Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 9, 2014

Thoughts triggered by Max Blumenthal tweets about Ukrainian fascists

Filed under: anti-Semitism,Fascism,imperialism/globalization,Russia,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

So I think I am getting the hang of this twitter thing. Basically it allows a wide range of “personalities”, whether from Hollywood or those who write for the Nation, to keep their followers (literally, that’s what they are called) to keep track of their comings and goings, or their musings—the sort of thing that used to be found on lavatory walls. Like this:

Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 2.01.30 PM
Just as importantly, it allows the latter group of personalities to make observations about current events without taking the trouble to explain themselves, after all 140 characters does not give you much room for thoughtful analysis. The strategy is to post a link to a picture, a Youtube clip, or an article (probably in descending order) that speaks for itself. When I have asked one of these people for further explanation, they ignore me. Who can blame them, I guess.

Of all the personalities I follow, none epitomizes this form of communications more than Max Blumenthal who has unleashed a steady stream of links to Youtube clips, etc. that would lead any sensible person to conclude that Ukraine is roughly equivalent to Germany after Hitler’s election in 1932. This is typical:

Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 2.09.59 PM

If Max had a blog like Richard Seymour, another personality into twittering, then it might be possible to engage with him. I suppose if I had a big megaphone like Blumenthal, I wouldn’t put up with disagreeable riffraff myself. But then again, thinking about what a prick I can be, I probably would.

Although I admire Max and consider him one of the leading lights of the liberal left, I have to wonder how much grounding he has in Marxism. Probably none, I’m afraid. Nazism and all the other forms of fascism were defense mechanisms against a rising proletarian resistance to economic ruin. Once fascists come to power, they break the back of the socialist left and the trade unions by imprisoning or killing its leaders and members alike. You know how Martin Niemüller put it: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist; Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.”

While there are theoretical debates among Marxists about whether fascism was a meaningful threat after WWII (for reasons too complex to go into here), you can say that the Greek junta of 1967 and the Pinochet dictatorship had many of the same characteristics of classical fascism, first and foremost the need to destroy a militant left and trade union movement.

So I wonder what exactly this has to do with the Ukraine. I can’t imagine that the fascists have any enemies in the Western half of the nation since people like Blumenthal probably regard them as having the same mindset as most Israelis. I can just see him going down the streets of Ukraine with his video camera getting somebody chosen at random to blurt out how much they love Stephen Bandera, the patron saint of the Ukrainian right.

One wonders how much success he would have in finding such people given the findings of a scholarly poll on attitudes toward the armed forces during WWII. It turns out that 75 percent of Ukrainians would have backed the Soviet Army while Bandera’s Ukrainian Insurgent Army was a choice of only 8% of the respondents. You can read all about it here.

I’ve heard from one well-known leftist that fascism was not so much a threat against the Ukrainian working-class but against Russia. I tried to picture what that meant, that fascist gangs would pour across the border and launch storm-trooper type attacks on a working class that is not particularly well-known for general strikes and the like? From what I can gather, it is not so much that but fears—particularly those raised at places like Global Research—that a united front of the EU, NATO, the Obama White House, John McCain, Nicholas Kristof and Ukrainian fascists is plotting to provoke a war that will open Russia up for imperialist penetration after the fashion of the wars in Yugoslavia. They see Putin as a Milosevic type figure mounting a nationalistic defense of his nation’s assets. I have heard this argument repeatedly from the Global Research left whenever something like Chechnya or Georgia crops up. Even when Western imperialism shows little interest in going to war (or even gives its benediction to the suppression of the Chechen revolt), nothing changes. WWIII is always on the horizon.

Do any of these people have any idea of the character of the Russian economy? Here it is from Russia Today, the horse’s mouth:

Russia in world’s top 3 recipients of foreign investment for first time – UN

Published time: January 29, 2014 14:55

Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia reached a record $94 billion in 2013, a leap of 83 percent on the year before according to a United Nations report. Russia follows the US and China as the third most attractive country for investors.

The Global FDI research published by the UNCTAD – the UN agency responsible for international trade and development – has Russia jumping 6 places from its 9th spot in 2012.

The shift was primarily caused by the UK’s BP taking an 18.5 percent stake in Rosneft as part of Rosneft’s $57 billion acquisition of TNK-BP.

“FDI in the Russian Federation is expected to keep pace with its 2013 performance as the Russian Government’s Direct Investment Fund [RDIF] – a $10 billion fund to promote FDI in the country – has been very actively deployed in collaboration with foreign partners, for example funding a deal with Abu Dhabi’s state-owned Mubadala Development Company to invest up to $5 billion in Russian infrastructure,” the report says.

The RDIF sealed 6 long-term investment contracts worth above $8 billion last year, which also included deals with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, France’s Caisse Des Depots International, Italy’s Fondo Strategico Italiano and the Korea Investment Corporation, the fund said in the e-mailed press-release.

As Blumenthal’s daily diet of “the fascists are coming” tweets arrived, a ring of familiarity set in. Hadn’t I heard of such a spurious amalgam before? And, bingo, I finally figured out the origin this morning,

That’s Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and Der Fuhrer. For decades now, enemies of the Palestinian people have tried to smear all forms of resistance to the Zionist state as sympathetic to Nazism and/or anti-Semitism.

Zionists love to bring up what Hitler said whenever they debated people like Max Blumenthal:

Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews. That naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine….Germany would furnish positive and practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle….Germany’s objective [is]…solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere….In that hour the Mufti would be the most authoritative spokesman for the Arab world. The Mufti thanked Hitler profusely.

They pull the same crap with Hezbollah. A photo of one of their rallies has made the rounds on many Zionist websites:

Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 3.23.47 PMThe NY Sun, an arch-reactionary an arch-Zionist newspaper, is fond of slinging mud at Hezbollah:

Hezbollah’s Nazi Tactics

By STEVEN STALINSKY | July 26, 2006

“Just like Hitler fought the Jews, we are a great Islamic nation of jihad, and we too should fight the Jews and burn them.”

— Hisham Shamas, political science student, at a symposium hosted by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV at Lebanon’s largest and only government-run university, Université Libanaise, November 29, 2005

Hezbollah celebrates Holocaust denial, as well. “Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust,” the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said on April 9, 2000. During an appearance on Al-Manar on February 3, Sheik Nasrallah called Europe’s leading Holocaust denier, Roger Garaudy, “a great French philosopher.” On February 23, Sheik Nasrallah appeared on Al-Manar and praised another leading European Holocaust denier, David Irving, for having “denied the existence of gas chambers.

(I defended Hezbollah against the charge of anti-Semitism here http://louisproyect.org/2007/02/06/is-nasrallah-an-anti-semite/.)A

Hamas gets the mud slung at them as well. Here’s a photo of a recent rally:

The picture of Sisi and Hitler carry the words: “Hitler killed the Jews for his people, al-Sisi kills his people for the Jews.”

I think that Hezbollah and Hamas make all sorts of mistakes but linking them to fascism is a filthy slander that only Zionism is capable of, especially offensive considering how Gaza has become Israel’s Warsaw Ghetto.

Although I doubt that this will make much difference to Blumenthal or any other liberal who has made up his mind that the Ukrainians are scary, beady-eyed monsters ready to lynch the first Jew they get their hands on, this is what Ukraine’s official Jewry had to say about the fascist threat:

An open letter to Vladimir Putin from prominent Ukrainian Jews has accused the Russian president of using false claims of ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism to legitimise intervention in Ukraine.

“Historically, Ukrainian Jews are mostly Russian-speaking,” begins the letter, dated Friday March 7, which calls on Putin to withdraw his forces from Crimea.

“Our opinion on what is happening carries no less weight than the opinion of those who advise and inform you.”

The signatories, among them scholars, scientists, businessmen, artists and musicians, firmly reject the line put forward by Putin in a press conference on Tuesday that the protest movement that removed president Viktor Yanukovich was made up of “anti-Semitic forces on the rampage”.

“Your certainty about the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, which you expressed at your press conference, does not correspond to the actual facts,” the letter continues. “Perhaps you got Ukraine confused with Russia, where Jewish organisations have noticed growth in anti-Semitic tendencies last year.”

And while the signatories accept the existence of “some nationalistic groups” in the anti-Yanukovich protest movement, they insist that “even the most marginal do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behaviour”.

“And we certainly know that our very few nationalists are well-controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government – which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.”

Finally, and even more incontrovertibly, there’s the statement made by highly reputable researchers on the Ukrainian and East European far right:

We are a group of researchers who comprise specialists in the field of Ukrainian nationalism studies, and most of the world’s few experts on the post-Soviet Ukrainian radical right. Some of us publish regularly in peer-reviewed journals and with academic presses. Others do their research within governmental and non-governmental organizations specializing on the monitoring of xenophobia in Ukraine.

