October 23, 2014
October 22, 2014
The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has an article by Charles Glass titled “In the Syria We Don’t Know” that has been making the rounds on the Internet. I have seen links to it from Vijay Prashad on Twitter, on the Greenleft mailing list in Australia, and just this morning on ZNet. Apparently, those who link to it must have taken heart in Glass’s assurance that the Baathists were getting the upper hand:
As Bashar’s prospects improve with each American sortie against his enemies in the east of the country, Damascus and the populous towns to the north have been enjoying a respite of sorts from war. The Syrian Ministry of Education reported that, of the 22,000 schools in the country, more than 17,000 of them reopened on time in the middle of September. Needless to say, almost all of the functioning schools are in government-held areas. The souks in the old city of Damascus, unlike their more extensive and now destroyed counterparts in Aleppo, are open. Shops selling meat, vegetables, spices, and other basic items to the local population are doing well, although the tourist boutiques in and around the famous Souk Hamadieh have no customers apart from UN workers and a few remaining diplomats. At night, restaurants in most neighborhoods are, if not full, nearly so. Everything from wine to grilled chicken is plentiful, albeit at prices higher than before the war. Traffic remains heavy, although somewhat less obstructed since June when the government felt confident enough to remove many of its checkpoints. Electricity is intermittent, and those who can afford private generators use them in the off-hours.
So, any normal person—especially those who prefer RT.com to Aljazeera—would conclude that it was best for Assad to stay the course, no matter how many barrel bombs it takes to level Aleppo and other cities to the ground just as long as there is meat, vegetables, and spices for sale in Damascus.
I took note of Glass in an article titled “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria” that was rejected by the publishers of Critical Muslim because they feared it would run afoul of British libel laws. I post the relevant section below:
Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.
Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:
The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.
As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.
On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:
While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.
Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.
Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:
[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.
Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.
October 21, 2014
Given its Hollywood provenance, I expected very little from “Kill the Messenger”, a film starring Jeremy Renner as reporter Gary Webb, who after exposing the CIA’s role in facilitating Nicaraguan contra planeloads of cocaine into the USA was martyred by forces more powerful than the modest San Jose newspaper where he worked, particularly the CIA and the Washington Post, a “newspaper of record” that had a long history of covering up for the CIA no matter the reputation it earned through the Woodward-Bernstein reporting on Watergate.
Given Renner’s role as an action hero in Katherine Bigelow’s awful “The Hurt Locker” and more recently as a successor to Matt Damon in “The Bourne Legacy”, I fully expected “Kill the Messenger” to figuratively inject steroids into Gary Webb and turn him into a combination of an investigative reporter and superspy. To the contrary, the film is restrained in its presentation of Webb and the forces aligned against him. The real drama is not of the conventional car chase variety but those that take place in the conference room of the San Jose Mercury News as Webb fights to defend his integrity from hostile forces outside the paper and a management all too willing to bend under the pressure.
The film was of particular interest to me since I had spent three years on the board of Tecnica, a volunteer technical aid project for Sandinista Nicaragua, until it succumbed to the same enemies that conspired against Webb: a reactionary presidency abetted by a Democratic Party that shared its ultimate goal—to crush a revolution—while differing only on the rhetoric put forward to achieve that goal. In the late 1980s the Washington Post was all too willing to stump for the contras despite its liberal reputation as Noam Chomsky reported in “Necessary Illusions”:
In April 1986, as the campaign to provide military aid to the contras was heating up, one of the [La Prensa] owners, Jaime Chamorro, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling for aid to “those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy” (the standard reference to the U.S. proxy forces). In the weeks preceding the summer congressional votes, “a host of articles by five different La Prensa staff members denounced the Sandinistas in major newspapers throughout the United States,” John Spicer Nichols observes, including a series of Op-Eds signed by La Prensa editors in the Washington Post as they traveled to the United States under the auspices of front organizations of the North contra-funding network.
In fact the reputation of Bob Woodward was inflated to begin with, as I pointed out in a Swans article in 2005:
In 1987, Woodward wrote Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, a book that had all the trappings of investigative journalism — especially the title. It was based on the career of William Casey, the CIA director who was a key figure in Reagan’s illegal wars. Although the book was filled with all sorts of lurid revelations (Casey thought Reagan was lazy, the King of Saudi Arabia was a drunk, etc.), it really didn’t get to the heart of why these wars took place and, more importantly, how to stop them.
The book generated some controversy that must have been a painful reminder of the Janet Cooke fiasco. An interview with the dying William Casey, who supposedly “confessed” all his contra-arms dealings to Woodward, was filled with so many inconsistencies and vagueness that the book was widely discredited. In addition, Woodward was accused of withholding important information just as he has done more recently. In Congressional hearings, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified that Casey was in on the diversion of funds from the beginning. If Woodward had Casey’s confession months before North testified, it would have been a major scoop for the Post had he come forward as well as a powerful blow against the illegal conspiracies being hatched during the Reagan presidency. But he held back in order to coincide with the publication date of his book.
Turning to the film itself, it benefited—as all good films do—from a strong screenplay written by Peter Landesman based on Webb’s 1999 “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”. Landesman was an investigative journalist before he became a screenwriter, including time spent in places like Pakistan and covering matters such the illegal arms trade and sex traffickers. So he knows the territory and brings a verisimilitude to the story that might have been absent if developed by an industry hack straight out of film school. Landesman’s co-writer Nick Schou also has a lot of credibility as the author of “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb”, a Nation Magazine book. Schou is the managing editor of Orange County Weekly, a sister publication of the Village Voice that has somehow retained some of the integrity that was present in this alternative weekly’s roots. So, all in all, the creative team behind “Kill the Messenger” are our kinds of people.
The film begins with Webb reporting on the abuse of drug dealer property seizure by California cops, something I am intimately familiar with since my cousin Joel lost the home in upstate New York that he built with his own hands after a police raid on his property uncovered about a hundred marijuana plants he’d grown for his personal use.
On the strength of his reporting, Webb is approached by the girlfriend of a Nicaraguan émigré drug-dealer who wants his help in exposing courtroom irregularities, including the role of his accuser, a big-time dealer who is a DEA informant notwithstanding the millions of dollars he made and continues to make in the drug trade.
With a grand jury transcript that accidentally came into her hands, Webb begins a search in Los Angeles and then proceeds to Nicaragua to uncover the conspiracy that allowed planeloads of cocaine to be exported to the USA in order to raise funds for the contra killing machine.
