Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 4, 2015

A masterclass in sophistry: Patrick Cockburn on the Russian intervention in Syria

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

Originally posted on P U L S E:

by Gilbert Achcar

A recent 2-part series on Syria in The Independent by Patrick Cockburn, one of the most influential journalists on the subject, is a masterclass in sophistry that illustrates why the conflict is so misunderstood. A closer look is therefore instructive.

On October 2, in an article titled “Syria crisis: The West wrings its hands in horror but it was our folly that helped create this bloodbath”, Cockburn writes:

Reaction to Russia’s military intervention in Syria shows that the lack of knowledge of the Syrian political landscape on the part of Western political leaders and media is hindering the adoption of more constructive policies. During the past four years, over-simplifications and wishful thinking have prevented any realistic attempt to end the civil war, mitigate its effects or stop it from spreading to other countries.

Since 2011 the departure from power of President Bashar al-Assad has been prescribed…

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October 3, 2015

War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength

Filed under: journalism,mechanical anti-imperialism,Syria — louisproyect @ 11:50 pm

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Alexander Cockburn on chess and geopolitics

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,chess — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Last week not long after Jeff St. Clair received my article in “Chess as Metaphor”, he wrote me back informing me that Alexander Cockburn had written a book about chess in the 1970s. Since chess and Cockburn were two of my passions, I immediately ordered the book from Amazon.com and began reading it. The book is not about “how to win with the Ruy Lopez Opening” but about the politics and psychology of chess players, including some of the most famous like Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Botvinnik, the Russian champion who gets discussed in a chapter titled “Proletarian, Socialist Chess”. You can imagine how that chapter piqued my interest. As it turns out, there is a section in it that deals with geopolitics and chess, a subject I referred to briefly in my CounterPunch article. Cockburn has a somewhat different take on their relationship but we come pretty close to converging around his idea that “No game model, such as chess, can in the end tolerate the notion of total contradiction, since all games accept the idea of rules.” Like so many articles in this vein, Pepe Escobar referred to chess in his Oct. 1 article titled “Obama, Putin: Checkmate”. But if there is anything that Syria symbolizes, it is the contradictory nature of geopolitics—one in which Israel, the USA, Iran and Russia are working together to one degree or another to prop up the rotting cadaver of Baathism. Since the war in Syria was always supposed to be a proxy war with Israel and the USA playing black and Russia and Iran playing white, how do you explain this new axis of resistance with Netanyahu and Obama joining the axis of resistance? Maybe if chess was played with a much larger board and the pieces came in 50 shades of gray, the analogy would hold.

Alexander Cockburn:


“We play poker, they play chess” used to be the adage at one school for international relations in the United States. It was also, it seems, a favored phrase of President Kennedy. The thought behind the words was that the Communist enemy, in all his Oriental cunning, had a strategy thoroughly conceived and inherently rational: move would be countered by move; and uncertainty and chance eliminated. “We,” on the other hand, play poker “We” gamble and bluff.

As we have seen, the emphasis on the enemy’s playing chess has a venerable ancestry in high and low art. But where the little maxim about chess and poker goes seriously wrong is in the supposition that “our side” is not interested in conceiving of war or diplomacy in chess terms. In ancient and in modern times the very opposite has been the case. We have seen that legend has chess being invented as a rehearsal or exemplar of war. There are innumerable examples of generals and statesmen expressing enthusiasm for chess, and their suggestion that their own trade is simply conducted on a larger board. In the popular imagination, mirroring such sentiments, international affairs are often conceived in terms of chess imagery. Hardly an issue of Punch magazine in the nineteenth century was complete without a cartoon of “the chessboard of Europe” simulating the play of policy and maneuver.

The July 1972 issue of Foreign Affairs contained an attack by Stanley Hoffman on balance-of-power theories such as those proposed by Henry Kissinger. Hoffman’s purpose was to denounce the equilibrium model of five superstates (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan and the European Economic Community).

To use Raymond Aron’s terms, the balance of power is a model of “strategic diplomatic behaviour.” The essence of international relations is seen as a contest of states on a chessboard, on which the players try to maximise their power at each other’s expense, and on which the possibility of war makes military potential and might the chief criterion of power. This view still fits much of the “game of nations,” for it follows from the logic of a decentralised milieu, whatever the specific nature of the units or the social and economic systems which they embody.

Hoffman goes on to assert that this model is invalid, since it underestimates the predominance of the United States and the Soviet Union in nuclear equipment. Thus, he concludes that the chessboard image is inappropriate to the analysis of international relations.

It would be surprising if this abundant use of chess imagery had not found its enthusiasts in the military complex. And indeed it has. In the late eighteenth century the Duke of Brunswick was made head of the Prussian armies. He was viewed with great favor by Frederick the Great, who dispatched to him numerous young gentlemen to be instructed in military doctrine. The Duke instructed his master of pages, Herr Helwig, to produce a suitable and not too unpleasant mode of instruction. Helwig came up with the first modern war game.

The idea came to me . . . of rendering sensible, not to say palpable, a few principles and rules of the military art . . . to pages of the Duke . . . and those young noblemen destined some day for military service. Independently of this objective my secondary one was to offer . . . an agreeable recreation by laying before them a game which, at first sight, presented different objects and operations, and which depended upon nothing but the rules and combinations made up by the players. The first thought which presented itself to my mind was that the learning of my game ought not to be burdened with too many de tails if it was to fulfill its mission. . . . I should achieve my objective in the quickest way if I took for its basis the game of chess .. . my idea was to adapt the game of chess to my own game . . .5

Helwig made a board of 1666 squares, colored according to geographical particularities. The pieces were modeled on chess pieces, receiving values according to the army of the time (since the original chess pieces were probably based on the state of the Indian army in the first century AD.) .6

“I was not deceived in my expectations,” Helwig wrote, “and experience confirmed the wisdom of my judgment, for chess players were the first to welcome my invention; they found it a source of great amusement, and they set to work to make it better known.” The Prussian General von der Goltz was not so enthusiastic “This war game is a bad product of the refined military education of the period, which had piled up so many difficulties that it was incapable of taking a step in advance.”

Despite such animadversions the genie was out of the bottle. Every staff college could boast of its war game and by the early twentieth century most nurseries their boxes of Attack and Tri-tactics. Many of the battles of World War I were rehearsed in war games. After Versailles the German military, bereft for a time of actual troops, had to rely on war games. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was “gamed” in advance. The Germans also simulated invasions of the Ukraine and of England. The Japanese were also enthusiasts: “Late in 1941 Cinc Combined Fleet ordered all Fleet commanders and their key staff members to Tokyo for further war games. . . . On September 2 the final and most important games started . . . the details of a surprise raid on Pearl Harbor.”

After the Second World War the United States took the lead. By the seventies over sixty organizations were interested in or engaged in war-gaming. In addition, STAG (United States Army Strategy and Tactics Analysis Group) estimates that of the more than two hundred organizations engaged in analysis in support of military decision-making, about one quarter of approximately three thousand projects per year utilize some war-gaming techniques.

All war games must, in the last analysis, ascribe certain behavior patterns to the “enemy.” The war-gamer is in the position of having to define, within the limits of his knowledge, what he imagines the enemy’s intentions are. Even minimax calculations of a zero-sum games’ model imply some opinion of what the opposition might regard as minimum and maximum benefit.

The chess model assumes this knowledge, and so do war games that follow in its path. Chess is, after all, a game played on a one-to-one basis, in the sight of both parties, with parity of intention and with equality of forces. Its operation is one of initiative and response and counterinitiative. Although one or other of the players may devise a strategy that is difficult to analyze, it is always assumed that the object will become clear, as the player nears his objective of mating his opponent, and as the opponent comprehends that plan. The players are, in short, playing the same game.

