Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2007

Welcome to the Panopticon

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 11:34 pm

Jeremy Bentham’s design for Panopticon

The other week something called Altiris was installed on our computers at work. This has led to a certain amount of anxiety since the software, supposedly intended to monitor and administer software configurations, can also be used to check what we are doing on our computers–including what websites we visit and how often. Some programmers have sworn off checking their bank accounts or train schedules online at work because they are afraid that big brother is watching.

Altiris, which was purchased a while back by Symantec, does not really give any inkling on its website that the software is designed for workplace surveillance. However, a 2005 article from www.processor.com does:

Most IT admins certainly do not relish the thought of having to access co-workers’ email accounts, files, or online activities. However, policy or legal liability issues may one day necessitate that you monitor your network users’ workstations. A plethora of tools exists to make the process relatively painless, if applied correctly.

Pedestal Software’s Altiris SecurityExpressions audits desktops, laptops, and servers to ensure adherence to either specific enterprise or best practices policies. The system security policy audit and compliance software also offers hundreds of preset configurations from which IT admins can select.

Meanwhile, Columbia’s stated policy on the use of computers says nothing about “wasting time”. It is only concerned with the obvious problems of wasting bandwidth, pornography, etc.

Use of University systems or networks for commercial purposes, except where explicitly approved, is strictly prohibited.

Frivolous, disruptive, or inconsiderate conduct in computer labs or terminal areas is not permitted.

No University computing facility may be used for playing computer games.

Even though none of this applies to me, I can’t get the image of some administrator at an oversized computer terminal monitoring activity around the campus out of my mind. Back in 1969, I had a job at the American Stock Exchange maintaining a system called Stockwatch which was programmed to look for unusual trading activity. If there was a spike that went beyond certain parameters, it would require further investigation to ferret out insider trading or some other illicit activity. Would visits to the LBO-Talk archives or my blog set off an alarm on Altiris? I could just hear them saying, “There’s Proyect up to his old tricks again. If he makes one more visit to LBO-Talk, he’s out of here.”

The idea of being monitored in this fashion reached its classic expression in Jeremy Bentham’s proposal for a Panopticon, a type of prison that would allow the authorities to look in on the prisoners without them being able to know that they were being watched. The wiki on Panopticon explains:

Bentham derived the idea from the plan of a military school in Paris designed for easy supervision, itself conceived by his brother Samuel who arrived at it as a solution to the complexities involved in the handling of large numbers of men. Bentham supplemented this principle with the idea of contract management, that is, an administration by contract as opposed to trust, where the director would have a pecuniary interest in lowering the average rate of mortality. The Panopticon was intended to be cheaper than the prisons of his time, as it required fewer staff; “Allow me to construct a prison on this model,” Bentham requested to a Committee for the Reform of Criminal Law, “I will be the gaoler. You will see … that the gaoler will have no salary — will cost nothing to the nation.” As the watchmen cannot be seen, they need not be on duty at all times, effectively leaving the watching to the watched. According to Bentham’s design, the prisoners would also be used as menial labour walking on wheels to spin looms or run a water wheel. This would decrease the cost of the prison and give a possible source of income.

While Bentham’s proposal was never carried out, the spirit has lived on in the workplace where the control of labor becomes ever more critical in the later stages of capitalism. With Frederic Taylor’s scientific management techniques being adopted by Henry Ford and other industrialists, the notion of a Panopticon takes on added urgency. If it is necessary for workers not to waste a minute on non-work related activities, there has to be a mechanism to enforce that.

In “Discipline and Punish,” Michel Foucault argued that it was not only the prison that is vulnerable to the Panopticon. All hierarchical institutions like the army, high school, the hospital and the factory have evolved to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon.

Shoshona Zuboff’s “The Age of the Smart Machine” examines the modern workplace to see how deep the roots of Panopticon have sunk. Her work was discussed in Simon Head’s “The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age”. (Head has been interviewed a number of times on Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News” and I thank him for referring me to Head’s work.) Head writes:

The attainment of panoptic power has been a goal of scientific managers ever since Taylor created his shop floor planning departments, with their hordes of “functional foremen.” But it is only with the coming of the computer, and the computer’s empowerment with the attachment of monitoring software, that panoptic power has become a real and overwhelming presence in offices and factories. The empowered computer that confronts the employee at the beginning of every working day is nothing less than Foucault’s “tall outline of the central tower from which he [the employee] is being spied upon.” Once the computer is up and running, so too is the possibility of managerial monitoring and control, though at any given moment the employee can never know whether this power is actually being exercised.

He also quotes the top executive of a paper manufacturing company who revealed to Zuboff his own “panoptic” dreams, even though it is doubtful he ever read Bentham or Foucault:

My vision is that one wall of my office will be a screen. I can hit buttons and see my reports or any other data I want. The data base will integrate the entire organization, and all the data will be in agreement … I want the president of the company to have a screen on his wall. We should be able to look at the data on a minute-by-minute basis, and the screen should be continuously updated.

It also sounds like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, doesn’t it? The industrialist has a closed circuit TV (this was a 1927 film–so visionary for its time) that allows him to watch his workers without them watching him.

From Lang’s “Metropolis”

After reflecting on Altiris for several hours this week, I had an epiphany. Or at least one of my co-workers helped me to reach an epiphany. This was a Russian Jew who as might be expected had no sympathies for socialism, especially the Soviet variety. I asked him if Soviet computer programmers ever had to worry about losing their job through downsizing, outsourcing, below-par performance reviews, etc. He said that this was not particularly a problem in Soviet Russia. You never saw plant or office closings. In fact, there was always a shortage of workers. The only reason one could lose their job was through “disloyalty” as he put it. This did not mean disloyalty to the employer, but to the state. In other words, as long as you kept your mouth shut about society or politics, you never had to worry about losing your job.

Meanwhile in the US, I can write fiery condemnations of the government until the cows come home, but nobody will pay it the slightest attention–just as long as I do it on my own time. Furthermore, even if I mind my p’s and q’s at work, there is no guarantee that I will keep my job because universities like Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Princeton continue to adopt corporate-type practices, both in terms of their drive to increase what amounts to profits (student enrollment, government grants, etc.) and to cut costs. This might mean using adjuncts. It also might mean inducing Panopticon type self-discipline among the administrative staff. If I can’t be trusted to spend every minute of the day on my assignments, then they presumably will find somebody else to take my place.

So there you have it. In the Soviet Union, you had economic security but worries about becoming an “enemy of socialism”. In the US, you can be an enemy of capitalism all you want, but you have no chance–at least for the time being–of abolishing the system that keeps you in chains. As long as that system exists, the worker will find himself or herself existing in the state so eloquently described by Karl Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.

 

August 29, 2007

“Sicko” follow-up

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 9:45 pm

(My review of “Sicko” was intended for a left newspaper in New Zealand, but it required some modification to be meaningful to readers there. This is correspondence between Phil Ferguson, who requested the review, and me that was forwarded to Marxmail.)

I’d like to add a few comments about ‘Sicko’ in relation to its relevance outside the US. It seems to be a great exposure of how screwed up the health system is in the USA, but it’s not so relevant in a lot of other imperialist countries which have long had a large public health sector.

Below are two emails I sent Louis on this subject which he suggested I share with the list:

 FIRST EMAIL:

. . . in NZ where we have long had a public health system.

I also realised that a NZ leftist would probably review the film differently from an American and I hadn’t really thought about that when I asked you for a review. The film is made really for American audiences and the arguments are ones that make sense in that context but our experience is quite different.

For instance, what has happened here (and in Britain and Oz) is that the public health system, while obviously being an important gain for workers, has increasingly been used to assist and subsidise the private health sector. Since 1984 chunks of the public health system have also been commodified. Our experience is that capitalism can’t actually deliver a top-notch public health system or certainly not over a long period of time. It is totally dependent on the economic health of capitalism at any one time. Since it’s financed out of deductions on surplus-value, it faces being undermined every time there is a profitability problem in the private sector.

So what Marxists in NZ would emphasise is the incapacity of capitalism to deliver.

Moore’s film therefore makes more sense in the USA than here. Here it’s received as just another example of how crazy American society is (like ‘Bowling for Columbine’).

LOUIS: I actually googled New Zealand and health care out of curiosity but couldn’t exactly figure out what was up there. It seemed like an amalgam between private and public.

SECOND EMAIL: Increasingly an amalgam.

The welfare state here was created in two main periods. Initial steps under the Liberals in the 1890s and first few years of the 1900s, but mainly under the first Labour government (1935-1949). This was the main period for the growth of free public health.

After 1984 the public health system began to be dismantled – Labour gave it and Labour started to take it away 50 years later.

The public health system partly props up the private sector – or the private health sector leeches off the public sector.

These days if you have some urgent operation you might end up waiting several years on the public health, so if you can afford it you go private.

A couple years ago the public health system almost let my old man die. The idea was that since he was about 75, there was no point in attempting a potentially risky operation. We just happened to be very lucky to have a close family friend in that particular public hospital who fought for my old man’s operation.

