Chris Cutrone: Platypus éminence grise
Originally I had no idea that Platypus was some kind of organized group on the left. I regarded it as an electronic magazine after the fashion of Metamute, another oddly named left outlet that favored heterodox Marxist analysis written by young professors and graduate students. I suppose that if I paid closer attention to their url (platypus1917.org) I might have figured out that their ambitions were somewhat larger. Ah, 1917, the year that amounts to the birth of Christ for a rival sect.
It was only after I began following a dust-up between Platypus editor Chris Cutrone and just about every other subscriber on Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer mailing list that I figured out that Platypus was a tendency on the left trying to save us from ourselves through “education” rather than by example through action. The debate was prompted by an interview conducted with Platypusers Chris Mansour and Ian Morrison by WBAI board member Mitchell Cohen, a bearded 60s conspiracy-mongering radical who could not be more unlike than these brash Young Turks. The two young men have cultivated the art of sounding outrageous, so necessary in raising one’s profile on a left filled with ambitious attempts at carving out a market niche. They say, for example, that Naomi Klein has mounted a “rightwing critique of Milton Friedman”. I have my own problems with Klein, but this analysis is frankly stupid.
The discussion about the Platypus interview began appropriately enough on April Fool’s Day, but Chris Cutrone did not enter the fray until 5 days later when he offered up an introduction to Platypus that includes the following account of its origins:
We started as a reading group in Chicago in 2006 and formally constituted ourselves as an organization, starting to hold our fora and publish our paper in 2007. We’ve had the following panelists or published writings by: Ernesto Laclau, Moishe Postone, T. J. Clark, Hal Foster, David Harvey, Stephen Duncombe, Danny Postel, Michael Lowy, Peter Hudis, Kevin Anderson, Andrew Kliman, James Heartfield, David Black, Michael Albert, Paul Street, Ervand Abrahamian, Hamid Dabashi, Leo Panitch, members of the ISO, Solidarity and the RCP, and worked closely with the new SDS, the (various) Marxist-Humanists, the immigration rights movement, and others. We have included various student activists on our public forum panels, and have the plurality of our published writings have been by undergraduate students.
With respect to “theory”, Cutrone supplied the following:
A few of us are current or former students of Moishe Postone; a couple of us have also been mentored by Adolph Reed. These are our two single most influential living figures for our thinking, but a couple of us are also former members of the Spartacist Youth Club when we were in college almost 20 years ago. My personal academic specialization is Frankfurt School Critical Theory, Adorno and Benjamin in particular. The group started with several of my students asking for an extra-curricular reading group on the contemporary relevance of F.S. critical theory for politics. One of our very first readings was Featherstone/Henwood/Parenti’s “Action Will Be Taken” critique of the “anti-war” movement (2002).
Having never read Moishe Postone, I can’t comment on his value but I have to wonder whether Adolph Reed’s reputation is well served by this. Reed, an African-American political science professor, was a member of the Trotskyist movement around the same time as me and has evolved a workerism hostile to “Black identity” politics with some affinities to Walter Benn Michaels, as well as to the batty Spartacist League but with considerably more intelligence. With respect to “Action will be taken”, this is a very useful article, but I doubt that the authors would be happy with the placing of scare quotes around anti-war movement. More about this anon.
Finally, they claim responsibility for developing a new brand of Marxism that will differentiate them from other groups on the left, namely a synthesis of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky with the Frankfurt School, a rather unlikely combination:
We’ve offered, for our own self-understanding, what we call a “synthesis” of the “2nd International radicals” Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky with F.S. critical theory, especially by Benjamin and Adorno, but also by the early Lukacs and Korsch, considering all of these to be the most interesting developments of Marx’s work in theory and practice. We think that what Korsch termed the “crisis of Marxism” 1914-23, was never adequately resolved but rather Marxism disintegrated and degenerated, with negative consequences for the Left, “Marxist” or otherwise.
