Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 20, 2013

Catastrophism and the left: a response to Sasha Lilley

Sasha Lilley

Although I was aware that West Coast radio host Sasha Lilley, a kind of radical version of Terry Gross, had come out with a book on “Catastrophism”, I had no plans to read it or comment on it until I spied a review in Brooklyn Rail, a free monthly you can find at better bookstores.

Titled “The Bankruptcy of Doom and Gloom”, reviewer Robert S. Eshelman writes:

Lilley observes that while the New Deal did, in fact, originate in response to the Great Depression, the great American strike waves of 1898 to 1904 and 1916 to 1920 occurred during periods of relative economic prosperity.

I found so many things wrong with this that I decided to have a look at more of what comrade Lilley had to say. Fortunately, you can read her entire chapter in “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth” on Google books. And I did. To start with, I have no idea which “great American strike wave” of 1898 to 1904 or 1916 to 1920 Lilley can possibly be referring to. I am fairly well versed in American labor history and have no idea what she is talking about.

Workers struck throughout the early 1960s for that matter. This was a time when the UAW, the Teamsters, and the railway unions went out on strike for substantial wage increases all the time. During the brief time I was a public school teacher in the late 60s, Albert Shanker was one of the most “militant” trade unionists in the U.S. if going out on strike is some kind of litmus test. This was the guy after all who resulted in civilization being destroyed after he got his hands on a nuclear weapon, as the Doctor told Woody Allen in “Sleeper” after he awoke. That’s pretty militant but I don’t think that’s the sort of thing Lilley had in mind.

But the kinds of strikes that capture our attention as Marxists are not the Samuel Gompers inspired affairs for higher wages. Instead we study what happened in Flint, Michigan in 1936 and 1937 when workers occupied factories and battled the cops and National Guard. This was a strike that began to educate workers about FDR back-stabbing the CIO. Like it and so many other major class battles of the 1930s, it eventually came to naught because the Communist or Social Democratic leadership (Victor and Walter Reuther in the case of the UAW) was determined to back FDR. If the trade union movement had broken with the Democrats and launched a labor party, American politics would look a lot different today. Trust me.

While most of Lilley’s barbs are aimed at the lunatic fringe, from the nuclear-war advocating Juan Posadas of the Fourth International to the Weathermen, she snares Henryk Grossman into her industrial-sized seine. She accuses Grossman of “collapsism” on the basis of his observation:

Despite the periodic interruptions that repeatedly defuse the tendency towards breakdown, the mechanism as a whole tends relentlessly towards its final end with the general process of accumulation… Once these countertendencies are themselves defused or simply cease to operate, the breakdown tendency gains the upper hand and asserts, itself in the absolute form as the final crisis.

Surely anybody with even a smattering of knowledge about Grossman’s theories of capital accumulation would understand that he posited the “escape valve” that the system used to postpone such a final crisis. Chapter 3 of Grossman’s 1929 “Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown” is titled “Modifying Countertendencies”. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out that any chapter with such a title will provide the evidence needed to clear Grossman of the charge of “collapsism”.

At the start of the chapter, Grossman identifies conditions that must be met in order for the “final crisis” to ensue. The first one is “that the capitalist system exists in isolation – that there is no foreign trade”. Fat chance of that, I’d say. As Grossman puts it:

Considering the gigantic increases in productivity and the enormous accumulation of capital of the last several decades the question arises —why has capitalism not already broken down? This is the problem that interests Marx:

the same influences which produce a tendency in the general rate of profit to fall, also call forth counter-effects, which hamper, retard, and partly paralyse this fall. The latter do not do away with the law, but impair its effect. Otherwise, it would not be the fall of the general rate of profit, but rather its relative slowness, that would be incomprehensible. Thus, the law acts only as a tendency. And it is only under certain circumstances and only after long periods that its effects become strikingly pronounced. (1959, p. 239)

Once these counteracting influences begin to operate, the valorisation of capital is reestablished and the accumulation of capital can resume on an expanded basis. In this case the breakdown tendency is interrupted and manifests itself in the form of a temporary crisis. Crisis is thus a tendency towards breakdown which has been interrupted and restrained from realising itself completely [emphasis added].

