Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.


In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.



How Colleges Train For Work, Not For Thought

Prof. Larry Wilkerson discusses the role universities play in prepping a work force rather than an intellectual force.

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

While leading Democratic party politicians are now hawking new plans for a debt-free college experience, which of course sounds great to what are now the most indebted college graduates in world history, there are still some concerned about the kind of education even those not having to pay at all would receive. In a recent article for Harper’s magazine William Deresiewicz describes a situation where, as he says, colleges have sold their soul to the market.

To discuss this is Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a professor at the College of William and Mary. We welcome back Col. Wilkerson to the Real News. Welcome back.

LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks, Jared. Good to be with you.BALL: So tell us what you think about this article. It suggests that neoliberalism has taken hold, and the designs of the corporate world are all that most universities are being encouraged, at least, to be concerned about. What do you see is the problem here with this trend?

WILKERSON: This is an age-old problem, as you probably know. It goes way back in the life of universities, certainly argued majorly in or on campuses like Oxford University, Cambridge University in England, and other, older schools. It is typified by on the one side the humanists, the exponents of liberal arts, of teaching young men and young women how to think critically as opposed to skills enhancement and training, and those on the other side of the argument exemplified at that time by the Huxley brothers, scientists, by those who reflect what we’re talking about today when we say STEM, science, technology, engineering and so forth.

And what is increasingly becoming the case, and I think is the real object of the article in Harper’s and others who are talking about this in great detail today, and that is the predatory capitalist state, which is what we have become in addition to being a national security state. That predatory capitalist state wants, one, workers who are not going to question things. That is to say, they can’t think critically. And it wants people who are more or less inured to what they produce, do, and mean in daily existence. That is to say, they want workers who are compliant with the structure that we’ve created in this country, the structure that works for minimum wages, that does things that need to be done for the corporate good, and so forth.

It’s a meaner argument, if you will, today. I can give the Huxley brothers their due, as they argued for example with John Henry Cardinal Newman about whether a liberal arts education or a science-based education was the best. And like Plato and Aristotle I would probably argue that somewhere in between is probably the best kind of education. That is to say, you need scientists who can think critically too, and therefore be good voters and so forth, and you need humanists that know something, liberal arts people who know something about science, engineering, math, and so forth. That’s the ideal world.

What you do not need is colleges and universities that are focused on getting jobs for people, and getting jobs in a society that is increasingly plutocratic, that is to say, the only people with the really good jobs are at the very top, and everybody else is a worker bee for those people. That’s what these colleges and universities are tending towards now, and that’s what the advertisements, that’s what the brouhaha in U.S. News and World Report and other places like that is all about. Oh, you’re spending $200,000 for Jane’s education. Then Jane needs to get a job, and she doesn’t need an education. What she needs is training and skills enhancement. Well, that’s not the purpose of a university.

BALL: But this sounds like, to me at least, that this is an expansion, as you said, of a much longer existing problem. That is, that for many, that is for working whites, for poor working whites in this country and certainly for African-descended people and indigenous people, there has long been a history of teaching those communities only to be part of the workforce. That is, with Native American residential schools, with the industrial schools of the 19th century for African-Americans, for the establishment of a public school system in this country in general that was designed specifically to prepare white working people for their roles in society, that this has long been an issue.

So how is this discussion, other than upping it, so to speak, into the upper echelons of society, how is this a change in terms of the history of this country’s education, generally speaking?

WILKERSON: It’s not a change in the sense that you just expressed it, that it has all this complexity, all this nuance and all these different parts to it. For example, there is the part of minority education, the part of minorities being shorted for 400 years, still being shorted. I worked in the DC public school system, for example, for Colin Powell for ten years. It is for all intents and purposes I was segregated when I worked in it as it was in 1850, if it existed at that time. I mean this is no, nothing news to people who’ve worked in inner city schools, that minorities get short shrift when it comes to education.

But this is a bigger argument. It’s a huge argument at the very top of what you might call the sophistication of education argument. And it is first of all, should everyone get a university education, well, I for one, I’m talking about. The answer to that question is no. no matter how egalitarian you may be, everyone in the world does not need to be a philosopher, does not need to be a Ph.D in nuclear physics, and so forth. They don’t have the intellectual capacity, and frankly–and this is more important–they don’t have the inclination.