As a result of our professional specialization and research experience, we are aware of the problems, dangers and potential of the involvement of certain right-wing extremist groupings in the Ukrainian protests. Following years of intensive study of this topic, we understand better than many other commentators the risks that its far right participation entails for the EuroMaidan. Some of our critical comments on nationalist tendencies have triggered angry responses from ethnocentrists in Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora living in the West.

While we are critical of far right activities on the EuroMaidan, we are, nevertheless, disturbed by a dangerous tendency in too many international media reports dealing with the recent events in Ukraine. An increasing number of lay assessments of the Ukrainian protest movement, to one degree or another, misrepresents the role, salience and impact of Ukraine’s far right within the protest movement. Numerous reports allege that the pro-European movement is being infiltrated, driven or taken over by radically ethnocentrist groups of the lunatic fringe. Some presentations create the misleading impression that ultra-nationalist actors and ideas are at the core or helm of the Ukrainian protests. Graphic pictures, juicy quotes, sweeping comparisons and dark historical references are in high demand. They are combined with a disproportionate consideration of one particularly visible, yet politically minor segment within the confusing mosaic that is formed by the hundreds of thousands of protesters with their different motivations, backgrounds and aims.

Here are some of the researchers who signed this statement, starting from the top:

  • Iryna Bekeshkina, researcher of political behavior in Ukraine, Sociology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, Ukraine
  • Tetiana Bezruk, researcher of the far right in Ukraine, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine
  • Oleksandra Bienert, researcher of racism and homophobia in Ukraine, PRAVO. Berlin Group for Human Rights in Ukraine, Germany
  • Maksym Butkevych, researcher of xenophobia in post-Soviet Ukraine, “No Borders” Project of the Social Action Center at Kyiv, Ukraine
  • Vitaly Chernetsky, researcher of modern Ukrainian and Russian culture in the context of globalization, University of Kansas, USA

Now maybe all of them are secretly in cahoots with the ultraright. I guess we’ll have to wait for the next intercept of a phone call between one of them and a Svoboda goose-stepping thug to prove that. Let’s see when the Russian security forces come up with. My only advice is to read it very carefully since they have a way of slinging the bullshit around.

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.

January 1, 2014

Benign globalization

Filed under: dance,imperialism/globalization,music — louisproyect @ 12:15 am

December 26, 2013

What’s going on in the Ukraine?

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

Attacking the Lenin statue in Kiev. Is this the whole story?

The last time I paid any attention to the Ukraine was back in 2004 when the country was in the throes of a “color revolution”, which for much of the left is all you really need to know. If the USA has donated money or organized training sessions for some dissident movement, it is your revolutionary duty to support the government. Perhaps there is no website more consistent in its commitment to this kind of Manicheanism than Global Research. Two years ago when the Egyptian military was closing down NGO’s, Tony Cartalucci, one of their daftest contributors, took the side of the military in an article titled The US Engineered “Arab Spring”: The NGO Raids in Egypt.

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

There’s not a single word in the article about economic suffering, torture, lack of elementary democratic rights, or any other grievance that brought people  into Tahrir Square.

Despite my strong commitment to exposing the role of NATO and Western banks in Yugoslavia, I always had my doubts about some of the people who were Cartalucci think-alikes particularly Jared Israel and James Petras. Oddly enough, their embrace of a common methodology led them to diametrically opposed positions on Zionism and Israel. Jared Israel became a rabid Likudnik (maybe he always was one), while Petras began writing some truly obnoxious garbage about how the Jews were dictating American foreign policy.

What finally convinced me to break with this methodology was the way that Ukraine was being treated, as if it the same story as Yugoslavia. Back in 2004 I signaled my determination to follow my own path:

Although my writings on Yugoslavia have tended to link me–mistakenly– in some quarters with this point of view, I am by no means sympathetic to it. For example, I hold Robert Mugabe in very low esteem, despite the fact that he is Enemy Number One of the liberal NGO’s. You simply can’t put a plus where the bourgeoisie puts a minus. You really need to have a much more nuanced approach. In the case of the Ukraine, you seem to have a conflict developing between imperialism and the Russian government over the Ukraine’s future. Although I can be mistaken, it seems to me that this will never achieve the kind of sharpness that the Nato-Serb conflict achieved.

At the time I found Boris Kargalitsky’s analysis persuasive:

The theories that a pro-American opposition is battling with a pro-Moscow political elite do not hold water. Yushchenko is without a doubt pro-American. But the same can be said for all the current leaders in Ukraine. After all, it was current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his prime minister, Yanukovych, who sent troops to Iraq. They created an absurd crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations over a dam near the tiny island of Tuzla in straits between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In contrast, right at the height of the confrontation in Kiev, the Verkhovnaya Rada resolved to withdraw Ukraine’s troops from Iraq. Communists and socialists were joined in their support of the measure by a significant number of Yushchenko supporters.

It is difficult to call Russia’s leadership anti-American or anti-Western. None other than President Vladimir Putin himself publicly announced his support of George W. Bush during the recent U.S. presidential elections. And while the Moscow television channels were condemning American involvement in Ukraine, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists about possible plans to arm local forces in Iraq under U.S. control, as well as to send military specialists to Iraq.

The Cold War was a confrontation of two economic and political systems. But now Russia and the West share the same system, capitalism. The real axis of confrontation in world politics is no longer the standoff between NATO and the long-defunct Eastern Bloc, but the standoff between the dollar and the euro blocs. The Kremlin can’t seem to make up its mind which side to take in this rivalry, dodging back and forth between Brussels and Washington and dooming itself to a whole string of unilateral concessions to both competing sides.

Not surprisingly, the same people who took the side of Yanukovych in 2004 are backing him now. They obviously have made up their mind on the basis of two incidents, the first was the toppling of a Lenin statue in Kiev; the second was John McCain’s appearance next to Oleh Tyahnybok, a leader of the ultraright and anti-Semitic Svoboda party that has links to the BNP in England. Of course, it is hard to keep track of the game without a scorecard. When Bashar al-Assad invites Nick Griffin, the head of the BNP, to Syria, these people shrug their shoulders and say “big deal”. This does not even get into the question of Yanukovych’s ties to the Kremlin. Maybe I am missing something but aren’t Russian skinheads not only torturing gays but posting their feats on Youtube?

So that’s where I left things in 2004. Now that Ukraine is in the news again, I will take advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University and see what Lexis-Nexis has to say on what has transpired over nearly the past decade.

Yanukovych was elected Prime Minister in 2010, replacing the pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko who was arrested for corruption that year. A year later she was sentenced to seven years in prison. While you might jump to the conclusion that she was being punished for being an enemy of the Ukraine-Russia alliance, the charges were not quite what you’d expect as Fred Weir reported in the Christian Science Monitor (Weir is a very good reporter with solid Marxist training who used to write for “In These Times”):

Tymoshenko’s supporters have rallied to her defense, both the US and the European Union have expressed deep concern over what they suspect to be a “politically motivated” trial. Even Russia is growling angrily about Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to make the centerpiece of the case a controversial 2009 gas agreement that Tymoshenko signed with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Yanukovych’s decision to put Tymoshenko on trial looks increasingly irrational,” says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. “By putting a defeated opponent in the dock, he granted her a whole new political lease on life.

“And by indirectly implicating top Russian leaders in the case, especially Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych has aroused the anger of the Kremlin,” he adds. “That gas deal was Putin’s brainchild, and calling it into question puts his personal prestige and credibility on the line.”

Also, going against the grain of “color revolution” simplicities, there was every indication that Yanukovych intended at first to carry out the same economic policies as his pro-Western predecessor. In 2007 the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported:

Brussels, 27 March: Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has a dream that Ukraine will begin talks on EU membership under his government.

Yanukovych was speaking at a sitting of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Yanukovych recalled that once, speaking in Washington, he said that dialogue between Ukraine and the EU would be deepened when he is prime minister. He said that that is still his dream. “I am lucky,” he said, recalling that the EU-Ukraine action plan was signed during his first term as prime minister [in 2002-04]. Yanukovych is confident that during his second term, Ukraine will become a member of the World Trade Organization, conclude an intensified agreement with the EU and set up a free-trade zone with the EU.

Yanukovych believes that an intensified agreement will be similar to a European document on associate membership. He added that it would provide for political association and economic integration.

