Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 20, 2015

Open Borders

Filed under: cults,immigration,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm


In the latest Militant newspaper, the organ of the infinitesimally small and monumentally bizarre SWP, there’s a swipe at a position defended in last week’s edition:

The labor officialdom in the United States and the different capitalist countries in Europe have refused to carry out the fight for working-class unity over decades, instead joining with each of their bosses’ governments in advancing a nationalist and protectionist course. Workers everywhere have to chart a new road forward.

It’s different than a general call to “open the borders,” as an editorial in last week’s Militant put forward. That’s a utopian demand, and, if adopted under capitalist rule, would lead to increased competition among workers, unemployment, lower wages and social misery.

This is not the first time such a correction has been made. Usually it can be attributed to Jack Barnes reversing himself on previously held positions. This never happened when I was in the SWP in the 1960s and 70s and probably reflects the descent of this sect into ever more increasingly uncharted waters with an unstable cult figure at the helm.

As it turns out, this is not the only cult-sect that is opposed to open borders because it is “utopian”. The Spartacist League that SWP’ers used to laugh at for its weirdness issued a reply to a reader’s letter that sounds like it could be an editorial in the Militant at this point:

The call to “open the borders” and its variants are hopelessly utopian. The modern nation-state arose as a vehicle for the development of capitalism and will remain the basis for the organization of the capitalist economy until the world capitalist order is shattered through a series of workers revolutions. Policing its borders is vital to the very existence of the capitalist state power. Moreover, “open the borders” can have a reactionary content, from advancing imperialist economic penetration of dependent countries to obliterating the right to national self-determination.

This, of course, is an odd use of the term “utopian”, which in Marxist theory generally refers to beliefs that small-scale experiments in collective ownership can lead to socialism. It would be clearer if the two sects would use the word “unrealistic” instead of “utopian” to avoid confusion. But then again, that would lead to some interesting questions about other demands that cannot be realized under capitalism. Perhaps there is something deeply conservative about this hostility to open borders even though the head men at the SWP and Spartacist League love to throw the ultraleft verbiage around.

If you take the trouble to Google “Open borders” on the Militant website, you’ll see that the group favored it in the past. Last week’s Militant erred only by assuming that the party line was in force until it would be changed by the democratic vote of the party at the next convention. Since the cult operates on the whim of the Dear Leader nowadays, the line can be changed any time he decides to change it. Who needs democracy when the group is led by the Lenin of today?

There were 58 results on a search for “open borders” on the Militant and all of them except for the one cited above defend them. For example, the Swedish group that is part of the SWP’s global network ran an election campaign that made such a demand.

In 2010, when I was still a part of the Swans Magazine collective, I wrote an article on the passport system for a special issue on immigration. I reproduce it below in the hope that people get a better idea of where Marxists stand on this issue.

Special Issue on Immigration


A History Of The Passport System

(Swans – October 4, 2010)   When I learned about the decision by the good folks who publish Swans that they intended to produce a special issue on immigration, I saw this as an opportunity to investigate the origins of the passport and visa system — something I regarded as a recent phenomenon. After reading John Torpey’s very useful The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, I was disappointed to discover that such documents have been around for a very long time in one form or another. Upon further reflection, I might have realized that this was the case since state formations — be they feudal, capitalist, or bureaucratic socialist — have been around for over a millennium. The only exception to this rule has been primitive communal societies or nomadic herders. Ironically, it will be up to an aroused and enlightened humanity to reintroduce communal social forms but based on advanced technology to finally put an end to the dungeon that such papers represent.

It is a sign of how little we have progressed that the Roma being persecuted across Europe today for their refusal to abide by the norms of “citizenship” were being persecuted for the same refusal in the 16th century. A police ordinance from 1548 Prussia stipulated that “gypsies and vagabonds” (Landstreicher) had to be issued passes to travel within the feudal state. Furthermore, in all feudal entities the lower classes needed traveling papers, a way of tying a serf to his lord’s manor.

Despite Britain’s reputation for being freer and more “enlightened,” things were not much different. A 1381 statute prevented anybody but aristocrats from leaving the kingdom. (A point on terminology: passports are required to leave a country; visas are needed to enter one.) Britain also had the same determination to keep the peasant tied to his master’s land. A member of the lower classes could migrate from one part of the kingdom to another only if he had a certificate issued by a court official or a cleric.

While Czar Peter the Great had the reputation of being a “Westernizing” progressive, the reality on the ground for the average Russian was one of slavery to documents. Since Peter had the ambition to create a large and powerful army, it was necessary to put obstacles in the way of a peasant who sought to flee this oppressive “duty.” A 1719 edict required someone moving from one village to another to have the proper papers. It is not difficult to understand why Stalin would reintroduce such restrictions during the 1930s since in many ways his regime was a mixture of Czarist autocracy and state planning.

The first blow delivered to such feudal encumbrances was the great French Revolution of 1789, or at least that was the hope. A delegate to the Estates General pleaded that each citizen “must be free to move about or to come, within and outside the Kingdom, without permissions, passports, or other formalities that end to hamper the liberty of its citizens…” Such hopes were in vain since the bourgeois republic reflecting the class interests of those who made it retained passports as a means of controlling the poor who were pouring into Paris.

It was not just the poor who were kept on a tight leash. When King Louis XVI was caught trying to flee the country disguised as a valet, the republicans cracked down. Anybody trying to flee the country without authorization would be subject to arrest, thus making the sublime sentiments of the conclusion of Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca ring a bit hollow.

Worries over counter-revolution did not only stem from flights from the country. There was also a consensus that foreigners might find their way into France harboring subversive ideas. Subversive in this context, it should be added, meant a belief in the divine rights of Kings. France eventually resolved this problem by abolishing internal passports — in deference to the hopes of the democratically minded and a burgeoning capitalist class in need of “free” labor while institutionalizing them at the border. Henceforth, the concept of “foreigner” would be enshrined in the piece of paper that defined one in relationship to the bourgeois republic.

By and large, the 19th century was marked by a more permissive attitude toward the right to travel without restriction since a capitalist industrial revolution would not be possible without mobile pools of labor, in the same way that California agribusiness relies on an ample supply of Mexican stoop labor today.

Prussia, a state that symbolized absolutism, enacted legislation in 1817 that permitted its citizens to “travel freely and unhindered” without papers, but only within its borders. Leaving the country without a passport was strictly verboten, however.

If Prussia’s restrictions mirrored its inability to break cleanly with the feudal system, how does Britain — an exemplar of liberal free trade — stack up by comparison? As was always the case with Britain, the right to emigrate was joined at the hip to the capitalist economy. An economic downturn in the period 1810 to 1820 prompted bread riots by the poor. In face of such troubles, the ruling class decided to relax restrictions. That explains the enormous migration to Australia and other former colonies that would follow.

Changing economic circumstances in the German states (the country had not yet unified) also led to increased mobility by the 1850s. Liberal-minded industrialists insisted on the right of labor to move freely within and outside the country. This need was felt especially keenly in cases where foreign workers could be used to break strikes. However, the impulse to greater freedoms was countered by traditional German social structures, especially strong in Prussia.

