Open Letter to the Marxmail List

Open Letter to the Marxmail List

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The Marxmail list is a US based list. Louis Proyect – as many know – is the moderator of the University of Utah sponsored Marxmail list. Behind Louis and the technical assistant (Les Schaffer) sits the University of Utah who are the patrons of the list providing free access for the list to its server. A certain patronage prevails as a background presence. Louis is the ‘big cheese’ on the list amongst a putative list of 1500 members. His moderation style is conditioned by these relations and displays a certain contradictory character because of them. More about this later.

When I subscribed to the list I realised almost immediately that Louis’ list could not really be described as a discussion forum. Rather it is largely a continuous series of posted, and usually disconnected, links around which generally there is minimal discussion before the next  load of links is tipped onto it and then disappears, or rather is sucked, into the virtual silo like an unending stream of meteorites vanishing consecutively into a swirling black hole.

Individuals post  links onto the list in order to provide information or elicit response in the form of reply posts. The list is overwhelmingly male. During my time on it, I counted only two women subscribers or rather subscribers with female names.  Some simply use it as a convenient postbox to the wider web and net in order to push their sectarian line or for other purposes.

Louis is the most prolific of all link-posters. He recommends that subscribers post no more than 5 per day. However, he usually posts significantly more than this. Hardly a self-denying ordnance. A day does not go by without the name of “Louis Proyect” dominating the list of daily links. Marxmail sometimes gives the appearance of being Louis’ private fiefdom over which he presides like a benevolently-orientated Boyar.

The eternal problem of moderation presents itself on this list as on others : who moderates the moderator? By implication, it is a process of self-relatedness which can only serve to augment any latent narcissistic tendencies which may be present in moderators. Somebody once said to me that if you are not a narcissist before then you will be after you become the moderator of a list. I couldn’t vouch for this.

As socialists we articulate the basic principles of electability, recallability, accountability and dismissability. The ideal democratic procedure of proletarian organisation. This, of course, never applies to “Marxism” lists. Well, none that I know. Louis, like “mods” everywhere, sits on his throne like an hereditary monarch divinely appointed. None of the four basic principles apply. All posts go through his hands. He has the power to block posts, to unsub people, to silence them on threat of unsubbing, to chastise them like a naughty schoolboy in front of a headmaster, to remove posts from the list, etc. In his virtual kingdom, he has absolute power.

When we consider the structure of such lists, we get a picture of hierarchy which as socialists we are trying to abolish in the real world. On some lists there is an intermediate layer of moderators who have their own provinces to govern but who have to report to the mod at the apex. Such a list is reminiscent of a feudal order in cyberspace with the subscribers, inevitably, as the serfs and villeins and the intermediates the nobility. The top mod, of course, is the Crown.

On Marxmail I have had two significant encounters with Louis in his role as moderator. The first involved challenging Hans Ehrbar (apparently a patron of the list at the University of Utah which provides the IT facility for it) who sometimes posts. It was on a question of the relationship between mode of production and climate change. The second encounter concerned being slandered as a “racist” by another list member who was obviously a radical young liberal in outlook. I requested an onlist withdrawal and apology for this slanderous remark and that the individual concerned should be removed from the list if he refused to comply. But soon after Louis posted the following “Moderator’s Note” onlist.

This thread on Zionism, one-state versus two-state, etc. is finished. I will put comrades on moderation if they continue it. Demands for apologies, etc. will have no effect on me since I understand how passions can get the better of people. But this has gone far enough. Let’s move on.

The list is full of individuals with all manner of political affiliations from “leftie liberal” members of the capitalist US Democratic Party to “Marxist Zionists” who support colonial settler perspectives and the “right of the Jewish people to return to their homeland”. Forgetting, conveniently, that it is inconveniently the homeland of another people who have been driven off it into exile. Needless to say, it also contains sincere socialists and Marxists.

Louis himself, to my surprise, has no qualms about allowing self-proclaimed Zionists to post their toxic, reactionary ideology on the list. Such material would have been chased off many Marx-oriented lists and the subscriber fucked-off as a troll.

