to do at the same time.

– Horseshoe theory is bullshit. BUT… I have to say the way these people tear into each other over optics, valuations of long-dead historical figures, situations over which they have no influence (the civil war in Syria, for instance), what they WOULD do had they the people/money/power, organizational strategies they are nowhere near implementing even remotely successfully… kinda familiar. It’s sad.

From “Suits and Boots” to “Suits and Shoots” on the Altright

Review- Herf, “Reactionary Modernism”

Jeffrey Herf, “Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich” (1984) – Sometimes a book succeeds so well in getting its ideas across that in subsequent decades it doesn’t hold the fascination it might once have had. Historian Jeffrey Herf coined the phrase “reactionary modernism” to describe the combination of disdain for rationalism, yearning for the past, fascination with technology, and future-oriented vision that you saw in Nazi ideology. Arguably, he did so well that this is no longer really that odd-seeming to us. The idea that ideology can bend itself to include these seemingly paradoxical elements — like thinking that science disenchants the world but technology re-enchants it — doesn’t really seem that mind-blowing, especially when applied to people like the Nazis.

Herf was writing in the 1980s in a tradition of historical sociology steeped in functionalism. Functionalist history and sociology seemingly en bloc decided that the Nazis were a revolt against modernity, and that’s much of the reason they failed- their form (this whacked out mythologized racial imperialism) failed to correspond with functions (running a modern state). There was (is) much truth to this, but it was more complicated than that, as functionalists like Franz Neumann tried to illustrate. But functionalism came out of root-sociology: Weber, Durkheim, Simmel et all trying to figure out capital-M Modernity. Anti-modern modernism threw their inheritors for a loop.

Herf remains loyal to his roots, sticking with his framework for all its flaws and piously averring Marxist and Frankfurt School explanations, which, truth be told, don’t always get to the heart of the matter either. Needless to say, his methodological conservatism doesn’t get him anywhere close to post-structuralism or anything else that might break down the ideology-structure-function relationship. You have to figure the propagation of other ways of looking at the relationship between ideas and power probably helped get the meme of “reactionary modernism” across in the thirty years since this book came out, but Herf wasn’t having any of it.

But he does pretty good anyway. He methodically goes through a number of German intellectuals of the Weimar period — Ernst Junger, Werner Sombart, Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, various others — and examines their attitudes towards different aspects of modernity. The rough lineaments of the “reactionary modernist” attitude he draws from them are like this: German “kultur” is about the superior truth of Life and Will against the technical but lame truth of facts and reason. “Real” worthwhile science (and politics and literature) etc engages this sense of life and defies rationality. The other, lame kind explains away and demystifies thing. The former is associated with Germans, the latter with Americans, French, and above all, you guessed it, the Jews. This creates a dyad of good, German aspects of modernity — technology (a lot of rhapsodizing the power of engines, the clean lines of skyscrapers etc), “productive” entrepreneurship, mechanized warfare — with their bad, vaguely Jewish opposites: abstract science, mere “circulatory” capitalism, parliamentary politics, and so on.

This scheme became widely popular in right-leaning circles in Germany during the Weimar period. It caught on especially well with engineers, who started feeling their political muscle at the time. It got more or less officially interwoven into the ideology of the Third Reich. Among its more famous results was the rejection of the “Jewish physics” of general and special relativity, which would come back to bite the Nazi regime pretty hard.

Sometimes you still get people — people who write about these things, people who should know better — scratching their heads at how avowed despisers of modernity embrace certain aspects of it, especially technology, so hard. This isn’t just the Nazis- the Confederacy, for all of its maudlin rural nostalgia, was very interested in modern capitalism and technological improvement. ISIS fighters may refuse to use toothbrushes, preferring the chewing twig the Prophet and his followers supposedly used, but nothing in their peculiar reading of the holy books says anything about not using social media to recruit more jihadis.

