January 31, 2011
January 30, 2011
Opening February 4th at the Lincoln Plaza Theater in New York, the Russian film “How I Ended This Summer” has the same creepily claustrophobic atmosphere of any number of science fiction movies also set near the North or South Poles, especially the 1951 classic “The Thing”. There’s nothing like being surrounded by mountains of snow, living in cramped quarters, and stalked by creatures from outer space to make for a thrilling two hours.
Directed by Aleksei Popogrebsky, who also wrote the screenplay, “How I Ended This Summer” is also a horror story but without any monsters—except for the two men working at a meteorological station in the far north of the former Soviet Union. If “the Thing” has the capability of turning an ordinary man into a wanton killer by using his body as a host, the two main—and only—characters in Popogrebsky’s psychological thriller are transformed by social isolation and extreme conditions. This is essentially a “cabin fever” drama but one much more geared to exploring the psyche than gun battles in the snow, although they do occur.
Grigory Dobrygin plays Pavel, a neophyte who wanders about the site using the equipment for exercise when he is not playing video games. It is easy to understand why he might become bored with the job considering that mostly it consists of reading instruments and entering the figures into a computer.
Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) is a gruff and physically intimidating older man who is Pavel’s superior. He belittles him constantly as if he were a drill instructor, even though they have bonded sufficiently to sit naked in a sauna together.
As time wears on, Sergei’s behavior becomes increasingly abusive, reaching the point of slapping Pavel in the head when he screws up an instrument reading. Around the same time, he has told Pavel a story about how a former staff member at the site put a bullet through his partner’s head for getting on his wrong side. Since there are rifles at the meteorological station to protect them from polar bears, there is no good reason to think that the same thing could happen again if either one of them was driven to extremes.
Their only company, besides each other, is a two-way radio over which they communicate with the two other members of the cast who remain unseen. One day when Sergei is out on a fishing trip, Pavel receives news over the radio that Sergei’s wife and son have been gravely injured in an auto accident. Fearing Sergei’s reaction when he returns, Pavel keeps this a secret. In keeping it a secret and worrying to distraction about what will happen to him if the truth is revealed, Pavel’s mind begins to fray at the edges and finally explode into madness. For his part, Sergei goes over the edge when he too learns the news. While it would have been tempting for director Popogrebsky to turn this into a conventional action drama, he is far more ambitious. His main goal is to dramatize the vulnerability of the human soul in extreme climate conditions and in social isolation.
In many ways, this film reminds me of another excellent Russian work titled “The Return” that I never reviewed and that is now available from Netflix. Rather than trying to say something of substance a good six or so years after having seen it, I will let J. Hoberman’s Village Voice review say it for me. I would only add that his description of “The Return” as “suggestive of a lost era—the highly crafted allegorical Eastern European art films of the ’60s and ’70s” applies as well to “How I Ended This Summer”.
Catching the big one with Dad: A Russian director’s debut
Winner of the same Venice Film Festival that gave a decidedly mixed reception to The Dreamers, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return is also suggestive of a lost era—the highly crafted allegorical Eastern European art films of the ’60s and ’70s.
Zvyagintsev, a former actor and TV director, locks on to a compelling story that has both psychological and political resonance. After an absence of 12 years, the father of two adolescent boys abruptly materializes in the home of their pretty blonde mother and, by way of getting acquainted, insists on taking his confused sons on a fishing trip. Rough-hewn, handsome, and casually brutal, the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) seems to be a proponent of tough love. Fifteen-year-old Andrey (Vladimir Garin) is eager for paternal attention, but 12ish Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov)—prone to be picked on, overly attached to his mother, and scared of heights—is considerably less enthusiastic.
The battle of wills commences when the reconstituted family stops in some backwater and Dad sends Andrey to find a restaurant, a task that takes him hours. After a stressful meal, Dad gives the brothers his wallet and then has to demonstrate his fearsome mettle when they’re mugged by local urchins. Disgusted Dad is about to send Andrey and Vanya back on the bus to their mother but inexplicably changes his mind. (Is he intentionally cruel? Distracted? Crazy?) At this point, the movie too makes an enigmatic shift in location. Expertly shot by Mikhail Kritchman, The Return unfolds in a somewhat emptied-out world. The look is austere but lush, the color slightly leached. The boys live in an underpopulated settlement in a stylishly povera house; the town where they stop for lunch is largely devoid of human presence; their father takes them through wilderness to a seemingly deserted island. While the natural world is photographed with an elementalism strongly reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky, what’s most concrete in the movie are the performances. The kids are terrific. While Andrey is wide-eyed and incredulous, pinched, angry Vanya turns out to be the tougher of the two. No less surprising, the taciturn father is not completely uncaring.
The Return begins as a mysterious quest, shades into a discomfiting thriller, then a survival story, and finally a tragic parable. Primordial and laconic, this remarkably assured debut feature has the elegant simplicity of its title. The mode is sustained, the structure overt. Some may be put off by the movie’s cool technique and boldly closed form, but it clearly announces Zvyagintsev as a director to watch.
