Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 10, 2011

Gordon Gekko, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

Filed under: capitalist pig,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

NY Times Op-Ed December 8, 2011
All the G.O.P.’s Gekkos
By PAUL KRUGMAN

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the release of the movie “Wall Street,” and the film seems more relevant than ever. The self-righteous screeds of financial tycoons denouncing President Obama all read like variations on Gordon Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech, while the complaints of Occupy Wall Street sound just like what Gekko says in private: “I create nothing. I own,” he declares at one point; at another, he asks his protégé, “Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy?”

The Los Angeles Times recently surveyed the record of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Mr. Romney ran from 1984 to 1999. As the report notes, Mr. Romney made a lot of money over those years, both for himself and for his investors. But he did so in ways that often hurt ordinary workers.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/opinion/krugman-all-the-gops-gekkos.html

From the latest Harper’s Magazine Index:

Amount employees of private-equity firm Bain Capital have donated to the campaign of its co-founder Mitt Romney: $69,500

To the Obama campaign: $119,900

December 9, 2011

There will always be an England

Filed under: Britain,Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Notwithstanding the fact that two of the films under review here are directed by an Algerian who grew up in France and a Swede, and the third stars an American actress as Margaret Thatcher, all three are explorations of the post-hegemonic sensibilities of both the rulers and the ruled in England but succeeding in only two of the three cases.

The biggest success is “London River”, despite its modest ambitions and budget. Director Rachid Bouchareb’s debut film was “Days of Glory” , a stirring celebration of the heroism of North African soldiers fighting for the French during WWII who had to fend off both Nazi bullets and their commanding officers’ racism. Less successful, at least from my viewpoint, was his next film “Outside the Law“, a revisionist take on the Algerian war of independence that adopted “a plague on both your houses” pacifism reminiscent of Camus’s.

“London River” is essentially a two character drama that brings together a sixtyish British widow who lost her naval officer husband in the war over the Malvinas and an even older French-speaking African man (whose country is never identified) working as a forest ranger in France. A few days after the July 2005 bombings in London, neither her daughter nor his son can be reached by phone so they travel there to track them down, hoping for the best but being prepared for the worst.

Eventually their paths cross since it turns out that their college-age children were lovers, something that Elisabeth, the widow, has trouble accepting. When she discovers that the daughter was studying Arabic at a local Islamic center, her first reaction is disbelief—as if learning that she was studying witchcraft. This is understandable but not really forgiveable given the widespread Islamophobia in Britain at the time. You begin to wonder—as do the parents—whether the children were suicide bombers.

The boy’s father is Ousmane, played by Sotigui Kouyaté, born in Mali but who grew up in Burkina Faso. He died at the age of 74 shortly after the film was finished. A one-time player on the Burkina Faso national football team, he launched an acting career in 1966 and eventually hooked up with the legendary Peter Brook on film and theater projects. His Ousmane is a quiet and pensive character. Tall, lanky and with chiseled features, he looks like a cross between African tribal art and a Giacometti sculpture.

As I watched Elisabeth interact with Ousmane in her tentative and guarded manner, working hard to overcome her initial distrust, I had a sense of déjà vu. She reminded me very much of the kind of plucky female character found in Mike Leigh movies who when confronted with a terrible situation put on a brave face or a stiff upper lip in keeping with British traditions admittedly under assault from all fronts in recent years.

It turns out that she is played by Brenda Blethyn, who starred in Leigh’s masterpiece “Secrets and Lies” as the working class mother whose brief affair with a Black Briton resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. When their child, who had been put up for adoption, grows up she contacts her mother out of the blue in the hopes of binding with her, but is rebuffed  for more or less the same reasons that Elisabeth holds Ousmane at arm’s length. As is the case with Mike Leigh’s drama, director Rachid Bouchareb finds a way to reconcile his lead characters. If you like Mike Leigh films—and who doesn’t—you will like “London River”.

