Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 26, 2015

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu on the Brenner thesis

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

(From pages 22 to 27 of the above new book.)

The Brenner Thesis: Explanation and Critique

In what has become one of the most influential theorisations of capitalism’s emergence, Robert Brenner mobilised Marx’s emphasis on changing relations of production (for Brenner, reconceptualised as ‘social property relations'”) in order to historicise the origins of capitalism in terms of class struggles specific to feudalism.” These struggles were determined by relations based on the appropriation of surplus from the peasantry by lords through extra-economic means: lords would habitually ‘squeeze’ agricultural productivity by imposing fines, extending work hours and extracting higher proportions of surpluses. In the 15th century, this sparked class conflicts in the English countryside, where serfs rebelled against their worsening conditions and won formal enfranchisement. The liberation of serfs from ties and obligations to the lord’s demesne in turn initiated a rise in tenant farming and led to increased market dependence, as peasants were turned away from their land and forced into wage-labour as an alternative means of subsistence. Although peasant expulsions were met with significant resistance, the strength and unity of the English state ensured victory for the landed ruling class.” This concentrated land in the private possession of landlords, who leased it to free peasants, unintentionally giving rise to ‘the classical landlord—capitalist tenant—wage labour structure’.79

By contrast, in France, the freeing of the peasants and their ability to retain the land was bound up with the development of a centralised monarchical state that came to take on a ‘class-like’ character as an independent extractor of surpluses through the taxing of land. The French absolutist state consequently had an interest in securing and protecting peasant landowning as a source of revenue against the re-encroachments of the lordly classes. The ability of the peasants to hold on to the land in turn prevented the systematic emergence of wage-labour in France, hampering the transition to capitalism.80

For Brenner, the differential outcomes of the class struggles in England and France are explained by the divergent evolution of the English and French states. Curiously, in explaining these divergent state trajectories Brenner explicitly evokes ‘international’ factors: the Normandy invasions for England, and the political-military pressures of the English state on the French. The ‘precocious English feudal centralization … owed its strength in large part to the level of feudal “political” organization already achieved by the Normans in Normandy before the Conquest, which was probably unparalleled elsewhere in Europe’.81 As Brenner notes:

the English feudal class self-government appears to have been ‘ahead’ of the French in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, not only because its starting point was different, but because it was built upon advances in this sphere already achieved on the Continent, especially in Normandy. In turn, when French centralization accelerated somewhat later it was influenced by English development, and was indeed, in part, a response to direct English politico-military pressure. Thus the development of the mechanisms of feudal accumulation tended to be not only `uneven’ but also ‘combined’, in the sense that later developers could build on previous advances made elsewhere in feudal class organizations.82

Although evoking the concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ here, Brenner’s analysis proceeds within the confines of a comparative historical analysis whereby ‘the international’ remains an ad-hoc addendum to an essentially ‘internalise analysis of the changing balance of class forces and state formation. Nowhere does ‘the international’ enter into Brenner’s theoretical presuppositions centred, as they are, around his concept of ‘social property relations’. Yet, as Neil Davidson argues, ‘[b]y focusing almost exclusively on what [Political Marxists] call social property relations, they “have no terms” to explain events that lie outside these relationships’.” This is particularly problematic for Brenner and his followers, who explicitly reject any conception of the origins of capitalism as immanently developing from the contradictions of feudal society.” Rather, feudalism is conceived as a ‘self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system that cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions’.”

Hence, in spite of an extensive and informative historical explanation, Brenner’s conception of the origins of capitalism based on shifting social property relations is conceptually too narrow and too simple; Brenner ultimately tries to explain too much with too little. In Brenner’s schema, Marx’s master concept, the ‘mode of production’ — conceived as the composite totality of relations encapsulating the economic, legal, ideological, cultural and political spheres — is reduced to the much thinner ‘social properly relations’ concept, which is itself reduced to a form of exploitation. Brenner’s error is to take the singular relation of exploitation between lord and peasant as the most fundamental and axiomatic component of the mode of production, which in turn constitutes the foundational ontology and analytical building block upon which ensuing theoretical and historical investigation is constructed. Yet, as Ricardo Duchesne argues, this stretches the concept of the ‘relations of production’ too far, as it seeks to incorporate under the logic of ‘class struggle’ all military, political and economic factors, while reducing military, political and legal relations — conceptualised as ‘political accumulation’ by Brenner — to functions of this singular relation.”

The result of this ontological singularity is a dual tunnelling — both temporal and spatial — of our empirical field of enquiry. Temporally, the history of capitalism’s origins is reduced to the historical manifestation of one conceptual moment — the freeing of labour — and in turn explained by it. Spatially, the genesis of capitalism is confined to a single geographical region — the English countryside — immune from wider intersocietal developments. Such tunnelling cannot explain why the extensive presence of formally free wage-labour prior to the 16th century (both inside and outside England) did not give rise to capitalism.” Nor can it explain subsequent social developments, by obliterating the histories of colonialism, slavery and imperialism, Brenner ‘freezes’ capitalism’s history.”

This substantially narrows Marx’s more robust conception of the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ to which Brenner and his students give so much analytical weight In explaining capitalism’s origins. In a famous passage, Marx wrote:

the discovery of gold and silver in America, the expiration, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterized the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation …. The different moments of primitive simulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order. These moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection.89

In Marx’s temporally and spatially more expansive view, capitalism’s genesis was not a national phenomenon, but rather an intersocietal one. It therefore makes sense to follow Perry Anderson in viewing the origins of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of interrelated sites’.90

In contrast, Brenner spatially reduces capitalism’s origins to processes that obtained solely in the English countryside; towns and cities are omitted, Europe-wide dynamics are analytically active only as comparative cases, and the world outside Europe does not figure at all. Similarly excluded are the numerous technological, cultural, institutional and social-relational discoveries and developments originating outside Europe that were appropriated by Europe in the course of its capitalist development.91 In short, Brenner neglects the determinations and conditions that arose from the social interactions between societies, since ‘political community’, in his conception, is subordinated to ‘class’, while classes themselves are conceptualised within the spatial limits of the political community in question.92 This leads to the various moments of Eurocentrism outlined in the Introduction. Temporal tunnelling gives rise to the notion of historical priority; spatial tunnelling gives rise to a methodologically internalist analysis. For Brenner’s followers these problems are only compounded, as the possibility of the development of early capitalisms outside of the English countryside that Brenner allows for is rejected.93 The notion of the origins of ‘capitalism in one country’94 is thus taken literally.

