Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 25, 2014

The “accidental” killing of Akai Gurley was no accident

Filed under: housing,New Deal,New York,racism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

As the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri was calculating how to avoid bringing killer cop Darren Wilson to trial, another ignominious homicide took place in the Louis H. Pink Housing Project in Brooklyn, NY. The New York Times reported on how a rookie cop named Peter Liang killed a young Black man named Akai Gurley:

Two police officers prepared to enter the pitch-black eighth-floor stairwell of a building in a Brooklyn housing project, one of them with his sidearm drawn. At the same time, a man and his girlfriend, frustrated by a long wait for an elevator, entered the seventh-floor stairwell, 14 steps below. In the darkness, a shot rang out from the officer’s gun, and the 28-year-old man below was struck in the chest and, soon after, fell dead.

The shooting, at 11:15 p.m. on Thursday, invited immediate comparison to the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo. But 12 hours later, just after noon on Friday, the New York police commissioner, William J. Bratton, announced that the shooting was accidental and that the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers.

A follow-up article detailed how such an “accident” might have taken place:

From different corners of Brooklyn, the lives of Mr. Gurley and Officer Liang, two young men separated in age by a single year, collided amid the faint shadows of the stairwell inside 2724 Linden Blvd., one of the buildings in the vast the Louis H. Pink housing project.

For Mr. Gurley, the stairs, even in their sorry state, offered the best alternative to chronically malfunctioning project elevators. For Officer Liang, their darkness presented a threat.

Often the department’s least experienced officers are sent.

“This is a result of poor in-street field training; you literally had the blind leading the blind out there,” said another high-ranking police official.

Both police officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the shooting investigation is still unfolding.

Most of the reporting centers on the cop’s inexperience as if a way to ward off interpretations that he was acting out of a KKK mentality so prevalent in the St. Louis police department. Since Chinese-Americans don’t tend to be seen as vicious racists, it is more difficult to mount Ferguson type protests over the killing. But in a very real sense, Brooklyn = Ferguson. It was the poverty and neglect of East New York that created the conditions for just such an accident.

Furthermore, a look at housing projects in general and the Louis H. Pink project in particular will demonstrate that we are dealing with institutions just barely distinguishable from South African shantytowns, even though they were at one time a staple of New Deal reform.

Louis Heaton Pink was an advocate of public housing in the 1930s who became the director of the New York Housing Authority, the city agency responsible for projects all across the city now in various states of disrepair. He was first appointed to a state housing agency by Al Smith, the governor of New York who despite having a solid record as a reformer got on FDR’s wrong side after running against him in the 1932 presidential primary.

This article from the February 14, 1934 NY Times should give you some idea of how Pink envisioned public housing:

louis pink article

When I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem in 1967, housing projects were considered a step up from slum buildings on the side streets even though they were beginning the steep decline that would eventually lead to the violent crime, broken elevators and darkened stairways that served as Akai Gurley’s death chamber.

The explanation is obvious. Like most public institutions that sprang up as a result of the modern welfare state, NYC public housing was the first to be sacrificed at the altar of austerity. The first to go was public housing. Next came hospitals and now it is CUNY that has to tighten its belt.

But austerity is not the end of the story. If the Housing Authority was truly broke, then the broken elevators, etc. might be understandable even if not forgivable. It turns out that there was money available for repairs but the rich white bastards who run the NYCHA had other ideas about what to do with it as the Daily News reported on August 1, 2012:

Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 2.18.05 PM

In a New York Magazine article that appeared shortly after the Daily News revelations, the sad state of the Louis H. Pink Houses was detailed in a lengthy article:

That said, I was in the Pinks because of its namesake, Louis H. Pink. Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1882, a former resident of a Lower East Side tenement, Pink was a leader in the fight to rid New York of its slums, which in 1920 reputedly covered seventeen square miles of the city. Three decades after Jacob Riis depicted the horrors of slum life in How the Other Half Lives, city children were “still being brought up in dark, ill-ventilated, overcrowded, unsafe tenement houses,” Pink wrote in his 1928 book, The New Day in Housing. Taking his lead from the Gemeindebau, or “community construction,” built in “Red Vienna” following World War I, Pink felt New York would benefit from “modern, sanitary housing for the great mass of our less well off citizens.”

