Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Carmen" and The Vanguard and the Insurrection of Mutual Aid...

"Carmen" is, of course, what it is, and for generations it's been one of the most popular operas ever created, if not truly the most popular ever. It was jeered initially in Paris in part because it didn't fit the pattern opera patrons had come to expect.

"Carmen" violated the rigid class divisions so apparent in the arts of the day; it wasn't about elevated people meeting or failing their honor and duty to one another and the gods, it was about ordinary people, and gypsies, tramps and thieves, the lowest of the low in Europe at the time, framed in terms of passion, love, longing and betrayal, utilizing the full range of operatic tools to tell its tale.

At its root, it is a tale of rebellion against the arbitrary imposition of authority -- and what to do about it.

Such tales were subversive at the time, as they still are. This is not a tale that opera patrons, then or now, would want told to the masses, that's for sure. It is one they can barely comprehend themselves.

The story came out of a post-Napoleonic Europe which was riven with rebellion and revolution right through to the extermination of the Paris Commune in 1871. Even that official horror didn't end the revolutionary fervor of Europe's peoples, let alone the rebellions in the colonial outposts of European empires. Try as they might, the Overclasses of the day could not keep the People down. Rebellion was assured; Revolution was likely. Massacre was not infrequent. But even massacre didn't work for long.

The panning of premiere of "Carmen" in Paris 1875, so soon after the liquidation of the Commune, has become the source opera-legend, in fact might make good opera in its own right, or at least a decent musical comedy. If one puts oneself in the shoes of the staid and very class conscious patrons of the Opéra-Comique at the time, however, it is not at all hard to imagine their contempt, and especially the contempt of the critics, at what they saw and heard. It must have felt almost like a slap in their collective bourgeois face.

"Carmen" was in some ways the story of what they feared most: wild and free people, in the person of Carmen, disrupting the calm and civilized society they were working so hard to restore after so much rebellion and revolution had so recently wracked Paris under the red banner of the Commune.

This was unacceptable.

The Commune was too recent a memory; what happened to it, though unmentionable, was too searing.

Conformity, conventionality, rules and order were the social requirements of the day, and not solely in Paris. Early versions of Marxist Communism were being worked out and tried. The Paris Commune was the first large-scale example that really seemed to work, if only briefly and haltingly. The potential of Marxist Communism was demonstrated, however temporarily, during the Commune, and that demonstration lived on in memory and legend long after the Commune was crushed and the Communards -- and a hell of a lot of random Parisians -- exterminated.

In today's world, the expiration of the Soviet Union and the transformation of the People's Republic of China into a capitalist dynamo was supposed to serve as the capstone to the triumph of the West and the end of History and all the rest of the reveries of the exploiters, plunderers and predators.

With the end of the Soviet "threat," and the transformation of China, the People's Struggle was supposed to be over: The People lost. For. Ever.

Yet The New World Order turns out to be far less substantive than even the rudest forms of Feudalism. It is, bluntly, a disaster of epic proportions. Not simply for the ordinary people -- let alone the Indignados and the Rebels and the Ignored Ones in every land -- it is a disaster for its makers. Those who have created this monstrosity of global domination are tied in knots by their own mindlessness and lack of even rudimentary judgement. That they have failed is cripplingly obvious. That they know not what to do now, except to lash out in fury at the phantoms of their misery, is plain.

Not only is another world possible, another world is critically necessary, because this one isn't working for anyone, and not for the Upper Orders, either. They have fucked up majorly.

The current social, economic, and political model is unsustainable by any measure.

The alternatives being developed are frightening to some observers who simply can't imagine there could be good faith attempts to rectify the situation in the midst of so much misery and carnage created by Our Betters.

They denounce the Vanguard, and they fear the Insurrectionists, both of which are essentially phantoms, because, like the bourgeoisie of Paris, they fear the liberation of what we might call the Gypsy spirit in human nature, to find and build a better future for all of us.

They are frightened to death that it just might work, and worse, there may be nothing salvageable from the wreckage of the past.

They are frightened, too, of the potential for violence in the transitional period.

A number of people have already been severely wounded by police fire and hundreds and hundreds have been injured while thousands upon thousands have been arrested and scenes of appalling destruction of encampments by the authorities have filled the airwaves during the initial phases of the Crackdowns on Occupy in this country alone. The numbers of dead and injured in the other uprisings and revolutions and civil wars around the world haven't even been counted, but it is on the order of many tens of thousands.

No matter how much we try, the transition to another world and a better future is not going to be a peaceful one. Whether it can stay mostly nonviolent is a question.

Where the global rebellions have turned into violent armed insurrection and civil war (Syria, Libya, eg.) it is painfully obvious that "international interests" are controlling both the conflict and the likely outcome, that without this sort of "helpful" interference, the People's Dictatorships being rebelled against would likely persevere against their domestic opposition. They are too frail now, and in many ways, too anachronistic, to survive in the face of the kinds of opposition arrayed against them.