His articles on the “Dark Alliance” make him a celebrity overnight, earning him appearances on “Nightline” and profiles in major newspapers everywhere. His reporting also sends shockwaves through the Black community suffering from an epidemic of crack cocaine. Meetings are held in South Central LA and elsewhere demanding a satisfactory explanation from the CIA. Six months after the CIA director John Deutsch speaks to an angry audience at one of these meetings, Bill Clinton fires him.
This is the real drama of “Kill the Messenger”, recreating these events without the slightest degree of exaggeration. It is a film that you can recommend to friends and relatives for Chomskyian type insights while they are being entertained. I use the word entertained in the most conventional sense since this is a brilliantly acted, directed and plotted story. The direction is of some significance since Michael Cuesta most important work prior to the film was the HBO series Showtime that is a nasty piece of Islamophobia from what I have heard.
The third act of the film consists of a counterattack by the CIA and the Washington Post that ultimately destroys Webb’s reputation, his career and his life.
Throughout the entire film, Jeremy Renner turns in a bravura performance as a fairly conventional man put into utterly unconventional circumstances. Right now he is my pick for best actor, to go along with my pick of “Kill the Messenger” for best film of 2014.
In 1999, the same year that Webb’s “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion” came out, Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn published “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press”, a book about Gary Webb’s crusade to tell the truth.
When Webb killed himself in 2004 after finally being worn down by the smears and the loss of income, Jeff and Alex wrote a memorial that read in part:
Trashed by the CIA’s Claque
Gary Webb: a Great Reporter
by ALEXANDER COCKBURN And JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, DECEMBER 13, 2004
News came over the weekend that Gary Webb had died Friday from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self inflicted. The news saddens us, and rekindles our anger at the fouls libels he endured at the hands of his colleagues.
Webb was a great reporter whose best-known work exposed the CIA’S complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the US onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the Agency.
The attacks were without merit, but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its publisher. It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism. We described the entire saga in detail in our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press which sets the story in the larger context of the Agency’s complicity in drug smuggling since its founding.
Their article also reprises something that Webb wrote for CounterPunch in 2001. If there’s anything that makes me prouder than contributing to the same magazine that Gary Webb wrote for, I can’t think of it.
March 21, 2001 Silencing the Messenger Censoring NarcoNews by Gary Webb CounterPunch
Not long after I wrote a series for the San Jose Mercury News about a drug ring that had flooded South Central Los Angeles with cheap cocaine at the beginning of the crack explosion there, a strange thing happened to me. I was silenced.
This, believe it or not, came as something of a surprise to me. For 17 years I had been writing newspaper stories about grafters, crooked bankers, corrupt politicians and killers — and winning armloads of journalism awards for it. Some of my stories had convened grand juries and sent important people to well-deserved jail cells. Others ended up on 20/20, and later became a best-selling book (not written by me, unfortunately.) I started doing television news shows, speaking to college journalism classes and professional seminars. I had major papers bidding against each other to hire me.
So when I happened across information implicating an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in the cocaine trade, I had no qualms about jumping onto it with both feet. What did I have to worry about? I was a newspaperman for a big city, take-no-prisoners newspaper. I had the First Amendment, a law firm, and a multi-million dollar corporation watching my back.
Besides, this story was a fucking outrage. Right-wing Latin American drug dealers were helping finance a CIA-run covert war in Nicaragua by selling tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods in LA, who were turning it into crack and spreading it through black neighborhoods nationwide. And all the available evidence pointed to the sickening conclusion that elements of the US government had known of it and had either tacitly encouraged it or, at a minimum, done absolutely nothing to stop it.
And that’s when this strange thing happened. The national news media, instead of using its brute strength to force the truth from our government, decided that its time would be better spent investigating me and my reporting. They kicked me around pretty good, I have to admit. (At one point, I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about. The DEA raided my film agent’s office looking for any scrap of paper to back up this lie and appeared disappointed when they came up emptyhanded.)
To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I’ve written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess. Indeed, most of what has come out since shows that my newspaper stories grossly underestimated the extent of our government’s knowledge, an error to which I readily confess. But, in the end, the facts didn’t really matter. What mattered was making the damned thing go away, shutting people up, and making anyone who demanded the truth appear to be a wacky conspiracy theorist. And it worked.
October 20, 2014
The “Hacker Wars” opened at Village East Cinema last Friday and is playing through Thursday. This review is a bit belated but I do want to urge New Yorkers to check out the film since it puts a spotlight on figures in the Anonymous movement that were of some significance despite being obscure to many of us, including me. The film also hints at why the “Hacker Wars” were lost, an outcome that is in many ways parallel to the demise of the Occupy movement, its second cousin.
Let me start off by saying that it took me a while to warm up to this documentary since director Vivien Lesnik Weisman made the decision to adopt an MTV type aesthetic that made use of exceedingly short fragments of the various principals speaking about their experience as hackers that must have been calculated to appeal to a younger audience that ostensibly lacked the patience to hear someone speak for a lengthy period—like five minutes or so. When you superimpose a hip-hop soundtrack over the interviews, it becomes rather annoying to an old fogey like me.
That being said, there’s some important material in the film that must be considered by a left that has grown accustomed to the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing activists who made up the rank-and-file of both Anonymous and Occupy, many of whom were self-professed anarchists.
The film is basically a profile of three victims of the war on hactivism: Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer—aka “Weev”, Jeremy Hammond, and Barrett Brown. All have spent time or are spending time in prison for their role in Anonymous and its ancillary cabals. And all of them leave something to be desired as personalities and activists.
Weev was a member of Goatse Security (GoatSec), a small band of hackers that was part of the constellation of groups that were either part of Anonymous or “fellow travelers”. Considering the fact that Anonymous was not a membership organization as such, it is hard to pinpoint the various convergences between people like Weev and the network. His biggest hack was uncovering a flaw in AT&T security that made the e-mail addresses of iPad users easily accessible.
As a kind of black Kryptonite evil version of Abby Hoffman, Weev fancied himself as a joker, assuming the guise of Internet troll. When you come across the term in the film, it is important to note that this is not the same thing as, for example, a libertarian making himself a nuisance on Marxmail until he gets the boot. For Weev, trolling means harassing people mercilessly.
A lot of Weev’s shtick is badmouthing “Kikes”, “fags” and “niggers”, behavior that the film puts the best positive spin on, as a form of ironic social commentary on hypocrisy. But there’s probably an aspect of this that the film neglected, no doubt a function of its general affinity for hactivism.