During my time on the list, I cannot recall having a single lengthy serious discussion with a fellow “Marxist” who was not imbued with the usual sectarian nonsense or poisoned against dialectics as a result of being chained down and imprisoned theoretically by pragmatistic, positivistic or empiricistic blockheadedness. It was like trying to sprint through treacle. The usual method of engagement is the snipe and one-liner or soundbite. At best, a couple of paragraphs

I ask myself if such a list is the place to develop my conceptions found on my wordpress sites. The slanderous smear of “racist” is indicative of the quality of some of the postings on the list. We had been discussing the Palestinian struggle and, almost inevitably, it was only a matter of time before a Zionist or a bleeding-heart, Guardian-reading, Islington liberal with a troubled conscience levelled the accusation of “racist”. The Guardian, of course, being the snivelling organ of the liberal conscience of the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie.

I post links to articles on my wordpress sites and, occasionally, to other sites. However, I always try to encourage and engage others in discussion with my own original material rather than simply posting link after link to sites which are very often bourgeois media sites or well known sites of the capitalist press, liberal or otherwise. Many subscribers simply post the work of others and do not give their own analysis.

The discussion with Hans Ehrbar focussed around the question of how a change from the capitalist system of production to a socialist one would start to address the mass destruction of the natural conditions of human life. Of course, differences emerged in the discussion at which point I posted…

Professor Hans Ehrbar,

Before we start to comment on and understand the football match of history, we need to know precisely where the actual football is located. If we think it is in the field when it is actually in the spectator seats and vice versa then our commentary becomes dislocated and inconsonant with the football match itself. I do not wish to play an endless, tedious game of ‘spot the ball’

Do your Marx first and then we may, perhaps, be able to proceed with a discussion on Marx’s Capital and its significance for climate change, etc. From your most recent posting, it is clear that you do not have a comprehensive grasp of the old man.

At this point, Les Schaffer immediately stamped onto the list in the form of a chastisement……….

this kind of response to Hans’ seems completely uncalled for. if you have some point to make, take his arguments on directly.

To which I replied…

*This kind of response* did *take on his arguments directly*. My point was very clearly made if you read my previous posting. It merely counterposed Marx to Hans Ehrbar’s conception of Marx. If you post on a forum claiming to explicitly articulate Marx’s conception or its derived implications from false pre-conceptions, then you should expect opposition if what is articulated is clearly incorrect. As a lifelong student of Marx, I am merely drawing the attention of the list to his misconception here.

Do not police the innocuous content and form of my posts or I will leave the list of my own volition. I will not remain on a list with such heavy-handed moderation. I am sure Professor Hans Ehrbar is capable of defending himself.

I then received this offlist mail from Louis himself…..

Shaun, if it weren’t for Hans Ehrbar, this list would not exist. Because he is at U. of Utah, we get a free server. Plus, he was a member of the original committee out of which Marxmail evolved nearly 20 years ago. My suggestion to you is to just move on to other topics since neither of you shows any signs of being convinced of the other person’s arguments. Marxmail is a very good resource and I am glad that you are subbed but it would be a good idea to deescalate the conflict with Hans and turn to other topics.

The implication is that the list owes its existence and continuation to patrons at the University of Utah which provides it with a “free server”. Somebody, somewhere at Utah will have his/her finger on the delete button and press it if needs be. The relations of patronage are very clear here. And if you challenge one of the patrons (who is a leading academic at Utah and would not be pleased if his academic reputation were demolished by a subscriber to the list) on list then expect to be pulled up for it if it starts to become too overdynamic. Later, I asked myself the question if Louis had sent a similar instruction to Ehrbar. Readers can investigate this matter themselves in the archives of Marxmail, if they can get access.

The second encounter with Louis was regarding being slandered by another subscriber. For no tangibly identifiable reason whatsoever, I was smeared with the term “racist” by a liberal on the list. I had “cornered” him in a discussion on Palestine and he lashed out defensively with “racist!”. It was totally unwarranted and was deserving of an onlist withdrawal and apology. To an offlist request, Louis replied..

I can’t do that. This is a flame war. My only obligation is to wind it down which I am about to do.

This is my reply..

Sorry but I cannot accept that. I have been slandered onlist and I cannot accept being labelled a racist.