January 28, 2011
For obvious reasons, the New York Times does not like Julian Assange very much although they don’t spell out their political differences, preferring to use cheap ad hominem attacks. For example, John Burns described him as “erratic and imperious” in an October 23rd story. Indeed, it seems almost impossible for the Times to write about Assange without including such terms.
This Sunday the magazine section will include an 18 page article on Assange by the paper’s executive editor, one Bill Keller. It is basically an exercise in character assassination relieved only by a pro forma defense of the Wikileak founder’s right not to be kidnapped, tortured, killed or imprisoned. Keller writes:
But while I do not regard Assange as a partner, and I would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism, it is chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public, let alone the passage of new laws to punish the dissemination of classified information, as some have advocated. Taking legal recourse against a government official who violates his trust by divulging secrets he is sworn to protect is one thing. But criminalizing the publication of such secrets by someone who has no official obligation seems to me to run up against the First Amendment and the best traditions of this country. As one of my colleagues asks: If Assange were an understated professorial type rather than a character from a missing Stieg Larsson novel, and if WikiLeaks were not suffused with such glib antipathy toward the United States, would the reaction to the leaks be quite so ferocious? And would more Americans be speaking up against the threat of reprisals?
If Keller had simply left it at this, one might have forgiven him despite his extensive record as a willing accomplice to imperialist war. Implicit in his hatchet job on Assange is the idea that someone hostile to American foreign policy is beyond the pale. For a newspaper that has been responsible for Judith Miller’s lies that led to a massive loss of Iraqi lives, it is high time for it to reexamine its role as propagandist. Of course, as long as there is a class system in the US, this is not likely to happen.
On February 8th, 2003, Keller wrote an op-ed piece in the Times titled The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club that stated among other stupidities:
We reluctant hawks may disagree among ourselves about the most compelling logic for war — protecting America, relieving oppressed Iraqis or reforming the Middle East — but we generally agree that the logic for standing pat does not hold. Much as we might wish the administration had orchestrated events so the inspectors had a year instead of three months, much as we deplore the arrogance and binary moralism, much as we worry about all the things that could go wrong, we are hard pressed to see an alternative that is not built on wishful thinking.
This is really what sticks in their craw when it comes to someone like Julian Assange or a Noam Chomsky. These two dissidents stubbornly refuse to buy into the “arrogance and binary moralism” that are at the heart of American foreign policy whichever party is in power. Furthermore, despite Keller’s assurance that he “deplores” such a stance, he is the living embodiment of it. The only reason the NY Times has written anything critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they have turned sour. If you go back and review coverage of the invasions of Grenada or Panama, you will find nothing of the sort. Imperialist liberals of Mr. Keller’s persuasion only begin to think twice about American foreign policy when it fails to achieve its immediate goals.
In the first paragraph of Mr. Keller’s attack, he makes sure to remind his readers that his target is an “eccentric former computer hacker”. Okay, we get it. Our enemies are “eccentric” while the inhabitants of the White House are normal. It doesn’t matter very much if these normal people are killing thousands of civilians just as long as they wouldn’t raise eyebrows at a cocktail party thrown at some NY Times editor’s house in the Hamptons.
In order to establish that Assange would never get such an invitation, Keller cites a communication from Eric Schmitt, a reporter assigned to work with Wikileaks:
On the fourth day of the London meeting, Assange slouched into The Guardian office, a day late. Schmitt took his first measure of the man who would be a large presence in our lives. “He’s tall — probably 6-foot-2 or 6-3 — and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention,” Schmitt wrote to me later. “He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”
Despite these fashion notes, it appears that Schmitt’s background is not in the fluffy, idiotic Style section that appears in the Thursday edition of the NY Times. Of course, if Assange had shown up in a perfectly fitting Armani suit, that would have made little difference to these cheap propagandists. With respect to his body odor, one could only assume that it is difficult sometimes to bathe when you are on the run. We can assume that Mr. Keller and Mr. Schmitt are perfectly groomed since their professional life would hardly ever make them the targets of Interpol, the CIA, MI5 or other armed bodies on the same side of the class divide as the newspaper of record.
The article continues to paint Julian Assange as a kind of dirt bag. On page three, we learn that “reporters came to think of Assange as smart and well educated, extremely adept technologically but arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” I have never been in Assange’s position, but I probably would find myself rather “thin-skinned” in the presence of a sartorial hawk like Eric Schmitt especially since my own socks have occasionally dropped around my ankles.