At some levels this “chess matrix” can be transferred to the military or diplomatic plane, but the matrix still assumes, within certain limits, parity of intention and parity of means. Scott Boorman confronts the dangers of this position in his book The Protracted Game, a wei-chi interpretation of Maoist revolutionary strategy. (Wei-chi is the Chinese name for the game more commonly known as Go.) As he remarks in his introduction, “The value and validity of analysis of a military strategy employed at a given place and time are in great part determined by the strategic preconceptions of the analyst, by his criteria for assessing the importance and the correctness of a given strategic decision.”

Boorman goes on to discuss Chinese strategy, which “abounds in paradoxes when judged by the standards of conventional Western military doctrine—its use of fluid operational methods and yet its reliance upon relatively stable base areas; its emphasis on efficiency and yet its tolerance of protraction; its delight in complexity in contrast to the simplicity of Western warfare.” He suggests that Chinese strategy can in fact be best distinguished by reference to the game of wei-chi, and he proceeds at some length to do so.

But Boorman makes a mistake in his efforts to show that Western analysts must think themselves into the strategies and tactics of Wei-chi to understand Chinese intentions and maneuvers. For Boorman, it is a question of counterposing Western to Eastern traditions, rather than bourgeois war to people’s war. As a matter of fact chess is in origin an Eastern game, and the guerrilla warfare he discusses has emerged in the West. Chess can provide a very inadequate model of relations between similarly organized hierarchical states but is completely inapplicable to revolutionary civil war. Wei-chi is probably only a little bit better in this respect, since it too tends to start from some equivalence of position, at least in the sense that the two players are at the same game, with the same rules. This is never true of revolutionary civil war.

It is intriguing to speculate that 1972 was a year in which the major Communist powers, for their own reasons, were prepared to play the same game as Nixon, giving a strictly limited validity to Kissinger-type game theory. Now, chess may have some lessons for economic planning and conventional war and diplomacy—even though this is rare. But it has none for revolutionary struggle on the national and international plane, and this is where the Russian zealots for the game in the twenties made their mistake. Ultimately the antagonism and incomparability of United States imperialism on the one side and Russia and China as postrevolutionary states on the other will undermine any application of game theory to their relations with each other, just as the Vietnamese struggle invalidated it in Indochina.

No game model, such as chess, can in the end tolerate the notion of total contradiction, since all games accept the idea of rules. The subversive force is not the cheat. He accepts the rules in so far as he distorts them, within their terms. The subversive is the person who refuses to accept the rules at all. You cannot cheat at chess, but you can refuse to play it. The ultimate foolishness, of such people as the war-game planners, is to expect that everyone will play by the same rules with the same intentions as themselves. The game of chess is not, as I have tried to stress in this book, part of normal social reality. Symbolic meanings are not amenable to exact transliteration.


October 2, 2015


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran

Paradoxically, Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi” is now the third film the Iranian director has made despite the twenty-year ban on making films imposed by his nation’s morality police. What keeps him out of prison, you might ask? It is likely a function of his enormous prestige. Since he is widely recognized as one of Iran’s leading directors along with Abbas Kiarostami, with whom he has written two films, and Asghar Farhadi, it would be unacceptable to put him in prison. As a sign of the delicate balance between acclaim and censure, the state-controlled Cinema Organisation, congratulated Panahi for winning the Berlin Film Festival while at the same time accusing it of undermining the Iranian state. Its top executive Hojjatollah Ayyubi stated, “I am delighted to announce that the director of Taxi continues to drive in the fast lane of his life, freely enjoying all of its blessings.”

Read full article

September 29, 2015

Will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank be any different than the World Bank?

Filed under: Argentina,China,economics,imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

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The day before yesterday an article appeared on the Guardian website that had the aura of a Chinese government press release:

As world leaders met quietly behind the scenes, others lined up to express support for the new development push that aimed to eliminate both poverty and hunger over the next 15 years. They replace a soon-to-expire set of development goals whose limited success was largely due to China’s surge out of poverty over the past decade and a half.

China’s president vowed to help other countries make the same transformation. Xi said China would commit an initial $2bn to establish an assistance fund to meet the post-2015 goals in areas such as education, healthcare and economic development. He said China would seek to increase the fund to $12bn by 2030.

And Xi said China would write off intergovernmental interest-free loans owed to China by the least-developed, small island nations and most heavily debt-burdened countries due this year.

He said China “will continue to increase investment in the least developed countries,” and support global institutions, including the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that is due to launch by the end of the year and is seen as a Chinese alternative to the more western-oriented financial institutions of the World Bank.

After having read and reviewed Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia’s “BRICS: the anti-capitalist critique”, I am more skeptical than ever about Chinese altruism especially the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank referred to in the last paragraph above.

I was also puzzled by the provenance of the article since it was included with others in the category “Sustainable Global Development” that was support4ed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is described as follows:

This website is funded by support provided, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Content is editorially independent and its purpose is to focus on global development, with particular reference to the millennium development goals and their transition into the sustainable development goals from 2015.

All our journalism follows GNM’s published editorial code. The Guardian is committed to open journalism, recognising that the best understanding of the world is achieved when we collaborate, share knowledge, encourage debate, welcome challenge and harness the expertise of specialists and their communities.

I confess that I have as much confidence in this foundation’s commitment to sustainable development as I do in the Windows Operation System, especially for their promotion of the Green Revolution, an application of chemicals to food production that has led to all sorts of problems as I indicated here: http://louisproyect.org/2009/09/20/food-imperialism-norman-borlaug-and-the-green-revolution/

In an article for Huffington Post, Richard Javad Heydarian, the author of the forthcoming “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific State”, casts a skeptical gaze over the Chinese gifts to the developing world, reporting on the Philippines’s encounter with the China EximBank, an entity that the new bank will likely mimic:

Under the Arroyo administration (2001-2010), the Philippines’ National Broadband Network (NBN) signed a $329.5 million contract with China’s ZTE Corp. to upgrade its facilities and communications network. It also signed the $431 million Northrail infrastructure contract, which was awarded to China National Machinery and Industry Corp. (Sinomach) and largely financed by the China EximBank.

The NBN-ZTE venture, however, would be mired in a massive corruption scandal, after investigations revealed huge kickbacks, cost inflations, and irregularities in the contract. Failing to meet laws requiring competitive bidding, the Philippines’ Supreme Court, meanwhile, struck down the Northrail project.

The common perception in the Philippines is that the ZTE and Northrail contracts were some sort of bribe to pressure/persuade the Arroyo administration to compromise on South China Sea and sign up to the controversial and secretive Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) agreement in 2005, which was deemed unconstitutional and in violation of Philippine national patrimony and requirements for transparency and consultations with other branches of the government, particularly the legislature.

During his recent visit to Tokyo, Philippine President Beningo Aquino also complained about the alleged decision of the China EximBank to prematurely demand drawdowns from its Northrail project loan at the risk of default. In short, Aquino suggested that China wanted to punish his government for standing up to China by using its loan payment card.

In a CounterPunch article dated March 6, 2015, Ecuadorian journalist Raul Zibechi considered the possibility that Chinese investments in Latin America could have a different character than what the Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank offered. Initially China was focused on mineral extraction and agricultural commodities such as soybeans but in the more recent period, it has invested in areas that depart from the traditional colonizing relationship between the core and the periphery. They include arms manufacturing in Latin America, which offers the possibility of ancillary benefits to the non-military sector just as was the case with radar after WWII, and infrastructure. He points to the construction of two hydroelectric dams in the Santa Cruz province. One is named the Kirchner after the late President and the other is called the Cepernic after the late governor of the province. Another ostensibly worthwhile project is the upgrade of railway equipment, including cars to renovate dilapidated trains. So how can you be like the old-time Anglo-American imperialists when you are building dams and modernizing the railway system in Argentina? How dare you stand in the way of progress?

If the goal is “sustainable development”, it is doubtful that there is much difference between the World Bank when it comes to hydroelectric dams. The Dialogo Chino website that is dedicated to tracking the impact of Chinese investment in Latin America referred to these dams as “mired in environmental conflict” in a February 13, 2015 article.

Experts claim the maximum level of the Kirchner dam, at the same average level of the Argentino Lake, is unsuitable, increasing the level of the lake and causing tides that will erode the front of the Perito Moreno glacier and stop the traditional blocks of ice breaking off, a phenomenon that attracts thousands of tourists.