Things came to a head in 1867 when the Reichstag would debate a sweeping legislation that would go the furthest in removing restrictions. If passed, both citizens and foreigners would be allowed to travel to the states within the North German Confederation that included Prussia as well as more economically developed entities.

While the motive of bourgeois politicians was purely to secure cheap labor, the working class representatives to the Reichstag were not prejudiced against legislation that would grant workers more freedom. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Rosa Luxemburg’s close collaborator Karl Liebknecht, made a clarion call in support of the bill.

The fact that some sectors of the capitalist class favor labor mobility today as a way to undermine trade unions in places like the United States and France, just as was the case in Germany in the 1860s, should not stand in the way of our call for freedom of movement.

Lenin, who counted himself as a disciple of the German Social Democracy led by Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht, was emphatic on this. In a 1913 article titled Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration, he wrote:

Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.

Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement, and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.

There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.
(Source: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/oct/29.htm)

If anything, Lenin’s observations ring truer than ever. Globalization and advanced communications technology have broken down “national barriers” as anybody who has ever made a call to get technical support from Dell Computers would attest.

Unfortunately, labor solidarity has not kept pace with bourgeois solidarity that forges ahead with trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO. In the coming decades, labor will either face up to the task of realizing the old slogan of “workers of the world unite” or else it will fall backwards into greater and greater restrictions of the sort that typified feudal Europe. There is no turning back.

September 14, 2015

Syrian refugees, Hungary and the “axis of resistance”

Filed under: Hungary,immigration,mechanical anti-imperialism,Soros,Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

Viktor Orban: member in good standing of the “axis of resistance”

It seems that a week does not go by without some incident in Eastern Europe involving the inhumane treatment of people who have fled Baathist terror in Syria.

For example, in the Czech Republic, cops wrote numbers on the arms of refugees in order to identify them, a chilling reminder of how Nazis tattooed such numbers on the arms of Jews in the death camps.

But it is Hungary that takes the cake apparently.

  • It put a razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia to keep refugees out.
  • It put up billboards (in Hungarian no less) warning anybody who made it through the razor-wire fence that “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!”
  • A TV news photographer kicked and tripped refugees running away from the police. The station she worked for was connected to the far-right Jobbik party that lines up with the “axis of resistance” on Syria, opposing “the systematic attempts of the West to find a casus belli for an armed intervention against the Assad government.”
  • At an internment camp for refugees in Hungary, cops threw bags of food to them as if they were hungry animals.

Since the refugees are only interested in making their way to Germany or Britain, the xenophobia is likely a strategy to mollify Hungary’s burgeoning ultraright groups like Jobbik and their voters. Key to success is the ability of President Viktor Orban to exploit simmering discontent over dire economic conditions. In fact this is exactly how German fascism succeeded. When economic disaster ruined Eastern European Jewry, the largely working class and impoverished small proprietors fled to Germany. Hitler then blamed “the Jews” for taking away German jobs.

It must be noted that Viktor Orban has recently joined the “axis of resistance” after the fashion of Jobbik. All across Europe ultraright parties with zero exceptions have showed solidarity with the Kremlin in its ostensibly “anti-imperialist” struggle against NATO, the EU, and Washington. This Red-Brown alliance is a revival of the National Bolshevist tendency of the early 1920s when a faction of the German CP advocated a united front with the incipient fascist movement.

Orban is now Putin’s closest European ally. While the bonds involve mutual economic interests, including Hungarian access to Russian natural gas at bargain prices and a willingness to back Putin’s pipeline project that would bypass Ukraine, there are also ideological affinities. He has nationalist pretensions casting himself as an enemy of neoliberalism. He has also followed Putin in cracking down on NGO’s and pressuring Hungarian media to follow his strong man rule.

For a fascinating account of Orban’s political evolution, I would recommend the Intercept article by Adam LeBor titled “How Hungary’s Prime Minister Turned From Young Liberal Into Refugee-Bashing Autocrat”. It seems that early on he was not kindly disposed to Russian domination, speaking at a Budapest rally in 1989 commemorating the death of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed 1956 revolution. In his speech he demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary.

You don’t have to understand Hungarian to know that he was lambasting “Communist dictatorship”. Understanding which side of the bread was buttered, Orban hooked up with George Soros just before this speech was made. LeBor reports;

Orban was born in May 1963 in Alcsutdoboz, a small village 31 miles from Budapest. After graduating from high school he moved to Budapest to study law at Eötvös Loránd University. There he co-founded Századvég, a dissident social science journal.

He graduated in 1987 and joined the Central-Eastern Europe Study Group, which was funded by George Soros, the financier who had emigrated from Hungary after World War II. The following year Orban became a founding member of the Alliance of Young Democrats, known in Hungarian as Fidesz. The outspoken radicals quickly became the darlings of the Western media. They were young, smart and scruffily photogenic – Tamas Deutsch, another founding member of Fidesz, was a model for Levi’s jeans. Fidesz in its early years was a broad coalition, from near anarchists to nationalists. They all had one aim: to get rid of the Communists. Once that was achieved, like all revolutionary groups, the party began to fracture.

Having been born and raised in Hungary, Soros took a particular interest in his native land. He spent millions on cultivating a following among ambitious young politicians like Orban, paying for airfare and hotel costs in the USA where they were afforded red carpet treatment at Soros’s Open Society conferences. Soros was also shrewd enough to pay for photocopying machines that anti-Communist activists found crucial in their attempts in the late 80s to create a liberal pole of attraction against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Michael Lewis, by no means a critic of neoliberalism, traced Soros’s steps in a 1994 Guardian article:

IN 1984 Soros opened his first office, in Budapest, and began all manner of subversive activities for which he is temperamentally very well-equipped. “I started by trying to create small cracks in the monolithic structure which goes under the name of communism, in the belief that in a rigid structure even a small crack can have a devastating effect,” he wrote in Opening The Soviet System. “As the cracks grew, so did my efforts until they came to take up most of my time.”

Says Liz Lorant, who worked with Soros from the start: “It was the excitement of what we got away with [that is irreplaceable]. We got away with murder. [For example] at that time Xerox machines were under lock and key. That was the way it was. In Romania you had to register a typewriter with the police. Well, we just flooded the whole damn country with Xerox machines so that the rules became meaningless.” In short, by the time the dust settled over the Berlin Wall – boom! bust! – Soros had accumulated a highly-charged portfolio of gratitude. The Great White Gods of Eastern Europe – Havel, Michnik, Kis, Haraszti – were all in his debt. So were all sorts of lesser-known, highly motivated people wending their way to high political office.

For most people on the “anti-imperialist” left, Soros is a kind of archenemy symbolizing globalization, neoliberalism and all the rest. He is also a convenient symbol of liberal ignominy for the far right as the supposed puppet master behind Obama and the secret plans to transform the USA into a European-styled socialist state. Of course that is the paradox of George Soros. Like Fay Dunaway telling Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” that a woman was both her daughter and her sister, Soros is both a neoliberal shark and someone favoring European style socialism, which is in reality nothing but a welfare state and incapable of being realized today.

