Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 7, 2014

Gayatri Spivak on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I have plans to get around to Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” at some point as well as Ranajit Guha’s “Dominance without Hegemony”, one of Chibber’s chief targets. In the meantime, I try to keep up with the scholarly commentary on Chibber’s book, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s blistering attack that appears in the April 2014 “Cambridge Review of International Affairs” that I read this morning. (Drop me a line if you want to read a copy.)

I doubt that I will ever read anything beyond Guha’s book in order to get a handle on subaltern studies. A big problem for non-specialists like myself is that the price of admission into these academic wars is almost prohibitive. Spivak’s review is shot through with references to figures in the postcolonial field that will certainly be unknown to the average reader. My interest in the debate, however, is probably somewhat narrower than others. In a nutshell, I am interested in exploring what the one negative review of Chibber’s book on amazon.com referred to:

I was excited about this book because I am very interested in postcolonial theory but was disappointed when I learned this book was not really about postcolonial theory at all but Subaltern Studies (which Chibber himself admits is not the same thing)…That’s useful for some purposes but does not fully address the deeper (or larger) issues postcolonial theory raises. Read this book if you’re interested in how capitalism developed in India. Beyond that, not sure if you’ll get much out of it.

That for me is the more interesting question—how capitalism developed in India. When I get around to dealing with Chibber, I plan to refer extensively to Jairus Banaji and Irfan Habib, Indian and Pakistani Marxists who have sharp differences with Robert Brenner, Chibber’s chief influence.

I am not sure how many of you are familiar with Gayatri Spivak but a word or two might be in order. She is a long-time faculty member at Columbia University, a Derrida specialist, and accused (somewhat unfairly) of writing in a dense academic style that is hard to understand, most particularly her “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf) that appeared in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s 1988 Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Despite the impression you might have that Spivak is a hardened subalternist, her article is a critique of the school, albeit within its general parameters.

The first part of my proposition — that the phased development of the subaltern is complicated by the imperialist project — is confronted by a collective of intellectuals who may be called the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group. They must ask, Can the subaltern speak? Here we are within Foucault’s own discipline of history and with people who acknowledge his influence.

She then proceeds to find fault with Foucault, including his failure to acknowledge the “epistemic violence of imperialism”.

Her review, however, represents a kind of reflexive defense of subaltern studies and Ranajit Guha in particular, toward whom she feels particularly protective.

Guha, a seasoned communist who paid the price of his political convictions over a brilliantly maverick career as a historian, created a revolution within the discipline. For Chibber to prove him ‘wrong’–especially as an Orientalist misreader of Europe who believes that the ‘non-West’ has a different psychology¾is somewhat like proving W.E.B. Du Bois ‘wrong’ when he calls the exodus of the newly emancipated slaves a ‘general strike’, like the repeated attempts by folks like Bernard Lewis to prove Edward Said ‘wrong’, even, and I do not want to be mischievous, a well-meaning smart sophomore’s attempt to show that in the Poetics Aristotle is ‘illogical’.

In assessing the contribution made by Spivak to the debate, I find her emphasis on Gramsci most useful. Keep in mind that Spivak did not coin the word “subaltern”. In fact, it was Gramsci who was responsible for introducing it into the Marxist lexicon as a way of describing those existing outside the dominant classes examined by Karl Marx in works such as Capital. Some scholars regard Gramsci’s use of the term as a ruse designed to fool the fascists into thinking that he was writing about the proletariat. I for one am convinced that Marcus Green got this question right in an article titled “Rethinking the subaltern and the question of censorship in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks”:

Through an examination of Gramsci’s use of the term ‘subaltern’ in the Prison Notebooks, I will demonstrate that he did not develop the phrase ‘subaltern social groups’ because of prison censorship, but in fact developed the concept of ‘subaltern social groups’ to identify and analyse the politics and activity of marginalized social groups in Italian history. In analyses of specific historical contexts, Gramsci refers to slaves, peasants, religious groups, women, different races, the popolani (common people) and popolo (people) of the medieval communes, the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie prior to the Risorgimento as subaltern groups.

Despite the massive footprint of Gramsci in Guha’s work and others operating within the subaltern studies school, Chibber tells his readers that this does not interest him:

Moreover, this book largely avoids the task of tracing the theoretical lineage of the Subalternists’ arguments. As a result, even though the influence of Gramsci and Althusser is evident to those familiar with the relevant literature, I do not analyze the nature of this connection. Nor do I assess how their ideas have been reconfigured at the hands of Subalternist theorists. Again, this is partly because of the need to keep the book to a manageable size (and it is already longer than I had either wished or intended), but primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist. What matters is not whether they are true to this or that theoretical tradition but whether they have produced sound arguments, and it Is that final product—their arguments as they stand—that we need to assess.

Spivak’s reaction to this is worth quoting at length:

Indeed, because Chibber is eager to prove that nothing that the subalternists acknowledged was more than ‘trend’-y, he dismisses Gramsci’s influence as a trend (6). When on page 27 he discloses, ‘I do not analyze the nature of [the Subalternists’] connection [to Gramsci] . . . primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist’, this reader is obliged to conclude—and not only because of this ‘correct’-fetishist gurumahashay’s [schoolmaster] demonstrated inability to be auto-critical—that he is not ‘familiar with the relevant literature’.

For then he would have known that Gramsci’s main contribution was not ‘popular history and matters of consciousness’ (6). (Gramsci’s concern anyway is not consciousness-raising but epistemology, education.) Gramsci’s main contribution was to notice that, precisely because Italy, with its tail tucked into Africa, is not France, Britain, Russia or the US, the Risorgimento did not sufficiently assimilate ‘class’ differences created outside of capital logic (basically the incentive to establish the same system of exchange everywhere). This is why the Subalternists chose the word ‘subaltern’. The existence of the subaltern is also evident in the Pan-Africanist WEB Du Bois’s writings, in such essays as ‘The Negro mind reaches out’, although, being a distant yea-sayer to Stalin (of whose purge techniques he was unaware, as opposed to the lynching techniques of the Southern bourgeoisie), Gramsci’s ‘enemy’, he did not know the word ‘subaltern’ (Du Bois 1968, 385 – 414). So, not not capitalist, but separated from full capital logic.

I thought the reference to Du Bois was quite telling. Excerpts from The Negro mind reaches out can be read at http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1114.htm. I found this passage most useful:

The attitude of the white laborer toward colored folk is largely a matter of long continued propaganda and gossip. The white laborers can read and write, but beyond this their education and experience are limited and they live in a world of color prejudice…Color hate easily assumes the form of a religion and the laborer becomes the blind executive of the decrees of the masters of the white world; he votes armies and navies for “punitive” expeditions; he sends his sons as soldiers and sailors; he composes the Negro-hating mob, demands Japanese exclusion and lynches untried prisoners. What hope is there that such a mass of dimly thinking and misled men will ever demand universal democracy for all men?

What Du Bois is describing is the “subaltern” status of Blacks in the Jim Crow south. Largely outside the industrial working class and existing in the netherworld between slavery and free labor, Blacks were basically debt peons who according to the stringent categories established by “political Marxism” were caught in some kind of “precapitalist” limbo. If capitalism is defined by market rather than political coercion, then one must conclude that the Deep South until fairly recently existed outside of capitalist property relations except for the coal mines, steel mills, garment factories that were reserved for white labor only.

The problem with “political Marxism” is that it generalizes the experience of 19th century British society and shoehorns all of the rest of the world into that model even if it does not fit. Ranajit Guha’s efforts were directed toward developing a historiography that corresponded to Indian realities after years of finding Eric Hobsbawm et al inadequate.

