Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Into the Abyss

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm

IMDB lists 62 works by Werner Herzog going back nearly a half-century, most of them documentaries like this year’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Into the Abyss”. After viewing them recently as screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration by our yearly awards meeting on December 10, I concluded that Herzog deserved some kind of lifetime achievement award. When you compare his body of work to some under 30 year old graduate of the NYU film school whose Sundance entry gets turned into the second coming of “Citizen Kane”, it dawns on you how degraded the Hollywood star-making business has become.

Over on Facebook Counterpunch co-editor Jeff St. Clair warned me that the only way to watch “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is in 3D, but unfortunately I never got around to see this highly regarded documentary about 25,000 year old cave paintings in Chauvet, France when it was in the theater. (Update, I just discovered that it still playing at the IFC Center in NY.)

That being said, I found the experience of seeing these paintings totally riveting and am grateful to Herzog for committing himself to a project that at first blush might appear to conform to PBS’s dry as dust “educational” fare.

Not long ago a friend asked me to contribute to an online symposium about whether the left has a future. He was feeling rather gloomy at the time but has picked up noticeably since OWS. I tried to frame my contribution in terms of the long view of history. When you consider that our ancestors were executing such beautiful works 25 millennia ago, you tend to have much more confidence in our possibilities as a species. Of course, they had a leg up on us since they were not bound by the need to produce commodities for the market.

Just by coincidence I turned on the John Batchelor show on WABC radio the same day I watched “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” in the middle of an interview with Michael Balter, a science journalist who I have had friendly correspondence with over the past few years, especially over our shared aversion to some of Jared Diamond’s excesses, particularly his infamous New Yorker article on the supposedly bloodthirsty nature of Papuan New Guinea tribesmen.

Batchelor, who is an amazingly erudite fellow despite his extremely backward Republican Party politics, was discussing cave paintings with Balter, who is something of an expert in the field. Fortunately, you can listen to the podcast here, with Balter entering 10 minutes into the clip.

Since the interview is far too short (Batchelor usually gives someone from the Israel lobby a full half-hour), you can get a longer version in the Balter article that was discussed on the show here.  Interestingly enough, Balter told Batchelor that when the artist painted spots outside the horse’s body, this was not a sign of his or her incompetence but rather an exercise of artistic license. When you look at the amazingly representational techniques of the cave paintings in Herzog’s documentary, you will have to agree. These people knew where to put the spots, even if they chose on occasion to put them where they didn’t belong just as Picasso chose a higher level of “realism” through his cubist works, or for that matter, the African works that inspired them.

Looking a bit deeper into Balter’s two articles, it turns out that they have more in common than you would think at first blush. Jared Diamond is just one among a number of evolutionary psychologists who views the modern state, with its gendarmes, courts and prisons, as a Hobbesian protection against mankind’s worst tendencies, which were virtually given free rein at the very time these luminous wall paintings were being made. Somehow, I would feel safer among the people who made such paintings than those who are launching drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan.

Jared Diamond’s co-thinker Stephen Pinker got the usual reverential treatment in the mainstream press today in a New York Times profile titled Human Nature’s Pathologist  that repeats his hypothesis uncritically: “Human violence started dropping thousands of years ago with the formation of the first states, Dr. Pinker argues. For evidence, he points to archaeological studies and observations of stateless societies today. With the birth of the first states, rates of violence began to fall, and they have dropped in fits and starts ever since.”

For an alternative to this hogwash, I can’t recommend highly enough Douglas Fry’s review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature that appears in the latest issue of Bookforum, one of the few print publications I subscribe to. Fry, like Brian Ferguson whose work I have reviewed here, is a critic of evolutionary psychology’s Hobbesian impulses. He writes:

For most of humanity’s existence, humans lived in nomadic bands and did not suffer from the chronic warfare, torture, slavery, and exploitation that Pinker, trailing Thomas Hobbes, imagines to be our species’ nasty and brutish natural state. For one thing, the very nature of nomadic-band social organization makes warfare, slavery, or despotic rule well-nigh impossible. The small social units lack the ability to engage in large-scale slaughter—and since positions of authoritative leadership are also lacking, there is nothing to plunder, tools and weapons are rudimentary, and population density is extremely low. For another thing, the archaeological facts speak clearly, showing for particular geographical areas exactly when war began. And in all cases this was recent, not ancient, activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering. Pinker ignores this evidence. He also makes a big deal about the recent rise in gender equality and human rights, but turns an unaccountable blind eye to the highly demotic character of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.

There’s a well-established body of literature chronicling early humanity’s egalitarian and peaceful past. In The Foraging Spectrum (1995), for instance, Robert Kelly offered this summary of the salient features of hunter-gatherer social life: “small, peaceful, nomadic bands, men and women with few possession[s] and who are equal in wealth, opportunity, and status.”

After watching only a few minutes of Werner Herzog’s luminous documentary, you too will come to the conclusion that our ancestors existed as “peaceful” bands “equal in wealth, opportunity, and status”. Our goal, of course, is to re-establish these conditions on the basis of modern technology—socialism, in other words.

Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, “Into the Abyss” is a denunciation of capital punishment centered on a sensational murder case in Conroe, Texas involving two deeply disturbed youths named Michael Perry, who was executed on July 1, 2010, and Jason Burkett, who is serving a life term. The jury decided to spare his life after Burkett’s father, a long-time criminal serving a lengthy term in the same prison as his son, begged it to have mercy on Jason.