In each major population area in NZ there are *thousands* of people on the waiting lists for operations in the public hospitals. Recently the local health boards have taken to bumping thousands of people off the waiting lists.

I can understand that an American film-maker might hold up the system in (basically the old white Commonwealth) social democracies as an argument for public health in the US, but the systems in Britain, NZ and Australia are woefully inadequate and ever since the postwar boom ended in the early 1970s we have had a worsening situation in the public health sector. In Britain, a lot of the NHS is in a pretty bad situation and also is leeched off by the private sector.

The other thing is the commodification of chunks of the public health system. What has happened in NZ is that a whole lot of stuff that used to be free – because the law of value was taken out of the public sector – is no longer free because chunks of the public sector are expected to break even and other chunks are expected to make profits.

One of the odd things about the US is that American capitalists are often less sophisticated than their other Western counterparts – it’s still a mystery to me how a ruling class so lacking in intelligence got to be international top dog! – and they don’t see that some kind of serious public health service is actually in their interests.

For instance, far from undermining private health – because the reality is that no social democratic government is going to wipe out the private sector – it provides the opportunity for all kinds of no-risk leeching by the private health sector, pharmaceutical companies and so on.

And a fit workforce at a minimum cost is in the interests of capital too.

Phil

August 28, 2007

Sicko

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 1:19 pm

As art and as political commentary, “Sicko” marks a giant leap forward for Michael Moore. Dispensing with a lot of the customary gimmicks of his previous films–including trademark confrontations with greedy corporate heads on their own turf–it focuses more on the stories of individuals who have been victimized in one fashion or another by the lack of decent health care in the richest country in the world. By using their misfortune as a means of exposing a system built on naked profiteering, he will open the minds of millions of Americans to a new way of thinking. The emphasis throughout the film is on the need for collective action and working-class solidarity, a clear challenge to the way of doing business as usual in capitalist America.

The film begins with a look at the consequences of being uninsured in the US. Moore introduces us to a worker who loses two fingers to a band-saw. After being rushed to the hospital with the two severed fingers, he learns that they have a rate schedule based on the type of finger that needs to be reattached. His index finger will cost $12,000 but the ring finger will be $60,000. Since the man describes himself both as a sentimentalist and of limited means, he decided to go for the ring finger since it was a reminder of his wedding vows.

But after reviewing several other examples of the calamities that await the uninsured, Moore explains that his film is focused on what happens to those who do have health insurance from some of the most powerful and profitable corporations in the US, including Cigna, Aetna, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Since they are under enormous pressure to show the maximum return on stockholders’ investments, they find it necessary to deny payment on claims for major medical procedures like cancer surgery. The insurance companies will typically go through the application forms of the claimants looking for “pre-existing” conditions that have nothing to do with the illness for which they are being treated. One woman discovers that her $12,000 claim for surgery was turned down because she had a yeast infection 20 years earlier. This is like refusing to pay for the cost of a heart transplant because somebody had been treated for insomnia in the past.

Insurance companies will also refuse to pay for many life-saving procedures that they deem as “experimental” and hence not reimbursable. In a heart-wrenching segment, we meet a white woman from Missouri employed as a nurse whose African-American husband was suffering from kidney cancer. A specialist told them that a bone marrow transplant from a suitable donor would probably save his life. After it was determined that his younger brother was a perfect match, they sought approval from her insurer to go ahead with the procedure. Even though (or perhaps because) her health plan administrators were doctors at the hospital that employed her, they turned her down because the procedure was “experimental”. In a meeting with the administrators, she accused them of having a double standard. If it was their mate who needed help, they would approve. She also accused them of bigotry because she was married to a Black. They, of course, denied this. If there is anything that “Sicko” reveals, it is the utter incapability of the rich and the powerful to see themselves as others less privileged do.

The answer to these problems is obvious. You need to take the profit motive out of the health care system. Moore is very good at refuting rightwing opponents of “socialized medicine,” who would regard government participation in health care as the first step toward a communist America. He reaches deep into the film archives of the 1950s to show excerpts from anti-Communist documentaries that are hilarious to watch today. We see three men sitting at a lunch counter who share a single spoon, the consequence apparently of government rationing. There is footage as well of old Soviet-era films, including young people doing calisthenics (horror of horrors) as well as a snippet from a musical commemorating hearty peasants meeting their wheat quota. As a connoisseur of Soviet-era kitsch, I recognized it immediately as a performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s proletarian oratorio “Song of the Forest,” a marvelous work despite the clunky libretto.

Next on Moore’s itinerary is a visit to the countries that are so demonized in the American media as poster children for the ills of government meddling in health care: Canada, Great Britain and France. The net effect of his interviews with citizens in each country is to debunk the claims of the free marketers. When he sits down with a couple of elderly Canadian relatives, he learns that even if they are making a brief visit down to Michigan to see members of the Moore family, they take out temporary health insurance at the local Sears department store. Why? They know that an accident on US soil can cost them thousands of dollars.

They refer Michael Moore to a friend of theirs, an elderly man who took a golf vacation in Florida several years earlier. While swinging a club, he snapped a tendon in his arm and was forced to go to a local hospital where he learned that it would cost $25,000 to repair. He cut his vacation short and flew back to Canada immediately where the surgery was free. While driving around on a golf cart with the man, Moore presses him with all the usual charges against the Canadian system. Isn’t the medical care second-rate? Don’t you have to wait forever to see a doctor? The bemused golf player says not at all. Using the trump card of the US conservative ideologists, Moore leans forward and asks him if he isn’t worried that it will lead to socialism. The man says that he is a member of the Conservative Party in Canada himself and that he doesn’t regard health care as a matter of politics at all. It just makes common sense to make health care available to everybody for free. He adds that Tommy Douglas, the father of the Canadian health care system, was voted the greatest Canadian in the country’s history in a 2004 poll.

It is worth mentioning, although the film does not, that Douglas was a founder of the New Democratic Party. If there is any obvious political message in the film, it is the need to back Labor or Social Democratic parties. Without ever really getting to the heart of how the capitalist system operates, Moore is quite open about the need to back working-class initiatives of the kind that have led to programs like national health insurance. In an interview with long time leftwing British Labour Party leader Tony Benn, the case is made for democracy which involves the working people using the ballot to press for reforms that is in its own class interests. “Sicko” makes an essential point that a Labour Party victory after WWII was instrumental in establishing socialized medicine even though the country was devastated economically at the time. If Great Britain could accomplish this, there is no excuse for the US not to. All that is missing is the political will.

To drive home the point about the economics of health care, the finale of “Sicko” involves a boat trip to Cuba with three emergency medical technicians (EMT) who developed chronic illnesses after volunteering to work at the WTC site following 9/11. They have respiratory illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments that remain undiagnosed and untreated. After showing video clips of Republican politicians assuring their critics that al Qaeda suspects were getting top-notch medical treatment at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba, Moore–resorting to the kind of guerrilla theater that made him famous–approaches the base in a boat with his sick EMT workers. Picking up a bullhorn, he asks the guards if they can come into the base to get the same kind of free and excellent health care that the terrorists were receiving. After a siren goes off, they beat a hasty retreat.

The final moments of the film are deeply moving as we see the EMT workers being cared for by Cuban medical personnel in next door Havana, where it costs nothing to see a doctor and where health indicators match those in G8 nations. For Moore to portray Cuba in such a light takes a lot of guts given the anti-Communist hysteria in the US found in both parties. Recently Barack Obama urged an end to a ban on visits and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, a relatively modest proposal that is backed by many in the expatriate community. To show that she is more reliable than Obama when it comes to defending American imperialist interests US in the region, her opponent Hillary Clinton stated that “Until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba.”

In what amounts to a relatively minor flaw in the documentary, the Clintons are shown in a more positive light than they deserve. Moore represents them as caving in to rightwing pressure when they put forward a health care plan after taking over the White House. In reality, the Clinton health care plan had very little in common with Canadian single payer or British socialized medicine. The bill was a Byzantine proposal that required employers to provide health insurance coverage to their employees through health maintenance organizations (HMOs). This was a typical Clinton maneuver, putting forward an idealistic-sounding reform that was essentially toothless. When the health insurance industry, the American Medical Association and the Republic Party unleashed a ferocious attack on this palliative measure, the Clintons folded like a cheap suitcase. President Clinton did rediscover his spine, however, when it came to pushing through NAFTA and throwing single mothers off of welfare.

Critics on the left have attacked “Sicko” for not being more explicitly critical of the capitalist system. To the contrary, the film is a 113 minute assault on the profit motive. Perhaps they expected Moore to include an interview with a member of the World Socialist Website on the labor theory of value and the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. Fortunately, Moore understands how to reach people with the very same kind of ideas without putting them to sleep.