The problem is not just Eurocentrism, to refer to my old friend Jim Blaut’s writings, but more specifically Anglocentrism. Let me conclude with Spivak’s reference to what she calls Little Britain Marxism, and Chibber’s place within it:

In a 306-page book full of a repeated and generalized account of the British and French revolutions, and repeated cliches about how capitalism works, and repeated boyish moments of ‘I have disproved arguments 1, 2, 3, therefore Guha (or Chakrabarty, or yet Chatterjee) is wrong, and therefore subaltern studies is a plague and a seduction, and must be eradicated, although it will be hard because careers will be ruined, etc.’, there could have been some room for these references to describe the range, roots and ramifications of postcolonial studies, so that the book’s focused choice could have taken its place in Verso’s protective gestures towards the preservation of ‘Little Britain Marxism’, shared to some degree by the journal Race and Class. Aijaz Ahmad’s In theory (1992) was such an attempt. Postcolonial theory is the blunter instrument, and its attempt to disregard the range of postcolonial studies in order to situate subaltern studies—confined to three texts—as its representative can mislead students more effectively.

He misses out on Guha because Guha has been placed within an academic battle between what I keep calling Little Britain Marxism and located postcolonial historiographies, here confused with the metropolitan second-generation version, particularly in the US.

Quite plain-spoken, no?

April 5, 2014

Reed Elsevier sucks

Filed under: Academia,computers,Gay — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

Yesterday I spent three hours on the phone with Apple tech support to resolve a problem that had nothing to do with our Mac’s. Out of the blue my wife was unable to print certain PDF’s  around a month ago. Not only would they fail to print either on our Brother laser or Epson inkjet, all other PDF’s would fail to print following a failure even though they had been printable in the past. The first tech support person I dealt with advised reinstalling the operating system on my wife’s IMac, which I did to no avail. On the second call I spoke to a senior technician who worked with me for over an hour to pinpoint the problem. I have to give Apple credit for working with me so patiently. It cost $19 for their support, a reasonable fee given the amount of time they spent. Finally, we discovered that the unprintable PDF’s had this in common. They all originated from Reed Elsevier’s ScienceDirect website. Oddly enough, I was able to print them from my Macbook but my wife’s IMac spit them up. We left it this—as long as we had this workaround, there was no need to investigate any further.

Curious to see if anybody else was having a problem that both Apple and I agreed was exceedingly obscure, I googled “Reed Elsevier ScienceDirect printing problem” and came up with this:

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.41.30 AM

Now I have no idea if this is the same exact problem we ran into on my wife’s IMac but something tells me that the Reed Elsevier website is flakey, especially in light of the problems I have run into with the new release of Lexis-Nexis. This is the results set for a search on “Paul Buhle”, the radical historian.

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.46.54 AM

The default sort order is newest to oldest, right? So how come 2008 and 2003 are the years for the first two results in the list followed by those for 2014? When I spotted this bug, I contacted Elsevier who told me that they needed to look into the problem. That was about a year ago. Their fucking sort is still broken. If the programmers at Columbia University produced a software release that was this flawed, they would be fired. Plain and simple.

That’s not the end of it. If you do a Boolean search on “Paul Buhle” and “culture”, you get a results set of 75 articles. But if you do a simple search on “Paul Buhle” that returns 354 articles and then do a “search within” for articles that refer to “culture”, you get 96 articles. This of course does not make sense. They should be identical.

On top of all this, even if the software was not bug-laden, the new interface is horrible. An old friend from academia who was doing research in NY blew his stack working in LexisNexis while he was here. In the past you were able to specify all articles within a one-year, five-year, ten-year range just by checking a box. Now you have to enter the specific dates, which is a royal pain in the ass if you are looking for a bunch of different articles. He wondered if the academic version of LexisNexis that he and I use was deliberately sabotaged in order to drive users to pay for the premium version. I have a feeling that the premium version has the same interface. The only difference between the two is that the academic version has a site license.

Reed Elsevier is the result of a 1992 merger between Reed International, a British trade book and magazine publisher, and the Dutch science publisher Elsevier. You may be aware that Reed Elsevier is he target of a boycott by scientists as the NY Times reported on February 13, 2012:

More than 5,700 researchers have joined a boycott of Elsevier, a leading publisher of science journals, in a growing furor over open access to the fruits of scientific research.

The protest grew out of a provocative blog post (http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/) by the mathematician Timothy Gowers of Cambridge University, who announced on Jan. 21 that he would no longer publish papers in any of Elsevier’s journals or serve as a referee or editor for them.

Last week 34 mathematicians issued a statement denouncing “a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary.”

The signers included three Fields medalists — Dr. Gowers, Terence Tao and Wendelin Werner. The statement was also signed by Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, who then resigned as one of the unpaid editors in chief at the Elsevier journal Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis.

“We feel that the social compact is broken at present by some publishing houses, of which we feel Elsevier is the most extreme,” Dr. Daubechies said. “We feel they are now making much larger profits at a time when a lot of the load they used to take has been taken over by us.”

Long before the boycott, there were signs that academia was becoming fed up with Reed Elsevier. The NY Times reported on “Concerns About an Aggressive Publishing Giant” on December 29, 1997:

It must have been an extraordinary scene: on Dec. 1, the president of an important subsidiary of the world’s biggest publisher of academic and trade journals, the purveyor of what it likes to call ”must have” information, was politely but firmly told by an important client that ”must have” had become ”can’t afford,” and ”don’t need.”

Russell White, president of Elsevier Science Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier P.L.C., the British-Dutch giant, told a group of professors from Purdue University that the prices of the 350 on-line publications that now supplement the company’s entire list of 1,200 scientific and technical journals could be locked in for three years at an annual increase of 9.5 percent.

What he heard in response could not have pleased him.

Purdue was unwilling and fiscally incapable of absorbing anything close to that sort of rate rise, the professors told him. Moreover, they said, the quality of what they were getting was not worth the money.

Even before Mr. White’s visit, Purdue, which spends more than $1 million a year on Reed Elsevier journals, had canceled 88 of the 803 titles it once received. Among those axed: Brain Research (an annual subscription costs $14,919), Mutation Research ($7,378) and Tetrahedron With Tetrahedron: Asymmetry ($8,506).

”Reed Elsevier journals tend to be second- and third-tier publications, which range from the acceptable to the terrible,” said G. Marc Loudon, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue who attended the meeting. ”None are in the top tier in chemistry, biology and biochemistry, the fields I read in. If we lose Elsevier journals in those fields we will be O.K.

”Why do we want to buy garbage at a 9.5 percent price increase?” he asked.

Erik Engstrom is the CEO of Reed Elsevier. I can’t say that I am surprised to discover that he was formerly the President and Chief Operating Officer of Random House, the publishing house that gave me a royal screwing over the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar. Random House, it should be noted, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bertelsmann Group in Germany that infamously used Jewish slave labor during WWII.

The chairman of the Reed Elsevier board is one Anthony Habgood, who is also the chairman of Whitbread plc, a British hospitality and food corporation. His work on the Whitbread board must have recommended him to Reed Elsevier:

http://news.sky.com/story/1057059/horsemeat-whitbread-shares-slide-on-new-tests

Horsemeat: Whitbread Shares Slide On New Tests

A leading pub chain sees its share price slide after saying it would impose new tests on all its processed meat products. The Whitbread pub chain, which found horsemeat in its food products, sees its share price fall after announcing a new test regime.