This Eurocentrism of Political Marxist analyses is further reinforced by their conception of pre-capitalist societies as generally incapable of significant technological innovations by either the direct producers or exploiters. For in the absence of the market compulsions that are unique to capitalist property relations, Political Marxists claim that there was no equivalent systemic ‘imperative’ to increase labour productivity and generalise technical improvements across different economic sectors.” Under feudalism, the consequence of this systemic inability was that ‘real [economic] growth’ could only be achieved `by opening up new land for cultivation’.96 Moreover, the ‘cross-cultural’ diffusions of technologies and organisational forms which could facilitate modal transformations in recipient societies is explicitly rejected by Brenner since, as he writes, ‘new forces of production were readily assimilable by already existing social classes’.97

In short, Political Marxists deny the development of the productive forces any causal role in explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism, since doing otherwise would inevitably run the risk of ‘technological determinism’, emptying human agency in the process.98 To counter this common charge of `techno-determinism’, it is important to note that the concept of ‘productive forces’ not only took on different meanings relating to different historical contexts in Marx’s writings (at one point it was identified with early social communities),99 but, moreover, should not be conflated with mere ‘technologies’. Rather, the forces of production refer to both the means of production — including ‘nature itself, the capacity to labour, the skills brought to the process, the tools used, and the techniques with which these tools are set to work’ — and the labour process — ‘the way in which the different means of production are combined in the act of production itself”.100

As this definition indicates, the forces of production (or ‘productive powers’) cannot be subsumed under any ‘techno-determinist’ interpretation. They are simultaneously material and social: for example, the ways in which tools are used involve both accumulated collective knowledge and a particular socio-historical context in which they operate. To say that there is a tendency for the forces of production to develop over time is simply to say that humans have been motivated to change them, and have done so in ways that have increased the social productivity of labour. Human agency is thus crucial to the process.101

What is more, the Political Marxist conception of pre-capitalist societies as relatively stagnant social formations, incapable of either endogenous or exogenously driven technological advances, has been challenged by a wealth of more recent studies of economic growth in pre-capitalist epochs.102 Indeed, sustained technological and organisational innovations, and thus agrarian productivity, were important features of late Medieval and early modern ‘European’ societies (see Chapters 3 to 6). Denying productive forces any explanatory significance prior to capitalism also generates a pervasive Eurocentrism, since it situates their development exclusively in modern Europe, as the harbinger of capitalist property relations. This obscures from view the extensive development of productive forces in non-European contexts, such as with the early modern tributary empires of the Ottomans and Mughals (see Chapters 4 and 8) and the dynamic colonial plantation systems in the Americas over the 16th to 18th centuries. In so doing, it occludes from the outset the possibility that productive forces transmitted from these extra-European sources to Europe contributed to the formation of capitalism in Europe itself (see Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 8).

So the Political Marxist conception of pre-capitalist societies as essentially developmental dead-ends is an historical claim that is both Eurocentric and difficult to sustain empirically. This should force us to reconsider the significance of productive forces historically, and re-evaluate the possibility of reincorporating their study into our theoretical explanations of the transition to capitalism.

July 24, 2015

In defense of Counterpunch

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Jeff St. Clair

On June 25th a guest post by Amith Gupta appeared on my blog criticizing Jewish Voice for Peace’s decision to terminate relations with Alison Weir, a supporter of Palestinian rights because of her appearances on the radio show of Clay Douglas, a reactionary racist according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Since their objection is not so much about what she said in the interview but about her mere appearance on the show, it begs the question about her views. Are you to judge someone by the venue they appear on or write for? I ask because I have now been Weired, to coin a term.

On June 19th a blogger named Elise Hendrick wrote a long attack on CounterPunch for supposedly promoting the agenda of the far right and named me as an enabler. Three days later Tony Greenstein crossposted the same article and embellished it with a nice photo of me taken by my good friend the late Fred Baker about 17 years ago. Greenstein added a caption characterizing me as an “ex-Marxist”. Very nice.

I know Greenstein by reputation as a very sharp critic of Zionism but like many pro-Palestinian activists he has the unfortunate tendency to repeat Baathist propaganda such as blaming the FSA for carrying out a slaughter of villagers in al-Houla. He followed that up with the standard pro-Assad propaganda about the Syrian rebels using sarin gas on their supporters in East Ghouta as a false flag operation. I can understand why well-meaning people like Greenstein, Tariq Ali and Robert Fisk would serve Baathist aims even if unintentionally. When so much of the left is ready to put a plus where the American ruling class puts a minus, why swim against the tide? Their heart is in the right place even if their brain is not.

Since Greenstein is a pretty smart guy (just ask him), it is astonishing why he would swallow the statistics that Hendricks put together that supposedly proved CounterPunch was promoting the far right:

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This is really quite pathetic, a classic example of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. If you really want to characterize CounterPunch, it would be necessary to conduct an analysis of all of the articles that appear there, not just a sampling. How do I and the other “left/progressives” (god, what an awful term) exhaust the inventory of all those on the left who write for CounterPunch? All you need to do is look at a typical weekend edition, like the one that came out today, to get a handle on what it stands for. There are 40 articles and not a single one has even the slightest whiff of rightwing politics. Speaking of which, one has to wonder what criteria Hendricks used to categorize some of the people as rightwingers. She includes Franklin Lamb and Paul Larudee. Unless I am missing something, they have never written anything I would associate with the Republican Party. For that matter, mostly what they do is circulate pro-Baathist propaganda after the fashion of Tony Greenstein.

It would seem to me that the bloggers at Jews sans Frontieres have served as the shock troops on all this and particularly someone known as “levi9909” (Mark Elf, I am not sure?) who posted 18 times underneath Amith’s article and who shows an alarming interest in my activity on the Internet that makes me feel like I was being stalked. To some extent, I have become a proxy for Amith Gupta who had little interest in debating someone like “levi9909” who reminds me of how James P. Cannon once described Trotskyists: the kind of people who stayed later at meetings than anybody else trying to get called on by the chair to make their point one more time, all along hoping that everybody else would get exhausted and go home.

Unlike “levi9909”who has written me frenzied emails on several occasions demanding that I confess for my sins, Amith is someone I know in real space as opposed to the lunatic asylum cyberspace can often resemble. He first came to my attention when Leon Botstein had fired Joel Kovel at Bard College. Amith, who was a leader of the International Solidarity Movement on campus, was an outspoken supporter of Kovel in a place where hipster liberalism was hegemonic. As a graduate with the class of 1965, I am always happy to be connected to someone who represents the real values of Bard College, the place that Walter Winchell called the little red whorehouse on the Hudson.