Herzog’s interviews with Perry took place just 8 days before his execution and have the same harrowing quality as Nick Broomfield’s documentaries on Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute and serial killer also dramatized in the film “Monster”. Broomfield’s films have an exploitative character in which his refined British persona is in stark contrast to Wuornos who mixes profanity and Christian pieties often in the same breath. Herzog’s interviews with Perry and Burkett come close to having the same voyeuristic quality. When European film-makers visit places like Florida and Texas, especially their seamier locales, there is a risk that they are hosting a kind of rarefied freak show.

Militating against this danger is Herzog’s obviously deeply-felt conviction that the death penalty is unjust. In the most telling interview in the film, he interviews the former head of executions at Huntsville prison in Texas, where the orgy of killings have been taking place since the Supreme Court gave the green light to capital punishment. In a gripping testimony, the man describes his horror over the execution of Texas’s first female prisoner. From that point on, he was no longer capable of going forward in his post and was haunted by memories of past executions. When he quit his job, he was forced to give up his pension. In the period we are living in, there is no greater testimony to a man’s willingness to act on his beliefs.

Although Herzog focused more on the dysfunctional families and hardships that turned Perry and Burkett into murderers, there are images of Conroe, Texas that will convince most people that poverty was to blame for their anti-social behavior and that of many of their peers, who appear to accept drugs, alcohol, petty crime and violence as normal.

Conroe is just north of Houston, where I spent two years in the mid-70s as an activist in the Trotskyist movement. It is clear to me that something of the same process that has turned places like Detroit and Newark into a post-apocalyptic landscape is occurring in Texas as well. Despite its reputation as a get-rich frontier state bastion, Texas is obviously sinking into the same pit as the rest of America. With conditions such as those that obtained in Conroe, we can certainly expect murders, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, to continue unabated. Werner Herzog’s movie is a strong voice against that trend, even though a major social movement will have to come into being to eliminate both poverty and the senseless crimes that grow out of it.

Chris Hedges speaks at Harvard on OWS

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm

 

(for part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugU6ELwbi_o)
(for part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKSUfCG7ax4)

Man faces 75 year prison term for videotaping cops

Filed under: repression — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

November 27, 2011

Boots Riley on black bloc tactics

Filed under: black bloc idiots — louisproyect @ 12:32 am

(Posted to LBO-Talk by Charles Turner.)

An extended series of Tweets from Mr. Riley from Friday, 11/24:

Not that we need that, but some dedicated non-violent folks in the movement should know that u have2work with others to make change.

Folks dedicated to blac bloc tactics shuld understand working w/others as well. We can’t be dedicated2a tactic. We must b dedicated2winning.

I believe that breaking windows is not “wrong”- it just doesn’t work. For a number of reasons. That is a tactic that puts the mask wearers

in a “vanguard” position. It says “We are the revolutionaries- everyone else needs to wake up!” This either turns ppl off cuz their not at

that point yet, or it causes people to simply cheer from the sidelines. It’s problematic in a mass action where the masked ones know whats

about to happen and everyone else is caught off guard and more vulnerable to the police. The other problem is one of analysis. If we are

in the middle of one of the biggest, most overtly class conscious acts of the last 65 years- one that has the unity of action of 50,000 ppl-

one that caused millions in damage through an action that teaches class analysis and builds an apparatus for future action-why would u think

breaking a window at whole foods is taking it to another level? Its not. The message it gives to most is one of futile frustration. It makes

many feel that they can’t win, that all we can do is break windows. We are making a movement that can stop the wheels of industry. That’s

much more powerful than breaking some windows. Those tactics are ones that could b of use when masses of ppl aren’t taking action. But w/an

action in which 50,000 people are making a huge step and having a general strike, the message should just be “We are all awake.”

But, I think there is an ideological trend that i have encountered that leads to this- one that thinks that the ppl can’t win.

When I critiqued someone around a similar action a few years ago, saying it didn’t pull ppl in, & u can’t win w that tactic. they resonded:

responded: “You can never win, you can only choose how to lose.” Versions of this idea are at the heart of some of this, I believe.

I believe, now even more than a few months ago, that we can win. This is a new era. People are ready. We can win.

The other thing that I left out is that when a group of masked white kids break windows in a city that’s many ppl of color, it feels like

the white kids are claiming ownership, not saying that this city is all of ours. It makes it harder to build a viable mass movement.

I’m saying this knowing the truth, many masked blac bloc folks are NOT white. But, if everyone perceives u as white cuz u have a mask on-

then it has the same effect. We need tactics that help build that movement. That’s all. Black folks in the community I come from look at

marches on Washington and breaking store windows in a similar light- that they’re futile appeals to power. So people stay away.

The thing is, no one can show me a successful revolutionary organization who relied on the tactic of breaking windows as a lynchpin.

It’s like saying, in war, that ur gonna use 1 tactic in every battle, even if it doesnt work.

To be clear, I am speaking to people that I consider comrades. There is no “Blac Bloc”, it’s just ppl who deciding to use that tactic at that

To be clear, I’m speaking to folks as comrades. Blac Bloc is not a group, its folks deciding2use that tactic at a certain time.

But, I have to say, there is a reason why ppl suspect that as bein done by agents:

Recently- During the OscarGrant case, proven police agent, Mandingo, did similar things. There r other cases as well. The problem comes w

using those tactics in a crowd. If u wanna break windows do it separately, don’t have the crowd b the buffer btwn u & police.

Now, the only tactics I’m speaking of are vandalism and why that doesn’t work. There are other tactics that do work.

There are tactics I’ve seen, and that we used for the march to the port, in which we have a group of folks with shields that can push thru

a police line, blocking themselves from batons and bullets & creating a spearhead for the march to go thru. That’s a good one.There r others

Often as seen in OO’s thanksgiving video, police will charge@ one person, causing our line to break and allowing them thru.

We can use our own distractions as well2get thru their lines. This takes not being dedicated2 a certain tactic, but being dedicated2winning.