When I read this, I could not help but think of Perry Anderson’s reflections on Karl Korsch in his 1976 “Considerations of Western Marxism”. Korsch and other Marxist academics were appalled by the failure of socialist revolutions to triumph after 1917 and retreated into the ivory tower in order to mount philosophical investigations largely disconnected from the class struggle. It was an ideological current that reflected disappointment and pessimism, understandable given the horrors of Stalinism and fascism. Since the Platypus group is following very much in the footsteps of Western Marxism (but without its intellectual prowess), one can only surmise that something traumatic must have occurred in their lifetime. What could be their version of Stalin’s rise and the failure of Communist Parties to resist Hitler?
Apparently, the anti-globalization protests up to and including Seattle left a very bad taste in their mouth:
Reenacting not only the defeat but the defeatism of the 1960s Left, the Seattle protesters no longer even bother with the old talk about students or youth as a new “revolutionary force.” Nor do these new would-be radicals require elaborate rationalizations of their failure. Theirs is a disarmingly frank acting-out of a discontented middle-class youth, for whom the schedule of international trade meetings takes the place of rock concert tours as the site for a peripatetic anti-authoritarian subculture.
And speaking of the 1960s left, the Platypus people take a dim view of the SDS protests that radicalized so many college students and shook American society to its foundations. In a chastened and rueful mood, they find much to support in the elderly Adorno’s disgust with Columbia University’s protestors:
Borrowing from Freudian psychoanalysis, Adorno and his colleagues (Marcuse and Reich) interpreted the constitution of the “authoritarian personality,” characterized by “narcissism” and sadomasochism, as evincing a regressive “fear of freedom.” Thus, faced with “political hysteria” Adorno observed, “Those who protest most vehemently are similar to authoritarian personalities in their aversion to introspection.”
Having lived through this period, I can state that many journalists shared Adorno’s critique but without his anti-capitalist cachet. A week did not go by without some pundit blaming the Oedipal Complex for SDS misbehavior. Silly me always blamed street protests and “trashing” on outrage over napalming peasant villages rather than a desire to have intercourse with one’s mother.
If you’re starting to get the picture that these Platypus people are a bunch of stuffed shirts with a kind of visceral distrust of anything too militant, you haven’t seen the worst of it. Unfortunately, their journal is filled with musings on foreign policy that reek of the Euston Manifesto. After a leisurely walk through all 17 issues, I am appalled by what I found there.
Ian Morrison, one of Mitchell Cohen’s interviewees, wrote an article dated March 1, 2008 titled Ba’athism and the history of the Left in Iraq: Violence and politics that chided Ramsey Clark for acting as Saddam Hussein’s lawyer. Hadn’t Clark read Kenan Makiya, the ex-Trotskyist whose Republic of Fear had the last word on how dastardly Saddam was? Implicitly someone as wicked as Saddam did not warrant Clark’s services, a view widely held by liberals at the time. Platypus somehow feels the need to remind us of Saddam’s wickedness as if we were all members of the Workers World Party:
Kanan Makiya’s groundbreaking study of Iraqi Ba’athism, Republic of Fear, documents instances of institutionalized violence used to terrorize Iraqi society. In the 1998 introduction, Makiya recounts a law passed in the chaotic aftermath of the first Gulf War mandating that the state brand the mark of an X on the forehead of repeat offenders of crimes such as theft and desertion; the first offense of such crimes was punished by amputation of the hand.
The article does not mention that Makiya was one of the major “left” voices urging war on Iraq in 2003 and it is surprising that given all the opprobrium Makiya has earned in the past 7 years that Platypus still takes him seriously. Edward Said, among others, had his number in 2002:
In and of himself, Makiya is a passing phenomenon. He is, however, a symptom of several things at once. He represents the intellectual who serves power unquestioningly; the greater the power, the fewer doubts he has. He is a man of vanity who has no compassion, no demonstrable awareness of human suffering. With no stable principles or values, he is typical of the cynical anti-Arab hawks (like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld) who dot the Bush administration like flies on a cake. British imperialism, Israel’s brutal occupation policies, or American arrogance do not detain him for a moment. Worst of all, he is a man of pretension and superficiality, flattering himself on his reasonableness even as he condemns his own people to more travail and more dislocation. Woe to Iraq!