So this stuff shouldn’t surprise us, and Herf’s book has been an important part of helping us all get that. Ironically, people have probably taken it further than Herf himself would like. He got pretty close to being able to say that the relationship between ideology and social function maybe isn’t as tight as his school of historical sociology would have it, and maybe new methods of investigating these things are called for… but no such luck. Herf tried to dunk on both Marxists and the totalitarianism school by insisting that reactionary modernism was a purely German thing, and that proves that the German case of fascism was truly unique, etc. Well, the obvious applicability of the phrase to the contemporary altright, especially in the US, sort of gives the lie to that. Herf went on to become a liberal hawk, Iraq War booster, and his historical work has an increasingly rabid Zionist bent. But now the world has his concept, and we can use it how we like. ****

Review- Herf, “Reactionary Modernism”

Review- C.L.R. James, “Beyond a Boundary”

C.L.R. James, “Beyond a Boundary” (1963) – God help me, I do not understand cricket. People have explained the rules to me numerous times and they just don’t seem to stick in my brain. It sounds like a combination of bowling and that baseball training game “pickle” (which honestly is a lot more fun than baseball itself, especially played with a larger bouncy ball) with some extras… but the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Why then, you may be forgiven for asking, did I read a whole book about cricket? Because it turned up on a library free pile and was written by one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century: the Trinidadian historian, novelist, and radical C.L.R. James. James had one of those crazy twentieth century lives that just seemed to be everywhere and do everything, even though he wasn’t especially long-lived. Migrating between Britain, the US, and the West Indies, he was one of the intellectual godfathers of post-Garvey pan-africanism, started and led one of the major Trotskyite tendencies in the US, and was a major figure in the Trinidadian independence struggle. He launched the historiographical reappraisal of the Haitian Revolution. He wrote one of the definitive interpretations of Moby-Dick while sitting in a detention center within sight of the Statue of Liberty, waiting to be deported from the US. He was the first black Caribbean novelist published in the UK.

He was also a fan of and writer about cricket. “Beyond a Boundary,” one of James’s last books and published posthumously, is partially a memoirs of his own experience with the game and partially an informal history of the game in the West Indies. It’s one of those books that could be called “belle lettres,” i.e. respectable but unclassifiable literary productions. We hear about James’s struggles between the aspirations put on him by his status-conscious lower-middle-class family in Trinidad and the young Cyril’s desire to play cricket and read novels rather than bother with placement exams. Trinidad being small and at the same time one of the great producers of cricket talent, James (and seemingly any interested Trinidadian) could get to know some of the great cricketers of the world.

And that’s a problem, because I do not know the name of any cricket players other than Tendulkar, a contemporary Indian cricketer who is at least half-seriously regarded by some Hindus as a worthy addition to their pantheon, and C.L.R. James, who played fairly seriously at the amateur level. James is enough of a great writer to get me to care about these people who are just new names to me. But he also assumes the reader knows who they are, who are the points of comparison in terms of cricketers past, and most of all, cricket terms. Even to the extent I understand the rules, I don’t know the terms for the plays and techniques etc, and naturally, in a finely-grained discussion of the game, that’s going to come up a lot. It was pretty confusing even as I could tell James was writing about it masterfully.

Of course, being a political figure and a radical, James tied cricket back into politics, and I somewhat got that. Cricket was the game of the imperialists, still mostly played in the old Empire. Even when imperial possessions — first white dominions like Australia, then out and out colonies like India and the West Indies — started beating England, it was still beating them at literally their own game.

The game brought with it a value system — roughly, the variant on stoic sportsmanship common in English public schools at the time — that James feels serious ambivalence towards. On the one hand, as a radical he rebukes England, the empire, the bourgeoisie, the racial politics that warped the West Indian cricket world for some time. On the other, James can’t lose — doesn’t want to — his attachment to aspects of the code that came with a space of conflict that is as hard-fought as the tooth and nail of class struggle but without rancor, granting honor to the other side and respecting adjudication from referees. The struggles he lived for — the overthrow of capitalism, black liberation — couldn’t be that way. But there’s something beyond escape to another, nicer plane that the code has to offer. I just wish I could parse more of his cricket examples so I could tell what he thinks they are. ****

Review- C.L.R. James, “Beyond a Boundary”

Review- Mayer, “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals” (2008) – This is a respectably thorough and relatively early accounting of how the Bush administration embraced torture and indefinite detention after 9/11. Journalist Jane Mayer gets a lot of access and it’s pretty much all damning. The Bush people jumped to torture at the first chance they got, didn’t seem to care whether it worked or not, and did a lot of covering up.