I want to conclude with some words about CounterPunch, which I am proud to have written for since August 2012 (I should add that I have written 168 articles not the 59 that Hendricks counted, at least according to the grep/wc command I ran on my server.)

It really has a lot to do with my esteem for Alexander Cockburn who I count as my most important political influence next to Peter Camejo. No matter how many times I wrote attacks on his global warming denialism, he was always someone who held a special place in my heart for helping me rebound from the post-traumatic stress syndrome I was experiencing after 11 years in the Trotskyist movement. In 1979 when I moved to New York from Kansas City, I had resolved to put politics behind me but when I stumbled across his column in the Village Voice, it was like being reborn. The clarity of his prose, the sharpness of his analysis and his biting humor were like nothing I had ever read in the Militant newspaper. Three years later, when I was still sorting out my experiences in the SWP, I read Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism”, an article that had the same bracing effect as Alexander’s columns. With their help, I was able to land on my feet and keep going for another 36 years.

It is Alexander’s spirit that lives on in CounterPunch and it is to Jeff St. Clair’s everlasting credit that he has kept the ship afloat after the captain passed on. No matter how many times people complain about articles in CounterPunch, it is the essential voice of the left in the USA and one that has a global presence. When I began writing about Swedish Marxist detective stories, a Swede contacted me with his own take on the country’s darker side and remains an occasional correspondent.

The idea that it is promoting rightwing ideas is patently absurd. While everybody knows that Paul Craig Roberts was a member of the Reagan administration, there’s not a single word that he writes that can be mistaken for a Fox News report. Like Kevin Phillips, he has turned against the increasingly plutocratic nature of American politics. In fact, the idea of a left-right alliance is not limited to CounterPunch. Ralph Nader has promoted the same strategy, including on CounterPunch. In years past, he was vilified for saying things that sounded like Pat Buchanan. If we are about building a movement based on ideological purity, we might as well go the route of the Marxist-Leninist left that has largely proven itself irrelevant. In any movement with the social weight capable of confronting the ruling class, you can expect that there will be clashing ideas in our ranks. It happened in Cuba in the late 50s and it will happen here. You’d better get used to the idea.

While the Marxism mailing list is obviously more ideologically focused than CounterPunch, we try to maintain diversity even if some disgruntled souls believe I am a tyrant (don’t listen to a word they say or you’ll regret it.) Mark Jones, one of my closest comrades who died of oral cancer in 2003, was an ardent admirer of Joseph Stalin who argued that it was necessary to purge the Soviet officer corps on the eve of WWII. Despite that, our views on the environmental crisis and the character of American imperialism bound us together as comrades. Another Marxmailer, who I hold in the highest regard, was a global warming skeptic and vociferous about it (until he changed his mind.) Sol Dollinger, an old-timer who died in 2001, was a member of the Socialist Union, a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman in the 1950s that I strongly identify with. During his time on Marxmail he stated his concerns about undocumented workers undermining the trade union movement on numerous occasions sounding for all the world like someone writing for VDare, the nativist magazine that Paul Craig Roberts writes for. In the radical movement we need to build in the USA, you can expect all sorts of differences to develop. That’s the kind of party we need if we are to have any possibility of attracting millions of people rather than hundreds.

I am enormously glad to have the opportunity to write for CounterPunch even though there are articles that I obviously disagree with, starting with what Franklin Lamb and Paul Larudee write about Syria. I am reconciled to the reality that my views are in a distinct minority and that those of Lamb, Larudee and Greenstein are those of the overwhelming majority.

That being said, I give Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank a lot of credit for publishing an article I had written about Syria that went against the current. For that matter, Jeff invited me to become a regular contributor to CounterPunch after I had blogged a complaint about how one article supported the arrest of Pussy Riot. Jeff said that if I disagreed with the article, why don’t I write my own. Frankly, if we had more people like Jeff St. Clair editing electronic and print media nowadays, the left would be in a lot better shape.

Dicte; Borgen

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 10.32.12 AM

The Female Power of Danish Noir

CounterPunchers, particularly those who watched those Marxist Swedish television detective series I recommended last year, will likely appreciate “Dicte” and “Borgen”, two shows that appeared originally on Danish television. Both feature superb writing and performances even if the artistic teams behind them are not exactly Marxist. As Joe E. Brown said in the final seconds of “Some Like it Hot”, nobody’s perfect.

Whatever they lack politically, they more than make for in storytelling, character development, dialog, and plot—the ABC’s of writing going back to Aristotle. And most of all, they are distinguished by powerful female characters that put American television with its “Astronaut Wives Club” et al to shame.

“Dicte”, which can be seen on Netflix streaming, is the eponymous character–a female crime reporter in her late 30s who has taken a job with a newspaper in Aarhus, which is Denmark’s second largest city and where she grew up. In broad outlines, it has the same sort of plot found in the Swedish series “Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter” that was included in the survey referred to above. “Dicte” ends up as an amateur detective in almost every episode, one step ahead of the cops. In researching her articles, she inevitably finds herself being targeted by some bad guy who has decided that she knows too much and must be terminated.

Every time the town’s homicide detective runs into her at a crime scene, he warns her about interfering with an on-going investigation but in the end Dicte proves to be a better sleuth than the cops and finally vindicated.

read full article

July 22, 2015

Once again on the IT challenges in converting to the drachma

Filed under: computers,Greece — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

On July 14th I wrote an article titled “Convert to the drachma–piece of cake. Right…” that was a first take on the difficulties in implementing a Grexit from an IT standpoint. Since then I have tracked down a number of high-level strategic planning documents written in the late 90s that give me a much better handle on what those difficulties amount to. Except for the folks at Naked Capitalism who reposted my original article, there are very few people on the left who have any inkling of the problem. One of them is Robert Urie who alluded to it in a recent CounterPunch article:

A central difference between Argentina and Greece is that ‘all’ that Argentina had to do was to break the peg (fixed currency exchange ratio) with the USD while implementation of the Euro was a massive technological undertaking that replaced the Greek technology and institutions that supported the drachma. In the event of a forced Greek exit recovery of these technologies and institutions would take time that the Greeks don’t have. Breakdown of the supply-chain— the integrated economic relations that together facilitate economic production, causes a cascade effect where once lost, has to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Instead what I have mainly heard is that it is much more of a piece of cake than my article would suggest. For example, Canadian leftist Ken Hanley, who wrote an article titled “The German Grexit plan may have been the lesser of two evils”, commented: “The creditors were able to develop a Grexit plan. Schaeuble even presented a Grexit plan as an alternative to deal and many think that his whole plan was to force a Grexit.” He also referred me to an article by an Australian economist that assured his readers “A Greek exit is not rocket science”. Well, it might not be rocket science but computer science is certainly relevant notwithstanding the economist’s failure to refer to IT once in his article.