While the film was obviously made some time ago, I wonder how director Weisman would have responded to Weev’s article this month on the neo-Nazi website “The Daily Stormer” titled “What I learned from my time in prison”.
I’ve been a long-time critic of Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda. Judge Wigenton was as black as they come. The prosecutor, Zach Intrater, was a Brooklyn Jew from an old money New York family. The trial was a sham…The whole time a yarmulke-covered audience of Jewry stared at me from the pews of the courtroom. My prosecutor invited his whole synagogue to spectate.
Maybe there’s a joke there but I don’t get it.
The documentary gives equal time to Barrett Brown, who was not a hacker but rather a kind of journalist/advocate for the movement, with credits in Vanity Fair and other mainstream outlets. Brown is a serious journalist, having written on a wide variety of topics including creationism. (He is the co-author of “Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny”.) But he is also something of a provocateur, although not so nearly as toxic as Weev. He is a long-time junkie and styles himself as a latter-day Hunter Thompson, even though that is my take on him rather than his or the film’s. A press conference he gave while taking a bath, for example, was pure Gonzo.
Brown has had a host of legal problems, largely tied to his complicity—at least as charged by the government—with Anonymous hacks. He also had charges of threatening an FBI agent, mostly stemming from a rant he made against the agent and his family in a drug-induced haze. He is all in all a much more fetching personality than Weev.
Finally, there’s Jeremy Hammond, who worked closely with “Sabu”, the tag used by Hector Xavier Monsegur. Sabu was part of the hacking group Lulz Security, commonly known as LulzSec, another part of the loosely-knit Anonymous network. The group’s biggest assaults were on communications megacorporations such as Sony and Fox News—much of it very high-profile even though LulzSec only consisted of six members.
In 2011 Sabu became an FBI snitch within 24 hours of being arrested. In the raids that followed from his becoming a rat, both Hammond and Brown became victims. The FBI, the judiciary and rightwing TV and radio have all lauded Sabu.
In a fleeting moment in this documentary, you see a cadre of hactivists sitting around bemoaning the arrests and pretty much agreeing that it destroyed Anonymous. I suspect that as long as Anonymous refrains from targeting American corporate behemoths, it will be able to raise hell in foreign countries, particularly those that are not American favorites.
After watching the film, it occurred to me that the lack of transparency and accountability in Anonymous as well as the black block wing of Occupy pretty much guaranteed the demise of dead-end anarchist tactics. The Guy Fawkes masks probably belong in the attic just as tie-dyed t-shirts and Nehru jackets ended up there by the time of the Carter presidency.
One final word on director Vivien Lesnik Weisman. She is a Cuban-American with a somewhat famous dad, Max Lesnik who scandalized the gusano community in Miami by rejecting its terrorism and advocating rapprochement with the Cuban government. His daughter made a documentary about him titled “The Man of Two Havanas” that unfortunately appears not to be available anywhere. This is from a Democracy Now interview with Weisman and her father:
AMY GOODMAN: Vivien, why did you do this film about your dad?
VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, first I wanted to explore my relationship with my father. It’s a personal film, as well as a political film. But my dad is — he has one passion, and that’s Cuba. So in order to understand my father better, I had to understand his passion. So therefore I went to Cuba. I got to know my country, the Cuban people, and was immersed in all the information about the terrorist groups that had targeted him throughout my childhood.
AMY GOODMAN: Had you understood this through your life?
VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, I was aware when I was growing up that we were bombed and that there were drive-by shootings in our house, and I lived in a constant state of siege, like a war zone. And Orlando Bosch —
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about here in the United States, when you lived in Florida.
VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Yes, that’s in Miami. And we were targeted by these people, the anti-Castro terrorists. And the two names, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know those names, because they were constantly being discussed. And one of the groups that targeted my father was under the umbrella terrorist group that Orlando Bosch headed.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Max Lesnik, as Vivien — in this film, The Man of Two Havanas, you, Little Havana in Miami and Havana, Cuba, as she tells the story, you were one of the revolutionaries with Fidel Castro. Describe your early years in Cuba before you split with Castro.
MAX LESNIK: I was a young leader of Ortodoxo Party.
AMY GOODMAN: Of the Orthodox Party?
MAX LESNIK: Orthodox Party, the same party that Fidel Castro belong at that time. I met Fidel in the University of Havana, year 1949, where I was only 18 years old. Fidel was maybe 20, 21. Both together fought — not the revolution, but in some way I started with the student movement fighting for reforms and going to all — the way the student at that time in Cuba did, fighting the police.
Then happened something incredible. At that time, Cuba was a democracy, but with defects, corruption, but democracy like your organization Democracy Now! But that system was overthrown by Batista. He was a sergeant in the ’33 revolution, and then he took power by arms in 1952. Then happened to Cuba the worst thing that can happen in a democracy: the overthrow of the system by a military group of — commanded by Batista, that was a senator at that time.
Then after that, the only way to change the situation is through the arms, because Batista don’t permit any play in democracy or something like free expression. Then Fidel went to hills in Oriente province, the most — the Oriental section of the island. I was related to the group that went to the center part of the island, the Escambray Mountains, and by that time we fought for two years as guerrillas, combatant. Then, the first of January, Batista left the country, and the revolution took power.
AMY GOODMAN: You were the first person in Havana of the group?
MAX LESNIK: I was one of the first —
AMY GOODMAN: Before Fidel Castro got there?
MAX LESNIK: Before Fidel. Fidel arrived to Havana in January the 8th, but I was in Havana the day that Batista left, because I was going forth from the Sierra to the city to organize the clandestine movement, and then Batista left the night of January the 1st, and then I go openly to the radio station and television station. I suppose I was the one of those who appear on television telling Batista left and we are here. In reality, only were a lot of people like milicianos in the city of Havana, but the rebel army was in Oriente and in Las Villas. I was alone fighting the government, because they was afraid that it’s true that I say that we have an army here, that it’s [inaudible] in a way functioned the joke.
October 17, 2014
In the course of researching my CounterPunch article on TV adaptations of Swedish Marxist detective novels, I became familiar with the looming presence of Nazi sympathizers in Sweden like the monstrous Vangers in Stieg Larssen’s Dragon Tattoo novels.
Just this week I viewed press screenings for two new films that focus in on another aspect of Swedish political history, the country’s longstanding neutrality that goes back to the early 19th century and that became widely known and respected during the Vietnam antiwar movement, when Prime Minister Olof Palme marched alongside the North Vietnamese Ambassador to the Soviet Union Nguyen Tho Chan.