There are plenty of people that ought to run automotive repair shops, ought to be tradesmen and craftsmen and so forth. And we’ve sort of lost that in this culture today because what we are is a finance giant. We service people, we finance things. We don’t do any real making of anything anymore. But there is a niche, a huge niche in our society for artisans. For craftsmen. For people who by their own wishes don’t want what I’m talking about when I say a university education. And in many cases, aren’t intellectually equipped for it.

So that’s the first division you have to make, and you do have to make that division. We’ve been very [inaud.] by allowing the market to make that division, which is why we get so many idiots who are billionaires, and so many bright people who are not making any money at all. It’s a hypocritical stance in this country that we take on merit and education, and so forth.

But back to the argument, the university takes in people who are intellectually, mentally predisposed to and want to be critical thinkers. That’s not everybody in society. I daresay if a study were done, and it were done over time, you’d probably find 30-40 percent of any given society that really ought to have a university education of the type I’m talking about. Other types of education that mostly community colleges can offer, that are in fact sort of a combination of what I mean by education and what I mean by skills enhancement that are aimed at particular niches in society for example, computer training being the latest example of that on a broad base, ought to be done also. But this is a sort of combination of the university and the artisan segments of society.

The Germans do this really well. They have trade schools and they have universities. And they know everyone’s not going to university, by inclination or by capability. So they identify those people and send those people to university. Those who want trades and good jobs in trades, like working at Mercedes or BMW or whatever, they then send to trade school. Because they want to go to trade school, and because they have intellectual and other capacity to do that. This is the way education should be divided in this country. But hypocrites that we are, hypocrites that we’ve always been, we say everyone should have a $250,000 or more university education. That’s pure poppycock.

BALL: Larry Wilkerson, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me on, Jared.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. For everyone involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.


Jared A. Ball is the author of “I MiX What I Like: A MiXtape Manifesto” (AK Press, 2011) and co-editor of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” (Black Classic Press, 2012). Ball is an associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at IMixWhatILike.org.



Woody Allen’s Irrational Man

The familiar flatness and lack of conviction

By David Walsh
14 August 2015

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, focuses on controversial philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who arrives at fictional, liberal arts Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island to teach a summer course.

A depressed Lucas, who sips from a flask at every opportunity, has clearly run out of intellectual and emotional steam. For years he has been trying, without success, to finish a book on Martin Heidegger and Nazism. A close friend of his has been killed stepping on a landmine in Iraq. Political activism, by which Abe apparently means “human rights” work in Darfur and other global “disaster areas,” has failed him. Nothing energizes or excites him about life. He is also impotent.

Lucas becomes involved with two women, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), an unhappily married fellow professor, and Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), one of his brightest students. Lucas resists Jill’s advances for some time, but they become constant companions and her youth and enthusiasm rub off on him.

Irrational Man

Lucas expresses disdain for academic philosophy, asserting that there is a vast difference between “theoretical” reality and the “real, nasty world.” He suggests to a roomful of students, including Jill, that much of human theorizing is a form of “verbal masturbation.” He seems to favor an absurdist, existential view of things, referring in his classes and conversations to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Dostoyevsky and others. I have “no zest for life… I’ve given up,” he tells Jill. At a party he even indulges in a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

A conversation that Abe and Jill hear by chance, while sitting in a diner, changes things. (Anyone who doesn’t care to know the central narrative wrinkle in Irrational Man should stop reading now.) The woman in the next booth is tearfully explaining to her friends that a particular judge is unfairly going to find for her husband in a bitter custody dispute. Supposedly, the judge has some prejudice in favor of the husband, but will not recuse himself.

As Lucas tells us in a voiceover, he there and then determines to become a vigilante for the cause of good and bump off the judge, calculating that this will be a “perfect murder,” since he has no motive or connection to any of the judge’s cases.

Having accomplished the deed, Lucas quickly comes back to life. Now everything starts “flowing.” He has made his “existential choice… Life has the meaning you give it.” Thanks to his “meaningful act,” Abe can have sex with both Rita and eventually Jill. Unfortunately, this idyllic state of affairs is interrupted by a police investigation and the suspicions of several people close to him.