The same shortcoming exists in an article that has been embraced by many on the left as a recipe for overcoming austerity. Titled “Greece: Alternatives and Exiting the Eurozone” and written by Eric Toussaint, who works with the Committee to Abolish Third World Debt, it makes very useful recommendations but once again neglects to mention anything about IT.

Now my point in referring to these difficulties was never to support staying in the Eurozone. It was primarily intended to alert the left about the dangers of thinking in terms of short-term solutions. Furthermore, my own position is that Greece’s difficulties have more to do with the underlying economy rather than what currency it uses. Some Marxists, who have been sharply critical of Tsipras, appear to understand what this means. For example, In Defense of Marxism, warned:

Some people have argued that if Greece is pushed out of the Euro this could eventually provide a solution to its economic problems. That is naïve in the extreme, not to say irresponsible. The question would still remain: what kind of an economy, run by whom and on the interests of whom?

Let us assume that the new currency is called the drachma. What will happen to it? It will fall like a stone because nobody will want to hold it. That will cause prices to rise steeply, even hyper-inflation, as in Germany in 1923. People’s savings will be wiped out. There will be a deep slump and even more unemployment.

Moreover, if Greece is forced out of the Euro, it will also find itself out of the European Union. The European bourgeois will not want to see its markets invaded by Greek goods made cheaper by the inevitable fall of the drachma (or whatever other currency is chosen). It will be necessary to take very drastic measures in order to avoid an economic catastrophe. Half measures will be useless. One cannot cure cancer with an aspirin.

I also thought that the Belgian Trotskyists of the LCR-SAP had good advice:

  1. Leaving the Euro is not a sufficient condition to break with austerity (as the case of Britain proves) but, in the Greek case, for the countries of the periphery and those which are not in the heart of the euro zone, it is clearly a requirement.
  2. The need to break with the euro does not imply making leaving the euro the central axis of an alternative programme. Even in Greece, where the question arises in a burning and immediate way, the axis of the alternative programme must be the rejection of any austerity and the implementation of social, ecological, anticapitalist and democratic policies, which directly improve the fate of workers, young people, women, the victims of racism, and the peasants.
  3. To make leaving the euro the axis of the alternative would be to run up unnecessarily against the very generally-held idea that the currency is only “neutral” technical means of allowing trade, whereas it is in fact also the crystallization of a social relationship. To make leaving the euro (or the EU) the axis of the battle would be also to play the game of the hard-line and far right, by spreading the illusion that a harmonious socio-economic-ecological development would be possible within the national framework. This illusion harms internationalist solidarity. However, this is crucial not only for the fight in Greece, but also because the integration of the economies on the continent requires a European anticapitalist perspective to satisfy social needs and to answer the urgent ecological needs.

Before moving on to the technical aspects of a Grexit, I should say a few words about my background. Even though my regular readers know that I worked in IT for 44 years, it might be useful to mention something about my experience.

To start with, before I began working at Columbia University in 1991, most of my work experience was in financial applications. I worked for five different banks: FNB of Boston, Texas Commerce Bank, Irving Trust, United Missouri Bank (where I programmed ATM’s) and Chase Manhattan. I also worked for investment banks: Salomon Brothers and Goldman-Sachs. Finally, in the 21 years I was at Columbia University, most of the time was spent working on the financial system used for purchases, general ledger and the like. Back in 1998, part of my workload over a two year period was to evaluate legacy software to identify changes needed to accommodate the arrival of 2000, a technical challenge that was dwarfed by Eurozone conversion that I will now explain.

The following documents were key to the observations I will be making:

  1. Daniel O’Leary, “The Impact of the Euro on Information Systems”, Journal of Information Systems Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall 1999. (https://msbfile03.usc.edu/digitalmeasures/doleary/intellcont/Impact%20of%20Euro-1.pdf). I referred to this in my original article.
  2. Pieter Dekker, “Preparing Information Systems for the Euro”, a sixty page white paper prepared for the European Commission on the Eurozone in September 1997. (http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/accounting/docs/markt-1997-7038/7038_en.pdf)
  3. Patrick O’Beirne, “Managing Risk in Euro Currency Conversion”, Cutter IT Journal, 1998 (http://www.sysmod.com/eurorisk.pdf). This is basically a shorter version of the Dekker article above with a useful bibliography referring to other material in this vein.
  4. Rainer Gimnich, “Analysis and Conversion Tools for Euro Currency Migration”, Workshop on Software Reengineering, May 1999. (http://www.uni-koblenz.de/~ist/RWS99/beitraege/Gimnich.pdf)

To start with, it would be useful to understand what took place in a Y2K migration. In many programs written in the 60s and 70s, when the year 2000 seemed like a long way off, dates were formatted as MMDDYY. This meant if you were trying to establish whether a bond would mature in five years, you’d subtract something like 07/22/67 from 07/22/72 but when 2000 arrived, how could you determine whether 07/22/04 meant 1904 or 2004? The answer was to wade through millions of lines of code and expand MMDDYY to MMDDYYYY.

In a computer program, every field of data is uniquely named. This means searching in a COBOL program for something like “date_today” is pretty simple. But what if a programmer called it dt_today instead? Of course, you might figure out that “dt” means date but some lazy programmer might have written it as “tdy”.

You will have the same problem, of course, with a euro to drachma conversion. Searching for the Greek equivalent of “amount” or “amt” becomes a drain on any IT staff.

A conversion from a local currency to the euro was a whole order of magnitude more difficult when it comes to converting currency amounts, even when they are identified. For nations such as Spain that did not have a decimal based currency like the euro, the rounding became a challenge. Since this did not apply to the drachma, a simple replacement might be in order and that would be the end of it.

However, the big problem was testing for a hard-coded amount parameter as I tried to explain on Naked Capitalism underneath the crossposting of my original article:

For example, there might be tests to see if a customer has sufficient funds to be qualified for a mortgage. A program might conceivably mark it as eligible if there were 10,000 euros in the account. Switching to a drachma might make everybody eligible–not that there’s anything wrong with that obviously–but you can see that this is not a simple matter. Just being able to handle a drachma instead of a euro does not mean that software is meeting expectations. You have to do a BUSINESS analysis, which is the first stage in any systems implementation.