“Diplomacy”, that opened on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at the Film Forum in New York, is set during the final days of WWII when Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling tries to persuade Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz not to blow up Parisian landmark edifices. “The Last Sentence”, available as a DVD or On Demand from Music Box Films, is a biopic set during the later years of Torgny Segerstedt, a newspaper editor who was famous for excoriating Adolph Hitler until the Swedish prime minister, deciding that the country’s neutrality was being undermined, clamped down on Segerstedt, confirming the precept once again that truth is the first casualty of war.
trailers for films under review:
October 16, 2014
Over the past month I have had multiple occasions to partake in Jewish high holiday rituals even though I am what Isaac Deutscher called a non-Jewish Jew.
My first encounter was a Rosh Hashanah dinner at the home of my wife’s former student, a relatively observant Iranian émigré. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Unlike January 1st for non-Jews, our New Year has much more religious significance. It marks the beginning of ten days of introspection culminated by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I don’t remember much about Rosh Hashanah from my early years in a Jewish household but the service involves blowing a ram’s horn—the Shofar.
I wore a yarmulke throughout, a skull cap that is nowadays called a kippah—a word that I never heard many years ago when I was observant myself, mostly a result of parental pressure than anything else. The etymology of yarmulke is interesting. It means “rainwear” and comes from the Turkish word yağmurluk. Yağmur, pronounced yahmur, means rain, the “luk” is a suffix that in this instance means “intended for”. This is something I will have to mention to my wife’s nephew from Istanbul who came to the dinner with us. He had a bit of a grin on his face when he put the yarmulke on. Wait until he finds out that it was a Turkish cap, not necessarily a Jewish one.
In all my years growing up in a Jewish household, we never had a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Our host explained that this was customary in Iran although I suspect that it was something that also occurred in Jewish households more orthodox than ours. Our host led us in a ritual that consisted of taking bites from dishes that had some special significance like an apple dipped in honey, a pomegranate, and the head of a fish. After each food was sampled, a prayer was recited. It has been many years since I recited a Hebrew prayer but the opening words, common to nearly all of them, starts “baruch atoh adenoai elochaynu…” words affirming that God is the Greatest, tailored to the occasion upon which they are being invoked. I remember them all these years even though nothing else I learned in Hebrew school sticks with me.
A week after the dinner I went to Shaaray Tefila, the Reform Synagogue on Second Avenue and Seventy-Ninth Street, on Saturday afternoon for Yizkor services as I have done ever since my mom died in 2008. This is part of Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that is the most solemn for Jews. I always go with an old friend from high school who first suggested that I join him back in 2009.
Yizkor services are for remembering a dead relative. At Shaaray Tefila, you get a mixture of Hebrew prayers that have been around for hundreds of years and modern verses composed by men and women with a flair for the moribund. The verses are essentially a statement about the fleetingness of life and the need to take consolation in the Lord, all in all evoking the Book of Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
When I was a religion major at Bard College, I was convinced by a professor’s claim that Greek Stoicism influenced the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. From The Enchiridion by Epictetus:
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves—that is, to our own views.
No matter how many times I hear such sentiments, it is hard for me to slough off the prospects of mortality, now much more immediate than ever as I approach my seventieth birthday dealing with one old man’s disorder or another, like hypertension. My old friend has a tougher row to hoe, a year into Parkinson’s disease. Death is “nothing terrible” when you are 30 or so but when you hit your seventies, you feel like you are walking in a minefield. They say that religion is mostly about getting a person to be reconciled to death through the promise of an afterlife. That’s little consolation to a hard-core materialist like me. The main thing I get out of prayers for the dead is a feeling that I am paying respect to my mom, who never found a way to make me more observant, even in the weak tea Reform Judaism she upheld.
Shaaray Tefila was in the news recently. The NY Times interviewed rabbis across the nation from Reform to Orthodox to see how they were handling the Gaza controversy. In almost all cases, a decision was made to not talk about it at all for fear of pissing off young antiwar Jews or old and well-to-do Zionists. The former rabbi at Shaaray Tefila weighed in:
“There is the sense that the ability to criticize Israel has been diminished because of the war, because of the atrocities that Hamas perpetrates among its own people, and because Israel needs our support since the international community is so overwhelmingly anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein, a recently retired senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan.
“The easy sermon for a rabbi to give this year will be on the rise of anti-Semitism across the world. That is a softball,” said Rabbi Stein, who is also the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents the Reform movement. “The more difficult sermon to give will be one that has any kind of critical posture.”
In keeping with the general thrust of the article, Stein made sure not to say anything demonstrating atonement for the deaths of women and children in Gaza.
That was a subject very much on my mind as I walked past the Chabad missionaries parked in front of my high-rise for the past few days celebrating Sukkot, a holiday that though proximate to Yom Kippur is tied to another Old Testament legend, the exodus of Jews from Egypt. Supposedly they lived in a kind of grass hut called a sukkah that serious Jews build for the occasion. They look like a tree house but sit on the ground. The holiday calls for eating your meals in a sukkah but hardly any of the Jews I grew up with built a sukkah let alone dined in them.
For some reason the Lubavitcher Hasidim, who are to the Chabad as Mormons are to their mandatory missionary service, are gung-ho on this holiday and implore apostates like me or simply secular Jews to take part in a ritual that involves waving a palm frond, the so-called lulav. The ritual is inspired by this verse in Leviticus:
On the first day, you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, an unopened palm frond (lulav), myrtle branches, and willows [that grow near] the brook. You shall rejoice before God for seven days.
Of course, Leviticus has all sorts of strictures that might strike a sensible person as odd, especially when the punishment for violating them is death by stoning:
Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.
Two days ago, the last time the missionaries showed up in front of my building, one asked me if I was Jewish—the start of a pitch to get someone to wave the lulav. I told him that I used to be Jewish, but no longer. He reassured me that I would always be Jewish as long as I had a Jewish mother. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:
Me: So what defines a Jew, his bloodlines or his deeds?
Him: (Pretty much ignoring my question) You will always be a Jew. It is in your soul.
Me: If I kill someone, will that mean I am still a good Jew as long as I wave the branch and eat Kosher?
Him: Yes, your soul will suffer but in god’s eyes you will be Jewish.
That was enough theology to last me until next year. Back to the materialist grindstone.
