Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2013

New York Indian Film Festival 2013

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

This is an all points bulletin for New Yorkers who care deeply about film and about politics. Based on the press screenings of three films that are scheduled for the 2013 New York Indian Film Festival that opens today, you have the chance to see some amazing work. The two narrative films being discussed here are meant primarily for the Indian market. Unlike the typical Indian film that ends up at an art house in Greenwich Village, the directors behind these films came up through the ranks of the indigenous television and film industry rather than the UCLA Film School. This means that the sensibility is distinctly Indian as opposed to the sort of “globalized” film that exhibits more of West Hollywood than West Bengal. What you “lose” in terms of dramatic complexity and psychological depth is more than made up for by authenticity. The other film under discussion is a documentary that will probably not end up in a New York theater, all the more reason to take it in. After all, it is not every day that you get a chance to find out about war-torn Manipur’s main passion: baseball.

Directed by Devashish Makhija, “Oonga” is the first film I have seen out of India that takes up the cause of the Adivasi, the so-called forest-dwelling tribals who provide the base of support for the Naxalite guerrillas whose case novelist Arundhati Roy argued. Oonga is the name of a young boy who has become obsessed with the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of the Vishnu deity in Hinduism, so much so that he makes a pilgrimage to a distant city where the village teacher has brought classes in the past to see a reenactment of Rama’s combat with the evil monarch Ravana staged at an amusement park.

Because the teacher has brought Adivasi children to the city, she has come under suspicion from the local military detachment that is trying to wipe out the Naxalites. They are convinced that she has brought the children there to be indoctrinated. They take her into custody and begin torturing her into making a false confession of being a Naxalite spy.

Meanwhile the Naxalites have brought the teacher to their camp in the forest to get her to persuade the villagers to join the struggle. Made up mostly of women, the guerrillas have taken up arms because there is no alternative. Their husbands have already been killed or imprisoned and their land confiscated to be used for mining bauxite. While the teacher and the villagers she leads are depicted as a kind of football being contested by two opposing sides, the brunt of the film is to show the military as utterly depraved and at the service of the mining companies.

Oonga manages to make his way to the city despite knowing very few words in Hindi and relying totally on the mercy of strangers willing to give an Adivasi youth a ride in their truck or on a motorcycle. Once he is in the amusement park, he sneaks into the tent where the Rama legend is being reenacted as a kind of set piece reminiscent of the ballet in “An American in Paris”. It is one of the more astonishingly beautiful “song and dance” scenes I have ever seen in an Indian movie, more Balanchine than Bollywood.

Directed by Ratnakar Matkari, “Investment” is a scathing portrayal of the grubby, materialistic, and Western-oriented upwardly mobile classes in India. When we first meet husband Ashish and wife Prachi in their high-rise, they seem normal enough. They are enjoying the benefits of a rising standard of living and sharing the abundance they enjoy with their 12-year-old son Sohel who at first blush appears like a typical spoiled brat.

When his dad asks him to turn down the volume on the television set so he can talk to someone in a position of helping him land a job at Barclay’s, the son tells him to go to another room since he is watching one of his favorite shows on MTV, one that features American rappers celebrating their wealth and fame. When he is not watching TV, Sohel is zoned out on video games based on killing “enemies”. (Are there any other kind?)

But as the plot develops, we learn that Sohel is not just spoiled. He is a psychopathic killer in the vein of Patty McCormack in the 1954 film “The Bad Seed”, a lying and murderous 12-year-old girl who became the inspiration for a host of other less inspired horror movies of the 1970s through today.

But the real horror is India’s class society. Sohel has a sick sexual interest in a schoolmate with a mother and father beneath his own parents socially, like characters in a Dreiser novel. When she resists his advances, he strangles her in a wooded area nearby his school where Adivasi peoples have been protesting the takeover of their land by a real estate company. The film makes no attempt to provide a “balanced” view. It is an old-fashioned diatribe against a monstrous family who are obviously symbols of an India that 74-year-old director Ratnakar Matkari has no use for.

This, his first movie, is a clear expression of his values previously reflected through a Marathi translation of Arundhati Roy‘s English essay titled Greater Common Good. After earning a degree in economics from Mumbai University in 1958, he worked at the Bank of India for the next twenty years. Despite his ability to enjoy the life of his evil characters, he is much more interested in challenging the values that are currently encouraging their development.

Directed by Mirra Bank, “The Only Real Game” is a documentary about the baseball craze in Manipur, a state bordering on Burma that has had 30 guerrilla groups operating at its height (or depth, as you look at it.) Ethnically, the people look more Burmese than Indian. This and just about every other aspect of Manipur culture and politics make me realize how dense and challenging the study of India can be. Even if the film was about nothing except Manipur cuisine, it would be worth watching simply for an insight into a nationality that we know so little about.

Apparently the Manipur people are the most athletic in India and took to baseball like a duck takes to water when they first discovered it during WWII. American airman created a base in their state that was a link the supply chain to the soldiers fighting against the Japanese. Not long after creating their field of dreams, they began teaching the natives how to hold a bat and throw a ball—American hegemony’s more beneficent side.

The film shows standout talents from Manipur as well as an American delegation of professionals who raised money for supplies and to support a clinic on the finer points of baseball. Among those on the delegation is former minor league standout Jeff Brueggemann who was never quite good enough or healthy enough to make it in the majors. He is an immensely appealing character and shows what America is capable of once it puts away its guns and its capital.

 

Janos Starker, Master of the Cello, Dies at 88

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:04 am

NY Times April 29, 2013
Janos Starker, Master of the Cello, Dies at 88
By MARGALIT FOX

Janos Starker, one of the 20th century’s most renowned cellists, whose restrained onstage elegance was amply matched by the cyclone of Scotch, cigarettes and opinion that animated his offstage life, died on Sunday at his home in Bloomington, Ind. He was 88.

Indiana University, where he was a distinguished professor of music, announced his death.

A Hungarian-born child prodigy who later survived internment by the Nazis during World War II, Mr. Starker appeared, in the decades after the war, on the world’s most prestigious recital stages and as a soloist with the world’s leading orchestras. He was part of a vaunted triumvirate that included Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-76) and Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), collectively the most celebrated cellists of the day.

He was also widely known through his more than 150 recordings, including one of Bach’s six suites for solo cello for which he won a Grammy Award in 1998.

Mr. Starker played several magnificent cellos during his career — including the “Lord Aylesford” Stradivarius of 1696, a 1707 Guarnerius and a 1705 instrument by the great Venetian maker Matteo Goffriller — but he nonetheless managed to resist the seductions of the instrument to which cellists can fall prey.

The chief hallmark of his playing was a conspicuous lack of schmaltz. Effusive sentiment is an inherent risk of the cello, with its thundering sonorities and timbre so like the human voice. He also shunned the dramatic head tossing and body swaying to which many cellists incline.

“I’m not an actor,” he said in a 1996 interview with the Internet Cello Society, an online fraternity of cellists and devotees. He added, with characteristic candor, “I don’t want to be one of those musicians who appears to be making love to himself onstage.”

Unlike many acclaimed string players, Mr. Starker used a lean, judicious vibrato — the minute, rapid variations in pitch by the left hand that can enrich a note’s sound but can also border on the histrionic. Excessive vibrato, he said, was like “a woman smearing her whole face with lipstick.”