Pink was joined by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who blamed the TB death of his first wife on the evils of slum living. “Down with rotten, antiquated ratholes! Down with hovels! Down with disease! Down with crime!” the Little Flower proclaimed, saying every New Yorker deserved “a bit of sunshine in every window.” On December 3, 1935, Louis Pink joined La Guardia, Governor Herbert Lehman, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate First Houses on Avenue A and 3rd Street. It was the beginning of public housing in the United States.

In 1959, when the Louis H. Pink ­Houses opened, no First Lady appeared. Public housing was in its stolid middle age, the era of idealism long gone, and NYCHA’s enterprise had morphed into a full-scale building boom pursued with typical assembly-line zeal by the city’s chairman of slum clearance, Robert Moses. Filed under the rubric of “urban renewal” (James Baldwin called it “Negro removal”), slum-clearing was done for private development as well as great municipal feats like the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The displaced, especially white lower-middle-class workers who otherwise would have moved to places like bucolic (and racially segregated) Levittown, were encouraged to move to public high-rises full of Mayor La Guardia’s sunlight.

Not surprisingly, New York Magazine—prime reading material for Manhattan’s upwardly mobile—gave NYCHA head John Rhea an opportunity to defend himself.

The centerpiece of Rhea’s “public-­private solution” for NYCHA has been the city’s 2010 funding deal with Citigroup. In exchange for fifteen years’ worth of guaranteed federal low-income-housing tax credits, the bank helped secure $230 million for 21 troubled developments that were built but no longer funded by the city and/or the state. The arrangement triggered NYCHA’s eligibility for the onetime infusion of $75 million of federal stimulus funds.

“If you want to save the proud tradition of public housing in this city, you’ve got to think differently,” Rhea declared, adding that while heading NYCHA was “by far the biggest challenge” of his career, he had come to love his job and the projects themselves. “NYCHA is supposed to be this great problem,” the chairman said. “But if your rich uncle left you NYCHA in his will, that would be the luckiest day of your life. NYCHA, with its vast holdings, is a tremendous asset for the City of New York.

You would of course have to conclude that any bureaucrat who thinks in terms of “public-private” and cuts deals with Citibank would be the last person to attend to public housing woes in New York, even if he is African-American (another version of Barack Obama, to be sure.) After four years of getting nothing done, Rhea resigned in December 2013 before Bill de Blasio had a chance to fire him.

I don’t think the Black community expects much from the new “reformer” based on this August 27 article that appeared in the NY Observer.

Bill de Blasio Heckled While Touting NYCHA Safety Gains

Mayor Bill de Blasio today at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem. (Jillian Jorgensen)

Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem to talk about crime reductions and safety upgrades in the city’s public housing stock — but some residents just didn’t want to hear it.

The mayor was heckled by at least two people who gathered to watch his press conference in a sunny courtyard Wednesday, where he stood strategically in front of construction workers removing scaffolding residents have long complained are a blight and a danger.

As the mayor sought to take the microphone after Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke, a man shouted in Spanish at the mayor about needing more security. Mr. de Blasio at first tried to keep talking, but eventually paused and offered: “Thank you, brother.”

Shortly after, NYPD Chief of Housing Carlos Gomez was also met with a skeptical response from a local resident as he spoke.

“July first, the crime in housing was up. It was up for the fifth year in a row. With the additional officers, and resources, the additional work being conducted by other city agencies, I’m proud to say as we stand here today crime in public housing is down, more than 4 percent — that’s higher than the city averages,” Mr. Gomez said.

“Since when?” a woman called out. “Since when it went down?”

“From July 1 until now crime is down double-digits throughout NYCHA in the city, down 13 percent. Murders are down 18 percent, and our shooting incidents are down in NYCHA,” Mr. Gomez said.

But as he spoke, the woman responded “That’s a lie. That’s a lie.”

When asked by a reporter about that response, the mayor said he understood why it seemed to some residents that crime had not truly fallen.

“Because it takes time, first of all, for everyone to feel it. And I don’t blame anyone who is feeling there isn’t enough yet in the way of improvement. We have a lot to do. The numbers that Chief Gomez gave are the numbers, and that clearly means progress,” Mr. de Blasio said. “That means some people are alive today who wouldn’t have been otherwise, some people are safe today who wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

Though the city has had 29 fewer murders this year and 1,000 fewer robberies, the mayor said, people won’t believe in change until they see it — comparing it to the focus of his press conference, the removal of the scaffolding or “sheds” that residents argued served as hiding places for guns and illegal activity.