At the close of trading on the FTSE 100, Whitbread’s share price was one of the biggest fallers, losing 3.67%.

The slide occurred after the group said it would impose the new testing regime on all processed meats provided by suppliers and introduce a new system of certification.

Chief executive Andy Harrison said: “We have been dismayed by the recent discovery of equine DNA in two of our restaurant products.

One hopes that when Whitbread embarks on a new testing regime that they are careful not to rely on the guidelines advised by Reed Elsevier science journals that Purdue regards as “garbage”.

Back in 2007 Reed Elsevier finally dropped out of the arms show business after many of its affiliates, especially Lancet, a medical journal that had led the way in detailing civilian casualties during the Iraq war, organized a campaign to bring this lucrative business to a halt. While Reed Elsevier spoke piously about respecting the sensibilities of its mainly academic clients, it is likely that concerns about its bottom line made the big difference just as is the case with Israel and the BDS. The Guardian reported on February 12, 2007:

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust said today it had sold its £2m stake in Reed Elsevier because of concerns the publishing giant is stepping up its involvement in arms fairs.

According to the charity two Reed subsidiaries, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, have continued to organise arms exhibitions despite the charity’s three-year campaign to make Reed sever ties to the arms trade.

It said the subsidiaries’ arms fairs included Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi), held every two years in London and organised in association with the Ministry of Defence.

Finally, this article would not be complete without mentioning the scandal that developed around a homophobic “study” that appeared in Social Science Research, a Reed Elsevier journal. A University of Texas sociologist published an article there that claimed that same-sex marriages were bad for children raised in such an environment.

The article was not properly peer reviewed (Regnerus’s colleagues participated) and was marked by serious methodological flaws as Debra Umberson, a colleague of Regnerus at U. of Texas revealed:

The recent study by my colleague Mark Regnerus on gay parenting purports to show that young adults with a parent who ever had a same-sex relationship turn out worse than young adults with continuously married heterosexual parents (who are, in addition, biologically related to their children). He calls this latter group the “gold standard for parenting.”

But in making this claim, he has violated the “gold standard for research.” Regnerus’ study is bad science. Among other errors, he made egregious yet strategic decisions in selecting particular groups for comparison.

His definition of children raised by lesbian mothers and gay fathers is incredibly broad — anyone whose biological or adopted mother or father had a same-sex relationship that the respondent knew about by age 18. Most of these respondents did not even live with their parent’s same-sex partner; in fact, many did not even live with their gay or lesbian parent at all! Of the 175 adult children Regnerus claims were raised by “lesbian mothers,” only 40 actually lived with their mother and her same-sex partner for at least three years.

Regnerus was recruited to put together this study by an outfit called the Witherspoon Institute that paid him $785,000 for his bogus research. Witherspoon is a rightwing think-tank funded by all the usual suspects: the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, et al. One William Bradford Wilcox, a conservative sociologist at the U. of Virginia who was hired to do the statistical research, is an editorial board member of Social Science Research. Surprise, surprise.

Darren Sherkat, nother board member of Social Science Research, was asked to conduct an audit of the Regnerus “study”. The New Civil Rights Movement, a gay rights website, reported on Sherkat’s findings:

In his audit, Sherkat explains the role that parent company Reed Elsevier played in pushing greed to predominate over ethical science publishing in the Regnerus scandal.

The Regnerus publishing scandal actually is much broader than just the Regnerus and Marks papers. Three Regnerus study commentaries published alongside the Regnerus and Marks papers were done by three persons without same-sex-parenting science expertise, and with conflicts of interest in commenting on the study. Those three are 1) UT’s Dr. Cynthia Osborne, Regnerus’s co-researcher on the “study;” 2) Dr. Paul Amato, a paid Regnerus study consultant; and 3) David Eggebeen, a Witherspoon bigot crony who supports the continuation of sexual orientation apartheid.

Here is part of Sherkat’s explanation of how Reed Elsevier greed is driving the publication and promotions of the wide-scaled anti-gay Regnerus scandal:

“Controversy over sexuality sells and in only a week after publication these papers have already skyrocketed to the most downloaded papers published in Social Science Research.” (Bolding added). “But neither paper should have been published, in my opinion. Undoubtedly, any researcher doing work on same-sex parenting will now have to address the Regnerus paper, and these citations will inflate the all-important “impact factor” of the journal. It is easy to get caught up in the empirical measures of journal success, and I believe this overcame Wright in driving his decision to rush these into print. The fetishism of the journal impact factors comes from the top down, and all major publishers prod editors about the current state of their impact factor. Elsevier is particularly attentive to this and frequently inquires about what Wright is doing to improve the already admirable impact factor of Social Science Research. As social scientists, popularity should not be the end we seek, and rigorous independent evaluation of these manuscripts would have made Social Science Research a less popular but better journal.” (Bolding added).

In his CYA “audit,” Sherkat further wrote:

“once they were accepted there was an unseemly rush to publication.” He continues: “that was justified based on the attention that these studies would generate. The published responses were milquetoast critiques by scholars with ties to Regnerus and/or the Witherspoon Institute, and Elsevier assisted with the politicization by helping to publicize the study and by placing these papers in front of the pay wall.” (Bolding added).

So you have to wonder. Did Aaron Swartz die in vain? If this is the kind of junk behind the JSTOR paywall, maybe we are better off just dumping these journals. Or finding a way for scholars to share information without corporate pigs who organize arms shows and sell horsemeat getting into the act? Open Access journals have their problems as well, but at least they are not tainted by the almighty buck. Whatever solutions lie in store, let’s hope that Reed Elsevier is excluded since everything about them sucks.

February 1, 2014

The Hannah Arendt industry

Filed under: Academia,imperialism/globalization,liberalism — louisproyect @ 9:53 pm

Hannah Arendt

During the discussion period following the screening of Margarethe Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” at the New School for Social Research, I took the mike to explain why Arendt’s theories were inadequate to explain genocide. If war crimes, up to and including ethnic cleansing or extermination, were spawned by totalitarianism, what do we make of Thomas Jefferson’s statement that if the American Indians got in the way of nation-building, they should be exterminated? For that matter, what does it say about the New School that its former President—Bob Kerrey—was a war criminal in Vietnam? (Around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey and his men killed at least 13 unarmed women and children.) At this point, Von Trotta and Jerome Kuhn—the head of the New School’s Hannah Arendt Center—began fidgeting in their seats and wearing frowns. Who was this asshole ruining their lovefest? But when I stated that if the USA ever lost a war the way that Hitler did, maybe the Samantha Powers of our world would find themselves in the defendant’s seat just like Eichmann, that was too much for them. They both started speaking over me at once. I caught Von Trotta saying that “this has nothing to do with my film” but of course it absolutely did.

Before the audience was allowed to offer comments, Kuhn spent a good fifteen minutes stroking the egos of the director, her leading actress Barbara Sukowa, and the screenwriter, one Pamela Katz. Von Trotta’s film has become part of a touring dog-and-pony show meant to convince audiences that Hannah Arendt is “one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century”, as the New School website puts it.

Although I had high regard for Von Trotta’s film, especially for its fairly accurate portrayal of Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt), who was my professor at Bard College as an undergrad, and Hans Jonas, her long-time friend and an ardent Zionist who was also my professor at the New School philosophy department, I was put off by her reply to a question posed by Kuhn as to why she made the film. She said that when she was younger and part of the German radical movement, it was understandable why she would make a film about Rosa Luxemburg but after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was Hannah Arendt who had much more to say about the state of the world—especially knowing what was really happening in the East.