If you stop and think about it, this is not that much different from what David Harvey has said about  “spatial fix” or Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of primitive accumulation that Harvey has endorsed.

Speaking of which, despite accepting Rosa Luxemburg’s proviso that capitalism can forestall collapse through colonization, whether formally or informally, the stern judge Lilley still refuses to excuse her from the charge of “collapsism”. Parenthetically, while one cannot expect Lilley to have offered up a counter-analysis on the current stage of capitalism, isn’t it obligatory to take the collapse of the USSR, the Eastern European states, China, and Vietnam into account when offering blithe reassurances about the vitality of the capitalist system? One would never consider the possibility that capitalism will collapse of its own internal mechanisms, but hasn’t the opening up of huge markets and supplies of cheap labor given the system a new lease on life? Of course, Lilley might respond that this is what she has been talking about all along. That being the case, she owes Grossman and Luxemburg an apology for transforming them into “catastrophists” when her own analysis and theirs differs so little. Oh well, I’ll do it for her. “Henryk and Rosa, Sasha says she’s sorry.”

All this being said, I do agree that catastrophism is a problem in the Marxist movement (as opposed to the freak show on parade in her chapter.) Towards the end of WWII the American Trotskyist movement had a debate over the leadership’s catastrophist notion that the end of WWII would result in economic collapse and proletarian revolution. Felix Morrow challenged that view as I reported in an article I wrote about 17 years ago:

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states: “the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not “a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party.”

What was the source of these false projections? “To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.” Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 20.

Contrary to James P. Cannon’s expectations, the post-war period through the early 70s was marked by rapid expansion of American capitalism and a period of relative prosperity for the working class. Lilley does not think that these objective conditions had much to do with the mostly white working class supporting the war in Vietnam, the racial status quo, sexism in the workplace, or the behavior stereotyped in “All in the Family”. I wish it wasn’t so but my memory of construction workers beating up antiwar students is too vivid. It may be vulgar Marxism to assert that worsening economic conditions makes it easier to persuade workers of socialist ideas but as Robert Fitch once put it, “Vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what’s going on in the world.”

Finally, on the question of “catastrophism” and the left. As I am thirty years older than Ms. Lilley, I have a somewhat different take on millenarianism and the left. When I used to drive around with my mom when I was 5 or 6 years old, I’d ask her if a big cumulus nimbus was a mushroom cloud. This was at a time when television was laden with doomsday messages about Russian nukes. A couple of years later I would be taking part in air raid drills at school, “ducking and covering” under my desk. It does not get much more apocalyptic than this. When I got to Bard College in 1961, I joined some upperclassmen in organizing a Welcome the Bomb Committee, a satirical jab at Governor Rockefeller who was pushing for an expansion of nuclear war shelters.

While I was still too apolitical to do anything about my fears, other students joined he Student Peace Union, a first sign of opposition to Cold War madness. Many of the people who joined the Young Socialist Alliance in the early 60s were SPU activists. They had come to the conclusion that the capitalist system threatened the survival of the human race and acted on that decision.

My turn came 6 years later as I faced being drafted to fight in Vietnam. When a Marxist student at the New School convinced me that such wars were inevitable in the capitalist system, I had no alternative but to join the Trotskyist movement. Does that make me a catastrophist? Guilty as charged, I suppose, and likely to remain one until I die.

March 29, 2012

When it was okay for Iran to have nuclear power

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

March 26, 2012

The Militant newspaper goes nuke

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

Since the Socialist Workers Party of the United States is so small and so wacky, I had misgivings about whether it was worth my time writing about the latest idiocy in the Militant, a newspaper I was thrilled to sell in a previous lifetime. I suppose that having had a chance to browse through the second volume of Barry Sheppard’s memoir about the party helped me make a decision. Given the utter disconnect between the party of my youth and the moribund sect of today, there is always the pathologist’s need for an explanation.