The main thing I’m saying is that every situation, every terrain, calls for different tactics.

For example, most of you wouldn’t know me if I had just made an album w different versions of “The Internationale”. We’r in a new situation.

For everyone quoting Gandhi: His movement wasnt the only reason India gained independence. U think the British were only fighting Gandhi?

India had been fighting for its independence for decades via MILITANT movements that still existed during Gandhi’s time.

Britain was involved in a BLOODY conflict w Palestine that soaked up resources. The Hollywood version of Indian independence amazes me.

Gandhi called strikes violent cuz they physically kept scabs out. He was at odds w many others in movement.

Lastly,2supporters of blac bloc tactics: it keeps folks away that would otherwise be militant supporters otherwise. We need the numbers.

We must be guided by what’s rightðical,not what’s legal. Blockin the port: illegal. Did we do it? Yes. Will we do it on Dec 12? Hell yes.

To answer some tweets- Nothing I said advocates assault. I advocate using numbers2make it so police can’t stop our movements.

Sidenote: I’m in Paris, doing shows. When I say I’m from Oakland, many say “Oh! Caleeforneea!”, but half say “Oui! Occupy Oakland!”

November 25, 2011

Laurie Penny confronts former Goldman-Sachs partner

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 1:42 pm

November 24, 2011

Apocalyptic movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:49 pm

I am not sure if there is any social significance to this yet (and if I can’t find any, there probably isn’t any to be found) but there seems to be more than the usual “end of the world” type films lately. Recently I watched DVD screeners of two films released this year, courtesy of the film publicists’ trying to drum up support for Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Eva Glodell’s “Bellflower”–highly mannered and annoying works whose dubious charms I found easy to resist. As one of the few American films made in 2011 that I paid good money to watch in a theater, Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter” was worth every penny of my reduced-rate elder’s ticket and on my short list for movie of the year. Finally, there’s “Knowing”, a 2009 film by Australian director Alex Proyas and starring Nicholas Cage. I avoid anything that Cage is in like the plague but since it has been getting heavy rotation on the premium cable stations this year, I thought I’d give it a try. It is really quite good in its mindless way.

“Take Shelter” has a premise much like “Close Encounters of the Close Kind” but turned upside down in a malignant fashion. While the object of awe and wonder in Spielberg’s great movie was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the future landing site of flying saucers piloted by benign creatures, Nichols’s main character is haunted by nightmares of an apocalyptic future as well as by hallucinations when he is awake. Birds fall out a blue sky while terrible thunderstorms produce raindrops with the consistency of motor oil and a brackish smell.

Like Roy Neary, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, Michael Shannon is a blue-collar worker living in a humdrum Midwest town. Like Neary, Curtis LaForche has a completely normal life and enjoys all the typical pastimes of a workingman, including church on Sunday and drinking beer after his day is done drilling holes in a construction site.

At some point, the accumulation of dark omens convinces him that the world will end soon and he makes the drastic decision to build an elaborate storm shelter in his backyard that costs tens of thousands of dollars that he secures through a loan. Against all common sense, he recruits his co-worker to “borrow” heavy construction equipment to excavate the site for the shelter one weekend.

LaForche’s increasingly erratic behavior alienates him from just about everybody, including his wife. Like Roy Neary, he ignores friends and family since the imperative of his higher vision makes it impossible to follow any other course.

When Roy Neary quits his job and begins his odyssey toward the Devil’s Tower, there are no economic obstacles in his path, only a military bent on keeping intruders away from the UFO landing site. Made in 1977, Close Encounters reflects the expanding capitalist economy of the time. As a work of art that reflects its time and place (as all good art should), “Take Shelter” is all about the catastrophe that awaits a worker who takes out a bank loan he is no position to repay. While you are gripped by LaForche’s psychological dilemma (is he acting on insane beliefs?), it is his pending personal economic apocalypse that ultimately makes his drama compelling.

Like “Take Shelter”, “Melancholia” opens with the image of birds falling from the sky. In an opening montage whose arty pretensions are accompanied by the strains of the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, we see falling birds and other apocalyptic images including a planet called Melancholia careening into the earth, destroying all life. Unlike most films in this genre rely on the suspense whether such an cosmic collision will take place or not (“Deep Impact” and the aptly named “Armageddon” being typical) to sustain interest, Von Trier thumbs his nose at conventional expectations by including a “spoiler” at the very beginning.

The reason for this is that the film is not so much about Armageddon but about depression, the so-called “melancholia” that names the planet and the film. The first half of the movie consists of the dreariest collection of figures you have seen in an art movie since Luis Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”.

They are the assembled guests for a wedding party for bride Justine (Kirstin Dunst) and bridegroom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) country manor. Unlike Kim Kardashian, Justine doesn’t waste any time, deciding to end her marriage on her wedding night. It seems that she is fed up with life and has no interest in anything, her career (she tells her boss to go screw himself the same night) or love.

In the second half of the film, we see Justine in a semi-vegetative state at Justine’s castle fixated on the planet Melancholia. Now that it dominates the sky during night and day, it is impossible to ignore. Claire soon becomes convinced that the world is coming to an end as well, ignoring the cheery assurances of her husband John—an amateur astronomer—that the planet will miss Earth.

During the entire time when all this is transpiring, you never see them watching television or connecting with friends or neighbors to share thoughts about the impending doom. What you see is Claire becoming as troubled as Justine, although her depression is a function of objective reality rather than a chemical imbalance.