As it turned out, the Gimnich article listed above makes an identical point:

In many cases, amounts are hard-coded in the application programs. For instance, statements of the kind IF amt_1 < 1000 THEN … appear quite often. Here, the threshold value is simply used as a constant in the program: no symbolic constant, no variable declaration, no external amount table read.

Assuming that Greece’s programmers could convert programs to handle the drachma rather than a euro, this would mean that you could start withdrawing a new currency from an ATM on day one. And at the end of the month, you’ll get a bank statement with amounts designated in the new currency with the proper currency symbol, etc. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Any bank maintains a history of transactions for all customers that are used for determining loan eligibility, etc. Your account might have the proper data from the day when the drachma conversion took place going forward but what about the ten years or so of prior transaction history which were denominated in euros? A suite of programs would have to be written to manage the conversion of historical data. This is not a minor task since identifying which files contain such data requires plowing through an enormous IT inventory. Since documentation is always given short shrift in the corporate world, expect major technological hiccups or even heart attacks.

The tasks described above are properly administered in an IT department, which is centrally controlled but that’s not the end of it. Ever since the advent of personal computers, there are huge amounts of mission-critical data that are not maintained by the IT staff. The finance department of any modern corporation is overflowing with PC-based spreadsheets that are used for budgeting, etc. All of these spreadsheets will have to be evaluated for their criticality and converted to the drachma if need be. Once again, a major task.

In August 2001, Computerworld, a trade magazine I read for many years before retiring, described the risks facing small and medium sized businesses that had not gotten up to speed on the euro conversion:

Pollard said the unpreparedness of vendors and suppliers won’t create a catastrophe in the European marketplace, but it will cause supply chain slowdowns and force some small and medium-size businesses to revert to using paper invoices, bound ledgers and filing cabinets.

But Noel Hepworth, head of the euro conversion project at the European Federation of Accountants (FEE), an industry trade group in London, said companies that aren’t ready will quickly be forced out of business by large manufacturers that will refuse to deal with them.

Think about what this would mean for Greece as its businesses tried to do the same thing in reverse. This nation has a huge proportion of smaller firms. It will be exactly those that will be forced out of business if they can’t make the cut. If adopting the drachma will lead to a sharp devaluation as all experts predict, those businesses will be rotten ripe for buying up by foreign investors looking to make a killing.

Now in the long run, it might not matter that all these problems lie in store. It is probably the case that leaving the Eurozone is a necessary first step to escaping the clutches of the German bankers, the IMF and all other predatory institutions. But the left does not look good by minimizing the technical challenges. Most of all, it is worth remembering what Lenin wrote in “State and Revolution”, which is just applicable to a state embarking on an anti-austerity program based on neo-Keynesian principles as it was to the infant USSR:

We are not utopians, we do not “dream” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and “foremen and accountants”.

I would only add programmers to the people Lenin identified above.

July 21, 2015

Separated at Birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 11:49 pm

Andy Rooney: generally humorous

Garrison Keilor: never humorous

July 20, 2015

Still Alice

Filed under: aging,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

“Still Alice” is now the fourth narrative film that I have seen dealing with Alzheimer’s and by far the best. (Brief summaries of the other three appear at the end of this review.) Starring Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a 50-year old Columbia University linguistics professor with early onset, the film is blessed by an exceptionally intelligent screenplay and direction by the late Richard Glatzer whose wife died of ALS. Some critics feel that his own family tragedy helped him shape the material but probably the most important element was the novel upon which it was based.

Written by Lisa Genova in 2007, the novel not only benefited from the author’s expertise as a neuroscience researcher with a PhD from Harvard but her familiarity with the mandarin life-style of her characters. Given the main character’s lofty perch in an Ivy League school, her husband’s own privileged status as a medical researcher, and their familiarity with Manhattan’s exquisite but pricey restaurants and other luxuries, her descent into an illness that would rob her of both her livelihood and—worse—her identity is unimaginably steep. In a key scene, when she and her husband are at their Hamptons summer home, she wets her pants because she cannot remember where the bathroom was.

Moore’s performance won her an Academy Award for best performance by an actress in 2014 and was one I would have supported if I had seen the film that year. Now that is available on Amazon streaming, I cannot recommend it highly enough. At the age of 55, Moore manages to convey the desperation of a world-class intellectual trying to keep her wits about her in the face of insurmountable odds. Her life begins to revolve around her IPhone, which is used to remind her of how to bake a cake or to take the pills she needs for a suicide when the smart phone no longer can bail her out.

Alex Baldwin, who plays her husband, is also very good as a man who does his best to run interference for his wife but finally comes to the sad realization that nothing will make up for her not being able to recognize her own daughter after she has seen her perform in an off-Broadway production of a Chekhov play.

Given the ineluctably predictable nature of the disease, any such film will lack the suspense element that is found in most tragedies. Indeed, it is open to question whether a film about Alzheimer’s can be called a tragedy since it lacks the “fatal flaw”, especially hubris, which is common to the classic tragedy from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

Some scholars believe that King Lear suffered from dementia although it impossible to pin down which kind. What made his downfall a tragedy was not his illness but his hubris, demanding more from his daughters than they were willing to give. There is an element of this in “Still Alice” to be sure. Alice constantly nags her youngest daughter Lydia (played superbly by Kristen Steward, the star of the insipid Twilight vampire movies) about abandoning her career as an actress and doing something more practical. When Lydia finally makes it relatively big in a Chekhov play, mom cannot recognize her—at least momentarily.

While the film is primarily a character study of how a dreaded illness takes down a very successful and self-possessed overachiever, it is also has universal meaning for any human being, particularly those over the age of sixty. 1 out of 9 Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, increasing to one out of three over the age of 85. Scary odds. A week ago on the first night of my wife’s arrival at her parents’ home in Istanbul, her 87-year old father wandered off and ended up in a neighborhood far from home. When it became obvious to a young couple on a bus that he was lost, they were fortunate enough to find his phone number in one of his pockets. He is safe and at home now, much to my relief.