October 13, 2014
For the past few months, there has been a steady barrage of news reports on the moral failings of football players with a tendency to put the blame on those in positions of responsibility both in the professional and amateur realms. But as you might expect, there has been an utter failure to put football into a broader social and political context, something I hope to do in this essay.
In early September, Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice knocked out his wife and then dragged her unconscious body from an elevator in an Atlantic City hotel:
Roger Goodell, the CEO of the National Football League, then suspended Rice for two games—a decision that led to widespread disgust with both Rice and himself. Goodell has to walk a tightrope in such cases and other cases involving NFL accountability, such as the widespread incidence of brain damage in veteran players. He has to convince the media and the fans that he is for the integrity of the sport while making sure that the cash keeps flowing into the owners’ pockets. Ultimately he is responsible to them and not to society.
Ironically this balancing act was not much different than the one carried out by his father Charles Goodell, a Republican Senator who understood that NYers would not vote for someone too far to the right.
Not long after the Ray Rice incident broke the news, another scandal involving a NFL running back took place. Adrian Peterson, a Minnesota Vikings superstar, was arrested for beating his four-year-old son with a branch he tore from a tree. Why, you ask? Apparently the kid pushed his brother while he was playing a video game. TMZ broke this story, just as it did when it published the Ray Rice video. Here’s the police photo of the child’s whipping marks.
Ray Rice was a star football player at Rutgers. This school was in the news a couple of years ago for the bullying behavior of its basketball coach who routinely called his players “faggots”, “motherfuckers”, etc. when he wasn’t throwing the ball at their head for mistakes made during practice. Apparently the football team had the same sort of culture. David Cohen, the defensive coordinator, was accused of bullying by defensive back Jevon Tyree who told the Daily News that Cohen called him a “pussy” and threatened to head-butt him.
I don’t know if there was much of a bullying problem at the University of Oklahoma but Adrian Peterson’s alma mater was host to a kind of Hells Angel clubhouse under coach Barry Switzer in the late 80s. In January 1989 cornerback Jerry Parks shot offensive lineman Zarak Peters in the chest during a drinking bout, only missing his heart by a couple of inches. When the players weren’t trying to kill each other, they were out terrorizing women. One week after the shooting sophomore running back Glen Bell, sophomore offensive tackle Nigel Clay and junior tight end Bernard Hall gang raped a woman on campus. Afterwards Switzer said on local television, “You can’t speak in general terms and say that these players are out of control. That’s totally ridiculous.”
This kind of behavior is fairly typical for the powerhouse football teams like the U. of Oklahoma and Florida State that got profiled in a long investigative piece that appeared in the NY Times on October 11th. Florida State first became part of the national dialogue on football criminality when its superstar quarterback Jameis Winston got kid gloves treatment by the local cops, their campus colleagues and the administration after a female student charged him with rape.
The Times article describes a widespread pattern of thuggish behavior sanctioned by the cops, who were major fans of the football team and benefited from part-time jobs at the arena, as well as malign neglect from the administration:
The cops received a 911 call in January:
“You just need to get someone out here right away because it is really bad,” the caller said, adding that the man was “punching” the mother and “grabbing the little baby around the arm.”
But when the cops discovered that the man was a member of the Seminole football team (a name that dishonors the indigenous peoples just as much as the Redskins), they decided the charge of domestic violence was “unfounded”.
In June the cops got another call. Jesus (Bobo) Wilson had stolen another student’s motor scooter that supposedly he had permission to ride but whose last name he did not know. The cop decided not to arrest him because “he cooperated, showed no signs of guilt and provided a plausible story that needs to be investigated.” A report surfaced today that cops are likely to kill a Black youth 21 times more frequently than a white. I guess the one way to avoid a bullet or an arrest is to get recruited to the Seminoles.
The team has a favorite form of recreation to relieve the stress that goes along with drills on the field and big-time games with other powerhouse teams. Players arm themselves with bb guns and ride around campus shooting at windows or students for target practice. When I was 11 years old or so I got shot in the leg with a bb gun. It won’t kill you but it hurts like hell. Also, you don’t want to get shot in the eye even if it amuses a jock.
The article also reported on how Jameis Winston is holding up to the rape charge:
Most recently, university officials suspended Mr. Winston for one game after he stood in a public place on campus and, playing off a running Internet gag, shouted a crude reference to a sex act. In a news conference afterward, his coach, Jimbo Fisher, said, “Our hope and belief is Jameis will learn from this and use better judgment and language and decision-making.”
A search of his public Instagram page would have turned up a similar display. Amid photos of himself with his coach, the comedian Will Ferrell and the former N.F.L. quarterback Archie Manning, Mr. Winston posted a video clip in February in which he and a teammate, mimicking a viral music video, jokingly sang a line from the song “On the Floor” by the rapper IceJJFish, which celebrates men not taking “no” for an answer from women:
“She said she wants to take it slow, I’m not that type of guy I’ll letcha know, when I see that red light all I know is go.”
If the NFL is at the top of the food chain and the college is in the middle, then high school is where the minnows can be found. In a scandal that has New Jersey and the northeast doing some soul-searching, seven members of the Sayreville high school football team were arrested for sexual assault as NJ.com reported:
It came without warning.
It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off.
In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.
Sayreville is one of the state’s football elites, sending players to Rutgers and other Division One colleges on a fairly regular basis. It is 67 percent white and a home to many working class ethnics who love their football. Commentators have asked, “Where were the authorities” when all this was going on. I strongly suspect that the coach knew about it and might have even encouraged it as a way of “toughening” up the players. Isn’t this in line with what happened to Miami Dolphin tackle Jonathan Martin? Richie Incognito might not have stuck his finger up his ass but he degraded him in other ways like calling him “my nigger” and warning him that he was going to go to his house and rape his sister.
In fact this pattern of abuse between players, between coaches and their players, and the players and innocent bystanders walking to class, is absolutely fundamental. This is a sport based on aggression. It is no accident that every Super Bowl is a Nuremberg rally for the American military.
If we ever have a socialist revolution in the USA, the first thing that should happen after the nationalization of the banks and the commanding heights of industry is the abolition of football, both professional and amateur.
A couple of months ago, Steve Almond’s “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto” was published. It includes a chapter “All Games Aspire to the Condition of War”—that should give you an idea of where he is coming from. I am not sure if I will have time to read Almond’s book but would if I did based on an article that Almond wrote for the Village Voice a while back, one of the few worth reading in this putrid newsweekly.