While the NY Times decided to form a partnership with Wikileaks (one that no longer exists because of John Burns’s hatchet job, no doubt), it was obvious that it recoiled at some of the more incendiary leaks that pointed to American war crimes. It was one thing to include chatty obiter dicta from American embassies overseas (that is, until Tunisia exploded) but it was another to publicize anything that proved we were involved with war crimes. Keller writes:
The Guardian, which is an openly left-leaning newspaper, used the first War Logs to emphasize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, claiming the documents disclosed that coalition forces killed “hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents,” underscoring the cost of what the paper called a “failing war.” Our reporters studied the same material but determined that all the major episodes of civilian deaths we found in the War Logs had been reported in The Times, many of them on the front page. (In fact, two of our journalists, Stephen Farrell and Sultan Munadi, were kidnapped by the Taliban while investigating one major episode near Kunduz. Munadi was killed during an ensuing rescue by British paratroopers.) The civilian deaths that had not been previously reported came in ones and twos and did not add up to anywhere near “hundreds.” Moreover, since several were either duplicated or missing from the reports, we concluded that an overall tally would be little better than a guess.
Of course, it is understandable why Keller would be agnostic on whether casualties amounted to “hundreds” based on the reporting of Stephen Farrell. The Kunduz incident alone resulted in the death of 90 Afghans, but you really could not tell from Farrell’s article whether the dead people were insurgents or innocent civilians. He made sure to include these disclaimers:
Though there seemed little doubt some of the dead were militants, it was unclear how many of the dead were civilians, and with anger at the foreign forces high here, NATO ordered an immediate investigation.
In explaining the civilian deaths, military officials speculated that local people were conscripted by the Taliban to unload the fuel from the tankers, which were stuck near a river several miles from the nearest villages.
German forces in northern Afghanistan under the NATO command called in the attack, and German military officials initially insisted that no civilians had been killed. But a Defense Ministry spokesman in Berlin later said the ministry believed that more than 50 fighters had been killed but could give no details about civilian casualties.
This kind of “balance” is what makes the NY Times so worthless. If there were 90 people supposedly dead as a result of a Taliban attack, trust me that one of its reporters would not be so careful to include “the other side” of the story.
Finally, a word about Keller’s likening of Assange to figures in a novel that I am currently reading:
I came to think of Julian Assange as a character from a Stieg Larsson thriller — a man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the megaselling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation.
As one of my colleagues asks: If Assange were an understated professorial type rather than a character from a missing Stieg Larsson novel, and if WikiLeaks were not suffused with such glib antipathy toward the United States, would the reaction to the leaks be quite so ferocious? And would more Americans be speaking up against the threat of reprisals?
I will have a lot more to say about Stieg Larsson after I am finished reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” but one wonders if Mr. Keller has read the author. The obvious connection is between Julian Assange and Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, the two extremely likable characters who come together as partners in an investigation of murders committed by members of a bourgeois family with Nazi connections and corporate crime carried out by another wealthy magnate. One wonders what would make them villainous in Keller’s eyes. Was it their willingness to take on corporate power?
Indeed, it is very likely that the NY Times would have had exactly the same bourgeois snobbery and anti-leftist animosity when it came to Stieg Larsson who created these memorable characters. As a young man, Larsson was a militant of the Trotskyist group in Sweden and dedicated to bringing down the system that Julian Assange is opposed to. If Larsson had not died as the result of a heart attack, I can easily imagine him participating in Assange’s defense. The main message of his novels is the abuse of corporate power, something that American writers need to adopt as well in the face of financial collapse, greed and, class divisions on a scale not seen since the Great Depression or earlier. If I had the ear of such a novelist, I would tell them to take a close look at Bill Keller, a real villain by any estimation.
NY Times January 27, 2011, 5:40 pm
Israeli Journalist Reports Death Threats Over Gaza War Film
By ROBERT MACKEY
Israeli soldiers expressed regrets over their conduct in Gaza in a new documentary.
Nurit Kedar, an Israeli documentary filmmaker, told Channel 4 News of Britain on Thursday that she had received death threats following the broadcast of her latest film, a report on Israeli soldiers who expressed regrets over their own conduct during the war in Gaza two years ago.
The 13-minute documentary, made for Channel 4 News, was posted online on Wednesday. In response, Ms. Kedar said: “I have had phone calls saying, ‘You should be hanged,’ and calling me a traitor. People have sent me messages calling for me to be expelled from Israel, saying I am a traitor to my mother and father.”
The Jewish Chronicle reported on Thursday that a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London had complained about the film. Among the embassy’s objections was the weight Ms. Kedar’s film gave to the use of the word “cleanse,” by a young tank commander she interviewed. The commander said that before his unit went into Gaza, the soldiers were told: “We needed to cleanse the neighborhoods, the buildings, the area. It sounds really terrible to say ‘cleanse,’ but those were the orders.”
According to The Chronicle, the Israeli spokesman said the word was mistranslated, that it was “used by soldiers to describe when they are not under threat during a search, the nearest equivalent being ‘clear.’ ”
Before the film was broadcast, the embassy gave this statement to Channel 4 News:
Unlike much of the region, the open society within Israel allows for all allegations such as these to be aired and investigated. Israel has already authorized over 100 separate investigations into the operation and five broader investigations, and close to 50 criminal investigations are also taking place.