If anything, the main criticism that can be made is that Moore is not consistent enough when it comes to defending the social democratic principles that politicians like Tommy Douglas and Tony Benn represent. As a Democratic Party loyalist, Moore must surely understand that no Presidential candidate will ever challenge the health insurance industry. While Hillary Clinton is an obvious puppet of the industry (the film records that she is the second largest recipient of health insurance industry donations), Obama is almost as bad. In a May 29 article titled “Obama Channels Hillary on Health Care,” Time Magazine summed up his health plan as follows:

“Obama’s plan contains many of the features of the failed health care proposal pushed more than a decade ago by his rival, Hillary Clinton, that went down in flames in 1994, including its most controversial element: a legal mandate that employers provide coverage for their workers, or pay a percentage of their payroll into a fund for the uninsured.”

Ultimately, a government health plan in the US will require a break from the two-party system, something that Michael Moore is probably not ready to do. This will require a mighty upsurge from the American grass roots that will result in 1960s type protests or in electoral initiatives to the left of the DP–or a combination of the two. So far, “Sicko” has generated nearly $25 million in ticket sales, which represents roughly about 2.5 million people in the seats. Seeing and hearing wild support for the message of the film last night at the New York Cineplex I attended gives me a strong sense that the tide is turning in favor of the massive social change that will produce the reforms that “Sicko” advocates. Whatever Michael Moore’s ideology, he will have played a critical role in making this happen.

August 27, 2007

How not to write about Venezuela

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

In the latest issue of Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the state-capitalist International Socialist Organization, there’s an article by Lee Sustar titled “What does Chávez have in store for Venezuela?“. He asks rhetorically if Chávez is “correct in his recent statements that the ideas of Marx and Lenin are outdated, and that private property has to be preserved in a socialist Venezuela?” He also writes “Chávez himself, quoting the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg out of context, declared that trade unions should be subordinated to the socialist party–i.e., the PSUV.”

When I asked Sustar to provide references for these assertions, he replied with respect to the first: “It was on Alo Presidente, which you can hear online.” I have not been successful in tracking this down. He also provided a link to an article on aporrea.org by Miguel Angel Hernández that began with this quote from Chavéz:

El Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) no tomará las banderas del marxismo-leninismo porque es una tesis dogmática que ya pasó y no está acorde con la realidad de hoy”…“tesis como la de la clase obrera como el motor del socialismo y de la revolución están obsoletas”… “El trabajo hoy es otra cosa, es distinto, está la informática y la telemática, y Carlos Marx ni siquiera podía soñar con estas cosas.

Roughly translated, this says:

The PSUV doesn’t call itself “marxist-leninist” because it is a dogmatic thesis that has passed and doesn’t accord with the reality of today…the thesis of the working class as the motor of socialism and the revolution is obsolete…the worker of today is another thing, is distinct, is involved with information and telecommunications technology and Karl Marx could not have dreamed of these things.

Maybe curiosity killed the cat, but I am dying to know what was between the ellipses in Chavéz’s quoted remarks. It also might be possible to make a distinction between Sustar’s characterization of Chavéz saying that Marx and Lenin were obsolete and his actual words, namely that “The PSUV doesn’t call itself ‘marxist-leninist’ because it is a dogmatic thesis that has passed and doesn’t accord with the reality of today.” Calling oneself “Marxist-Leninist” is pretty stupid in fact.

The other problem is in trying to find a smoking gun that proves that Chavéz is some kind of phony socialist based on what he says about Marx or Lenin. If he can be judged on this litmus test, then all the glowing references to Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg et al in his speeches should get him an early parole for good behavior. Now, I don’t want to try to convince the ISO comrades that they are taking the wrong approach–a daunting task to say the least–but you simply can’t judge Hugo Chavéz on this basis. It is a talmudic approach to politics. When you sit around poring over texts in order to establish the sanctity of a political figure, you are bordering on the theological.

On the Luxemburg business, he was just as–er–helpful:

Not hard to find. Google “Chávez” and “Luxemburgo.”

As it turns out, Sustar was most likely referring to an interview with Orlando Chirino that appears in the latest issue of International Socialist Review, another ISO publication. When asked about the independence of the Venezuelan trade unions, Chirino replies:

The President has tried to use Rosa Luxemburg’s writings to support his arguments against trade-union independence—but we have to see her positions in the particular political and historical context in which she put them forward. When she discussed the question of trade-union autonomy she was referring to the German Social Democratic Party and arguing against syndicalist and bureaucratic tendencies within the unions.

Well, maybe so but I would like to read what Chavéz actually said. In these two cases, we have quotes ripped out of context and a characterization of what Chavéz said. I don’t want to sound like a spoilsport, but it seems to me that the revolutionary press should aspire to higher standards. For example, when Lenin was polemicizing against Kautsky, he made sure to give the devil his due.

One feels even more convinced of this when examining the remarkable way in which Kautsky “interprets” Marx’s “little word” about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Listen to this:

“Marx, unfortunately, neglected to show us in greater detail how he conceived this dictatorship ….” (This is an utterly mendacious phrase of a renegade, for Marx and Engels gave us, indeed, quite a number of most detailed indications, which Kautsky, the Marxist pedant, has deliberately ignored.) “Literally, the word dictatorship means the abolition of democracy. But, of course, taken literally, this word also means the undivided rule of a single person unrestricted by any laws-an autocracy, which differs from despotism only insofar as it is not meant as a permanent state institution, but as a transient emergency measure.

“The term, dictatorship of the proletariat’, hence not the dictatorship of a single individual, but of a class, ipso facto precludes the possibility that Marx in this connection had in mind a dictatorship in the literal sense of the term.

“He speaks here not of a form of government, but of a condition, which must necessarily arise wherever the proletariat has gained political power. That Marx in this case did not have in mind a form of government is proved by the fact that he was of the opinion that in Britain and America the transition might take place peacefully, i.e., in a democratic way” (p. 20).

We have deliberately quoted this argument in full so that the reader may clearly see the methods Kautsky the “theoretician” employs.

Turning to Socialist Action, a group that is valiantly but foolishly trying to resurrect American Trotskyism, we don’t get much better. In the latest issue of their newspaper, Gerry Foley has an article titled “Chavez Projects a Non-Marxist ‘Petro-Socialism’ in Venezuela.” He too is ready to jump all over Hugo Chavéz for not upholding Marxist verities, based on that elusive “Alo Presidente” program.

Chavez himself has chosen this moment to declare that the “Twenty-First Century Socialism” he offers has nothing to do with Marxism.

This statement was commented on July 27 by the Aporrea website, an independent left website that supports the Chavez government in an interview with Stalin Perez Borges, a leader of the radical trade-union federation, the CUT, who has joined Chavez’s new party, the United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) : “Well, the president said in the last “Aló Presidente,” the Venezuelan Socialist Party will not take up the banners of Marxism-Leninism, because this is a dogmatic thesis whose time is past and it does not suit today’s reality. . . .

Moreover, in relation to the role of the working class, he said: ‘The theses that the working class is the motor force of socialism and revolution are obsolete. … Work today is different, it is the information and telecommunications industry. Karl Marx could not even dream of these things.’

The main difference between Foley and Sustar apparently is over the choice of the Venezuelan leftist trade union activist that they have adopted as their vehicle for channeling the depraved anti-Marxist ravings of Hugo Chavéz. Foley prefers Stalin Perez Borges, while Sustar depends on Orlando Chirino.

I suppose it would be too much to hope that the ISO or Socialist Action could muster the effort to get one of their reporters down to Venezuela and conduct an interview with Hugo Chavéz themselves. Obviously you can save the price of an airplane ticket if you plaster together pieces of aporrea.org or some other Venezuelan website.

August 25, 2007

George W. Bush’s history lesson to the VFW

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iraq — louisproyect @ 5:24 pm

I was curious to examine the speech George W. Bush gave to the Veterans of Foreign War convention last week since it compared Iraq with Vietnam. Three years ago I gave an interview to BBC in Ireland on exactly the same question. While there are obvious differences between the NLF and the decentralized and often nihilistic Iraqi insurgency, I hoped that the occupation of Iraq would end the same way, with Americans dangling from helicopter rails as they beat a hasty retreat from the Green Zone.

I.F. Stone

The speech itself is remarkable for literary references that seem utterly remote from George W. Bush’s experience, including one made to the radical journalist I.F. Stone who published a newsweekly throughout the 50s and 60s that I subscribed to. Bush took exception to Stone’s “Hidden History of the Korean War.”

After the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950, President Harry Truman came to the defense of the South — and found himself attacked from all sides. From the left, I.F. Stone wrote a book suggesting that the South Koreans were the real aggressors and that we had entered the war on a false pretext.

Bush also singled out Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” a novel that was set in Vietnam in the 1950s and that in its own way was critical of American colonialism. This is another book that I have read and which led me to the conclusions at odds with Bush, who referred to it in the following terms:

After America entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. As a matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people…The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be.