The controversy is not without precedent. Across the border in Chile, also in Patagonia, the HidroAysén project would have resulted in the construction of five hydroelectric power plants, two on the River Baker and three on the River Pascua. However, fierce criticism from environmental groups and indigenous communities resulted in a council of ministers rejecting the project last year.

“The dam will be fed from the lake, whose level will rise and fall to meet Buenos Aires’ energy requirements and consumption. The glacier will not be immune to variations and their erosive effects,” argues Gerardo Bartolomé, the engineer at the head of an online petition aiming to ensure the correct environmental studies are carried out for the dams.

Similarly, Juan Pablo Milana, a glaciologist and researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), believes the dams will cause irreversible damage to the Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers.

“The glaciers are already subject to the forces of nature and introducing further changes is complicated. Increasing the level of the Argentino Lake will create a flotation effect. Lower water pressure at the base of the glacier will not only cause detachment of ice but will also change the way it breaks off,” explains Milana.

It seems that the Chinese engineers overseeing the project worked on the Three Gorges Dam so you can get an idea of how much thought has gone into the environmental impact in Argentina.

Finally on the question of Argentina’s rail system. Pardon me for sounding like an unrepentant Marxist but when I hear about improvements to a transportation system that is primarily intended to haul commodities from the interior of a country to its seaports, I reach for my revolver.

This is an article I wrote on the construction of railroads in Argentina in the 19th century as part of a series on the financial crisis in the country back in 2002. Somehow I doubt that China’s intentions are any nobler than Great Britain’s.

The Collapse of Argentina, part one: Railway Imperialism

As the Argentine economic collapse began to deepen, I decided to search for radical or Marxist literature on the country written in English to help me understand the situation better. This proved futile (although I continue to be open to recommendations). Nestor Gorojovsky, an Argentine revolutionary who I have been in touch with on the Internet or by phone for at least five years now, could recommend nothing. (His own efforts at a Marxist overview of Argentine history can be found at: http://www.marxmail.org/archives/january99/argentina.htm.) Not even after posting an inquiry to the H-LatinAmerica list, whose subscribers are exclusively academic specialists, were any recommendations forthcoming.

Taking the bull by the horns, I plan now to fill this gap beginning now with a series of posts based on scholarly material from Columbia University’s library. Although I do plan to review literature on Argentina written in Spanish, most of the source material for my posts will be in English, a language that I am more comfortable with when it comes to higher-level analysis.

My own involvement with Argentina dates back to the mid 1970s when I was drawn into a faction fight within the world Trotskyist movement over political perspectives in Argentina. The two main antagonists in the debate were the late Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard at Coyoacan and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, and the late Ernest Mandel, the renowned Belgian economist who was on the executive committee of the International Secretariat. The Americans and their mostly English-speaking followers (I use the word advisedly) backed a Trotskyist group in Argentina that appeared to be implementing their own orthodox approach.

Led by the late Nahuel Moreno, this group participated in trade union struggles, the student movement and opposed the ultraleftist guerrilla formations that were kidnapping North American executives or hijacking trucks in order to dispense meat and other goods in poor neighborhoods like Marxist Robin Hoods. It was one of these groups that the Mandel faction backed. Although they paid lip service to Trotsky, these Argentine guerrillas organized as the PRT/Combatiente were more interested in applying Regis Debray’s foquismo theory to the urban sector.

My role in all this was to battle the Mandel supporters in Houston, Texas who held a near majority in the branch and whose affinity for guerrilla warfare was open to question. Most were disaffected from the SWP leadership, whose alleged “petty-bourgeois” orientation to the student movement was supposedly leading the party to ruin. A couple of years later, the SWP leadership would go completely overboard in a kind of ‘workerist’ orientation to the trade unions, thus robbing the dissidents of their raison d’etre. By the time this turn had taken place, the SWP and the Fourth International had parted ways. As a local leader of the anti-Mandel faction, I had the opportunity to spend long hours in discussion with Argentine co-thinkers who visited Houston to give reports for our faction. Security was extremely tight in those days and I had to check my 1968 Dodge Dart for bombs before driving any of them to a public engagement.

During that intense struggle, I gained a deep appreciation for the Argentine people, their culture and their revolutionary will. Although I grieve to see their personal suffering today, I am inspired to see them acting collectively for a better country and world. One hopes that their heroic example can begin to erode the “TINA” mood that has affected wide sections of the left since 1990.

In this first post, I want to address the question of Argentina’s “golden age”, a notion that you can find in many left publications or on the Internet. In this version of Argentine history, the country is seen as an exception to the rest of Latin America where conventional notions of “imperialism” and “dependency” might not apply.

For example, British state capitalist theoretician Chris Harman writes:

Argentina is an industrial country, with a higher proportion of its workforce in industry than in Britain. It’s also a country where working people have, within living memory, experienced living standards close to west European levels. It was known as the ‘granary of the world’ at the beginning of the 20th century, with an economy very much like that of Australia, New Zealand or Canada, centred the massive production of foodstuffs on giant capitalist farms for the world market. Relatively high wages made it a magnet for millions of immigrants from Italy and Spain who brought traditions of industrial militancy with them.

Brad DeLong, an economist who held a post in the Clinton administration and who is a ubiquitous figure on leftwing electronic mailing lists, wrote the following on Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L):

As I said quite a while ago, Argentina was a first world country–like Canada, Australia, or New Zealand–up until the 1950s. Arguments that development possibilities were constrained by relative backwardness may work elsewhere: they don’t make *any* sense for Argentina.

If views like these are meant to support a kind of Argentine exception to the Leninist concept of imperialism or its subsequent elaborations such as the Baran-Sweezy theory of monopoly capitalism, they are mistaken. They would fail to see Argentina’s role in the world capitalist system, which–despite favorable moments–has been that of victim of imperialism. Comparisons with the USA, Canada, etc. are specious, even if in a given year income or other statistics were comparable. The *structural* questions are far more important for understanding Argentina. Despite the presence of European immigrants, industrialization, national independence, the lack of feudal-like latifundias, etc., Argentina had much more in common with direct colonies in the 19th century like India.

Specifically, one of the main factors that led to Argentine dependency was its reliance on British capital and expertise for the construction of railways in the 19th century. Just as was the case in India, these steam-driven showplaces of modernization did nothing but drain the country of capital and force it into a secondary role in the world economy.

If one is a Marx “literalist,” there can obviously be a lot of confusion about the introduction of railways into Argentina or India, especially when Marx wrote:

I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expense the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But when you have once introduced machinery into locomotion of a country, which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railways system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.” (“The Future Results of British Rule in India,” NY Daily Tribune, Aug. 8, 1853)

In contrast to these early hopeful writings, before Marxism had developed an understanding of the negative role of imperialism, the historical record demonstrates that foreign owned railways did not lead dependent countries to become anything like the those of the investors, engineers and builders from the core. Rather than serving as a catalyst for Argentine industry, they did nothing except enrich British finance capital, the nefarious Barings Bank in particular. For a scholarly treatment of this subject, we can turn to Alejandro Bendaña’s 1979 PhD dissertation “British Capital and Argentine Dependence 1816-1914”. (Bendaña was a senior level Sandinista official who served as ‘responsable’ with Tecnica, the volunteer organization I was involved with in the 1980s. He continues to participate in the radical movement, nowadays with the Center for International Studies in Managua and the Jubilee Campaign against 3rd world debt.)