Mayer does a good job weaving the story into a narrative, with a mixture of interviews from natsec people and from detainees. The contrast between the anodyne bureaucratic wrangling — the Bush people (well, Cheney mostly) handing over the war on terror and its associated interrogations almost entirely to tough-talking CIA and Defense people and cuffing out State and Justice almost entirely — and the depictions of what goes on in black sites are appropriately unsettling. She illuminates the complicity of doctors and psychologists, the whole massive underground infrastructure of the rendition program, the sheer micromanaged sadism based on third-rate psych research and bad orientalist cultural analysis.

Reading it at almost a decade remove, long after most of the stories in it are well-known, a few things stand out. One is what Corey Robin and others have noted about the prominence of lawyers in the story. Executive branch lawyers like John Yoo and especially the loathsome David Addington are the animating figures in the story, more than any politician or general. Lawyers oversaw much of the actual torture in Guantanamo and elsewhere, playing this weird dungeonmaster role, telling the interrogators exactly how hard they could hit, how long to do stress positions or water-boarding.

You have to wonder why- why the pretense of legality when they were just going to cover it up anyway? The answer is probably something boring like “insurance.” But I can’t help but connect it to the faith — against evidence and against testimony of veteran interrogators — that torture doesn’t produce good information for their purposes. Addington and his patron Dick Cheney were only two of the more powerful votaries of the cult of the executive that gathered around the Bush Jr administration. They believed in the exaltation of the leaders prerogative to do what he thought best in an almost religious sense; complete with gethsemane moment post-Watergate, when for a minute the American people looked sick of overreaching federal power. In this tableau, the lawyers look less like functional cogs in the torture machine, and more like officiants at a ceremony hailing the return of the power that should rightfully have been theirs all along- and which, for all the coverups, could only fully actualize if public. People needed to feel and see the executive’s sovereign power. They did this stuff because they wanted to do it.

The major flaw in this book is Mayer’s inability to connect this story to America’s political culture and role in the world. She doesn’t lean too hard on the bit from the subtitle about “American ideals” but it’s clashingly wrong when she does. It’s true the US law codes have generally made fulsome statements about disallowing torture. But American authority did it all the time anyway, especially to people seen as outside of the national community: Native Americans, slaves, people in occupied countries like the Philippines, etc.

Mayer has that annoying liberal habit of trying to find the “good” natsec guys, especially in the FBI, including our friends from the news James Comey and Robert Mueller. The FBI may be less torture and rendition happy than the CIA, but they’re perfectly happy to surveil, entrap, occasionally assassinate, etc. Where these habits most interfere with the story is ultimately making torture in the Bush years seem like a pervasive but exorciseable instance of “bad apples.” We’ve seen where that logic gets us without thinking critically about the structures from which these practices emerge. ****

Review- Mayer, “The Dark Side”

Review- Slobodian, “Globalists”

Quinn Slobodian, “Globalists: the End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism” (2018) – Speaking as someone who has confronted “anarcho-capitalists” on the other side of the line at counter-fascist demonstrations (including one where these supposed anarchists came out to support ICE), the idea that neoliberalism and empire might have some elective affinities was not a new one to me. But historian Quinn Slobodian opens up some new angles by looking at the “Geneva School,” a circle of mostly German-speaking economists and lawyers and a counterpoint to the much more celebrated “Chicago School” of neoliberal economics and governance.