While the musical style that resulted was too dispassionate for some critics’ taste, others praised Mr. Starker’s faultless technique; purity of tone; clean, polished phrasing; and acute concern with the composer’s intent. His style was especially well suited to the Bach suites, canonical texts for the instrument, which he recorded on several occasions.

“The technical aspects of Mr. Starker’s playing are so wholly merged in the solution to problems of interpretation and style that the listener tends to forget how much technical mastery the cellist has achieved,” Raymond Ericson wrote in The New York Times in 1962, reviewing a recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The pitch is unerringly right, the tone is mellow without being mushy, difficult leaps and runs are manipulated with the easy unobtrusiveness of a magician.”

Through Mr. Starker eschewed romantic mannerisms, he did not stint Romantic works: he gave many well-received performances of the Dvorak concerto, the lush, haunting B minor staple of every concert cellist’s arsenal.

Nor did he neglect 20th-century music: he was considered one of the foremost interpreters of his countryman Zoltan Kodaly’s sonata for solo cello, composed in 1915 and so technically demanding that it is sometimes described as having been written by a fiend.

In these works, too, his restrained approach differed greatly from the ripe romanticism of Rostropovich and Piatigorsky.

“What I’d like to see is a little more humility and dignity displayed toward our art, and less self-aggrandizement,” Mr. Starker said of Rostropovich in a 1980 interview with People magazine. “Slava is more popular, but I’m the greater cellist.”

That was merely one of his abundant opinions on all manner of things, including conductors (Mr. Starker had enduring, well-publicized feuds over musical matters with Eugene Ormandy and Herbert von Karajan) and other eminent cellists.

Conductors, he once said, “are the most overrated people in music.”

And here is Mr. Starker on Jacqueline du Pré, the expressive English cellist whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis: “She was an incredibly gifted cellist and a beautiful artist, but I believe she accelerated her own destruction because she expended so much energy in her performances.”

Opinion was but one area in which Mr. Starker allowed himself joyful immoderation; cigarettes and alcohol were others. He adored Scotch and by his own account consumed it with abandon. For much of his life he smoked 60 cigarettes a day, though in old age he reduced the number to 25.

He once walked out of a scheduled performance of the Elgar Concerto with the South Carolina Philharmonic because he was barred from smoking his accustomed preconcert cigarette backstage.

Unlike many world-renowned musicians, Mr. Starker made teaching a major facet of his career. In 1958 he joined the faculty of what is now the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where he taught until shortly before his death.

His presence there turned Bloomington into a Midwestern mecca for cellists; among his former students are the prominent soloists Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, Gary Hoffman and Maria Kliegel.

“I personally cannot perform without teaching, and I cannot teach without performing,” Mr. Starker told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. “When you have to explain what you are doing, you discover what you are really doing.”

With his bald head and menacing eyebrows, Mr. Starker looked ferocious, and by all accounts he could be ferocious in the teaching studio. He was so adamant about his students’ need for all-consuming commitment that he was once enlisted by Bobby Knight, Indiana’s long-serving, combustible basketball coach, to give a like-minded pep talk to the team.

Janos Starker was born in Budapest on July 5, 1924, the son of Sandor and Margit Starker; his father was a tailor. (The European pronunciation of the family name is SHTAR-ker; after moving to the United States, he pronounced it STAR-ker.)

Before he turned 6, Janos was given a cello; by the time he was 8 he was giving lessons to younger children. He entered the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, making his recital debut at 11; at 14 he played the Dvorak concerto with a symphony orchestra on a few hours’ notice.

As a young man, Mr. Starker was the principal cellist of the Budapest Opera and the Budapest Philharmonic.

The Starkers were Jews. Near the end of World War II, Mr. Starker and his parents were dispatched to an internment camp on an island in the Danube outside Budapest. All three survived the war, though his two older brothers, Tibor and Ede, disappeared; Mr. Starker said he believed the Nazishad shot them.

After the war, Mr. Starker worked as an electrician and a sulfur miner before making his way to Paris. There, in 1947, he recorded the Kodaly sonata; that recording won the Grand Prix du Disque, France’s most prestigious award for recorded music, bringing him international fame.

In 1948, Mr. Starker was brought to the United States as the principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony by its music director, Antal Dorati.

Afterward, he was principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. (In his 2004 memoir, “The World of Music According to Starker,” Mr. Starker recalls the day his seat in the orchestra pit was changed so he would not be distracted by any attractive women onstage.) He was later principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony.

Mr. Starker’s first marriage, to Eva Uranyi, ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter from that marriage, Gabriella Starker-Saxe; his second wife, the former Rae Busch; her daughter, Gwen Starker Preucil, whom he adopted; and three grandchildren.

His other recordings include works by Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Bartok.

To those who called his concert demeanor aloof, Mr. Starker had a potent antidote. Inspired by a suggestion from the theatrical producer Joseph Papp, he created a touring show, “A Special Evening With Janos Starker.”

On those evenings, Mr. Starker, armed with a chair, his cello and other essential props, took the stage. There, between musical numbers, he regaled the audience with tales from the classical-music battlefield, interspersed with sips of Scotch and companionable clouds of smoke.

April 28, 2013

Historical Materialism Conference 2013

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

The origins of capitalism according to the “political Marxists”

Historical Materialism is a quarterly journal that costs $78 for a yearly sub.  Like New Left Review, with which it shares editorial perspectives and an editor (the ubiquitous Sebastian Bludgeon), it is a mix of the substantive and the trivial. As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the journal but only for issues at least a year old, like issue number one of 2012. You can find both a useful article on the trade union movement by Kim Moody and something titled “Manfredo Tafuri, Fredric Jameson and the Contestations of Political Memory” that I found relatively easy to ignore.

It also publishes scholarly Marxist hardcover books at the same price point. For example, a hardcover version of Jairus Banaji’s Deutscher Prize-winning “Theory as History” costs $135. Fortunately Haymarket Press publishes paperback versions of HM books, one of the ISO’s major contributions to the movement.

I am not sure when HM began organizing conferences but I attended my first yesterday at NYU. I wondered beforehand why there was a need for HM Conferences when we have a Left Forum in NY as well. But it became clear throughout the day that HM addresses a need that Left Forum does not. Generally, you will find a sharper Marxist focus at HM while the Left Forum is far broader with many panels featuring movement activists. The HM conference, by contrast, is much more of an academic conference with just about every speaker holding an academic post.

10am-12pm: Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”

This featured Neil presenting the main ideas of his new book, followed by “discussants” Jeff Goodwin and Charles Post.

Some background is in order. Post is a Brennerite, in other words an acolyte of the prize-winning UCLA professor Robert Brenner who developed a theory in the 1970s that capitalism originated in the British countryside in the 1500s quite by accident due to demographic changes brought on by the bubonic plague. Without going into any boring and unnecessary detail, the loss of population led to a series of social-economic transformations that fostered the creation of tenant farming out of but against feudal institutions. With the widespread adoption of tenant farming, Britain enjoyed a “take off” that was not possible anywhere else. That “take off” explains the rise of the British Empire and the diffusion of capitalism to the rest of Europe and everywhere else in the world. Without those diseased rats, Britain might have followed an evolution like Kenya or Uganda. For all we know, the Kenyans might have enslaved Britons and put them to work in the cotton fields of Africa if contingency had blessed them with dukes, duchesses, and diseased rats.