Allen’s Irrational Man has the same fatal flatness and lack of conviction that have plagued his filmmaking for the past two decades, since Husbands and Wives (1992). Reality, personal and social, has clearly knocked the stuffing out of the writer-director. He continues to turn out a film a year, calling on the services of some of the most intriguing talent, but the works are largely drained of and starved for life. (And it is an indication of the state of the contemporary film world that performers are reportedly thrilled to work with Allen, for far less money than they normally receive.)

Irrational Man

The idea content of the new film is very weak. Aside from the fact that Lucas’s relatively undiluted and gloomy existentialism would have been far more appropriate—where is postmodernism, for instance?—to the period when Allen might have gone to university (he dropped out, in fact, in the 1950s), the presentation is full of clichés.

Particularly irritating is the sight of the two female leads—who are far more interesting and dynamic as personalities than Phoenix or his character—circling around an individual who hardly possesses a single original thought. When Jill exclaims worshipfully to Lucas, in a restaurant, “I love that you order for me,” and Rita, equally adoringly, proclaims after their first successful sexual encounter, “What happened to the philosopher? Christ, you were like a caveman,” one feels that the filmmaker (for whom every leading male character is a stand-in) has simply made himself a little foolish.

The faint, faint echoes of Crime and Punishment are evident. To mention the two works in the same paragraph, however, is inappropriate. Dostoyevsky, for better or worse, approached his novel with the utmost urgency and sincerity, intending to take up what he perceived to be pernicious nihilistic and atheistic views and attitudes. The dialogue and actions in the novel, with the exception of its concluding, falsely self-abnegating section, are thoroughly convincing.

There is terribly little that is convincing in Irrational Man. That Lucas, as personally miserable as he may be, would embark on a plot to murder another human being in cold blood on the basis of one snippet of overheard conversation is preposterous. In any event, far from carrying out a “perfect murder,” Lucas allows himself to be seen at key moments by various eyewitnesses.

Flatness, lethargy, sluggishness, intellectual exhaustion: these are words or phrases that come to mind throughout.

It should not be necessary to begin from zero on the subject of Woody Allen’s sad, protracted decline. In 2005 (Melinda and Melinda), we commented: “The Allen persona wore thin a good many pictures ago, but it carried him through until the early 1990s. Various factors, including personal ones, may have caused him to lose his way so dramatically, but no doubt social changes played a decisive role. The milieu that he lovingly, if sardonically, chronicled has disintegrated.”

Irrational Man

Four years later (Whatever Works), we wrote that it was “impossible to detach Woody Allen’s decline, notwithstanding its individual twists and turns, from the general fate of considerable numbers of quasi-cultured, semi-bohemian, once-liberal, upper middle class New Yorkers in particular.

“Intellectually unprepared for complex social problems, culturally shallow, ego-driven and a bit (or more than a bit) lazy, exclusively oriented toward the Democratic Party and other institutions of order, distant from or hostile toward broad layers of the population, inheriting family wealth or enriching themselves in the stock market and real estate boom…for a good many, the accumulated consequences of the past several decades have not been attractive.”

In 2014 (Magic in the Moonlight), we noted that “Woody Allen’s new film seems very distant from life, including his own life.” Over the course of the previous year, Allen had been subjected to a scurrilous campaign, spearheaded by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the champion of imperialist “humanitarian interventionism,” over unproven 20-year-old allegations of child molestation. We added that “Allen seems too self-absorbed and too limited at present to be able to bring into his filmmaking the central dilemmas of our time, even when they involve him directly. So, as a consequence, his work resembles life less and less.”

Nonetheless, Allen remains a cultural presence, largely and residually based on his earlier comedy and film work and also in recognition of the fact that he has never entirely thrown in his lot with the Hollywood system.

His pessimism is not attractive, and it has consequences, whether he recognizes that or not. At the drop of a hat, Allen tells interviewers how miserable he is and how he finds life pointless and absurd. For example: “I’m a great believer in the utter meaningless randomness of existence… All of existence is just a thing with no rhyme or reason to it. We all live subject to the utter fragile contingency of life.” (He seems to have gotten over his view in 2009 that “now we’re entering into at least a period of some hope, of some human possibilities for the country … we’ve made progress, and elected our first African-American president.”) To preach such things to young people in particular is highly irresponsible.