Von Trotta, like the French ex-Maoists, apparently had a Damascene conversion somewhere along the line. I don’t know whose decision it was to include Samantha Power on this daylong celebration of the 80th anniversary of the New School University in Exile or whether in fact it was linked to the film screening, but I strongly suspect that the two events were linked—at least implicitly. Power was speaking at 8pm on “Protecting Scholars and the Right to Free Inquiry”, along with George Rupp, who was my boss at Columbia University before Lee Bollinger replaced him, and Jonathan Fanton, former chair of Human Rights Watch and former president of The New School.

Anybody who has been following Samantha Power’s sordid career would know that she styles herself as a latter-day Hannah Arendt. She wrote the introduction to the latest edition of “Origins of Totalitarianism” and a self-serving April 29, 2004 NY Review article that recruited the dead philosopher for two of Power’s “humanitarian intervention” crusades—the one that took place in Kosovo and one that she wished had taken place in Rwanda.

The article also likens Hamas to “totalitarian movements” like the Nazis, an Orwellian exercise that staggers the imagination. Gerald Kaufman, a British Labor MP and a long-time Zionist, was far more accurate when he stated:

The spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians. The total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that ’500 of them were militants’. That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.

While Power did not bring up the subject of Iraq in her NY Review article, it is worth mentioning what she thought of the invasion of Iraq during the halcyon days when Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were trumpeting the victory of democracy in the Middle East. This is from a profile on Power in the April 14, 2003 LA Times that coincided with the publication of her “The Problem From Hell”:

“That’s what’s so great about the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now we can actually put our money and power where our might has been so far. We can demonstrate what we have claimed all along, that this war is about them,” she said, referring to the Iraqi people.

“The hard work is just beginning, in Iraq and also in restoring U.S. credibility as a global actor. I hope the book provides the spirit in which that can be done.”

Did it ever occur to Power that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, unjust and immoral? How does someone putting herself forward as a moral exemplar end up sounding like a White House operative? I guess that Pecksniffian declarations of moral responsibility are a smart career move especially if it goes hand-in-hand with a lust for bombing the impudent natives.

To cover its expenses, the Hannah Arendt Center at the New School relies on generous contributions from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As anybody familiar with American history can tell you, the academy has been nourished from the beginning by the blood of slaves and working people. Leland Stanford was a robber baron, as was Andrew Carnegie. Andrew W. Mellon’s father was financier to the Carnegie steel company and sonny boy took over the Mellon banks after he died. As Secretary of the Treasury, he advised Hoover to “liquidate labor…liquidate farmers…it will drain the rottenness out of the system” at the very time he was cheating on his income taxes and urging a cut in rates for the 1920s version of the one percent. As Balzac said in the epigraph to “Pere Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. The Andrew W. Mellon foundation understands why it is important to fund the Hannah Arendt Center since in a period beginning to approximate the Great Depression in terms of longevity, our current economic crisis is causing young people to question the capitalist system. Who better to warn them against “going too far” than a Hannah Arendt, an icon of the Cold War alongside Albert Camus? At least if that version of Hannah Arendt remains unchallenged.

It makes sense that Bard College would have its own Hannah Arendt Center since the president of the college is also committed to the bulldozer expansionism under a humanist camouflage of its New School colleagues. Using millions from currency speculator George Soros’s deep pockets instead of the Mellon fortune, it promotes Arendt’s reputation near and far and allows its director Roger Berkowitz to pontificate on a full-time basis. In a remarkable essay titled “Assassinating Justly: Reflections on Justice and Revenge in the Osama Bin Laden Killing”, Berkowitz claims that “few today question the United States’ right to kill – or at least severely punish – Osama bin Laden” and that it was “wrong for human rights activists to critique the raid as being unjustified”. Really? What would then prevent some Pakistanis from forming a death squad and coming to Washington to wreak vengeance for the 330 drone strikes that have left over 2000 people dead? Of course, this would be considered an act of savagery since it is the USA that is hegemonic rather than Pakistan.

As a member of the National Security Council, Samantha Power took part in deliberations that led to the deaths of these Pakistanis. Why is this considered ethical behavior and that of the Taliban or Hamas unethical? Clearly, we are dealing with a double standard. If there truly were international law, Obama and his underlings would be serving long prison terms for crimes against humanity. And maybe there would be shorter jail terms for their intellectual prostitutes like Roger Berkowitz. (I suppose I should find another word besides prostitute since that after all is an honorable profession by comparison.)

I am not the only person who has figured out what the Hannah Arendt industry is up to. There’s an article by Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin titled “Dragon Slayers” that appeared in the January 4, 2007 London Review of Books that is excellent. (It is behind a paywall but I will be happy to send you a copy on request.)

The article is based on reviews of these three books:

  • Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
  • Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

Robin takes exception to Young-Bruehl’s attempt to put radical Islam and the Bush White House on the same plane: “the Republican and Islamist push to submit the private sphere to public scrutiny”, etc. As opposed to such an abstraction, he points out that jihadists are fueled by anger over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

Although it is not mentioned in the review, Young-Bruehl has targeted the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela as inimical to human freedom. I wrote about her trip there back in 2007 and noted that she held a meeting with the students at Simon Bolivar University where she had “an intense conversation about why Hannah Arendt had distrusted revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice without first achieving a stable, constitutional republic.” Yes, that’s what we need to do—distrust revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice, especially since it might piss off the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and George Soros.

This pretty much sums up Robin’s approach:

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the centenary of Arendt’s birth should have devolved into a recitation of the familiar. Once a week, it seems, some pundit will trot out her theory of totalitarianism, dutifully extending it, as her followers did during the Cold War, to America’s enemies: al-Qaida, Saddam, Iran. Arendt’s academic chorus continues to swell, sounding the most elusive notes of her least political texts while ignoring her prescient remarks about Zionism and imperialism. Academic careers are built on interpretations of her work, and careerism, as Arendt noted in her book on Eichmann, is seldom conducive to thinking.

Robin’s reference to the “academic chorus” and “careerism” hit home. Although I never met Hannah Arendt, I got to know her husband Heinrich Blucher and her close friend Hans Jonas fairly well. What you can say about them all is that they stood on their principles. Try as hard as I may, I could not see any of them running a Hannah Arendt Center dedicated to building a cult around a dead philosopher. They were far too thorny in their beliefs to become a cog in the academic bureaucracy.

I guess in some ways it was what I learned from Blucher and Jonas that made me into the person I am today. Although Blucher renounced the Marxism of his youth, he asked me to read and write about Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” in 1963. It was the first time I read a thinker who had been likened to Adolph Hitler during the depths of the Cold War. I also value the education I got from Hans Jonas who would go on to become a foundational thinker for the German Green Movement through essays like “The Outcry of Mute Things” that ends:

The latest revelation—from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the Sermon, from no Bo (tree of Buddha)—is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.

Those are the values I live by, no matter the use that some people try to make of the generation of German exiles who deserve better than being turned into philosophers of the predator drones.

December 26, 2013

The Cutting Edge

Filed under: Academia,humor — louisproyect @ 1:59 pm

The Cutting Edge is a satirical novel written by George Snedeker who uses the pen name of David Lansky. He can be reached by email at george.snedeker@verizon.net Here is some information about his novel:

 ‘The Cutting Edge’ is a depiction of the situation of public higher education in the early 21st Century United States

 The College where Sociology Professor Fred Snyder taught until his untimely death at the hands of an emotionally disturbed student is called Old Windsor and is located on Long Island. Snyder taught sociology for over 20 years, and he was loved by students who had the opportunity to study with him. There is even a memorial scholarship in his name for students who have shown a commitment to the cause of social justice.