The most important sector of the Argentine ruling class in the 19th century was the ‘estancieros’, or ranchers. From 1820 onwards, they began to develop an alliance with British capital, which was seen as strategic for the goal of exploiting the country’s land-based riches. Arising from within its ranks, Juan Manuel de Rosas emerged as the primary spokesman for this class. British merchants played an important role in guaranteeing the Argentine rancher access to world markets. Smiling benignly on this interdependence, the British consul wrote:

the manufactures of Great Britain are becoming articles of prime necessity. The gaucho is everywhere clothed in them. Take his whole equipment – examine everything about him – and what is there not of raw hide that is not British? If his wife has a gown, ten to one that it is made at Manchester; the camp-kettle in which he cooks his food, the earthenware he eats from, the knife, his poncho, spurs, bit, all are imported from England. . . Who enables him to purchase these articles? Who buys his master’s hides, and enables that master to employ and pay him? Who but the foreign trader. Stop the trade with foreign nations, and how long would it be before the gaucho would be reduced to the state of the Indian of the Pampas, fed on his beef and horse-flesh, and clothed in the skins of wild beasts? (Bendaña, p. 34)

However, one important piece was missing from this jigsaw puzzle. Unless a modern railway system was introduced into the country, Argentine goods would be not as competitive with those of countries which could deliver beef, hides, and etc. to seaports in a much shorter time over rail rather than horse-back. Furthermore, unless workers and managers could make reasonably quick trips over rail between cities and rural points of production, the entire system would lack the kind of internal cohesion that other capitalist countries enjoyed. From the standpoint of classical economics, one would think that it would be to the mutual benefit of English and Argentine capitalist classes to develop a kind of partnership. Instead, what transpired has much more in common with the con games of the 1990s in which Wall Street banks got rich at the expense of the Argentine people. Except, in the 19th century, it was Barings Bank rather than Goldman-Sachs that was doing the robbing.

To look after its interests in this vastly ambitious railroad-building enterprise, the Argentine government named North American William Wheelwright as its agent. They were overly optimistic. After making the rounds in British banking houses, Wheelwright said in 1863 that a deal could be done only on the following basis:

–The land grant must be doubled (land adjacent to the tracks given free to the railroad company.)

–45 percent of the railroad revenue would be counted as working expenses.

–The profit ceiling would be raised to 15 percent, more than triple the norm.

–Most importantly, the expropriation clause would be eliminated.

Although the Argentine ruling class and its British partners were committed to liberalism in the economic sphere (the model for 1980s-90s neoliberalism), this loan-sharking deal had nothing to do with free market principles. Such concessions could only reflect the internal weaknesses of a bourgeoisie that relied on cattle ranching, as opposed to the British ruling class that had accumulated vast amounts of capital through manufacturing, and then finance.

When the shares for Central Rail, the new British-owned railroad, sold sluggishly, the bankers demanded further concessions. No longer would working expenses be limited to 45 percent, they would be *whatever the company accountants said they were*. So, not only do you get concessions forced down the throat of the Argentine government, you get an 1860s version of the kind of accounting that Arthur Anderson did on behalf of the Enron crooks.

To make sure that all the Central shares got sold, the British investors demanded that the Argentine government buy 2000 shares, which is a little bit like asking someone being hijacked to drive the truck. An Argentine Minister glumly commented:

We are faced with having to lower our heads for all these demands and any other ones that may be put before us given our nation’s need for the railway’s benefits and our own incapacity to secure these by any other means. (Bendaña, p. 93)

Finally, in the May of 1870, 17 years after the original conception and 7 years after work began, the first locomotive arrived in Córdoba. Over the course of the 1870s, the Argentine state provided nearly 40 percent of the guaranteed profits for the new railroad. In a nutshell, the wealth of the country was being drained to make sure that British investors enjoyed super-profits. Furthermore, the British enterprise was tax-exempt. This turned out to be a bonanza for the Central Argentine Land Company that came into existence in 1871. Unlike the railroad, commercial exploitation within land claim areas were far less risky and had no particular claim to the kind of tax-exempt status enjoyed by large-scale capital projects. Once again, the weak Argentine bourgeoisie had been given an offer that it couldn’t refuse.

With British technological superiority, one might at least hope that the new railway would provide adequate service. As it turned out, the Argentine people had ended up with a Yugo rather than a Rolls-Royce. Public complaints about service and rates grew legion.

Central was just the first in a series of white elephants. Next came the Northern, the Eastern, and the Great Western Railways, all financed by the British and all imposing larcenous penalties on the people of Argentina. A government audit revealed that the East Argentine railroad was marked by an excess of employees (exclusively English at high salaries), overly generous salaries for company directors, inadequate rolling stock, dubious accounting procedures, and bloated operating costs.

When such exploitation operates in open view, one might ask why the Argentine capitalists did not rebel. After all, if one is committed to national development, then one must allow oneself the ultimate weapon against foreign exploiters: expropriation. Unfortunately, except for the urban middle-class, such calls were not made. As is the case today, the dominant fraction of the national bourgeoisie lost its nerve. And like today, the ideological excuse for inaction was a commitment to the “free market.” The estancieros regarded their own economic well-being as synonymous with the extension of railway lines made possible by foreign investment.

When the harsh reality of British theft collided with the delusional schemas of the local bourgeoisie, voices of dissent began to be heard in parliament. Why couldn’t the nation redeem itself through seizure of properties that were based on criminality to begin with? Even the conservative “La Nación” asked in 1872:

Can and should the state build all railways itself and expropriate existing ones? We do not believe that the benefits of state railways should necessarily carry us to the latter consequence . . . Although the country cannot afford expropriation now or for many years to come, there may come a day when revenue and necessity may, possessed of means and facing a need for new lines, expropriation might become convenient. (Bendaña, p. 152)

Skilled as they were in keeping the natives at bay, the British turned to one defense after another. They bribed ministers, congressmen and railroad bureau officials to vote against nationalist legislation or to look the other way when laws were being broken. When this proved insufficient, the British were not above gunboat diplomacy. In late 1875, the British bank in Rosario suddenly demanded immediate repayment of railroad notes as part of a maneuver to destroy local financial competitors. When the nationalist-minded local governor in Santa Fe sided with his countrymen, the British sent their navy to blockade the city. Buenos Aires caved in to the show of force and the British won their demands without a shot being fired. Bendaña cites H. S. Ferns’s “Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century”:

“prosperity had created a nation of boosters, and the porteños (Buenos Aires elites) looked at the Governor of Santa Fe as Pierpont Morgan might have regarded William Jennings Bryan.” (p. 258)

By 1913, Great Britain owned 95.8 percent of all private railways in Argentina. That amounted to 60.2 percent of total British investment in the country. The economic consequences on the nation were enormous. Arturo Castaño, a legislative deputy and rail expert, warned:

“the more the railways extend themselves, the greater will be the economic disruptions, and the greater will be the migration to the cities from the provinces. A third of our national production is absorbed by the railways, without the Executive being able to intervene in rate-making due to an administrative system which favors the companies.”

Indeed, when foreign capitalists absorb a THIRD of national production, the question of imperialism has to be addressed.

The railway era lasted about a century. The first 3 decades, from 1830 to 1860, were a time of rapid expansion in the imperial centers. The spread of railways into Asia, Africa and Latin America did not produce concomitant benefits. Although Cecil Rhodes characterized railroads as “philanthropy plus 5 percent,” the profits were always far higher and the progress realized in countries such as Argentina was far less than advertised.

In my next post, I will take up the question of Juan Perón and his legacy.

September 28, 2015

The Shawangunk Ridge

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

When I was 12 years old or so, my parents moved into a new house on Maple Avenue in Woodridge, a tiny village in Sullivan County, NY that had a jaw-dropping view of the Shawangunk Mountains from our living room window. More properly known as the Shawangunk Ridge, it was close to the town of Ellenville about 10 miles from our village as this map indicates. Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 12.20.24 PM

Within a year after we moved in, my father planted a row of pine trees at the edge of our back yard that within 5 years or so blocked the view. His motivation for planting the trees was to create a windbreak that would conceivably cut fuel costs. All I know is that it robbed our family of a de facto work of art framed by our rear window. As it turns out, nature would have accomplished the same goal as my father because not long after his trees reached their vista-robbing height, the trees beyond our house also began blocking the view as well.