My first reaction to these references was to assume that Bush was simply reading a speech written by one of his aides, since his thinking seems to be influenced exclusively by the Washington Times and other neocon outlets. I can’t imagine George W. Bush ever opening up I.F. Stone’s history of the Korean War but can picture a Christopher Hitchens, David Horowitz or Paul Berman writing such a speech. These ideological converts to American imperialism would have first-hand experience with I.F. Stone or Graham Greene, who were required reading for radical intellectuals in the 1960s.

Graham Greene

This is not the first time that George W. Bush has demonstrated familiarity with literature generally unavailable at airport newsstands. During his summer vacation in 2006, he supposedly read Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.” Who knows why. Maybe he was getting vicarious pleasure from the opening scene, which involves a French settler in Algeria shooting a native after waking up on the wrong side of bed. Later on, Bush read Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace,” a history of the war in Algeria that I read as background for an MRZine article on the movie “The Battle of Algiers”. Bush must have read it to get tips on how to defeat the insurgency in Iraq, just the way that the Pentagon scheduled screenings of “The Battle of Algiers.”

After Horne learned that Bush found his book “most useful,” he told Salon.com that he was “stunned.” Originally a supporter of the war, Horne–like most of sentient humanity–began to retreat from that position. He was especially averse to the use of torture, since one of the lessons of the Algerian war is that it is counter-productive. This, indeed, is the universal criterion adopted by both liberal and conservative critics of the war in Iraq. If it is not working, then there must be a change. Implicitly, if the war were going well–as it had in the invasion of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s–there would be no objection.

Whether or not Bush has read I.F. Stone or anybody else for that matter, his speech is a significant challenge both to radicals who share Stone’s perspective as well as his mainstream critics who have given up on the war in Iraq because it is not producing results. Drawing upon the examples of imperialist wars going back to WWII, Bush puts forward the most extreme case for staying in Iraq until victory is achieved. Unlike the Congressional “opposition,” he sees no need for collective decision-making. It is his way or the highway.

When the NY Times reported that various scholars took exception to the lessons that Bush drew from history, they only quoted those who remained safely within the mainstream. For example, Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that unlike in Iraq the allies had destroyed the Japanese and German governments and deployed an occupation force three times as large as that in Iraq. He said, “That’s the kind of troop level you need to control the situation. The occupation of Germany and Japan lasted for years — and not a single American solider was killed by insurgents.” So, I guess the lesson Simon draws is that you need a much bigger imperialist invasion. Too bad the NY Times doesn’t have Howard Zinn’s number in their rolodex.

Turning now to Bush’s speech itself, one is struck by its determination to steamroll over any objections to the war. Although critics have often likened Bush to Richard Nixon, there was never anything in Nixon’s rhetoric like this. He tried assiduously to represent himself as trying to “wind down” the war in Vietnam, while Bush’s rhetoric is much more like Reagan’s triumphalism during the Central American wars of the 1980s. This obviously reflects Bush’s wholesale flight from reality that is also seen on display in the very fine German film “Downfall,” which dramatizes Hitler desperate attempts to rally his followers in his bunker.

Bush tells the audience:

We fight for the possibility that decent men and women across the broader Middle East can realize their destiny — and raise up societies based on freedom and justice and personal dignity. And as long as I’m Commander-in-Chief we will fight to win. I’m confident that we will prevail. I’m confident we’ll prevail because we have the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known — the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.

It is too bad that the Democrats lack such a fighting spirit. If they were half as determined to end the war as Bush is to prosecute it, it would have ended long ago. The explanation for this, of course, is that they are only verbally opposed to the war. Even now, all the leading DP candidates for president state that American troops must remain in the Middle East to stave off chaos.

Bush begins his history lesson with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which supposedly came out of the blue like 9/11. In Bush’s words, both al Qaeda and Imperial Japan supposedly despise freedom, and harbor resentment “at the slights he believes America and Western nations have inflicted on his people.” If Bush took the trouble to attack I.F. Stone’s revisionist account of the Korean War, one wonders why Bush or his ghost-writer were reluctant to take up similar challenges to the official version of December 7, 1941. Charles Beard, an early revisionist on WWII, refers to remarks made to the War Cabinet by Henry Stimson in November, 1941 in his “President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941.”

One problem troubled us very much. If you know that your enemy is going to strike you, it is not usually wise to wait until he gets the jump on you by taking the initiative. In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors…We discussed the possibility of a statement summarizing all the steps of aggression that the Japanese had already taken, the encirclement of our interests in the Philippines which was resulting and the threat to our vital supplies of rubber from Malay. I reminded the president that on Aug. 19 [1941] he had warned the Japanese Ambassador that if the steps which the Japanese were then taking continued across the border into Thailand, he would regard it as a matter affecting our safety, and suggested that he might point our that the moves the Japanese were now apparently on the point of making would be in fact a violation of a warning that had already been given.

It is safe to say that if war with Japan was really about rubber and oil, then the war in Iraq was about controlling strategic assets as well. The only “freedom” at stake in the Pacific and the Middle East was the freedom to make a profit.

When Bush takes up the Korean War, it is clearly with an eye to undermining his opponents in the Republican Party like Chuck Hagel and John Warner, whose engagement with reality is far too extreme for the White House to accept. Despite the swipe at I.F. Stone, most of his polemics are directed against his own party members:

From the right, Republicans vacillated. Initially, the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate endorsed Harry Truman’s action, saying, “I welcome the indication of a more definite policy” — he went on to say, “I strongly hope that having adopted it, the President may maintain it intact,” then later said “it was a mistake originally to go into Korea because it meant a land war.”

Throughout the war, the Republicans really never had a clear position. They never could decide whether they wanted the United States to withdraw from the war in Korea, or expand the war to the Chinese mainland. Others complained that our troops weren’t getting the support from the government. One Republican senator said, the effort was just “bluff and bluster.” He rejected calls to come together in a time of war, on the grounds that “we will not allow the cloak of national unity to be wrapped around horrible blunders.”

Apparently, Bush identifies strongly with Harry Truman. Not long after finishing Alistair Horne’s book on Algeria, Bush followed up with David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, who presided over another bloody colonial intervention. In 1952, during the depths of the Korean War, Truman’s approval ratings dropped to 22 percent, about 10 points lower than Bush’s. Maybe the only lesson that can be drawn from Truman and the Korean War is that Democratic presidents, including a New Dealer like Truman, are just as capable of inflicting atrocities on a population fighting against colonialism as their Republic rivals.

Truman was replaced by Eisenhower, a Republican, who ended the war after seeing the handwriting on the wall. Even I.F. Stone, risking “total excommunication” on the left from the ADA to the Trotskyists, wrote a column in June 13, 1953 urging a slogan “Back Ike for Peace” in more or less the same spirit that Tariq Ali urged a vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate against Tony Blair. Although I am generally hostile to backing bourgeois candidates, I hold fire when it comes to an I.F. Stone or a Tariq Ali. Taking note of Democratic politicians determined to run from the right against the Republican left, just as JFK ran against Nixon in 1960, Stone wrote contemptuously in January 17, 1955:

The Democrats will make capital in the West on power; keep mum on civil rights for Negroes; do nothing for labor; jump on Reds as hard as Republicans to prove their purity; exploit the discontent over the security program and at the same time kick up a fuss about cuts in the defense budget to show that the Republicans are the ones who are really “soft” about communism. The country, generally as contented as the Borden cow, will take all this without a moo as long as business holds up. There may be a change in the spring, however, when the auto industry finds it just cannot sell all those new cars it is making.

After dealing maladroitly with Japan and Korea, Bush turns his attention to the Vietnam war that most commentators equate to the current war in Iraq. Besides attacking Graham Greene, Bush takes a swipe at Senator Fulbright, an early and persistent opponent of the war in Vietnam, who is not mentioned by name, but whose words are quoted thusly:

What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they’ve never seen and may never heard of?

It should be mentioned that this view, while hardly amounting to vigorous anti-imperialism, is virtually the same as Graham Greene, who uses the character Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist, as a mouthpiece for his own sentiments. In a confrontation with the CIA agent Alden Pyle, Fowler describes a Vietnamese people who believe in nothing but the following: “They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They don’t want our white skins telling them what they want.” While this is a step up from George W. Bush’s worldview, it hardly does justice to the liberation struggle in Vietnam that had been going on for more than a century. If history teaches us anything, it is that the people of Vietnam and Iraq will not allow colonists to rule over them.

 

August 22, 2007

Flipping Out

Filed under: real estate,television — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Jeff Lewis: gay, OCD, New Age real estate flipper

On July 31, NY Times TV critic Gina Bellafante looked askance at a new reality show called “Flipping Out” on the Bravo cable network, which is based on the goings on of a Los Angeles real estate company run by one Jeff Lewis. Lewis is a 36 year old gay man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who specializes in “flipping” houses. Bellafante concludes her review with the following observation:

Mr. Lewis’s houses look like the generically upscale ones found in House Beautiful. He doesn’t possess style; he copies it. What he does have, by his own admission, is obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the show’s producers, to their credit, do not treat his O.C.D. as if it were a winning asset, the key to whatever success he has had. Like many sufferers of the disorder, Mr. Lewis ignores the real mayhem right there in front of him, so fixated is he on the idea, say, that all the bottles of water in his refrigerator be stocked so that the labels always face him. This is a task dispatched to one of three assistants, from whom he demands formal, written apologies when they behave insubordinately.