“The Cutting Edge” a satirical novel in two parts written by author David Lansky presents a clear-sighted critique of the current state of academia. The first manuscript in the novel is set in a SUNY campus, diary entries that may or may not have been written by a student named Jenny Delight and   a second manuscript that presents the memoir of the childhood of Fred Snyder whose tragic death made national news headlines. No one is quite sure who Jenny is. It is an obvious pseudonym since no student by this name has ever attended Old Windsor. Jenny’s diary entries are hilarious, laced with social and personal insight as she tries to understand the world around her, often using categories she is learning, sometimes the most abstract categories available, and she infuses them with vivid meaning.

The second section of the novel, Bill of Sale, is the posthumously-discovered manuscript of Sociology Professor Fred Snyder. It is a harrowing account of very vulnerable people who are critical of their society. It is a section revealing, with extraordinary power, the ruthlessness of contemporary capitalism and its relentless destructive force.

A satirical novel that presents a depiction of life in the United States with a good dose of humor, it depicts the situation of public higher education in the early 21st Century United States. “The Cutting Edge” displays powerful imagination, rollicking humor, profound insight and deep political commitment that readers will surely appreciate.

For more information on this book, interested parties may log on to www.Xlibris.com.

 

The Cutting Edge  by David Lansky

Publication Date: November 25, 2013

Trade Paperback; $19.99; 200 pages; 978-1-4931-2127-4

e-book; $3.99; 978-1-4931-2128-1

To request a complimentary paperback review copy, contact the publisher at (888) 795-4274 x. 7879.  To purchase copies of the book for resale, please fax Xlibris at (812) 355-4079 or call (888) 795-4274 x. 7879.

 

For more information, contact Xlibris at (888) 795-4274 or on the web at http://www.Xlibris.com.

 

The Cutting Edge can also be purchased at Amazon and most other online book stores.

 

 

PREFACE

By Jenny Delight

  What follows here are a series of essays I wrote while attending the SUNY/College at Old Windsor from 2006-10. They are an attempt to report on some of the most important events that took place at Old Windsor while I was a student there. I also discuss some of the major issues that came before the Student Life Committee while I served on it as a student representative. I try to shed some light on my own development as a student and responsible member of society.

I tell my story along with the stories of several of my closest friends with the humor they merit. I’ve incorporated some of my friends and professors into the story of college life. There are also several members of my extended family who find their way into this story. I’ve changed people’s names to avoid lawsuits and to protect the innocent. Some of the details in my story have also been altered so people won’t be pissed off at me should this book fall into their hands. I’ve undertaken this task of reporting with both a sense of humor and the kind of seriousness it deserves. I’m not a professional writer, but I think the quality of my writing improved while I was a student at Old Windsor, largely due to the help of my professors and the tutors at the Writing Center.

I’ve also attempted to report on some of the members of the Old Windsor administration as they influenced the lives of us students, especially in the judicial hearings that students are subject to when they get into trouble for violating any of the rules and regulations of the college. I hope I’ve not been unfair to anyone in these pages.

 

 

November 11, 2013

At Berkeley; Birth of the Living Dead

Filed under: Academia,Film — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

Although his name is virtually synonymous with cinéma vérité, Frederick Wiseman disavows the notion that he adopts the perspective of the impartial “fly on the wall”:

All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical … aspect of it is that you have to … try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. … My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they’re a fair account of the experience I’ve had in making the movie. (from Wikipedia)

I saw “Titicut Follies” in 1967, the first documentary Wiseman ever made at the age of 37. Now 83, the director came to filmmaking relatively late in life, having started out as a lawyer. The film was an indictment of the treatment of inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital for “the criminally insane” that allowed the doctors to be hoisted on their own petard through their callous treatment of their wards. Viewed as the ultimate dregs of society, the patients were the Guantanamo prisoners of their day, putting up with forced feedings and the like. You can watch the full film on Youtube:

There was little doubt about Wiseman’s intentions, which dovetailed with the goal of Michel Foucault’s “Madness and Civilization”, namely to view the asylum as an repressive institution no matter the lofty ideals associated with those who administer them.

“At Berkeley”, his 41st film now playing at the IFC and at Lincoln Center in New York, took me my surprise. With lingering memories of the anti-authoritarianism of “Titicut Follies”, “High School”, “Basic Training”, and “Welfare”, I came to it with expectations that it would expose the iron fist of authoritarianism that was concealed in the velvet glove of this elite university’s PR machinery. I was shocked to discover that the film was practically indistinguishable from that very machinery, focused on justifying administration resistance to student protests against a fee hike.

Frederic Wiseman

Before addressing the film’s editorial slant, it would be useful to identify some of the formal techniques that serve as the film’s substructure. They have been used consistently throughout Wiseman’s career and have become as stylized as Kabuki.

1. Long takes captured on a static camera:

I had forgotten how defiant Wiseman is of conventional expectations when the initial scene in “At Berkeley” timed in at what seemed like an eternity—a meeting of administration officers discussing how to balance the needs of a prestigious university against fiscal realities. I suppose it might have seemed like an eternity to me since the principals took 100 words when 10 would have been sufficient, not to speak of the self-congratulatory tone of officers who look at the university in the same way that Mark Zuckerberg might look at Facebook—a corporate fiefdom.

2. Intermezzi that connect one long take to another:

In between each scene, you spot campus workers mowing lawns, sweeping a stairwell, or pouring cement; students walking to class, etc. All this is calculated to remind you that not everything takes place in a faculty lounge. It is telling that Wiseman never includes a single scene of buildings and grounds people eating lunch with each other, discussing the impacts of one staff cutback after another.

3. A stubborn refusal to identify speakers:

Except for Robert Reich lecturing on organizational behavior (a quite lively episode), you will not recognize a single figure who plays a leading role in the film as well as Berkeley’s ongoing fiscal crisis. It becomes quite maddening when you want to know who it is that badmouths the students for not being as serious about their goals as he was when he protested the Vietnam War. I was determined to find the jerk’s email address and send him some feedback but did not know where to start.

At 244 minutes, “At Berkeley” is often slow-going, especially in the moments when deans, provosts, et al are discussing how to conduct a balancing act between running a university and keeping the finances from bleeding red ink. There are classroom scenes that will remind you why Berkeley has such a prestigious brand name. One professor does a close reading of Thoreau’s “Walden” that might inspire you, as it did me, to reread the classic. Another lectures about how time is perceived in terms both philosophical and scientific, leaving some doubt whether it is a philosophy or a physics class, thus adding to its allure. But all in all this is mostly about human beings not doing much of anything except talking.

The drama arrives after two hours when the university begins developing contingency plans to deal with a threatened student strike, all from the perspective of the “realistic” and “mature” administration officials. You see students marching, chanting, sitting in, and giving speeches (but only briefly) but never discussing their goals from within their ranks. When they finally occupy the campus library, Wiseman introduces intermezzi of students sunbathing or throwing Frisbees as if to say that the “radicals” were isolated. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve made 40 films and been lionized as a genius in the film industry. It goes to your head. It is called the Charlie Rose guest syndrome.

Some people, including me, would have seen this immediately, even the New York Times although unconsciously:

Mr. Wiseman has made his share of grim documentaries in which people are processed and oppressed by bureaucracy. “At Berkeley” is not one. Its cautiously upbeat attitude is expressed in a director’s note: “I think it is just as important for a filmmaker to show people of intelligence, character, tolerance and good will, hard at work, as it is to make movies about the failures, insensitivities and cruelties of others.” Amen.