With Soros’s record of intervening in Hungarian politics through his well-funded NGO’s, it is easy to understand why Orban would have a free hand in cracking down on them. Many Hungarians must have gathered that Karl Popper’s philosophy probably had more to do with a fast buck then it did with promoting civil society and equal opportunity.

Five years ago Soros’s firm was fined $2.5 million for illegal bank stock transactions in Hungary (a mere slap on the wrist.) It was his exploitation of short sales and other shenanigans from 2007 to 2010 that prompted the billionaire and major donor to my alma mater to confess that he was having “a very good crisis”, referring to the stock market crash that is still impacting countries like Hungary.

Like Greece, Hungary had huge debts when the crisis broke and like Greece has been scrambling to nurse the country back to health—a dubious prospect given the world economic situation. In late 2008 Hungary pleaded with the International Monetary Fund for $25 billion in emergency financing. In 2010 unemployment reached 11.4 percent while the economy shrank by 6.3 percent. It was such suffering that convinced voters to back Orban’s party that promised to wave a magic wand and make things right.

For those who think that a Grexit would solve Greece’s problems, it is worth mentioning that Hungary’s failure to be part of the Eurozone was no silver bullet as the NY Times reported in 2012:

Zoltan Zsoter, an 80-year-old retiree, would seem to be about as far from the world of currency speculation as a person can get. Yet he is an example of how the workings of the global financial system, amplified by the policies of a single political leader, can have a devastating effect on ordinary people.

Mr. Zsoter is one of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who took out home loans that must be repaid in Swiss francs or other foreign currencies like the euro. Such loans offered seductively low interest rates when times were good. But then the Hungarian currency plunged, causing Mr. Zsoter’s monthly payment to almost double.

“I live day to day,” Mr. Zsoter said. After defaulting on his loan, he pays 40,000 forints, or about $163, out of his monthly pension of 51,000 forints to stay in his modest Budapest apartment as a renter. “Sometimes I have to choose between buying either food or medicine,” he said.

Hungary serves as a cautionary tale for those who argue that Greece could regain competitiveness by reintroducing its currency. The drachma would plunge against the euro, the theory goes, and allow Greek products to compete on price with countries like Turkey.

So if Viktor Orban is facing intractable economic problems, why not scapegoat Syrian refugees or the Roma who have been the target of persecution for a number of years now? And meanwhile, the left that admires Putin would have all the reasons to back Orban who after all is sticking it to the EU.

According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, our species homo sapiens has a tendency to think in terms of binary oppositions like life and death or good and evil. This would likely explain the eagerness for so much of the left to divide the world between those forces aligned with the West and those with the East. Like a plot out of a Tolkien novel, the Evil West is always seeking ways to destroy the Good East. Instead of elves with bows and arrow, we have people like Pablo Escobar, Mike Whitney and Eric Draitser rallying around the “axis of resistance” to the fire-breathing dragons of the West. And god help any decent folk in the East who managed to get on the wrong side of an elite in their neck of the woods. Everybody had to understand that it was their half of the world, love it or leave it.

Ironically, Hungary was a symbol of this binary opposition way of thinking in 1956 when the population rose up over Russian domination. In the same way that sections of the left make all sorts of excuses for Assad today, the CP justified the invasion of Hungary in order to “defend socialism”.

But in fact it was Russian tanks that created the animosity in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary that made it possible for George Soros, NATO, the CIA and the US State Department to get a foothold. By reinforcing bureaucratic rule in the name of “socialism”, ordinary people began to think positively of its opposite. In the most extreme example, Ukrainians regarded Stephen Bandera as a hero for opposing Soviet domination even if he was a fascist.

The bottom line is that the encroachment of NATO at the doorstep of Russia is a direct outcome of the encroachment of the Red Army on nations throughout Eastern Europe.

There was one Communist who was able to see through the lies. The Daily Worker, the British CP newspaper with the same name as the American paper, sent Peter Fryer to Hungary in 1956 fully expecting him to write articles that echoed the party line that Russia needed to quell a CIA-inspired plot. In other words, he was expected to write the same kind of crap that Max Ajl, Patrick Higgins and Adam Johnson are writing about Syria today. But Fryer obeyed his conscience rather than party bosses and filed reports that any radical journalist would be proud of. You can read Peter Fryer’s “Hungarian Tragedy” here. This excerpt shows that it doesn’t take much effort to see the similarities between Hungary in 1956 and the Arab Spring in Syria in 2011, no matter how it has been slandered in places like Jacobin, WSWS.org, MRZine and elsewhere:

But the crowds spoke also to me of their lives in this small industrial town, of the long years of grinding poverty, without hope of improvement, of their hatred and fear of the AVH [Hungarian secret police]. ‘I get 700 forints a month,’ said one. ‘I only get 600.’ said another. [1] They were ill-dressed, the women and girls doing their pathetic best to achieve some faint echo of elegance. They spoke to me about the AVH men. ‘They were beasts, brutes, animals who had sold themselves to the Russians.’ ‘They called themselves Hungarians and they mowed our people down without hesitation!’ ‘We shan’t leave a single one of those swine alive – you’ll see.’ They asked me what the West was doing to help, and some asked outright for arms. I for one do not regard these as counterrevolutionaries. If after eleven years the working people, goaded beyond bearing, look to the West for succour, whose fault is that? If the Americans are guilty of seeking to foster counter-revolution with the Mutual Security Act, surely the Rákosis and the Gerös are a hundred times more guilty for providing the soil in which seeds sown by the Americans could grow.

There was a general movement in the direction of the hospital, where an immense crowd had gathered, clamouring more and more insistently with every minute that passed for Stefko to be brought out to them. The German journalist and I were admitted into the hospital, where we met the director’s wife and a French-speaking woman who had volunteered to help with the nursing. It was here that I got for the first time reasonably accurate figures of the number of wounded. There had been about 80 wounded brought here, of whom eleven had died, and about 80 had been taken to the hospital at Györ. The need for plasma and other medicaments was desperate if lives were to be saved and so was the need, said the director’s wife, to end the tumult outside. A deputation from the revolutionary committee was interviewing her husband to demand that Stefko be handed to the people.

A few minutes later the director was forced to give in, and we saw a stretcher carried by four men appear out of a hut in the hospital grounds. On it lay Stefko, wearing a blue shirt. His legs were covered by a blanket. His head was bandaged. He was carried close enough to me for me to have touched him. He was fully conscious, and he knew quite well what was going to happen to him. His head turned wildly from side to side and there was spittle round his mouth. As the crowd saw the stretcher approaching they sent up a howl of derision and anger and hatred. They climbed the wire fence and spat at him and shouted ‘murderer’. They pushed with all their might at the double gates, burst them open and surged in. The stretcher was flung to the ground, and the crowd was upon Stefko, kicking and trampling. Relations of those he had murdered were, they told me, foremost in this lynching. It was soon over. They took the body and hanged it by the ankles for a short time from one of the trees in the Lenin Street. Ten minutes afterwards only a few people were left outside the hospital.