Fortunately for me, about 25 percent of my DVD was damaged so I missed large passages of this largely unwatchable film. I have taken a brief gander at other Von Trier movies over the past five years or so and cannot understand how he can be taken seriously. As a member in good standing of the Dogme 95, Von Trier insists on the use of a hand-held camera, whose jarring shifts were on display throughout “Melancholia”. I have never seen such a radical disjuncture between technique and artistic goals—granted that such goals were attenuated to begin with.

Clarifying his filmic intentions, Von Trier once said:

I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. Thus I make my vow of chastity.

Well, that explains everything, I guess.

The only other thing worth mentioning about “Melancholia” is the trouble that Von Trier got in during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival when he wisecracked about Nazis, as the Telegraph reported:

Asked if his Germanic roots had influenced his work, Von Trier replied: “What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes… but I sympathise with him a little bit.”

He ended by laughing: “Okay, I’m a Nazi.” Festival organisers declared him “persona non grata” and banned him with immediate effect. Von Trier issued an apology but retracted it earlier this month.

This led to him being ejected from the film festival and being interrogated by cops in Denmark. Frankly, the only thing he is guilty of in my eyes is making boring movies.

But the fact is that Lars von Trier was a red-diaper baby. His mother was a Communist, his father a Social Democrat, and both worked in Denmark’s social-services ministry. According to a NY Times (Apr. 30, 2000) profile of von Trier and Dogma 95, they met during World War II in Sweden after fleeing the Nazi occupation of Denmark, “my father because he was Jewish and my mother because she was in the resistance.” Of course none of this matters when it comes to the holocaust industry trying to make sure that nobody makes a wisecrack that might be interpreted as a threat to Jews, particularly those in Israel.

Like “Melancholia”, the main characters in “Bellflower” are repellent but in an entirely different manner. Unlike the tuxedo-clad specimens in Von Trier’s opening scenes, we are introduced to a bunch of slackers in Los Angeles whose speech consists almost entirely of words like “Dude, that’s awesome” or “Sweet” and whose actions revolve around getting drunk, having sex, and fighting. Yes, I was young once myself and indulged in such pastimes (largely trying to avoid fights) but who wants to see a 90 minute film with such unremarkable events being depicted dramatically? By now, you might have figured out that “Bellflower” is the latest entry in the mumblecore genre, a sorry attempt to make art that is as futile as Dogme 95 but in its own downscaled manner.

“Bellflower” was made for $17,000, filmed on location in Los Angeles, and includes friends of first-time director Evan Glodell who plays Woodrow. Woodrow shares a run-down house with his pal Aiden (Tyler Dawson) who has come out to LA from Wisconsin to make the scene. Neither has any visible means of support but is never short of money for booze or gasoline. I guess in Glodell’s world, it is still 1977.

So you might be asking at this point what all this has to do with Armageddon? It turns out that Woodrow and Aiden are fixated on Mad Max movies and spend their spare time (which they have plenty of since they don’t seem to have jobs) building a flame-thrower and a scary looking car they call Medusa. The end of the world is not so much a literal one but one taking place in their minds, as they resort to a bloody vendetta against man and woman alike in the film’s climax. Jilted by his lover Milly (Jesse Wiseman), Woodrow is ready to kill and be killed. Most critics feel that the film’s violent second half is a departure from mumblecore norms. I suppose that is true, but this does not make it a good movie.

“Knowing” features Nicholas Cage as an MIT astrophysicist named John Koestler. Only I know how ridiculous this is since my good friend Les Schaffer who is technical coordinator of Marxmail is a real astrophysicist who graduated from MIT and—trust me—Nicholas Cage is poorly cast in this role.

That being said, he does a good job at scenery chewing, which is his forte after all. When his son brings home a sheet containing what appears to be a random string of numbers that was buried in a time capsule with other mementos of a grade school class from 1959, his scientific curiosity is whetted. What can they mean?

It turns out that the numbers were predictions of calamities such as 9/11. The student who wrote the numbers was in a kind of trance that people at the time regarded as a kind of temporary mental illness. When Koestler’s young son begins to display signs of the same kind of instability, he becomes worried. But he is even more worried about the possibility that the numbers portend something graver—the end of the world.

As is the case with “Melancholia”, the threat is astronomical in nature. A massive sun storm threatens to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and burn everybody and everything to a crisp.

The best thing about “Knowing” is the creepy mood that is sustained throughout and the CGI special effects of one disaster or another. I can’t call this movie memorable but the 121 minutes spent watching it will be a lot less playful than the pretentious Dogme 95 and mumblecore works described above.

One has to wonder to what extent such films reflect an underlying insecurity about our future, which has much less to do with colliding planetary orbs than it has to do with economic and ecological distress. The sight of falling birds in both “Melancholia” and “Take Shelter” in fact has a lot to do with current events:

http://planetsave.com/2011/01/04/birds-fall-from-the-sky-in-more-places/

More birds fall from sky – this time in Louisiana

LABARRE, La. (AP) – State biologists are trying to determine what killed an estimated 500 birds that littered a quarter-mile stretch of highway in Pointe Coupee Parish near Baton Rouge.

The birds, including starlings and red-winged blackbirds, were found Monday along Louisiana Highway 1, about 300 miles south of Beebe, Ark., where more than 3,000 blackbirds fell from the sky three days earlier. Authorities said examinations showed the birds found in Arkansas suffered internal injuries that formed deadly blood clots.

Louisiana state biologists are sending some of the dead birds to laboratories in Georgia and Wisconsin for testing.

Large numbers of bird deaths are not uncommon.

In January and February 1999, an estimated 3,000 birds died in Morehouse Parish in northern Louisiana, many of them falling from the air. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Service laboratory in Wisconsin diagnosed the cause as an E. coli infection of air sacs in their skulls.