All this in the context of having to respond to over 12,000 missiles raining on our citizens — such an operation could unfortunately never be flawless given these circumstances.
Our judicial process is renowned across the world for its independence. This is a country, after all, which holds even the very top of society to account, as has been proven in recent days. This is Israel in the 21st century, a flourishing democracy, thriving amongst a desert of tyranny in the Middle East.
January 26, 2011
Erik Olin Wright
In the latest issue of Dissent, a social democratic journal founded by Irving Howe in 1954, there’s a remarkably vituperative review of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias by Russell Jacoby, a UCLA professor. This is the most vicious paragraph:
WHAT IS one to make of this morass? Wright seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives. He refers to exactly one book in the utopian tradition, Martin Buber’s 1949 Paths in Utopia. Buber’s book closed with a discussion of the kibbutz, a subject that would seem to call out to Wright. After all, the kibbutz is a “real utopia” with a socialist ethos and decades of practice. Are there lessons to be found here? Daniel Gavron’s suggestive book The Kibbutz, subtitled “Awakening from Utopia,” sought to appraise its past and future. Wright says nothing about the kibbutz or the literature on it. Nor does he say much about the “real utopias” in Brazil, Canada, and Spain. He says little about anything. The empirical information he provides is perfunctory at best. His command of Marxism seems limited. His historical reach extends to his own earlier works. His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water.
It must be understood that Jacoby has a special interest in knocking down someone who writes about utopian socialism, especially a figure with some authority in the academic milieu that is home to both of them. Reading Jacoby’s appraisal of Wright, one wonders if there is a kind of envy at work:
He [Wright] is a chaired professor who has just been elected president of the American Sociological Association, the premier professional organization of the field. He often lectures at universities across the globe. He teaches in what many consider the finest sociology department in the country, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Madison department is where C. Wright Mills received his doctorate, and it housed his mentor, Hans Gerth, an émigré scholar who was a student of another sociologist, Karl Mannheim, whose 1929 Ideology and Utopia remains a touchstone study.
From the looks of it, Wright has won more blue ribbons than Heineken beer, as my good friend the late Mark Jones once described David Harvey. In this rarefied arena, the competition is very intense when it comes to Marxism, at least as defined as published articles and books that few sans-culottes activists will ever have the time or the energy to read.
This is not the first time that Jacoby has gone for the jugular. In the April 10, 2006 Nation Magazine, he went after a young academic named Eric Lott whose book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual he described thusly:
In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker’s table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists. Moreover, he wildly inflates the impact of the “liberal front” he is supposedly challenging. With Lott as your guide, you’d think Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman sabotaged the left and ushered in Bush. Were it so simple.
I wrote about the Jacoby attack on Lott not long after it appeared:
Since Jacoby is a sworn enemy of post-Marxism and anything remotely smacking of academic obscurantism (he was seen as an ally of Alan Sokal in a Lingua Franca article on the fight against jargon, while Lott has taken Sokal down a notch or two in the pages of the Village Voice), it is to be expected that he would attempt to smear Lott with alleged connections to figures such as Etienne Balibar (there are surely much worse than Balibar) and a propensity for terms like “intersectionality” and “the praxis potential of antinormativity.” Frankly, with what I have learned about Alan Sokal and his anti-postmodernist rightwing allies over the past 8 years or so, I am more inclined to line up with the winners of Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contests of yore.
Improbably invoking Lenin, Jacoby suggests that Lott’s work smacks of ‘infantile leftism,’ but when “Lenin used the term he was referring to new political parties, not professorial posturing.” I don’t quite know how to put this, but there should be a law against somebody like Russell Jacoby invoking Lenin. This is what the Turks call chutzpah.
But you can really figure out where Jacoby is coming from through his defense of Todd Gitlin’s and other “old fogies” call for a “universal left.” Let’s get something straight. This “universal left” has nothing to do with reconstituting the Communist International. All it is a call for rebuilding the Labor-Civil Rights-Democratic Party coalition under the leadership of a latter-day Hubert Humphrey. Gitlin voted for Humphrey in 1968 and will never forgive the radical movement for telling the truth about Humphrey, namely that he was a warmonger and a corporate stooge.
The latest contretemps with Wright has an added dimension. Although you might not have figured it out from Jacoby’s review, Jacoby is a long-standing utopian socialism theorist so there is a kind of turf battle going on. How dare Wright tackle a subject that Jacoby has made his own?
In some ways, the intensity of Jacoby’s attack reminds me of the beating Mark Danner took at the hands of George Packer in the NY Times Sunday book review. Both men have staked out turf in the “decent left”, with Danner urging NATO punishment of the dastardly Serbs throughout the 1990s and Packer defending Bush’s war in Iraq—until it turned sour. But if you are vying for top honors in State Department liberalism, there’s going to be a need to knock your competitor down a peg or two.