After being elected two years later, Yanukovych soon found himself in the driver’s seat of a nation mired in economic crisis. In the face of mounting debt and deep social unrest, Yanukovych veered between the EU and Russia. On December 12th he turned to the West:

The Ukrainian government has asked the EU for Euro 20bn (£16.85bn) to sign a major trade deal with the bloc, after thousands of riot police failed to destroy a pro-EU protest camp in the centre of the capital, Kiev, yesterday.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov announced the government would be sending a delegation to Brussels to discuss new terms for signing the historic Association Agreement, which Ukraine unceremoniously spurned last month in favour of moving further into the power orbit of Russia.

–The Independent, December 12, 2013

But in the end it was Russia that came through:

Russia threw Ukraine an economic lifeline on Tuesday, agreeing to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and to reduce the price its cash-strapped neighbour pays for vital Russian gas supplies by about one-third.

The deal, reached at talks in Moscow between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders, is intended to help Ukraine stave off economic crisis though Moscow will hope it keeps Kyiv in its political and economic orbit.

The agreement could also fuel protests in Kyiv against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who faces accusations of “selling” Ukraine to the highest bidder after spurning a trade deal with the European Union.

–The Toronto Star, December 18, 2013

So, those of you who look at Yanukovych as some kind of heroic Bolivaran type anti-imperialist fighter are welcome to your views even if they are arrived at in total ignorance of the facts. People like Tony Cartalucci, in other words.

It is probably not news to most of you that I have grown totally disgusted with any Marxism that makes concessions to someone like Cartalucci whose “anti-imperialism” would dovetail nicely with that of the ultraright when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa. Some of the most incisive commentary on the Middle East has come from anarchists in fact, as well as from some Marxists that still have a brain and a heart—like Joseph Daher and Gilbert Achcar.

I doubt that at the age of 68 I will ever come out as anarchist—mostly because I still retain a big commitment to the best of Marxism, from CLR James to Jim Blaut. But I can’t help but noticing that the best article I have seen so far on events in the Ukraine can be seen at Tahrir-International Collective Network, a website that supports the “the fight for a free and self-governed society based on tolerance, equality and openness, the society in which the social side is placed above the mercantile.” I urge you to read the article there titled “UKRAINE: What’s Going On, And What Does It Mean?” It is really damned good as this excerpt would indicate, even if I take exception to his characterization of Cuba and Nicaragua in the last paragraph. As Joe E. Brown told Jack Lemmon in the final seconds of “Some Like it Hot”, nobody’s perfect:

Yanukovych and his pals probably wanted the deal off until they get a better deal, because they see their protected business interests threatened by competition from the EU, by higher energy prices and maybe also by mass anger against EU-style austerity when it comes. And he and his pals have something to defend. “Yanukovych has led the country to the brink of financial collapse as his coterie and his financial backers grow insanely and obscenely rich”(Ian Traynor, Guardian, 1 December 2013, ) The man himself is a “very wealthy man with a a large estate outside of Kiev”, according to another Guardian piece by the same writer. Where did his wealth come from? Not from heritage, for he was from a rather poor background. Politics-as-business, also known as corruption, may be the name of the game. He and his friends have much to loose, and beyond this, they feel pressurized by Russia, the big gas exporter, former imperial overlord and strong neighbour. The Yakunovych wing of the ruling class, with its entrenched interests and geopolitical ties, and with their armies of riot cops, are no pushover.

So there we have it. Entrenched power-holders, filthily rich and well-connected with Russia, and with armed force available, on the one hand; strong EU-oriented business and political interests interests on the other. Modernized austerity as an alternative to traditional corrupt business as usual. Not much to choose there. This is an intra-business conflict, in which the pro-EU wing of the ruling class succeeds in raising an impressive stage army of protesters. There is no reason whatsoever for the taking of sides here.

But then, the riddle begins. One can imagine opposition politicians mobilizing their supporters, in their thousands and in their tens of thousands. But in the last few days, we hear about hundreds of thousands in the capital Kiev alone. Half a million people in the cold streets, confronting riot cops and cold winds and snow, just because they would rather be exploited from Brussel-oriented business than from Moscow-oriented business? People barricading streets, blockading and occupyingh buildings becuase the prefer EU austerity above old-school corruption? It does not sound plausible. It does not make sense. There are more factors at play.

Not the whole movement consists of supporters of the traditional opposition parties. There is a strong, student-based movement that tries to keep all politicians at a distance. Here is how Marina Lewycka, already quoted, describes it: “For the young people in the square, this whole game of political tit-for-tat is what they reject.” One of the places these wing of the movement appartently gets inspiration from is the Occupy movement, according to Claire Biggs who explains on 25 November: “Unlike the Orange Revolution, the current protests are divided into two separate rallies – one by young nonpartisan activists inspired by the Occupy movement, the second, concentrated on another Kyiv square, by political parties.” Now, the Occupy movement, whatever its failings, was not a very pro-EU movement, as people may recall. It was not a very pro-business movement either. Claire Biggs, 27 November on RFE/ RL : “The demonstrations have brought to the forefront a new generation of protesters that grew up in an independent Ukraine and have few – if any – memories of the Soviet Union. They see themselves as Europeans, they are disillusioned with politics-as-usual, and they feel increasingly at odds with establishment opposition figures.”

Here, the story gets interesting. These young people may function – ‘objectively speaking’, to use some old-fashioned jargon – as a stage army for the opposition. But they don ‘t see themselves that way, and there is no guarantee that they will behave that way. People assembled in mass protests day after day – for whatever reason – tend to gain in self-confidence, may start to develop ideas of their own, and may get into the habit of acting upon them.. And there is tension between these kind of protesters and the more traditional political opposition. “So far, most of the opposition leaders have refused to heed students’ requests to get rid of party symbols.” One side demands, another side does not comply. This is a recipe for people taking a direction that opposition politicians do not like.

As we already saw, there are not one, but two centres of assembly, one for the traditional parties, one for the younger, Occupy-style protesters. On the latter, we read interesting things: “Coordinating committees have been set up, with volunteers distributing blankets, food, and warm clothes donated by supporters. In Kyiv, the coordinating committee also organizes private accomodation for demonstrators travelling from other cities.” This is in no sense an anti-capitalist movement, and I have not seen any signs of workers in action for demands of their own. Yes, there have been a calls for a general strike. But one such call was put forward by “the regional authorities” in and around Lviv, according to Shaun Walker in the the Guardian on 1 December. Now, Lviv is a city in the West of the country where the opposition is strong. So this is probably a call by the party political opposition. This means that the action may be general, but not an workers’ strike in an serious sense. So, no, no independent workers’ role to be seen. But there is that odd bit of horizontal practice, that do-it-yourself-attitude, that characterizes radical movements, combined with the most un-radical political ideas. It is a weird mixture. But clearly, the domination of pro-business, pro-EU right wing politicians is not at all complete.

Of course, the pro-European attitude of even the Occupy-style activists is weird and misplaced. The EU is not the paradise of liberty and modernity that demonstrators may believe it to be. Roma persecuted in France and elsewhere, refugees detained and deported or being left to drown in the Mediterranean, anti-austerity protestors and antifascists being beaten back by riot police in city after city… all these people could tell a story or two of liberty, EU style. If Ukraine ever becomes an EY country, it will not look like Germany. It may look like Spain, or Greece.. Or like Slovenia, where there has been a strong movement against austerity already. ‘Europe’, for the Ukraine protesters, functions as a kind of myth, just like the Soviet Union functioned as a myth for too many radicals in the Nineteen Thirties, just like Cuba and China functioned as myths in the Sixties and Nicaragua in the Eighties. We should expose the lies behind the myth; but we should also be able to notice what is behind the attraction of the myth: a desire for freedom, a rejection of politics-Yanukovych-style. The desire and the rejection itself are fully justified; but the political expression in a pro-EU-direction is reactionary.

In my next post, I will ask the same kinds of questions about Thailand.

August 5, 2013

Leftist support for BRICS: a faith-based initiative

Filed under: Africa,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

One of the odder items to show up on my radar screen recently was the eThekwini Declaration on BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation adopted at a conference in Durban, South Africa on March 27, 2013. I found a copy of the declaration at the University of Toronto BRICS Information Centre, along with an analysis. You can get a flavor for who’s behind the Information Centre from one of the co-authors of the analysis, a certain John Kirton who is the author of many books and articles urging a more compassionate capitalism. Building Democratic Partnerships: The G8-Civil Society Link is fairly typical, with a warning that the police killing of an anarchist protestor at a G8 meeting in Genoa was ill-advised. We can’t have that, can we?