As an ancillary of the Brenner thesis, a school known as “political Marxism” has taken root in the academy that denies that there is such a thing as a bourgeois revolution. This has led to some intriguing hypotheses, including the claim that France was not only devoid of capitalist property relations before 1789 but even afterwards. The Brennerites have categorized the social system that existed in the early 1800s in France as precapitalist. That term, of course, could also be applied to the Britain of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, as well as the igloo-dwelling Inuit people that Admiral Peary took advantage of. The category precapitalism serves their theoretical needs even if it is rather imprecise. It is like calling animals nonhuman. It does not help us to distinguish between a jackal and a butterfly.

I have no idea whether Jeff Goodwin is a member in good standing of the “political Marxism” school but he agrees with them that there is no such thing as a bourgeois revolution. In his remarks, he made the point that capitalism can evolve through different paths—something that sounds a bit like the point made by Karl Marx in his late letters to the Russian populists.

Although I have not had the chance yet to read Davidson’s book, I have commented on his ideas when he began to raise them in the journal of the British SWP in 2006, a group that he has belonged to for a number of years.

Davidson’s summary of his book repeated points made in his 2006 article that were similar to those made by Isaac Deutscher in his Stalin biography and his last book “Unfinished Revolution”. Here’s Davidson quoting Deutscher from the latter:

The traditional view [of the bourgeois revolution], widely accepted by Marxists and non-Marxists alike, is that in such revolutions, in Western Europe, the bourgeois played the leading part, stood at the head of the insurgent people, and seized power. This view underlies many controversies among historians; the recent exchanges, for example, between Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper and Mr Christopher Hill on whether the Cromwellian revolution was or was not bourgeois in character. It seems to me that this conception, to whatever authorities it may be attributed, is schematic and unreal. From it one may well arrive at the conclusion that bourgeois revolution is almost a myth, and that it has hardly ever occurred, even in the West. Capitalist entrepreneurs, merchants, and bankers were not conspicuous among the leaders of the Puritans or the commanders of the Ironsides, in the Jacobin Club or at the head of the crowds that stormed the Bastille or invaded the Tuileries.

At any rate, I am anxious to read Neil’s book the first chance I get since I am impressed with what he has written in the past.

In the Q&A, I raised the question of the East India Company, an entity that belongs to the “precapitalism” of the Brennerite tendency. I proposed that it exemplified merchant capital, a precursor to industrial capitalism. To which Charles Post responded that “merchant” and “capital” are contradictions in terms. Someone involved in merchant capital takes advantage of different levels of economic development in order to “buy cheap” and “sell dear”, the classic instance of British trading monopolies in India and China.

I always wonder how much familiarity the Brennerites have with Marx’s writings but in his discussion of primitive accumulation in V. 1 of Capital, he refers to the East India Company as being an example of “primitive accumulation . . .without the advance of a shilling.” For them, primitive accumulation means one thing and one thing only, the changes in the British countryside that led to the transformation of peasants into wage laborers even if Karl Marx thinks otherwise. Well, I don’ t know. Maybe they have a point. Just like the advice that Mr. McGuire gave to Benjamin in “The Graduate” about plastic, the Brennerites would seem inclined to breathlessly invoke the magic words that explain the origins of capitalism: diseased rats.

1:30-3:30pm: Leninist Lineages

There were four presenters, including two of my favorite Marxist thinkers. One was Lars Lih speaking on “Two Cheers for Lev Kamenev” that made the case that the standard narrative on Kamenev opposing the April Theses as a kind of semi-Menshevik was unfair. Lih’s analysis was based on a close reading of the Russian texts that supported the idea that Kamenev’s opposition had more to do with the April Theses being a projection of a communism in the hazy future rather than a call for taking power. I won’t try to recapitulate Lih’s arguments since I expect an article from him before long. When I spot it, I will post a link.

Now to Paul Kellogg. Paul and I had a long talk a week earlier, a day before the ecosocialism conference. He had dropped out of the Canadian I.S. after 30 years or so and largely because of the British SWP rape scandal. I discovered that he has the same exact analysis of the “Leninist” problem that is developing among the comrades Richard Seymour is working with whose conclusions I largely agree with. Now working on a modest regroupment project with John Ridell in Canada, Paul’s efforts are key to helping us get out of the mess we are currently in. I urge comrades in Canada to keep an eye on what John and Paul are up to since they are two wise and seasoned veteran revolutionaries.

Paul’s talk covered two major errors that Lenin had some responsibility for, either directly or indirectly. The first is the March 1921 Action in Germany that was an insurrectionary bid led by the German CP and opposed by the other left parties. This is covered in Pierre Broue’s book on the German Revolution and something I have written about in the past.

But the other error has not received the attention it deserved and that will be the subject of an HM article by Paul down the road. It involves the Russian invasion of Poland in 1919 that Lenin favored and Trotsky opposed. Trotsky warned that it would lead to the Polish peasantry rallying around their nationalist rulers, which is exactly what happened.

I am in the process of reading Werner Angress’s book on the German Revolution that provided most of the background for my article referred to above and came across a reference to the Poland question:

The war against Poland went exceedingly well in late July and early August as the Red Army moved closer to Warsaw, and the military successes created an atmosphere of hopeful anticipation at the congress. Was it not possible, after all, that the victories of the Red Army might spark the eagerly anticipated revolutions in central and western Europe? To what extent even Lenin was affected by the buoyant optimism of the moment may be illustrated by an incident which occurred at the congress and involved Levi and two other German delegates. Standing before a large strategic wall map of which Zinoviev has left us a vivid description, Lenin invited the three Germans to join him and began to explain the military situation. He said that according to Trotsky’s estimates the Red Army would reach the eastern frontier of Germany within the next few days, and, turning to his listeners, he asked: “In your opinion, Comrades, what forms will the uprising in East Prussia take?” The three Germans stared at him in amazement. East Prussia was known as one of the most conservative German regions, and an uprising of the East Prussian peasants in support of the Red Army sounded like a poor joke to Levi and his colleagues. One of them, Ernst Meyer, gave a sceptical reply. This irritated Lenin, who now turned to Levi and asked: “And you, Comrade Levi, do you also agree that there will be no uprising?” Levi remained silent, and Lenin terminated the conversation by remarking acidly: “In any case, you ought to know that we of the Central Committee [of the Russian C.P.] hold quite a different opinion.”

When Lenin told Levi that “we of the Central Committee hold quite a different opinion,” you really get a sense of the problems that “Leninist” parties faced early on. The almost nonstop abuse of power in such parties from a Jack Barnes to an Alex Callinicos can be tied to mistakes made early on in Soviet Russia. Now Lenin died too early to get a handle on them and go in another direction (something he sensed was necessary when he considered moving the Comintern to another country) but until our movements root out this kind of “verticalism” and adopt a more transparent and democratic model, we will continue to face crises of our own making.