For those who still believe that the term “processed and oppressed by bureaucracy” still apply to Berkeley, I strongly recommend a look at Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley,” or, Seeing Like an Administration at the Reclaim UC blog.

One last consequence of Wiseman’s documentary technique, at least for our purposes here, has to do with what we could call a structural asymmetry of context. Nearly every reviewer remarks on a scene in a meeting among top-level university executives in which Chancellor Birgeneau details ongoing budget cuts, to the point that the state, which once provided 40-50 percent of the UC budget, now provides just 16 percent. These data act as a sort of mini-history of the institution, usefully framing the film as a study of the public university in crisis and locating it at the end of a long trajectory of what Birgeneau calls a “progressive disinvestment in higher education in the state of California.” It is a true, though partial story, one that students and workers have spent a lot of time and energy trying to correct. But what we want to highlight here is the differential between the administration on one hand and the protesters on the other. Because Wiseman spends so much time with administrators and especially with the chancellor, he affords them the chance to frame their own story. In this way, their actions are not only contextualized but through that context rendered reasonable.

In contrast, the protest—dismissed by administrators, ridiculed by director and reviewers alike—has no context. It appears out of nowhere, disconnected from everything that preceded it, further compounding the reviewers’ view of its “fragmented” and “disorganized” character. Although Wiseman appears to treat administrators and protesters on more or less the same formal plane, here the asymmetry is revealed. The chancellor constructs the administration’s present through a narration of its past. The protesters, on the other hand, lack the same position from which to narrate their own history. In part this is due to the difference between the univocal and stabile character of the administration, an institution defined by (and for that matter funded on the basis of) its continuity, and the polyphonic character of a protest movement, defined by multiplicity and change over time. But it also has to do with the film’s attachment to the chancellor and by extension to the administration. It leaves no place from which to tell the recent history of struggle at UC.

All this leaves me an a quandary over whether to rate this documentary as “fresh” or “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes. In the final hour or so, I became so fed up with the university’s officialdom that I wanted to scream at my television. It is “rotten” in the sense that it is based on a lie; it is “fresh” in that it is compelling cinema even if too “talky”. At the age of 83, Wiseman may be in the twilight of a long and distinguished career. So on that footing alone, his latest is to be recommended. Fortunately we have many young filmmakers who are stepping forward to keep his original vision going, the sort of people I try to bring your attention to on a regular basis. People like Rob Kuhns, the director of “Birth of the Living Dead” also playing at the IFC in New York.

Rob Kuhns, who has directed a couple of episodes on Bill Moyers’s hard-hitting PBS show, has made a full-length documentary encapsulating a point of view that many veterans of the 1960s, including me, have long held—namely that George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” was as much a product of its time as “Titicut Follies” or “Easy Rider”.

Leaving aside the politics for a minute, the film also has to be recognized as having invented a genre that is universal today, from “28 Days” to television’s “Walking Dead”. Before Romero’s film, the zombie was featured in movies set in Haiti or some other Caribbean Island far removed from reality. It was Romero’s breakthrough to make the film unrelentingly realistic, including scenes of zombies eating entrails or lurching toward their prey in that characteristic gait.

Now 73, Romero got his start making commercials in the Pittsburgh area. Even then he was willing to push the envelope, making the first beer commercial actually showing people guzzling down a drink. When he worked on a film that showed Mr. Rogers, the benign host of a PBS children’s show, getting ready for a tonsillectomy, he was inspired to do a zombie movie since Mr. Rogers’s procedure struck him as gruesome rather than reassuring. Before going down that road, Romero considered doing an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring”. Fortunately, he saw that as unmarketable and moved onto a more feasible project that would make his mark as a director.

Romero is the star of the film, a likeably self-effacing and witty figure. He talks about how the film was cast, drawing from local personalities including many of the clients of his advertising agency who worked for free and had a blast doing so.

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as the sheriff in “Walking Dead” but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre.

Also, unlike the traditional zombie movie set in Haiti, Romero made a movie about a society in advanced disintegration fully aware that it reflected what was happening in the streets of Newark or Detroit.

Using zombie attacks as a metaphor throughout his career, Romero’s most powerful film in my view was the 2005 “Land of the Dead”, about which I wrote:

As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” succeeds wildly. Romero, who has three previous zombie movies to his credit, uses the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America.

The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.

“Land of the Dead” can be seen on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it already, grab it.

UCLA racism

Filed under: Academia,african-american — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

September 6, 2013

Dear As’ad AbuKhalil

Filed under: Academia,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

As’ad AbuKhalil, aka “The Angry Arab”

Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil,

I was rather startled to see a link to my blog from your Angry Arab website:

http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2013/09/trotskyist-groupies-of-syrian-rebels.html

Thursday, September 05, 2013
Trotskyist groupies of the Syrian rebels
“although I have to chuckle about the idea of “rebel brutality” posing a problem to “the West”.” (thanks Ajit)

To start with, I am not a Trotskyist. I stopped being one 34 years ago. I can imagine why you called me a Trotskyist since this goes hand in hand with the sloppy, superficial, twitter-like postings on your blog that are your attempts to be witty. I think I last saw you on the Bill Maher show about 10 years ago. I never dreamed back then that you would become as obsessed about jihadists as him.

I’d love to see an extended analysis from you on what is going on in Syria but have gotten used to the idea that you have some kind of adult attention deficit disorder that prevents you from writing more than a sentence or two. They have medication for that, you know. I’d also recommend a razor for your shoulder-length hair, btw. You are not 25 any more.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

May 12, 2013

Final thoughts on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

In the film Avengers there is a scene where the villan [sic], Loki, faces the Hulk and does not come out well in the encounter. In irritation he puffs up his chest and shouts, “Enough! I am a God!” Hulk picks up Loki by his feet and smashes him all over the place like a rag doll and leaves him lying helpless in a pile of rubble and sniffs, “Puny God!” Vivek Chibber does a Hulk on the Subaltern School (SS).

From Joseph’s review of “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” on amazon.com

* * * *

Plus, postcolonial theory now has at least two generations of academics who have staked their entire careers on it; they have half a dozen journals dedicated to it; there’s an army of graduate students pursuing research agendas that come out of it. Their material interests are tied up directly with the theory’s success.

You can criticize it all you want, but until we get the kind of movements that buoyed Marxism in the early years after World War I, or in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you won’t see a change.

From Vivek Chibber interview in Jacobin magazine

* * * *

Adolfo Gilly is the author of the most famous book on the Mexican revolution from a Marxist perspective. Formerly a member of the Trotskyist PRT, he is now a well-known member of the PRD.

From the author’s page of International Viewpoint, a semiofficial journal of the Fourth International.

* * * *

I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.

Adolfo Gilly in the New Left Review, July-August 2010

When it was Partha Chatterjee’s turn to speak in the debate with Vivek Chibber, I fully expected him to start off with something like “Where Marx went wrong…” After all, if you had read Chibber’s interview in Jacobin, you would have been led to believe that you were dealing with an organized intellectual tendency as hostile to Marxism as Lyotard, Foucault, or Baudrillard. This is not to speak of Edward Said, one of the founding fathers of postcolonialism whose attack on Marx’s India articles must have rankled Marxist purists like Chibber even as they might have paid grudging respect to his literary scholarship as well as the stones hurled at Israeli border guards.

Instead Chatterjee outdid Chibber with a Marxist purism calculated to make Chibber look like an utter piker by comparison, including a jibe that his critic appeared committed to Rawlsian contract theory, a charge to which Chibber plead guilty.