When I was young enough to travel by bus to NYC on my own, usually to buy classical records at Sam Goody, there was no Quickway aka the new Route 17. We took what is now known as Old Route 17, a road that would never be able to handle the crush of summertime vacationers coming up to the Catskills but that was much more fun for a youngster. It had a roadside restaurant called the Red Apple that had the best hamburgers and French fries I ever had back then. But the high point for me was looking out the window between Wurtsboro and Bloomingburg to see the Shawangunk Ridge on the horizon.

Old Route 17 between Wurtsboro and Bloomingburg has been redesignated as County Road 171 as seen in the map below.

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 11.55.20 AM

This month I went up to Sullivan County to film that exact view but just as was the case with my back yard, trees had reached a height that blocked the view from the 171 county road. Determined to include it in a video I am working on, I drove up a road off of 171 called High View Terrace that towered over the trees and gave me an unblocked view of the Shawangunk Ridge that was so dear to me. A woman who owned a house at the top of the road generously allowed me to film from her back yard.

I also went over to Ellenville and drove up on Route 52 that wended its way along the Shawangunk Ridge. From the high point on 52, I filmed the mountain range that the bus traveled along toward NYC. You can even see the same building with a white roof in the valley below from both video clips.

Finally there is a clip from the Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne that faced the Shawangunk Ridge from the same direction as my house. I only discovered this view as an accident. I wanted to include one of the ashrams that now operate from former Jewish resort hotels and this place had one of the finest views in the area to my amazement.

The three clips are seen below:

The word Shawangunk was a Dutch transliteration of the Munsee Lenape word Shawankunk, which meant “in the smoky air”, a reference to the mist that blanketed the mountains and that is in clear evidence from the scorching heat of a few weeks ago when the first two video clips were shot.

Wikipedia reports that Lenape language scholar Raymond Whritenour believes that the name “derives from the burning of a Munsee fort by the Dutch at the eastern base of the ridge in 1663 (a massacre ending the Second Esopus War)”. I am not inclined to make edits to Wikipedia but the idea of a Munsee fort is absurd. That is like referring to the American cavalry burning down Lakota teepees and later on describing it as an attack on a fort.

It should be mentioned that the British who had absorbed Dutch holdings in the late 17th century drove the Munsees from their homeland along the Shawangunk Ridge. Unlike the Esopus tribe, the Munsees had not fought against the Dutch who were actually encroaching on Esopus farmland. (They were not exactly hunter and gatherers apparently.)

Driven from NY, most Munsees ended up in Wisconsin hence giving the city of Muncie its names. I had occasion to write about this ethnic cleansing in a CounterPunch magazine article on Indian gambling casinos. As part of a deal made with tribes, Governor Cuomo gave the green light to the Munsees to open one up in Sullivan County even though they were in Wisconsin. Their struggle to be compensated for the historic losses is an ongoing one as is the case with all indigenous peoples.

From my article:

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? [A casino boss stereotyped in a “Sopranos” episode.] In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states:

The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been trans- ported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of Gotham, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting 60 Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

September 25, 2015

The economic theory and policies of Swedish social democracy

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

Knut Wicksell: the father of Swedish social democratic economic policies and an influence on Mises and Hayek as well.

(This is the eighth 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”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership with Hitler. Part six covers the social pact that labor and capital agreed upon in 1938. Part seven addressed the question of “Who Rules Sweden”.)

Trying to understand the evolution of the economic theories underlying Swedish social democracy is no easy task. There is not only a dearth of English-language material but in Swedish as well. In “Seven Figures in the History of Swedish Economic Thought”, a specialized text on some of the leading economists associated with the “Swedish model”, author Mats Lundahl refers to their output as “unknown” or “forgotten”.

If the “Chicago School” summons up images of Milton Friedman consulting with Pinochet, what does the “Stockholm School of Economics” evoke? Founded in 1909 as a business school largely from donations by Knut Wallenberg, it was intended to churn out experts who could help Sweden modernize its economy and develop international trade. The Wallenbergs were the Rockefellers of Sweden and well equipped to shape the doctrines that would govern the nation’s future. As it turns out, the Rockefeller Foundation had considerable interest in Sweden’s politics as well, donating large sums to set up a Social Science think-tank under the jurisdiction of the University of Stockholm that would study the impact of wage levels in the labor market among other things. Among the earliest benefactors of Rockefeller funding was Gunnar Myrdal, a Stockholm School graduate who would later on be referred to the Carnegie Foundation for the funding he needed to write “American Dilemma”, widely considered a seminal work on civil rights.

So how did Sweden’s social democracy get hooked up with a business school funded by Sweden’s most powerful capitalist dynasty?

In a way this was inevitable given the social democracy’s ideological drift that began in the 1880s and deepened over the decades. It can best be described as the Swedish version of Eduard Bernstein but unconstrained by any kind of left opposition in the party such as existed in Germany.

One of the key departures from classical Marxism was rejection of the labor theory of value. Party theoreticians became seduced by the theories of Eugen Böhm von Bawerk, who was arguably the first economist to challenge the core beliefs of Marxism on the nature of capitalist exploitation.

As it turns out, the economist who is considered the ideological progenitor of the Stockholm School was one Knut Wicksell, who like Böhm-Bawerk took aim at the labor theory of value. It is of some note that Bohm-Bawerk is considered the father of the Austrian school of economics that includes Mises and Hayek. If Wicksell was an acolyte of Bohm-Bawerk, how did he end up influencing the likes of Gunnar Myrdal who is one of the 20th century’s iconic liberal figures? Furthermore, if the Stockholm School was indeed a pioneer of the kind of economic policies associated with John Maynard Keynes, even to the point of beating him to the punch, how do you explain the odd admixture of neoclassical economics and 20th century liberalism?

Wicksell was as much of an influence on the Austrians as Bohm-Bawerk. If you go to the Mises wiki, you will find a page that pays tribute to Wicksell as a major contributor to their business cycle theories. Since much of Wicksell’s writings involve very technical analysis of interest rates and credit allocation, it is not that hard to understand why he would be of use to reactionaries like Mises.

But the more interesting question is to what degree Wicksell’s neo-Malthusian views that were put forward largely in non-academic writings had an influence on subsequent social democratic policies, especially forced sterilization.

In his chapters on Wicksell, Lundahl finds those writings to be more important than the technical price, interest rate and credit analysis. In lectures to his students at Uppsala University, Wicksell dwelled at length on the vices of the lower class such as alcoholism and prostitution. He was also concerned about overpopulation, thinking that technological breakthroughs could never keep pace with population growth. Much of his writing is focused on determining an “optimum population”. While there is no particular recommendation on the need for forced sterilization, you have to wonder to what extent his fixation on such matters figured in the state policies that would leave many Roma women sterile.

If Wicksell’s emphasis on the need for market relations to guarantee efficient provision of capital, labor and resources seems at odds with Swedish values, keep in mind that his influence can be felt in the writings of Gunnar Myrdal who on first blush would appear to be the anti-Austrian par excellence.

If a $15 (or better) minimum wage is a demand that resonates with civil rights activists today, it is rather shocking to discover that Myrdal’s take in “American Dilemma” had more in common with Bill O’Reilly’s:

During the ’thirties the danger of being a marginal worker became increased by social legislation intended to improve conditions on the labor market. The dilemma, as viewed from the Negro angle is this: on the one hand, Negroes constitute a disproportionately large number of the workers in the nation who work under imperfect safety rules, in unclean and unhealthy shops, for long hours, and for sweatshop wages; on the other hand, it has largely been the availability of such jobs which has given Negroes any employment at all. As exploitative working conditions are gradually being abolished, this, of course, must benefit Negro workers most, as they have been exploited most—but only if they are allowed to keep their employment. But it has mainly been their willingness to accept low labor standards which has been their protection. When government steps in to regulate labor conditions and to enforce minimum standards, it takes away nearly all that is left of the old labor monopoly in the “Negro jobs.” (emphasis added)

As low wages and sub-standard labor conditions are most prevalent in the South, this danger is mainly restricted to Negro labor in that region. When the jobs are made better, the employer becomes less eager to hire Negroes, and white workers become more eager to take the jobs from the Negroes. (p. 397)

Perhaps the only thing that can be said here is that Myrdal remained committed to neoclassical economics despite his reputation of being some kind of socialist. If supply and demand dictate what Black labor gets, then how can a civil rights movement be built?