Paul Le Blanc’s talk was an attempt to rescue the legend of the “heroic Comintern” against evidence that is becoming impossible to ignore. He even tried to put a positive spin on the 21 Conditions that despite its ultraleft errors were a sincere effort to build a Bolshevik International. I am actually planning on writing a long piece on Lenin’s post-1917 organizational initiatives that challenge Paul’s interpretation but at this stage will only say that the 21 Conditions were about as meat-headed a manifesto that can be imagined, like something out of Bob Avakian. Here’s condition number two:

Every organisation that wishes to affiliate to the Communist International must regularly and methodically remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the labour movement (party organisations, editorial boards, trades unions, parliamentary factions, co-operatives, local government) and replace them with tested communists, without worrying unduly about the fact that, particularly at first, ordinary workers from the masses will be replacing ‘experienced’ opportunists.

Unbelievable.

The last five minutes of Paul’s talk were devoted to a defense of Zinoviev, another unwise decision given the preponderance of evidence that he was a total screw-up. After Paul was finished, Joel Geier, a long-time member of the ISO and the IS before it, gave a talk on Zinovievism that sounded almost as if it could have been plagiarized from my own. He diverged, however, by portraying the Zinoviev of the pre-“Bolshevization” Comintern as an exemplary leader. In my comments, I tried to explain that the “Bolshevization” of the Comintern was a response to a crisis brought on by the March 1921 fiasco in Germany. A circling of the wagons took place that led to a further verticalization of the “Leninist” organizational model, not that much different than what is taking place in Callinicos’s movement.

4-6pm: SYRIZA and the Strategic Challenges of the Greek Left

This was a really excellent panel that included two critical supporters of SYRIZA (Costas Panayotakis and Despina Lalaki), an ANTARSYA supporter (Iannis Delatolas), and Peter Bratsis, a sort of anti-political academic who views fighting for pensions, etc. as buying into the capitalist system about whom the less said the better.

Costas and Despina agreed with many of the points being made by Iannis but continue to support SYRIZA. The problem with groups like ANTARSYA, as is the case with the small “vanguard” formations that make up its coalition, is that while being formally correct have no prospects of reaching a majority. While deeply involved in mass actions, their proposals for changing Greek society are out of sync with the current level of consciousness. In some ways, it probably does not matter to them since they share a widely shared belief among “cadre” organizations that it is necessary to uphold a “revolutionary” program that will be embraced by the masses once they have achieved a revolutionary consciousness. It is a sectarian formula, needless to say.

In the remarks period, I stated support for SYRIZA is necessary not so much on the basis that the current leadership is going to lead a revolution but that it provides a vehicle for the revolutionary left to advance its ideas among the broader population, a view that Peter Camejo advanced with respect to the Green Party when it was solidly behind Ralph Nader. We should only be lucky to have a party like SYRIZA in the U.S. that enjoys the support of “only” 30 percent of the population.

Paul Blackledge, a British SWP leader, spoke in support of ANTARSYA from the floor after me. It was interesting to hear such an articulate defense of ultraleftism. Even when they are totally wrong, they can be very impressive.

Postscript:

At the SYRIZA panel discussion on Saturday at the HM conference, Peter Bratsis bemoaned the fact that 20 general strikes have done nothing to stop austerity. It was pointed out to him, by Costas I believe, that these are not really general strikes since workers in private industry do not take part because of a fear of reprisal. Public workers, who have a relative degree of job protection, make up the bulk of the actions. But he warned that this is about to change, referring to proposed legislation that just passed:

NY Times April 28, 2013
Greek Parliament Passes Plan for Layoffs
By NIKI KITSANTONIS

ATHENS — Greece’s Parliament late Sunday approved a contentious plan to dismiss 15,000 civil servants by the end of next year as part of a new package of economic measures that the country must enforce to clinch crucial financing from foreign creditors.

Euro zone officials meeting in Brussels on Monday are expected to approve the release of about 2.8 billion euros, or about $3.65 billion, in loans. The money had been due in March but was delayed after negotiations between Greece and the so-called troika of its foreign lenders stalled over the lenders’ demands for civil service cuts.

The troika, which comprises the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has been meting out aid in exchange for belt-tightening measures. They are to decide on another six-billion-euro installment in May, assuming Greece adopts further reforms, including an overhaul of a tax collection system.

The latest measures passed into law in a vote held shortly before midnight on Sunday with 168 votes in the 300-seat House.

A last-minute amendment allowing local authorities to hire young Greeks for less than the minimum wage of 586 euros per month fueled protests during the debate. But the inclusion of measures aimed at easing the burden on Greeks, including a 15 percent reduction to a contentious property tax, clinched the support of lawmakers in the three-party ruling coalition.

Defending the bill during a heated debate, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras insisted that Greece had no choice but to implement the economic reforms. “Greece is still cut off from the markets,” he said, noting that the government’s chief aim was to achieve a primary surplus before seeking a further “drastic haircut” to its debt, which stood at 160 percent of gross domestic product at the end of last year.

His claims were derided by political rivals who denounced the lawmakers as beholden to the nation’s lenders. “With blood, tears and looting, they will achieve surpluses like those achieved by Ceausescu in Romania and Pinochet in Chile,” said Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the main leftist opposition party Syriza. “Claim back your lives and your country that they are stealing,” he said as a few hundred Greeks, mostly civil servants, staged a rather low-key protest outside Parliament.

Mr. Tsipras, whose party wants to revoke Greece’s loan agreement, has insisted that Greeks have an alternative to constant belt-tightening, pointing to a strong reaction against austerity across Europe.

The ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, faces a difficult balancing act to reassure its foreign creditors and its long-suffering citizens, who have seen their incomes dwindle by a third and Greek unemployment skyrocket to 27 percent in the past three years.

Eager to bolster the prospects for investment, the prime minister is also said to be planning a series of international trips, starting with a visit to China next month.

He is expected to meet with entrepreneurs and promote Greece as a destination for tourism, virtually the only robust pillar of Greece’s shaky economy.

Open Letter to Vivek Chibber

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 1:07 am

Dear Professor Chibber,

I have established that you were the person who interrupted me during the discussion period during the workshop on Neil Davidson’s new book on the bourgeois revolution this morning at the Historical Materialism conference at NYU. I didn’t quite hear what you were saying, but it sounded something like “What is your question…get to the point.”

Of the three workshops I attended today, not a single chairperson said something along those uncharitable lines. By and large, people made much longer comments than me and far more in the name of some sect–the sort of thing that wastes time.

It was all the more unexpected to hear this from you since you were not a chairperson, number one, and number two you were going to be speaking at a closing plenary session on Sunday night to an audience of hundreds. Frankly, I thought it was very petty for you to interrupt me in that manner considering the power you exercise both at NYU in your capacity as associate professor and as someone who has written dozens of articles in places like the HM journal or NLR on the questions under debate. You couldn’t wait for me to complete my 3 minute intervention while you have had the opportunity to defend your ideas on the Brenner thesis to a broad swath of the left community owing to your hard earned intellectual capital as a recipient of many highly coveted and prestigious awards.