The U.S. Geological Service’s website lists about 90 mass deaths of birds and other wildlife from June through Dec. 12. Five list deaths of at least 1,000 birds and another 12 show at least 500 dead birds.

The largest was near Houston, Minn., where about 4,000 water birds died between Sept. 6 and Nov. 26 from infestations of various parasites.

That’s the way the world is likely to end, from E. coli rather than runaway comets or asteroids. And it is up to us to prevent this from happening.

November 22, 2011

Occupy Wells Fargo

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Does the slogan “tax the rich” serve the ruling class?

Filed under: economics,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Plank #2 of the Communist Manifesto, “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”

Last night Mike Ely of the Kasama Project gave an interesting and impassioned talk at the Brecht Forum that urged the left to embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement, something I strongly agree with. It was time for the left to supersede the sectarian debates of the past and focus on unity around the pressing needs of the mass movement, again something I have supported since 1980 when I began working with Peter Camejo to build the North Star Network.

Ely stated that unity should not paper over real differences, however. He gave an example of one question that he thought should constitute a line of demarcation, namely the “tax the rich” slogan that is strongly identified with liberals like the MSNBC hosts, the Nation Magazine, et al. He warned, however, that this demand amounts to a kind of Trojan horse of the big bourgeoisie since by helping to “level the playing field”, it opens up the door for wholesale attacks on Social Security, Medicare and other gains won by the working class. He stated that once the taxes on the rich are raised, Obama will have a green light to intensify the attacks on the 99 percent saying something like “everybody will have to sacrifice now.”

Yesterday I heard an argument along the same lines from Dan K., a Marxmail subscriber in France who can be described as an anarcho-Marxist:

As Marxist revolutionaries, students of Marx’s materialist analysis, we are not be fooled.

Demanding an end to income disparity (we are the 99%) is laudable, and will in fact benefit the working class. For a time that is.

I mean, seriously. If a government clamps down on big business by  wrenching a part of their profits off them and redistributing it to the  people, big business is going to … pay their workers more in the  progressive state, and immediately outsource production to countries  where they can extract more profit from an unskilled workforce. If they  are obliged to pay more taxes in a given, industrialized, nation, they  will be forced to comply, they will moan and eventually cough up… and  they will promptly fire half the workforce and blame the government for  the ensuing social crisis. “Told you so ! there ain’t such a thing as a  free lunch folks !” That’s what their spokespersons will say.

I have to admit that I have almost a knee-jerk reaction against such arguments since the first time I heard them was in the Militant newspaper, the voice of the moribund and terminally insane SWP of the United States.

In the June 6, 2011 edition Steve Clark, an odious hit man assigned to degrade party members in the pages of the newspaper, took the Los Angeles branch to task for issuing a leaflet that called for raising the taxes on the rich. He said that “communists” are not for such measures since they foster illusions in the system and are an impediment to achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat. (Never in a million years would I have imagined back in 1967 that my party would end up sounding like the Socialist Labor Party:

There is no way for workers to tax our way to the expropriation of the capitalist exploiters. That can only be done as the product of a victorious revolutionary struggle to end the dictatorship of capital and establish a workers and farmers government—a government that helps advance struggles by working people against exploitation, racism, the second-class status of women, imperialist war, devastation of the earth’s air, soil, and waters, and every form of oppression and brutality produced and reproduced by capitalist social relations.

The most recent Militant connected the “tax the rich” slogan to the Occupy Wall Street movement and warned that it could be its undoing:

The problem is not “greedy” bankers or “fat cats.” It cannot be touched by raising taxes on the wealthy, revenue extracted from the capitalists’ surplus to be used by their government to balance their budgets, pay the bondholders—including themselves—fight their wars, and whatever else they decide.

Pointing blame at greedy banks with demagogic appeals to “tax the rich” serves to obfuscate the real problem and the class enemy. It is advanced today by supporters of the Democratic Party, aimed at bringing into office the very same politicians who are advancing an assault on working people on a scale not seen for many decades.

My first response to Dan K.’s post on Marxmail was to raise the following concern:

Put yourself in the position of a socialist member of the NY State Assembly (yes, I know, it is hard to do but use your imagination). How would you vote on extending the “millionaire’s tax”, something the atrocious Gov. Andrew Cuomo opposed? What would working people think if you voted along with Cuomo? Something to think about…

Not long after posting this to the list, I began to do some research on socialism and taxation, going naturally to the indispensable Marxist Internet Archive. A search there on “taxation” revealed some interesting contributions from a variety of sources.

Harry Quelch, born in 1858 and one of Britain’s first Marxists, wrote an article in 1909 titled “Socialism and Taxation” that admitted “Hitherto it has been a sound axiom among Socialists that the incidence of taxation was a matter which did not greatly concern the working-class.” But considering the fact that the tax system is just one of many means to fleece the working class, it was incumbent on the revolutionary movement to support a policy that was in its interests, one in which “all taxes should be levied upon incomes over a fixed minimum, so as to ensure that those who drew the largest revenues should contribute the largest share towards the cost of their own government.” That “largest share” was just another way of describing a steeply progressive income tax.

Albert Weisbord, a member of the American SWP in the 1930s who is best known for getting pilloried by James P. Cannon as an ultraleftist but who deserves better (especially for his writings on the Spanish Civil War), wrote an article titled “A Brief Explanation of Taxes for the Working Class” that is undated but appears to emanate from the 1960s since it refers to the GATT. Weisbord, who nobody in their right mind would ever accuse of reformist illusions, supported taxing the rich:

The income tax should be a progressive tax, that is, it should tax only those with income more than sufficient for an average comfortable life, with rates increasing rapidly to the point where the wealthy support their own State to the tune of 100%. This is very far from the actual situation. The progression of the tax is very low, large numbers of wealthy pay nothing and others much less than they should. The main burden is on the working and middle income classes. Many workers, for example, pay 20% to 30% of their wages in income taxes (when we add sales and other forms of consumer taxes it may run to as high as 40%, to which interest payments on their debts must be added). Here is a primary method of reducing the real wages of the workers while seemingly giving them increased nominal wages. In the end, as the statistics of the aged show, the great mass of workers are poverty stricken and destitute during their older years and must be supported.