You can read a large part of Herbert Aptheker’s critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma” on Google Books. It is a reminder of how good Communists could be when they were ready to go for the jugular:

The bourgeois values of Myrdal are also given quite explicitly. He states that to him the terms good and bad are “defined according to our value premise of placing the general American culture ‘higher.” The same bias is apparent in Myrdal’s choice of the “friends” of the Negro. To him, “the Negro’s friend—or the one who is least unfriendly—is still rather the upper class of white people, the people with economic and social security.” And in another place Myrdal names one of these upper class people, Edgar G. Murphy, “who is distinguished as one of the most sincere friends of the Negro among the conservative-minded old Southerners.” This individual, a leader in the Alabama movement to overthrow Reconstruction government and constitution, felt that so far as the Negro is concerned, “the spirit of the South has been the spirit of kindliness and helpfulness…. The South gives to him the best gift of a civilization to an individual, the opportunity to live industriously and honestly. . . The South, must, of course, secure the supremacy of intelligence and property.” Such, to Myrdal, is “one of the most sincere friends of the Negro.”

To a large extent, Swedish social democratic economic policies rest on the notion of a “third way” in which labor and capital can cooperate with each other and avoid the mutual destruction revolutionary confrontations produce—at least according to theoreticians such as Knut Wicksell, Gunnar Myrdal, et al. But to what extent did the bourgeoisie really agree to a compromise that left both major classes in society on an equal footing? Were the Wallenbergs et al swayed by reason or were there other factors that accounted for the class peace that had dominated in Sweden for so many decades?

Unlike the USA, where the Communists were the largest party on the left, Sweden was social democratic territory. The social democrats were a known quantity to the big bourgeoisie in Sweden who regarded them as pushovers. In 1931 there was a general strike over the killings of strikers and their supporters in Adalen, a struggle led by the CP. It was that general strike that ironically led to the election of the SAP (the social democrats). In the 1920s, the SAP had demonstrated its willingness to avoid “extremism”. In an article titled “Forestalling the Business Veto: Investment Confidence and the Rise of Swedish Social Democracy” that was co-authored by Karen Anderson and Steven Snow that appeared in the March 2003 Social Science Quarterly, they document how willing the SAP was to bow to the bosses’ demands:

 The Social Democrats were historically linked to the unions, from which they derived much political support, but as a party often in government, it felt obliged to reduce the economic losses from labor conflicts. In the 1920s the SAP “repeatedly advocated general interests over and above the struggle of individual groups of workers for better working conditions”. Throughout this period, in fact, the SAP often stood with employers on the issue of wage rates. When the employers said that a wage reduction was unavoidable, the Social Democratic representatives in the unions often supported them. In 1920, for example, in response to a recession and in the face of unions’ appeals, the Social Democratic Minister of Finance declared “The demand for increased wages must cease”. The party was also willing to criticize outbreaks of violence in clashes between workers and police. In several labor disputes, even though the police apparently used excessive force, the SAP proved willing to denounce the tactics of striking workers. “Offenses against existing law must always be condemned,” the SAP Prime Minister argued.

In the 1930s, there was a rising tide of labor strikes in the USA but in Sweden, there was an opposite tendency thanks to the class collaborationism of the SAP as this chart from the Anderson-Snow article indicates:

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 3.08.43 PM

In exchange for a housebroken trade union movement, the SAP was able to provide sizable material benefits to the working class until global competition in the 1980s forced Sweden to rip up the accords it had made with the workers and throw them in the garbage can. That will be the topic of my final article in this series.

Chess as Metaphor

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

More importantly, the game has entered the parlance of political science as a metaphor for the Cold War and its lingering traces with Washington and Moscow pitted against each other. If you Google “Geopolitical Chess Game”, you will encounter 363,000 results. Not surprisingly, Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research is at the top of the heap, a website that sees every struggle on earth as involving pieces moved about on the board. Pace Chussodovsky, can we say that the white pieces stand for Moscow and the black ones for Washington? It is impossible to determine why the game’s inventors allowed white to move first but a preference for that color springs to mind.

“Pawn Sacrifice”, a film that opened in September and that is playing at middle-brow theaters everywhere, is about as close to the geopolitical metaphor as you are going to get since it is based on the historic showdown between the 29-year old Bobby Fischer and the reigning world champion Boris Spassky, who was six years older. As the title of the film suggests, Fischer was a foot soldier in the Cold War at the time even though he was one with superpowers. Arguably the greatest chess player that ever lived, Fischer had a burning hatred of the Russians based more on their Bill Belichick bending of the rules than anything that mattered to policy-makers in Washington. Indeed, despite the fact that his mother was a Communist Party member, his hostility to her was based not so much on politics but on his generally contrary nature. In an early scene in the film, Fischer, who is in his early teens, throws his mother and her boyfriend out of the house because their lovemaking noises seeping through the thin bedroom walls did not allow him to concentrate on his game.

read full review

September 22, 2015

Israel joins the axis of resistance

Filed under: Palestine,Syria,zionism — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

As I pointed out in my post on Hungary last week, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss had a profound insight into the way we think. Homo sapiens is susceptible to binary oppositions on any number of questions from good and evil to light and darkness. That is probably what explains the lingering appeal of Platonic idealism on the left, most particularly around the question of imperialism versus anti-imperialism.

On one hand you have NATO, the IMF, the EU and the White House—the guys in black hats. And on the other you have the Russian military, the BRICS Development Bank, the Eurasian trading bloc, and the Kremlin—all in white hats. This kind of binary thinking is poorly suited to explaining why a filthy, racist demagogue like Viktor Orban can line up with the Kremlin. If the criterion is opposition to the West, Orban is a “good” leader while Ukraine’s Poroshenko is “evil”.

But the difficulties reach a breaking point when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu, who next to Barack Obama, is the most nefarious politician in the world according to the binary brigade. Just a day ago, I learned that Netanyahu and his top military advisers were making a trip to the Kremlin in order to discuss security concerns with Putin and his warmakers. Generally, this has been reported as the two leaders getting together to address Israel’s concerns that the latest shipment of Russian arms flowing into Syria will not get into the hands of Hezbollah, supposedly Israel’s mortal enemy as well as the continuing presence of Iranian troops.

The “anti-imperialists” have told us over and over that Israel is using the jihadists as a battering ram against Syria, which is supposedly the best friend of the Palestinians in the region. Every few months there is a new talking point like in June when wounded al-Nusra front “takfiri” were alleged to being transported to Israeli hospitals and returned afterwards to the Golan Heights battlefields after a full recovery. It did not matter to the Baathist amen corner that none of this could be documented.

Asa Winstanley, one of the Assadiist tools who write for Jacobin, went so far as to tell its readers that Israel was for an ISIS victory in the region:

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, stated in an interview almost a year ago that Israel wants to “let the Sunni evil prevail” over the greater “evil” of Iran and its regional proxies. Speaking in the context of a massacre of Iraqi soldiers, he seemed to argue that Israel should allow the “Islamic State” to win.

Oren isn’t alone among the Israeli elite. Gilad Sharon — the son of the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who once called for Israel to “flatten all of Gaza” — stated last month that Israel may actually prefer the “Islamic State” terror group (whose origins lie with the al-Qaeda in Iraq group) to Assad and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies.

Now that Israel is coordinating intervention in Syria with Russia, people like Asa Winstanley will have a major job on their hands explaining this but I assume that he is cynical enough to justify anything. Such people seem to be channeling the CPUSA’s support for the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact. That, of course, is what happens when you are reduced to cheap propaganda rather than radical journalism of the John Reed variety.