If you inspect the content of my posts, there is no flaming whatsoever in them but simply the unfolding of a political discourse and narrative. And there is certainly no racism whatsoever.

I will not accept being labelled a racist by anybody on a list which has a membership of 1500 and 45000 hits per week.

I demand an unconditional withdrawal of this remark and an apology. Immediately. I am not a racist or perhaps we should let such slander go by on this list. It is slanderous and smearing. I am requesting that you act on this.

This was Louis’ response…

I am doing nothing of the sort. This mailing list is nearly 16 years old and has seen far worse insults, slander, etc. I said that I want the thread to end and I meant it. I have been called an imperialist a 100 times in the past and shrugged it off. Now let it drop.

The hierachical character of class relations and their inequalities are refracted and perpetuated by the relations on internet mailing lists and forums. They absorb and articulate these relations. The anatomy of the Marxmail list is a perfect example of this process demonstrating that such lists do not operate within a virtual bubble independently of these class relations. The internet is seen as a tool for emancipation but we tend to neglect that it is also an integral part of the bourgeois system of social relations. The relations on these lists and forums also tend to reflect and replicate the top-down autocratic, pyramidal structuring of the left sectarian grouplets or the old, defunct Stalinist organisations.

This is very clearly personified in the contradictory approach to moderation of Louis Proyect on the Marxmail list. On the one hand, if you articulate and push an onlist challenge to a patron of the list, you are warned accordingly. But if subscribers are openly slandered onlist, no action is taken.

What would have happened if the slanderous remark of “racist” had been directed at a Univ of Utah patron posting on the list? And if the level of discourse between Ehrbar and myself had merely been between two non-patron subscribers?

Moderation in the form in which we see it operated on the Marxmail and other lists is inherently autocratic because there is no process of democratic accountability underpinning the moderation process. Moderators may even be unaware of the hierachy of interests which is refracted onto and operating on a list because they themselves are an internalised ‘buried’ moderating mechanism of its structure and operation. They approach their functions in a purely functionalist way.

The level of internet technology now means that there is absolutely no need whatsoever for any given individual/s to “moderate” a socialist list or forum. Democratic mechanisms can easily (literally within minutes!) be put in place for the list as a whole to actually “moderate” itself by a due process of democratic discussion and voting. Any individual/s who are delegated purely administrative functions and responsibilities (NOT “moderating” functions) would be subject to the normal, established procedure of democratic recall and accountability. The lists and forums – although they project a “democratic” face because any subscriber can post – are really nothing more than the transmogrified replication of sect autocracy and trade union bureaucracy and functionalism in the sphere of cyberspace.

A so-called “Marxist” list really does need to get its act in order if it is to maintain any political credibility and not simply be identical to a fascist list in its management of structure and operation. What is required is the election of administrators by the whole list, perhaps twice annually. They should be subject to recall at any moment and held accountable in their activity by an established democratic process through which they can be removed or confirmed in their position as the case may be. And this must take place along with the establishment of discussion and voting mechanisms onlist to deal with such issues as slander, racism, Zionism, address grievances on the basis of the whole list membership and deal with disputes between members of the list. The list can easily moderate itself by due democratic mechanisms and process.

Otherwise, the only other alternative, in my opinion, is to participate only in unmoderated lists and forums. These, again, have their limitations and inadequacies. The Marxmail list is an example of this autocratic and contradictory form of management. One which allows self-proclaimed Zionists to post on it and leaves slander unaddressed whilst, at the same time, operating under a patronage whose interests it cannot possibly avoid taking into consideration.

The character of the moderation on this particular list is merely a specific exemplification of the autocratic management on lists in general. It could be readily and easily remedied by the appropriate democratic adjustments in structure and procedure. And such lists would then take on a more egalitarian form in their actual management and become a less autocratic place on which to post contributions. This would be socialist democracy in operation within the sphere of the internet.

I wonder if Louis, Les and others with their lists and forums would be ready and willing to initiate and develop such a socialist experiment in cyberspace? Or are the pleasures of autocratic, unaccountable absolute power in cyberspace just too delightful to leave behind?

Please feel at liberty to circulate this document to individuals, lists, forums, etc, for any further discussion.

Shaun May

March 2014

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