Allen also declares, whether sincerely or not, that most of his films are “failures,” a judgment, unhappily, that one is obliged to agree with.

The writer-director has dealt before with the protagonist-criminal, most notably in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007). The first of those films is perhaps the most important and deepgoing in Allen’s career: a wealthy ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) faces a crisis due to the increasingly strident demands and threats of his mistress (Anjelica Huston). He turns to his shady brother (Jerry Orbach), who hires a hit man to take care of the woman.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen no doubt, consciously or otherwise, took a look at the filthy, money-grubbing ethos of the “Reagan years,” but more generally, he alluded to the moral and social shift of an entire social grouping, the erstwhile liberal, Jewish, New York middle class, which was suddenly finding itself wealthy and obliged to support the most ruthless measures in defense of its riches.

Unfortunately, Irrational Man is almost entirely bereft of that historical and social concreteness. It floats like an inconsequential straw in the breeze.

While the film may be relatively negligible, it raises some issues that are far from negligible.

Allen’s title deliberately refers to the well-known 1958 study (and promotion) of existentialism of the same name by William Barrett. The latter, an American academic, who, after “flirting” with Trotskyism in the 1930s, like many of his generation, converted to anticommunism and irrationalism under the intellectual influence of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. Barrett ended up a sour neoconservative.

Barrett’s Irrational Man, which was almost mandatory reading in American high schools and universities in the 1960s, was one of the milestones marking the move of significant sections of the intelligentsia toward anti-Marxism. “Marxism,” Barrett pontificated ignorantly, “has no philosophical categories for the unique facts of human personality, and in the natural course of things manages to collectivize this human personality out of existence.” (Have we ever heard this kind of thing before?)

Marxism, he goes on, is one of the “relics of the nineteenth-century Enlightenment that have not yet come to terms with the shadow side of human life as grasped even by some of the nineteenth-century thinkers themselves.” (Again, is this the slightest bit familiar?)

The Marxist “picture of man,” according to Barrett, “is thin and oversimplified. Existential philosophy, as a revolt against such oversimplification, attempts to grasp the image of the whole man, even where this involves bringing to consciousness all that is dark and questionable in his existence. And in just this respect it is a much more authentic expression of our own contemporary existence.”

To what degree Allen takes this reactionary viewpoint at face value is unclear. But to the extent that this type of ideology has remained in the background of his thinking, it gives a clue as to some of the difficulties at work.

One of the peculiarities of Irrational Man, the film, is that Allen on the face of it subscribes to Lucas’s outlook. Presumably, as long as one sits around and discourses pseudo-profoundly about the meaninglessness of life and doesn’t poison or push one’s fellow creatures down elevator shafts, existentialist nihilism retains its allure.



Debating democracy in a European debt colony

By Chloe Wyma On August 8, 2015

Post image for Debating democracy in a European debt colonyDays after Syriza’s capitulation to the Troika, radicals from across the world gathered in Athens for a historic conference on the future of democracy.

Image: ‘Hope Dies Last’ (by the great WD).

When hundreds of intellectuals and activists convened in Athens on Thursday July 16 for the Democracy Rising conference, the city was still covered in graffiti emblazoned with “OXI,” the Greek word for ‘no.’

A relic of a hopeful moment flattened just days before, the defiant slogan urged Greek voters to reject another round of austerity measures demanded by Europe’s financial establishment, the so-called Troika of creditors comprising the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

On July 5, a landslide percentage of Greek voters—in step with their left-led coalition government Syriza—voted against the program in a referendum. A week later, Europe’s financial technocracy politically strangled Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras into accepting a €86 billion bailout in exchange for a belligerent and immiserating program of spending cuts, tax hikes, union crackdowns, pension cuts, legislation repeals, and fire-sale privatization of national assets.

Tsipras may despise this deal, but he is nevertheless committed to carry it out despite opposition from Syriza’s left wing. On July 16, the night before the conference’s opening plenary, protests erupted when Greek Parliament passed a first set of bailout measures with 21% of Syriza MPs voting against it. The next day, Tsipras purged his cabinet of rebels. Since then, he again relied on support from opposition parties to push another round of bailout reforms through parliament and has blocked a bid from dissenters to end the bailout negotiations and return to a national currency.