What makes a political pirouette all the more difficult for Winstanley and company is Israel’s apparent acceptance of the ongoing Russian-American-Syrian bombing campaign against ISIS, one that Russia and Israel have already begun coordinating as the Jerusalem Post reports:

In Russia, Eisenkot met with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Vasilevich Gerasimov – the first time chiefs of staff from Russia and Israel held a direct meeting. Eisenkot also participated in part of the meeting held between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Afterward, the two sides agreed to set up a joint working group led by the deputy chiefs of staff from each country. The first meeting will occur in two weeks, and the location will be decided in the coming days.

“It will coordinate air, naval, and the electromagnetic arenas,” the source said. The full composition of the working group has not yet been determined, he added.

“Everything will be raised there. The meetings in Russia were held in a good atmosphere,” the senior source said.

Nice to hear that there was a good atmosphere. I can just see the military brass from each side sharing vodka and pickled herring.

Haaretz, the liberal Zionist newspaper that tends to be less ideological than the Likudist press in Israel, had a shrewd assessment of the Netanyahu-Putin powwow:

And although Netanyahu only last week said “commentators” were wrong when they warned of a collapse of ties between Israel and the United States in light of the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu’s current visit to Moscow could be seen as an Israeli jab at Washington. The visit seems to reflect Netanyahu’s lack of faith in the ability or the intent of the United States to protect Israel’s security interests.

The visit cannot be considered good news in Washington, which led a campaign of condemnation and sanctions against Moscow over its involvement in the war in Ukraine last summer. (Israel did not take a position on that conflict and was duly rewarded by Russia which issued a moderate response to Israel’s actions in the war on Gaza shortly thereafter.)

The reference to Gaza is likely tied to Russian opposition to the Goldstone Report being taken up by the Security Council in 2009, a document that charged Israel with war crimes. Russia had voted to approve the report in the Human Rights Committee of the UN but shrewdly decided that relations with Israel should not be compromised by putting teeth into a report that might have led to Netanyahu and company suffering the same fate as Milosevic. In explaining their refusal to take up the Goldstone Report on the Security Council, the Russians made that connection clear:

Many of the recommendations of the report, including criticisms of the actions of Hamas-controlled security forces, as well as provisions relating to the observance of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in general, appear justified. However, a number of proposals in the document go beyond the scope of the mission. This applies particularly to the recommendations addressed to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court and the call upon states to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes during the conflict in Gaza, under universal jurisdiction.

We oppose the referral of the report to the UN Security Council. We believe that it is the UN Human Rights Council that constitutes the platform in the format which this report should be considered. Nor do we believe it is advisable to draw international judicial bodies into the investigation.

So Benjamin Netanyahu’s worse fears were averted. There was no need to hire a lawyer to defend him against war crimes even if Ramsey Clark were still available. Bully for the most fearsome enemy of the West on the BRICS front.

So when did Russia make a “turn” toward Israel disavowing the “anti-imperialist” stance that had endeared it to people like Mike Whitney and Andre Vltchek? Unless you are victim to your own propaganda, the evidence was there from the beginning that the Kremlin considered Israel its good friend.

Keep in mind that Russia and Israel share a loathing for what they call Islamic jihadists. In 2000 when Russia was using the same scorched earth military tactics and the same “war on terrorism” rhetoric now being used in Syria, Israel’s foreign minister, the ultrarightist Natan Sharansky, stood behind Putin, comparing his struggle with Israel’s against the Palestinians. The Washington Post editorialized on the Russian-Israeli commonality of interests on April 29, 2002:

Ever since Sept. 11, Putin and Sharon have tried to convince the world that the Muslim national movements seeking to end the military occupations by Russia of Chechnya, and by Israel of the West Bank and Gaza, are indistinguishable from the terrorists of Osama bin Laden and deserve the same treatment. Both have had some luck — Sharon seems to have persuaded most of Congress and half of the Bush administration. But as a season of summits among Russia, the United States and Europe approaches, only Putin seems to have successfully merged the war on terrorism with his own scorched-earth assault on national sovereignty.

Finally, we must say something about whether Israel ever perceived Syria as a mortal threat to its interests, to the point that Asa Winstanley’s ravings could make sense.

Early on Israel took the position that Assad was the “lesser evil”, referring to him as “the devil you know” as opposed to the rebels who were an unknown quantity. As the war dragged on, however, Israel began to see the wisdom of imperialist intervention against ISIS and al-Nusra whether from the White House or the Kremlin.

A more important question is how Syria viewed Israel and the Palestinians. Despite Baathist rhetoric about solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, there is at least one Palestinian who does not buy the bullshit. I refer you to Tariq Al-Faluji, a Palestinian college student who describes himself as “raised to stand up for what’s right, whether it is in Palestine, Syria, Bahrain, or anywhere in the Arab World.” In an April 28, 2013 article for “Beyond Compromise”, he addressed the problem of Palestinian support for the Assad head-on:

First of all, the Assad family is no friend of Palestine. Before Hafez even became president of Syria, he was a commander of the Syrian Air Force. In 1966, when Salah Jadid took over leadership in Syria in a military coup, he was appointed a Defense Minister, effectively becoming the country’s second in command. In 1970, in the wake of Black September, Syria sided with the Palestinians, sending in armored divisions into Jordan. This marks the first occasion of Assad betraying the Palestinians. As commander of the Air Force, he refused to provide the air cover necessary for the Syrian aid to reach the Palestinians. Because of this, the Syrian forces were re-routed and the Palestinians suffered the consequences of losing. Assad used this particular defeat to discredit Jadid and take over via military coup.

That particular instant is not the first occasion and is certainly not the last. In 1976, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, the Syrian army aided the Phalangist militia in besieging the Palestinian Tel Al-Zaatar refugee camp in Lebanon. After the Syrians and their Lebanese allies shelled the camp, 3000 Palestinians died. The Syrian army was instrumental in the siege of Palestinian refugee camps by the Amal movement, which left several thousand Palestinians dead. The Syrian role in the Lebanese Civil War would lead to many more Palestinian deaths. It should be telling of the nature of the Assad Regime; psychopathic killers with no friends.

Not to mention, Syria has been a perfect “enemy” to Israel for decades. Since 1973, the Syrian army has fired an illustrious zero bullets into Israel. Even with their territory occupied, they remained quiet even when Israeli planes went as far as flying over Assad’s palace in 2006. This illusion that the Syrian regime is the only regime fighting Israel is simply that, an illusion. There is no question that Assad is not by any means a friend of the Palestinian people.

Additionally, what is happening in Syria is a crime against humanity. Thousands are dying, the country is destroyed beyond repair, and millions are refugees. Which is why it is enraging to find Palestinians who support Assad. As a people, we Palestinians know exactly what it is like to be killed in the thousands, lose our country, and have to live our lives as refugees. A Palestinian who can’t see the parallels between what Israel did to Palestinians and what Assad is doing to his own people is simply blind.

If we as a people can be comfortable with the idea that Assad can get away with the murder of his people, then our 65 years under occupation have taught us nothing. Palestinians should be at the forefront of support for any people who are facing killing, forced to leave their country, and being repressed in the most brutal ways possible. The hypocrisy of a Palestinian who spends hours talking about the injustice in Israeli jails while simultaneously supporting a regime that has kept tens of thousands in much worse imprisonment conditions is astounding. How can we be taken seriously as advocates of freedom when we only advocate it when it suits our own purposes? How can anyone talk about Israel killing Palestinians while accepting and condoning the killing of Syrians? The answer is simple. Those two positions simply cannot coexist without hypocrisy.

I imagine sympathy for such an analysis among Palestinians explains why 315 of their number have been tortured to death in Syrian prisons to this point. It is an abomination that the Baathist amen corner tries to turn such murdering beasts into “anti-imperialist” heroes.

September 20, 2015

Open Borders

Filed under: cults,immigration,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm


In the latest Militant newspaper, the organ of the infinitesimally small and monumentally bizarre SWP, there’s a swipe at a position defended in last week’s edition:

The labor officialdom in the United States and the different capitalist countries in Europe have refused to carry out the fight for working-class unity over decades, instead joining with each of their bosses’ governments in advancing a nationalist and protectionist course. Workers everywhere have to chart a new road forward.