T.N. Vance was a leading member of Max Shactman’s organization who wrote a book titled “The Permanent War Economy” in 1951 that is archived in the Trotskyist section of MIA. Part VI, titled “Taxation and the Class Struggle”, is an eye-opening refutation of the idea that the tax structure of the Eisenhower era was “egalitarian”, a claim made by liberals in their ongoing fight with Republicans along the lines of “If Ike did it, why can’t Obama?”

Thus, after a decade of the Permanent War Economy, taxes took about one-fourth of total personal income, with Federal taxes now accounting for more than three-fourths of the total tax yield. Nevertheless, the completely regressive nature of state and local taxes still combines with such regressive features of Federal taxes as excise taxes and corporation taxes to produce a situation where the lowest income group still pays a higher percentage of its income in taxes than all except the 5.3 per cent of the spending units in the $7,500 and over category. If there were a finer income breakdown in the higher income groups, the beginnings of a progressive tax structure would become apparent at a somewhat lower figure than in 1938-39, but there has been no fundamental change in the incidence of taxation nor in the character of the American tax structure.

Now I know what some of you are saying. Who the hell are Quelch, Weisbord and Vance? Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? They may have been for soaking the rich but give me the name of someone with a little bit of clout, not these obscure figures from the musty past. Would V.I. Lenin do? Sure, why not.

We see that the demand put forward by the Social-Democrats—the complete abolition of all indirect taxes and their replacement by a real progressive income tax and not one that merely plays at it—is fully realisable. Such a measure would, without affecting the foundations of capitalism, give tremendous immediate relief to nine-tenths of the population; and, secondly, it would serve as a gigantic impetus to the development of the productive forces of society by expanding the home market and liberating the state from the nonsensical hindrances to economic life that have been introduced for the purpose of levying indirect taxes.

The capitalists’ advocates usually point to the difficulty of assessing big incomes. Actually, with banks, savings societies, etc., at their present level of development, this is a purely imaginary difficulty. The one difficulty is the class-avarice of the capitalists and the existence of undemocratic institutions in the political structure of bourgeois states.

That’s from the 1913 article titled “Capitalism and Taxation” that was written in response to articles in the Russian liberal press about the American income tax. The article was peppered with Lenin’s observations about the unfairness of the tax code that discriminated against working people and that likely would have earned the wrath of Steve Clark:

Half a million capitalist families receive an income that is greater than that of almost 9,000,000 workers’ families. What, might we ask, is the role of indirect taxation and of the planned income tax?

I should mention, however, that Clark would have also denounced the author of this item as well:

Tax the rich, not working people

In the midst of all the hoopla about the tax cut proposed by President George Bush, and countermeasures by the Democratic Party, workers and farmers can raise one demand: Tax the rich, not working people! From its earliest days the modern working-class movement has fought for a steeply graduated income tax–up to 100 percent–on the wealthiest individuals. Working people, who create all wealth and who face a capitalist government that does not represent them, should not pay one penny of any kind of tax whatsoever.

Bush promotes his tax cut as one that will “add up to significant help” for working-class families, while downplaying the huge windfall it will give the superwealthy bourgeois class that lives off the labor of workers.

Recent figures from the Internal Revenue Service indicate that the wealthiest U.S. citizens are paying a shrinking amount of income tax, even as they amass more wealth, and the gap continues to grow between the rich and the vast majority of the population. The IRS data also shows that the income of the top 1 percent of taxpayers grew eight times as fast as the bottom 90 percent over the 10-year period between 1989 and 1998. And as if all that were not enough, the president’s budget plan ensures that the rich get the lion’s share of the new tax breaks.

That’s an editorial from the Militant newspaper dated March 12, 2001 when the SWP still had one pinky finger clinging to the planet Earth.

November 21, 2011

Disenchantment with OWS

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Two of the most prominent leftwing websites in the U.S. have recently published articles finding fault with the Occupy movement to one extent or another. Counterpunch was the first to weigh in with an article by Michael Neumann titled “Love the Occupiers” that had the ominous subtitle “Why Blaming the Fat Cats is Retrograde” filled with the sort of jargon normally expected from the Spartacist League rather than from a Canadian philosophy professor.

On ZNet, an outlet with ideological affinities ostensibly much more favorably disposed to the sort of free-wheeling anarchism associated with OWS, there’s an article by PARECON guru Michael Albert that echoes Neumann’s article but with a gentler tone. Titled “We Are The 99% – But Are We?”, it dispenses bookish advice along the lines of “I would prefer that we call the 1% capitalists.”

Neumann’s article starts off quoting Donald Trump to the effect that the occupation is “kind of cool”. I don’t know if the good professor has access to Lexis-Nexis but a cursory search will reveal that in the 10/30 CNN interview Trump was referring not to the occupation but the possibility that he would be interviewed in tandem with some OWS activists:

TRUMP:  Somebody called me before from CNN, actually, and they want me to do — I have a big building right there, 40 Wall Street. It’s actually the tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and unfortunately because it used to be the World Trade Center, but it’s now the tallest building in downtown, and it was very interesting because they want me to do an interview with representatives from the group “Occupy Wall Street.”

MORGAN: And how do you feel about that?

TRUMP: I sort of think it’s cool. I mean there’s something I like about it. Like I said, might do it.