“Until people see the sheds down, they aren’t going to feel the benefits,” he said.

After the press conference, Mr. de Blasio enjoyed a brief and seemingly friendly chat with the man who had shouted at him in Spanish.

Earlier this summer at the same housing development, Mr. de Blasio vowed to remove scaffolding and add cameras, lights, and hundreds more police officers to the city’s public housing earlier this summer to combat rising crime there.

According to Mr. Gomez, crime in public housing is now down: Year-to-date, in the Housing Bureau citywide crime is down 4.2 percent, with murders down 5.9 percent, rapes down 3 percent, and robberies down 5.6 percent.

Still, shootings are still up in NYCHA developments over the course of the entire year — and are up citywide, outside of public housing complexes — though they have fallen in the Housing Bureau since July 1.

April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney, Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93

Filed under: Film,New Deal,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:22 pm

NY Times, April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney, Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93

Mickey Rooney at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif. in 2012. Credit Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Mickey Rooney, the exuberant entertainer who led a roller-coaster life — the world’s top box-office star at 19 as the irrepressible Andy Hardy, a bankrupt has-been in his 40s, a comeback kid on Broadway as he neared 60 — died on Sunday. He was 93 and lived in Westlake Village, Calif.

His death was confirmed by his son Michael Joseph Rooney.

He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in “Sugar Babies” at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.

As Andy Hardy, growing up in the idealized fictional town of Carvel, Mr. Rooney was the most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944: everybody’s cheeky son or younger brother, energetic and feverishly in love with girls and cars. The 15 Hardy Family movies, in which all problems could be solved by Andy’s man-to-man talks with his father, Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone), earned more than $75 million — a huge sum during the Depression years, when movie tickets rarely cost more than 25 cents.

full article

I wrote this on August 8, 2000:

Babes in Arms

As you can well imagine, this recent bit of nastiness involving my free speech rights has left me feeling stressed out. So, taking a break from my usual Saturday night routine of poring through leftist journals while listening to Bel Canto opera on my stereo, I turned on the 1939 film “Babes in Arms,” starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, based on the Rogers-Hart plan and directed by Busby Berkeley. This film combines Busby Berkeley’s “rags to riches” ethos and popular front sentimentality. Anybody who wants to understand the 1930s through the prism of popular culture should rent this garish little jewel without delay.

Mickey Moran (Rooney) is an adolescent songwriter and aspiring director whose vaudevillian father is unemployed. His girl friend is Patsy Barton (Garland), who likewise comes from an impoverished show business family. All of their friends are in the same boat. The film opens with Moran and Barton performing the great Rogers-Hart tune “Good Morning” to a couple of stony-faced music publishers, who are trying to make up their mind whether they will buy the song or not. When they tell the boy that they will pay $100 for it, he faints. After coming to, he rushes home to turn the check over to his desperate parents.

His parents have figured out a scheme that will solve their financial woes. They will go on the road again with an old-time vaudeville show. When the kids suggest that they be brought along as part of the act, they are turned down. Their role would be to stay at home to watch over things.

This sets in motion the basic plot of just about every Rooney-Garland vehicle. They decide to put on their own show, which will be called “Babes in Arms.” Late at night, after the youthful crew of singers and dancers have embraced Rooney and Garland’s proposal, they march down main street singing and dancing, while carrying torches. Their excitement culminates in a bon fire in a deserted square. Since this scene was shot at the same time Nazi torch-light parades were a daily occurrence in Germany, one might surmise that the film-makers were subconsciously reflecting the kind of warped sense of “volkish” optimism at work in the Third Reich. We do know that the director Frank Capra, another quintessential depression era popular front figure, was an admirer of Mussolini, who had managed to get the trains to run on time. Oddly enough, the original inspiration for Hitler’s torch-light rallies were American football pep rallies that he learned about from an aide, who had been educated at Harvard.

After the cast is assembled, Moran makes the decision to use Dody Martin (Leni Lynn), a new arrival in town, for the lead female role instead of his girl-friend. Dody is a stand-in for Shirley Temple, and a risible figure in the film. She is surrounded by a retinue of butlers and handlers. When Moran has dinner with her at her mansion, the audience sees the opulent settings from his point of view. The class differences are palpable as the boy apologizes for his squeaky shoes.