On the question of utopianism, it must be stressed that Wright and Jacoby have completely different approaches. Wright is far more interested in experiments like Mondragon than Jacoby whose notion of utopia mostly revolves around the need for projecting lofty goals, especially through imaginary literature such as Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”.
Unlike Wright who has a very active presence on the Internet and who does not mind duking it out with his ideological opponents, including me, Jacoby is a rather aloof and remote figure whose output is almost completely restricted to print journals. Indeed, he does not even have an email address on his UCLA website, an effort one supposes to preempt exchanges with riffraff like me.
Although it is restricted to subscribers, there is an electronic version of an article that Jacoby wrote in the December 2000 Harper’s Magazine titled “A Brave Old World: Looking Forward to a nineteenth-century utopia.”
The article was written to commemorate Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887” and to make the case for its relevancy in 2000, which mostly has to do with the need for visionary schemes for future societies. Jacoby’s main point is that utopianism has gotten a bad rap because of a failed experiment in the USSR that also embraced ambitious goals. He writes:
Anti-utopianism continues to suffuse our culture. Conventional as well as scholarly opinion posits that utopia spells concentration camps and that utopians secretly dream of being prison guards. Robert Conquest, a leading chronicler of the Soviet terror, is lauded by Gertrude Himmelfarb for telling the truth about “totalitarianism and utopianism” in his latest book Reflections on a Ravaged Century. And the final chapter of The Soviet Tragedy, by Martin Malia, another leading Soviet historian, is tellingly entitled “The Perverse Logic of Utopia.” Indeed, we now think of utopian idealism as little more than a prelude to totalitarian murder. At best, an expression of utopian convictions will call forth a sneer from historians and social scientists. In the nineteenth century the anticipation of a future society of peace and equality was common; now it is almost extinct. Today few imagine that society can be fundamentally improved, and those who do are seen as at best deluded, at worst threatening.
Now who am I to condemn anybody, least of all a widely respected academic like Russell Jacoby, for having utopian convictions? Given the terrible state of the world, one can surely understand why Jacoby would want to hole up in his UCLA office and fantasize about a world where there is no hunger, war, or alienation. It also certainly beats getting your hands dirty working on a campus protest against the war in Afghanistan.
But I think the whole idea of utopia has very little use in the class struggle today. As an old fashioned Marxist, I think the focus has to be on the here and now. As American Trotskyist James P. Cannon once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next.
I don’t think there is any great harm in dreaming up utopian solutions to our problems. Erik Olin Wright’s endorsement of Mondragon will not set us back in the class struggle, nor will Jacoby’s musings do much harm either.
My own approach, however, is at odds with utopianism as I tried to make clear in an article I wrote over ten years ago. It follows in its entirety:
It is really hard to believe, but adherents to rival utopian visions can have nasty splits just like “Marxist-Leninists”. Evidence of this is contained in the most recent copy of “Democracy and Nature”, a journal formerly known as “Society and Nature”. The International Managing Editor is Takis Fotopoulos.
In the “Dialog” section of the issue, the editors air their dirty laundry. Murray Bookchin, a member of the advisory board along with other luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Andre Gunder Frank and Cornelius Castoriadis, is tendering his resignation. Bookchin is the guru of the social ecology movement, which –crudely put– is a mixture of anarchism and environmentalism. He lives in Vermont and posts jeremiads against capitalism to his followers near and wide.
“Very disturbingly, Takis and I have even drifted apart on the issue that long held us together, libertarian municipalism. (I now strongly prefer the word ‘libertarian’ over ‘confederal’ municipalism because ‘libertarian’ has a revolutionary political content, rather than merely a structural and logistical one.) His current advocacy of a personal voucher system and an ‘artificial market’ (whatever happened to a libertarian-communist moral economy?), and his notion that libertarian municipalism could somehow creep up on the bourgeoisie and erode the power of the state are highly disturbing to me. These notions divest libertarian municipalism of its confrontational stance toward the state in the form of a revolutionary dual power. I did not propound this theory of politics to see it mutate into Bernsteinian evolutionary social democracy.”
Bookchin’s “libertarian municipalism” is offered as an alternative to the Marxist vision of a transformation of society led by the working-class.
Social ecology would embody its ethics in a politics of confederal municipalism, in which municipalities cojointly gain rights to self-governance through networks of confederal councils, to which towns and cities would send their mandated, recallable by delegates to adjust differences.
Okay, let’s see if we can get this right. Capitalism will be replaced by a more humane system through the incremental replacement of capitalist chunks of real estate by new egalitarian units. Today we have liberated Putney, Vermont and Madison, Wisconsin. Next week we have a shot at taking over Dallas, Texas. When all the towns and cities have been become liberated zones, we then celebrate our victory by eating dishes of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
What is that Takis Fotopoulos believes in that so exercised Bookchin? The fight is over models and nothing else. Bookchin clings to one model, while Takis to another.