In a lead article titled Fukushima 1 year later: nuke panic vs. real disaster, the erstwhile Trotskyist group of over 1500 members now reduced to just over a hundred makes the case that socialists should support nuclear power, not just in the Third World as they have argued in the past, but everywhere. The lesson they draw from Fukushima is how minimal the threat was and how necessary it is to stay the course:

The basic facts today are well known. The plant used a cheaper containment vessel for fuel rods prone to rupture in the event of a cooling system failure. Tepco’s owners never adequately raised the elevation of the backup generator, despite the potential for tsunamis in the area. Company officials deliberately delayed action to cool down the reactors in order to protect their investment. Surely, if private profit didn’t drive the reactor’s operation, the entire incident would have been avoided.

But we see this approach everyday in every part of the world where capitalist social relations dominate production. It flows from the way the capitalist system always has and always will function: to maximize profits while simultaneously undermining the source of all wealth, the earth and the worker.

Despite all this, zero is the number of people who have reportedly died as a result of nuclear radiation poisoning related to the Fukushima plant. Another striking figure, given the combination of the bosses’ recklessness and the destructive power of earthquakes and tsunamis. The basic facts about what is considered the second worst nuclear disaster in world history actually provides a very strong argument against the assertion that nuclear power presents a special inherent danger to humanity.

The so-called environmentalist opposition to nuclear power—or other forms of energy—is anti-scientific and reactionary. The various “green” forces and their nostrums provide no earthly option for maintaining modern civilization, let alone for advancing industrial development. They stand in opposition to the development of semicolonial nations oppressed by imperialism and are antagonistic to the needs of the great majority of humanity.

In contrast, the communist movement champions the expansion and extension of electrification and industrialization worldwide, and along with it growth of the proletariat and culture. This is essential for closing the gap between the imperialists and semicolonial world and bringing the world’s toilers closer together in common struggle.

These arguments will be familiar to anybody acquainted with Spiked Online, the latest permutation of a group of former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain. Despite the name, this is not the same sect led by Bob Avakian. Instead, it originated as a split from Tony Cliff’s organization led by sociology professor Frank Furedi that went on to publish Living Marxism, a “contrarian” outlet that championed nuclear power, genetically modified crops, massive hydroelectric dams, and other projects that were designed to expand “industrialization worldwide” as the SWP puts it. Eventually, the Furedi-ites dropped all pretensions to Marxism (except for one or two individuals like James Heartfield) and became indistinguishable from the libertarians at Reason Magazine that they have worked closely with in the past.

For comparison’s sake, here is Spiked Online’s Rob Lyons on Fukushima one year later:

[A]ccidents can happen. Not everything that happens is reasonably foreseeable or easily preventable. The important thing is to learn the right lessons when bad events occur. Unfortunately, in all the hype about Fukushima, the wrong lessons are being learned.

Not a single person has died because of exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima accident, though two plant workers did die in a flooded basement room as a direct result of the tsunami. But lesson four is that overreaction to a problem can be worse than the original problem. For example, it was reported that 45 patients died after the botched and hurried evacuation of a hospital in the Fukushima prefecture, and this was not the only such case. One centenarian committed suicide rather than be forced from his home in the exclusion zone…

This is the most important lesson, one year on, from the earthquake and tsunami: it is the crisis of politics that is holding society back. We have the technical capability to move society forward, to cope with natural disasters and to learn from serious accidents. But without a sense of purpose about what society should look like in the future, and how to get there, the uncertainty of society’s elites – and the absence of a capacity for the wider population to give them a genuine democratic kick-up-the-arse – could prove to be the biggest disaster of all.

If there is any difference between this libertarian’s call for moving “society forward” and the SWP’s business about the extension of industrialization, I can’t detect it. Basically this is the same message you are getting from Tepco, the American nuclear industry, and the heavy battalions of the ruling class that are determined to push ahead with nuclear power over the objections of the Japanese people. Popular resistance to nuclear power, as well as elite concerns about their viability, in Japan has resulted in 53 out of 54 nuclear power plants being shut down. Without a doubt, if the SWP had a satellite “Communist League” functioning in Japan, its 5 or 6 members would be agitating to re-open them. Imagine the slogan: “For a communist atom!”