For years now, the comic detective series ”Monk” has equated O.C.D. with intuitive brilliance. We’ve long required a corrective interpretation, and ”Flipping Out” is it. Mr. Lewis isn’t a genius of anything. He’s just a delusional jerk.

Unfortunately, Ms. Bellafante does not get “Flipping Out.” I have begun watching reruns this week and saw the latest episode last night. It is simply the funniest thing I have seen on TV since “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” containing the same kind of absurd situations and characters. Since the characters on “Flipping Out” probably have no idea how comical they are, the humor is sharper in some ways than “Curb Your Enthusiasm” which has begun to imitate itself.

In one episode, Jeff Lewis directs one of his assistants to take his pet Angora cat, named Monkey, to an animal acupuncturist. This is Los Angeles, after all. Although the goal is to get the cat to mellow out, it throws a fit in the acupuncturist’s office and takes a bite out of the assistant’s hand. Finally, they subdue the cat and stick needles into its coiled body, wound tight as a steel spring. The unhappy animal looks like a rabid porcupine. On the way home, he berates the cat which is still hissing angrily in its carrying case. The contrast between the New Age pretensions of the people involved with this nonsense and the angry cat is almost as great as that between Jeff Lewis’s real estate ambitions and the reality of a declining real estate market in Los Angeles.

This discrepancy between the star’s lofty goals of becoming a millionaire and the real estate meltdown is what gives the show its dramatic tension. As a “flipper,” Lewis must turn over a house as quickly as possible in order to stay liquid. He is constantly in battles with potential buyers who want to drive down the price of a house he has put on the market or with his assistants who seem oblivious to his predicament. Nearly all of them are working in real estate until something better comes along–in the same way that others bartend or wait tables, until they make their big breakthrough as actors or writers. This is Los Angeles after all.

You can watch video clips of “Flipping Out” on the Bravo website. I particularly recommend the episode that includes Monkey having a fit at the pet acupuncturist.

 

August 20, 2007

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl goes to Venezuela

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

Psychoanalyst on a dubious mission

After the outcry generated by Joaquin Villalobos’s hatchet job on Hugo Chavéz, you’d think that the Nation Magazine would be more circumspect. Unfortunately, they have seen fit to publish another atrocity on their website. The author is Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, a 61 year old psychoanalyst from New York City who has written biographies of Anna Freud and Hannah Arendt. Her connection to Arendt prompted a Venezuelan study group called Hannah Arendt Observatorio to send her an invitation. Her write-up on the trip is titled “Reading Arendt in Caracas”, a salute to “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” a book that Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi described as “reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India.”

Much of Young-Bruehl’s piece is focused on the student opposition to Chavéz, who are distinguished from the “disaffected middle-class opposition party supporters” that had opposed him in the past. After making this distinction, Young-Bruehl allows that the universities they hail from are overwhelmingly “middle class and white.” I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds, but this is ridiculous. For a class analysis of the university system in Venezuela, I recommend George Ciccariello-Maher’s Counterpunch article “Behind Venezuela’s “Student Rebellion“:

But, as Metropolitan Mayor Juan Barreto recently emphasized in a response to the mobilizations, Caracas boasts 200,000 students, whereas these demonstrations have not managed to mobilize more than 5,000. And these mobilizations had been largely concentrated in the wealthy East of Caracas, with no student protests in the sprawling barrios that house half of the city’s population. Who are the rest of these students? It is here that we see another piece of the puzzle, and another crucial sector which opposes the policies of the Bolivarian Revolution.

As a response to the entrenched elitism and conservatism of the existing Venezuelan university structure, and lacking the political weight to attack the long-cherished tradition of university autonomy head on, Chávez’s government opted for a different strategy. Rather than attempting to change institutions like the UCV, the government has funneled resources into the creation of new, alternative educational institutions like the Bolivarian University (UBV), among others. In all, the government has created 8 new free universities and plans 28 more (11 national, 13 regional, and 4 technological institutes) as a part of the recently-baptized Mission Alma Mater. And this isn’t even to mention the vast network of already existing educational missions which stretch from preschool to post-graduate education, and whose participants are currently demanding that they, too, be recognized as “students.” As it stands, these new universities reach approximately 1.5 million students, and the educational missions a further 3.8 million, together representing more than 8% of the Venezuelan population, a figure which will only continue to grow.

Let’s do the math. Only approximately out of forty students from the universities that Young-Bruehl herself describes as “white and middle-class” took to the streets against the government. Meanwhile, nearly 6 million students from the barrios attend new universities built with oil revenues. We can assume that they were not interested in toppling the government. We can also assume that Dr. Young-Bruehl had little motivation to find out what this riff-raff had to say. She is obviously more comfortable with members of her own social class. Hannah Arendt Observatorio is led by one Heinz Sonntag, who is described as finding the Venezuelan universities quite comfortably Marxist. As we shall see, Young-Bruehl uses a by-now-familiar tactic to attack the Bolivarian revolution by invoking “socialist” or “Marxist” opponents of the government.

She must have taken her cues from Nation Magazine contributors Christopher Hitchens and Marc Cooper who also wrap imperialist propaganda in leftish phraseology. Sonntag took an anti-Chavéz position in a debate at the U. Cal/Berkeley in 2003. He said that the mass media used Chávez’s “inflammatory” rhetoric against him. He added, “The way in which these criticisms were received brought the first disappointments with the regime. Instead of giving coherent explanations or accepting responsibility for their wrongdoings, Chávez and his followers attacked the media, committing the additional error of personalizing these attacks by focusing on certain journalists and media owners.”

This is what Malcolm X called turning the victim into the criminal. The private media in Venezuela was not involved with “criticisms.” It was closely allied with the abortive military coup in 2002. It is obvious that Sonntag, despite Young-Bruehl’s assurances about his Marxist proclivities, had gone over to the counter-revolution. Sonntag is just one of a number of self-proclaimed “Marxists” or “socialists” who have made common cause with the section of the bourgeoisie that wants to turn back the clock. They are not necessarily old men like Sonntag. Some are quite youthful, like the student leaders who Young-Bruehl is so smitten with. George Ciccariello-Maher has them nailed down pretty well:

That the “student leaders” are tied to the opposition is far from controversial: for example, spokesperson Yon Goicochea is a member of Primero Justicia and the aptly-named Stalin González belonged until recently to the strangest of opposition organizations, Bandera Roja. BR is a nominally Marxist-Leninist group which made the unlikely transition from a respectable guerrilla organization to the attack dogs of the far right, claiming to use the opposition as a vehicle to topple the fake communism of Chávez and institute a true dictatorship of the proletariat.

Teodoro Petkoff, who shares Heinz Sonntag and Stalin González’s nominally socialist credentials, is described as “a guerrilla fighter” who “did a few stints in prison.” In the 2006 election campaign, he ran for president as a democratic socialist, according to Young-Bruehl. Nowadays, the term “democratic socialist” can mean practically anything. Norm Geras has cheered the US invasion of Iraq in the name of democratic socialism, for example. In my own view, democratic socialism is a redundancy since socialism is by necessity rule by the people, something that Hugo Chavéz gives every indication of supporting. Indeed, it is probably the spectacle of ordinary people asserting themselves that gives people like Heinz Sonntag the willies.

Notwithstanding Young-Bruehl’s assurances of Petkoff’s leftist bona fides, there is another part of his CV that she conveniently omits. Petkoff was economics minister under Rafael Caldera in 1996, a government that imposed a harsh neoliberal regime on the poor. The August 16, 1996 Caracas Daily Journal describes Petkoff’s unsuccessful attempts to persuade the poor that austerity measures were good for them in the long run:

Heralded on Wall Street as the agent of free-market reform, Planning Minister Teodoro Petkoff is finding it more difficult to win over people on his own turf than big-time foreign investors. Petkoff, the flamboyant spokesman for Venezuela’s economic reform program ‘Agenda Venezuela’ , heard the ills of community leaders Friday but had little luck in quelling them. “He is giving us the same responses we are hearing on TV,”said Father Thomas Mulcahy of the Santa Cruz Paris in the Propatria barrio. In an event sponsored by the Foreign Journalists’ Association (APEX), Mulcahy and other social workers met with Petkoff at the church.

While the State of an economic turnaround, the estimated 80 percent of Venezuela living in poverty remain in a perpetual down spiral, said Mulcahy. Lack of funding for schools, poor health facilities and a frighteningly high crime rate are the reality for the barrios surrounding Caracas. “I’ve been robbed in the middle of the afternoon right outside the church … this is the worst I’ve ever seen things.”