In his “Outline of an Economic Model for an Inclusive Democracy”, contained in the very same issue, Fotopoulos makes a sales presentation for this breakthrough in model-creation:
Although it is up to the citizens’ assemblies of the future to design the form an inclusive democracy will take, I think it is important to demonstrate that such a form of society is not only necessary, so that the present descent to barbarism can be avoided, but feasible as well. This is particularly important when the self-styled ‘left’ has abandoned any vision that is not based on the market economy and liberal ‘democracy’, which they take for granted, and has dismissed an alternative visions as ‘utopian’ (in the negative sense of the word.)
Fotopoulos takes swipes at Hahnel-Albert’s Parecon in his article, who are of course rival utopians. He believes that their schema invites bureaucracy because it provides for some state agency that invites people to state what their consumer “needs” are. Agencies, as we know from bitter experience, can turn into utter monstrosities. One day they will ask you whether you want pleats in your trousers or not. The next day they will be sending you to prison for stating the wrong preference.
Fotopoulos’ schema revolves around the issuance of vouchers.
Basic Vouchers (BVs) are used for the satisfaction of basic needs. These vouchers, which are personal and issued on behalf of the confederation, entitle each citizen to a given level of satisfaction for each particular type of need that has been characterized as ‘basic’, but do not specify the particular type of satisfier, so that choice can be secured.
In contrast to these kinds of detailed but essentially useless blueprints, Marx and Engels saw utopian thought as having limited value. For them, there were three essential features:
- Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.
- Moralism: What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.
- Rationalism: The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.
As Engels said in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”:
To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.
All of these themes are present to one degree or another in the projects of market socialists like John Roemer, or their new left rivals Albert and Hahnel.
At first blush, John Roemer seems an unlikely utopian since he couches his schema in hard-headed microeconomics. In “Market Socialism, a Blueprint: How Such an Economy Might Work”, he says that “it is possible to use markets to allocate resources in an economy where firms are not privately owned by investors who trade stock in them with the purpose of maximizing their gain, and that the government can intervene in such an economy to influence the level and composition of investment should the people wish to do so.”
This doesn’t sound particularly ‘visionary’, does it? What is particularly utopian about the schemas of Schweickart, Roemer et al is not that they have the redemptive and egalitarian power of Saint-Simon or Robert Owens, but that it is based on an ahistorical notion of how socialism comes into existence.
Specifically, there is no historical agency. Roemer shares with the 19th century utopians a tendency to present a vision that is detached from history. Since history play very little role in Roemer’s thought overall, it is understandable why he would devote himself to utopian schemas. Furthermore, since AM is based on removing one of the key aspects of the Marxist understanding of capitalism –the labor theory of value– it is difficult to see how any historical agency can carry this social transformation out. Once the class-struggle is removed, the socialist project becomes an exercise in game-playing by rational actors. Since rationalism is a cornerstone of utopian thought, market socialism would have an appeal because it is eminently rational.
Answering the question of whether his schema will work, Roemer offers the following assurance:
Is it possible for a market system to equilibrate an economy in which profits are distributed as I have described and in which the government intervenes in the investment behavior of the economy by manipulating interests if the managers of firms maximize profits, facing market prices, wages and interest rates? My colleagues Joaquim Silvestre, Ignacio Ortuno, and I have studied this question, and the answer is yes.
My, isn’t this reassuring. There is only one problem. The difficulties we face in building socialism are not on the theoretical front, but in the application of theory. The reason for this of course is that such applications always take place in the circumstances of war, economic blockade, internal counter-revolution, etc., where even the best laid plans off mice and men often go astray.
Furthermore, one has no idea how Roemer’s theory can ever be put into practice since it is not really addressed to the working-class, the historical agent of change in Marxism. Who will change the world, the subscribers to “Economics and Society”? Roemer’s proposals are directed toward the narrow, insular, academic world of “dueling blueprints”. I suppose if one was to be given a choice of utopian worlds to identify with, a much more palatable choice would be that of their new left rivals, Albert-Hahnel.
Turning to their “Looking Forward”, another work obviously inspired by Edward Bellamy, we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:
I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.
Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.
Albert’s and Hahnel’s enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgment on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”
To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:
Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.
Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be beside the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.
There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.
The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”
Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.
January 25, 2011
Last month an open letter to the pro-Obama “establishment left” raised some hackles but it now appears that the intended targets are putting some distance between themselves and the President, as well they should if they hope to maintain a shred of credibility as progressives.
The first and most important reflection of this shift is a website called www.rootsaction.org that appears to be the handiwork of Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, especially in light of their announcement about the website on Znet today. Cohen and Solomon’s proudest moments in my opinion were spent with FAIR, a media watchdog organization that was very useful in refuting lies about Sandinista Nicaragua.