Kirton called the Durban conference “a productive performance” that was “also a promising one for the future,” as well he should. When you stop and think about it, there are no differences between the G8 nations and the BRICS on the fundamental question of our day, namely whether the capitalist system should be abolished. For those on the left who carry the banner for the BRICS, this does not seem to matter very much. For them, the fundamental question is “imperialism”. The BRICS are “our” peeps because they challenge the USA here and there, Putin’s decision to allow Snowden to stay in Russia for a year being one example as well, of course, his military and diplomatic efforts on behalf of the blood-soaked Baathist regime in Syria.

One can easily understand the psychology of the BRICSite left. If Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro both aligned with the BRICS, who are we to quibble? What’s more, when Tom Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Barack Obama, Samantha Powers, and Louis Proyect say nasty things about Putin, isn’t that reason enough to back Putin?

To be perfectly blunt about it, there is an element of TINA in all this. If you accept the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism, then why not align yourself with the BRICS? They at least are devoted to a modicum of nationalist development, symbolized one gathers by Putin’s repudiation of Yeltsin’s groveling before Western banks and corporations. Yeah, Putin is a nasty piece of work with his ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, his homophobia, his tightening the screws on the political opposition, and all that but at least he ain’t as bad as Yeltsin. I should add that it is the same argument I have heard from Obama supporters on the left as well. How can you note vote for Obama with someone as bad as Mitt Romney ending up in the White House? He might even unleash the NSA on us. Furthermore, they are ill-disposed to standing up for the democratic rights of Putin’s opponents because that would undermine all the great progress being made in Russia.

I know that all this sounds insane but we are dealing with a bankrupt left that through its pretzel logic is driving just about every young person into the arms of the anarchist movement. Fuck it, if they dropped the black bloc tactic, I might join it myself especially since I can’t live without my morning Starbucks blonde.

Turning now to the eThekwini Declaration, you can’t help feeling that it was written by the same people who write those advertising supplements for the Sunday NY Times on “The new and dynamic South Africa” with pictures of wineries, gamboling elands, and a Black family in a BMW. The article starts off with the cheery affirmation: “As the global economy is being reshaped, we are committed to exploring new models and approaches towards more equitable development and inclusive global growth by emphasising complementarities and building on our respective economic strengths.”

Maybe they should start with a look at Durban itself to see how “equitable” that city is. Despite being the scenic host of many prestigious “progressive” conferences, including the one on climate change that failed to put forward any serious measures, Durban’s poor live in utter squalor as reflected in an 2007 Pambazuka article titled Children of a Lesser God: Durban’s legacy of poverty by public health worker Saranel Benjamin. Durban, South Africa’s most poverty-stricken major city in 2004 (44 percent of its citizens were beneath the poverty line), is noteworthy for the desperate conditions of its youth, as is of course the case with Brazil, another showcase. Benjamin writes:

Every night I am haunted by the faces of the children I meet during the day. Their stories weigh heavy on my heart and when I close my eyes I see their hungry, pained, desperate faces. I want to hug them all, save them all. I am riddled with guilt with every spoonful of food I put into my mouth, for the roof I have over my head, and the warm bed I have every night. I panic when it starts to rain because I think of Thabo, Senzo and all the other children who are sleeping on pavements with no shelter over their heads, getting drenched to the bone – six children sharing one tattered blanket. I look at the time. It is about 5pm. I know that the children will be going out, like stealth-hunters, spreading through the shadows of the city, scavenging in bins for food.

Hardly the sort of people who would be attending the BRICS conference.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a reference to South Africa’s neoliberal institution par excellence but the statement that “Within the framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), we support African countries in their industrialisation process through stimulating foreign direct investment, knowledge exchange, capacity-building and diversification of imports from Africa” brings back debates on Marxmail when there was still some lingering illusions in the ANC, mostly from aging former members of the SWP—even older than me.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the NY Times reported: “Attacks Have Immigrants Worried Again in South Africa”.  The situation appears grim:

A fresh wave of violence aimed at foreign citizens living here and in several other poor black communities outside Cape Town has raised new fears among residents, community leaders and advocates for poor refugees.

Some 200 Somali shops and an unknown number of others run by Chinese immigrants, Zimbabweans and others have been looted and sometimes burned to the concrete foundations in recent months, said Braam Hanekom, director of a Cape Town-based activist group called People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty.

That very NEPAD that the BRICS brass recommends for uniting Africans is in fact very likely an instrument of disunity as Shawn Hattingh argued in an article titled “Xenophobia, Neo-liberalism, and NEPAD: The End of African Unity?”. Hattingh states:

The South African corporate elite are certainly benefiting from NEPAD.   South African-registered companies are now the largest source of foreign direct investment in other African countries.  They have become major players in almost every economic sector in Africa.  The people of Africa, however, have not benefited from this.  This is because South African corporations and government-owned parastatals have become directly involved in exploiting Africa’s people and resources and in some cases even destabilizing parts of Africa.  This is due to the fact that South African corporations crowd out local capital in other African countries; South African corporations are mainly involved in predatory mergers and acquisitions in Africa; many South African corporations have been involved in the destruction of the environment in Africa; and many South African companies have been involved in undermining human rights in the countries in which they operate.  Indeed, 13 South African-registered companies were operating in the Congo during the war, and AngoGold Ashanti was directly involved in financially assisting one of the warlords involved in the conflict.  In Zimbabwe, a South African-based company Barloworld provided the bulldozers that were used by the ZANU-PF to destroy thousands of homes and informal traders’ stores during Operation Murambatsvina.  Providing these bulldozers proved very lucrative for Barloworld as they sold them to the Zimbabwe government for approximately US $123 000 each.  Many South African linked companies undermine workers’ rights in other African countries.  For example, Shoprite in Zambia pays its workers as little as $48 a month.  In Zimbabwe in 2001, the South African-based AngloGold Ashanti also used Mugabe’s riot police to brutally break up a strike at its Freda Rebecca mine.  The workers had gone on strike because of the appalling working conditions.  Between 1996 and 2003 there were 120 accidents reported at the mine.

So whose word are you going to take? The bullshit artists who wrote the eThekwini Declaration or Shawn Hattingh? I vote for Hattingh.

Most of the economic proposals in the declaration are as ludicrous as the one calling for operating within the NEPAD framework and are not worth answering. I do, however, want to take up a few of the war and peace issues.

The declaration states: “We commend the efforts of the international community and acknowledge the central role of the African Union (AU) and its Peace and Security Council in conflict resolution in Africa. We call upon the UNSC to enhance cooperation with the African Union, and its Peace and Security Council, pursuant to UNSC resolutions in this regard. We express our deep concern with instability stretching from North Africa, in particular the Sahel, and the Gulf of Guinea. We also remain concerned about reports of deterioration in humanitarian conditions in some countries.”

Just to give you an idea of how wretched the African Union as a peace-keeping force, I am going to quote from an article in the Party of Socialism and Liberation, a member in good standing of the BRICSite International:

After duly plunging the country back into war, the United States and European Union have gone to great lengths to support increases in AMISOM forces [African Union Mission in Somalia] and provide money, weapons and training to TFG troops. A recent report by The Nation details substantial CIA operations in Somalia, where it runs a secret prison and trains a secret police.

And even more revealingly, the African Union and AFRICOM, the chief imperialist gendarme in Africa according to the BRICSites, have played nice with each other:

U.S.-European imperialists initiate joint military exercises
November 4, 2010
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Published Nov 3, 2010

A 10-day joint military exercise involving the European Union, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the African Union headquarters based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was recently uncovered in a series of press releases from the Pentagon and other sources. Labeled “Amani Africa,” the operation brought together the combined forces of the EU, the Pentagon and 120 African military components.

Ostensibly designed to enhance the military and security capacity of the 53-member African Union states, the fact that both the EU and the Pentagon were heavily involved in this process raises questions about the role of the leading imperialist states in usurping and misdirecting African political and military policy on the continent. The joint exercises culminated on Oct. 29 with a VIP ceremony in the U.S.-backed state of Ethiopia.

According to African Union Commission Chair Jean Ping of Gabon, “The command post exercise is the culmination of two years of engagement and partnership throughout the Amani Africa cycle of preparations and activities, designed to both contribute toward and validate the operational readiness of the African Standby Force. The ASF therefore lies at the very core of the efforts of the African Union to take ownership of and lead in matters related to peace, security and development in Africa.” (U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, Oct. 27)

In a way, none of this matters since leftist support for the BRICS is what boils down to a faith-based initiative. The small scattered bands of aging leftists who can’t get over the fact that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are poised to become imperialist powers themselves as the awful 21st century lurches forward need something to keep them going, like Rosary beads. I personally prefer the truth.

You can get the truth from this stunning article that appeared in Pambazuka recently:

Brics lessons from Mozambique

Bobby Peek

2013-07-24, Issue 640

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/88334

Just across the border in Mozambique there is neo-colonial exploitation underway. It is not Europe or the United States that are dominating, but rather countries which are often looked up to as challengers, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This is a dangerous statement to make but let us consider the facts.