Mulcahy, who has worked with Venezuela’s poor for 24 years, said. Running water can stop for up to three months at a time, the social workers complain. The closest hospital, Los Magallanes de Catia, is in dire straits for lack of State funding and the neighborhood’s last remaining pharmacy is about to close shop.

But Petkoff, an ex-communist guerrilla turned economist and politician, remained staunch that President Rafael Caldera hasn’t forgotten the poor… “What he’s talking about we just don’t see up here,” said Oswaldo Borjes, who teaches construction trades to unemployed youth.

Next on Young-Bruehl’s itinerary is a meeting with the students at Simon Bolivar University where she had “an intense conversation about why Hannah Arendt had distrusted revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice without first achieving a stable, constitutional republic.” Now it must be said that Hannah Arendt was definitely committed to stable, constitutional republics–including ones that saw the wisdom of States Rights. In 1959, Arendt wrote an article titled “Reflections on Little Rock” that warned about the consequences of forcing segregation on the South. Her article betrayed the same kind of sanctimoniousness found in Young-Bruehl:

Another issue involved in the present conflict between Washington and the South is the matter of states’ rights. For some time it has been customary among liberals to maintain that no such issue exists at all but is only a ready made subterfuge of Southern reactionarieswho have nothing in their hands except “abstruse arguments and constitutional history.” In my opinion, this is a dangerous error. In contradistinction to the classical principle of the European nation state that power, like sovereignty, is indivisible, the power structure of this country rests on the principle of division of power and on the conviction that the body politic as a whole is strengthened by the division of power.

When poor Black people in Little Rock or Caracas decide to stand up for their rights, white, middle-class philosophers and psychiatrists get terribly upset.

I must strongly urge that people have a look at Reuven Kaminer’s very fine critique of Hannah Arendt on MRZine titled “On the Concept ‘Totalitarianism’ and Its Role in Current Political Discourse.” I offered Reuven some suggestions on background material on Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blucher, who was my professor at Bard College from 1961 to 1965. Like the students that welcomed Young-Bruehl in Caracas, I too had a head filled with middle-class, anti-Communist prejudices that Bluecher helped to reinforce back then. It was only when I left Bard College, faced the military draft, and began working as a welfare caseworker in Harlem that I began to wake up to the true nature of American society. That required unlearning a lot of the cold war mythology that I had picked up from Heinrich Bluecher.

Let me conclude with Reuven’s clarion call to action:

Marxists present their own counter-narrative regarding the crises of wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions that characterize the last century.Hannah Arendt argues that the content of the century is the assault launched by totalitarianism against freedom.This overarching metaphysical description is characteristic of bourgeois ideology in that it completely ignores the central social and economic crisis of our time.The crisis of modern society is the internal contradiction of capitalist society whose relations of productions are an objective obstacle to human progress.The content of the century is not a parable of good and evil (which is, of course, a generalized form of Christian myth) but the long and tortuous efforts to overcome and overthrow capitalism-imperialism.Humanity is still faced, to this very day, with the choice between socialism and barbarism.

August 19, 2007

Encounters with the FBI

Filed under: repression — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

While going through some old papers this weekend, I came across my FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act in early 1979. With the Democrats in Congress giving George W. Bush the right to use the FBI against the American people, it might be useful to share some of my FBI dossiers with you since I am a typical victim of police state abuse in many ways.

In early 1967, I was living in Hoboken, New Jersey in a tenement apartment that cost $39 per month. The building was filled with some colorful characters, including a number of people who had gone to Bard College like me. Two of the non-Bardians fit right in to the bohemian scene. One was a skinny guy named Hans Kary, who sold LSD and pot for a living, including to me. Around this time, Hans had stumbled across the Hare Krishna on the Lower East Side and became a convert immediately. He explained the attraction to me. “Man, if you chant Hare Krishna all day, you get higher than if you were on acid and it is free.”

Hans became a leader of the Hare Krishnas in no time at all and changed his name to Hansadutta das. He was eventually expelled after becoming a big-time cocaine dealer in the 1980s when he was running a Hare Krishna temple in Berkeley. Apparently, the cult began selling blow as a way of supporting its other activities. Eventually, the drug dealing became an end in itself and led to members killing each other. You can read about this in the excellent “Monkey on a Stick” by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson. You can also check out Hansadutta’s website at: http://www.hansadutta.com/. There’s nothing about his notorious past.

Hans was pals with a guy named Luke Faust, who lived on the top floor. Luke earned a living as a model in life drawing classes and doing occasional gigs as a folk banjo player. He was a pleasant but taciturn fellow. He never mentioned it to me, but was deeply involved with the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village and played with Dave van Ronk and Bob Dylan. After I moved to New York City, a guy named Robert Palmer from Little Rock, Arkansas took over my apartment and began gigging with Luke. They formed a band called Insect Trust that included Elvin Jones on drums. One of their two albums was called “Hoboken Saturday Night”. I don’t remember who did the cover art, but it was a drawing of our back yard–clothes lines and all. Palmer eventually became an editor at Rolling Stone and then a reporter for the New York Times. He died in 1997.

Shortly before I had joined the Socialist Workers Party, my application for a seasonal job at the passport bureau in Rockefeller Center prompted an FBI visit. Apparently, they did background checks on low-level clerical jobs. When they knocked on my door, they announced themselves as building inspectors. After I flushed a marijuana plant down the toilet, I let them in. After answering a few innocuous sounding questions, the interview concluded and they went on their way. In 1979, I learned the true purpose of their visit:

The Kennedy referred to in the file was a good friend of mine at Bard College who had flunked out in 1963. There was only one woman in the building at the time, so she must be the informant who told the FBI about the “beatniks” in the building. I can’t remember her name but she was a prostitute that worked the riverfront bars in Hoboken. She looked like a character out of “Threepenny Opera”.

A few months later I got my first programming job at Met Life in New York and moved to West 20th Street, which was convenient to work and to SWP headquarters on Broadway and 17th Street. At this point, the FBI saw me as threat to national security and decided to do something about it under the auspices of the Cointelpro program. The SWP successfully sued the government in the years following Watergate to ban FBI dirty tricks against the group and the movement as a whole, but I suspect that Cointelpro type programs are being reintroduced under the auspices of the “war on terror”.

Here’s the FBI internal memo recommending that action be taken against me:

Shortly afterwards, I received a postcard at work shown below. By the time it reached my desk, everybody sitting near me–including my project manager–had already heard about it. I was apparently the last to find out that I was the victim of a dirty trick.

Not five minutes after the postcard was in my hands, I was instructed to go see John Falzon, a vice president at Met Life who was in charge of the floor I worked on with more than 300 people reporting to him. I was sure I was going to be fired.

After I took a seat in his office, he gave a little speech that indicated how much things had changed since the 1950s. He said that he would not abide by any harassment of his employees. If I ever received any kind of communication like this again, he would track down the person responsible and see that they were fired. By 1968, the mood of the country had changed completely and I was the beneficiary.

In 1979, I made the decision to leave the SWP. After moving back to New York from Kansas City, I was all set to begin writing novels. Fortunately for the world of belles lettres, I was a far better politician than writer. Within a year or two I was connected with Peter Camejo, who had been drummed out of the SWP for thinking for himself. He encouraged me to get involved with CISPES, which I did. Although I never was a victim of FBI harassment when I was in CISPES, the group encountered a new outbreak of Cointelpro even though the program had been supposedly shut down. PublicEye.org has a useful summary of the FBI disruption:

The first FBI investigation of CISPES was launched in September of 1981 to determine if CISPES should be forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Among the documents used by the FBI to justify this CISPES probe, according to Congressional testimony by FBI official Oliver “Buck” Revell, was a 1981 article by a former FBI informant and ongoing right-wing private spy-John Rees. The Rees article appeared in Review of the News a magazine published by the paranoid ultra-right John Birch Society. This FBI investigation was terminated without indictments in December of 1981.

A second FBI investigation of CISPES began in March of 1983. It was premised on the right-wing conspiracy theory that CISPES was a cover for “terrorist” activity. To justify this view, the FBI relied not only on reports from its informant Varelli, but also in part on a conspiratorial analysis contained in a report written by Michael Boos, a staffer at the right-wing Young Americas Foundation. This FBI “counter-terrorism” investigation was terminated without indictments in 1985.

In 1986 I went to Nicaragua with a group organized by the Guardian in the US, a radical newsweekly with no connection to the British daily. We went to monitor the elections and provide testimony about their fairness once we returned back home. While I was there, I got a flyer from a group called Tecnica that was sending volunteers in the programming, engineering and other skilled trades to help train Nicaraguans. Many white collar employees had fled Nicaragua after Somoza was overthrown and Tecnica, as well as other progressive nonprofits, were trying to address the crisis that had been created.

As an experienced radical and computer programmer, I found Tecnica a perfect match for my background and launched an East Coast group after returning to the US. Hundreds of programmers and engineers would come to recruitment meetings that I organized in New York, including some people who had no background in radical politics.

