The spectral resistance

A review of 'The OBU Manifestos'

Right: IWW ‘One Big Union’ sticker from the 1910s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The OBU Manifestos

The OBU Manifestos

ed. Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson

Spuyten Duyvil (Dispatches Editions) 2017, 130 pages, $15.00 ISBN 978-1944682750

A few weeks ago I went into the city to see a revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties, in which Henry Carr, an elderly English civil servant, looks back on his time as a diplomat in Zurich in 1917, where he was witness to the various antics of James Joyce (composing Ulysses), Tristan Tzara (fomenting Dada), and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (plotting communist revolution). The play is a delightful, disorienting romp, but at its heart — somewhere between the sublimely apolitical aestheticism of Joyce and the burning political rage of Lenin — is a question that has occasioned endless thought over the past two centuries: what is the relationship between literature and politics? Does the “revolution of the word” have anything to do with revolution in the world? The bumptious Carr, in a haze of confused retrospection, remembers the question, but has forgotten the answer: “I learned three things in Zurich during the war,” he trails off. “Firstly, you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary … I forget the third thing.”[1]

The first two decades of the last century, when modernism was remaking European art and literature and popular revolution was remaking much of Europe, were the heyday of artistic “manifestos”: Marinetti’s futurist manifesto of 1909, the Vorticist manifestos Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound published in Blast in 1914, Hugo Ball’s Dada Manifesto of 1918, and so forth. This era is the first thing that “manifesto” brings to mind for me, and the first thing that flitted across my consciousness on seeing the bold yellow cover of The OBU Manifestos — just that title, no author’s name, no publisher’s information — was the similarly aggressively, glaringly pink cover of the first issue of Lewis’s Blast. I swiftly realized that was a category error, at least in part: if The OBU Manifestos looks a bit like a modernist aesthetic blast and even drops into lineated poetry on a few occasions, its more important antecedent is the great-grandparent of all political manifestos, Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto of 1848. 

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism,” that document begins. One hundred and seventy years later, the hope (or threat) of a classless society has become very wispy and spectral indeed, but the underlying premise of Marx and Engels’s treatise, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,”[2] still animates The OBU Manifestos. And a kind of spectral logic, perhaps akin to what Derrida dubbed “hauntology” in his Spectres of Marx, makes the pages alive with ghostly and sometimes grotesque figures.

One of them, of course, is signaled by that very title, “OBU” — the grotesque, pear-shaped Père Ubu, who strode onto the stage of the Théâtre de l’Œuvre on December 10, 1896, and uttered the most famous opening line in modernist drama: “Merdre!” (That’s “shit” — “merde” — with an extra consonant.) Alfred Jarry’s Ubu, as introduced in Ubu Roi, is greedy, unsubtle, and authoritarian. He bears, in short, a striking resemblance to the current occupant of the White House, and The OBU Manifestos are most definitely a document of the age of Trump: they are datelined “November 2016–March 2017,” from the month of presidential election through the third month of the forty-fifth presidency.

If “OBU” evokes “Ubu,” whoever wrote the manifestos keeps reminding us that their three letters are not the worn-down remnants of a proper name (lore has it that Jarry’s “Ubu” preserves the traces of Professor Hébert, the physics teacher at his lycée[3]) but a dynamic acronym. The forty-two manifestos are punctuated, in bold type, with two repeated assertions: “OBU is One Big Union”; “OBU is Oligarchy Busters United.” As such, of course, OBU is itself something of a specter, as the first manifesto makes clear: 

OBU is a national organization supporting social justice and democracy and opposing tyranny, oligarchy, and racism. It is extraordinary in its effectiveness, cohesiveness, commitment, and imagination
OBU does not exist.
OBU is black, Muslim, Jewish, LBGQT, female (and male, and trans), white, Asian, Christian, Native, and disabled. OBU believes in the dignity and rights of all human beings.
OBU is a figment of our imagination.
OBU is everywhere.[4]

What OBU lays out is the project for an all-encompassing progressive bloc, an umbrella organization that folds into itself all of the various liberatory social and political movements of the past century or more. It is (or isn’t yet, or might be) a kind of super AFL-CIO or IWW, conceived along lines inherited from the history of labor organizing, as the phrase “One Big Union” indicates. (“One Big Union” was an IWW rallying cry, and for a few years in the early 1920s western Canadian workers actually organized under that name.) As yet, however, such an organization doesn’t “really” exist; or it exists only on the level of sentiment and aspiration. The OBU Manifestos are a blueprint for One Big Union in the real world. If the watchword for much of America in the wake of the November 2016 election has been “resist,” then OBU aims to provide, in their forty-two manifestos, a spiritual and occasionally practical framework in which such resistance is not merely a pushback against immediate social, political, and economic incursions, but a striving toward a more equitable world as a whole.