South Africa is extracting 415 megawatts of electricity from Mozambique through the Portuguese developed Cahora Bassa Dam, which has altered permanently the flow of the Zambezi River, resulting in severe flooding on a more frequent basis over the last years. In the recent floods earlier this year it is reported that a women gave birth on a rooftop of a clinic, this follows a similar incident in 2000, when Rosita Pedro was born on a tree after severe flooding that year.

South Africa’s failing energy utility Eskom is implicated in the further damming of the Zambezi, for it is likely to make a commitment to buy power from the proposed Mpanda Nkua Dam just downstream of Cahora Bassa. Most of the cheap energy generated by that dam is fed into a former South African firm, BHP Billiton, at the world’s lowest price – but jobs are few and profits are repatriated to the new corporate headquarters in Melbourne, Australia.

After years of extracting onshore gas from near Vilanculos, the South African apartheid-created oil company Sasol is planning to exploit what are some of Africa’s largest offshore gas fields, situated off Mozambique, in order to serve South Africa’s own export led growth strategy.

Brazil is also in Mozambique. Sharing a common language as a result of colonial subjugation by the Portuguese, business in Mozambique is easier. The result is that the Brazilian company Vale, which is the world’s second largest metals and mining company and one of the largest producers of raw materials globally, has a foothold in the Tete Province of Mozambique between Zimbabwe and Malawi. They are so sensitive about their operations there that an activist challenging Vale from Mozambique was denied entrance to Brazil last year to participate in the Rio +20 gathering. He was flown back to Mozambique, and only after a global outcry was made led by Friends of the Earth International, was he allowed to return for the gathering.

Further to this, India also has an interest in Mozambique. The Indian based Jindal group which comprises both mining and smelting set their eyes on Mozambican coal in Moatize, as well as having advanced plans for a coal-fired power station in Mozambique, again to create supply for the demanding elite driven economy of South Africa.

Russia also plays an interesting role in Mozambique. While not much is known about the Russian state and corporate involvement, following the break when the Soviet Union collapsed, there is a link with Russia’s Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation which has non-ferrous metal operations in Mozambique. Interestingly the Russian government has just invested R1.3 billion in Mozambique to facilitate skills development to actively exploit hydrocarbons and other natural resources, according to Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

So this tells a tale of one country, in which tens of billions of rands of investment by BRICS countries and companies in extracting minerals results in the extraction of wealth. Mozambique will join the Resourced Cursed societies of our region, with polluted local environments, and a changed structure of peoples’ lives, making them dependent on foreign decisions rather than their own local and national political power. This is not a random set of exploitations, but rather a well-orchestrated strategy to shift the elite development agenda away from Europe, the US and Japan, to what we now term the BRICS.

This positioning means that the BRICS drive for economic superiority is pursued in the name of poverty alleviation. No matter how one terms the process – imperialist, sub-imperialist, post-colonial, or whatever – the reality is that these countries are challenging the power relations in the world, but sadly the model chosen to challenge this power is nothing different from the model that has resulted in mass poverty and elite wealth globally.

This is the model of extraction and intensely capital-intensive development based upon burning and exploiting carbon, and of elite accumulation through structural adjustment also termed the Washington Consensus. The agenda of setting up the Brics Bank is a case in point: it is opaque and not open to public scrutiny. Except for the reality as presented above, these countries are coming together with their corporate powers to decide who gets what were in the hinterland of Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Caucuses.

It is projected that by 2050, Brics countries will be in the top ten economies of the world, aside for South Africa. So the question has to be asked why is South Africa in the Brics? Simply put, the reality is that South Africa is seen as a gateway for corporations into Africa, be they energy or financial corporations. This is because of South Africa’s vast footprint on the continent.

Remember Thabo Mbeki’s peace missions? Well they were not all about peace; they were about getting South African companies established in areas of unrest so that when peace happens they are there first to exploit the resources in these countries. This could potentially be a negative role, if South Africa is only used as a gateway to facilitate resources extraction and exploitation of Africa by BRIC countries, as it is now by the West. The question has to be asked by South Africans why do we allow this? I do not have the answer.

Returning to poverty alleviation, the reality is that in the BRICS countries we have the highest gap between those that earn the most and the poor, and this gap is growing. Calling the bluff of poverty alleviation is critical. How to unpack this opaque agenda of the Brics governments is a challenge. For while their talk is about poverty alleviation the reality is something else.

We recognise that what the BRICS is doing is nothing more than what the North has been doing to the South, but as we resist these practices from the North, we must be bold enough to resist these practices from our fellow countries in the South.

Thus critically, the challenge going forward for society is to understand the BRICS and given how much is at stake, critical civil society must scrutinise the claims, the processes and the outcomes of the BRICS summit and its aftermath, and build a strong criticism of the Brics that demands equality and not new forms of exploitation.

* Bobby Peek is director of the NGO groundWork

August 2, 2013

Our Children

Filed under: feminism,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Opening today at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Theater in Lincoln Center, “Our Children” is based on a tragic incident in which a Belgian woman named Genevieve Lhermitte killed her five children during a period of extreme psychological stress. She lived with her husband Bouchaib Moqadem in the house of an elderly Belgian physician upon whom the couple was dependent. Director and screenwriter Joachim Lafosse has taken the bare bones of the story and transformed it into a general meditation on dependency with the elderly doctor serving as a symbol of colonialism and the wife as her Moroccan husband’s subject within the household. At first blush, the title “Our Children” would seem to refer to the four children (the film changes the number of offspring for no obvious reason) but upon further reflection points to the colonial and patriarchal relationships that taint this tragic household.

Leaving no doubt about the outcome, the film starts with Murielle lying in a hospital bed inquiring whether it would be possible for her murdered children to be buried in Morocco. It was not what the young lovers Mounir and Murielle would have expected years earlier, driving along in their car in perfect bliss. He proposes and she accepts. He then reveals his plans to his adoptive father, a physician named André Pinget who scowls upon hearing the news, adding that a young man should not get married to the first woman who gives him a blow job.

Despite his seeming aversion to a perfectly lovely young woman who has the advantage of being an educated woman of good Belgian stock, he ultimately accepts her as a daughter-in-law and even more generously as a resident in the apartment that he has shared with Mounir since he was a young boy. For reasons never explored in the film, Pinget has become entwined with a Moroccan family. After marrying Mounir’s older sister solely to allow her to become a Belgian citizen, he adopts Mounir, leaving his younger brother to languish in a backward Moroccan village. When his brother comes to France for the wedding, he lashes out at him in resentment, telling him that everybody in the village “knows” that he in an incestuous relationship with his adoptive father.

Despite earning a medical degree, Mounir is having trouble finding work. In an interview, a Belgian doctor tells him that his skills are inadequate. Once again, Pinget comes to the rescue in dubious fashion. He invites Mounir to work for him, thus tightening his control over the young man.

As Pinget’s grip over Mounir tightens, so does his over his wife. Within what appears to be a span of about six years, four children have come into the world—three girls and a boy, the latest arrival. Like one of the women profiled in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, Murielle—an elementary schoolteacher forced to devote herself to child-rearing, cleaning, and preparing André and Mounir’s dinner—is growing increasingly desperate in a claustrophobic environment. After talking her husband into moving to Morocco, he broaches the subject with André who explodes at him: “I raised you for twenty years and now your are dumping me?” The solution is for the doctor and the family he controls with a tight leash is to move into a larger house. Of course, this is no solution at all and Murielle’s despair deepens.

In the press notes for “Our Children”, the finest narrative film I have seen in 2013, Joachim Lafosse touches on the subject of colonialism:

There is a colonialist dimension to the character: a European who has adopted a young North African…

Lafosse: Precisely. The problem with colonialism is that the colonizer doesn’t make his history with the colonized official, he doesn’t recognize it. It remains unofficial and secret for him. Doctor Pinget presents himself as Mounir’s adoptive father but he isn’t because he hasn’t given him his name. That’s why I would say instead that Mounir is Pinget’s protégé, with all the ambiguity that entails. That is one of the things that fascinated me. You don’t make a film with ideas but with characters. That’s the lesson that the Dardenne brothers teach us. And here the characters are what I care about. How do you break free of someone who has given you everything, who has been your protector, your teacher, your educator? It can be a dangerous gift. We can imagine that André Pinget finds it hard expressing his love, that he is concealing a fragile side of his personality. That is what I told Niels Arestrup who plays him: “Your character is like a little boy who has to hand out sweets all the time to have friends in the schoolyard! And if he doesn’t have any sweets, he thinks that no one will love him!” André can only imagine bonds from that angle. That is the tragedy of his life and it’s a vicious circle.