Within a year or so, the Reagan administration decided to strike out at the Nicaragua solidarity movement by making an example of Tecnica. As indicated in the article below, the FBI conducted a raid on April 1, 1987 against returned volunteers under the pretext that they were trying to root out an espionage ring running high technology to the USSR from Nicaragua using Cuba as a link between the two countries.

In discussions with Michael Ratner, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, we figured out that the FBI might have been interested in exploiting two possible vulnerabilities. One of our returned volunteers, a retired engineer in his 70s, lived in San Diego and had salons at his home on a fairly regular basis. Like many people his age, he had once been in the CP and became friendly with Russian diplomats including one who was a regular at his gatherings. The FBI had taken telephoto shots through the window of his home and made sure to include the Soviet diplomat. When our volunteers were interrogated by FBI agents at their workplace, they stuck photos of the diplomat under their nose and said, “See we have the goods on you. This is a Soviet spy.”

Meanwhile, I had been meeting regularly with a Cuban diplomat to discuss sending volunteers to Cuba. After one meeting at the Cuban Mission to the UN, I agreed to meet with the diplomat every month or two. Since he was probably acting on ill-conceived instructions from his higher-ups, the meetings were like something out of “I Led Three Lives”. I would get a phone call from him telling me to meet him on the corner of 56th and Madison or some other location. He only arrived there after driving away from New York to throw off the FBI agents following his every step and then making a sharp u-turn on the Long Island Expressway. I had no idea why such security measures were necessary since my only interest in meeting with him was to set up a workshop on using Lotus 123, etc. In the eyes of the FBI, these meetings must have made me look like Julius Rosenberg.

Oddly enough, the Cuban eventually decided that socialism had no future in Cuba and became an American citizen believing in democracy and Sears-Roebuck. I received a long, rambling letter in the mid-1990s along the usual “God that Failed” lines but wondered whether he was trying to convince me or himself of his new ideas.

Here’s the Washington Post on the FBI harassment:

About 15 years ago I filed a new FOIA request to see if anything would turn up about these events. After all, I was the President of the Board of Directors of Tecnica. The FBI wrote back saying that there was nothing. When I read their reply, I said to myself that it would have to wait for a revolution in the US to take a look at their files for myself. We certainly can’t rely on the Democrats to make sure that the files are not being accumulated once again.

August 16, 2007

Eric Mielants: “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

Eric Mielants’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is necessary reading for anybody following the “transition debate” as well as a thought-provoking comparative study of Western Europe and the East in the late Middle Ages. Like Janet Abu-Lughod’s “Before European Hegemony: The World-System, A.D. 1250-1350,” it challenges the reader to think about how one of the world’s backwaters in that period–Europe–became dominant.

Mielants’s title is carefully chosen since he understands that the questions of capitalist origins and world domination are interrelated. The country or countries that first made the transition to capitalism were also the first to become global powers. For Marxists or left-leaning scholars, the rise of the West has been a disaster, whatever their differences on the origins of capitalism. Robert Brenner and the late James Blaut disagreed on whether changes in the British countryside explain the rise of capitalism, but they agreed that the system must be opposed however it came into existence.

Despite Mielants’s outspoken opposition to the Brenner thesis, he does have something in common with his adversary. For Brenner, the British agrarian class transformations of the 15th century provided a spawning ground for capitalism found nowhere else in the world. For Mielants, the West European city-states of the medieval era provided a nursery for the new system that also could not be replicated elsewhere. In either case, you are dealing with a kind of European exceptionalism. For Brenner, the British landlords and lease farmers were critical players, while for Mielant it is the Western European merchant bourgeoisie. As opposed to James Blaut who saw possibilities for the rise of capitalism in the East, Brenner and Mielants make the case that it could have only happened in the British countryside or the trade-oriented city-states respectively. While Mielants concentrates his fire on the Brennerites, the book is a serious challenge to Blaut’s claim that capitalism could have just as easily developed in the “proto-capitalist” regions of India, China and elsewhere in the East.

With a 73 page bibliography, Mielants raises the bar for those who want to participate in the “transition debate.” As I mentioned to Mielants in an email, the paltry eight pages of references in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s “The Origin of Capitalism” pale by comparison. Originally a dissertation, the 162 pages of “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is brimming with footnotes. But it is not a dry work. On almost every page, there is an eye-opening historical observation in support of his overall thesis. As is the case with the best scholarship, you want to track down the sources and find out more. For example, chapter two, “The Political Economies of China and Europe Compared,” begins:

HAVING LEARNED more about medieval Europe, the curious reader will undoubtedly ask: What about China? China has long been regarded as one of the most ancient and glorious civilizations. In the Middle Ages, China was probably the most developed of all regions— socioeconomically, politically, and militarily. Around a.d. 1100, it had a population of approximately 100 million people and the largest cities likely had up to a million inhabitants (Elvin 1973:159; Kracke 1969:11). “Medieval China witnessed considerable economic advance” (Hall 1988:22) such that it outshone anything in Europe. The economy certainly had a high level of monetization; for example, usage of paper money (huizi) issued in a.d. 1160, written contracts, mercantile credits, checks, promissory notes, bills of exchange, and so forth. Militarily speaking, the Chinese emperor was probably the strongest overlord in the entire Eurasian landmass; in the 12th century, he could easily mobilize nearly 1 million soldiers. In comparison, when at the end of the 12th century, Britain’s King Richard I wanted to maintain a “regular army of 300 knights supported by taxation, [his attempt] sank without trace” (French 1999:230) due to insufficient means.

Despite these seeming advantages, China failed to develop capitalism for the same reason that India and the city-states of North Africa failed. Although there was a merchant bourgeoisie, it did not enjoy a privileged status within the state. The Emperors and Kings of the East simply saw no advantage in promoting the interests of a merchant class. The source of their wealth was in the land and they saw no compelling need to expand beyond their borders in order to exploit the resources of less-developed regions.

While Brenner saw capitalism as originating in the British countryside and then diffusing outwards to the cities and then to the rest of the world, Mielants sees cities as the core. Capitalism begins in trading centers such as Venice or Flanders and then sucked in the countryside and peripheral foreign territories as merchants imposed their will on weaker economies, especially in Eastern Europe and the Near East. For Mielants, colonialism was as important an aspect of the medieval economy as it was for Lenin when WWI broke out. During the 13th century, Venice operated in the Mediterranean in the same way that the US operates in the Persian Gulf today. Commercial and military objectives complemented each other. The Byzantine Empire of the east was forced by the Italian city-states into a “subordinate position within the unfolding inter-regional division of labor.” In other words, the Italian city-states were imperialist just as Great Britain was in the 19th century and the US is today. An official of the Dutch East India Company wrote to the board of directors in 1614:

Your Honours should know that trade in Asia must be driven and maintained under the protection and favour of Your Honours own weapons, and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade, so that we can not carry on trade without war, nor war without trade.

If this differs from Thomas Friedman’s own recommendation in a March 28, 1999 NY Times Magazine article, I fail to see how:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The Chinese merchants simply lacked the power to use the state on its own behalf as was the case in Western Europe. The Portuguese and the Dutch were far more aggressive in their trade relations with foreign countries. By contrast, the Chinese royalty was solely interested in controlling its own vast territory, which was subject to invasion from nomadic tribes, particularly the Mongols. In a fascinating discussion of the Mongol invasion, Mielants notes that 35 million Chinese died at the hands of occupiers in the 13th century and that the economy never recovered. The net effect of the invasion was to open up trade from the West (this was the period of Marco Polo) to the disadvantage of the Chinese. When reading this, I thought of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Despite the fact that the Soviet economy was more progressive than that of the capitalist invader, the long-term consequences of the war was to weaken and eventually destroy the foundations for socialism. If there is a third world war and generalized nuclear annihilation, the end result will be a retreat to barbarism. In order to understand history’s grand narrative, we must never forget that war can act as a terrible deus ex machina–a time machine stuck in reverse.

Turning now to a consideration of whether capitalism could have evolved in the East, a review of Jim Blaut’s “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” is a good place to start. In chapter three (“Before 1492″), there’s a section titled “Protocapitalism in Africa, Asia, and Europe.” Blaut shares Mielants’s emphasis on urban trading centers, but does not believe that the European city-states were that much different from their Eastern counterparts.