It’s different than a general call to “open the borders,” as an editorial in last week’s Militant put forward. That’s a utopian demand, and, if adopted under capitalist rule, would lead to increased competition among workers, unemployment, lower wages and social misery.

This is not the first time such a correction has been made. Usually it can be attributed to Jack Barnes reversing himself on previously held positions. This never happened when I was in the SWP in the 1960s and 70s and probably reflects the descent of this sect into ever more increasingly uncharted waters with an unstable cult figure at the helm.

As it turns out, this is not the only cult-sect that is opposed to open borders because it is “utopian”. The Spartacist League that SWP’ers used to laugh at for its weirdness issued a reply to a reader’s letter that sounds like it could be an editorial in the Militant at this point:

The call to “open the borders” and its variants are hopelessly utopian. The modern nation-state arose as a vehicle for the development of capitalism and will remain the basis for the organization of the capitalist economy until the world capitalist order is shattered through a series of workers revolutions. Policing its borders is vital to the very existence of the capitalist state power. Moreover, “open the borders” can have a reactionary content, from advancing imperialist economic penetration of dependent countries to obliterating the right to national self-determination.

This, of course, is an odd use of the term “utopian”, which in Marxist theory generally refers to beliefs that small-scale experiments in collective ownership can lead to socialism. It would be clearer if the two sects would use the word “unrealistic” instead of “utopian” to avoid confusion. But then again, that would lead to some interesting questions about other demands that cannot be realized under capitalism. Perhaps there is something deeply conservative about this hostility to open borders even though the head men at the SWP and Spartacist League love to throw the ultraleft verbiage around.

If you take the trouble to Google “Open borders” on the Militant website, you’ll see that the group favored it in the past. Last week’s Militant erred only by assuming that the party line was in force until it would be changed by the democratic vote of the party at the next convention. Since the cult operates on the whim of the Dear Leader nowadays, the line can be changed any time he decides to change it. Who needs democracy when the group is led by the Lenin of today?

There were 58 results on a search for “open borders” on the Militant and all of them except for the one cited above defend them. For example, the Swedish group that is part of the SWP’s global network ran an election campaign that made such a demand.

In 2010, when I was still a part of the Swans Magazine collective, I wrote an article on the passport system for a special issue on immigration. I reproduce it below in the hope that people get a better idea of where Marxists stand on this issue.

Special Issue on Immigration


A History Of The Passport System

(Swans – October 4, 2010)   When I learned about the decision by the good folks who publish Swans that they intended to produce a special issue on immigration, I saw this as an opportunity to investigate the origins of the passport and visa system — something I regarded as a recent phenomenon. After reading John Torpey’s very useful The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, I was disappointed to discover that such documents have been around for a very long time in one form or another. Upon further reflection, I might have realized that this was the case since state formations — be they feudal, capitalist, or bureaucratic socialist — have been around for over a millennium. The only exception to this rule has been primitive communal societies or nomadic herders. Ironically, it will be up to an aroused and enlightened humanity to reintroduce communal social forms but based on advanced technology to finally put an end to the dungeon that such papers represent.

It is a sign of how little we have progressed that the Roma being persecuted across Europe today for their refusal to abide by the norms of “citizenship” were being persecuted for the same refusal in the 16th century. A police ordinance from 1548 Prussia stipulated that “gypsies and vagabonds” (Landstreicher) had to be issued passes to travel within the feudal state. Furthermore, in all feudal entities the lower classes needed traveling papers, a way of tying a serf to his lord’s manor.

Despite Britain’s reputation for being freer and more “enlightened,” things were not much different. A 1381 statute prevented anybody but aristocrats from leaving the kingdom. (A point on terminology: passports are required to leave a country; visas are needed to enter one.) Britain also had the same determination to keep the peasant tied to his master’s land. A member of the lower classes could migrate from one part of the kingdom to another only if he had a certificate issued by a court official or a cleric.

While Czar Peter the Great had the reputation of being a “Westernizing” progressive, the reality on the ground for the average Russian was one of slavery to documents. Since Peter had the ambition to create a large and powerful army, it was necessary to put obstacles in the way of a peasant who sought to flee this oppressive “duty.” A 1719 edict required someone moving from one village to another to have the proper papers. It is not difficult to understand why Stalin would reintroduce such restrictions during the 1930s since in many ways his regime was a mixture of Czarist autocracy and state planning.

The first blow delivered to such feudal encumbrances was the great French Revolution of 1789, or at least that was the hope. A delegate to the Estates General pleaded that each citizen “must be free to move about or to come, within and outside the Kingdom, without permissions, passports, or other formalities that end to hamper the liberty of its citizens…” Such hopes were in vain since the bourgeois republic reflecting the class interests of those who made it retained passports as a means of controlling the poor who were pouring into Paris.

It was not just the poor who were kept on a tight leash. When King Louis XVI was caught trying to flee the country disguised as a valet, the republicans cracked down. Anybody trying to flee the country without authorization would be subject to arrest, thus making the sublime sentiments of the conclusion of Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca ring a bit hollow.

Worries over counter-revolution did not only stem from flights from the country. There was also a consensus that foreigners might find their way into France harboring subversive ideas. Subversive in this context, it should be added, meant a belief in the divine rights of Kings. France eventually resolved this problem by abolishing internal passports — in deference to the hopes of the democratically minded and a burgeoning capitalist class in need of “free” labor while institutionalizing them at the border. Henceforth, the concept of “foreigner” would be enshrined in the piece of paper that defined one in relationship to the bourgeois republic.

By and large, the 19th century was marked by a more permissive attitude toward the right to travel without restriction since a capitalist industrial revolution would not be possible without mobile pools of labor, in the same way that California agribusiness relies on an ample supply of Mexican stoop labor today.

Prussia, a state that symbolized absolutism, enacted legislation in 1817 that permitted its citizens to “travel freely and unhindered” without papers, but only within its borders. Leaving the country without a passport was strictly verboten, however.

If Prussia’s restrictions mirrored its inability to break cleanly with the feudal system, how does Britain — an exemplar of liberal free trade — stack up by comparison? As was always the case with Britain, the right to emigrate was joined at the hip to the capitalist economy. An economic downturn in the period 1810 to 1820 prompted bread riots by the poor. In face of such troubles, the ruling class decided to relax restrictions. That explains the enormous migration to Australia and other former colonies that would follow.

Changing economic circumstances in the German states (the country had not yet unified) also led to increased mobility by the 1850s. Liberal-minded industrialists insisted on the right of labor to move freely within and outside the country. This need was felt especially keenly in cases where foreign workers could be used to break strikes. However, the impulse to greater freedoms was countered by traditional German social structures, especially strong in Prussia.

Things came to a head in 1867 when the Reichstag would debate a sweeping legislation that would go the furthest in removing restrictions. If passed, both citizens and foreigners would be allowed to travel to the states within the North German Confederation that included Prussia as well as more economically developed entities.

While the motive of bourgeois politicians was purely to secure cheap labor, the working class representatives to the Reichstag were not prejudiced against legislation that would grant workers more freedom. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Rosa Luxemburg’s close collaborator Karl Liebknecht, made a clarion call in support of the bill.

The fact that some sectors of the capitalist class favor labor mobility today as a way to undermine trade unions in places like the United States and France, just as was the case in Germany in the 1860s, should not stand in the way of our call for freedom of movement.

Lenin, who counted himself as a disciple of the German Social Democracy led by Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht, was emphatic on this. In a 1913 article titled Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration, he wrote:

Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.

Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement, and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.

There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.
(Source: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/oct/29.htm)

If anything, Lenin’s observations ring truer than ever. Globalization and advanced communications technology have broken down “national barriers” as anybody who has ever made a call to get technical support from Dell Computers would attest.

Unfortunately, labor solidarity has not kept pace with bourgeois solidarity that forges ahead with trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO. In the coming decades, labor will either face up to the task of realizing the old slogan of “workers of the world unite” or else it will fall backwards into greater and greater restrictions of the sort that typified feudal Europe. There is no turning back.

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