Scheduled for general theatrical release sometime in December (I reviewed a screener submitted by a publicist for the 2011 NYFCO awards meeting), “The Iron Lady” has all the trappings of your typical fawning biopic of the rich and the powerful in line with “The King’s Speech”. Indeed, in one scene her consultants advise her in her first run for Prime Minister that she has to work on her voice–it is not authoritative enough. She then goes to speech lessons in a scene definitely evoking “The King’s Speech”. With Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, I had additional trepidations since I expected a performance in line with her stilted portrayal of Julia Child.

What a pleasant surprise it was to discover that the film is a venomous attack on the “iron lady”. Admittedly, the politics are a bit unfocused—this after all is not a documentary—but the general impression you are left with is that the financial disaster of today is very much related to the policies that she and her fellow monster Ronald Reagan pushed through.

In one key scene, Thatcher is meeting with her cabinet to discuss a new tax that will be seen as favoring the rich. When her Tory advisers warn her that it will undermine her legitimacy, she scolds them as lacking backbone. The film is replete with archival footage of Britons fighting the cops during the period, leaving no question as to her legacy.

The film also has an almost sadistic streak as it shows Thatcher as entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with symptoms fairly obvious during the last year or so when she was in office, just as was the case with Reagan.

From foreign policy, especially the war for control of the Malvinas, to domestic policy with her determination to destroy trade unions and the social legislation won by their party, Thatcher is seen in the light of the “one percenters” of today. In some ways, the film is vaguely reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” with Thatcher becoming more and more malevolent and deranged the more power she attains.

Finally, Streep is terrific. As indicated above, I am not one of her biggest fans but her characterization of Thatcher is not just based on imitating her speaking voice and hairdo. She really got inside her head and figured out what made her tick. It is not very pretty.

Finally, despite my admiration for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s last film “Let the Right One In”, I don’t think he did justice to John Le Carre’s novel. The screenplay for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was written by Peter Straughan who also wrote “The Debt”, another film about spies—in that case Mossad agents who fabricated the killing of a Mengele type war criminal who had escaped custody in order to avoid being shamed. He also wrote the screenplay for “Men who Stare at Goats”, a genial satire based on the experiments conducted by military intelligence to apply ESP to warfare. So apparently he is the man to go to when you want to make an spy movie with anti-heroes rather than James Bond types.

The NY Times is positively rapturous over the film, stating about John Hurt’s performance as Control, the MI5 chief determined to root out a Soviet mole (Le Carre’s novel is based on the Kim Philby incident):

That face, a crevassed landscape that suggests sorrow and history, has the granitic grandeur of W. H. Auden in his later life. In tandem with Mr. Hurt’s sonorously melancholic voice (and its useful undertones of hysteria), it is a face that, when used by a filmmaker like Mr. Alfredson, speaks volumes about a character who would otherwise take reams of written dialogue to discover.

Well, that’s not true at all. All of Straughan’s characters are decidedly opaque, lacking the revelatory character that only Le Carre’s prose, that in many ways is about as close to Dickens as we have in our epoch, can endow. For example, this exchange is from the novel. George Smiley, a senior spy who lost his job when a kidnapping attempt in Budapest runs afoul, is talking to Rickie Tarr, a field agent who was the first to discover that there was a mole who alerted the Soviets to the kidnapping plot and other MI5 initiatives over the decades.

“I didn’t know you spoke Russian,” said Smiley—a comment lost to everyone but Tarr, who at once grinned.

“Ah, now, a man needs a qualification in this profession, Mr. Smiley,” he explained as he separated the pages. “I may not have been too great at law but a further language can be decisive. You know what the papers say, I expect?” He looked up from his labours and his grin widened. “‘To possess another language is to possess another soul.’ A great king wrong that, sir, Charles the Fifth. My father never forgot a quotation, I’ll say that for him, though the funny thing is he couldn’t speak a damn thing but English. I’ll read the diary aloud to you, if you don’t mind.”

By comparison, the Tarr character in the film is a one-dimensional figure of interest only for his being at the right time and the right place to discover that there was a mole. Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I care less about his derring-do as a spy than I do for his musings on language.