I wrote later in my first, unpublished, dispatch:

After eleven years the incessant mistakes of the Communist leaders, the brutality of the State Security Police, the widespread bureaucracy and mismanagement, the bungling, the arbitrary methods and the lies have led to total collapse. This was no counter-revolution, organised by fascists and reactionaries. It was the upsurge of a whole people, in which rank-and-file Communists took part, against a police dictatorship dressed up as a Socialist society – a police dictatorship backed up by Soviet armed might.

I am the first Communist journalist from abroad to visit Hungary since the revolution started. And I have no hesitation in placing the blame for these terrible events squarely on the shoulders of those who led the Hungarian Communist Party for eleven years – up to and including Ernö Gerö They turned what could have been the outstanding example of people’s democracy in Europe into a grisly caricature of Socialism. They reared and trained a secret police which tortured all – Communists as well as nonCommunists – who dared to open their mouths against injustices. It was a secret police which in these last few dreadful days turned its guns on the people whose defenders it was supposed to be.

I wrote this under the immediate impact of a most disturbing and shattering experience, but I do not withdraw one word of it. Much of the rest of the dispatch was never received in London because the call was cut off after twenty minutes, and the first ten had been taken up by three different people giving me contradictory instructions as to the ‘line’ I should take. Mick Bennett insisted on reading me a long extract from a resolution of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. I had had enough of resolutions. I had seen where eleven years of terror and stupidity had led Hungary, and I wanted to tell the readers of the Daily Worker the plain unvarnished truth, however painful it might be. But the readers of the Daily Worker were not to be told the truth. The day after I had sent this dispatch they were reading only about ‘gangs of reactionaries’ who were ‘beating Communists to death in the streets’ of Budapest. The paper admitted in passing that ‘some reports claimed that only identified representatives of the former security police were being killed’. Next day Hungary disappeared altogether from the Daily Worker’s front page.

September 4, 2015

Keeping track of the untermenschen

Filed under: immigration — louisproyect @ 12:54 pm

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June 3, 2015

What Does It Mean To Be American?

Filed under: immigration — louisproyect @ 1:46 am

When you understand what it means to be a real American, then you can see that most Cubans are real Americans, where most Floridians are not; that most Mexicans are real Americans while most Californians are not; and that many immigrants will never be real Americans, though probably most always were. If this essay makes no sense to you, then you are sober in your delusions, for I am drunk in my insights. Insight knows itself to be particular, whereas delusion imagines itself to be general. This separates Carlos Castañeda from John Ashcroft. If you don’t like my icons, then pick your own, just make sure they are real, like Crazy Horse and Noam Chomsky, instead of fakes like George Armstrong Custer and Henry Kissinger. If this rant makes any sense to you, then you are capable of seeing that the America that will survive into the 22nd century, in peace and security, is as remote from the America of George W. Bush as that of Mark Twain was from J. P. Morgan’s, or Kurt Vonnegut’s was from Richard Nixon’s.

via What Does It Mean To Be American?.

July 24, 2013


Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

Like Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”, “Terraferma”, opening today at the IFC in NY,  celebrates ordinary working people in southern Europe risking arrest to protect undocumented workers from Africa. Standing firmly against the xenophobia that is gripping the continent as well as the United States, these films remind us of how working class solidarity can manifest itself at the deepest and most intimate level even when those expressing it have never read a single word of Marx. Furthermore, “Terraferma” is in some ways a modern version of “Huckleberry Finn”. When offered a choice between justice and the law, the young protagonist—like Huck Finn–chooses justice.

The film is set on a small island that traditionally relied on fishing, but that has fallen on hard times due to overfishing. Relief seems to be on its way, however, in the form of tourism since the island is breathtakingly beautiful. The only drawback, however, is that it is in the direct route from Libya to Italy’s mainland and often a repository for shipwrecked Africans whose rickety boats fail to make it past the treacherous waters and jagged reefs.

The economic fork in the road is dramatized by the choices facing a particular family. Ernesto takes his grandson Filippo out fishing each day, enjoying every moment of their day even if the catch is barely sufficient to pay for expenses. Filippo’s father was lost at sea a few years earlier and his mother and uncle are anxious for him to find a new source of income, particularly in the tourism business that employs his uncle as a seaside bartender and tour boat tummler.

When summer arrives, Filippo and his mother move into the garage attached to their newly repainted house that will be rented to tourists. They turn out to be two young men and a woman from northern Italy who probably regard the Sicilian bumpkins in the same fashion that rich kids from Connecticut on vacation in New Orleans would regard Cajuns taking them out for a tour of nearby swampland. Local color.

One of the selling points of renting Filippo’s house is the availability of his grandfather’s fishing boat for day trips even if the tourists flout local mores. With a smirk on her face, the young attractive woman in the group asks Filippo if his grandfather would mind if she goes out on the boat bare-topped. He replies that she can wear whatever she wants.

On the day before the tour, as Filippo and his grandfather are out fishing, they spot a raft overloaded by Africans crying out for help. Following the strict laws that the racist Italian government has laid down, they immediately call the coast guard. Before the coast guard arrives, a handful of people from the raft jumps into the water and begin swimming to the fishing boat. The grandfather tells Filippo to allow them to come on board since that is the law of the sea. It is also the law of terraferma (dry land) since the family shelters an Ethiopian woman named Sara and her son in the garage risking arrest.

Emanuele Crialese wrote the screenplay and directed “Terraferma”. Born to Sicilian parents in Rome in 1965, he earned a filmmaking degree at NYU in 1995. Thankfully, his work hearkens back to the grand traditions of Italian neorealism rather than the flavor of the month style of filmmaking taught at NYU. Considering the increasingly violent and racist behavior of Italian cops and their fascist allies, this is a film for which there was a crying need. Thankfully, it is a lovely work of art to boot.

Crialese was on tour in the USA in February talking about his film. At Cornell, during the Q&A, he spoke about the woman who played Sara, the Ethiopian woman sheltered by the Sicilians. A student reported:

After watching the film, we had a wonderful Q&A section with Emanuele. He discussed the film as both a personal and general observation. An example of the personal aspect, the woman who plays Sarah, arrived in Italy on a boat that was drifting away for three weeks with eighty people, seventy-five of which were dead. They kept the story away from the tourists, much as they do in the film. The woman was already dead, was placed in a bag, and was committed for dead until they saw movement from inside the bag. She showed up at the audition a year later and asked if Emanuele remembered her from their first meeting a year earlier. She was then cast into one of the main roles, re-living on screen a part of this tragic story. But as a general concern, Emanuele said he “felt every person deserves to know when family is lost, [Emanuele] wanted to do something new, something that was politico-social to get to the heart of this issue of global responsibility.”