This gets to the heart of the problem with the debate. It was conducted on such an abstract level that it was almost like listening to two men arguing about ethics. If it had instead take up one of the Chatterjee articles grounded in Indian history that Chibber took exception to, it would have been more concrete. I suppose that I could read the 35 page “The Colonial State and Peasant Resistance in Bengal 1920-1947” and Chibber’s critique of the article to make sense of their differences, but life is too short and other projects more compelling.

Even more contrary to expectations is Subaltern Studies founder Ranajit Guha’s statement as to his major influences. Given the supposedly postmodernist drift of this intellectual current, it might come as a surprise to discover that he was “inspired by Charu Mazumdar”, the foremost intellectual and political leader of the Naxalite movement.

In order to get a fix on the combatants in this monumental Loki versus Hulk type struggle, I decided to look into the question of the “subaltern”. My only exposure to the term was Gayatri Spivak’s headache-inducing essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, a title appropriated ironically in the Jacobin interview with Chibber: “How does the Subaltern Speak?”. I had never given it much thought but I always assumed that Spivak coined the term subaltern.

As it turns out, we can blame Gramsci, who used it as a kind of synonym for working class in the Prison Notebooks in order to trick the guards who might have been primed to beat him up if he used a forbidden word. Subaltern, it should be pointed out, simply meant a junior officer in the military. Gramsci wrote: “The subaltern classes by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a ‘State’: their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of States and groups of States.”

Ranajit Guha adopted the term subaltern to apply to his version of “history from below”, an attempt to do for India what E.P. Thompson did for Britain—a connection made by Adolfo Gilly above. Now I can’t deny that Gayatri Spivak’s work is suffused with Derrida’s poststructuralism but until persuaded otherwise it would appear to me that the original impetus for Subaltern Studies was to tell the story of India’s 99 percent.

Whether or not the theoretical baggage that went along with Subaltern Studies passed Chibber’s smell test is another story altogether. Guha insists that the Indian subaltern classes were never part of the cross-class coalition that typified European bourgeois revolutions and as such the rulers never enjoyed the same kind of hegemony that made a nation like Britain or France relatively stable. If, of course, you make Chibber’s “political Marxism” some kind of litmus test based on the bourgeois revolution never having taken place, many others with orthodox Marxist pedigrees—like Neil Davidson—might not pass the smell test either. Will the Hulk feel the need to pick Davidson up and smash him all over the place like a rag doll as well?

Speaking of smashing people, I want to take this opportunity to apologize to Dr. Chibber for stating that he would regret it if he ever spoke over me at another conference. I was in a blind rage when I wrote those words, but never intended to use violence against him or any other person for that matter who I have a run-in with. There was no excuse for me to use those words and am deeply sorry for any anxiety it might have provoked in him, not that he had any worries about a 68-year-old man with failing eyesight posing any danger to begin with.

Getting back to Gramsci, it might of course prompt some readers who have read their Perry Anderson to say “Aha, there’s proof of your breach with Marxism” since the academic left’s turn to Gramsci was proof that you had broken with ortho-Marxism and strayed into the netherworld of cultural studies.

Speaking of which, I got a chuckle out of Uday Chandra’s observation on Facebook that “Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner, Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial studies.” Does anybody in their right mind think that Perry Anderson is in any position nowadays to define who is qualified to assume the mantle that he and Brenner have worn? In 2000 Perry Anderson signaled the new direction New Left Review would take under his stewardship in an infamous article that told his readers where the real action was taking place:

By contrast, commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after another–Fukuyama, Brzezinski, Huntington, Yergin, Luttwak, Friedman. These are writers that unite a single powerful thesis with a fluent popular style, designed not for an academic readership but a broad international public. This confident genre, of which America has so far a virtual monopoly, finds no equivalent on the left.

This prompted Boris Kagarlitsky to write an article in the British SWP’s International Socialism journal titled “The Suicide of New Left Review” that stated:

Perry Anderson, a sophisticated British gentleman, sits in his cosy office at 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse of the left project. He has enough intellectual honesty not to repudiate his radical past or the ideals of his youth, but he is impassive enough not to lament their collapse. Despite Anderson’s readiness to bury the left project of the 1960s, and along with it the first series NLR, his foreword contains not a paragraph or even a sentence devoted to political self criticism. Everything was fine–both when Perry, together with other young radicals, tried to revolutionise social thinking and political life in Britain, and now, when he no longer proposes to overturn anything whatever. And what, in reality, has happened? What particular suffering has beset these people? Have Western intellectuals really lost anything, apart from their principles? No one has been thrown in prison or put in front of a firing squad. Their homes have not been blown up, nor their cities bombed.

Furthermore, as long as Vivek Chibber is determined to identify scratches that might lead to gangrene in the academic left, he might also consider what Robert Brenner had to say about the John Kerry candidacy in 2004:

Our call for a vote for the Democratic Party — while continuing to put the main political emphasis on building the social movements and simultaneously exposing the Democrats as politically reactionary and anathema to the social movements — is an application of an aspect of the united front method, sometimes called “critical support.”

If “political Marxism” is supposed to be some kind of condom to protect you against all sorts of germs—from Subaltern Studies to Paul Sweezy type analysis of the origins of capitalism—we can only conclude that Robert Brenner sprung a leak.

Finally, I have a few words to say about Marxism and academia. While I am not a professor, even though I get to act like one on the Internet after the fashion of Irwin Corey, I have a pretty good handle on what goes on there after having been a Columbia University employee for 21 years. During that time, I was privy to the goings on in both the sociology and Mideast Studies departments from friends who taught there. Additionally, my wife is a tenure-track professor at a N.Y. four-year college and I get a pretty good idea of what is going on her department in much the same way she used to get an earful each night about what I used to see in Columbia University’s IT department.

Seven years ago Chibber was obviously getting ready to start writing or had already begun work on his book, based on the article “On The Decline Of Class Analysis In South Asian Studies” that appeared in Critical Asian Studies. It is mostly an attack on what he refers to as PSPC, shorthand for Poststructuralism/Postcolonialism, and more specifically the dreaded Subaltern Studies.

His analysis is reminiscent of what Perry Anderson wrote in “Considerations on Western Marxism” and “In The Tracks of Historical Materialism”. If Anderson was keen on demonstrating that cultural studies, vaporous philosophizing, and postmodernist cant were tied to the decline of the organized left, Chibber reminds us that the problem still exists:

By the end of the decade [of the seventies], however, while the movements around nonclass identities had scored impressive gains, there was no comparable advance for the working class. Indeed, the balance of class power shifted powerfully to the right, and by the onset of the Reagan era, a full-scale assault on labor and the Left was underway. As a class movement, the New Left had met with a crushing defeat.

In some respects, this mirrored the defeats of the working class movement worldwide in the 1930s, which was followed by rightward shift in political culture. But the setbacks of the New Left during the 1970s were in many respects deeper. For the upsurges of the first quarter of the twentieth century had left in their wake a panoply of socialist parties and class organizations, which provided the milieu in which radical intellectuals survived for much of the century.

What’s more, the students entering the university system following the great retreat were not made of the right stuff, as Chibber complains:

By the middle of the 1980s, the New Left had mostly been domesticated into academic culture. Class analysis was practiced only within a small slice of it, and this was an increasingly marginal component of the academic mainstream. If a pressure for the deepening of class analysis was to come, it would have had to be from below — the students. But here too, there was no reason to expect any such development. For students, a college education is a means of social mobility. Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature. For those students who make it into college, the mere fact of social advancement serves to confirm central elements of the dominant ideology, which insists on the fluidity of social hierarchies, and the absence of structural constraints. The mere fact of more working class students entering higher education — as they did after the 1950s — would not generate a mass base for socialist ideas.