I honestly don’t know why you walked out immediately after making your remarks because I would have liked to take them up with you face to face. Don’t worry, I have no interest in taking them up with you any further since I have said all I have to say at this point on the Marxism mailing list. My only advice is not to pull this bullshit on me ever again or you will truly regret it.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

April 26, 2013

Juan of the Dead

Filed under: comedy,cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition April 26-28, 2013

Cinema in the Service of Revolution

Confronting Polemics With Alfredo Guevara

by LOUIS PROYECT

This week Alfredo Guevara, the father of revolutionary Cuba’s film industry, died of a heart attack at the age of 87. The N.Y. Times obituary was refreshingly honest about the role he played:

A committed Fidelista, Mr. Guevara nevertheless insisted that art should not be subservient to politics.

“Propaganda may serve as art, and it should,” he was quoted as saying. “Art may serve as revolutionary propaganda, and it should. But art is not propaganda.”

Filmmakers credit Mr. Guevara with fending off censors and overseeing films that criticized Mr. Castro’s Cuba. He was at the center of fierce debates between artists and communist ideologues, clashing with Blas Roca, a powerful member of the Communist Party leadership, in the early 1960s in a public row over the role of culture in politics.

“He had to confront a lot of polemic,” Mr. Pineda Barnet said. “And if a polemic didn’t find him, he went looking for it.”

Despite such films as “Lucia”, “Memories of Underdevelopment”, and “Strawberry and Chocolate” that defied characterizations of Cuban cinema as propaganda machines, there is still a tendency to lump Castro’s Cuba with Stalin’s USSR, as if the typical Cuban movie was about a sugar mill meeting its quota. While one would naturally expect this from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, it is disconcerting to see the same sort of reductionism at play in the writings of one Samuel Farber, a Cuban-American professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and a self-described socialist.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/26/confronting-polemics-with-alfredo-guevara/

George Jones, dead at 81

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

Brian Mansfield, Special to USA TODAY10:42 a.m. EDT April 26, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — George Jones, whose supple Texas voice conveyed heartbreak so profound that he became perhaps the most imitated singer in country music, died Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being hospitalized with high fever and irregular blood pressure. He was 81.

Hank Williams may have set country music’s mythology and Johnny Cash its attitude, but Jones gave the genre its ultimate voice. With recordings that spanned 50 years, including Number One singles White Lightning, She Thinks I Still Care and He Stopped Loving Her Today, Jones influenced generations of country singers and was considered by many to be the greatest of them all.

Jones’ life also included legendary battles with substance abuse, mostly alcohol, and four marriages, including one to fellow singer Tammy Wynette and another, his last and longest, to Nancy Sepulvado.

Ultimately, though, it was that voice that won Jones two Grammys, got him into the Country Music Hall of Fame and made him an American musical icon. That plaintive voice that seemed to break down at will and wallow in sorrow. That voice of honky-tonk eloquence that held tortured echoes of heroes like Williams, Roy Acuff and Lefty Frizzell. That finely nuanced voice that offered thrill rides of emotions, with twists and turns, slippery, bending notes and sudden drops.

Jones’ performances weren’t just an emotional rollercoaster, they were the whole theme park.

 

Born in a log cabin in the “Big Thicket” region of East Texas, Jones grew up idolizing Acuff and bluegrass great Bill Monroe. In his youth, he played on the streets of downtown Beaumont for tips. He met Williams at a local radio station in 1949, and the singer advised young Jones to stop singing like Acuff and start singing like himself.

By the time he began recording for Pappy Dailey’s Starday Records in 1954, Jones had married and divorced and served a stint with the Marines in Korea. He first hit the national country charts in 1955 – the same year that Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash made their chart debuts – with Why Baby Why, a honky-tonk record featuring a double-tracked vocal. Jones’ recording eventually was eclipsed by Webb Pierce and Red Sovine’s cover, which topped the charts, while his stalled at No. 2.

His first Number One came with White Lightning, a moonshine novelty with an oddball, hiccupping hook. By this time, Jones already was a binge drinker and, according to his 1997 autobiography I Lived to Tell It All, he was heavily under the influence during the recording session and required 83 takes to get a usable version. White Lightning came out in March 1959, one month after its writer – J.P. Richardson, aka The Big Bopper – was killed in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.

The flat-topped singer placed multiple singles on the country charts each year during the ’60s – ballads like The Window Up Above and If My Heart Had Windows; The Race Is On, with its rumbling, six-string bass solo; duets with Melba Montgomery and pop singer Gene Pitney. Occasionally, Jones topped the charts with Tender Years, She Thinks I Still Care and Walk Through This World With Me.

In 1969, Jones married Tammy Wynette – one of the most famous country music marriages ever, though it would last just six years. Jones followed Wynette to Epic Records and soon began working with her producer, Billy Sherrill, who would be responsible for his biggest hits of the ’70s and ’80s.

Jones and Wynette recorded a series of duet singles – including chart-toppers Golden Ring, Near You and We’re Gonna Hold On – that outlined a fictive version of the couple’s often-volatile relationship. The duets continued for several years after they divorced in 1975, and the two reunited professionally for a final album together, One, in 1995.

During the ’90s, Jones released an album, followed by an autobiography, called I Lived to Tell It All – the irony in the title coming precisely because so many people hadn’t expected him to.

His drinking and, eventually, his cocaine use, caused him to miss so many concerts that he earned the nickname No-Show Jones (he was also, more kindly, called The Possum).

He got in fights and destroyed motel rooms. He ventilated his tour bus by emptying the chambers of a pistol into its floor. He drove to a liquor store on a riding lawnmower when his second wife, Shirley Corley, hid all the car keys. At his most inebriated, he insisted on singing in the voice of a duck named Deedoodle.

Jones recounted multiple brushes with death in his book, but his best-known one came in 1999, when he crashed his Lexus SUV into a bridge abutment near Franklin, Tenn., while talking on his cellphone. Jones suffered a collapsed lung and ruptured liver and spent two weeks in a Nashville hospital.

Police found a partially empty bottle of vodka under the front passenger’s seat, and Jones later pled guilty to driving while impaired and acknowledged that he had fallen off the wagon.

 

Even at the height of his substance abuse, Jones’ personal troubles couldn’t always overshadow his talent.

His name has appeared on more charting singles – 168, spanning 55 years – than any other country singer’s, from 1955’s Why Baby Why to Aaron Lewis’ 2010 hit Country Boy, where he was a featured vocalist with Charlie Daniels.

He was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2008 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Jones’ greatest artistic achievement came with Billy Sherrill, his regular producer for much of the 1970s and ’80s. Sherrill, an admirer of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” musical architecture, constructed his own masterpieces using Jones’ voice as scaffolding. Instead of competing with the singer’s dramatic delivery, Sherrill complemented it with vocal choruses, theatrical string sections and tensile pedal steel guitar lines. Sherrill’s lavish productions didn’t bury Jones, they revealed previously unheard subtleties of expression.

The pair reached their peak with the 1980 release of He Stopped Loving Her Today, widely considered to be the greatest country record ever made and one that, according to many involved with its creation, took more than a year to get on tape because Jones was so wrecked by cocaine and bourbon.

“He said I’ll love you ’til I die/She told him you’ll forget in time,” Jones sang as he began the Bobby Braddock/Curly Putman tune, needing only three minutes and 15 seconds to convey a lifetime of emotional devastation, the kind that takes hold of a man and doesn’t let go, not ever.