Mindless Entertainment Addendum

These two films don’t really merit a review but I can urge my readers to see Johnnie To’s “Drug War” that opens at the IFC two days after “Terraferma”. This is a tightly-wound Hong Kong version of “The French Connection” that represents this genre at its best. The last 20 minutes, a shoot-out between cops and gangsters, is as deftly choreographed as a Balanchine ballet. But even more entertainingly, the hero of the film—a cop leading the investigation—goes undercover as Mr. HaHa, a drug lord. His performance was so stunning and so amusing that I could not even recognize him as the cop. A must see.

I also can give a thumb’s up to “Wolverine”, the latest installment in the X-Men franchise that has a lot in common with the early James Bond movies with a Dr. No type villain but without all the Queen and Country horseshit. I am not gay but I could not get my eyes off Hugh Jackman, ten times more buff than Geraldo Rivera. The film opens everywhere in the next few days, including the planet Mars.

January 18, 2013

Senegalese portraits in cinema

Filed under: Africa,Film,immigration,imperialism/globalization,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Last Saturday a Facebook friend asked me for my opinions on an article in the December 28, 2012 CP-Africa:

Most African countries could be middle income countries by 2025

By Shanta Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengler

Hardly a week goes by without an African investors’ conference or growth summit. Portuguese professionals are looking for opportunities in Angola. Silicon Valley companies are coming to Kenya to learn about its home-grown ICT revolution. This is not an irrational fad.

Since the turn of the century, Africa’s growth has been robust (averaging 5-6 per cent GDP growth a year), making important contributions to poverty reduction. The current boom is underpinned by sound macro policies and political stability. Unlike in some rich countries, public debt levels in most of Africa are sustainable.

Earlier in the month The Economist ran something in a similar vein titled “Africa’s hopeful economies”.

I plan to write a detailed critique of such claims at some point but only wish that the authors of such shameless propaganda could join some of Senegal’s desperate undocumented workers who risk their lives in small fishing boats over a 7-day voyage to the Canary Islands. On January 23rd the Film Forum in New York will be premiering Moussa Touré’s “The Pirogue”, a powerful narrative directed by someone who could identify with his characters based on this interview:

My father died when I was 14 and as the eldest in the family I had to go out to work. I went to see a friend of my father who was making a film. That was my first job. For my second, I heard a film was being shot with François Truffaut, although I didn’t know who he was, and I went along! I learned very quickly, and started off working in the lighting.

“The Pirogue” is set in a small seaside village that is slowly being drained of its population due to a stagnant economy. Despite the authors cited above, it is doubtful that it would attract a maquila let alone a delegation from Silicon Valley looking for a place to set up a tech support call center.

Unlike a Europe that is in a recession, Senegal’s economic woes are more deeply entrenched and chronic in nature. If you stroll down New York’s avenues, you will see men and women selling counterfeit wristwatches and pocketbooks. Most are from West Africa and Senegal in particular. By the standards of the hapless citizens of the fishing village, these are people who have become fabulously successful even though they are only a step ahead of the cops.

The film begins with preparations for the journey with a fisherman named Baye Laye sizing up the job as captain. There will be 30 passengers, including him. Some are from Senegal and others are from Guinea. For the land-locked Guineans, who do not speak a word of any of Senegal’s languages, there is a sense of dread about the voyage anybody would feel but compounded by the fact that none of them have ever seen the ocean before. One man, a desperate peasant like all the others, is gripped by panic attacks as soon as they venture out to sea. His fellow passengers are compelled to tie him up and put a gag over his mouth to keep order in the rickety boat. Although I have not seen “Life of Pi”, I suspect that “The Pirogue” is the ultimate anti-Pi, forsaking the woozy mysticism of the lavishly funded 3D movie in favor of a kind of neorealist plea for ending the brutal exploitation of Senegal that forced 30,000 of its citizens to take such desperate measures, leaving 6,000 victims of drowning, dehydration, and starvation in the process.

Despite the neorealist aesthetic, “The Pirogue” is beautifully filmed and strengthened by a film score drawing upon Senegalese popular music. At one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film, when the boat people begin to realize that they may never reach their destination, they take turns singing songs from their respective ethnic regions.

In the press notes for “The Pirogue”, Touré was asked what he thought when he saw the finished film. His reply:

I wondered how we can live in such a climate. That’s the question the parents back home ask themselves. They know there’s nothing they can do to help their children, that there is no future for them in the country, and there’s no point in trying to hold them back. I also watched my wife cry like I’ve never seen her cry before. I was almost ashamed to have moved her so deeply. In a way, it was a kind of sufferance making this film. I have put all my energy, all my truth and emotions in this film. It was something I had to do.

Put “The Pirogue” on your calendar. It is not only a glimpse into African filmmaking at its most political; it is also a work of art.

Among the wheelbarrow full of DVD’s I received from The Weinstein Company in November was one unheralded French film titled “The Intouchables”. (This decision to retain the French word for “untouchables” strikes me as perverse. Perhaps the Weinstein’s were afraid that it would be confused with the Elliot Ness movie.)

I have to confess that I postponed watching “The Intouchables” as long as I could, even putting in behind Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet”, a film that I correctly anticipated would be a soporific exercise in the Merchant-Ivory vein. (I gave it my customary 10 minutes worth of attention.) “The Intouchables” was described as an “inspirational” tale about the bonding of a super-rich Frenchman quadriplegic and the impoverished African youth who is hired as his caregiver.

The great Omar Sy in “The Intouchables”

Having had a strong reaction against “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, Julian Schnabel’s film about a paralyzed stroke victim from the French upper class, I worried that “The Intouchables” would be more of the same—an unendurable descent into someone else’s misery.

Nothing prepared me for the sheer energy and ebullience of a “buddy” movie unlike any I have ever seen. From the minute that Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese youth from the banlieues, the outskirts of Paris populated largely by poor North African and other non-white immigrants that erupted in riots in 2005, meets Philippe (François Cluzet) in a job interview, the young man demonstrates neither the professional background nor the cloying sympathy for the “victim” that other applicants display. Driss admits to Philippe’s staff that he is there mainly to fulfill his obligation to the unemployment bureau. He has to show up for job interviews or else his benefits are cut off.

Philippe admires the young man’s honesty as well as his rebelliousness, obviously seeing some kind of kindred spirit despite their class differences. Philippe has enjoyed taking risks all his life, including a passion for paragliding that would eventually rob him of the use of his arms and legs. As Philippe’s driver, Driss takes him on a joy ride through Paris’s streets in a Maserati at speeds over 100 miles per hour. When the cops catch up to the two, Driss tells them that they were racing to get to the hospital since Philippe was suffering some kind of seizure. To fool the cops, Philippe manages to get white foam pouring out of his mouth. Afterwards the two men have a big laugh and go out for dinner and drinks.