This has not always been the position of the sect. In 1996, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Chernobyl, the Militant editorialized:

Even if no accident occurs at a nuclear plant, there is no method of safely disposing of the mounting tonnage of nuclear waste. For example, a nuclear waste facility that just opened in Aiken, South Carolina, uses chemicals that have generated large amounts of explosive compounds during the processing of the deadly material.

There is only one way to protect people from catastrophic accidents at nuclear plants, from the cancer and genetic damage caused by nuclear power, and from the growing accumulation of deadly radioactive waste that cannot be stored safely. Shut them down! Workers and farmers must take the lead in dismantling these facilities, as well as demanding the resources be made available to aid those affected by Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters.

I am not sure if Barry gets into this in his memoir, but one of things that characterize the post-sanity SWP is the failure of the Militant newspaper to ever explain why a line changes. The same party members who would have seen the wisdom of the 1996 editorial now support the new tilt toward nuclear power wholeheartedly. Ironically, a party that came into existence as an alternative to the sheep-like obedience to the Kremlin now follows the same pattern, all the more peculiar since the SWP’s version of Stalin has so little clout outside his ranks. Stalin once derisively asked how many battalions the pope had, after the Vatican issued some statement on human rights abuses in the USSR. In the case of the SWP, you are not dealing with battalions but an aging platoon of the politically bereft.

Turning to the substance of the Militant article, there are a couple of points that can be made. It alleges that the Japanese government failure to provide adequate protection against tsunami flooding:

The Japan Meteorological Agency erroneously projected that day that a 10-foot plus tsunami would hit northeastern Japan.

Concrete walls line about 40 percent of Japan’s coastline, many places 33 feet high. But in the region hit by the tsunami, the walls were about 10 feet high. The waves turned out to be 40 feet high on average. The whole warning and protection system had been built for a lesser case—and cost-saving—scenario.

So, would higher flood walls made a difference? Perhaps so, but there is also the possibility that it was the earthquake itself that led to the Fukushima incidents, as the Independent reported:

The suspicion that the earthquake caused severe damage to the reactors is strengthened by reports that radiation leaked from the plant minutes later. The Bloomberg news agency has reported that a radiation alarm went off about a mile from the plant at 3.29pm, before the tsunami hit.

The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct structural damage to reactor one is obvious. Katsunobu Onda, author of Tepco: The Dark Empire, explains it this way: A government or industry admission “raises suspicions about the safety of every reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the same systematic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.” Earthquakes, of course, are commonplace in Japan.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear plant designer, describes what occurred on 11 March as a loss-of-coolant accident. “The data that Tepco has made public shows a huge loss of coolant within the first few hours of the earthquake. It can’t be accounted for by the loss of electrical power. There was already so much damage to the cooling system that a meltdown was inevitable long before the tsunami came.”

As might be expected, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) rejected this claim since, as Wikipedia points out, it is virtually an arm of the nuclear industry:

According to a government report to the International Atomic Energy Agency in June 2011, “NISA’s lack of independence from the trade ministry, which promotes the use of atomic power, hampered a quick response to the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant this year”. Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there have been questions raised about whether the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has been fulfilling its function as an industry regulator, and whether it should continue to exist.

More to the point, what kind of “precautions” can be taken to ensure that a nuclear power plant can be isolated from the impact of a powerful earthquake even if it is located inland? While most Americans worry about the impact of a large earthquake on nuclear power plants in California, the real threat appears to be further north in the Cascadia subduction zone (where tectonic plates collide) that straddles Oregon, Washington State and Vancouver, Canada. The always reliable McClatchy press  reported:

The only part of the United States where a 9.0-scale earthquake is expected again (geologists discovered that one occurred there on Jan. 26, 1700) is the 750-mile-long Cascadia subduction zone off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and northern California. A subduction zone — a place where faults in the Earth’s crust are wide enough for plates of rock to “slip” past each other — also produced the March 11 Tohoku earthquake in Japan.