Given these circumstances, the conference’s optimistic title took on a grimly ironic character. The memorandum effectively imposes an economic dictatorship on a popularly elected government. It demonstrates that the European project—currently determined by zombie obedience to neoliberal market logic and vindictive austerity policies—is fundamentally incompatible, not only with the social justice policy of a left government, but with democracy itself.

This is the conclusion, if there is one at all, to be drawn from Democracy Rising, which took place over four days at the University of Athens’ School of Economics and Policy, the same building students occupied on February 21, 1973, helping to kick off the Polytechnic uprising that brought down Greece’s military junta months later.

Given Greece’s critical role as the battleground over the future of radical politics and renewed impetus on the left to seek concrete political alignments, Democracy Rising understandably attracted tremendous attention. Organized in partnership with the University of Athens by the Global Center of Advanced Studies, a new graduate school under the presidency of theory superstar Alain Badiou, the conference’s proceedings reflected—with varied success—its host institution’s aspirations to reconcile activism and intellectual production.

Against the backdrop of a thoroughly postmodern political situation where “no” means “yes,” Democracy Rising forced an encounter between theory-oriented metapolitics of leftist academics and debates from Syriza insiders negotiating a labyrinth of urgent and maddeningly complex questions: Did the capitulators narrowly avert an economic emergency with potentially dire humanitarian consequences? Or did they betray their popular mandate by acquiescing to the same policies that Greek voters—with Syriza’s cheerleading—had rejected just days before? How badly does Syriza’s genuflexion dampen hopes for a greater European Left? Would exiting the Eurozone free Greece from debt vassalage or plunge the country deeper into bankruptcy and proletarianization?

Democracy Rising didn’t produce definitive answers, but a collective sense of battered hope and delicate solidarity, reflecting the confusion of a divided Greek left as it tries to regroup. The historical exigencies of the Eurozone crisis transformed a forum for theory and philosophy into a contentious and occasionally explosive site of realpolitik, leveling the ground between the ivory tower and the sausage factory of parliamentary democracy.

After long days at work, a weary but determined Zoi Konstantopoulou, speaker of the Hellenic Parliament, addressed the opening session of the conference. “These are very difficult times for those of us who believed there was a limit to this anti-democratic, anti-European, anti-human policy.”

One of Tsipras’s most vocal opponents within the party, Konstantopoulou is the muscle behind the Greek Debt Truth Commission, which, with the help of political scientist Eric Touissant, published a preliminary report in June declaring Greece’s debt “illegal, illegitimate and odious.”

In his welcoming address, the Greek Minister of Education Aristides Baltas defended Tspiras’ surrender. If he hadn’t compromised, he said, bank closures would have prevented ships from delivering drinking water to the Greek islands. He argued that, even with Schäuble & co. gripping Greece’s purse strings, Syriza could still help working people by assisting the country’s growing grassroots organizations, social movements and solidarity networks. Costas Douzinas, professor of law at the University of London, also urged his comrades to “critically support” the Syriza government.

On the other hand, British-Pakistani activist and leading left-wing intellectual Tariq Ali called Tspiras’ capitulation a betrayal of the Greek people, underwritten by a fetishization of the single currency and a “fatal trust” in the EU, which he likened to a dysfunctional family headed by a German patriarch “schooled in the old disciplinary ways of Prussia.”

“I don’t think [the Syriza] government can last too long after this,” Ali said plainly. His sharpest knives, however, were reserved for the hypocrisy of Europe’s financial elites—“these jokers who teach lessons to the Greek people like Juncker, who runs a Ruritanian duchy called Luxemburg which is the biggest tax evasion center in Europe.”

The battle over Syriza escalated on the second day of the conference, when economist Costas Lapavistas, a Member of Parliament and delegate of Syriza’s Left Platform, delivered a combustible speech calling the bailout “a disastrous capitulation” to the Eurozone’s “neocolonial” and “recessionary” program. Syriza, he argued, had made a strategic error in betting on the seductive but ungovernable platform to end austerity while remaining within a monetary union “that crystallizes and encapsulates class relations.”

“It will not be possible to change Greece domestically while accepting the bailout,” he said. “What we need to do is withdraw our consent to this agreement and redesign a radical program that is consistent with our values, our aims, and what we told to the Greek people… and that program is impossible without an exit from the euro.”