When the show debuts on an outdoor stage, we see another side of 1930s popular culture, which was unfortunately on display almost universally. The opening skit is “Oh Susannah” performed in blackface. This kind of racist “humor” was a stock element of many 1930s musicals and comedies, including those made by the leftist-leaning Marx brothers. Fortunately a rain storm comes along and forces the show to close in the middle of the “coon show.”

After a few trials and tribulations, the youthful troupe receives some funding and they present a show which provides the climax of the film. It is a rather grotesque but musically effective production number featuring Mickey Rooney as FDR and Judy Garland as his wife Eleanor. They sit on what amounts to a throne in the middle of a stage, while various characters plucked from the fabric of American society plead their case. A “hillbilly” needs to be rescued from bankruptcy. You shall receive it, says FDR. An unemployed worker demands a job. He too shall receive it. The curtain falls with flag waving and patriotic high spirits. Despite the reputation 1930s films enjoy as being socially aware, this was the extent of it far too often.

September 11, 2012

Progressives for Obama, version 2.0

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

On March 25, 2008 Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover issued a statement launching “Progressives for Obama” that included a number of endorsers with impeccable Marxist credentials such as Robin D.G. Kelly, Immanuel Wallerstein and Francis Fox Piven. Meanwhile Bill Fletcher Jr. was a one-time member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a “New Communist Movement” (NCM) group that survived the 1980s implosion of Maoism described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air”. For most NCM groups, working in the Democratic Party was a tactic while for their Trotskyist adversaries it was rank class-collaborationism. Since the inspiration for the New Communist Movement was the “heroic” CPUSA of the 1930s and 40s, it was natural for them to keep an open mind about the Democrats even if the CPUSA itself was widely dismissed as “revisionist”.

Tom Hayden

The statement put forward the notion that pressure applied from below would work to move Obama to the left in much the same way that CIO activism in the 1930s acted on FDR:

However, the fact that Barack Obama openly defines himself as a centrist invites the formation of this progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal.

Maybe Obama himself bought into this formula since he put the burden of change on the grass roots in his 2012 speech to the Democratic Party convention:

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change…

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

Immune to Obama’s charisma from the get-go, the NY Times’s Maureen Dowd had little use for the “you were the change” nonsense:

We were the change!

We were the change? Us?

How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?

“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.

After four years of White House catering to Wall Street banksters, Guantanamo, drone attacks on civilians, death lists that include American citizens, unparalleled deportations, and generally what looks like George W. Bush’s third term, selling Obama 2012 is about as daunting a prospect as opening a pork store in a Hasidic neighborhood.

As an eager albeit clumsy propagandist for the Democratic Party, Tom Hayden stepped into the breach with a challenge to Obama-haters everywhere: support the sleazy incumbent or be found guilty of “white blindness”.

Why Obama’s achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration. It may only be a matter of legitimate disappointment after the utopian expectations of 2008. It could be pure antipathy to electoral politics, or a superficial assessment of how near impossible it is to change intransigent institutions. It could be a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit every day. Or it could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94 percent to zero, and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.

Tim Wise, who was one of the endorsees of the 2008 pro-Obama declaration, has a virtual monopoly on ferreting out “white blindness” so one hopes for poor Tom Hayden’s sake that Wise does not contact a good intellectual property lawyer.

Singled out as a “white blindness” miscreant is Harper Magazine editor Thomas Frank who had the temerity to conclude that Obama will never pursue a second New Deal because “that is precisely what Obama was here to prevent.” Frank, of course, is symptomatic of the wholesale disillusionment with Obama that Hayden is trying to dismiss. Like Hayden, Frank had a special place in his heart for FDR and devoted much energy and ink trying to advise Democrats how to get their mojo back. Once it became clear that Obama had no use for such advice (his chief aide, now Mayor of Chicago declaring war on the teacher’s union, dismissed anything coming out of “the professional left”), people like Thomas Frank decided that fighting back was the only thing that made sense. Tom Hayden, on the other hand, argued in the words of David Byrne that it was necessary to stop making sense.

Jason Schulman

Michael Hirsch

Proceeding from the ridiculous to the not quite sublime, we consider now an article written for the excellent Jacobin Magazine by two long-time DSA members, Jason Schulman and Michael Hirsch titled “Beyond November”, which starts off on a high note and then plummets downwards at lightning speed.

Marx wrote in The Civil War in France that every few years workers got to decide which members of the ruling class were to misrepresent them. How right he was. And is. That is uncontestable.