Robert Yeats, a geology professor at Oregon State University, was one of the first to suggest in the 1980s that the Pacific Northwest might be vulnerable to a 9.0 subduction zone earthquake.

Just for comparison’s sake, the earthquake in Japan registered 8.9 on the Richter scale.

The Militant is also full of crap when it refers to “zero” people dying as a result of radiation, especially given its claim to be speaking in the name of science. Cancer does not develop overnight. After you are exposed to radiation, it might take 10 to 15 years for cancer to develop. And, more importantly, cancer is the one disease that lends itself to clashing interpretations of causality based on one’s material interests. For example, it took decades for the tobacco industry to be reined in. Its “experts” were always able to make the specious case that one person who never smoked a cigarette in his or her life might get lung cancer, while a heavy smoker would not.

For example, my mother-in-law, who lives in Istanbul, had thyroid cancer. How can anyone establish whether this was related to Chernobyl, a town in the Ukraine that is located just across the Black Sea from Turkey?

Needless to say, fossil-based energy sources such as coal, oil, and gas have their own problems. This has led some progressives like George Monbiot to embrace nuclear power. My own take on this is that it is a fool’s errand for the left to take up the question of whether nuclear power or greenhouse gases are the “lesser evil” under capitalism. It is entirely possible that some mix of such forms of energy will be combined with solar or wind power under socialism and rendered less threatening with the absence of a profit motive. But in the meantime, it is incumbent upon us to build forms of resistance to the capitalist energy sectors whenever they threaten us in the here and now because of that very profit motive. For example, the resistance of the Japanese people to nuclear power is not only progressive; it might even lead to a departure from the political slumber that has existed there for decades.

In the United States, campaigns against coal company mountaintop removal and unsafe working conditions in the mines are exactly the sort of thing that revolutionaries should get involved with. With respect to natural gas, the fight against “fracking” and the Keystone XL Pipeline are crucial. Frankly, it does not matter whether natural gas is “better” than coal or nuclear power—as some environmentalists like the Sierra Club have argued (likely abetted by donations from the natural gas company owners). The whole point is to resist capitalist abuse, whichever sector of the energy industry has responsibility for. This is even true for the “green” wind-power industry that has been driving people crazy in various small towns around the country with their low-frequency hum and other health hazards.

Our goal is to fight for a society that is not organized around the profit motive. The bourgeoisie will always defend its assaults on our health and safety in the name of the extension of “industrialization” worldwide. But it has its apologists like Thomas Friedman to make its case and has no need for socialist volunteers to pitch in, even though it is doubtful that the wacky cult around Jack Barnes can ever be relied on with its steadily evaporating apparatus and influence.

February 2, 2011

Into Eternity

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, the documentary “Into Eternity” examines the political and philosophical ramifications of nuclear waste, now amounting to over 250,000 tons worldwide. Danish Director Michael Madsen was inspired to make the film after learning about the Onkalo project in Finland, an underground repository that is intended to last for over 100,000 years—twenty times longer than the pyramids.

While Madsen makes no secret about his opposition to nuclear power, the movie is not exactly agitprop. Mostly it is “night thoughts” about the follies of civilization, at least a civilization that revolves around commodity production.

Furthermore, the technicians involved with Onkalo are hardly the Doctor Strangelove types. They come across as thoughtful and ethical even as they are conflicted. When Madsen asks a particularly challenging question, they frequently are at a loss for words and confess that they don’t have the answer.

It is difficult to conceptualize what it means to have nuclear waste under the earth in Finland 100,000 years from now. Try to imagine what the globe will look like 1000 years from now, let alone 100 times that length. One of the major problems foreseen by the development team working on Onkalo is the problem of communication. Will the languages of the future be the same as today? This is not an outlandish question if you consider what problems the general reader of English would have understanding Chaucer, who wrote only about 600 years ago.