As Driss, Omar Sy delivers a charismatic performance that helps put the film over the top. It is almost impossible for me to imagine any combination of actor and character that works as well. With a Senegalese father and Mauritanian mother, Sy understands exactly what kind of experience Driss has had in the banlieues since he came from one: Trappes. Despite having moved to Los Angeles to improve his English and further his career, Sy will continue to fulfill his obligations as a French citizen. He told The Independent: “I grew up with [state] family benefits. They gave my parents a big helping hand. Paying taxes is no problem for me. It is a bit like I was paying back a debt.” That’s a real Frenchman, not the loutish Gérard Depardieu.

Quentin Tarantino has claimed that “Django Unchained” has revealed the truth about slavery as if “Gone With the Wind” was Hollywood’s last film on the topic. While it was not a movie, “Roots” had much more of an impact than “Django Unchained” can ever hope to have, as well as reflecting what an African-American author felt about the subject. When it aired on ABC TV in 1977, it became the 3rd highest-rated production in history. Based on the novel by Alex Haley, who co-wrote Malcolm X’s autobiography, the show had a dramatic impact on public opinion. Although Haley had plagiarized sections of the novel “The African” by David Kourlander, who whom he settled out of court for $500,000, most of “Roots” reflects Haley’s 12 year research project on slavery.

While I never watched “Roots”, I have to believe that it is a better introduction to the “peculiar institution” than “Django Unchained”. But despite its obscurity and its general unavailability, the movie that I would recommend to my readers is “Ceddo”, which appeared the same year as “Roots”. Directed by the Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, Africa’s greatest director and arguably one of the world’s as well, it tells the story of how both Islam and Christianity conspired to force slavery on indigenous peoples in the 19th century.

The ‘common folk’ of “Ceddo” are the serfs of a small village in 19th century Senegal who are miserably oppressed by organized religion and by their feudal overlords. The clerical structures are much more modest than those found in any feudal society (Islamic services are held on the open ground bounded by pebbles), but the bonds enforced by custom are the same. The ceddo must pay tribute to their King in the form of firewood bundles. An Islamic caste also takes tribute in the form of slaves, who are exchanged for guns or cloth in a general store run by a white man. To round out the microcosm of feudal society, there is a single white Catholic priest who is barely tolerated by the Moslems.

Weary of oppression, a ceddo youth kidnaps the daughter of the king and takes her to an isolated wooded glen near the ocean. She will only be returned after the ruling classes forsake slavery and forced conversion to Islam. Played by amateurs, as is the case in nearly all of Sembene’s films, the villagers, have a simple desire to live as they have always lived.

The film’s most dramatic scenes pit the hostage-taker against aristocrats from the village who come to rescue the princess with rifles in hand. Armed only with a bow and arrow and superior cunning, the ceddo youth vanquishes them one by one. In the course of his courageous resistance, the princess begins to warm to him although he is slow to respond in kind. His memory of oppression remains too strong. In one of the more gripping images of the film, the beautiful princess bathes nude in the ocean while the young commoner stands on the beach glowering at her, bow and arrow in hand. He will not indulge himself in desire as long as his people are in bondage.

In a conflict between the King and the Islamic clergy over how to divide up ceddo tribute, the clergy seize power. Now that they are the new ruling class, they force the village to undergo conversion. One by one, the men’s heads are shaved as they are given new names. The arrogant Imam tells the disconsolate villagers: “You are now Ishmaila”, “You are now Ibraima”, etc. , Whether in Africa or in the New World, cultural assimilation always precedes economic assimilation. Implicit in Sembene’s films is the notion that cultural renewal must precede social and economic transformation.

Born in 1923, his father a fisherman like the captain in “The Pirogue”, Sembene fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi documentary Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembene quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembene decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

So he went to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorki Institute under Soviet directors Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov. This was the time when the USSR was not only offering an economic alternative to developing countries, but a cultural one as well. Indirectly, the Soviet Union became a midwife to modern African cinema.

How sad it is that a great talent such as Ousmane Sembene is neglected while Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse remake of movies like “Mandingo” get taken seriously by our most prestigious film critics. I agree. We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms. We need class-conscious films about slavery that are rooted in African and American reality. It will probably take a political sea change that will make it possible for works like “Roots” and “Ceddo” to reappear. Until that happens, I am not going to offer tributes to something like “Django Unchained” that offers tributes to nothing but Quentin Tarantino’s inflated ego and Harvey Weinstein’s corporate coffers.

June 19, 2012

Our dying corporate class is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish

Filed under: immigration,Occupy Wall Street,racism — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Over the past few days, I have noticed a couple of articles sizing up the Occupy movement’s status. One comes from the left, and the other from an inside-the-beltway liberal pundit. Let me dispense with the last one first.

Although he is obviously at the Washington Post because his opinions jibe with his employer’s, I always find Dana Milbank worth reading, if for no other reason than he avoids the circumlocutions typical of the op-ed writer. In a piece titled Occupy Wall Street movement has hit a wall, Milbank makes an amalgam between Van Jones and Robert Borosage’s Take Back the American Dream Conference and the sans culottes movement that raised hell on Wall Street and dozens of other cities last year. It is understandable why he would confuse the two, since in his eyes Van Jones is “far left”. When I noticed that, I dashed off a letter to Milbank:

Dana, you have to get out more. Jones is an old-fashioned liberal, like George McGovern. I, on the other hand, am a far leftist. I would like to see the publishers of the Washington Post stripped of their assets and put in prison for their role in backing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. You should be spared, of course, after undergoing ideological rectification.

Borosage, like Jones, has attempted to co-opt the Occupy movement as this excerpt from Milbank’s article makes clear:

Robert Borosage, whose Campaign for America’s Future puts on the annual conference, encouraged the activists to take the long view, likening their position to that of progressives in the late 19th century. “Now we are back to that same kind of inequality, that same kind of robber-baron money politics,” Borosage said from a stage festooned with the words “99% Power” and other slogans. “And what’s exciting is we’ve seen the first stirrings in Wisconsin and Ohio and Occupy Wall Street, which spread across the country like wildfire.”

The Wisconsin drubbing was a “stirring”? And Occupy Wall Street? It did spread — but the fire quickly died.

Nelini Stamp, an Occupy leader, spoke at one of the sessions about how the movement went from a day in September when “all of a sudden something happened” to the “dismantling of the parks, city by city.” Stamp described the events of the fall as “a moment in time, and that moment sparked a movement.”

One imagines that Stamp felt an affinity with Van Jones and Robert Borosage based on her affiliation with the Working Families Party in NY that is 3rd party in name only. In the last election, it unfortunately used its ballot line for the dreadful Andrew Cuomo, who can best be described as Scott Walker Lite.

Milbank is something of a cynic so it is difficult to figure out whether he is lamenting over the ostensible collapse of Occupy or gloating over it. Despite his past employment in the bourgeois press, or perhaps because of it, Chris Hedges is just the opposite of Milbank. He wears his heart on his sleeve nowadays and we are all the better for it.