The rest of the article amounts to a contesting of exactly what Marx wrote, an exercise in advanced dialectics I guess.

Just to cover their left flank, Hirsch and Schulman write just the sort of thing designed to raise Hayden’s dander:

The prospects of selling Obama as the preferred candidate are daunting, if worth doing at all. With his proliferation of the national security state, his refusal to put juice behind the Conyers 
jobs bill, his water-carrying for the insurance companies and destruction of any near-term possibility for single-payer health care, his failures on card check and other labor law reforms, his refusal to treat Wall Street as a criminal enterprise, his embrace of reactionary education philosophies, his incursive black-ops foreign policy, and his ten o’clock scholar’s embrace of gay marriage, his is an administration not to praise but to damn.

Well, hurrah for damning. Where do I sign up?

Apparently our two intrepid leftists have a bait-and-switch scheme up their sleeves because they end up finding reasons to vote Democrat, even if it falls within the category of damning with faint praise. As an unrepentant Marxist, I won’t settle for anything less than pure damning—Dante 9th circle style.

After describing 3rd party election campaigns like the Greens as being based on a “prayer” rather than a “plan”, they make the hoary case for being practical:

The Democrats as a coalition are hegemonic because they provide a service, finite as it is, that is indispensable for institutions, whether they be unions, social service providers, or community-based organizations.

The article concludes with a call for reelecting Obama—if you read between the lines:

Allowing Obama to be reelected without any critique from the Left – even one that is purely propagandistic, as the Green and Socialist parties will offer – only ratifies his centrist approach of cottoning to and co-opting the Right while neutering the Left and any possibility for substantial social gains. We can do better.

In other words, it is okay to vote for Obama just as long as you make sure to make the record that he is something of a pig.

Maybe Michael Hirsch felt constrained to deemphasize the need to actually vote for Obama in 2012—the official position of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group he has been long associated with—because Jacobin’s editors are quite a bit to the left of the DSA, even if a few are members. If you go to the DSA website, you can find a position paper on the 2012 elections that makes the “lesser evil” case quite openly even while renouncing it. That’s the art of dialectics, after all:

In light of the threat that would be posed to basic democratic rights by Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, most trade union, feminist, LGBTQ and African- American and Latino organizations will work vigorously to re-elect the president. And in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere, many DSA members may choose to do the same. But DSA recognizes that an Obama victory, unaccompanied by the strengthening of an independent progressive coalition able to challenge the elites of both parties, will be a purely defensive engagement in lesser-evil politics.

This is the same argument I have been hearing since 1968, a year after I joined the Trotskyist movement. Ironically, I became disillusioned with the Democratic Party three years earlier, just after graduating Bard College.

I was too young to vote in 1964 but if I had been old enough I surely would have voted for Lyndon Johnson. I was not that concerned with Vietnam since it was still a very much low intensity affair but the idea of Barry Goldwater’s finger on the H-Bomb trigger scared the bejeezus out of me.

He told audiences, “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon the U.S. to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. We don’t want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia.”

It turned out he had plans to escalate the war all along. I spent most of 1966 staring at the evening news on television trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. How could a “peace” candidate turn out to be such a warmonger?

Within a year I got educated into class politics through new members classes in the Young Socialist Alliance and particularly “Socialism on Trial”, which amounted to the court proceedings in the trial of SWP leaders in 1941 for violation of the Smith Act. James P. Cannon testified on the party’s attitude toward Roosevelt’s New Deal:

Q: What is the position of the party on the attempt of Roosevelt to improve the social system in this country?

A: How do you mean, “improve the social system”?

Q: To set capitalism into motion again, after the depression of 1929.

A: Well, all these measures of the New Deal were made possible in this country, and not possible for the poorer countries of Europe, because of the enormous accumulation of wealth in this country. But the net result of the whole New Deal experiment was simply the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to create a fictitious stability, which in the end evaporated.

Now the Roosevelt administration is trying to accomplish the same thing by the artificial means of a war boom; that is, of an armament boom, but again, in our view, this has no possibility of permanent stability at all.

Q: With reference to the misery and suffering of the masses, what would you say as to the existence of that factor in the United States?

A: In our view, the living standards of the masses have progressively deteriorated in this country since 1929. They haven’t yet reached that stage which I mentioned as a prerequisite of an enormous upsurge of revolutionary feeling, but millions of American workers were pauperised following 1929; and that, in our opinion, is a definite sign of the development of this prerequisite for the revolution.