It is understandable why Alfredson was selected to direct this film. His teen vampire movie “Let the Right One In” was brilliantly filmed, taking advantage of Sweden’s gloomy winter scenes and the downbeat look of the nondescript and slightly seedy look of the suburb it was filmed in. It was much more like Paramus, New Jersey than Transylvania. So he does get that part of Le Carre’s novel right. He evokes the downscale look of the declining British Empire–apartments filled with dusty furniture and MI5 offices that look more like the Bureau of Internal Revenue than anything James Bond ever visited.

What is missing in the film, however, is the slightly off-kilter character of Le Carre’s prose that is revealed through Tarr’s witty observation above and in numerous other places. You can get a much more faithful version of the novel in the British television movie from the 70s that starred Alec Guinness as Smiley (Gary Oldman is mainly content to do a Guinness impersonation). This opening scene borders on Monty Python, for which there is no equivalent in the terminally gloomy Alfredson version:

Finally, a word must be said about a certain failing in the source material itself. Missing entirely in the novel is any insight into the Kim Philby character’s motivation, who in Le Carre’s view became a serious agent only after the Suez Crisis, when he decided that Britain was no longer a world power and only a tool of American foreign policy.

In the introduction to the latest edition of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, Le Carre writes:

I never knew [George] Blake [another Soviet spy] or Philby, but I always had a quite particular dislike for Philby, and an unnatural sympathy for Blake. The reasons, I fear, have much to do with the inverted snobbery of my class and generation. I disliked Philby because he had so many of my attributes. He was public-school educated, the son of a wayward and dictatorial father—the explorer and adventurer, St. John Philby—he drew people easily to him and he was adept at holding his feelings, in particular, his seething distaste for the bigotries and prejudices of the English ruling classes.

Now my admiration for John Le Carre is unbound but my reaction to this is to really wonder whether he should have bothered to write a novel with a Philby-like villain (of course in his novels, the heroes and villains are pretty much reflections of each other) with such a built-in bias. Frankly, I would have found the story far more riveting if Le Carre had made the mole a key character and a sympathetic one at that. But then again, that’s what you might expect from the unrepentant Marxist.

December 7, 2011

Bull Moose and bullshit

Filed under: liberalism,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

In keeping with his cynical bid to restyle himself as some kind of leftist, Barack Obama made a speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas that invoked the legacy of Roosevelt. No, comrades and friends, it was not that Roosevelt—the New Dealer that the soft left hoped he would become—but his fifth cousin Theodore. It didn’t matter that much. That was all people like Salon.com’s Steve Kornacki needed to hear:

His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama’s rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

The Nation Magazine’s Ari Berman wrote:

You’re likely to hear elements of this speech over and over as the campaign heats up, as the Obama campaign attempts to stand with the 99 percent and paint Gingrich or Romney as core defenders of the 1 percent. None other than Chuck Schumer, one of the senators who represents Wall Street, told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that Democrats would focus on income inequality “like a laser” in 2012.

This is the same Chuck Schumer that the NY Times described as embracing the financial industry’s “free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.” The December 13, 2008 article added:

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

None of this matters to liberals who tend to have a short memory. As long as you toss them a bone, stroke them on the chin, all is forgiven.

Going slightly against the grain, Duke Law Professor Jedediah Purdy (love that name, like a character from an old Bonanza show) urged a note of caution. Compared to the original, the current occupant of the White House is a cheap imitation—more of a mouse than a moose.

Roosevelt’s speech was also much more unapologetically radical than Obama’s. He quoted Abraham Lincoln to say that labor is superior to capital, and praised active “struggle” against unfair inequality: “to take from some … class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth … which has not been earned by service to … their fellows.” He told his listeners that progress arose from the contest between those who possessed more than they had earned, and others who earned more than they possessed — plainly implying that most of Osawatomie was in the second group, the 99 percent of their day. Where Obama’s speech was basically conciliatory, Roosevelt’s was filled with images of what today would be called class warfare.

I want to return to the question of Roosevelt’s deeds as opposed to his words momentarily. After all, anybody who is familiar with Obama’s campaign speeches in 2008 knows that words are cheap. That being said, if you read between the lines you will realize that we are dealing with the same-old, same-old.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.