The Trump election may have been the immediate spur for the composition of the Manifestos, but what they argue against goes much further than Trump himself. “OBU would still be necessary if Hillary had won,” OBU notes, acknowledging the small bit of hope embodied in the Democratic candidate’s three million popular vote majority. Clinton, while “she’s not a racist or sexist, and she’s not a pathological narcissist and she’s not delusional,” is nonetheless “a liberal, globalist, technocrat with close ties to the financial industry” (54). As such, she’s largely an instrument of oligarchy, the system in which (bluntly put) the nation is “ruled by and for the benefit of the wealthy and their adjuncts in the bourgeois professional classes” (9). The Trump election was not a singular event, some sort of right-wing coup d’état, but a bit of flamboyant punctuation to the long erosion of the organized Left in America at the hands of oligarchy.

The OBU Manifestos, drafted in the immediate aftermath of the election shock and through the first season of the new presidency, is in part a how-to manual for surviving the Trump era and mitigating, if not reversing, the enormities the administration is spawning. Whoever OBU is, they seem to know their stuff in regards to labor organizing, and the book is sprinkled with commentary on its problems (“The intense, but somewhat blindered labor of organizing can result in a forgetting of the larger aims” [27]) and suggestions as to how the organized resistance might make itself more appealing and effective, might actually step out of its “Blue Urban Bubble” (BUB) and communicate with the Red Zones:

OBU suggests that organizers always be in pairs and of two races and/or genders. … When the Red Zone family opens its door, it won’t just be talking about various “others,” it will be talking with them — that is, with us; and gradually they will see, with themselves. (41)

Nuts and bolts advice, however, is not the primary focus of these manifestos. Rather, they remind us of the underlying intent of progressive political struggle over the past century, beyond all of its specific concrete achievements and defeats: “emancipation,” Kant called it; or, as OBU conceives it, the possibility of “happiness.” “OBU recalls Frank O’Hara’s line: ‘Happiness — the best and least of human attainments.’ To be happy is an obligation; but to increase the sum of happiness beyond one’s private sphere is also an obligation” (34). In order to work toward the universal potential for happiness in the face of an oligarchical capitalism that would render us no more than worker-consumers, we must recognize our mutual obligations to one another and work together in solidarity — OBU’s single greatest value.

OBU goes to some lengths to argue that solidarity — the “union” of “One Big Union” — is the fundamental idea to which the Left needs to return, and that progressive groups’ working together on the basis of “intersectionality” has in no small part contributed to the Left’s current eclipse. “The Left succeeded in fostering particularities — of gender and race, particularly; and of particular issues like the environment — and derived a theory of ‘intersectionality’ that would bring the particulars together as aggregate political forces,” OBU observes. “But intersectionality is not solidarity” (88). OBU agrees with the “rationale” of intersectionality: “notions of ‘solidarity’ subsume minority concerns, especially of race and gender, under a monovocal false universal that ends up male and white” (67). The problem is that, in practice, the emphasis on differences has led to fragmentation, infighting, and eventual defeat for the Left as a whole. “OBU says, it’s time to get over it” — time for the various groups within the Left to set aside their resentments against one another in the face of a larger common disaster: “The point, OBU observes, is that here we are now. We’re all here. This is real. We’re not going to wake up out of it. And the ‘WE’ is real” (66–67). It’s a matter of which “organizational model” will work: intersectionality is “vapid and abstract. … ‘Intersections’ are for roads and lines”; solidarity is “actions taken together; compromises reached; risks taken together” (68).

Some of this, of course, is reminiscent of the endless bouts of self-examination that the American Left went through in the wake of the election, with the refreshing difference that OBU isn’t at all interested in the kind of self-recrimination and purity testing to which the Left is so masochistically addicted. In the ideal of “solidarity,” OBU offers both a principle for resistance to Trumpism and a utopian model for human social relations in general: “solidarity is the hand as it is extended and when it grasps the other hand; it is words exchanged as they are exchanged, in that act of exchange; solidarity is actions taken together; compromises reached; risks taken together” (68). The old Gramsci saw, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” comes to mind reading OBU. I’d hesitate to call The OBU Manifestos an outright optimistic document, but even in its hard-eyed, realistic assessment of where we’ve gotten to, of all the structural forces arrayed against the common interest, in its scathing analysis of the Left’s missteps, it retains a quite fervent belief in the possibility of human beings forging their own destiny, imagining and making real a nonexploitative polity. And OBU isn’t embarrassed to acknowledge that this is what Kant was up to all those years ago: “Enlightenment is Enlightenment. We critique Enlightenment — the constant vocation we are called to — but critique is an essential part of Enlightenment. The doctrine of Enlightenment is that we require more of it, and we are obligated to seek it” (102). 