There’s not much that I retain from my ill-spent youth in the Trotskyist movement but I’ll take James P. Cannon over Tom Hayden’s circumlocutions and Hirsch-Schulman’s “dialectics” any day of the week. Hopes for Obama launching a new New Deal are all the more vain in light of the fact that the original was a con job to begin with. And that’s that.

January 5, 2012

The House He Lived In: Conversations with Fred Baker

Filed under: Film,New Deal,popular culture — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Last June I attended a memorial meeting for film-maker Fred Baker, best known for his documentary “Lenny Bruce Without Tears”. As is customary for such events, others and I spoke about our connections to Fred. I said that when I first met Fred I was struck by his off-the-cuff observation that a revolutionary party could only be built out of a mass movement, something that had taken me over a decade to figure out. I also described Fred as a shining example of America’s bohemian underground that has been around since the days of Walt Whitman, a kind of permanent opposition to the dominant racism and imperialism that might be repressed from time to time but that never dies.

In 1996 I sat down with Fred for a series of videotaped interviews that covered his remarkable life as an actor and filmmaker. Born in 1932, Fred’s life straddles the CP-inspired Popular Front culture of Paul Robeson and the sixties counter-culture. Indeed, people of Fred’s age were a kind of transmission belt between the two periods, never giving in to the soul-destroying 1950s. Singing in leftwing choruses in the early 40s, staging a draftee’s Yossarian-like resistance to the Korean War, performing in musical comedies in the 1950s, launching a career as a pornographer in the 1960s, and making leading edge films in the 70s until his last year on earth—all this was part of his remarkable story.

At the memorial meeting, his partner Beverly mentioned that in the course of organizing his library on behalf of the Smithsonian, she discovered the 1996 videotapes. I became inspired to turn them into a Vimeo production on the Internet, something I am sure that Fred would smile down on from Red Heaven while sitting on the cloud next to Paul Robeson. Getting close to retirement, I hope to find more time for the oral history type videos that a modest camcorder, tools like Final Cut Pro and the Worldwide Web make feasible. The last time I spoke to Fred, I told him that I would like to sit down with him and get him up to speed on what can be done. He died before we could get together but I’d like to think that the DIY sensibility of Youtube and Vimeo was in many ways descended from his pioneering work and other guerrilla film and video makers of the 60s and 70s, including his good friend Frank Cavestani and Frank’s wife the late Laura Kronenberg Cavestani.

From time to time, when I get a nagging feeling that it is a little late in life to become a videographer, I am reminded of Fred Baker who did not let HIV, emphysema, and a host of other illnesses brought on by old age get in the way of his own productivity. Weeks before his death, he was all fired up about a documentary he was doing on striped bass fishermen on the Hudson River nearby his son’s home in New Windsor. Fred was a fireball up until the day his heart finally stopped ticking. At the memorial meeting his son-in-law described going to a jam session with Fred on a Saturday afternoon, where he could play drums. Drumming had been a passion of his since the age of 8 when Pearl Primus, an African-American dance counselor at Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a leftist summer camp, introduced him to the instrument. His son-in-law said he practically had to run to keep up with Fred on the sidewalk, even as Fred was forced to lug an oxygen tank on wheels behind him for his emphysema.

As pleased as I am with the video, that only scratches the surface of Fred’s remarkable life. These resources help to complete the picture:

Fred’s blog

Fred Baker Film and Video

On the Sound, a jazz dance film by Fred Baker

Movie People: At Work in the Business of Film, edited by Fred Baker and Ross Firestone

Finding Fred Baker: a film thesis project by Daoud Abu-Baker

My article on Fred Baker

My review of “Assata”, Fred’s last film

Acting on the Web: a website by Frank Cavestani for aspiring actors. I met Fred through Frank, whose connections to the both of us are covered in the video.

Garin Baker online gallery of fine art: Socially aware and artistically powerful works by Fred’s son.

November 9, 2011

Preliminary notes on the New Deal

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

One of the most common complaints from professional liberals about Obama is that he has failed to deliver on the hopes they had for a new New Deal. After reading Alan Brinkley’s slim (116 pages) but informed biography of FDR, I can assure them that there’s not really that much difference between the two Democratic Party presidents. While not quite in the same category as the chapter on the New Deal in Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the USA, it certainly borders on damning with faint praise.