At the outset, it should be noted that anybody who uses the buzzwords “grow the economy” at this point is a shameless tool of the ruling class. This cliché smacks of boardroom pep rallies, WSJ editorial page cant, business school lectures and all the rest. I first began to hear them working for Goldman-Sachs in 1987 and wondered what the hell top managers were talking about when they used those words. You grow a geranium, not an economy or a corporation. It invokes the image of somebody in a navy-blue business suit and a power yellow tie standing over a thing called the economy with a watering can. This mystifies the whole concept of how capitalism works. It is not organic like a garden flower, but something that involves exploitation. The proper tool is not a watering can but a blackjack.

With respect to the titans of industry creating jobs, Obama seems to have forgotten what Balzac observed in the epigraph to “Le Père Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. Oil, steel and rail—three of the biggest capitalized sectors of the American economy during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency—were the end-result of a scorched earth attack on workers, the land, and native peoples. For Roosevelt, their excesses consisted of monopoly pricing, not Pinkerton attacks on strikers.

Obama’s speech contained a couple of paragraphs that could have been written by Robert Reich or Paul Krugman:

Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1% has gone up by more than 25% to $1.2m per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1%, the average income is now $27m per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6%.

Now, this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

When it comes down to concrete proposals, Obama offers up the same tired formulas that Democratic Party “new economy” hacks like Lester Thurow and Michael Dukakis have been offering for decades now:

In today’s innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing. Our factories and our workers shouldn’t be idle. We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.

Actually, the real answer is not training but a guarantee of a job. If you think of jobs as a human right rather than a cog in the competitive machinery to ensure that the USA is Number One, then the dividing line between the ruled and the rulers becomes obvious. Nobody who is attending those white-tie fund-raising dinners for Obama has the slightest interest in guaranteeing that all Americans who want a job can have a job.

Obama probably knows that getting “new skills” does not work, but that did not prevent him from raising false hopes. A July 18, 2010 NY Times article reports exactly how false they are:

In what was beginning to feel like a previous life, Israel Valle had earned $18 an hour as an executive assistant to a designer at a prominent fashion label. Now, he was jobless and struggling to find work. He decided to invest in upgrading his skills.

It was February 2009, and the city work force center in Downtown Brooklyn was jammed with hundreds of people hungry for paychecks. His caseworker urged him to take advantage of classes financed by the federal government, which had increased money for job training. Upgrade your skills, she counseled. Then she could arrange job interviews.

For six weeks, Mr. Valle, 49, absorbed instruction in spreadsheets and word processing. He tinkered with his résumé. But the interviews his caseworker eventually arranged were for low-wage jobs, and they were mobbed by desperate applicants. More than a year later, Mr. Valle remains among the record 6.8 million Americans who have been officially jobless for six months or longer. He recently applied for welfare benefits.

“Training was fruitless,” he said. “I’m not seeing the benefits. Training for what? No one’s hiring.”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have enrolled in federally financed training programs in recent years, only to remain out of work. That has intensified skepticism about training as a cure for unemployment.

And now for some concluding remarks on Teddy Roosevelt—mostly channeling the spirit of the sorely missed Howard Zinn who debunked him in “People’s History of the United States” just as he did with FDR.

In 1906 after Big Bill Haywood and two other officers of the Western Federation of Miners were imprisoned on trumped up murder charges, Eugene V. Debs wrote an article in “Appeal to Reason” denouncing the decision. This led to Roosevelt sending a copy of the article to his Attorney General, W. II. Moody, with a note: “is it possible to proceed against Debs and the proprietor of this paper criminally?”

Overall, Zinn’s analysis of Teddy Roosevelt is not much different than the one of FDR. The first Roosevelt presidency pushed through some reforms that were intended to preserve the system. Just as FDR worried about the Bolshevik threat, so did Teddy worry about Debs’s socialist party that was far more radical in some ways than the CPUSA. Zinn writes:

The panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, Wobblies, and trade unions, speeded the process of reform. According to Wiebe: “Around 1908 a qualitative shift in outlook occurred among large numbers of these men of authority.. . .” The emphasis was now on “enticements and compromises.” It continued with Wilson, and “a great many reform-minded citizens indulged the illusion of a progressive fulfillment.”

What radical critics now say of those reforms was said at the time (1901) by the Bankers’ Magazine: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes. . , .”