As I have noted on previous occasions, fact-checking is not exactly Counterpunch’s forte. More to the point, Trump is on record as calling OWS agents of “class warfare”–something in line with what is heard on Fox News every day of the week.

Doing a little math, Neumann wondered why OWS aligns itself with those whose incomes may be as high as $503,566, those relative “fat cats” who are indeed part of the 99 percent. Maybe it never occurred to the philosophy professor that creating a dichotomy between the 99 and 2/3 percent and the 1/3 of one percent does not exactly lend itself to chants on a demonstration unless you have training as an auctioneer.

He also has trouble with some OWS activists wanting to “rein in rogue speculators, re-erect the firewalls between banking and investing, and so on” since the Fat Cats like George Soros and Warren Buffett have been demanding the same thing for years now. Of course, one would not expect either Soros or Buffett to camp out in Zuccotti Park risking police brutality and illness to press such demands either. Perhaps his long-time roost in the Ivory Towers has convinced him that politics is mostly about what people say rather than what people do, an understandable confusion to be sure.

When he finally gets around to invoking Karl Marx, it a Karl Marx of a rather bloodless sort:

Whatever Marxism’s faults, one of its virtues was a consistent refusal to blame individual capitalists for anything:  hate the game, not the player.  This extends to individual enterprises such as Goldman-Sachs.

While it is true that Marx’s main emphasis was in analyzing the nature of the capitalist system, he was not above spotlighting the Lloyd Blankfein’s of his day, as this quote from “Class Struggles in France 1848-1850” should demonstrate:

After the July Revolution [of 1830], when the liberal banker Laffitte led his compère, the Duke of Orléans, in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, he let fall the words: “From now on the bankers will rule”. Laffitte had betrayed the secret of the revolution.

It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them – the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.

The rest of Neumann’s article is a rather woeful attempt to explain the current economic crisis in terms of the overproduction of commodities:

A mob of nations – Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Japan, and much of the West – can and do make, say, socket wrench sets, but not everyone can sell them to everyone.  That’s why I can get a socket set that used to cost $300 on sale for $100 – this is not like computers becoming a commodity, this is the same product with the same manufacturing process getting overproduced.    Excess capacity may not lead directly to deflation, but it seems a constant deflationary pressure, and it has driven manufacturing out of the US.

Leaving aside the question of what this has to do with what Marx wrote about (namely, an overaccumulation of capital), the more important point is how to convey this analysis politically.

Back in 1967, not long after I joined the SWP, I was still susceptible to SDS type ultraleftism that had not yet mutated into full-blown Weatherman insanity. I was concerned that the Vietnam antiwar movement was not sufficiently “anti-imperialist” and shared my hesitations with Bob Vernon, the brilliant African-American intellectual I looked to for advice. Holding up a leaflet promoting some antiwar demonstration taking place that year, I asked him why we didn’t point out that imperialism was the cause of the war and that as long as there is imperialism, there will be future Vietnam’s.

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Why limit it to imperialism? Why not point out that it is capitalism that is the root of war and while you are at it, explain the falling rate of profit? In fact, maybe the best leaflet would be one that reduced volume one of Capital to tiny print that can be read under a microscope.”

The light bulb went on over my head at that point and has remained on over the years. Too bad it never went on over Neumann’s.

Michael Albert does not read (or misread) Karl Marx to the OWS activists. Instead he reads them some Michael Albert. It is difficult to decide which is worse. In the quotation from his ZNet article below, you will note the PARECON jargon including the business about a “coordinator class”:

But here is my heresy. I believe there is a very strong dynamic by which if we don’t give some serious attention to the differences between the roughly 20% – let’s call them the coordinator class – and the disempowered roughly 80% – and we can call them the working class – the former coordinators will wind up dominating the latter workers, transforming working class aspirations for classlessness into coordinator class agendas for coordinator rule.

Without going into endless detail here [as he does 99 percent of the time] – the point is that the coordinators have a monopoly on empowering work. They are not smarter. They are not more industrious. They are not more worthy. Rather, they are elevated by their backgrounds, luck, better schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor. The workers are subordinated by their backgrounds, luck, worse schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor. All this can and must change. A successful movement needs to attend to it all, not least by fighting to change the division of labor.

While I don’t want to paint Michael Albert in the worst possible colors, I am obligated to state that his attempt to develop a new kind of communist theory (along with his occasional writing partner Robin Hahnel) to supersede Marx and Engels’s is hubris of the most egregious sort. Except for a few acolytes, Albert has had no impact on the American left. A few months ago ZNet made a rather pompous declaration on behalf of what amounted to a new communist international that would be hosted on his servers up in Massachusetts. Delusions of grandeur does not begin to describe this enterprise.

With little fanfare, a group of activists have fostered the growth of a movement that has shut down the Oakland ports and transformed the political debate in the U.S. Instead of lecturing these people about the overproduction of commodities or the dangers of adapting to the “coordinator class”, Neumann and Albert should study what they have done.

While I don’t want to take up this question here (but may do so down the road), the young people who constituted OWS have lived up to the dictum of Karl Marx in his letter to Bracke that is a preface to Critique of the Gotha Programme: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

Because of the fall of the USSR and other reversals, Marxism—especially in the developed nations of the West—has lost the audacity that it once had. Plagued by routinism and what Trotskyists once called “commentaryism”, it has been satisfied to intervene in movements that other people launch. It is being put to the test by this movement that resists all attempts to superimpose this method of operation upon it. While it is too soon to tell where it would eventually lead, it has the possibility of becoming transformed into a mass movement that will force the traditional revolutionary left to either fuse with it or to wither on the vine. History made a sharp turn two months ago and there is every chance that many people who have been thirsting for revolutionary change will not recognize that moment when it arrives. For the rest of us, my advice is: people get ready.