I suspect that OBU, whoever they may be, is a poet. The OBU Manifestos is published by Dispatches Editions (an imprint of the Brooklyn small press Spuyten Duyvil), the book-publishing arm of the prickly, pobiz-flouting, occasionally muckraking online journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. The journal is edited by Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson, a perennial gadfly of the poetry scene and the author of more than a few exercises in anonymous and pseudonymous provocation. (For what it’s worth, The OBU Manifestos has none of Johnson’s stylistic hallmarks: he may have had an editorial hand, but I don’t think he wrote the book.) Not merely does OBU turn time and again to poets for metaphors and turns of speech to describe our condition, but their language has a particular jaunty flair that reminds one of Frank O’Hara and other New York School poets. Most notably, OBU seems to have a more than passing interest in the relationship of poetry to the social and political struggle.

That of course is one of the central themes of Stoppard’s Travesties, if it’s intermittently obscured by the high farce of his recasting of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Lenin pronounced (in the words of an actual 1905 speech) that “today, literature must become party literature … Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social Democratic mechanism.”[5] When Tzara wonders why political revolutionaries don’t appreciate avant-garde art, Carr sets him straight: “Revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class.”[6]

OBU agrees with at least Carr’s first sentence: “OBU does not believe that disrupting grammar and syntax is a revolutionary act” (115) (a direct riposte to generations of leftist avant-garde rhetoric, of course, not least many early Language poetry pronouncements). There’s nothing wrong with writing poetry or making art:

OBU contends that if you love doing theory, art, poetry, the production of knowledge of all sorts, then that’s what you should do. It has inherent value. It is a utopian model of non-alienated labor (even as it is performed in the context of a larger system of alienated and exploited labor). (19)

Part of what the struggle against oligarchy is all about is making a space for such non-alienated labor, a space in which people will have the opportunity, the leisure in which to appreciate the makings of their own imaginations. In “the OBU future,” “[w]e will cherish the ability to make amazing clear intricate poems,” “[p]oets will rank not far behind teachers, and be as respected as novelists and architects” (60, 82).

But writing poetry, in the world as it stands, should not be confused with pursuing political and social change: “OBU contends that if you want to do politics, then there is no alternative but — to do politics. And ‘doing politics’ means creating bases of actual power that can oppose the dominant powers: capital, its institutions and supporters.” (19) (One recalls John Adams: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematicks and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”) There’s a bit of a paradox here, of which OBU is well aware: if its content is overwhelmingly political, in form The OBU Manifestos is a very poetic document indeed. Its two- to three-page manifestos are punctuated by “Interludes,” some of them actually in lineated verse, which offer counterpoints — utopian extrapolations, dream-visions — to the manifestos’ mix of political and social advice, introspection, and theory. A few of the sections announce themselves as “Anti-OBU” manifestos or interludes, ventriloquizing the Left’s despairing doubts or Red State anti-progressivism.

“OBU must ask,” OBU wonders fairly early on, “is the Manifesto itself just an artistic form, an artistic pleasure? OBU can tell you sincerely, it is a pleasure … but is it more?” (19). The OBU Manifestos is certainly a pleasure to read: one savors its hard-nosed political realism, the way it has crystallized the emotional and social realities of a particular moment in late capital, and above all the irrepressible humor with which it confronts a situation that seems almost crushingly bleak. But I do think it’s “more.” Beyond the ingenuity with which OBU has crafted their series of dispatches, beyond the very solid practical advice and more tentative spiritual comfort they proffer, The OBU Manifestos offers evidence of a poetic imagination at work, imagining in the best utopian fashion a world of human mutuality the direct obverse of the oligarchical nightmare into which we seem to be descending. If it can be imagined, then it can be — or ought to be — realized, and The OBU Manifestos is an advanced primer in turning imagination into reality.

1. Tom Stoppard, Travesties (New York: Grove Press, 1975), 98–99.

2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” trans. Samuel Moore, in Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings Volume 1, ed. David Fernbach (New York and London: Verso, 2010), 67.

3. Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in Paris, 1885 to World War I (1955; repr. New York: Vintage, 1968), 199–200.

4. The OBU Manifestos (Toronto: Dispatches Editions, 2017), 7.

5. Vladimir Lenin, qtd. in Stoppard, Travesties, 85.

6. Stoppard, Travesties, 46.