Lapavistas laid out an exit strategy that includes default on the national debt, nationalization of the banks, and the conversation of all prices and obligations to the new currency at a rate of 1:1 (he expects devaluation to settle at 15-20 percent). The plan, he said, would create a difficult recession initially, but he expects positive rates of growth to appear after 12 to 18 months as the dormant Greek productive sector regains control of the domestic market.

His speech caused pandemonium in the lecture hall, and was met with applause and obscenities in almost equal measure. Lapavistas’s plan, countered Douzinas, “could be the longest suicide note in the history of the left.”

Lapavistas’s projections are contestable, but his plan was the most concrete alternative to the neoliberal austerity doctrine that emerged from the conference. On July 31, Tspiras admitted he had charged former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis with drafting a contingency plan to exit the euro, but claimed it was only an emergency measure. While the prospect of leaving the euro seems increasingly distant, a revolt within Syriza may lead to new elections in September or October, and, with them, a renewed possibility of Grexit.

On Sunday, Stelios Elliniadis of Syriza’s Central Committee spoke candidly to organizers from other European Left parties including Germany’s Die Linke, Ireland’s Sinn Fein, and Spain’s Podemos. He implored them to learn from Syriza’s mistakes. The party, he said, lacked both a serious exit strategy and a plan for staying in the Eurozone and governing within its iron cage. “We failed to have a deeper understanding of the will of the people. The leading group in the Syriza government was surprised and, I should say, scared by the result.”

This post-OXI moment is a time of introspection and self-criticism, but also one of solidarity—a notion that will become increasingly significant whether Greece exits or continues to struggle under the dead hand of Eurozone policy. Leo Panitch, Professor of Political Economy at York University, criticized armchair quarterbacking from those outside Greece and urged Syriza to expand grassroots solidarity networks.

Catarina Principe, a Portuguese activist and member of Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda, and Eoin O Broin from Sinn Fein maintained skepticism towards the euro while also criticizing inflammatory and divisive rhetoric against Syriza’s leadership. “The EU is showing the cracks in the European project,” Principe said. “They can only accept so much democracy, so much equality.”

Activists Astra Taylor and Laura Hanna drew global connections between the situation in Greece and the student debt and mortgage crises in the US, urging the indebted to challenge creditor morality through economic disobedience. Several panelists reiterated the importance of solidarity tourism, encouraging sympathetic travelers to vacation in Greece.

In a highly politicized Greek society, these conversations spilled beyond the university. At a sidewalk café in the leftist neighborhood of Exarcheia, journalists and activists talked late into the night, inventorying Syriza’s recent failures and weighing the pros and cons of a post-euro Greece. “We mourn together. We don’t sleep at night,” said Mihalis Panayiotakis, a journalist and member of Syriza’s digital policy committee. Despite troubles on the left, he maintains hope that exiting the euro may offer a way out of peonage and austerity.

“People ‘want’ to stay in the Eurozone for the same reasons shopkeepers ‘want’ to remain under some mobsters’ protection racket,” he said. “It’s not because of hope, it’s because of fear.”

“This is the first time someone tried to articulate an alternative to global capitalism,” said journalist Matthaios Tsimitakis. “We failed. So what? There’s a clear class root to the referendum. The rich voted for ‘yes.’ The poor voted for ‘no.’ Maybe people have changed. Maybe it’s not the end.”

Chloe Wyma is a freelance arts and culture critic and a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @chloewyma.



Sanders talks “left” and moves right


By Patrick Martin
1 August 2015

Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders held the largest online event of the 2016 presidential campaign Wednesday night, giving a brief address via live streaming video to more than 3,500 house parties held in all 50 states. Campaign organizers said more than 100,000 people sent RSVPs for the event and an even larger number attended.

The “house parties,” some held in public venues such as halls and restaurants, but most in private homes, are a campaign tactic, first used by Democrat Howard Dean in 2004, for collecting large numbers of email addresses and small donations from supporters.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign held an estimated 650 parties on the day she formally announced her candidacy. The scale of the events for Sanders was five times as large, an indication of the growing discontent among Democratic voters with the pro-corporate policies advanced by Clinton in her campaign.

The Vermont senator has focused his campaign on warnings about the growth of economic inequality and the power of the “billionaire class,” while offering little in the way of substance to differentiate himself from Clinton.