I get a chuckle out of this: “Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature.” Doesn’t Chibber have a clue that students, both working class and middle class as the case with his NYU students, are not aspiring to become elites but rather to merely get a decent paying job? From the 1980s onward, the job prospects for liberal arts graduates have been dismal. That is why so many smart young people are opting for an MBA, a law, or a computer science degree. Without them, you might as well go live with mom and dad and apply for a job at Starbucks. And even now they are no guarantee. For someone so committed to a class analysis, he seems woefully unaware of the Victorian-era realities of the job market.

I understand that many young people in graduate school today with left politics have—as Chibber put it—elite aspirations. Imagine becoming the next Robert Brenner making $220,000 per year and speaking before adoring audiences at some academic conference in London or Paris. Having your Marxist cake and eating it too.

But getting there is a brutal competitive process that is not for the fainthearted. You have to have the killer instinct that ensures that you will get tenure and not some other schmuck. All in all, academia—particularly at elite schools like Columbia University and NYU—replicates the class hierarchies of 19th century Germany where many of the structures such as the oral examination were introduced (I am not talking about gum disease.) It is calculated to turn you into an asshole unless you were one to begin with.

Try to find a decent paying job that leaves you with lots of spare time and energy, an admittedly daunting task today and then blog your heart out, the contemporary equivalent of Tom Paine’s “Common Sense”. You will reach far more people than you ever will through a JSTOR type journal that is locked up behind a paywall and generally read only by other professors and graduate students, if they bother at all.

Finally, a reminder of what Max Horkheimer said about being a revolutionary:

A revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.

Who would have it any other way?

May 11, 2013

From an interview with Vivek Chibber’s bête noire

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

Ranajit Guha

From an interview with Ranajit Guha by Milinda Banerjee in 2010. The full interview is here: http://www.sai.uni-heidelberg.de/history/download/ranajit_guha_interview_2.2.11.pdf

MB: Have you always been so ideologically churned by Tagore and by Bengali literary culture, or is it something which has become important in your mature years?

RG: I had engaged with these in my youth as well, though these issues then were not so apparently visible. Rather, what I felt more explicitly was my passion for social justice for the poor, and Marxism was therefore attractive. Coming from a khas taluqdar [a class of landlords who were technically not zamindars, but who, like zamindars, paid revenue directly to the State in colonial Bengal] family of Barisal in East Bengal, I had witnessed the structure of zamindar-praja [the Permanent Settlement of 1793 bestowed property rights on land in Bengal to a class of people termed the zamindars. Below the zamindars were their ‘prajas’ or‘subjects’ who cultivated their land and paid them rent] relations in rural society, which left a profound impression on me. In my student days at Presidency College, Calcutta, I became a Marxist, and a member of the Communist Party. In the late 1940s, I spent a considerable part of time in Europe involved in Communist Party work. However, I also gradually started getting alienated from doctrinaire Communist Party Marxism. Experiences of the USSR’s handling of the political situation in Eastern Europe, disenchantment with the Communist Party of India’s internal factional squabbles for power, and finally the Soviet invasion of Hungary, made me decide to leave the Communist Party. Later, I became something of a Naxalite intellectual. I still consider myself to have been inspired by Charu Mazumdar’s ideas which, I think, contain a lot of validity. But Charu Mazumdar [the foremost intellectual and political leader of the ‘ultra-left’ Naxalite movement which erupted in West Bengal in the late 1960s, spread to the rest of the India, and continues to be the founding moment of the Maoist peasant insurgency of the present day] and his followers were weak in organizational capability, which resulted in the movement being crushed. I have elsewhere condemned the role of some intellectuals in Indira Gandhi’s period who supported her moves to crush the revolt and praised many of her activities, for instance, the running of trains on time during the Emergency.

The doctrinaire Marxism of the Indian Communist Party was poor in appreciation of real Marxist philosophy. They had a very simplistic understanding of Marxism and most of them had not read the original books. The disenchantment with this doctrinaire Marxism provoked me to explore the philosophical complexities of Marx, which in turn led me to Hegel. Hegel has tremendously inspired me.

[Maybe Guha should be read out of the Marxist movement for hailing Hegel, but then again Lenin studied Hegel at the outbreak of WWI to figure out what went wrong in the social democracy. But we can’t have that, can we?]

May 8, 2013

Response to Gilbert Achcar statement

Filed under: Academia,British SWP — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

(My comments are in italics.)

On 5/8/13 2:42 AM, Gilbert Achcar wrote:

WHY I DECIDED TO MAINTAIN MY PARTICIPATION IN THE SWP’S *MARXISM 2013*

Gilbert Achcar

The campaign against the SWP is taking a regrettable turn. It now includes attempts at intimidating those participating in Marxism 2013, including myself, into withdrawing from the conference. The SWP is being described as a “socialist rapist party” and taking part in the conference as an “apology of rapism”.

You can call the SWP whatever you want but the fact is that a key leader of the party was protected from the consequences of the most brutal act of violence against women.

Whatever one thinks of the crisis in the SWP and the behaviour of its leadership, such terms applied to a whole party ­– the largest on the British radical left – and to the open forum that the party organizes each year are outrageous. They reveal the regrettable persistence of a certain mindset on the left, a mindset the origin of which is known all too well and for which anathemas and excommunication are substitutes for political fight.

Nobody advocates “anathema and excommunication”, as if that term applied. Instead, it is a reaction by some leading figures on the left to refrain from accepting invitations to speak at their Summer Carnival of Marxism because of the failure of the SWP leadership to clean up its act. “Anathema and excommunication” would instead describe what happened to the Trotskyist movement for most of the 30s through the 50s when it was routinely blocked from joining social movements, trade unions, etc. by a hegemonic Communist Party.

I do not recall any such attitude towards innumerable left parties the leaderships of which are guilty of much worse than what the SWP is accused of. To give but one example, I have accepted in the past invitations by the French Communist Party to their annual Fête de l’Humanité, as do regularly countless intellectual and activists who are deeply critical of that party. Had I regarded participating in such open forums as an endorsement of the party’s political, organisational or ethical record, which I deem to be incomparably worse than that of the SWP in all respects, I would have never accepted. Instead, I regarded my participation as an opportunity to engage with the public who attend such events, be they party members or non-members, and defend my own views, which differ from those of the party. No one ever blamed me for that.

This is a bogus analogy. The CP in France was not responsible for repression in the USSR. By the 1960s the CP’s in capitalist countries had evolved into social democratic type formations whose connection to the Moscow Trials, etc. mostly consisted of a refusal to disavow their own history. If the French CP, on the other hand, was as tiny as the SWP and had 9 rape investigations on its record, that might be another story.

I do firmly believe that the crisis in the SWP is a worrying symptom of a deeply-rooted problem pertaining to a vitiated conception and form of organisation. Regrettably, a few of the SWP’s opponents worldwide are taking this same vitiated tradition to extremes in the way they practice SWP-bashing. It is high time for the radical left to get rid entirely of that tradition if it is ever to regenerate.

8 May 2013

Sorry, Gilbert, the “tradition” we need to get rid of is thuggery on the left. When a minority faction in the SWP was formed to clean house, its members were shouted down and threatened with violence. Meanwhile, Alex Callinicos–author of 27 books–speculated that “lynch mobs” might arise if the minority refused to abide by the rules shoved down its throat by an anti-democratic majority. If that is the kind of gathering you want to attend, be my guest.

 

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