This month we celebrate the birthday of author Jack London, born January 12, 1876. London wrote the great nature novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he was also a committed socialist who wrote two volumes of essays about socialism called The War of the Classes and Revolution and other essays.
I performed a reading of London’s “How I Became A Socialist” for the Arts Express radio program. Click on the triangle above to hear it as broadcast today on WBAI 99.5 FM radio and Pacifica affiliates cross the country.
“So to make things fair—even though it is not easy to be fair in a capitalistic society—each time I earn money from performing magic, I would have to give a portion to Ascanio’s widow, Slydini’s heirs, and many others and say, ‘Here, please, this is your portion of my success.’ “—Juan Tamariz
Over a cup of coffee at a back table at the magic convention, a magician is informally doing magic as a crowd of onlookers watch. The people in the crowd nod their heads knowingly in approval, or they throw in their two cents to make suggestions at this “session.” The young magician has great chops, an engaging personality, and an easy laugh. You feel an instant warmth, a comradely attitude. He’s not trying to prove his superiority, he just wants all of us to have fun and experience the magic.
At one point, a know-it-all makes an arrogant criticism; about to defend himself, the young magician stops that impulse, and steels himself, as if to say, “No, I’m not going to defend myself, I’m going to listen to it all, be humble, and take it all in.” I think to myself, this young man has been mentored and parented well.
I wish I had been able to find that magician again, to talk with him about that incident. It was such a great attitude. It must have come from somewhere. The magician had a Hispanic last name, but I had no idea whether he came from Spain or not. Nevertheless, I think this young man has absorbed much of the spirit of what’s now come to be known as the Spanish School of Magic.
By Spanish School of Magic I am talking about the style of magic that is exemplified by Juan Tamariz, Gabi Pareras, Dani DaOrtiz, Miguel Angel Gea and several other younger magicians, many who have been mentored by Tamariz himself. There are sometimes discussions on the magic internet forums as to the distinguishing features of this school of magic, but for me, the most important—and often overlooked—aspect has to do with emphasizing the feelings of friendship between the magician and the audience. It’s much more than just an approach to constructing an effect, or the means utilized for the method, though there’s a lot of that, but it’s also about consciously constructing a relationship of comrade-to-comrade with the audience, rather than competitor-to- competitor. It’s akin to, but not quite the same as, Gerald Deutsch’s conception of Perverse Magic.
If magic is about power—and it is—then it’s natural to ask, who gets to keep that power? In a sense—let’s say metaphorically, for now—it’s a question of capitalism versus socialism. Does the individual get to keep all the power s/he accrues individually, or is the power going to be shared among the community? For convenience, I’m going to describe two styles of magic: capitalist and socialist. If you don’t like those words, you can substitute two other labels, though I think there may well be a good reason to use those particular terms.
It’s enlightening to look at the experience of magic for many audiences: the capitalist magician’s effort is to widen the power inequality perception, seeking to put the magician far above its audience. “Admire me because I am so much more powerful than you,” implies the capitalist magician. After all, real capitalists like to proclaim that the most wise, the most moral, the most worthy, the most capable of solving all problems—business and otherwise—are those with the most power. So it’s natural that some magicians would strive to emulate those models. But the Spanish School approach is the opposite. The socialist magician is not your superior; on the contrary, he’s your bar buddy, the guy you want to hang out with, or the lovable eccentric, maybe the town Foole, who wants nothing other than to delight you and to be friends with you. The socialist magician has somehow won or been gifted his power, and now he wants to share it with you. I say “he,” because while it is changing, some of it does have an undercurrent of sexism; in that comradely fraternity, there’s the assumption of mainly male bonding. Now here’s the leap, you can take it with me if you like: it’s like the aura of the Ortega boys during the Nicaraguan revolution and the Castros during the Cuban revolution. The masses loved them because they were the boys who made good, the brothers who stuck together and won power for the people. “You’ve won the power, we admire you, we thank you for it, and we have no fear of you at all, because we know you are going to share that power with us.” Whether those promises ever came true politically is an issue that I won’t get into here, but the point is the similarity between the revolutionary and his audience on the one hand, and the socialist magician and his audience on the other.
A nice Cuban magician I discussed this with didn’t agree with my characterization of the socialist personality as the driver of the Spanish School’s attitude towards magic, but rather he attributed it to the close family ties in Spain. He reminded me that many Spanish men live with their parents up until the time they get married. Well, yes, but what is a family but a group of people who care for each other, and work with each other, and are committed to each other?
At any rate—and I’ll add here the fact that Tamariz in the 60s lived in a commune with 15 or 20 other people and was thrown out of his university for opposing the Fascist Franco regime—the Spanish model is of the community member who gives back. He makes good and returns to buy his Mom a house, he pays for his sister’s college, he buys a round of drinks for the boys at the pub, he plays with and entertains his nephews with laughing magic. It’s the understanding that the magic itself is only important so far as it engenders positive relationships. The magician makes the whole community feel more powerful because of his skill and talent, and the magician knows that what he is doing—that is, his effect on his audience—is not just a personal good but a social good as well. It’s his social responsibility to share what he has. He shares with his comrades this wonderful gift of inducing the magical feeling in others. They laugh together about how wonderful it feels, and how happy they are to have each other.