I hold out hope that my mother’s genes will hold me in good stead. Just a few days before her death in 2008, she was as lucid as ever. It was her circulatory system that was her undoing, an outcome of the wrong foods and a long time lack of exercise. Of course, sooner or later something will do you in whether it is Alzheimer’s, a circulatory system collapse, cancer or some other event associated with being in the “mortality zone” as Tom Brokaw put it in a column dealing with his battle against multiple myeloma.

In one key scene, Alice bemoans the fact that she has Alzheimer’s rather than cancer since at least cancer will not rob you of your identity. It is a disease like no other in that it transforms you into a stranger as if a zombie has taken possession of your body. Perhaps the best way to describe films such as “Still Alice” is as a subcategory of the horror movie with the monster being made up of the plaque in your nervous system rather than one stalking you with a butcher knife.

Other films in this genre:

The Savages”: a brother and sister cope with an ailing father in a nursing home. It is bittersweet comedy/tragedy directed by Tamara Jenkins who had the experience of putting her own father into a nursing home when she was in her 30s. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turn in fine performances as the feckless brother and sister. The DVD can be purchased for pennies on Amazon.com.

Away from Her”: Based on an Alice Munro short story, the wife has entered a nursing home and soon falls in love with another Alzheimer’s patient leaving her husband in the lurch. When he visits her, she has no idea who he is and prefers the company of her new companion. I found the film preposterous but you can make your own evaluation through Amazon.com streaming.

Memories of Tomorrow”: A Japanese film about a successful and hard-driving “salaryman”, who the disease takes down, just like Alice. It is much more of a love story than a tragedy since he depends on a newly kindled relationship to his long-neglected wife to help him through his vicissitudes. Ken Watanabe, one of Japan’s best-known actors, plays the lead character. It is a very fine film that can be only be seen through a Netflix DVD rental.

July 17, 2015

Support for Alison Weir

Filed under: Palestine — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 6.40.03 PMRead full letter


Swedish socialism and eugenics

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

Gunnar and Alva Myrdal

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. It is an introduction that relates Swedish socialism to Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”.)

In 1997 the world was shocked to learn that between 1935 and 1976 Social Democratic governments forced 63,000 women into being sterilized. As part of a eugenics program meant to weed out the genetically or racially ”inferior,” the women were told that they would lose benefits and be separated from their living children if they refused. Typically the women were poor, learning disabled or people with non-Nordic or mixed ethnic backgrounds.

The Roma were prime targets of this persecution. In January 2011, Swedish government official Erik Ullenhag admitted, “Throughout history the Roma have been victims of unacceptable abuse, such as forced sterilisation and being deprived of the right to educate their children.” Long after forced sterilization came to an end, the Roma were still being singled out in a Nordic version of racial profiling as CounterPuncher Ritt Goldstein reported on secret files maintained by the cops on Romas, a so-called “gypsy registry”. One entry reported a woman as being as “black as night”.

For the longest time, Sweden social democracy has had a thing about the underclass. Beneath the velvet glove of social benefits, there is the mailed fist of laws intended to rid society of those elements that could not be molded into proper members of “the people’s home”—the term coined by the social democrats to describe their ideal.

Even before eugenics became government policy, you could see a strain of hostility toward the poor in the Stockholm School of economics—their version of Keynesian theory—where Gunnar Myrdal and Dag Hammarskjold were trained.

Johan Gustaf Knut Wicksell, a leading light of the business school of the University of Stockholm that had a profound impact on social democratic policy, was a diehard Malthusian and as such a firm believer in birth control not so much from the standpoint of women’s liberation but as a way to keep Sweden from being “overpopulated”, particularly by the riffraff who are alcoholics or prostitutes as he was fond of pointing out in his lectures.

As leading lights of the Swedish social democracy, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal played a major role in developing the policies that would lead to the monstrous punishment of the weak and the poor. Their theories were hardly the stuff of the Third Reich. You will not find anything about defending Nordic purity, etc. Instead it would be described as “pronatalism”, a belief that the government had a duty to promote family growth in a society that was experiencing falling birthrates despite Wicksell’s neo-Malthusianism. For the Myrdals, poverty was not a breeder of large families, which is often thought to be the case. Instead Sweden faced a problem of demographic decline since the Victorian era, one that the Myrdals interpreted as the outcome of inadequate means. So the answer was to shore up the nuclear family through public housing, income supplements, subsidized medical care—all the things we associate with the modern welfare state. They were also strong supporters of birth control but much more from the standpoint of women’s liberation than neo-Malthusianism.

In “The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis”, Allan Carlson describes a set of policies that were not only carried out but became the “Swedish model” for Bernie Sanders and countless other American leftists who when the word socialism was mentioned thought of Sweden rather than Cuba. Their recommendations on health care would most certainly endear them to readers of the Nation Magazine:

Turning to health care, the Myrdals praised Sweden’s medical system for already embodying certain principles of social responsibility. From a population policy perspective, cost-free child health care was the most urgently needed reform. The costs of maintaining children’s health, the Myrdals asserted, must be freed from every competing aspect of a family budget. Furthermore, public health service doctors should concentrate primarily on children, particularly preschool children, “which is completely natural, since preventive health care essentially is child care:’ In light of these needs, the complete reform of the medical profession became urgent. There was “little likelihood” that the private efforts of individual doctors would produce any significant change. Abuses and problems among doctors would be solved only through a “great social political program” that brought them all under state regulation.”

If you keep in mind that such a program was intended to “breed” a superior sort of human being that could take his or her place as a productive member in the “people’s home”, you can understand why they would as well look askance at the sort of human beings rolling off the assembly line that were designated as rejects.

Carlson described the Mr. Hyde to their Dr. Jekyll:

Under the rubric of “quality-oriented” policy, the Myrdals described forced sterilization as a necessary option. While affirming, from a “race-biological viewpoint,” the equality of genetic material among all Swedish population groups, they added that a genetically inferior (mindervardighet) substrata existed within the population: the insane, the mentally ill, the genetically defective, and persons of bad or criminal character. With the German nazi program again as foil, the Myrdals stressed that their category of targeted individuals was drawn from all population and social groups. The reproduction of this inferior stock was undesirable, since offspring ran a strong risk of hereditary damage to health and intelligence. Because the government would be called upon to support genetically damaged children, the Myrdals concluded that the state had the right in limited cases to force sterilization on individuals. The guiding assumption should be to resort to the process only in recognized serious cases of illness and defect and only among those incapable of “rational decisions.” Where individuals were capable of reason, voluntary sterilization should be actively urged. Failing this, free contraceptives and eugenic abortion should be made available.