Written somewhat ostentatiously in the name of the Platypus Historians Group (as if they could be seen in the same light as the storied Communist Historians Group that included Hobsbawm et al), there is an article titled Catastrophe, historical memory and the Left: 60 years of Israel-Palestine that unconscionably puts Palestinan and Israeli violence on the same plane:
Neither the endless “peace process” nor Katyusha rockets shot by Islamic fundamentalists at working-class Israeli towns point towards an emancipatory politics.
It should me mentioned at this point that the call for “emancipatory politics” serves as a kind of mantra on the Platypus website although I have never been able to figure out what it means. In Marxist terms, emancipation means ending class rule and producing for human need rather than private profit. For these upstarts, it strikes me as having much more of the libertarian esprit that typified Frank Furedi’s group in Britain. It should therefore come as no surprise that James Heartfield, the last Furedite claiming allegiance to Marxism, contributed once to Platypus. Despite my overall hostility to Spiked online politics, I’d have to say that Heartfield took a step down when he became associated with these characters. Even if he agrees with Cutrone and company that the “left is dead”, Heartfield would never offer up their kind of Eustonite droppings.
As mentioned above, Cutrone employs scare quotes when it comes to the antiwar movement. Once again, in 2008, he had recourse to this device in an article titled Iraq and the election: The fog of “anti-war” politics. In it he finds it useful to put scare quotes around the word imperialism as well. In the world of the Platypus, all attempts to describe Bush’s war as imperialist are wrong. Indeed, the cause of the war was not a grab at resources and any other geopolitical assets but Saddam’s recklessness:
At base, the U.S. did not invade and occupy Iraq to steal its oil, or for any other venal or nefarious reason, but rather because the U.N.’s 12-year-old sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, which meant the compromise and undermining of effective Iraqi sovereignty (for instance in the carving of an autonomous Kurdish zone under U.N. and NATO military protection) was unraveling in the oil-for-food scandal etc., and Saddam, after the first grave mistake of invading Kuwait, made the further fateful errors of spiting the U.N. arms inspectors and counting on being able to balance the interests of the European and other powers in the U.N. against the U.S. threat of invasion and occupation.
Let’s not beat around the bush, dear reader. The notion that Saddam’s “spited” the U.N. arms inspectors belongs on Fox News rather than a self-described Marxist website professing “emancipatory politics”. Quite frankly, I have to wonder if some of the good people who have taken part in panel discussions with Platypus people have an idea that such raw sewage is floating in their canals.
Finally, it has to be mentioned that Platypus interviewed two people who symbolize Eustonite politics to a tee. The first is an interview with the Canadian blogger Terry Glavin who is described as “an outspoken critic of the anti-war movement’s call to withdrawal [sic] foreign troops from Afghanistan”. I would have described Glavin as a toxic Islamophobe but that’s just me.
Here’s one of the questions that Platypusite Andony Melathopoulos asks Glavin:
In your Democratiya [a Eustonite publication now absorbed by the awful Dissent Magazine] piece you describe the forthcoming Obama presidency as articulating the words that Afghans want to hear most: “We will not leave you. We will not betray you. We will not abandon you”. What is it about Obama’s approach that makes you think that the U.S. will finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan?
When I read the business about a “serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan”, I felt that I had wandered into the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS.
And even more outrageously, they still find it useful to regard Christopher Hitchens as part of the left in a 2009 article (Going it Alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left) long after anybody–including Hitchens—would have put him in such company. It flatters Hitchens in practically every paragraph:
With the familiarity he possessed of its prevailing intellectual habits and dispositions and also of the actual composition of the various popular front organizations that sprung up to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hitchens possessed unique resources to undertake a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary Left.
In the weeks and months following 9/11, Hitchens’s criticism of what passes for the Left resounded loudly on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether in left-leaning organs such as The Nation and the Guardian or in more mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and The Independent, in article after article Hitchens drove the point home that the issue of “imperialism,” as understood for decades on the Left, had ceased to be relevant.
Once again we see scare quotes around imperialism. In my view, this kind of denialism says much more about these latter day Mensheviks than anything. What we are dealing with is a section of the academic left that has become profoundly disoriented and succumbed to the pressure of living inside the U.S., the world’s largest and most dangerous hegemon in history. The purpose of this article is to put a skull-and-bones sign next to the poisoned well they drink from so as to warn any young graduate student to not drink the water at the risk of political death.