Now it’s true that some capitalist magicians also see the dilemma of declaring themselves all-powerful magicians, and so they, too, seek to ameliorate the power imbalance. But rather than sharing power, they seek to solve the power inequality problem by denying that power exists at all. So we have the great spate of comedy magicians who do magic, but while so doing, they undercut their own effect on the audience with a wink or a nod, or a wise guy remark. In effect, they deny that any magic occurred. And, indeed, if magic is what happens in the spectator’s brain, in such circumstances, it can’t occur. The actual experience of magic for the spectator is obliterated. By denying the power imbalance, these magicians present the magic community correlative of real capitalists who like to deny that there are in fact any class differences. It’s a false solution to the dilemma of unequal power in magic.
The socialist magicians, however, seek to maximize the magical experience in the spectator without undercutting it. The implicit message is always: “Yes, I have this power to make you feel something special, but I am going to share it with you.” It is a beautifully humanistic way of dealing with the power imbalances inherent in the performance of magic.
A socialist revolution in the United States in 2044? In activist Mike Albert’s new fictional journalistic account, RPS/2044, you can learn how it happened. This is the second part of the interview with Albert that I produced for the Arts Express radio program. Mike talks about what a Revolutionary Participatory Society might look like, why it’s important for present-day activists to lay out a vision for the future, and how we might get from here to there.
Yesterday, WBAI-FM radio’s Arts Express broadcast part two of my interview with Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures.
Frase has an intriguing set of ideas about what the future might look like after capitalism destructs, given the ecological constraints of abundance/scarcity and the political constraints of equality/inequality. In this final segment we talk about what might happen if the world’s resources turn out to be strictly limited.
Yesterday, WBAI-FM radio’s Arts Express broadcast part one of my interview with Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures. Frase has an intriguing set of ideas about what the future might look like after capitalism destructs, given the ecological constraints of abundance/scarcity and the political constraints of equality/inequality.
It’s always exciting for me when I can learn, in a fun and interesting way, more about something that I know very little of. I’ve probably learned more about the revolutionary James Connolly and the Irish Easter Rebellion in my one hour’s pleasurable reading of writer and artist Tom Keough’s new graphic remembrance than in all my previous decades of schooling. In A Full Life: James Connolly, The Irish Rebel, Keough tells the story of a truly remarkable man, and puts Connolly’s life into its historical, political, economic, and philosophical context.
Connolly was born into poverty in the slums of Scotland; he devoted his life to improving the lot of working people and to freeing Ireland from British rule. For someone with little formal education, Connolly was amazingly prescient—and persuasive— in his views about socialism, feminism, and internationalism. With the 100th anniversary of the Connolly-led Easter Rebellion upon us this Easter, it would do well to make acquaintance with this man and his ideas. You can get it here at popular prices. I bought three!—one for myself, one for my wife, and one for my son.
Note: The ordering website has been updated and should be working for most now.
I just finished reading Red Rosa, a graphic biography of the revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. (The novel is graphic in both senses of the word.) You probably never read about her in high school, and maybe not in college either, unless you followed things Marxist, but she was an incredibly influential figure in the period leading up to and during World War I. At a time when women’s roles were severely constricted in Western society, Rosa was living the life of a free, committed revolutionary woman. She traveled from Poland (where as a child, she wrote, for a school contest that was supposed to praise him, an essay excoriating the Kaiser ) and on to Germany where she became a key figure in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She forged her own political views, and produced some trenchant analyses of capitalism. She was suspicious of the anti-democratic line of the Soviet Marxists, but also contemptuous of the socialist-in-name-only leaders of the Social Democratic Party who led the party into war and the arms of the bourgeoisie on the eve of World War One.
The author and illustrator Kate Evans does a very good job of packing in a large life in 179 pages, and one gets a sense of what an extraordinary woman Rosa was. But I’m not really here to talk about politics but rather to fixate on one particular aspect of the times that Rosa lived in. And it is this. The Speed of Thought. How was it that revolutionary thought spread so quickly, and so far in that time? The whole of Russia, England, and Germany were in an uproar, and revolutionaries like Rosa spread Marx’s ideas across large swaths of land with little but words: smuggled in handbills, street corner lectures, and newspapers laboriously set in type in secret. It seems in today’s world an almost impossible feat. No Facebook, Twitter, Internet, Social Media, cellphones. And I don’t mean this in a jocular way. It just seems amazing to me that ideas could have spread so quickly.
I suppose one can say, look at the rapid spread of Darwin and Freud’s ideas in roughly the same period; true, but those were ideas that were circulating in small scientific and psychoanalytic communities, specialized formations. But ideas that actually resulted in the material re-organization of society—well, that seems more impressive to me.
My wife is doing a literacy training, and the teacher said something very interesting to her class: People who can’t read have trouble listening. If you want to teach people to read, you must teach them to listen first. And the flip side of that is that writing is talking. In order to write you must find your voice.
Simple and remarkable I think. And one step more. How do you get people who don’t listen to listen? This: By listening to them. When people feel heard, they can in turn start listening to others. and then they can begin to understand what reading is all about. And after that, they can find their own voices.
Revolutionaries like Rosa arise at certain times in history. They have listened to themselves and the masses who at key moments in history desperately need to be heard. The masses in turn are ready to listen because they have been listened to. The sound of a book is about unchaining oneself. How fast from seeing the words on the page to the lips? How quick is it from the thought to the action? How far from a book to a new society?
These are the questions that came up for me when I thought about the vast stretches of the Earth that were on fire in 1917. I wonder if there could be a comparable experience again today. Because with social media, that experience of worldwide sharing has become both common but also commodified as the most banal mass culture, and hence, unremarkable, and certainly not revolutionary. Can we still be moved in a deep, societal-changing way by a few profound ideas?