There was much to stabilize, much to protect. By 1904, 318 trusts, with capital of more than seven billion dollars, controlled 40% of the U.S. manufacturing.

In 1909, a manifesto of the new Progressivism appeared-a book called The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic and an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt. He saw the need for discipline and regulation if the American system were to continue. Government should do more, he said, and he hoped to see the “sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints”- by whom he may have meant Theodore Roosevelt.

Richard Hofstadter, in his biting chapter on the man the public saw as the great lover of nature and physical fitness, the war hero, the Boy Scout in the White House, says: “The advisers to whom Roosevelt listened were almost exclusively representatives of industrial and finance capital-men like Hanna, Robert Bacon, and George W. Perkins of the House of Morgan, Elihu Root, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich … and James Stillman of the Rockefeller interests.” Responding to his worried brother-in-law writing from Wall Street, Roosevelt replied: “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country.”

Roosevelt supported the regulatory Hepburn Act because he feared something worse. He wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge that the railroad lobbyists who opposed the bill were wrong: “I think they are very shortsighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads.” His action against the trusts was to induce them to accept government regulation, in order to prevent destruction. He prosecuted the Morgan railroad monopoly in the Northern Securities Case, considering it an antitrust victory, but it hardly changed anything, and, although the Sherman Act provided for criminal penalties, there was no prosecution of the men who had planned the monopoly-Morgan, Harriman, Hill.

While most of us would be happy to see Obama push through even such half-measures, either on a Bull Moose or a New Deal basis, there is no possibility that they will materialize for the simple reason that the American economy is no longer based on the smokestack industries that marked the period of the first half-century of the 1900s. Obama speaks for a ruling class that is either based on fictitious capital or that is all too happy to see manufacturing continue its sorry decline. After all, their purpose in life is not to create jobs but to create profits.

December 6, 2011

Hubert Sumlin, Master of Blues Guitar, Dies at 80

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

NY Times December 5, 2011

Hubert Sumlin, Master of Blues Guitar, Dies at 80

By BILL FRISKICS-WARREN

Hubert Sumlin, the guitarist whose slashing solos and innovative ideas galvanized the blues of Howlin’ Wolf and inspired rock guitar players like Jimmy Page, Robbie Robertson and Eric Clapton, died on Sunday in Wayne, N.J. He was 80.

His death was announced on his official Web site, hubertsumlinblues.com. No cause was specified.

Mr. Sumlin began appearing on Howlin’ Wolf’s recordings in 1953, first as a rhythm guitarist and then, beginning in 1955, on lead guitar. Mr. Sumlin’s eerie guitar counterpart to Howlin’ Wolf’s unearthly moaning on the 1956 hit “Smokestack Lightnin’ ” has lately been featured in a television commercial for Viagra. He also played lead on “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful” and “The Red Rooster,” all written and arranged by the Chicago blues trailblazer Willie Dixon.

“Dixon’s often astute novelty lyrics and shrewd arrangements were topped off by Sumlin’s imaginative, angular, taut attack, frequent glisses, maniacally wide vibrato and percussive chords, all drawn with an exaggerated brush,” the producer Dick Shurman observed of Mr. Sumlin’s relentlessly inventive playing in his liner notes to a 1991 boxed set of Howlin’ Wolf’s work for Chess Records.

“Back Door Man,” “Spoonful” and “The Red Rooster” were later made even more famous in versions released, respectively, by the Doors, Cream and the Rolling Stones. All three originally appeared on Howlin’ Wolf’s 1962 LP “Howlin’ Wolf,” which the critic Greil Marcus called “the finest of all Chicago blues albums,” largely because of Mr. Sumlin’s contribution.

Though at times tempestuous, Mr. Sumlin’s partnership with Howlin’ Wolf lasted until the singer’s death in 1976. Mr. Sumlin’s intuitive, empathetic accompaniment typically spurred his mentor to unpredictable and frenzied heights.

Speaking of their collaborations in a 1989 interview with Living Blues magazine, Mr. Sumlin said: “Hubert was Wolf, Wolf was Hubert. I got to where I knew what he wanted before he asked for it, because I could feel the man.”

