Sunday Pages: "The Bad Old Days"
A poem by Kenneth Rexroth
On an old episode of The Simpsons, Bart Simpson decides to run for class president against Martin Prince, the goody-two-shoes dork. As the campaign begins, we see Martin hanging up a poster that reads A VOTE FOR BART IS A VOTE FOR ANARCHY. The camera pans down the hallway to reveal Bart hanging up…the exact same poster.
I’ve been thinking of anarchy the last few days, after watching the horrifying footage of the insurrection on Thursday night. Most of the MAGA men and women who participated in the besieging of the Capitol did so because they believed, truly believed, that the election had been stolen, and they were somehow defending the republic. They also believed that Donald Trump, the charlatan, had somehow made their lives better—which, almost across the board, he had not.
Where does that anger come from? Wherefore their grievance? Certainly their contempt for the current political system is legitimate. Much of the appeal of Trump as candidate in 2016 derived from his position as a Washington outsider, a rich guy beholden to no one, who was therefore free to do as he pleased when he took the reins. None of that was true, alas. He was very much beholden to the Russian mob, and to the neo-Hitler whose plans for the next phase of the Ukraine invasion involve the bringing of famine. But those who voted for him voted for change. Drain the swamp, etc. Trump promised to fuck up the system, and on this, he delivered—but with an O. Henry-style twist. He didn’t fuck it up to help the people, the workers, the downtrodden. He fucked it up to help himself and his cronies.
Anarchy derives from “an-,” without, and “arch,” a ruler. Anarchy was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, a time of extreme income inequality similar to our own. The most famous anarchists were assassins, picking off the plutocrats and effete royals they considered their oppressors. Thus the word anarchist has a negative connotation today. To me, a believer in actual law and order, the whole idea is anathema.
But from what I gather, anarchists before the Great War were just trying to make the world a more equitable place. They were the first post-Marxist ideation of would-be system-changers: anarchists, communists, radicals, progressives, socialists, liberals, democratic socialists—words buffoons like Lauren Boebert use to scare the masses.
This is from a pamphlet called “The Beast of Property,” written by Johann Most in 1884, which I found on a website called The Anarchist Library:
[T]he climax of infamy has been reached by our present “law and order” system, for it defrauded more than nine-tenths of mankind of their means of existence, reduced them to dependence upon an insignificant minority, and condemned them to self-sacrifice. At the same time it has disguised this relation with all sorts of jugglery so that the thralls of today—the wage slaves—but partially recognize their serfdom and outlawed position, they rather incline to ascribe it to the caprices of fortune.
To perpetuate this state of affairs [i.e., the 1% owning everything] is the only aim of the “prominent” classes. Though not always united among themselves—one seeking to gain advantage over the other by tricks of trade, cunning in speculation and divers machinations of competition—yet in opposition to the proletariat they stand in one united hostile phalanx. Their political ideal is, therefore—in spite of all liberal phrases—a most powerful, centralized and brutal beadle government.
Most was not wrong then, and he is not wrong now. He continues:
The life of the poor is valued as nothing by the rich. . . . Profit is the main thing.
Women are cheaper than men: for this reason the capitalistic vampires with insatiate rapacity seek their blood. Besides, female labor procures them cheap mistresses.
Child flesh is the cheapest: what wonder then that the cannibals of modern society continually feast upon juvenile victims? What care they that the poor little ones are thereby bodily crippled and mentally ruined for life—that thousands of them, miserable and worn out at a tender age, sink into their graves? Stocks rise; that suffices.
When we consider the impending overturning of Roe and the massacre of children at Uvalde and too many other schools to list, Most’s words seem awfully prescient. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Born in 1905, the poet Kenneth Rexroth moved to Chicago at the age of 13, after both of his parents died. This was when the City of Broad Shoulders was the meatpacking capital of the country, and right after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the horrific practices in that industry. Rexroth was a pacifist who thought of himself as a “philosophical anarchist.” After moving to San Francisco, he hung out with the anarchist community in North Beach and hawked anarchist periodicals at the City Lights Bookstore. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He is considered the Father of the Beats. He was a lifelong progressive; he spent his twilight years translating poems by Asian women into English and promoting the work of women poets in general.
“The Bad Old Days” is the counterpart to “Make America Great Again.” Published in 1956, the poem is about Rexroth’s political awakening, which began with his move to Chicago as an orphan in 1918:
The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon,
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
He goes on to describe the squalor and misery (or what he perceives as misery) he encounters there, in this workingman’s section of the city. Most of the people he sees are “Broken, and empty, no life, / Only blinding tiredness, worse / Than any tired animal.”
Then comes the conclusion:
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don’t have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.
Rexroth doesn’t articulate the vow, but we can guess what it is: to do what he can to alleviate the pain and suffering, to make the world a better, more equitable place—or, as Most put it, to fight for “the victory of the people over its tyrants and vampires.”
Easier said than done. Today the evil is even cleaner and more prosperous.
On Friday night’s episode of “The Five 8,” the weekly live YouTube show I do with my friend LB, we talked about the first January 6 Committee hearing—what we thought of as the pilot episode. Our guest was Hugo Lowell, who covers the J6 Committee for The Guardian. Allison Gill of the Daily Beans and Mueller, She Wrote also stopped by:
Photo credit: Movie still from Old Chicago, 1937.