For the most thorough discussion of Swedish social democracy and eugenics, I recommend the article “Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society” (Journal of Contemporary History July 2004) by Alberto Spektorowski and Elisabet Mizrachi who ironically were faculty members of Tel Aviv University, a pillar of the state that has carried out its own form of cleansing. In another article Spektorowski recommends that Israel become part of a regional framework based on the European Union in order to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I hope that this folly does not prejudice you against his scholarship on Sweden that is first-rate.

The Myrdals came of age when eugenics was all the rage in Europe. Francis Galton coined the term in 1883 as a way of applying social Darwinism to family planning. It became a staple of the Fabian Socialists who were gung-ho for weeding out undesirables. For George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and the Webbs, it was key to social betterment through gradual reform.

Oddly enough, Russian Marxists also embraced it, including Leon Trotsky who referred to it in “If America Should Go Communist”:

While the romantic numskulls of Nazi Germany are dreaming of restoring the old race of Europe’s Dark Forest to its original purity, or rather its original filth, you Americans, after taking a firm grip on your economic machinery and your culture, will apply genuine scientific methods to the problem of eugenics. Within a century, out of your melting pot of races there will come a new breed of men – the first worthy of the name of Man.

Indeed, the Swedes and the Russians would have disavowed the use of eugenics on a racial basis. Unlike the Nazis, they would limit it strictly to those who were mentally deficient, mentally ill, or had epilepsy. Alfred Petren, the head inspector of Sweden’s mental institutions and a member of parliament, submitted the first sterilization bill in 1927. He argued that it was necessary to avoid costly life-long institutionalization. Well, that makes sense when you think of how that would have drained precious resources for raising those better qualified from a social Darwinist perspective.

Not every leftist went along with this proposal. Carl Lindhagen, a member of parliament, stated:

When one thus has tread the path of correcting a social evil by means of force, violating the inviolability of life . . . many will say: this is only the first step. Why should we stop here? … Why only deprive these individuals useless to society and to themselves of their ability to procreate? Is it not more charitable to take their life as well?

As the years sped by, Lindhagen’s warnings would become prophetic. By 1941, it was no longer a question of congenital failings. It now became social failings as well. Spektorowski and Mizrachi write:

In 1941, the reforms advocated to expand the sterilization bill were more far- reaching than eugenic argumentation would allow, and originated in part in the frustration of legislators over the limited extent to which sterilization was performed under the existing legislation. The primary reason for expanding the law was to regulate the sterilization of those considered fit to give their consent to the operation. The new law would regulate the voluntary steriliza- tion of persons of ‘legal capacity’. The proposed law added a social indicator to the existing reasons for sterilization, implicating persons who ‘due to an asocial way of life are . . . obviously unfit to have custody of children’. Asociality in this instance meant vagabondry, alcoholism, etc.

The central claim from the social point of view was that children, due to one or both parents’ ‘inferiority’, would grow up in an unfavourable environment and not receive the care and upbringing necessary to develop into capable members of society. In those cases it would be better if children were not born. This was considered a humanitarian approach.

Finally, although it does not relate to the question of eugenics, a brief word should be added about the Myrdals’ most famous book, “The American Dilemma”, that dealt with racism. At the time it was considered a breakthrough since it regarded the “pathologies” of the slum as a product of a race-divided society.

Not long after the book was published in 1944, Herbert Aptheker charged it with failing to put the blame on capitalism in a short book titled “The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma”. This was followed by other critiques by African-Americans as Thomas Sugrue pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Oliver Cromwell Cox, the West Indian-born sociologist whose brilliant but mostly neglected book Caste, Class, and Race was published just a few years after An American Dilemma, took Myrdal to task for downplaying the connection between race and economic exploitation. Cox singled out Myrdal’s “mystical” belief that changing individual attitudes would end the “exploitation” at the heart of racial inequality. “In the end,” wrote Cox, “the social system is exculpated.” Myrdal’s critics grew more numerous in the 1960s. In their 1968 manifesto Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton offered their own challenge to individualistic understandings of race relations and coined the term “institutional racism” to account for the ways that racial inequality was not solely or even primarily a matter of beliefs or attitudes. They pinpointed “conditions of poverty and discrimination” rooted in unequal relationships of power and privilege, like the healthcare system that failed urban blacks and that “destroyed and maimed” lives every bit as effectively as the actions of the most brutal individual racists.

As I will point out in a subsequent article, Myrdal’s failings had to do with the very nature of Swedish “socialism”—its abandonment of Marxism in favor of a liberalism that would be the envy of the world until capitalist crisis rendered it just as obsolete as Soviet era “socialism”.

But in my next post, I will describe how Swedish neutrality during WWII coincided with a lucrative trade relationship with Nazi German.

Another insane person found guilty of murder

Filed under: crime,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 12:56 am

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 8.47.27 PM

Years from now, when socialist historians of the future examine the dead carcass of US capitalism, they will pay special attention to the growing barbarism of the penal system. While most attention will obviously be paid to the reintroduction of the death penalty and a racist judicial system that incarcerates minorities disproportionately, there will also have to be a close look at the tendency to treat mentally ill people as common criminals.

For all practical purposes, the insanity defense is a thing of the past. It was first introduced in Great Britain in the 1840s, a time of child labor and other cruelties that figure large in the novels of Charles Dickens. The insanity defense was first used in the case of an 1843 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Robert Peel by a psychotic individual named Daniel M’Naghten. When a physician testified that M’Naghten was insane, the prosecution agreed to stop the case and the defendant was declared insane despite protests from Queen Victoria and the House of Lords.

The M’Naghten Rule can be simply described as a “right and wrong” test. The jury was required to answer two questions: (1) did the defendant know what he was doing when he committed the crime?; or (2) did the defendant understand that his actions were wrong?

When psychotic individuals were on trial without a prior history of professional treatment, it was somewhat more difficult to find them not guilty by reason of insanity but it could be done. Now it makes no difference if someone has been under treatment for a psychiatric illness. So what happened?

In a word, John Hinckley.

After Hinckley was found not guilty by insanity of his assassination attempt on the beloved reactionary US President Reagan, committees of the House and Senate held hearings regarding use of the insanity defense within a month of the verdict.

Within three years of Hinckley’s acquittal, Congress and half of the states enacted laws limiting use of the defense and one state, Utah, abolished the defense outright. In 1986 Utah was joined by Montana andIdaho, two other “frontier justice” states. Congress passed revisions in the defense embodied in the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which reads:

It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense.