Hubert Sumlin was born on Nov. 16, 1931, in Greenwood, Miss. Raised in Hughes, Ark., he received his first guitar at 6 and, as a child, aspired to be a jazz guitarist. He met Howlin’ Wolf while still a teenager, when Mr. Sumlin was performing in and around West Helena, Ark., with the blues harmonica player James Cotton, and first recorded with him, under the supervision of Sam Phillips, at Sun Studios in 1953.

He moved to Chicago the next year at the invitation of Howlin’ Wolf, in whose band he was a driving force, apart from a six-month stint with Muddy Waters, for the next two decades. Mr. Sumlin and several of the other musicians in that band continued to perform as the Wolf Pack after the leader’s death.

Mr. Sumlin was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2008. Rolling Stone magazine recently included him on a list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

No information about survivors was immediately available.

As understated a singer as his mentor was an exuberant one, Mr. Sumlin also made more than a dozen albums under his own name; the first was recorded in Europe in 1964, and the last, “Treblemaker,” was released in 2007. His 2004 collection, “About Them Shoes,” featured guest appearances from musical admirers including Mr. Clapton, Keith Richards, David Johansen and Levon Helm.

Another admirer was reportedly Jimi Hendrix, who was said to have been influenced by Mr. Sumlin’s use of distortion on recordings from the late ’50s. The musician with whom Mr. Sumlin will always be most closely associated, however, was Howlin’ Wolf, with whom he had a combative but productive relationship.

“We were like father and son, although we had some tremendous fights,” Mr. Sumlin said of the bonds between the two men in a 1994 interview with Guitar World magazine. “He knocked my teeth out, and I knocked his out. None of it mattered; we always got right back together.”

German autonomen: morality police

Filed under: autonomism,black bloc idiots,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

(Second in the series of posts on the black bloc. The first is here: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/shining-a-light-on-the-black-bloc-part-1-italian-autonomism/)

Although clearly influenced by Italian autonomia, the German autonomen differed in two major respects. First of all, it made much less of an attempt to link itself with the Marxist tradition, even something as heterodox as Toni Negri’s “refusal to work” brand. Secondly, it was much more of a “scene” or a life-style and more particularly a kind of blend of the punk sensibility with ultraleft militancy—sort of half Sid Vicious and half Mark Rudd circa 1970. A rather unappealing mixture in my view.

The other major difference, of course, between the Italians and the Germans is that the latter group gave birth to the black bloc tactic that has become fairly ritualized ever since its introduction in the early 80s. The tactic had always been around in one form or another since the late 70s at least but it took German ingenuity to effectively patent it.

Ironically, it was the German cops who first coined the term referring to the “Schwarzer Block” in a raid in Frankfurt on July 28, 1981 against squatters and other “subversives”. The cops did not view the schwarzer block as a tactic, but as a group even if was ill-defined. In fact it was so ill-defined that charges were eventually dropped against those arrested.

But as pointed out earlier, the tactic predated its naming by the cops and its enshrinement as a permanent tactic by the autonomen. In the late 70s, a wing of the radical movement donned helmets, masks and black clothing when they went out to fight neo-Nazis and the cops. It should be mentioned at this point that such activists had little use for exploiting peaceful demonstrations. There was such a deep hatred toward the German state in this period that the black bloc tactic could summon thousands of activists into battle. Only a few years earlier the Red Army Faction, led by Baader and Meinhof, could count on support that the American Weather Underground could only fantasize about. Fully one out of four Germans supported their activities and one out of ten said they would hide an RAF member from the cops.

Despite his proud identification with autonomism, Georgy Katsiaficas’s treatment of the German movement is decidedly ambivalent in “The Subversion of Politics”. He views the widespread choice of black as a “style” preference rather than an indication of any kind of deep ideological affinity with anarchism:

The black leather jackets worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by others signalled less an ideological anarchism than a style of dress and behavior — symbols of a way of life which made contempt for the established institutions and their U.S. “protectors” into a virtue on an equal footing with disdain for the “socialist” governments in Eastern Europe. Black became the color of the political void — of the withdrawal of allegiance to parties, governments and nations.