The irony, of course, is that sports — and football, in particular — is no longer simply a form of entertainment. It has become something closer to a national religion, a form of devotion that shapes the emotional lives of millions of men and women and unites us as no other cultural activity can.
It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.
At the same time, football has become the nation’s most prominent growth industry. Commissioner Goodell — a man paid nearly $30 million in 2011 — has made no secret of his financial ambitions. The NFL reported revenues of about $10 billion last year. Goodell’s stated goal for the league is to generate $25 billion annually by 2027, which would put the NFL in the company of global behemoths such as Nike and McDonald’s. College football has followed the same eye-popping trajectory, which has, in turn, led to the rampant commercialization of the high school game.
As might be expected, this popularity has been reflected in the volume of media coverage the sport attracts. In an era of dwindling resources for straight news, football has become a dependable cash cow and a driving force in the expansion of the ESPN brand and sports punditry, in general. The most popular radio programs are now broadcast live on television.
Read the full article: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2014/08/against_football_author_steve_almond.php
October 12, 2014
Robert Brenner, the godfather of Political Marxism
One of the upcoming featured articles in the ISO’s International Socialist Review is titled “The poverty of Political Marxism”. Written by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, it will obviously be a polemic directed against the academic trend dedicated to applying the “Brenner thesis” to various historical events, including the American Civil War.
Briefly summarized, the Brenner thesis claims that capitalism developed originally in the British countryside in the 17th century as a result of the introduction of tenant farming that put a premium on competition. Once it took hold in Britain, it diffused to the rest of the world.
Furthermore, Political Marxism has a fairly strict definition of capitalism. Without free labor, it simply does not exist. So, in the case of the Southern slave states, you had something called “precapitalism”, according to Charles Post. Needless to say, this category was not very prevalent in a Marxism that continued to stress the need for identifying social relations more exactly. Wouldn’t there be a need to distinguish 19th century plantations in Alabama from slave labor during Nero’s age?
Although Brenner never wrote much about the bourgeois revolution—as far as I know—his followers developed a theory that no such thing existed, especially in France in 1789 when, according to Brennerite George Comninel, the monarchy was toppled by aristocrats rather than the bourgeoisie.
I first learned about the Brenner thesis from Jim Blaut in the mid-90s when he showed up on the mailing list preceding Marxmail urging people to read “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that was a reply in part to Robert Brenner. After reading it, I was motivated to begin writing my own articles on the Brenner thesis but from a somewhat different angle than Jim’s. As someone who remained very much committed to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, I wanted to try to evaluate the Brenner thesis in terms of my own education in the SWP. I might have rejected the group’s sectarianism but continued to value the emphasis it put on Trotsky’s writings that saw the tendency for feudal social relations and modern capitalist property relations to co-exist as they did in Czarist Russia on the eve of the Russian Revolution.
Starting in the late 90s, I wrote 32 articles on the Brenner thesis that can be read here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins.htm. Most were written after Jim had died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. At the risk of sounding either self-important or—more likely—like a crank, there was practically nobody criticizing the Brenner thesis except me. For the most part, this was a function of the thesis enjoying a kind of hegemony on the academic left. If you spent any amount of time on JSTOR as I did courtesy of my employment at Columbia University, you will discover dozens of articles paying tribute to Robert Brenner in the most glowing terms. What was the explanation for that? Jim Blaut tried to provide one in an essay on Brenner that was included in his follow-up to the Colonizer’s Model titled “Eight Eurocentric Historians”:
Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.
What was badly needed at this juncture was a strong Euro-Marxist theory of the original rise of capitalism, a theory demonstrating that capitalism and modernization originated in Europe, and evolved thereafter mainly in Europe and with little influence from the non-European world and colonialism. The crucial questions were matters of medieval and early-modern history, of proving that Europe was the source of innovation back in those times, and so the modern European world (joined lately by Japan) is still, by implication, the main source of innovation. Robert Brenner supplied such a theory in two long essays in 1976 and 1977, followed by another in 1982.2 These essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.
Over the past few years I have been gratified to see others wading in on the Brenner thesis, especially Henry Heller, the author of “The Birth of Capitalism”, a book that came out in 2011. Heller had two motivations in writing such a book: first, to prove that the lease farming analysis was false and second, to reestablish the legacy of the bourgeois revolution. Heller is also the author of “The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815”, a book whose title obviously indicates its theoretical orientation just as much as Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, another rebuttal to George Comninel and the Political Marxists.
I was also encouraged to see the Deutscher Prize awarded to Jairus Banaji in 2011 for his collection of essays “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. It came out the same year as Heller’s and was chosen over Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism”. To my knowledge, Banaji has never referred to Brenner specifically in his writings but given his commitment to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, it was inevitable that he would implicitly challenge some of the basic precepts of Political Marxism by referring, for example, in one essay to the theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, where the colonial commission spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies on feudal foundations.
What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the new initiatives taken by younger scholars in the field, symbolized by the article by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu that will appear in the next ISR. Some time invested in a Google search revealed quite a rich vein of scholarly research carried out by these two and other like-minded critics of Political Marxism and that is available online. Let me review them now in the hope that you will dig in to this important theoretical question: how did capitalism arise?
1. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, “What’s at Stake in the Transition Debate? Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism and the ‘Rise of the West’”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies 2013 42: 78
Interestingly, the article is a defense of combined and uneven development from the charge of Eurocentrism mounted by Indian scholars and by John M. Hobson, the author of “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” and the great grandson of the man whose ideas on imperialism influenced Lenin.
The authors seek to resolve the contradiction between the “internal” explanation of capitalism defended by Brenner and the “external” (Italian city-state trade, Spanish plunder of the New World, etc.) defended by Sweezy and Wallerstein on a higher level. The article shows that the Ottoman Empire had a major role in creating the conditions for the rise of capitalism in Europe by undermining the possibility of European unity under the grip of an absolutist state:
Aside from these new commercial privileges, the effects of the Ottoman geopolitical buffer were especially pronounced in English intra-lord class relations and the peculiar development of the English state. A variety of authors have stressed the significance of England’s lack of involvement in continental geopolitical conflicts from 1450 onwards as a fundamental factor in its peculiar development of capitalism.
It also stresses the importance of the New World plunder that served as kind of supercharger for capitalist development internally:
In the first instance, the bullion confiscated in the Americas lubricated the circuits of capital accumulation within Europe as a whole, providing the liquid specie for Europe’s vibrant trade with the East. By 1650, the flow of precious metals from the Americas reaching Europe is estimated to have amounted to at least 180 tons of gold and 17,000 tons of silver. Between 1561 and 1580, about 85 per cent of the entire world’s production of silver came from the Americas. This provided the capital for European merchants’ profitable trade with Asia and East Africa in textiles and particularly spices.