February 15, 2013

The sea cruise to hell

Filed under: capitalist pig,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:11 pm

Micky Arison, CEO of Carnival Cruise

As the sewage-laden Carnival Cruise ship staggered into Mobile, Alabama last night, the mainstream media has begun to analyze what went wrong. Almost every point is made, except the crucial one: corporate greed is what made this the cruise from hell.

When I was very young I looked forward to visits to New York City, especially the drive along the West Side Highway. Back then steamship cruises were still popular and our family would “ooh” and “aah” at the sight of the Queen Elizabeth, one of the most beautiful ships ever made.

Today it is impossible to distinguish one cruise ship from another, especially those that fly under the Carnival Cruise banner. Heavily advertised on television, the company markets to working class people, those who never would have booked a trip on the Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, the audience for the ads is the same as it is for the time-share resorts sold by David Siegel through Westgate, incorporated. In the documentary “Queen of Versailles”, which is focused on Siegel’s wife Jackie as she tries to adjust to a more modest life-style after the prime mortgage crash knocks Westgate on its ass, you can see couples being shown around a Siegel property in Las Vegas that has the cheap and gaudy allure of a Carnival Cruise liner.

Carnival Cruise’s CEO is Micky Arison, who lives in Florida like David Siegel and shares his Jewish ethnicity. He also owns the Miami Heat, the championship basketball team led by Lebron James.

“Devils on the Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America’s Cruise-Ship Empires” by Kristoffer A. Garin came out in 2005. The N.Y. Observer review provides background on the industry:

Mr. Garin begins by recounting the cruise industry’s exotic lineage. Its “grandfather” is F. Leslie Fraser, a Jamaican plantation owner who, between hobnobbing with Errol Flynn and General Rafael Trujillo, launched the first Miami-based pleasure cruise line in the 1950’s. His concept begat the “modern cruise industry’s founding fathers”: a Norwegian, Knut Kloster, and an Israeli, Ted Arison. The son of wealthy shipowners, Arison was a WWII veteran who smuggled Jews into Palestine, fought in the war for Israeli independence, emigrated from America (because, says Mr. Garin, he “wanted to be a self-made man”) and was eulogized by The Jerusalem Post as the “world’s richest Jew.”

But before that, Arison was Kloster’s partner in Norwegian Caribbean Lines. Their venture was successful, so successful that financial disputes drove a wedge between them. In 1971, Arison launched his own company, which pioneered the marketing scheme that redefined tackiness as we know it: the “fun ship” concept, which meant selling the ship, not the port of call, and catering to the lower, not upper tier of the market. It meant the birth, in other words, of the Wal-Mart of the sea: Carnival Cruise Lines, which now has a market capitalization of $36 billion and control of over 50 percent of the market.

From the start-up sagas of the 60’s, to the Love Boat era launched in 1977—when the television premiere of a “glorious, unapologetic shlockfest” became the best advertising cruise lines couldn’t buy—to the “Me Decade,” when bigger, fatter ships (and customers) proved that size does matter, Devils on the Deep Blue Sea traces the rise of the current industry trinity: Norwegian, Carnival and Royal Caribbean. But really it’s the story of Carnival, its rise from penny-pinching underdog to corporate behemoth (during the past decade, it rapaciously gobbled up rival cruise companies).

Carnival Cruise is the quintessential “globalization” entity. Using its foreign registry, it avoids American taxes and regulations, especially those that might protect the health and safety of its working class passengers and the super-exploited Third World workforce.

On December 24, 1999, the N.Y. Times described how both passengers and crew are sacrificed to the altar of profits:

Four Filipino waiters filed suit in state court in Miami three years ago, claiming that they had been blacklisted after objecting to being forced to return part of their tips to their cruise line and hiring a lawyer, Luis A. Perez, to represent them. Lawyers for Majesty Cruise Line, the company that employed the waiters, denied retaliating and said the lawsuit was the result of a misunderstanding. The case is pending.

Douglas B. Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights, which is affiliated with the Seamen’s Church Institute, said there was ample evidence of blacklists.

“There are so many people ready, willing and able to take these jobs that you are not going to find too many people willing to complain, because they are afraid of losing their job and being blacklisted,” Mr. Stevenson said.

In October, at a sentencing hearing in Miami for Royal Caribbean Cruises on pollution-law violations, the Justice Department said the disparity in work, pay and opportunities for advancement on ships made employees less likely to call attention to crimes like the cruise line’s years-long dumping of contaminated waste water.

“The work practices hardly empower the lowest levels to challenge pollution practices or provide such employees a direct route of communication with senior ship or shore-side managers, as good corporate compliance practices would dictate,” prosecutors said in court papers.

A Nexis search on “Carnival Cruise” and “accident” will return 816 articles. Here is a sampling:

Journal of Commerce, May 18, 1989, Thursday

SAFETY BOARD SAYS CRUISE LINE WON’T COOPERATE IN ITS PROBE

A cruise company whose luxury liner rammed into a Cuban merchant vessel, killing its captain and two seamen, is refusing to cooperate with federal investigators, according to safety officials.

A spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines Inc., however, said the Miami company is responding to investigators in Liberia, where its vessel is registered, and accused the head of the National Transportation Safety Board of making misleading and totally irresponsible” statements about the company.

The New York Times, June 20, 1995

Vessel Sent to Assist Stranded Cruise Ship

Carnival Cruise Lines sent out an ocean liner today to bring ashore, if necessary, more than 2,500 people left adrift on a ship in the Bahamas with no air conditioning or hot food after an electrical fire.

The blaze on Sunday in a control room left the ship, the Celebration, without a main power source, its engines unable to restart.

St. Petersburg Times (Florida), February 20, 1996

Pilot of stranded ship has a past

Harbor pilot Thomas Baggett, who only recently completed his probation from a fiery 1993 vessel crash in Tampa Bay, is under scrutiny again.

Baggett, 65, was guiding the Carnival cruise ship Tropicale on Sunday night when the ship and its 1,600 passengers and crew ran aground along a Tampa Bay channel 2 miles south of MacDill Air Force Base.

Baggett, who has been the subject of more state and federal disciplinary actions than any other harbor pilot on Tampa Bay, was released from probation on Jan. 10, state records said. The probation was imposed after hearings into the crash Aug. 10, 1993, of three vessels on Tampa Bay.

The Balsa 37, with Baggett as pilot, was outbound in Tampa Bay’s channels that morning. It collided with a barge carrying jet fuel and another barge carrying heavy bunker oil. More than 300,000 gallons of the oil spilled into Tampa Bay, coating beaches and soaking wildlife. It still sits on the bottom in spots of the bay. Cleanup costs approached $50-million.

It was Baggett’s fourth license suspension by state or federal authorities and fourth probation during his nearly 26-year piloting career. Baggett has also received three letters of guidance, a reprimand and an admonishment for his actions on the water during his career. A review of federal and state records after the 1993 crash found that Baggett had been involved in 19 mishaps or near-mishaps while piloting.

Sunday night was the third time Baggett was piloting a cruise ship when it ran into trouble, according to state and federal records. In 1984, the Scandinavian Star ran aground while Baggett was guiding. He was not disciplined. In 1987, Baggett’s license was suspended for 45 days when the Scandinavian Star, with Baggett at the controls, crashed into another ship while overtaking.

On land, Baggett once lost his driving privileges after being charged with drunken driving. He has been involved in four traffic accidents since 1984, according to state records. Last year, Baggett paid $ 105 in civil penalties after being ticketed for making an improper U-turn and having an expired registration, Pinellas court records show.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), July 21, 1998

60 PASSENGERS ARE INJURED IN CRUISE SHIP FIRE; BLAZE STARTS IN LAUNDRY AS LINER LEAVES MIAMI

Fire broke out in a crew laundry aboard a cruise ship that had just set sail from Miami on Monday with more than 2,500 vacationers aboard. The blaze burned through three lower decks before the crew extinguished it and the vessel was towed back to shore.

Smoke billowed from the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Ecstasy during the height of the two-hour fire.

At least 60 people were injured, most of them suffering from smoke inhalation and one with an undisclosed heart problem. Nine paramedics were on board treating the injured.

Tampa Tribune (Florida), October 6, 1999, Wednesday, FINAL EDITION

Ship fire may have been worsened by faulty valve

TAMPA – The valve may have let leaking diesel fuel feed the fire aboard the cruise ship  Tropicale.

A Coast Guard inquiry of a cruise ship fire focused Tuesday on a fuel valve in one of the ship’s  boilers, which crewmen said hadn’t been operating properly.