The Geneva neoliberals — figures like Wilhelm Ropke, Joachim-Ernst Mestmayer, and, Slobodian argues, Friedrich Hayek deserves to be seen in their company as well — come off as a gloomier, more philosophical, continental counterpart to their sunnier, gladhanding fellow travelers based at U Chicago. No PBS specials for them, like you got with Friedman! There’s a certain degree to which the Chicago School got over by sleight of hand- math proves the market, and we don’t need to think that much about the institutions that make it happen (or don’t). The Genevans didn’t think that much of math — Hayek was no friend of modeling — and thought a great deal about institutions. Emerging out of the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire and witnessing the rise (and bloody suppression) of Red Vienna, literally out of their office windows in many cases, European neoliberals thought deeply for decades about what could protect the market from those two persistent enemies: states and peoples.

Slobodian depicts the Geneva School as persistently fascinated with two empires: the Hapsburg empire that ran Central Europe when many of them were young, and the British Empire at its height in the nineteenth century. They saw both (pretty ahistorically, fwiw) as benign supranational referees and guarantors of market order, lowering barriers to the free movement of goods, capital, and people. As they and other empires collapsed, and more (and browner) nations began asserting themselves, the Geneva School came to concern themselves less with liberating markets and more with casting about for ways to replace empire in its supranational governance role.

In the interwar period, many looked to the League of Nations; thereafter, they fought amongst themselves as to whether European integration could be turned to their purposes (spoilers: it could), and set up GATT and WTO to play the role empire could not anymore. These were/are all institutions encased from democratic pressure, even the indirect pressure of legislation or diplomacy. More than economics, the Geneva School pit many of its chits on law, especially constitutional law. For Hayek and Ropke as for Schmitt and Machiavelli, the moment of decision — of staking a value claim — was the foundational moment of a given order that determines all else that comes after.

This neoliberalism was generated by fear. First it was fear of the masses in Europe and the industrialized countries, then of the nation-states who might undermine the market to appease them. Finally, and this is what gave them their opening to international influence in the 1970s, fear of the rising decolonized nations, demanding what was due them and attempting to rewrite the rules of the game. Not that the scraggly bearded ancap teens I’ve seen waving the black and gold for ICE would know or care, but in many ways neoliberalism really is about setting up walls against people, so that people don’t set up walls against capital. This includes racial barriers, as shown by the neoliberal activists who condemned South African apartheid for its market distorting aspects only to propose replacing it with various intricate racially-weighted franchise schemes to protect against majority rule.

Along with illuminating neglected corners of the history of neoliberalism, “Globalists” also presents some new angles on the twentieth century more generally. Most of the Geneva School thought the Cold War an irrelevance waste of time- Hayek wrote somewhere about the US and the USSR bidding to fund the socialist experiments of ex-colonies, and if you see any kind of government developing aid as “socialism,” it makes sense. The Cold War US cared less about “free” markets than it did about markets open to itself, attached to states who were amenable to its Cold War goals. Neoliberalism only really came into its own when developing world self-assertion (and developed world reaction) forced the elites of the US and elsewhere to abandon more robust development strategies and find ways to simply contain and discipline developing countries rather than entice them.

Moreover, this work reveals neoliberalism as an art of governance, and as one in a long old European tradition. Rather than the sunny (if clinical) rationalism of the Chicago School, the Genevan neoliberals insisted on a murky, turbulent world. To them, really comprehending the market — or any complex cybernetic system — was both impossible and vaguely wrong to attempt. What created order and allowed for (some version of) progress was continual adjustment under pain of severe negative circumstances, and the key figure of this process — the decisionmaker taking the role of Schmitt’s dictator or Machiavelli’s prince — is the entrepreneur, attuned to the ineffable flows of supply and demand and taking risks on value propositions. This is a strongly philosophical and moral vision, and the neoliberals sought — seek, in many cases — to create constitutional orders to bring that moral vision in to reality (or remove the artificial impediments “special interests” put up against it, in their telling). This doesn’t mean small government or non-intervention- far from it. It’s not hypocrisy, then, for “free market” fundamentalists to support calling out the troops to break up strikes, or force countries to lower tariffs, or separate asylum seekers from their children. That’s what the free market order is. *****

Review- Slobodian, “Globalists”