2. Kerem Nisancioglu, “Before the Deluge: The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism”, a paper presented to a Millennium conference in 2012
This paper expands on the findings in the article cited above. I was particularly interested in this question since in prior discussions I have had with people on the Turkish left, including my wife, I always had the impression that the Ottoman Empire was certainly not capitalist, even if it was not exactly like European feudalism. What was it exactly? Nisancioglu characterizes it as being based on the tributary mode of production, a more general category that includes European feudalism. In the Ottoman Empire, the state was much more powerful than it was in Western Europe and hence far more capable of achieving control over a vast territory through internal financing for a standing army. In its confrontations with Europe, the Ottomans inadvertently created the conditions for the rise of capitalism that would eventually be their undoing:
The Euro-Ottoman relation was therefore marked by the relative backwardness of the European ruling classes, and the comparative weakness in its form of social reproduction. These European ‘privileges of backwardness’ encouraged and compelled its people – both ruling and ruled classes – to develop and adopt new ways of securing their social reproduction. At the same time, the relative strength of the Ottoman social form entailed a ‘disadvantage of progressiveness’, wherein the stability of social reproduction provided no immanent impulse for change or development. This relation of unevenness goes some way to explaining why the so- called miracle of capitalism would occur in Europe, and why it would not be repeated in Ottoman territories. That this divergence was a product of Ottoman progressiveness and European backwardness suggests that Eurocentric assumptions of historical priority need to be reconsidered.
3. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “Approaching ‘the international’: Beyond Political Marxism”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs
I suspect that this article anticipates some of the same criticisms that Anievas and Nisancioglu make in the upcoming ISR article, although given the venue it was obviously less polemical than what we can expect to see. As was the case with the previous articles, Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is invoked as a corrective to Political Marxism’s tendency to draw a sharp distinction between social relations dictated by the market and “extra-economic” coercion of the kind that existed under both feudalism and the absolutist states of the early modern era. That being said, I do find the article making concessions to Political Marxism that I would not have made. For example, they write:
Only under capitalist property relations do we see the structured differentiation of the political and economic into distinct institutional spheres as methods of surplus-extraction become uncoupled from ‘extra-economic’ coercive means. In other words, under capitalism extra-economic coercion (that is, state power) and economic coercion (the compulsion to sell one’s labour in order to access the means of production) are necessarily separate. ‘As in every other exploitative system’, Wood (2006, 15) writes, ‘there are two “moments” of exploitation: the appropriation of surplus labour and the coercive power that sustains it. In capitalism, however these two “moments”: are uniquely separate from each other’.
Unless I misunderstand them, they would put the plantation system of the old South outside the sphere of capitalist property relations since it rests almost exclusively on “extra-economic” coercive means. As I shall explain later, the most recent research demonstrates rather conclusively that the plantation system was fully integrated into the world capitalist system, thus restoring Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery”, an analysis based on the combined and uneven development principles Williams learned from CLR James, to its rightful place in the arsenal of Marxism.
4. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “The Uneven and Combined Development of the Meiji Restoration: A Passive Revolutionary Road to Capitalist Modernity”, Capital and Class
If free labor is a sine qua non for Political Marxism, how does it explain the Meiji Restoration in which feudal relations in the countryside were used to reinforce capitalist property relations in the city? Easy…it ignores it.
Thanks to Allinson and Anievas, we get some insights into what happened in Japan and as it turns out Junkers Germany as well. They write:
This combined formation is not, however, to be grasped in a mechanical way but rather as emerging in the crises and responses of the actors in Japanese society. The Meiji reforms abolished the legal and economic basis of the samurai class and prebendal power over the direct producers. However, the abolition of the dues of the samurai class was achieved at the expense of the peasants, rendered notionally free but in fact still subject to ‘semi-servile’ agrarian relations (Hirano, 1948: 4). By this time, ‘Japan’s uneven development had produced a highly concentrated urban capitalist sector, contrasting sharply with conditions in the countryside that many Marxists came to see as vestiges of feudalism’ (Hoston, 1986: 9). The origins of Japan’s agrarian class crisis, which intertwined with industrial class struggle in the 1920s and to which ‘imperial fascism’ was a response, lay in this ramified social structure.
Back in 1997 or thereabouts, I wrote my first article on the Brenner thesis in which I came to similar conclusions:
Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.
In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.
Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:
Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.
It is hard for me to understand why the Political Marxists are so little motivated to look closely at what might be called “capitalism from above”. Isn’t it about time that we concluded that even though Marx had good reasons to chronicle the origins of capitalism in Britain as it was the “purest form”, resting as it did on market forces rather than extra-economic coercion, this particular historical example was in many ways unique? After all, Marx told the Russian populists that Capital was not intended as a universal schema for social development.
A free market in labor developed in Britain because there was a surplus of labor generated by the enclosure acts that forced self-husbanding farmers to seek employment as wage workers. In the colonies, the Indians could not be relied upon since they would run away from a plantation and subsist as they always had through hunting and fishing. Naturally you would import slaves from Africa and keep them disciplined by the whip and the noose.
Two books came out recently that set a high bar for Political Marxists like Charles Post. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes trying to answer Walter Johnson and Edward E. Baptist who carried out rigorous research of primary material in order to make the case that slavery in the Old South was capitalist, even if it didn’t correspond to a schema wrenched out of V. 1 of Capital. I have Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” and Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” and can’t wait to sit down and work my way through them.
While there may be excerpts from Johnson’s book online somewhere, I think your best bet is to read Gilbert Winant’s review in N+1, a Marxist journal of the new generation. Winant writes:
For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.
I would only add that I found it most odd that Ellen Meiksins Wood regarded John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of the emerging capitalist system since he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony that enshrined slavery as a natural right. That contradiction is, of course, for her and other Political Marxists to unravel.