Eventually Cohen and Solomon drifted into Democratic Party politics and lent themselves to the anti-Nader cause. Both wrote articles in 2004 urging a vote for Kerry and quarantining Nader. There are also rumors that they were understudies for Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin in “An Unreasonable Man”, the very fine documentary on Ralph Nader.
In the last year or so, both have become vocal critics of Obama but within the framework of a loyal opposition. Solomon is a past master of holding Obama’s feet to the fire while making sure to maintain his credentials as a Democratic Party operative.
In a Counterpunch article dated April 6, 2009, Solomon proved adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He warned, “In their eagerness to help the Obama presidency, many of its prominent liberal supporters — whatever their private views on the escalation — are willing to function as enablers of the expanded warfare.” But there’s hope for the progressives. It will help the Democrats if they disavow war and seek peace:
For those already concerned about Obama’s re-election prospects, such war realities may seem faraway and relatively abstract. But escalation will fracture his base inside the Democratic Party. If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace.
I would say that the statement that “If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace” makes about as much sense as urging Goldman-Sachs to order its partners to contribute half their income to earthquake relief in Haiti. Solomon would have been far more practical if he had written a letter to Santa Claus urging him to not bring presents to the White House if the President did not behave himself.
Most of the people who have lent their name to Rootsaction.org are the sort of people you hear at the opening plenary of Left Forums in New York. They are also the kind of people who have worked with Progressive Democrats of America, a group that habitually calls on the President to return to traditional Democratic Party values. I would have to remind the comrades that he has returned to such values, if by this you mean the record of DP President Grover Cleveland who broke the Pullman Strike and colonized Hawaii.
There was obviously a need for something like Rootsaction.org in light of the growing disgust with Democratic Party politics. By creating a voice that has no obvious connection to the DP, Cohen and Solomon will have more credibility with the left—at least those sectors of the left that can’t connect the dotted lines between their sordid Democratic Party affiliations and this latest maneuver.
Perhaps in an effort to give multiple voices to the left wing of the Democratic Party all on the same day, Znet also published an article by Bill Fletcher Jr. who is ideologically very close to Cohen and Solomon but with the added cachet of having spent some time as a Marxist activist. Fletcher’s piece takes up the question of the Obama presidency through a review of Horace Campbell’s “Barack Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics.” Campbell, an African-American scholar, was a Marxist like Fletcher, but has created his own ideology called Ubuntu that Fletcher describes as “a means for cooperation, forgiveness, healing and a willingness to share.” Without wanting to sound too disrespectful, this ideology makes about as much sense to me as writing letters to Santa Claus in a world ruled by Lloyd Blankfein and Presidents who cater to their every whim.
Like Fletcher, Campbell blames progressives for the failure of the Obama presidency to live up to the ideals of the New Deal or other ostensibly progressive interludes in a long, dreary succession of DP White Houses that have much more to do with Grover Cleveland than FDR. Fletcher writes:
[The book] focuses on both a critique of Obama-as-President but more importantly on the unwillingness or inability of many progressive social forces to retain the level of mobilization that was evident in the 2008 election. Instead there has been an overreliance on Obama-as-individual rather than treating him as an instrument which needs to be pressured. Campbell, in contrast, points out the manner in which Abraham Lincoln was forced, through a combination of social forces, to become more than he had anticipated being.
This formula, of course, has been repeated a thousand times in the pages of the Nation Magazine both before and after Obama’s election. It assumes that if sufficient pressure was put on Obama, he’d have pushed for EFCA, effective measures against climate change, an ambitious jobs program, etc. Nowadays, you find virtually no such appeals because it has probably dawned on even the thickest progressive that Obama has much more in common with Herbert Hoover than FDR, or Abe Lincoln for that matter. Obama is capable of responding to social forces, as long as they emanate from Wall Street.
The remainder of Fletcher’s review serves as a kind of distancing of himself from the heady days of the Progressives for Obama website launched by Carl Davidson, where illusions in Obama were fostered on a wholesale basis. Fletcher writes, for example, that “Obama himself was programmatically not very different from Hillary Clinton.” Given this admission, it makes one wonder why he bothered to debate a Clinton supporter on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” radio show in 2008. Back then he said:
My reasons for backing Obama is that I think that on the issues that he is better positioned and that he offers an opportunity, beginning with his inauguration in 2009, to change the direction of the country and particularly to change the relationship between the United States and the rest of the planet.
In other words, the same pipe dream as Horace Campbell’s.
One hopes that the next time Fletcher will keep his early Marxist training in mind before making such an ill-considered prediction. One could have figured out where Obama was going long before he became President, as long as one looked at the social forces that had operated on him from an early age. The radical poet Franklin Marshall Davis warned the young Obama what was in store for him:
He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you that you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.