Even before he was elected, FDR was displaying some rather reactionary tendencies, although it should be added completely in line with the standards of the time (no doubt the same flaw demonstrated by Obama in spades.) Appointed by Woodrow Wilson to the post of assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR initiated a crack-down on gays in the area around the large naval base at Newport, Rhode Island. Enlisted men were assigned to entrap sailors and others (including a prominent Protestant clergyman). A scandal erupted over the excesses of the action and a Senate investigation led by Republicans rebuked FDR in 1921. Ah, the good old days…

As I have already mentioned in my article on the Bonus Army, one of FDR’s first major pieces of legislation in 1932 was a deficit-hawk Economy Act that cut benefits for veterans and government employees, ignoring the advice of the left.

The next piece of legislation in the First Hundred Days favored rich farmers over the poor ones. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was supposedly designed to aid all farmers but in the hands of the Farm Bureau Administration, it tilted in favor of the agribusinesses of the day. Farm income for them grew by 50 percent over the next three years, but the dispossession of small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers continued and even accelerated. Especially hard-hit were Black farmers in the South who were targeted by the Dixiecrats. If you think of all this in terms of David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession, it all made perfect sense. If Ford, GM, US Steel et al needed wage slaves, where else to get them except from the Deep South—either Black or white poor farmers.

In terms of Ford, GM and company, help arrived in the form of the National Industrial Recovery Act that created the National Recovery Administration. The goal of the NRA was to create trusts of the largest corporations that would establish price floors and check deflation. While there were some progressive aspects (elimination of child labor, maximum workweek hours of 35-40, and creation of Section 7(a) that would enable industrial trade unions), the main result was economic stagnation since the NRA was based on the assumption that overproduction of manufactured goods was at the root of the Great Depression. Here’s Clarence Darrow denouncing the NRA:

Not surprisingly, as Brinkley admits, FDR “faced growing disillusionment from the vast pool of the unemployed, and even from members of his own administration, who felt he was ineffectually improvising and was in danger of failing.”

Like Obama, FDR was rather loath to raise taxes on the rich despite rhetoric to the contrary. The Revenue Act of 1935 raised taxes on income over $50,000 but the bill had little impact on increasing government revenues or on “soaking the rich”. The bill was largely symbolic and helped to craft his image as some kind of leftist. In a campaign speech in October 1936, FDR spoke about welcoming the hatred of the rich but really did little to deserve it. His faux progressivism did help him beat Alf Landon, however, by a landslide.

Although his victory gave him a progressive mandate, FDR decided to move in exactly the opposite direction. Goaded by Henry Morgenthau, his secretary of the treasury and the Tim Geithner of his age, Roosevelt decided to balance the federal budget. The consequences were disastrous. Unemployment went from a low of 14.3 percent in 1937 (!) to a 19 percent in 1938 while the GNP declined by 5 percent.

He reversed himself in 1938 but by that time the New Deal was virtually finished. Brinkley states, “It did not end the Great Depression and the massive unemployment that accompanied it; only the enormous public and private spending for WWII finally did that.” In other words, he concurred with Harry Magdoff.

Needless to say, Alan Brinkley’s book—despite its overall integrity from a liberal standpoint—is totally insufficient. I read it to get oriented to a research project that might culminate in a book if I can ever discipline myself to stick to a single topic for more than a week.

Basically there has never been a book-length Marxist critique of New Deal liberalism to the best of my knowledge. The best things out there, besides Zinn, is an essay by Ronald Radosh titled “The Myth of the New Deal” that was a chapter in a book he co-edited with libertarian Murray Rothbard titled A New History of Leviathan. There’s also an article by Barton Bernstein in a book titled “Towards a New Past”–a collection of radical articles on American history that I plan to read before long.

About the best thing out there is Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step” that is focused on the creation of the CIO and that exposes FDR’s “plague on both your houses” politics that implicitly favored big business. Preis was a leader of the SWP and a first-rate journalist and working-class scholar.

I have all this material at home, as well as some other useful items on the WPA, etc.

I believe that it is absolutely necessary for the left to take on New Deal mythology and smash it once and for all. As is the case with Kemalism in Turkey and the PRI in Mexico, FDR’s liberalism is a kind of foundational myth for our own powerful bourgeois party crafted in progressive terms.

Even if this does not turn into a book, I will be filing reports on what I find out in the months to come.

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