He Stopped Loving Her Today revived Jones’ career and perhaps saved his life. It gave him his first number-one hit in five years and won four awards from the Country Music Association, including Song of the Year twice. It also gave him the first of his two Grammys – he won again in 2000 for the post-wreck Choices.

In his later years, Jones often complained about the directions contemporary country music took, especially after radio stopped playing his records. But younger stylists revered him, particularly during country’s commercial boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Several, including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Vince Gill sang with him on 1992’s I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair, released the same year Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In the last 10 years of his career, he recorded with Shooter Jennings and Staind frontman Aaron Lewis, as well as with Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard.

Now, that voice has gone silent. They may lay a wreath upon his door. Soon, they’ll carry him away.

But we will not stop loving him today.

April 25, 2013

Mud

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Young “indie” filmmakers tend to follow trends. One of the more popular is “mumblecore”, the genre that tends to embody “slacker” values and esthetics even as it aspires to commercial success. Think Lena Dunham. The other is at the other spectrum and can be described as the Terrence Malick School of filmmaking. It is known for having much more interest in landscape photography than character development.

And then there are those like Jeff Nichols, who march to the tune of a different drummer. My last Jeff Nichols film was the 2011 “Take Shelter” that I picked for the best of the year. I described it:

“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.

“Mud”, his latest, opens tomorrow at theaters everywhere. While it is not quite up to the standard set by “Take Shelter”, it is about as good a narrative film as I have seen this year. It stars Matthew McConaughey as a mysterious, gun-toting figure who is hiding out on an island nearby a Southern river (possibly the Mississippi), looking for the first opportunity he can find to link up with Juniper, the treacherous siren he loves and has killed for.

He is discovered by two teenagers who have spotted a boat wedged in the branches of a tree—the result of a recent hurricane—and are anxious to lay claim to it without realizing that it is Mud’s hideout. When they first run into McConaughey, he announces: “Call me Mud”.

One of the teens is Ellis, the son of a man who cobbles out a living as a trapper and a fisherman on the river. The other is Neckbone, who is being raised by his affable, good old boy uncle (played by Michael Shannon, the star of “Take Shelter”, and cast against his usual malevolent type.)

For the most part, the film focuses on the ambivalent relationship between Mud and Ellis who admires the resourceful loner who shows him much more attention and affection than his cold and remote father. As might be expected, a fugitive like Mud has other things to worry about than satisfying a boy’s hero worship.

Some critics have likened “Mud” to “Huckleberry Finn” since it is set on the Mississippi and shows a young man bonding with a fugitive. (Nichols told an interviewer that Mark Twain was a major influence but mostly through “Tom Sawyer”.) I thought it evoked “Great Expectations” as well since Dickens’s novel also depicts a young boy coming to the aid of an escaped prisoner.

There are a couple of problems with the film. The most serious of which is the failure to establish the stormy past of Mud and Juniper’s relationship. The film would have benefited from flashbacks that grounded their country-and-western inspired love story. There is also a somewhat conventionally plotted shoot-out between Mud and a gang assembled by the father of the man he killed that almost felt thrown in by Nichols to meet audience expectations.

The most dramatically interesting scenes involve the complex interactions between Mud and the boys as they both challenge and defer to him in a way that they never could with their own fathers. They strike a bargain with Mud. In exchange for them rounding up spare parts to get the salvaged boat navigable, he will give them his pistol. Once the boat has been launched, he completes his end of the bargain but only after removing the bullets. He says, “I promised you a gun, not the bullets”. As is nearly always the case with Mud, his charm assuages them.

In a casting coup as brilliant as Tarantino using the nearly washed up John Travolta to play a hit man, Nichols picked just the perfect actor to play Mud. Now 43, McConaughey has exactly the weathered look that suits his character. Early in his career, he played in forgettable romantic comedies. Now middle-aged, he is doing the best work of his career.

If Nichols is determined to make films that express his own aesthetic rather than what is fashionable in the industry, it does not follow that he is without influences. In a January interview with MovieMezzanine.com, Nichols cited his influences:

Yeah, you know, whenever I get asked that question I often think less about specific directors and more about films. But, I’m a big fan of John Ford. I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is actually the one major influence because in a way because he picked a genre, he picked fear, which isn’t actually a genre, but an emotion, to work in. But people know him as “oh, he’s that guy that made scary movies” … but it’s because fear (which is why enjoy I love Take Shelter so much) is such a tangible thing to do through filmmaking.

John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. What’s not to like?

April 23, 2013

New York Ecosocialism Conference: a resounding success

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

Last Saturday’s conference was a success beyond the organizer’s expectations and mine. They would have been happy with a hundred attendees but 240 showed up. Before offering my own thoughts, let me start off with what Bard College composition professor and long time Green activist John Halle had to say on Facebook:

Some off-the-cuff reactions to the Ecosocialist Conference at Barnard on Saturday:

1) Much larger, focussed, informed and energetic than I, and I would imagine others, were expecting. (Plenaries filled a large lecture hall.)

2) Clustering of ages-most were between 20-30 or 65 and 80. (My age cohort seemed conspicuously underrepresented).

3) Impressively ecumenical: ISO, it appears, were the initiators, but in no way dominated the panels or the proceedings . e.g. substantial representation of the Green Party, labor (e.g. Bruce Hamilton head of Amalgamated Transit Workers) and academics (Cornell’s Sean Sweeney, Nancy Romer)

4) Joel Kovel’s talk brought in an absolutely necessary, albeit uncomfortable recognition that the ultimate stakes of climate change are meta-economic, meta-social, and meta-political, which is to say they are transcendental or, to use his vocabulary, spiritual.

5) Capitalists were described on several occasions as “blood suckers”, a term I quite like, most notably by TWU leader Marty Goodman.

In short, great conference-provided a small emission of light after a fairly dark week.

I concur with John’s observations but would add this one. As I sat through the various workshops and plenary Q&A’s, I fully expected someone to announce themselves as a member of the Bolshevik League and launch into a speech about the need to abolish the capitalist system on the basis of the Transitional Program or some such thing. Instead, the comments were universally cogent and to the point. And, more importantly, reflected the difficulties that many were having in figuring out how to deal with the environmental crisis that brought us together. For example, in the Q&A on “Both Red & Green”, I spoke to a point about the dangers of neo-Malthusianism that had been raised in the discussion. I said that I could understand the racist uses of the overpopulation argument, but can we really expect a world’s population to have all the Bluefin tuna it wants to eat. Isn’t the idea of ecological limits true no matter what social system we live in?

After reflecting on the seriousness of the discussion for a day or so, it dawned on me that the environmental movement, unlike those that the disorganized left traditionally “intervenes” in does not lend itself to pat answers. What is there in Lenin or Trotsky that can serve as an off-the-shelf solution to climate change?

Indeed, we are dealing with the problem of being in uncharted territory. This makes it difficult for activists to recite dogmatic mantras of the kind that are usually heard around issues of war and peace or labor struggles, etc. And this is not to speak of the inadequacy of the Great Men of Marxism when their productivist formulas are applied to a world in which productivism—either capitalist or “socialist”—have cast a shadow over our futures. Take, for example, what Trotsky wrote in 1934: “It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”

Just a few highlights:

Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012, spoke at the morning plenary. She is really dynamite, using Powerpoint slides to illustrate how fucked the system was. I am not sure how well organized her campaign was but she is capable of turning around the minds of millions of people given the chance. No wonder she was prevented from taking part in debates. She really knows how to speak to working people using concrete examples like people and loaves of bread. With the current income disparities in the USA, there is one person at the top with fifty loaves of bread and at the bottom fifty people to share one loaf. That’s the kind of talk that Ralph Nader used to give and that Green candidates need to develop.