(Dreams from My Father)
Finally, I would urge you to read Chris Hedges’s article that appears in today’s Truthdig. It is a quite penetrating look at the efforts of such progressives to distinguish themselves from the White House while refusing to break with the two-party system. Hedges writes:
Barack Obama is another stock character in the cyclical political theater embraced by the liberal class. Act I is the burst of enthusiasm for a Democratic candidate who, through clever branding and public relations, appears finally to stand up for the interests of citizens rather than corporations. Act II is the flurry of euphoria and excitement. Act III begins with befuddled confusion and gnawing disappointment, humiliating appeals to the elected official to correct “mistakes,” and pleading with the officeholder to return to his or her true self. Act IV is the thunder and lightning scene. Liberals strut across the stage in faux moral outrage, delivering empty threats of vengeance. And then there is Act V. This act is the most pathetic. It is as much farce as tragedy. Liberals—frightened back into submission by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party or the call to be practical—begin the drama all over again.
We are now in Act IV, the one where the liberal class postures like the cowardly policemen in “The Pirates of Penzance.” Liberals promise battle. They talk of glory and honor. They vow not to abandon their core liberal values. They rouse themselves, like the terrified policemen who have no intention of fighting the pirates, with the bugle call of “Tarantara!” This scene is the most painful to watch. It is a window into how hollow, vacuous and powerless liberals and liberal institutions including labor, the liberal church, the press, the arts, universities and the Democratic Party have become. They fight for nothing. They stand for nothing. And at a moment when we desperately need citizens and institutions willing to stand up against corporate forces for the core liberal values, values that make a democracy possible, we get the ridiculous chatter and noise of the liberal class.
The moral outrage of the liberal class, a specialty of MSNBC, groups such as Progressives for Obama and MoveOn.org, is built around the absurd language of personal narrative—as if Barack Obama ever wanted to or could defy the interests of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase or General Electric. The liberal class refuses to directly confront the dead hand of corporate power that is rapidly transforming America into a brutal feudal state. To name this power, to admit that it has a death grip on our political process, our systems of information, our artistic and religious expression, our education, and has successfully emasculated popular movements, including labor, is to admit that the only weapons we have left are acts of civil disobedience. And civil disobedience is difficult, uncomfortable and lonely. It requires us to step outside the formal systems of power and trust in acts that are marginal, often unrecognized and have no hope of immediate success.
January 24, 2011
In 2009 HBO aired the documentary “Afghan Star” that followed contestants from start to finish on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, including Setara Hussainzada, a young woman who scandalized the country by dancing—modestly–in her final performance and allowing her scarf to drop to her neck. This act was sufficient to cause her to be evicted from her apartment and to receive death threats.
On January 26th (8:00 to 8:45pm ET/PT) HBO will be presenting a follow-up documentary titled “Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star” that is a close-up study of what has happened to Setara since her ill-fated appearance.
As feisty as ever, Setara insists that she has done nothing sacrilegious. She now lives in Kabul, having left her native city of Herat where conservative Muslims continue to threaten her. Even in Kabul, there is constant harassment, even from the local authorities backed fully by the USA as a counterweight to the misogynist Taliban. During filming for the documentary, a squad of Afghan cops materializes at her apartment, supposedly to protect her. Setara views their intervention as nothing but a provocation and she berates them fearlessly.
One consolation is her marriage to a man who loves her and, just as importantly, defends her right to sing or dance without fear of reprisal. But he is forced to conceal his face from the camera in order to avoid being attacked by religious fanatics. They are expecting their first child as well, a prospect fraught with uncertainty.
I strongly urge you to rent “Afghan Star” from Netflix and to see this HBO follow-up on Wednesday. It is a reminder of the gender oppression that continues in Afghanistan despite efforts by the USA to associate abuses against women as solely the work of the Taliban.
These two fine movies directed by Havana Marking serve as companion pieces to Afghan legislator Malalai Joya’s “A Woman among Warlords”. She writes:
I am the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, but I have been banished from my seat and threatened with death because I speak the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. I have already survived at least five assassination attempts and uncounted plots against me. Because of this, I am forced to live like a fugitive within my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards, and we move to different houses almost every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies.
To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burqa, which to me is a symbol of women’s oppression, like a shroud for the living. Even during the dark days of the Taliban I could at least go outside under the burqa to teach girls in secret classes. But today I don’t feel safe under my burqa, even with armed guards to escort me. My visitors are searched for weapons, and even the flowers at my wedding had to be checked for bombs. I cannot tell you my family’s name, or the name of my husband, because it would place them in terrible danger. And for this reason, I have changed several other names in this book.
I call myself Joya — an alias I adopted during the time of the Taliban when I worked as an underground activist. The name Joya has great significance in my country. Sarwar Joya was an Afghan writer, poet, and constitutionalist who struggled against injustice during the early twentieth century. He spent nearly twenty-four years of his life in jails and was finally killed because he would not compromise his democratic principles.
Long live Setara! Long live Malalai Joya! Long live the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan!