Mission Statement, 2001
Writing and Reading As If We, The People, Count
"For what is the program of the bourgeois parties? A bad poem on springtime, filled to bursting with metaphors."
- Walter Benjamin, "Surrealism," 1929
Open Letter is an online journal of economic democracy and cultural anarchy, of queer dissent and independent politics. It is being published during one of the murkier moments in our national history, a time which may be called the long twilight of New Deal democracy. The shadows lengthened during the presidential election of 2001. Five members of the Supreme Court decided that we, the people, should have our votes counted by people whose votes truly count. Their ruling did not provoke a national uprising, and no wonder. Many citizens are now accustomed to leaving politics to politicians, and the bipartisan system delivers a fair degree of comfort to a large middle class. Those living in real distress are not yet a threat in national elections. Dear old donkeys and ponderous pachyderms do their perennial best to stamp out independent voters, and in the last election an independent candidate was escorted away from a bipartisan debate by security guards. This political thuggery was far more important than anything Bush and Gore said during the debate and therefore received less press. In the meantime, the conglomeration of the big news media continues within and across national borders.
There have been significant social changes in the United States over the years–women are more active in public life, the black middle class has grown, and queer youth are likelier to find allies. But this is also a country overshadowed by an anti-democratic system of bipartisan corporatism, and by recurrent campaigns of sexual and cultural backlash. Racism remains a foundation stone of our class and penal system, and people of color remain among those last hired and first fired. Some will always be tempted to reinvent Social Darwinism–to explain class divisions of all kinds as one form of "natural law." That explanation came from religious authorities in the past, but nowadays the explainers must have other kinds of power and prestige. "You can’t stop progress," shout CEOs driving global SUVs, and they always have reasons why other folks are road-kill.
The dictum that knowledge is power is not always cause for optimism. "Information technologies" such as computers are not simply tools of universal enlightenment-- they are also means of production, for better and for worse. The product may be the projection of corporate advertising and of military threats over national borders. The degree to which useful information is enmeshed in state and corporate disinformation makes the computer as ambiguous a machine as the television. This grows clearer not just year by year but by the hour. The production of minds receptive to both technical training and class division is therefore of prime importance to any corporate system of education.
Open Letter is one site for internet activism, but it is no place for certain illusions about changing the world from our laptops. Virtual communities are no substitute for face to face communities. Politics begins with a person who has a sense of place. And where two or three are gathered together, the holy spirit may yet descend.
The tradition of open letters– of individuals addressing the public in our own right, without permission or apology– remains one important element of civil society. In the United States, this tradition includes writers and thinkers as diverse as Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King and Paul Goodman. Beyond these borders, the tradition includes Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kraus, Simone Weill and George Orwell, Vaclav Havel and Czeslaw Milosz, Chinua Achebe and Vandana Shiva, and (at continuing risk) many citizens of one party or authoritarian regimes round the world. As this brief list of names suggests, the impulse behind such addresses to the public world has not been uniform. Historically, open letters take many forms including pamphlets, essays, satires, polemics, and poetry.
"Identity politics" of one kind or another is always an implicit, and sometimes an explicit, element of being a public intellectual. From left to right, that phrase is sometimes used to make a crude populist case for We, the People Vs. The Others–and the case is never closed because such arguments always reveal the political identity of the persons making them. Society of any kind requires some negotiation between I and we, the one and the many. The speed and complexity of that negotiation became one of the great themes of both modern culture and of self-styled post-modern observers. If it took the previous century to teach us that a world in which "we" may displace all personal life is totalitarian, will it take the whole current century to teach us that a world of collective egoism is not much better?
No one escapes identity once you are born and named in a world with others. The really interesting question is not whether "I" and "we" have absolute reality, but how I and we connect in relative reality. In other words, an identity with open borders is necessary for solidarity. We can never stand shoulder to shoulder with others unless we can also stand our own ground. No matter where we stand in life or in politics, no one gets out pure, no one gets out alive. Beginning with such limits and with such worldliness, then whatever may outlive life may deserve life. In that sense, the project of Open Letter is resolutely secular but open to spiritual traditions. After all the well known disasters we can still say, "Gather up all the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost."
What can be gathered up culturally and politically? Certain familiar words and phrases have become too brittle, or loaded, or misleading. Democracy in economic policy and decision making means (at the very least) that there should be democratic control over corporations, so that such corporations cease to be unelected governments. Economics is "the dismal science" in a dismal society; but it was always a dismal illusion to think that all human activities could become quantifiably and predictably scientific. The political left shares much of the blame for investing hopes and lives in that essentially capitalist utopia. The fascination of socialists with capitalist methods of production and social organization meant that the ideological camps of left and right often shared all too much common ground. This remains one of the critical and lasting insights which anarchist workers and thinkers contributed to both economic and political history. So though the editor sometimes describes himself as a (small d) democratic socialist, he is comradely with other sectors of the libertarian left.
"Socialism itself will be of value," wrote Oscar Wilde, "simply because it will lead to individualism." By individualism he meant something other than conventional egoism. He meant that each of us comes into being as a person in affinity or in antagonism to others. And he meant that the machinery of production should not maim limbs and lives, but be of service–no more, no less. On the same page he acknowledged that social struggle might not be so simple: "If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worst than the first."
Cultural anarchy is–like it or not, for better and worse–a fair description of certain sexual, social and psychic regions without official maps and borders. Those are places of both exposure and shelter, of violation and communion. Open Letter has no (anti)systematic project and does not promise the revaluation of all values. Here readers may find writers who still hope we, the people, count. Each sentence here is a message in a bottle, or else one more drop in an ocean of static. If that was always true of any book finding its way to the right readers, it seems all the more true online. This late in human history this story has become common: a reader or a writer has an uncanny sense of words becoming less and more than words, of the letters of advertisements (for example) becoming a kind of sign language left unsigned by any human hand. As if atoms of meaning were still dispersing at ever greater distances from each other and from some biblical Big Bang. This degree of alienation is itself a revelation. That is why dadaism was a kind of social realism. Likewise, Warhol’s soup cans were one way to see clichés as icons, until the icons became clichés after fifteen minutes. A disaster we do not yet fully understand left no human activity innocent. Neither art nor science. Nihilism is now hipsterism and has its own niche markets.
Hope, yes. Optimism, no.
Thomas Scott Tucker
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