Madsen, who is described as a conceptual artist in the press notes, is fairly obsessed with this question. He asks the technicians how they would communicate to future generations about the danger underground. They raise the possibility of using graphics rather than words, including a reproduction of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, an apt symbol for the nuclear age.

If Onkalo appears problematic, the current day solutions to the disposal of nuclear waste would strike the average person as bordering on insane. As the press notes point out:

Spent nuclear fuel is normally kept in water pools in interim storage facilities. Almost all interim storage facilities are on the ground surface, where they are vulnerable to natural or man-made disasters, and extensive surveillance, security management, and maintenance is required. The water in the pools cools the fuel rods, as the heat emanating from them may otherwise result in radioactive fire, and at the same time, water creates a shield for radioactivity. It takes 40 – 60 years to cool the fuel rods down to a temperature below 100 degrees Celsius. Only below this temperature may the spent fuel be handled or processed further. Most interim storage facilities are situated near nuclear power plants, as the transportation of waste is complicated, and subject to extensive security issues.

Although “Into Eternity” says almost nothing about trends favoring nuclear power, there are signs that the proliferation of new plants will require the building of Onkalos almost everywhere. One of the scientists interviewed by Madsen states that if India and China are to enjoy the same standard of living as the West in the next twenty years, it will be necessary to rapidly expand the number of nuclear power plants. This kind of “progressive” spin on behalf of nuclear power jibes with the statements made by some climate scientists and environmentalists about the advantage nuclear power has over greenhouse-gas emitting carbon-based fuels.

What is needed for the survival of civilization is a thorough going re-examination of the value of the West’s “standard of living”. While nobody would gainsay the need for adequate food, shelter and health care, the rampant materialism of the privileged classes in both the West and the rest of the world are hardly equivalent to “civilization”. In effect, that is what the Egyptian street is saying loud and clear right now.

July 2, 2010

H-Bomb over Hawaii

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

April 7, 2009

Wonders are Many

Filed under: Film,music,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Now available from Netflix, the documentary “Wonders Are Many” is a behind the scenes look at John Adams’s opera “Doctor Atomic”, which premiered at the San Francisco opera house on October 1, 2005. It allows both Adams and director Peter Sellars to explain their various artistic decisions as well as providing background on the Los Alamos project and its chief administrator Robert Oppenheimer, the “doctor atomic” upon whom the opera is based.

John Adams

John Adams has been grouped with Philip Glass and Steve Reich as a leading minimalist composer, although I find his music to be a bit more complex and traditional in some ways. Adams is somewhat younger than Glass and Reich and his music has been described as post-minimalist. What distinguishes Adams from other composers is his focus on politics. His first opera, written in 1987, was “Nixon Goes to China”. It was described as “coy and insubstantial” in the New York Times but was most notable, in my opinion, for its music.

It was his next opera, however, that drew so much controversy that he was widely described as “anti-Semitic”. The 1991 “The Death of Klinghoffer” was viewed as impermissibly tolerant of Palestinian terror, although-as was the case with the first opera-the primary motivation would be more about moral drama rather than agitation. In December 2001, Richard Taruskin wrote an article in the New York Times defending the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to remove choruses from the opera from a scheduled recital:

Announcing that it preferred “to err on the side of being sensitive,” the management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently canceled its scheduled performances of choruses from “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the notoriously controversial opera — masterminded by the director Peter Sellars, with a libretto by the poet Alice Goodman and a score by John Adams — that re-enacts and comments on the murder of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the fall of 1985.

For thus showing forbearance and discretion, the Boston Symphony has taken some pies in the face. In an exceptionally vulgar rant that appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, the arts columnist David Wiegand, enraged at what he perceived as a slight to Mr. Adams (a Bay Area luminary), wrote, “There is something deeply wrong when a nation galvanizes its forces, its men and women, its determination and its resolve, to preserve the right of the yahoos at the Boston Symphony Orchestra to decide to spare its listeners something that might challenge them or make them think.” What nation had done this? And why shouldn’t people be spared reminders of recent personal pain when they attend a concert?

