Note: This trip down memory lane was written by The Bell founder anaxarchos published 10-9-2009 but remains the best, most succinct history of our efforts
In November of 2004, George W. Bush was re-elected as President of the United States. The event shocked many who had become convinced that Bush’s record on War, Civil Rights, taxation, and social issues would lead to the return of the Democratic Party to power. Serious questions about the 2004 election results further reinforced a conviction that political events were devolving away from the “Left” in U.S. politics.
These events gave impetus to a network of Internet sites which had been growing since 2001 and which collectively came to be known as the “net-roots”. Led by discussion forums like DKOS and Democratic Underground, and given depth by several dozen “blogs” and “alternative media” sites, this “movement” typically combined the Left formed during the social movements of the 1960s, “New Leftists” from the same period, issue-oriented “progressives” dating from the interim periods, and traditional Democratic Party Liberals.
As this web-based infrastructure grew in size and influence, it also moved from being a very loose association which included the Left of the Democratic Party, into an explicitly electoral and exclusively Democratic Party based network. As the disagreements fundamental to such an evolution deepened, an increasing number of those dissatisfied with the general course of the Democratic Party or rejecting the Party as a whole, found themselves leaving or being purged from this erstwhile network of “the Left”.
In 2005, one of the members of “the disgruntled”, the Internet essayist Tinoire, started a new website called Progressive Independent. True to its name, PI was “independent” of the Democratic Party and grew quickly. Still, the site combined many different political viewpoints and perspectives on the United States which became increasingly difficult to reconcile under the umbrella of the single word, “progressive”. As the 2008 election season approached, rising acrimony between what was crystallizing as two broadly different perspectives on American politics led to a split in the forum. A few users were banned, and in what more or less accurately came to be characterized as a purge of the “Reds”, several of the more active users departed.
In late 2007, a few of these refugees, came together at a new web forum called Populist Independent. The site was created on a shoestring by Internet essayist PPLE, based largely on the charity of a friendly webmaster who wasn’t particularly interested in politics. The tiny membership was not really composed of “Reds”. It was an odd admixture of socialists, anarchists, nihilists, generic radicals, and unaffiliated critics of the present social system, no two of whom agreed on very much except to a very general hostility to the present political system. Even the name of the site was meaningless. Not many members knew what a “populist” was, let alone subscribed to that doctrine.
Based on these miserable beginnings, Populist Independent was, nevertheless, surprising. Despite, or perhaps because of, its tiny membership, PopI focused “outward” towards a serious and wide ranging social criticism which included economics, philosophy, history, ecology, and culture, as well as politics. Increasingly, a very loose agreement was achieved, largely based on a rediscovery of materialist doctrine: that set of logical principles which insists that human ideas are born from the organization of human society, rather than society being created from innate human ideas. Not only did this spur an interest in socialist and Marxist works, but it also drove the digitization and/or translation of works from several 19th century materialists such as the Russian Nihilist, Dimitri Pisarev.
Overall, PopI was able to establish a readership larger than any of the other sites. Still, none of this was enough to save PopI. The apolitical webmaster went on to other pursuits (taking the site with him), the URL expired, the archives were lost, and early in 2009, PopI was no more.
To continue the conversation, a new website, Socialist Independent, was created. With a name that finally came closer to reality, SI was never entirely satisfactory. Having lost the continuity with the previous PopI, due not only to the lost archives but also to incompatible web software, SI also suffered from a lull in the activity of many of the most active authors from the previous two endeavors. A small total membership was supplemented by a thin ouput. The overall inability of the site to establish its own character was further eroded by a split effort.
At the end of 2009, the original founder of PI, approached the exiles from PopI to invite them back to PI. Tinoire was leaving the country and the PI website had stagnated with a significant drop-off in traffic and membership. More significantly, she was concerned that in the interim, PI had become ever more inured in New Age philosophy, conspiracy theory, libertarianism, and lifestyle liberalism. Agreement with the SI core was quickly reached and the exiles returned to PI.
The result was inevitable. Much had changed since the exiles had left. Hard-headed materialists with no use for metaphysics of any sort ran into New Agers who preached tolerance and acceptance for all forms of “spirituality”. Libertarians were confronted by those who increasingly distrusted the slogans of “freedom and liberty” in any context. Left Democrats who defined themselves as “real Liberals”, found themselves in debate with those who now hated all Liberals. In a phrase, the meeting of fire and ice led to… steam. While some good work eventually emerged at PI, the site was a mismatch with the people who wrote there.
By now, the old PI site resembled a gigantic old ramshackle farm house, with years of deferred maintenance and with rooms whose original purposes had long ago been forgotten. Meanwhile, the old PopI archives had resurfaced like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The complete menagerie now included 3 websites (2 of which were “alive”), two expensive web-hosts, a monster site which was impossible to change or maintain, 4 different kinds of entirely incompatible web software, and confusion as to how to sustain it all. The decision was made to merge all of the above into something which would be more easily maintainable and managable.
The current site represents that merger. The entire content of all three previous websites is contained herein, though much of it is not visible at any one moment. Most of that content appears as easily activated archive. In addition, a new, concentrated set of forums has been created, seeded by many of the threads which address questions worthy of revisiting. Still, the idea is to implement more than a forum. The intent is to use the forums to feed a front page and back-end blogs, to form an e-journal of social criticism, much in the style of the “old” Populist Independent.
Of course, times have changed dramatically since the death of PopI. Most of the issues of the present day, of economic collapse and political crisis, of Liberal treason and Imperial War, of declining living standards and the dismantling of the “middle class”, of renewed workers’ demonstrations in the millions and revolution… all of these issues were raised… but all were raised in the future tense… raised as prologue. Today, in what is a very short time, all of that is in the past tense. The times are much more serious now and require ever more serious efforts.
The Bell takes its name from the famous journal Kolokol (“The Bell”), launched by Alexander Herzen in the mid-19th century upon the complete bankruptcy and utter collapse of Russian Liberalism. Hopefully, the name reflects inspiration and not affectation.