Hedges is a regular contributor to Truthdig.com, a website founded by Robert Scheer, who like Hedges, was once employed by the bourgeois media—in his case the LA Times. Hedges’s article is titled “Occupy Will Be Back” and uses his own words to approximate what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Here’s Hedges:

Our dying corporate class, corrupt, engorged on obscene profits and indifferent to human suffering, is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish. No one knows when. No one knows how. The future movement may not resemble Occupy. It may not even bear the name Occupy. But it will come. I have seen this before. And we should use this time to prepare, to educate ourselves about the best ways to fight back, to learn from our mistakes, as many Occupiers are doing in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other cities. There are dark and turbulent days ahead. There are powerful and frightening forces of hate, backed by corporate money, that will seek to hijack public rage and frustration to create a culture of fear. It is not certain we will win. But it is certain this is not over.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Having lived through the 1950s and 60s, when the American economy was expanding at an unprecedented rate, I saw the ability of the American ruling class to maintain its hegemonic status. There were challenges from African-Americans but a combination of repression and crumbs from the table appeared to remove that threat, just as an end to the war in Vietnam and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion acted as a pressure valve to release steam from the system.

Things are different now. Today’s NY Times reported on the desperation that many long-term unemployed are facing:

Sam Chea, 38, who lives in Oakland and works nights delivering pizzas for Domino’s, said that he had been feeling the pinch at grocery stores, and worried that his lack of a college education was making it harder for him to find decent work. The other day he went to the nearby city of El Cerrito to apply for a second job at Nation’s Giant Hamburgers, a regional chain.

“I’ll be more secure with another job,” he said. “It’s scary. I don’t have an education, and I’m worried about my rent.”

“Everything’s gone up. Rent went up, gas went up, food went up, milk went up, cheeseburgers went up, even cigarettes went up,” said Mr. Chea, who had stopped at the barbershop to spiff up before his job interview. “I’m used to getting a haircut for $6 or $7, but they charged me $9. Even haircuts have gone up.”

In my recent post on the rascally Walter Russell Mead, someone commented that the left is too old to make an impact. I understand that if I am typical of the left (at the age of 67), this is a real problem. But another commenter wrote a rejoinder that is in line with Hedges’s piece and Marx’s before him:

You are obviously not in touch with the contemporary US revolutionary left, made up almost entirely of people under 35 — in other words, the generation subjected to one of the most radical periods of transferring social costs onto the backs of the working class. Our generation faces a situation of despair, ruin, indebtedness, political nihilism, old-folks-cynicism, mainstream political cretinism, and no future. You would benefit greatly by contacting the student, youth, people of color, and young working class movement in your local city. What you might find is in fact a vibrant undercurrent of dignity facing a situation that your generation, weaned on the massive capitalist high growth of the 50s, did not have to contend with. The “humble folks of the working class” are the young black, brown, yellow, red, and white youth on your streets today. Go meet them – they’re everywhere.

In my view, the Occupy movement has played a most useful role whatever its current status. At a moment when the Obama White House had much of the soft left in a state of suspended animation, they burst on the scene and demonstrated through their action that there had been no change and that they, to paraphrase Dante, had seen the words written large: “Abandon all hope all ye who live in the U.S. and are not hedge fund managers.”

Like the Zapatistas, who also defied the neoliberal “end of history” consensus like a lightning bolt out of the blue, these scruffy and more often than not organized anarchists (yes, I know, that is a paradox) raised such a ruckus that politics in America went through a sea change. They raised awareness that working people were being screwed and inspired hundreds of thousands to join them in protests against an unjust system.

I thought of the Occupy movement when I attended the Silent March against Stop and Frisk on Fifth Avenue last Sunday. This was a demonstration that really captured the militancy and spirit of unity that could be seen during the best of the Occupy protests.

You can get a flavor of the demonstration from this brief clip taken on my brand-new JVC professional camcorder whose myriad buttons and menus confuses even a geek like me. Look in particular for the women marching in the name of their beautician’s school!

For a report on the march that I couldn’t begin to top, I recommend Gary Lapon’s article  in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization (not to be confused with the moribund sect of the same name led by Jack Barnes.)

According to the NAACP, the march was silent “as an illustration of both the tragedy and serious threat that stop-and-frisk and other forms of racial profiling present to our society. The silent march was first used in 1917 by the NAACP–then just eight years old–to draw attention to race riots that tore through communities in East St. Louis, Illinois, and build national opposition to lynching.”

Participants in the demonstration explained how this has become a civil rights issue of today. “I’ve been stopped and frisked for a case of mistaken identity,” said Justin, a high school senior in Brooklyn. “The cops stopped and searched me without a warrant, without anything–and they just said, ‘Mistaken identity.'” As Justin continued:

It’s getting crazy. My little brother just got stopped the other day for no reason…He’s only 11, but he’s a big kid, so they thought he was older, and they searched him. He was scared, he went home crying to my mother. People are scared to come out of their home thinking they’ll be searched by the cops. It shouldn’t be like that.

Dina Adams of the legal aid group Bronx Defenders said she had a lot of personal experience with stop-and-frisk. “I have three teenage sons, and so this is a battle that I go through three times as hard,” she said. “It impacted [my middle son] so much that where his schooling and everything–his whole life, seemed to have gone upside down.”

“The NYPD has too much power,” Adams said. “They need to stop focusing on Blacks and Latinos, stop focusing on our youth, stop screwing their lives up.”

As I have said in the past, it would be useful if socialist groups rethink what it means to have a “program”, too often an assemblage of doctrinal tenets held on disputed points going back at least a hundred years and calculated to distinguish the group’s “brand” from others on the left. Why not adopt a much simpler program based on Dina Adams’s words: “Stop screwing up our lives”.

Yes, youth will be heard.

While Obama has gotten pats on the back from the liberal left on his decision to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, it would be more accurate to say that he made this decision more on the basis of stopping the blows raining down on his back, head, and shoulders from young activists tired of dealing with the immigration cops that he had sent after them.

The NY Times reported on June 17:

In recent weeks, the White House faced intense pressure from some of its closest allies — their voices often raised in frustration — to provide some relief for immigrant communities. The urging came from Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the top two Democrats in the Senate, and the Hispanic caucus in the House of Representatives, as well as Latino and immigrant leaders across the country.

Bleak figures reported early this month by the Department of Homeland Security showed that a yearlong program designed to shift enforcement away from illegal immigrants who pose no security risk was not producing results, with only about 500 young students nationwide spared from deportation.

And last week, students without immigration papers started a campaign of sit-ins and hunger strikes at Obama campaign offices in more than a dozen cities, saying that despite his promises, the president was continuing to deport immigrants like them.

I’d like to think that those sit-ins and hunger strikes were ignited not only by Obama’s reactionary nativist policies but by the example last year of young people putting their bodies on the line.