If anything, Edward E. Baptist is even more emphatic on classifying slavery as part of the American capitalist system. I would refer you to Charles Larson’s CounterPunch review:
The men (often with a thousand pounds of iron connecting them) were part of a coffle, enslaved migrants walking seven or eight hundred miles, chattel property, being moved from the north to the south because the profits when they were sold to their new owners were one hundred percent. The slave trade in Africa no longer mattered because slaves in the more northern states (Virginia, especially, but also Maryland) were reproducing so quickly that they created an entire new source of labor. Baptist gives the year as 1805, and states that eventually a million slaves were herded this way to the South. Tobacco farming in the North was less profitable than cotton farming in the South. “The coffle chained the early American republic together.” Slaves walked and walked for five or six weeks, performing their ablutions as they moved. There wasn’t an iota of dignity for the men. Baptist refers to the entire procedure as a “pattern of political compromise” between the North and the South and notes that eight of the first twelve Presidents of the United States were slave owners.
Well, of course. Slave-owners led the American Revolution that Lenin considered to be an exemplary “revolution from below”. They were certainly the most consistent defenders of bourgeois prerogatives, including the right to own men and women as if they were beasts of burden. And after the Northern bourgeoisie reconciled with its Southern former enemies in 1876, “extra-economic” coercion was restored in the South and continued through most of the 20th century until Blacks mobilized to end Jim Crow just as they had in the 1860s to end slavery. And during slavery, Jim Crow and modern ‘free labor’ conditions (excluding the profit-making penitentiary system), it has remained capitalism all along. I will conclude with this thought. Capitalism is about commodity production for the purposes of gaining what Piketty calls “capital”—wealth in other words. Whether the labor that produces the wealth is in chains or “free” to be sold to the highest bidder makes hardly any difference at all, least of all to the bastards who rule the world.
October 10, 2014
COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION OCTOBER 10-12, 2014
If any further evidence of the uselessness of Netflix was needed, I refer you to the recently concluded four-picture deal with Adam Sandler, who is to movies as Danielle Steel and Ken Follett are to the novel. Did you ever forget to bring a book with you on a long airplane trip and stop in at an airline terminal to look for something to read? Wall to wall Steel and Follett, right? Bummer. That’s the same reaction I have been having lately looking for something to watch on Netflix. That is not to speak of the cheesy menu that basically propagates the same junk across “Popular on Netflix”, “Recently Added” and “New Releases”. A quick look there turns up “Jackass presents: Grandpa” and “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner”. Considering the fact that most Netflix subscribers have never heard of Kurosawa or Godard, it is quite a statement that “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner” only garnered one and a half stars, an inflated grade considering the fact that you can’t rate something as zero stars.
As a sop to the art house crowd, one supposes, Netflix is also releasing the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a film that has all of the superficial characteristics of Hong Kong cinema but none of the substance, least of all the nimbleness of the classics like the 1978 “Drunken Master” starring Jackie Chan. Ang Lee should have stuck to what he knows best, tales of anomie in the aging yuppie milieu.
I just checked the archives of the Marxism list and discovered a message I wrote in 2006 recommending Netflix followed by an enthusiastic New York Times article that compared the service favorably to Blockbuster. That was true. Of course a sharp stick in the eye would have been better than Blockbuster as well.
trailers for films discussed in the article:
Opening today at the Quad in New York, “Waiting for August” is a cinema vérité Romanian documentary about seven children fending for themselves while their mother works as a housekeeper in Italy in order to provide the money the family needs to stay afloat. The father is unaccounted for—we don’t know if he is deceased or has simply bailed ship.
Like the best cinema vérité, especially early Frederick Wiseman, the film is making a point about society but without being too obvious about it. The subject under consideration is the precariousness of post-Communist Romania. At one point, just before Christmas, the children, who range from 15 to 4 by all appearances, are chatting about the upcoming holiday. One of the older children says that the TV will be showing pictures of that guy who was killed around Christmas time years ago. Who do you mean, asks the other? Ceausescu is the reply. He was the dictator under Communism when we had it so bad. You had to stand on line for bread rations. The irony is not lost on the audience who cannot help but be dismayed by the thin line that separates the seven kids from disaster. When you see a ten year old cutting potatoes for dinner, you wonder how long it will take for her to cut her hand. That is the feeling you are left with throughout the film. The suspense is whether they will all make it safely until August, when mom returns.
Seen in economic terms exclusively, a capitalist ideologue might argue that the film makes the case for capitalism since the kids use cell phones, watch cable TV, Skype to their mom on the family computer, and have the bare necessities for staying alive, including food, clothing and a roof over their heads. But crowded into no more than four rooms, their only pleasure besides their own companionship is watching soap operas on TV and passively taking in other electronic diversions on the computer. If Communist austerity was made possible by police repression, capitalist austerity is maintained by the free market—especially in labor as mom—like so many other Romanian parents apparently—is free to work in Italy to keep her children under the same roof. We learn that a nun who is aware of the family situation is on the verge of calling in the authorities to have the children put into an orphanage. It is not too hard to understand how so many young woman from Eastern Europe end up in the sex trade after seeing “Waiting for August”.
Not everything is grim in this documentary. In fact you are impressed with the strength and the love of the older children who function as surrogate parents. It can only make you feel, however, that they are losing the freedom of normal children who are able to make their lives their own growing up.
On the film’s website (http://waitingforaugust.be/), the 33 year old director Teodora Ana Mihai explains her motivation for making the film:
My parents fled Romania in 1988 and were granted political asylum in Belgium. I stayed behind as a guarantee for the secret services that my mom and dad would return: it was the only way for them to flee the country. In the absence of prospects, parents sometimes take risks whose consequences are difficult to calculate in advance. In the end I was lucky: about a year later, after some diplomatic interventions, I was able to leave Romania too and was reunited with my parents. But that one-year absence during my childhood left a significant mark on me.
I remain in close contact with my country of birth, intrigued and preoccupied by its current fate. It’s this connection with Romania that made me realize that, in a way, history is repeating itself there. The difference is that children are no longer left behind for political reasons, but for economic ones. The impact on the child though, remains the same.
The economic migrants are occasionally given a voice by the media, but we hardly ever hear from the young ones left behind. That is why I wanted to tell their story – the story behind the story.
But telling the story of children who are left behind by their parents is a delicate matter. It is a taboo in practically all cultures, as no one is proud of ending up in such circumstances. It was not an easy task to find a family who were not only expressive enough, but who also agreed to be filmed in an open, uncensored way.
As is the case with so many Romanian narrative films like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”, this documentary turns a gimlet eye toward the contradictions of post-Communist society. Is there an alternative to Communist police state austerity and the insecurities of capitalism? One imagines that director Teodora Ana Mihai hopes that her audience will be inspired to answer that question for themselves, a question that most of Eastern Europe and the entire planet ponders much of the time in an epoch of declining economic expectations.