He occasionally refers to himself as a “socialist,” by which he means an American version of the reformist policies once pursued but repudiated over the past two decades by the social democratic parties in Europe. All of these parties—in Britain, Germany, France, Greece, Scandinavia, etc.—are systematically cutting social spending and imposing austerity on the working class, working hand-in-glove with the traditional conservative parties.

According to an analysis by the New York Times, based on data supplied by the Sanders campaign, there were house parties in 423 of the 435 US congressional districts. By far the largest turnouts were in liberal college towns like Boulder, Colorado, as well as in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast, particularly San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, where more than 1,000 attended in each city. The Times reported much lower turnouts in the more impoverished inner-city areas.

“Tonight really is an historic night,” Sanders told his audience, speaking from the home of Manisha Sharma, a bank attorney, in an upscale neighborhood of Southwest Washington DC. “To the best of our knowledge, there has never been a political online organizing event this early in the campaign which involved 100,000 people in 3,500 locations in every state in the United States of America. And that’s pretty impressive.”

However, when he moved from the broader audience to address more conservative and business-oriented groups Thursday and Friday, Sanders toned down his populist rhetoric considerably and reiterated a chauvinist and reactionary position on immigration.

Speaking Thursday before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Sanders went out of his way to reject calls by immigration activists for open borders. He repeated comments first made in an interview Tuesday with the Vox web site, in which he denounced unrestricted immigration as the perspective of the Koch brothers, the ultra-right billionaires who have pledged to spend nearly a billion dollars to elect Republican candidates in 2016.

Asked about criticism from immigrants’ rights groups, Sanders said, “What they are talking about is completely opening up the border. That was the question. Should we have a completely open border so that anyone can come in the United States of America? If that were to happen, which I strongly disagree with, there is no question in my mind that that would substantially lower wages in this country.”

Sanders went on to depict immigrants as a threat to Hispanic-American and African-American workers, saying, “When you have 36 percent of Hispanic kids in this country who can’t find jobs and you bring a lot of unskilled workers in the country, what do you think happens to that 36 percent of kids of today who are unemployed? Or 51 percent of African-American kids? I frankly do not believe we should be bringing in significant numbers of unskilled workers to compete with those kids.”

Pitting immigrants against native-born workers, particularly the lowest-paid and most exploited, is one of the oldest and most noxious traditions of American capitalist politics. That Sanders embraces this Know-Nothing legacy tells more about the real nature of his campaign than all his talk of defeating the political influence of the billionaires.

In what was perhaps his most revealing remark, he cited the consensus of all his Democratic and Republican rivals, asking, “But to simply open the borders of America. Do you think there is any candidate for president who thinks that that makes sense? I don’t think so.”

No one asked whether he would be bound by the opinions of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Scott Walker in other areas of policy—foreign and military policy, workers’ rights, or tax breaks for Wall Street, for example.

Sanders also told his audience, representing Hispanic businessmen and corporate executives, that he ruled out running as a third party candidate. “The answer is no,” he said, in response to a question. “The reason for that is I do not want to be responsible for electing some right-wing Republican to be president of the United States.”

Evidently, he is not troubled by helping to elect a right-wing Democrat.

Again, no one asked the obvious question: what does his allegiance to the eventual Democratic candidate say about his claimed “independence” from the Democratic Party over the past 24 years in Congress? In truth, his claim to oppose the corporate-controlled two-party system is a sham. Sanders has supported every Democratic presidential candidate since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1984.

On Friday, Sanders spoke to the Urban League, the most conservative of the African-American lobbying groups and the one most closely associated with efforts to promote “black capitalism.”

As in his remarks to the Hispanic businessmen, Sanders dropped any reference to “political revolution” and gave barely a nod to anti-Wall Street sentiment. He devoted much of his remarks to police violence, which he portrayed entirely in racial terms, intoning the phrase “Black Lives Matter” while promising unspecified actions to reduce the high rate of unemployment among black youth.

Sanders said several times, with an air of apology, that his emphasis on economic inequality and the power of the billionaires might make some people in the audience “uncomfortable.” He did not elaborate, but there are more than a few black multi-millionaires in the Urban League and the group is heavily dependent on contributions from corporations and what Sanders has called the “billionaire class.”