In the morning workshop I attended, I got a chance to hear John Ridell who wears two hats. In addition to being a scholar of the early Comintern, he is also an ecosocialist. He spoke about the resistance to the Canadian Tar Sands project that the ruling class hopes would turn the country into the next Saudi Arabia. Christ, just what Canadians need… John started out as a Latin America solidarity activist but moved into environmental activism after Hugo Morales told a group that the best way to show solidarity was to fight global warming. John is a terrific speaker, by the way. What a waste of cadre—all the talented people who went through the revolving door of the Trotskyist movement.

In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on Hurricane Sandy that was basically a discussion of its impact on the Rockaways, a topic close to my heart since I have been going out there to play chess with an old friend from Bard College for 25 years or so. I made a video about the hurricane that some Rockaway folks think is the best they have seen:

One of the panelists was Josmar Trujillo, who works with a group called Wildfire that is geared to the needs of the predominantly Black and Latino housing project residents on the east side of the peninsula. When you look at Josmar, your immediate reaction is that he must be a Con Ed or UPS worker. Working class to the bone. That being said, he was really political and sharp. When I used to be in the Trotskyist movement in the 60s and 70s, we used to talk a lot about how the working class would radicalize. I suspect that it will be the environmental crisis as much as the economic crisis that gets working people moving.

The last workshop was on the history of the green left that included Richard Greeman as a speaker. Greeman has been around forever and writes many interesting things, especially about Victor Serge. I was a little bit skeptical about his tendency to view the state as an unqualified evil—almost in Hardt-Negri terms. Commenting on the failure of the city government to get involved with hurricane relief and the people’s need to rely on Occupy Sandy, he said that this was a good thing. This made me uncomfortable since it reminded me of the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that said just about the same thing. Ugh.

The evening plenary featured Joel Kovel, whose remarks John Halle summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for me.

Follow-up on the Tribeca Film Festival incident

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

Today, I heard from Brandon Rohwer, the Tribeca Publicity Director, who told me that he was sorry that I was banned from the screening of the herring documentary but that they had certain rules to follow otherwise the gates of hell would open and Satan’s minions would rise from the depths and lay siege to mankind.

Specifically, for someone like me who does not have press credentials, the publicist has to contact them in advance so my name will show up on a list. I got the feeling after reading his email that the Boston Marathon bombing would not have taken place if the Tribeca Festival officials had been in charge.

There were a “lot of moving parts” that involved security, etc. Like I might have sneaked in to see a movie at that theater other than the one sponsored by Tribeca. Or stolen a box of Good and Plenty’s when nobody was looking. Or peed on a toilet seat. Or took a crap and neglected to flush. That is why they needed a cop who looked like Eric Campbell to keep an eye on potential wrong-doers.

Being told that I had to leave the Tribeca screening

I wrote back to him:

A day after the incident I was told by the publicist that I had rsvp’d to the April 22nd rather than the April 19th screening. So even though I accidentally came to the wrong screening, I see no reason on earth why I would have been prevented from sitting down to watch a documentary on herring fishermen after she told your people that I was a New York Film Critics Online member and not an Al Qaeda operative.

I can understand why you would stipulate that publicists furnish you the name of the critics they invite ahead of time but in this particular instance a decision to make me turn around and go home really fucking burned me up.

I have written 650 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, most of them about documentaries like the one I wanted to see. I am not just a film reviewer. I have also written for scholarly journals on the environment, including “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” and “Organization and Environment”. My review would have exposed the film to a much broader audience than the one that usually attends a Tribeca movie.

Finally, you know and I know that there is a two-tiered approach to critics. For people like David Edelstein or A.O. Scott, there is a red carpet. For nobodies like me, there has never been an incentive to get press credentials because the application process is like something out of a Kafka novel.

This year publicists approached me to view about 6 different Tribeca screenings, either in person or through DVD/Vimeo. I was looking forward to promoting the festival because I think it does a good job of presenting exactly the kind of films my readers look for.

But right now I would never bother writing a single word on behalf of Tribeca. You made someone who writes about film out of love rather than money feel like I was crashing a party. I deserved better.

Postscript:

No wonder he is paid to keep people from seeing movies rather than making them.

April 22, 2013

The myth of Vladimir Putin’s progressivism

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

For that segment of the left that thinks more in terms of hegemonic blocs and geopolitical chess games between imperialism and “anti-imperialist” states than classes, Putin is something of an exemplar. Immanuel Wallerstein, perhaps its most respected and principled representative, made the case for Putin in a July 15, 2007 Commentary titled “The Putin Charisma“:

Yes, he has upset a good portion of the intelligentsia, but there is every indication that he is quite popular with most Russians, unlike some other presidents of major states today. It seems that Russians see him as someone who has done much to restore the strength of the Russian state, after what they see as its humiliating deterioration during the Yeltsin era… He has opposed United States plans to install antimissile structures in Poland and the Czech Republic, and has gotten support for his stand (if quiet support) from Western Europe. He has used control of gas and oil exports from Russia itself and from both Central Asian and Caucasian countries not only to obtain greater rent for Russia (and thereby greater world power), but more or less to impose his terms on energy issues on Western Europe.

I imagine that most supporters of Putin on the left would make a case something like this:

1. Oil Populism:

He has taken advantage of Russia’s oil rentier status to fight the poverty and inequality that was a legacy of Yeltsin’s oligarchy-friendly rule. While by no means a socialist, he has something in common with Hugo Chavez who embodied the same economic policy. MRZine, a major outlet of hegemonic bloc theory, published a talk by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov that obviously took him at his word:

It should be no surprise that Russia today is making use of its natural competitive advantages.  It is also investing in its human resources, encouraging innovation, integrating into the global economy, and modernizing its legislation.  Russia wants international stability to underpin its own development.  Accordingly, it is working toward the establishment of a freer and more democratic international order.

Sounds almost Bolivarian, doesn’t it?

2. Anti-Imperialism:

Russia, along with China, is standing up to American imperialism in places like Libya and Syria. Of particular interest is Putin’s steadfast resistance to jihadism wherever it rears its ugly head, especially in Chechnya. For this sector of the left, political Islam has become as much of a bogeyman as it was to people like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens in 2003. The very same “foreign fighters” who went to fight the American occupation in Iraq are now shunned as tools of American imperialism. Russia Today, an English-language news service funded by the government, is widely considered to be a friend of the left, especially those predisposed to the global chess game analysis. An April 20, 2013 piece by Eric Draitser, who blogs at stopimperialism.com, made the case for the Russian government:

As more information comes out regarding the alleged bombers and their ideological leanings, there will undoubtedly be a propaganda assault to shape this narrative in the interests of the United States and the West.  Talking heads will be on television twenty four hours a day explaining to Americans why Chechnya is such a hotbed of terrorism, asking how something like this could happen, etc.  The truth is however, Washington has perpetuated the conflict through its propaganda machine that will now be employed to once again turn friend to enemy.  Perhaps, instead of being the world’s greatest purveyor of terror, using it as a weapon to achieve geostrategic objectives, the United States should actually work with peaceful nations such as Russia to combat terrorism worldwide.