November 18, 2011

King of Devil’s Island; Garbo: the Spy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Back in 1980 or so, not long after I quit the Socialist Workers Party and was harboring foolish ideas about writing publishable novels, I took a writer’s workshop at NYU from a hack spy novelist named Roy Doliner who had only one interesting thing to say, namely that there were only a handful of plots in all of literature and virtually everything written—including screenplays–since Homer recycles these plots. Like “Huckleberry Finn” and “On the Road” for example.

So I wasn’t expecting any new ground to be broken when I requested a screener for “King of Devil’s Island”, a Norwegian prison revolt movie directed by Marius Holst that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. While I had modest expectations to see how this hoary genre going back to the 1930 “Big House” would translate into Norwegian, I was richly rewarded by a great story and acting that makes this easily one of my top ten picks of the year.

Based on an actual youth prison rebellion on Bastøy Island in the early 1900s (now an adult prison with the reputation of a country club holding the fascist mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik), the film includes the inevitable conflict between a newly arrived charismatic maverick in the vein of Cool Hand Luke and a sadistic warden (think Norwegian for “what we have here is a failure to communicate”) and staff.

That maverick is a harpooner named Erling (Benjamin Helstad) who is reputed to have killed someone. The film opens with his voice-over as we see a massive whale being pursued by his ship in a flashback. Despite the three harpoons lodged in the beast’s back, he fights on until death. Despite being a whale killer, he admires the animal’s fighting spirit and foretells through his words his own stubborn defiance of the prison’s authorities.

Upon arrival, Erling is ordered by the warden, the grim-looking Bestyreren (acclaimed Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), to strip naked and to surrender all of his personal belongings in exchange for the blue uniform all inmates are forced to wear. To top off his dehumanization, Erling is assigned a number—C-19. As long as he is on the island, that is his name.

Erling is assigned to a dormitory under the control of Olav (Kristoffer Joner), a sadistic pedophile who senses immediately that Erling will refuse to be pushed around. In the press notes, director Holst describes the story as “about the evil that grows in institutions sealed off from the rest of the world, and how powerful regimes may spiral out of control.”

Sounds a bit like Penn State, doesn’t it, all the more so in a confrontation between Bestyreren and Olav over the suicide of a young prisoner he had been raping on weekly basis for years? When the warden tells him that he can go to prison for his deeds, Olav insinuates that the authorities would not be very happy about funds for the welfare of the boys being siphoned into the warden’s mansion. Sounds like a conversation that Paterno and Sandusky might have had, no?

Director Holst imbues the film with a brooding intensity drawn to a large part from the dimly lit interiors of the boy’s dormitory to the glacial landscape of the island (one near Estonia in actuality). The last fifteen minutes or so is devoted to the prison revolt and its cruel suppression. It is not as if you have never seen such a story before, but director Holst makes you feel like you are seeing it for the first time, a tribute to his talent.

“Garbo: the Spy” is a documentary opening today at the Quad Cinema about a Spanish double agent working for the Nazis during WWII while secretly taking his orders from Great Britain. Born in 1912, Joan Pujol Garcia came from a middle-class family in Barcelona and led an unremarkable existence until the Spanish Civil War came along to disturb his peace.

Showing not the slightest interest in politics to this point, he enlisted with the Republican side but only in order to get closer to the fascist army where he planned to switch sides. When he was on the front lines, he made his bid in the middle of the night but inadvertently had walked in a circle until when approaching the Republican troops he announced that he had come to join General Franco. He barely managed to escape with his life.

His next stop was Lisbon where he dreamed up the idea of becoming a double-agent. He first approached the Nazis who were only happy to draft him as “Arabel”. Immediately afterwards he went to the British who were to refer to him as code name Garbo because they found him to be such a good actor.

My reaction at this point of this intriguing documentary was to wonder if he was any different from an actual actor who was playing roles for money. One week you can be Macbeth, the next week Henry the Fifth. Indeed, most CIA or FBI agents who end up working for the Reds were doing it for the money while the British elite who worked for them had ideology that seemed to be totally lacking in Garcia’s case. According to the film’s experts (most of it consists of these talking heads and stock footage from the 1930s and 40s), he worked for the British because he was opposed to “extremism”.

My guess is that the director Edmon Roch found this about as plausible as I did since the film is larded with scenes from spy movies of the past played pretty much for comedy. Of particular interest was the inclusion of scenes from “Our Man in Havana”, the 1959 film based on a Graham Greene novel that starred Alec Guiness as Jim Wormold, a character inspired by Garbo as the wiki indicates:

Greene joined MI6 in August 1941. In London, Greene had been appointed to the subsection dealing with counter-espionage in the Iberian peninsula, where he had learned about German agents in Portugal sending the Germans fictitious reports which garnered them expenses and bonuses to add to their basic salary. One of these agents was “Garbo”, a Spanish double agent in Lisbon, who gave his German handlers disinformation, by pretending to control a ring of agents all over England. In fact he invented armed forces movements and operations from maps, guides and standard military references. Garbo was the main inspiration for Wormold, the protagonist of Our Man In Havana.

The real life Garbo had much more of an impact on world history than Greene’s anti-hero. So skilled he was at deception, he convinced the Nazis that the D-Day landing would occur at Calais rather than Normandy.

Showing little interest in garnering accolades after his derring-do, Garcia feigned his own death and moved to Venezuela where he took a job in the oil industry. “Garbo: the Spy” is a droll film that does not take itself too seriously and makes for a pleasant 90 minutes even if you will walk out of the theater having the slightest clue what made this character tick.

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