As a rule of thumb, schizophrenics who are in a “severe” condition are too detached from reality to go out and kill somebody, let alone cross the street. People who are this dysfunctional are generally hospitalized. The more typical occurrence is somebody who goes off their medication when they are not hospitalized, but who are sufficiently in touch with reality to use a knife or some other weapon. And even if such an individual is in a “severe” state at the time of the crime, they will pump him full of medications during the trial to effectuate a “sane” condition sufficient to win a conviction. Another factor that militates against a successful defense is that psychiatrists are no longer allowed as expert witnesses in many cases.

After 21 years of confinement in a mental hospital, Hinckley had been allowed to visit his aging parents on weekends under stringent conditions. That had outraged all the rightwing talking heads on AM hate radio and the Fox cable news. Meanwhile, all of the top officials of the Reagan administration who broke all sorts of laws in backing the murderous Nicaraguan contras did token time in country club prisons. I guess the lesson is if you are going out to kill people, you should do it on a wholesale basis and wrap yourself in the American flag.

July 15, 2015

Sweden’s Children

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 7:01 pm

From “The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis” by Allan C. Carlson:

The Myrdals also pointed to population pressures from outside. The risk was high that a depopulating country like Sweden, with rich natural resources and a strong pension system, would attract foreign peoples. While migration from Scandinavian neighbors would be acceptable and even desirable as a positive step toward Nordic integration, the Myrdals thought it more likely that prospective immigrants would come from elsewhere: Southern and Eastern Europe or Africa and Asia. Such groups were difficult to assimilate and posed a threat to Sweden’s own cultural heritage. The Myrdals also emphasized the problems for the labor movement that this influx of immigrants, willing to work for a cheaper wage, would cause.”

The Myrdals’ “mild nationalism” and ethnocentrism represented a dramatic break with the internationalism that had marked Democratic Socialism. While their later work and reputations are largely based on “internationalism,” their population work was distinctly oriented toward Sweden. This could be seen as but another example of the abandonment by many interwar European intellectuals of historic doctrine, as they dug in to weather the economic and political crises swirling about Europe.” Indeed, this unilateral focus on Swedish self-sufficiency could be seen in Gunnar Myrdal’s general work. For example, in a 1935 speech on the farming crisis he stated that “Agrarian policies must first and foremost involve a monopolization of the whole home market, and within this monopolized home market must be built price and market policies that raise profitability.”14 Aversion to immigration, moreover, could be dismissed as merely another example of organized labor’s aversion to “cheap labor” as producing “cheap men.”

Yet such explanations are less than adequate explanations for the Myrdals’ reluctant, apologetic confession of a “mild Swedish nationalism.” The world war, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Great Depression wreaked havoc with socialist internationalism. The new alternative, national socialism, took more than one form in the 1930s.

While the Myrdals never abandoned their commitment to democracy, they did cast their lot with ethnocentric nationalism. For Alva, the conversion may have been largely tactical, a way of selling her feminist socialism at an emotional level. For Gunnar, though, an almost tribal devotion to the Swedish “folk” drove him in a new direction. As his speeches over the next four years would make clear, he held a true passion for “Sweden’s children.”

Under the rubric of “quality-oriented” policy, the Myrdals described forced sterilization as a necessary option. While affirming, from a “race-biological viewpoint,” the equality of genetic material among all Swedish population groups, they added that a genetically inferior (mindervardighet) substrata existed within the population: the insane, the mentally ill, the genetically defective, and persons of bad or criminal character. With the German nazi program again as foil, the Myrdals stressed that their category of targeted individuals was drawn from all population and social groups. The reproduction of this inferior stock was undesirable, since offspring ran a strong risk of hereditary damage to health and intelligence. Because the government would be called upon to support genetically damaged children, the Myrdals concluded that the state had the right in limited cases to force sterilization on individuals. The guiding assumption should be to resort to the process only in recognized serious cases of illness and defect and only among those incapable of “rational decisions.” Where individuals were capable of reason, voluntary sterilization should be actively urged. Failing this, free contraceptives and eugenic abortion should be made available.

* * * *

From “Stieg Larsson: the Real Story of the Man Who Played With Fire” by Jan-Erik Petterson:

One feature of the extreme Right in Sweden is that, despite the weakness of its popular support, it is remarkably well represented among the elite and ruling classes: among scientists, academics and high-ranking military officers. It was not just theorists like Kjellen and Molin who were in the vanguard in formulating ideas which then became prevalent in the Third Reich. Herman Lundborg, the world’s first professor of eugenics, was part of the trend as early as 1910, and founded the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene. A decade later he managed to get more or less the entire Establishment behind him when he set up a Swedish racial research institute.

The National Eugenics Institute opened in 1921, with Lundborg at its head, and became well known for its large-scale field-research projects on the Swedish people. He and his colleagues travelled all over the country, photographing, measuring and making notes. The subjects of this research, seeing no harm in it, were allocated to racial groups on the basis of their physical constitution, skin colour, hair colour, shape of cranium, cranial circumference and so on. And there were few who doubted its scientific validity. On the strength of his findings, Lundborg pursued a vigorous campaign for an active population policy, including compulsory sterilization of undesirables, such as Lapps, Gypsies and vagrants. If this were not implemented, the fusion of the races would escalate and culture would fall into decline: `Sexual urges would intensify, immorality, hedonism, vice and crime break out and leave their mark on society. Sooner or later it would lead to discord, dissent, riot and revolution’ (according to an article in Svensk Tidskrift in 1921).

One reason for the rapid and widespread support for Lundborg’s theories was that there had been a deep-seated belief since the mid-nineteenth century that the Germanic peoples of northern Europe were related and that Sweden was their original home. So when the Nazis stepped forward and began talking of restoring the honour of the German nation and defending the Nordic race, many Swedes were willing to listen. And these were not so much Swedish Nazi party members as influential individuals in politics, the civil service, the business world, the military, the police, even the royal family. Some of the greatest admirers of Germany before and during the Second World War were to be found in the Swedish military. When Hitler celebrated his fiftieth birthday in the spring of 1939, he was congratulated by a Swedish delegation of high-ranking officers led by the future supreme commander Olof Thornell. They were accompanied by the openly Nazi Carl Ernfrid Carlberg and Henri de Champs as representatives of the Manhem Society (a patriotic Scandinavian association named after Olaus Rudbeck’s seventeenth-century book of Gothicist speculations) and the Swedish-German Association, who also presented Hitler with a gift, a statuette of Charles XII, which he is said to have much appreciated.

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