Here’s a good look at what they were doing:

April 11, 2011

The Libyan rebels and human rights

Filed under: immigration,Libya,racism — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

On March 31, 2011 Wolfgang Weber published an article entitled,“Libyan rebels massacre black Africans.” The article appeared on numerous websites simultaneously. As the title suggests, Weber alleges that rebel forces have engaged in repeated massacres of black Africans. He provides no footnotes or other citations. He alleges that his primary source of information is an article by the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn from the March 22, 2011 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. A search of that newspaper’s website yielded no such article, although several other Heinsohn articles on unrelated topics did appear. Nor did repeated google searches  produce evidence of such a Heinsohn article. And I have found no other references to it, which is strange because Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is a world-reknowned newspaper.[xii]

When dealing with difficult subjects like this we need to be careful. We should be open-minded enough to accept facts which may challenge our assumptions. At the same time, it is irresponsible to engage in rumor mongering. From the scattered bits of reliable evidence we can piece together a story that is not pretty. But nor does it confirm the wild allegations promoted on numerous pro-Qaddafi, or anti-rebellion websites.

Like many petro-dictators, Qaddafi has relied on immigrant workers who come to Libya for employment opportunities. They come from eastern and southern Asia, the middle east, and northern Africa. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center estimates that sub-Saharan workers constitute as much as one-third of Libya’s active workforce.[xiii] Estimates vary, however. Precise demographic data is difficult to come by in a police state. Under Qaddafi’s rule immigrant workers had no legal rights and were barred from joining even the legally-constrained trade unions.

As is often the case in countries with large numbers of migrant workers, there have been periodic waves of anti-immigrant violence. Human Rights Watch has tracked cases of mob violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Libya since 2006.[xiv]

The outbreak of civil war in late February had particularly devastating effects on immigrant workers. Entire cities have been vacated. Production in many areas has shut down. HRW reports that thousands of migrants have been attempting to flee Libya since the beginning of the conflict. Those whose home countries have been willing to send rescue ships have been the lucky ones. Many others have been trapped in refugee camps, living in terrible conditions.

Within the camps several sub-Saharan workers have reported being victimized by mob violence. So far the reports do not make clear who the mobs were, or whether they have any connection to the rebel organizations. Nor, from the limited number of reports, can we estimate how many have been killed. [xv]

There is some evidence that some rebel fighters and authorities are guilty of racial profiling and racial violence. Included among the testimony provided to Human Rights Watch are accounts of beatings at the hands of rebel fighters. In reaction to Qaddafi’s widely-reported use of mercenaries from Chad and Niger[xvi], some Black Africans in Benghazi have been arrested on spurious evidence of collaboration with the regime. Again, it is difficult to tell how widespread this is. Most reports refer to a single event in Benghazi involving fewer than ten people. But it would not be surprising if it occurred more frequently, given the chaos of civil war, the primitive character of revolutionary justice in general, and the racial bigotry which is undoubtedly still common-place.

A March 29, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail article provides some details of the above-mentioned events. It also indicates that the human rights situation has improved since mid-March. The TNC has appointed human rights activist Mohamed el-Allagi as its new Minister of Justice and has welcomed the involvement of HRW and the Red Cross to improve its human rights record. Whether this is more PR than reality, and whether el-Allagi will actually have power over anything is yet to be seen.[xvii]

We should be critically open-minded about these events. It may be that some rebel forces have  engaged in reprehensible attacks. And we should have no illusions that a successful revolution will end such attacks, any more than the Egyptian revolution has ended religious or gender violence. What we can say with confidence is that if the Qaddafi regime prevails it will reinstitute all of the racist policies that have made immigrant workers second-class citizens, and created the conditions for racial and ethnic conflicts. If the revolution succeeds, there is at least the possibility of new political forces emerging which can envision a different kind of social order.

read full article

March 25, 2011


Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

In many ways, the title of the film “Illegal” that opens today at the Cinema Village in New York should be “Nobody is illegal” since this is about as hard-hitting and politically engaged as any movie ever made on the plight of undocumented workers. While Americans might assume that the protagonists are Latinos, who bear the brunt of nativist repression, the film takes place in Belgium and tells the story of Tania, a teacher from Byelorussia who now works cleaning offices at night.

In the opening moments, we see Tania sitting on a sofa drinking vodka straight from a bottle. It turns out that she is not dissolute, only seeking to dull the pain that awaits her. Once she is sufficiently dosed, she takes a steam iron and proceeds to apply the iron against her fingertips in an attempt to conceal her identity. From this moment onwards, we understand that being deported is a fate worse than hell. The fact that “Illegal” does not spell out what makes her so afraid does not diminish it. All we need to know is that for some people becoming an undocumented worker in another country is a lesser evil, and one necessary to assume.

Tania has a young son named Ivan who she dotes on. She has decorated their modest apartment with banners and tinsel, although he complains that he would rather celebrate with his friends. The next day, Tania and Ivan are confronted outside their building by a couple of cops who demand to see her papers. When she can only show them a health service id, they insist that she bring them back to her apartment where the papers (false, as it turns out) can be found. They are interested in finding out where she got the documents from and will pressure her to name the supplier, a thuggish Russian named Mr. Novak who controls her and her son through his power over her identification papers.

Tania tries to flee the cops who wrestle her to the ground. She cries out to Ivan to run away, which he does with mixed feelings. Now he will be on his own. Like all young men who complain about smother love, he will find it hard to live without her.

She is taken to a detention center where most of the action of this taut and powerful film takes place. It is in many ways a prison genre work, including a food fight done as comic relief, but with the added dimension of being a foreigner. Some of the most interesting scenes involve her in discussions with a female guard who has no enthusiasm for her job but needs the money. Tania develops close ties to another woman from Mali who has been beaten repeatedly for the guards by refusing to voluntarily return to her country. This is the same fate that awaits Tania as well.

In almost a documentary fashion, the film details the dehumanization that all jailed “illegal” immigrants face. In one truly memorable scene, we see Tania being “processed” through an airport building set up exclusively for deportees. After being forced to strip and put up with an invasive search (for god knows what), she is corralled into a tiny and poorly lit cell awaiting being put on a plane destined to Eastern Europe. It is like watching a steer being put through a meat packing house assembly line.

“Illegal” was directed by Oliver Masset-Depasse and stars Anne Coesens as Tania. She is brilliant.

In the press notes, the director is interviewed by Mattieu Recarte who asks:

Tania, the main character, is a Russian “illegal alien,” as the authorities say. Shouldn’t the French title have used the feminine spelling for illegal immigrant?

Masset-Depasse’s reply:

No, because it’s the “System,” a masculine word in French, that I consider “illegal,” not Tania. The administrative detention centers found in our countries, which supposedly respect human rights, are illegal. The vast majority of illegal immigrants held in these centers have had to flee extreme poverty, dictatorship, war etc., and when after an often trying and dangerous journey, they end up in our countries; we welcome them by putting them in prison. They are treated like criminals.

In fact, Belgium has already been convicted four times by the European Court of Human Rights for inhuman or degrading treatment. That shows you to what extent my country lives up to its ideals.

Using a modesty of means, “Illegal” tells a story that is not only dramatically compelling but politically necessary. One would only hope that young American film-makers will follow suit.

October 10, 2010

Bob Dylan’s letter to the INS defending John Lennon

Filed under: immigration,music,repression — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

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