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Saints, Monsters and Anticommunism
Things to look forward to in 2022
It’s been a tough year.
Just when things were starting to feel a bit more normal and settled, our landlord notified us that he was jacking up our rent by 21%. My partner and I have been navigating Scotland’s labyrinthine (and deeply flawed) appeals system since.
It couldn’t have come at a more apt time: I’d just started recording the audiobook version of The Housing Monster, written by an anonymous construction worker for the website prole.info. The Housing Monster is an illustrated manifesto that starts with a look at how a house is built and zooms out inch by inch to reveal the social relationships that dominate our lives under capitalism. It parses out how the stuff that we need to live—houses, for example—become distorted, and in turn distort us, when they’re transformed into commodities. In the particular lies the universal: mapping out the housing market, the author reveals the inner workings of the class struggle, the battle between regular people producing and reproducing the world and the capitalist class who own it.
What really struck me about the book when I first read it was how the author ties the personal experience of being a worker in with the larger social forces that act on us, forces that are too big to be seen but condition even the smallest aspects of our lives. Finding my own interests in direct conflict with my landlord’s while I recorded the audiobook, it was easy to see how the subject of class struggle isn’t theoretical or academic but much of the substance of everyday life.
You’ll be able to listen to The Housing Monster in its entirety at prole.info, where you can also download the ebook for free. If you want to pick up a print copy, you can get it at PM Press. We’ll be releasing the audiobook on the Spaghetti For Brains podcast in shorter instalments over the coming months. Keep your eyes peeled.
I’ve also been working on a podcast miniseries about Charles Mingus’s masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Released in 1963, it perfectly captures the tumultuous decade in which it was made: fusing the violent racism of the United States and the composer’s mental crisis trying to navigate it as an African-American, a musician/composer, and as a worker. My intention was not just to relate the cultural history of the album itself but also the lineage of jazz that Mingus drew from. Again, within the particular lies the universal—a materialist analysis of the record forces us to confront the bloody history of the country, the reality of recording industry executives’ exploitation of music workers (especially Black music workers), and ultimately the way our listening habits have been shaped through our reliance on petroleum since the twentieth century. With the current spat between musicians and streaming services, there’s a lot to learn from Mingus’s fight to make a living as an artist in America. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady stands as a testament to his struggle, which remains as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.
I’m hoping to release these episodes in the coming months, with the script published on the Spaghetti For Brains Substack shortly after.
This year I’ll also be publishing new writing on Spaghetti For Brains. In the third and final instalment of the “Orwellian” series, I’ll be looking at the legacy of anticommunism in the United States and Europe and how this shaped Orwell’s own legacy, including the varied—and often contradictory—use of the term “Orwellian”. Orwell himself is largely to blame for the misuses of his signature concept, having acted as an informant for British intelligence in the years following the war. He saw the threat of Soviet espionage in Britain as greater than the threat from his own country’s ruling class.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that he was wrong and that his choice to support the British security state was characteristic of his and other socialists’ insistence on what Michael Parenti has called ‘pure socialism’—that is, the rejection of a revolutionary politics that doesn’t 100% conform to one’s particular notion of what the revolution should be. This refusal to measure a revolution’s success or failure based on a comparison of what it overthrew, the horror that preceded it, mars political debate on the left to this day.
I’m also working on a longer piece of writing reflecting on my time as an “essential worker” and how the experience of working in a grocery through the height (or depth) of the pandemic left me reevaluating my own politics. Beginning in 2019 when I still harboured illusions about my ability to pursue education and maybe even academia; through the Bernie 2020 campaign, which was the spark for this newletter; then being stuck in a shitty low-paid job at the grocery wondering if I would die of an infectious disease; to being injured at this same job and thinking I might die anyway—I simultaneously lost hope in the old ways of thinking about capitalism and my place in it, while also losing most of my anger and cynicism in favour of the clarity that a budding class consciousness brings.
It’s a work in progress. You’ll hopefully get the opportunity to read it by the summer. But don’t quote me on that.
In the meantime, there’ll be episodes of the podcast where me and Norm try to make sense of the diseased gumbo that is politics, culture and working life. As braver people than me have said, the only way out of this shit is through it, together.