A possibly faulty shut-off valve may have let diesel fuel leak into the engine room of the  cruise ship Tropicale, fueling a fire that left the ship disabled amid tropical storm waters, the  ship’s chief engineer said Tuesday.

After the Sept. 19 fire aboard the 660-foot Carnival Cruise Lines ship started in the engine  room’s boiler compartment, crew members tried to stop the flow of fuel into the area.

San Jose Mercury News (California), November 10, 2010 Wednesday

Spam and a slow tow for thousands on cruise ship stranded in Pacific

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A Coast Guard official says one of two tugboats tasked with pulling a disabled cruise ship to San Diego didn’t have enough power and was forced to turn back.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Jetta Disco says a Mexican company has sent a third tugboat to the scene but authorities are trying to determine whether it would be better to leave the one tugboat alone while it slowly makes headway.

She says using two tugboats is more complicated and may not necessarily move the ship faster.

An engine fire Monday cut power to the Carnival Splendor, carrying nearly 4,500 passengers and crew on a Mexican Riviera cruise.

Instead of lavish buffets, passengers on the Carnival Splendor were subsisting on Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crabmeat flown in by Navy helicopters. Carnival says the boat is starting to move into cell phone range.

You would think that with such a compromised record, America’s most famous liberal magazine would think twice about raising funds through such tours. But apparently the Nation Magazine organizes them for the same reason that Carnival Cruise is in business: to raise money.

With the sea cruise business generating such bad publicity it was just a matter of time before a leftist brought the magazine to task. As one might have expected, it was up to CounterPunch, the real alternative to the Nation in a million different ways, to hold its feet to the fire:

Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 18-20, 2011

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The Silence of “The Nation”

The Dark Side of the Cruise Ship Industry

by RUSSELL MOKHIBER

Let’s say you are a crusading liberal magazine.

Exposing corporate power.

Champion of the workers.

Defender of liberalism.

But, on the other hand, for the past 13 years, let’s say that you have been raising an average of $200,000 a year by charging readers for a chance to float on a monster cruise ship through beautiful seaways with hundreds of your fellow liberals and listen to prominent writers and activists denounce corporate power.

And let’s say the cruise ship industry you are partnering with has a nasty history of environmental crimes and treating its mostly third world workforce like modern day slaves.

And let’s say that in the 13 years you have been taking your readers on cruise ships, you have been approached many times by investigative reporters and activists pleading with you to run one article – just one – in your crusading magazine about the dark side of the cruise ship industry.

And you agree that you will.

But you never do.

Let’s just say that was the case.

What would be the explanation for that?

Well, one explanation would be – if you expose the industry for polluting the seaways and treating its workers like modern day slaves, then your readers might be less willing to dish out the $1500 to $5000 per person to go on the cruise.

And you wouldn’t be making as much money for your magazine.

Another explanation would be that you just haven’t had the time to get around to it.

Thirteen years is just a blink in time.

And you just can’t do it all.

Even if reporters and activists are willing to do it for you.

Full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/03/18/the-dark-side-of-the-cruise-ship-industry/

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 entire film can be seen on the Internet but only with French subtitles. I am afraid that the only way you will be able to get a copy with English subtitles is to request a copy from a well-stocked video library at a research institution like Columbia University’s. Pirate’s Bay has a bit torrent of the film but I can’t say if it has English subtitles. It is certainly worth a try.

The complete “Ceddo” with French subtitles

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.

January 14, 2013

Thoughts on Aaron Swartz’s suicide

Filed under: computers,imperialism/globalization,intellectual property,Internet — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

On January 9th my CounterPunch tribute to Sol Yurick concluded with this offer:

There are 13 articles by Sol Yurick listed in JSTOR, including the two I cited above. As most of you know, JSTOR has been a kind of battleground over the past several years with a 26 year old Stanford dropout named Aaron Swartz being arrested for downloading all of the JSTOR articles from MIT with the obvious intention of making them available to the hoi polloi—in other words, the opposite of the Athenian ruling class revered by Sophocles.

If there were any justice in the world, those articles above all should be accessible to the kinds of people who would have taken a class with Sol 30 years ago at the Brecht Forum or who are CounterPunch readers today. In the same defiant spirit as Aaron Swartz, but on a scaled-down level, I invite anybody who wants to read a Sol Yurick article without paying 15 dollars for the privilege to contact me at lnp3@panix.com and we’ll work something out. You can get a list of Sol Yurick’s articles doing a search on jstor.com without paying a penny and I encourage you to so without delay.

Two days later the world learned that Aaron Swartz had hung himself. Needless to say, I feel like I have lost a comrade even though I never met him. Like him, I have always believed in sharing JSTOR articles even though I never would have taken the kind of risk that he did. For me, it has amounted to passing along something like 200 JSTOR articles or so since I first gained access to the database as a Columbia University employee in 1991, including a dozen or so Sol Yurick articles in response to those who had accepted my invitation. One of the recipients was a fellow named Nicholas Levis, a Greek-American who chaired the protest against Golden Dawn in Astoria a while back. With his Hellenic ties, it was natural for him to request a copy of Sol’s article on Oedipus Rex. That, in my view, is exactly the kind of connection that Aaron Swartz sought to facilitate—even giving his life in the process. While the N.Y. Times obituary claims that it might have been depression, an illness he had been battling for many years, that caused the suicide, his family and partner thought differently:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz was a victim of a national-security state that is anxious to keep critical information out of the hands of its citizens. Since most of JSTOR consists of narrowly focused, if not pedantic, articles mostly designed to help academics survive the “publish or perish” ordeal, one might wonder if there is any connection between Wikileaks and JSTORLeaks.

In one of a number of memorable tributes to Swartz, Glenn Greenwald explained what was at stake in the persecution of Aaron Swartz:

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

As I began collecting my thoughts on the meaning of Aaron Swartz’s death, it began to dawn on me that the stakes are even higher than those set down by Glenn Greenwald. If there was someone with the focus and the Marxist erudition of V.I. Lenin today, a primary task would be to analyze “the latest stage of capitalism” in terms of the evolving character of American imperialism and its cohorts in the advanced industrial countries, for whom intellectual property is beginning to assume the same critical function as a steel mill or a bank did in 1914.

I could not help but reminded of this every time I put a screener from The Weinstein Company, the Walt Disney Corporation, et al on my DVD player in November and December in order to help me nominate best picture, director, actor, etc. for NYFCO’s annual meeting. Every one of them starts with a warning that if I distribute the DVD to just about anybody, I face a 5 year prison term and a $250,000 fine. When I sit through something like “The Dark Knight Rises”, I feel like that is punishment enough.

In 2001 my colleague and friend Michael Perelman wrote a book titled Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity. You can read an article based on the primary thesis of the book in the January 2003 Monthly Review. Perelman states:

The dramatic expansion of intellectual property rights represents a new stage in commodification that threatens to make virtually everything bad about capitalism even worse. Stronger intellectual property rights will reinforce class differences, undermine science and technology, speed up the corporatization of the university, inundate society in legal disputes, and reduce personal freedoms.

We have no precise measure of the extent of intellectual property, but a rough calculation by Marjorie Kelly suggests the magnitude of intellectual property rights. At the end of 1995, the book value of the Standard and Poor (S&P) index of 500 companies accounted for only 26 percent of market value. Intangible assets were worth three times the value of tangible assets.1 Of course, not all intangible assets are intellectual property rights, but a substantial proportion certainly is.

While the legal protection of intellectual property might seem inseparable from contemporary global capitalism, until fairly recently capitalists were equivocal about such things. During the first six decades of the nineteenth century, corporations in the United States were not inclined to respect such intellectual property rights. For example, they often paid as little as possible, or nothing at all, to inventors. In addition, the United States did not even recognize international copyrights.

The free-marketeers of the nineteenth century vigorously opposed intellectual property rights as feudalistic monopolies. Their view of intellectual property rights mostly dominated political economic opinion in the United States until the massive depression of 1870s weakened faith in market forces. In the context of the economic crisis, business was desperate for anything that would return profits to what they considered to be an acceptable level.

At first, business owners tried forming cartels and trusts to hobble competitive forces. In response to vigorous protests, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. However, corporations were able to use patents, which were perfectly legal, as a convenient loophole to evade the intent of that law. Through patent pools, they could divide up the market and exclude new competitors. In this way, intellectual property rights were important in establishing monopoly capitalism.

The strengthening of intellectual property rights accelerated once again as the bloom wore off the post-Second World War “Golden Age” and the United States’ export surplus disappeared. Behind closed doors, corporate leaders successfully lobbied the government to strengthen intellectual property rights that would give advantages to their industries. Just as in the late nineteenth century, business saw property rights as a means of increasing profits when economic conditions began to sour. The public never had a clue about the extent to which the government had given away important rights.