The libretto of “Doctor Atomic” draws heavily from declassified U.S. government documents, as well as communications by scientists, government officials, and military personnel involved in the project. During rehearsals we see Adams trying to coach the singers into drawing the maximum impact from what often sounds like pages from a physics or engineering textbook. The chorus sings:

We surround the plutonium core
from thirty two points
spaced equally around its surface,
the thirty-two points
are the centers of the
twenty triangular faces
of an icosahedron
interwoven with the
twelve pentagonal faces
of a dodecahedron.
We squeeze the sphere.
Bring the atoms closer.
Til the subcritical mass
goes supercritical.
We disturb the stable nucleus.

John Adams’s long-time collaborator Peter Sellars is seen rehearsing the performers until the very day the opera debuts. Sellars is a fascinating character who with his cartoonish haircut and floral-print shirts looks like a character that Martin Short would have a good time imitating. Sellars is nobody to laugh at, however, when it comes the intersection of art and politics.

Peter Sellars

Musing on Oppenheimer’s tragedy, Sellars believes that he was seduced by the power elite in top government and military circles to do their bidding even when he probably knew that he was involved in a major war crime. Sellars says that he understands how that happens, having been a frequent guest at the White House in earlier years, something he tells the camera that he gave up on long ago.

In an address given to Australian television in 1999, Sellars talked about Cultural Activism in the New Century:

The main thing of course is this question of how do we deal with people, things, aspects of life that do object to us, people who actually want to kill you, people who have a very different idea of what the right next thing to do in life would be, people who in short are not like us. People who you know we tell ourselves they’re terrorists, they’re this, they’re that, we have our names for why we won’t deal with them. But here they are, they’re not going anywhere, and maybe we’re the ones that need to go somewhere. This question of how it is we take in that thing which is most opposed to us and who we are, who we think we might be, and that who we might be, who we think we might be part is maybe a conclusion we reached prematurely, maybe there is more to come in our lives, and maybe too early on we accepted a certain identity, and maybe life has something larger in store.

Are we open to that, or are we closed to that? Every day the entire world is knocking trying to change your life and say wait a minute, you have no clue yet. And if you’re living well the challenges get more and more frightening.

What I’m really interested in is theatre and artistic practice as a way forward in a period where shall we say the major international issue is security, where the banking system was set up on the basis of security, where a whole series of things were told national security requirement, and of course the surprise is there is no security. The Bank of Australia has demonstrated that very profoundly. Life isn’t about security at all, something else has been prepared for us.

I attended this last week here in Adelaide a very powerful show about the working class and whether we’re afraid of it or not. And of course I took that very personally because coming to direct the Adelaide Festival where it says on every number-plate, ‘South Australia the Festival State’, and you say ok we have a cultural obligation to participate in the lives of everyone with a bumper. What role are we playing in the lives of working class people? What role are we playing in the lives of working class people who are for example out of work? Human productivity is a cultural question before it’s an economic one. What does it mean that people are motivated and empowered to create, to shape their environment, to shape their destiny instead of simply respond to conditions that are imposed?

At what point does one engage at the root of a problem what it means when we say depression? Depression is an economic term, it’s a very powerful term at the end of this century. I come from a country that has the best economy it has ever had in its history. The American economy dominates 50 per cent of the world economy, and these are the good times. Now how is it that in the good times just about once a week there is a massacre in an American city. Just about once a week now. Your kids are trying to kill each other. And you can drop bombs anywhere you like all over the world because you have no official enemies left who can tell you to stop except your own kids, except the person next door who takes out a sawn-off shotgun. A culture of violence, it is so deep.

“Doctor Atomic” is now available on DVD, alas only in Blu-Ray, something that I suppose I will invest in after a while. For those of you who own Blu-Ray gear, I urge you to pick up the opera which sells for about 40 dollars. And if you are interested in art and politics, you should definitely rent the documentary “Wonders are Many” from Netflix. That presumably includes everybody who reads this blog.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

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