But as we've seen in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, even nonviolent People's Uprisings don't necessarily result in that Better Future the People set out to achieve. There is no miraculous transformation in other words. Removing the Dictatorship only to have it replaced with even greater levels of quasi-pseudo-"democratic" exploitation, blunder, plunder and control by our Neo-Liberal Overlords (viz: Greece as well) is shocking to be sure, but not all that surprising.

The rebellion and occupation in Wisconsin delayed for a time some of the impositions of the Walker Regime, but it didn't stop them. And the resort to the electoral process to recall members of the State Senate failed to shift the majority. While the recall of Walker will be spirited (if he doesn't resign first in disgrace and under criminal indictment) the signs are it will not succeed, not even if the ever-saintly and ever-reluctant Russ Feingold girds his loinal parts and takes up the cudgel.

The System is broken and the prognosis is the patient's condition is terminal.

Something altogether different is called for, and that's why, as frightening to many as it is to contemplate, the red-and-black flag of the anarcho-communists/anarcho-syndicalists has all but become the Flag of Occupy.

In many ways it's ironic, given the inner turmoil and hostility, the many mutual anathemas and purges between the Socialists (as in Communist) and Anarchists in times of yore. But let's be blunt: even the Social Democrats of Europe, the moderated Communists, have grossly failed the People in their mad quest -- so it seems -- to please the Gods of Global Finance. Europe is such a basket case now largely because of the abject failure of the Social Democrats to adhere to the principles of social and economic justice that are their foundations.

Communist FAIL. Socialist FAIL. The vacuum must be filled -- or as we see, the Neo-Liberals/Neo-Cons take over -- and with such cheery malice and destructive intent. "Creative destruction" they call it. North Africa, the Arab Middle East, Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, much of the wreckage of Eastern Europe, all laboratories for even more destruction and exploitation than has already been accomplished by their economic and military shock troops.

Who's next?

Of course the "Creative Destroyers" will fail in the end, just like every other similar effort in the past.

The opposition turns to Anarchist options in part because they stand outside the common theoretical, political, and philosophical mindset that has brought us to this point -- and already thrown millions over the precipice.

That red-and-black flag and what it stands for is looking more and more appealing...

Somehow I suspect it is no accident that Carmen wears a diagonally divided red-and-black gown in the final scene of the Met's stunning "Carmen" from 2010 (or was it 2009?)

That damn Gypsy Woman is as subversive now as she ever was. And just as then, the People must take care of one another.

Kropotkin anyone?


  1. How timely! I just started reading Mutual Aid. I find it incredibly readable which is surprising to me. What I've read so far is great. I imagine you will have further posts on the book later?

  2. An article the Socialist Worker has some interesting discussion on "ultra leftists" at Occupy Oakland. These folks seem a little timid. And I'm not sure I understand why they are unwilling to work with other people that are more closely aligned with their own ideas than that of the status quo. I'd appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Pathman: The Socialist Worker piece is one of the less strident and ridiculous of the genre, so in that sense, it shows progress toward the "synthesis" that the anarchists and the socialists are still trying to avoid but which I think is going to be the inevitable outcome of the current discussions. And that synthesis will be stronger than either ideological framework on its own.

    If the synthesis can be found, it will be found and employed in Oakland, which is why I think the intensity of the discussions and the mitigation of some of the mutual bomb-throwing looks like it might bear fruit.

    May Day will be a real benchmark.

    It will be followed of course by the NATO/G8 summit in Chicago within days. It will be another benchmark.

    As for the animosity between socialists and anarchists, it's been there for generations; they will never agree on "how to do it." But in the framework of Occupy Oakland, they don't have to agree because they can be autonomous and do it the way they want to. All I can say about their disputes with one another is that neither one has a very good track record of genuine or lasting mass appeal.

    So maybe if they, oh I don't know, learned cooperative (rather than cooptation) skills...

    Just saying.

  4. Not sure why they can't cooperate.

    Within myself -- or as the Zen Masters would say, the illusion of "I" -- anarchism and socialism get along just fine. In fact, they seem to ground and Jazzify each other. Anarchism "liberates" socialism, and socialism "grounds" anarchism. To oversimplify.

    Synergy is quite possible there, and the socialism part can prevent anarchism from turning to the Dark Side of the Austrians, etc.

    It's a good mix, IOW.

    . . .

    Excellent essay, Ché. I'd like to see you develop the Carmen aspect further . . .

  5. It does seem like it should be self-evident. But there are hardliners on both sides who want to keep fighting the struggles of a century ago. Thankfully, they are way in the minority.

    The synthesis is happening with them or without them.

    As for "Carmen," I'm sure we haven't heard the last of her.

    I heartily recommend the Met videos posted earlier. It's a remarkable production. Very timely, methinks!