With its hold over the developing world becoming ever more tenuous and enforced nowadays more by Predator Drones than boots on the ground, American imperialism must do everything in its power to control information. That information can be the State Department cables that Bradley Manning turned over to Wikileaks. It can also be the JSTOR articles that are stockpiled behind a paywall as if they were gold bars at Fort Knox. Considering the fact that anybody can go to the N.Y. Public Library, take out a print journal, Xerox an article, take it home, scan it, and send it out to thousands of recipients, it shows how vulnerable corporations seeking to leverage their control over intellectual property can be. Since the true model for the Internet should be the Public Library, the powers-that-be have a big job on their hands. They want the Internet to be an open exchange of information since so much of commerce is based on this model, but they want to keep certain parts of it off-limits to the unwashed masses—the very people whose cause Aaron Swartz took up.

Speaking of Monthly Review, it is worth mentioning that John Bellamy Foster, its current editor, and former editor Robert McChesney had some very interesting things to say about the struggle to keep the Internet open and free along the lines of the public library. In a March 2011 article titled The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism, they wrote:

This economic context points to the paradox of the Internet as it has developed in a capitalist society. The Internet has been subjected, to a significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.

There are many distinct levels at which Internet activity takes place, and all of them are in the process of being commercialized. The second area where conventional microeconomics would raise eyebrows if not ring alarm bells is how capitalist development of Internet-related industries has quickly, inexorably, generated considerable market concentration at almost every level, often beyond that found in non-digital markets. What this means is that there are multiple areas where private interests can get a chokehold on the Internet and seize monopoly profits, and they are all being pursued. Google, for example, holds 70 percent of the search engine market, and its share is increasing. It is on pace to challenge the market share that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had at its peak. Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Cisco, and a handful of other giants enjoy considerable monopolistic power as well. The crucial Wi-Fi chipset market, for example, is a duopoly where two firms have 80 percent of the market between them. Apple, via iTunes, controls an estimated 87 percent market share in digital music downloads and 70 percent of the MP3 player market.

As should be obvious from the citation above, Foster and McChesney are obviously looking at “the latest stage of capitalism” even if they probably don’t see themselves as following in Lenin’s footsteps. In a way, this is the logical outcome of being disciples of Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy who could be described as continuing the tradition of Lenin’s classic treatise on imperialism.

As Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and email lists become increasingly more important in connecting the left globally, we can expect more and more efforts to hinder the efforts of those who constitute its vanguard—like the young people who stepped to the forefront in the Arab Spring. Like Mayor Bloomberg forcing antiwar or Occupy activists into penned areas, we can expect the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world to draw closer to those in power in order to keep the left on a tight leash. It is one thing to allow people to put a video of a cat playing with a ball of cotton on Youtube. It something else altogether to use the Internet to build a march on Washington demanding that the government step down. I strongly suspect that the moves against Swartz, Manning and Assange are designed with that future Armageddon in mind.

December 20, 2012

Argentina, vulture funds, and Thomas Griesa

Filed under: Argentina,economics,financial crisis,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Thomas Griesa

My first exposure to “vulture funds” was at the 2010 Left Forum in NY, where I walked into a BBC documentary by Greg Palast that was in progress. Although I didn’t care for Palast’s Michael Moore-like shtick as he accosted and badgered the financiers who buy up the debt of poor countries at reduced prices and then sue them to get inflated repayments, I was glad to see attention paid to what Woody Guthrie once referred to as bankers robbing people with a fountain pen.

Although I didn’t make the connection at the time, this comment on my blog from an Argentinian who was subscribed to the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail was dealing with the same kind of larceny:

Hi, dear Louis. I’m Julio Fernández Baraibar, your friend from Buenos Aires. I lost the contact with you, but I remember you very heartly.

We are struggling just now against the decision of Judge Griesa and I remembered that you, once, told something about him in relation with somo trotskist militants. Do you remember the case?

I wait for your response.

Greetings

In 2001 Argentina’s economy had totally collapsed, foreshadowing in many ways what has befallen most of southern Europe. It defaulted on $95 billon worth of bonds. When Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003 he proposed that Argentina offer new bonds paying 30 cents for each dollar owed in default, an offer accepted by 93 percent of the original bondholders.

A couple of bondholders held out, however. One was NML and the other was Aurelius Capital Management Inc., both who insisted on getting 100 percent of the face value of the bonds. On October 26th Judge Thomas Griesa ruled in their favor, forcing Argentina to pay $1.4 billion. NML was particularly aggressive in pressing their demands, winning a court order to detain an Argentine naval vessel in a Ghana port as a kind of hostage. (On December 17 the U.N. ruled that the ship had to be released.)

The June 10, 2011 Irish Times described the strategy of Aurelius:

MANHATTAN-BASED lawyer Mark Brodsky named his hedge fund after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher.

He set up the fund in 2005 but Brodsky fine-tuned his skills as a distressed debt investor over nine years at Elliot Associates, a hedge fund known for taking on sovereign states that defaulted on debt, particularly Peru and Argentina.

The strategy he learnt at Elliot was straightforward buy debt on the cheap and then run a legal campaign to recover a higher value. This is the art of the vulture fund which sees value in high-risk investments in the debts of financially stricken firms and countries.

A recent win for Aurelius was its purchase of just $5 million out of $25 billion in debt at Dubai World, the state-owned investment fund, for 50 cents in the dollar.

NML is a subsidiary of Elliot Associates, the forenamed vulture fund. Paul Singer is the CEO and a major player in rightwing politics, having contributed millions of dollars to the Romney campaign, serving as the chairman of the Manhattan Institute, and funding the American Spectator, a key rightwing magazine. During the Occupy movement’s heyday, a Spectator reporter named Patrick Howley basically functioned as an agent provocateur by his own admission:

This weekend, journalist Patrick Howley of the American Spectator admitted infiltrating the Occupy DC protest and leading a charge into the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum which resulted in his and several other protestors’ being hit with pepper spray. His explanation? The protesters had been ruining his story of how crazy they were by failing to think of this course of action on their own.

In his original story on the subject (now removed from the Spectator site) Howley noted: “As far as anyone knew I was part of this cause — a cause that I had infiltrated the day before in order to mock and undermine in the pages of The American Spectator — and I wasn’t giving up before I had my story.”

Argentina’s minister of the economy Hernán Lorenzino reacted angrily to Griesa’s decision, calling it “a kind of legal colonialism” and that all “we need now is for Griesa to send us the Fifth Fleet.”

On November 29 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a stay on Griesa’s order. Ironically one of the factors favoring Argentina is the determination of some other scumbag hedge funds to keep NML and Aurelius from getting their way.

Chief among them is Gramercy Funds Management that holds the discounted Argentine bonds as a tax shelter for its clients. It fears that a full-blown nationalist response by Argentina to default once again will harm its own profit-seeking interests. In many ways the rivalry between Gramercy and NML/Aurelius is like a war between rival mafia gangs over who will control a legitimate business.

There’s another mafia gang that has taken Gramercy’s side in all this, namely the U.S. government that worries about the turbulence that would ensue if Argentina defaulted. Reuters reported on December 13:

U.S. government lawyers reiterated their position that the court’s interpretation of the “equal treatment” clause in Argentina’s defaulted bonds “may adversely affect future voluntary sovereign debt restructurings, the stability of international financial markets, and the repayment of loans extended by international financial institutions.”

The U.S. government argued this point in April with an amicus brief when Argentina first appealed the original court orders made by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Griesa in Manhattan.

Let me conclude with a word or two about Thomas Griesa who is now 82 years old. A life-long Republican, Griesa was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by Richard Nixon in 1972.

In that capacity Griesa served as the judge in the landmark suit that the Socialist Workers Party filed against the FBI in 1973 for its decades-long disruption of party activities, including the burglaries and poison pen letters that victimized many members including me.

In between jobs at the time, I was able to attend many sessions of the trial and observed Griesa as entirely fair-minded despite his Republican roots. In one of the more memorable exchanges, he allowed Stephen Cohen to make the case that the Russian Revolution was a massively supported movement despite constant objections by the FBI lawyers. He decided in favor of the SWP claims but disappointed us by awarding us only $264,000, a relative pittance compared to the $28 million we had demanded.

The irony of course is that in the final analysis we ourselves destroyed the party far more efficiently than the FBI bumbling ever could. Let’s hope that Argentina proves far more resilient since—after all—the Latin American revolution that “Kirchnerism” is a constituent part of has a lot more importance than we ever had.

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