The protocapitalist port cities of Europe were not more highly developed than those of Africa and Asia in the fifteenth century. This holds true regardless of the kinds of criteria chosen as measures. European cities, first, were not larger in absolute or relative population. In fact, urbanization in Europe was probably less advanced than urbanization in China, India, the Arab region, and no doubt many other non-European areas. The urban population in early Ming China was perhaps 10% of the total population. In the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India it must have been at least as high: the inland capital alone held about 3% of the population—comparable centers in Europe, such as Paris, may have had half that percentage—and the coastal port cities were both numerous and large. Second, the development of the techniques of business was fully as advanced, fully as complex, and fully as wideflung in space among the merchants and bankers of Asia and Africa as among those of Europe. (Tome Pires said of Gujarati businessmen in 1515: “They are men who understand merchandise; they are . . . properly steeped in the sound and harmony of it” and “those of our people who want to be clerks and factors ought to go there and learn, because the business of trade is a science.”) Third, the technical and material means of production seem to have been at about the same level of development in many mercantile-maritime centers of all three continents, allowing for differences in the volume of production and trade, the kinds of merchandise, and the like. Maritime techniques were also comparable across the hemisphere: though they differed from ocean to ocean, it cannot be said that ships of one ocean were technologically more advanced than those of the others. Manufactures in port cities and other industrial centers of Europe, Africa, and Asia were also roughly comparable in gross scale and level of development. Fourth, the urban class composition of Asian and African centers appears to have been similar to that of European centers: in all regions there existed a powerful class of protocapitalists and a wage-earning class of workers, with or without involvement also of other classes such as feudal landlords, slaves, and so on. And finally, the old European myth, codified by Weber—that European cities were somehow more free than non-European cities, which were under the tight control of the surrounding polity—is essentially an inheritance from classical Eurocentric diffusionism, which imagined that everything important in early Europe was imbued with freedom while everything important in Asia (not to mention Africa) was ground under a stultifying “Oriental despotism” until the Europeans arrived there and brought freedom. The so-called “free cities” of central Europe were hardly the norm and were not central to the rise of capitalism. The partial autonomy of many mercantile-maritime port cities of Europe, from Italy to the Baltic, was of course a reality, and usually reflected either the dominance by the city of a relatively small polity (often a city-state) or the gradual accommodation of feudal states to their urban sectors, allowing the latter considerable autonomy for reasons of profit or power. But all of this held true also in various parts of Africa and Asia. Small city-states were common around the shores of the Indian Ocean, in the Maghreb, and in Southeast Asia; also common were quasi-independent cities, giving loose allegiance to larger states.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer struck down Jim Blaut before he had a chance to complete his trilogy on Eurocentrism. His third volume would be an attempt to develop a history that incorporated the viewpoint of what Eric Wolf called “the people without history.” I am sure that he would have taken great relish in responding to the case made by Eric Mielants on behalf of European exceptionalism. To be sure, Mielants has nothing in common with those that characterize early Europe as being “imbued with freedom while everything important in Asia (not to mention Africa) was ground under a stultifying ‘Oriental despotism'”. Mielants warns specifically against creating an “ideal-typical dichotomy between dynamic ‘mercantilist’ trading states on one hand and static ‘inward-looking’ states with antimercantile practices on the other.”

As convincing as Mielants’s data is, I am still somewhat bothered by a certain gap in his book between the Middle Ages and the period generally associated with full-blown capitalism–the late 18th and early 19th century. It is the same unease I have had with the Brennerites who after examining 16th century British farming conclude that the industrial revolution was inevitable. Unless you trace the economic processes that led from either the “agrarian revolution” or the urban mercantilism of the same period to Manchester textile mills of Engels’s time, you are left with a kind of historical erasure–to use postmodernist jargon.

Specifically, I wonder whether Great Britain’s more “advanced” mode of production had more to do with the colonization of India than military superiority. Mielants states, “Why were the Europeans ultimately able to colonize and ‘underdevelop’ India, and not the other way around? In my opinion, the answer lies not in the often-discussed events of 1757 or 1857 [Battle of Plessy and Sepoy Rebellion] but rather, in the combination of these extremely important yet often-ignored events that made peripheralization possible; that is, the prelude to de facto annexation.”

In light of Mielants’s analysis of the impact of the Mongol invasion of China, I am not so sure. Isn’t it possible that the answer does lie in 1757, when a superior British military force’s victory opened the doors for further encroachment? For all of Great Britain’s much-vaunted capitalist development, it took cannons to achieve its goals.

In a polemic directed against Ellen Meiksins Wood titled “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism,” Pakistani Marxist scholar Hamza Alavi notes that British superiority was not so clear-cut:

India’s strength vis-a-vis Manchester seemed to lie mainly in its ability to produce fine yarn. Much effort was directed in Britain to improve spinning machinery. Crompton’s mule, developed in the 1780s, went some way to improve spinning technology. But as it yet could not match Indian quality. Indian textile industry was not easy to finish off. Contrary to the conventional wisdom (shared universally by Marxist and non-Marxist historians alike) that it was machine production in England that killed the Indian textile industry, we can identify three factors that combined to bring about its steady decline. All three related to the choking off of demand for Indian textiles. First of all, as pointed out above, Britain imposed heavy protective duties and administrative measures to keep Indian textiles out of the British market. The second factor, no less important, was that this coincided with the period of the Napoleonic Wars. The British imposed cordon sanitaire around Europe closed off the European market for Indian textiles entirely. Its importance can be gauged from the fact that in 1789 85% of the calicoes imported into Britain were re-exported to Europe and 60 % of muslins were re-exported. (Baines,1966:330) Simultaneously with the closing of the British and European markets, there was also a collapse in internal demand for textiles in India. In pre-colonial India, taxes collected from the peasant supported a large urban population, including the ruling elite. When, after the British conquest, these taxes were appropriated by the East Indian Company and used to pay for the export of Indian textiles, the Indian urban classes were suddenly dispossessed. There was a massive de-urbanisation. For example, according to Charles Trevelyan, the population of Dacca, the ‘Manchester of India’, dropped from 150,000 to 30,000.(quoted by Palme Dutt, 1970:120) The weavers were driven out of the towns, to seek a livelihood in villages. The Urban elite and middle classes, the consumers, were gone too. The internal demand for Indian textiles collapsed almost simultaneously with the closure of its outlets abroad.

In other words, the British conquest was not a function of having an entrepreneurial class tightly integrated with the state, but old-fashioned coercion. While it is difficult to imagine India colonizing Great Britain, one has to wonder whether Britain could have imposed its will without its powerful army and navy. Without its massive cavalry, the Mongols could not have imposed its will on the Chinese. And how was the British navy and army financed? While it is extremely difficult to track the revenues and expenditures of Great Britain in the 16th to 18th century, it seems quite plausible that it was through the capital accumulated in the New World through a combination of plunder and extortion–or what Karl Marx calls primitive accumulation. For Jim Blaut, 1492 is critical for understanding the rise of the west and I tend to agree with him, despite the rigor of Eric Mielants’s logic and the depth and breadth of his research.

August 14, 2007

Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

Last night I attended a special screening of “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” at the IFC theater in New York that was graced by the presence of the band who played for the audience after the documentary ended. Co-Director Banker White, who took questions from the audience, was joined by Ishmael Beah, the author of “A Long Way Gone,” a memoir about being forced to be a teenage soldier in Sierra Leone. At this point, the film is not scheduled for theatrical release but can be rented from Netflix, which produced the film.

Unlike “The Empire in Africa“, the film does not attempt to analyze the civil war in Sierra Leone. It instead approaches its subjects–a group of musicians led by Reuben Koroma–in the same way that the directors of “Lost Boys of the Sudan” approached their subject. Namely, it is a tale of dislocation and grief. When Koroma left war-torn Sierra Leone for a refugee camp in Guinea, he was in the same boat as the other residents. Their days were marked by a sense of futility and loss. Even though they were safe from the mutilation, torture and murder of the civil war, each day was characterized by boredom and alienation. That inspired Koroma to form a band in the camp composed of refugees like him, including those who encountered the loss of limb and family members. The goal was to bring some joy into the lives of the refugees. The film’s website notes that a vocalist named Abdul “Jah Voice” Kamara for his perfect high pitch was forced to watch rebels kill his father before they cut off his arm at the shoulder and left for dead. Another, named Mohammed Bangura, had similarly been forced to watch the murder of his parents, wife, and infant child before having his hand severed.

The musicians are not focused on trying to understand the causes of this terrible tragedy, which in some ways defy conventional social and political analysis–including my own. Instead they affirm the spirit of humanity and solidarity that was all but lost in the civil war. This is not to say that they were unaware of the deep social and economic contradictions that led to the slaughter. During the Q&A, Koroma stated that Sierra Leone did need a revolution, but a positive one.

Like “Buena Vista Social Club” or “Gypsy Caravan,” “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” basically combines performances with behind-the-scenes interviews with the various musicians. Their music can best be described as a mixture of West African highlife, a lilting style that emerged in Ghana during the 1950s and reggae. The band also includes a youthful rapper named Alhadji Jeffrey Kamara, aka “Black Nature,” who was orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea.

Although Guinea was a haven for the musicians and their fellow countrymen, it was not a place they felt at home in. The final scenes in the documentary describe a tour of Sierra Leone by the group, who were encouraged to see the post-war situation for themselves in 2004. Wary at first, they eventually became convinced that it was possible to return home and set an example for other refugees who followed their example. The band’s CD is available from Anti records, whose website includes a number of audio and video clips of the band in performance.

Official film website: http://www.refugeeallstars.org/

Band website: http://www.sierraleonesrefugeeallstars.com/

 

 

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