3. Standing up to foreign meddling

Probably the thing that endears Putin to this sector of the left above all is its willingness to suppress the NGO’s that have foisted “color revolutions” on unsuspecting victims everywhere. Unlike other heads of state, Putin has had the balls (the word certainly applies) to shut them down, an act that gladdens the heart of Global Research, a long-standing member of the global chess-game tendency. On July 14, 2012 they published an article by Veronika Krasheninnikova, a staff member of a Russian think tank, that cheered Putin’s crackdown:

In fact, the multibillions of Western funding have profoundly distorted Russian civil society. A marginal pro-American group of NGOs that was pumped up with US dollars like a bodybuilder with steroids – it has gained much muscle and shine. Those few Russians willing to serve foreign interests were provided nice offices, comfortable salaries, printing presses, training, publicity, and political and organizing technology which gave them far more capacity, visibility, and influence that they could possibly have had on their own. Money and spin are the only means to promote unpopular ideas, alien to national interests.

On the other side is the silent majority of people who are squeezed out of the public space. In Western, and also in Russian media, civil society turns out to be represented by Ludmila Alekseyeva (The Helsinki Group) and Boris Nemtsov and Gary Kasparov, rather than by a worker from the Urals, a teacher from Novosibirsk or a farmer from Krasnodar Region.

Yesterday I had the very great fortune to attend a film screening of “Winter Go Away”, a documentary on the 2012 Russian elections that was co-directed by 10 filmmakers, including Anna Moiseenko who was there to speak about the film in the Q&A. Poet and revolutionary Kirill Medvedev, who I have discussed before, was also there to speak about the current situation in Russia.

I can only say that this film is an eye-opener, even to someone like me who has defended Pussy Riot against Putin and tries to keep up with the Russian left. (The film shows the feminist punk rockers being dragged out of the church.) Basically the documentary demonstrates how radical the opposition to Putin was. Despite the pro-capitalist leanings of some of the major opposition figures—from multibillionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to the aforementioned Gary Kasparov (he should stick to chess)—the rank-and-file of the movement are exactly the same kinds of people who occupied Zuccotti Park. Indeed, some of the chants you hear on the demonstrations are directed against Russian capitalism. You see young people heading toward the protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks, etc. The protests have been erroneously described as upper-middle-class temper tantrums funded by George Soros. It takes a huge amount of brass for some leftists to make such an attack when the Putin rallies are staged affairs that make the Republican Party’s look Bolshevik by comparison. Putin’s slogans were mind-numbingly nationalistic, with his well-heeled supporters chanting “Russia, Putin, Victory” at rallies.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is an interview with one Matvey Krylov who has just been released from prison for throwing water at a government official. The interviewer can’t seem to wrap his head around the question of someone going to prison for throwing water at another person. After repeatedly asking Krylov to explain what happened, the young man–who looks just like the sort of person who would have been found camped out in Zuccotti Park–tells him to Google his name. That will tell him all he needs to know. I followed this recommendation and discovered to my delight that my good friends in Chto Delat, a leftwing artist’s collective, has a report on their website:

The Moscow Times November 1, 2011
Water Stunt May Earn 2 Years in Jail
Alexey Eremenko

An opposition activist faces two years in jail for splashing water in the face of a prosecutor who jailed his comrades and allegedly threatened to kill him, the Agora rights group said Monday.

Dmitry Putenikhin, a member of The Other Russia, attacked Alexei Smirnov outside Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court on Friday shortly after it jailed five people, including three fellow activists, for participating in Manezh Square rioting last December.

The verdict has raised eyebrows because the riots were racially charged, while The Other Russia is not a nationalist group. Critics say the authorities chose the organization as a scapegoat.

Putenikhin, also known under the alias Matvei Krylov, did not flee after the attack, explaining to journalists that his actions were “improvised.” A video released by RIA-Novosti showed police brutally detaining him and three other people minutes after the attack.

 During the Q&A, I described the agenda of the global chess-game left to the speakers. Kirill’s response was most edifying. He said that the idea of Putin somehow having a continuation with the “anti-imperialist” USSR is embraced by both the “civil society”, Perestroika wing of the anti-Putin opposition as well as some elements of the Putin camp, except that the former group places a minus where the other group puts a plus.

But what really gave me pause to reflect was his explanation of the driving forces of the opposition to Putin. While people like Kasparov were still stuck in the perestroika mode and limited exclusively to issues such as freedom of speech (as important as they are), the grass roots of the movement has been driven to take action by the neoliberal policies of the Putin regime, especially in health care and education.

The light bulb went on over my head. Wasn’t this the same scenario that played out in Libya? The pro-Qaddafi left was stuck in a time warp that viewed the dictator in the same light as the mid-80s, the head of an oil rentier state dispensing royalties to the masses in a paternalistically dictatorial fashion. When a movement broke out against Qaddafi, who had imposed neoliberal policies for the better part of 20 years, his defenders made the same kinds of arguments being made on Putin’s behalf today.

Just as I have done for Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi before him, I did a search in Nexis (access to which is one of my most valued benefits as a Columbia University retiree) for articles on Putin’s economic policies.

The first significant report of Putin’s intentions appeared in the N.Y. Times on April 2nd, 2000.

The victory of Vladimir V. Putin in the presidential election last Sunday has focused attention on an opulent Moscow building known as Aleksandr House, where a team of liberal-minded economists and other experts has been quietly drafting Mr. Putin’s blueprint for Russia.

German O. Gref, head of the Center for Strategic Research and master of Aleksandr House, confidently predicted this week that by late May Mr. Putin will be ready to release ”a breakthrough scenario envisaging the most radical reforms,” from an overhaul of Russia’s cumbersome tax code to a streamlining of its infamous bureaucracies.

With the exception of tax reform, the contents of the program are still vague and, on critical issues like land reform, still under debate. But the Aleksandr House team — which includes some of Russia’s best-known pro-market reformers — has already firmly established itself as the beachhead of liberal economics in the coming Putin administration.

Four years later, on March 16, 2004, Putin’s aims became clarified as the Guardian reported:

Despite the self-acclaimed miracle of Russia’s economic growth, most citizens still live in grinding poverty and a tenth can barely feed themselves. What little is known about Mr Putin’s domestic plans suggests he does not want to bridge this gap through a greater welfare state but through harsh market reforms.

Professor Oksana Gaman-Golutvina, of the Academy of State Service, said: “Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.”

Mr Putin will reduce VAT and the social security taxes companies pay for each employee, theoretically creating more jobs. Students will have to pay for more of their education, patients for more of their health care.

Rail fares and utility prices will rise astronomically as franchises are sold off.

Roland Nash, the chief strategist at the Renaissance Capital bank, said the reforms would “hit the average Ivan in the pocket”.

Hmmm. Obama is on record as admiring Ronald Reagan. I wonder if he has been studying Vladimir Putin’s presidency in light of this:

Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.

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