In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the clash between “mods” and “rockers” in Britain a decade or so earlier, the German left became a battleground between the punkish black leather favoring Mollis (those who threw Molotov cocktails) and the more laid-back hippy types called Müslis, after the breakfast cereal.

The primary arena for struggle by the “molli” faction was defending squats. In places such as the Kreuzberg neighborhood of West Berlin, thousands of empty apartments and stores had become occupied by the autonomen and turned into both places to live and cultural centers embodying their values. On a much smaller scale the same thing happened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan around the same time.

Serving as morality police in Kreuzberg, autonomen activists punished any and all violators of the group ethos as Katsiaficas points out:

In response, autonomous groups seeking to preserve the independence and character of their neighborhoods intensified their attacks on yuppie entrepreneurs, leading to a widespread perception of the Autonomen as little more than neighborhood mafias (Kiezmafia). Seeking to create a “dead zone for speculators and yuppie-pigs,” groups waged a concerted campaign against gentrification in Kreuzberg. They vandalized upscale restaurants catering to professionals — in some cases throwing excrement inside — torched luxury automobiles costing in excess of $40,000, and repeatedly damaged businesses they deemed undesirable.

They were also as set in their ways about culture as the Taliban. When a small theater called Sputnik decided to show the film “Terror 2000″, a low-budget anti-Nazi satire, a group of activists sprayed the projectionist with teargas, and used butyric acid to destroy a copy of the film, which they considered “sexist and racist.” Afterward, they threatened to return and “destroy everything” if the movie was ever screened again.

Katsiaficas is rather mealy-mouthed when it comes to this incident, writing “I find it difficult to fault completely those who attack neo-Nazis and films like Terror 2000 in which gratuitous violence and sexual objectification reproduce within the movement the very values which it opposes.”

I wonder how he would react if some hard-core Albanian Maoists took it upon themselves to visit Dr. Katsiaficas’s office and spray him with teargas because they objected to his autonomist deviations. In general, I don’t think it is very useful for leftists to use violence to suppress ideas they find objectionable.

Apparently, the Kreuzberg autonomists had a big thing about “politically incorrect” movies. In a “Letter from Europe” devoted to the Kreuzberg scene that appears in the November 28, 1988 New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer reports on another incident:

The Eiszelt is a little theatre on the Zeughofstrasse that shows underground movies , and last spring it was showing a movie called “Fingered,” directed by a Lydia Lunch, which some Kreuzbergers considered pornographic and some sexist and some violent—although apparently not too pornographic or sexist or violent to have shown a few weeks earlier at a theater in town. Twelve masked men and women broke into the Eiszeit during the movie’s run to deal with “Fingered”. They destroyed the projector, and the film in the projector (which turned out to be some other movie), and then they emptied the cash register and fled.

Supposedly the cash receipts were funneled to either a lesbian feminist or anti-imperialist group, but nobody knew which one.

Mayer goes into considerable depth describing the events leading up to the excrement attack on the “upscale” restaurant mentioned in passing by Katsiaficas. You might get the impression from his use of this word that it was one of those joints reviewed in the NY Times with the $200 per person tasting menu. In actuality, the restaurant—called Maxwell—had much more in common with the sort of places opened up in Park Slope by a husband-and-wife team.

In the case of Maxwell, the husband was Hartmut Bitomsky whose values were decidedly opposed to the Style section of the NY Times. His wife Brigitte loved to cook and decided to open a place on the Oranienstrasse, a main drag in Kreuzberg where autonomist values had to be followed to the letter. Not long after Maxwell opened, the Bitomsky’s discovered that they were on a hit-list. They didn’t have to worry about their lives, but their right to open a restaurant was being decided by the morality police.

Twenty years before the Bitomsky’s opened Maxwell, Hartmut was occupying in protest the German Film and Television Academy in West Berlin which he and seventeen other students renamed the Dziga Vertov Academy in honor of the Soviet documentary filmmaker. He was expelled for his efforts.

That did not prevent him from becoming a major figure in the left film world. He wrote what Mayer described as a book of “Marxist aesthetics” on film that was titled “The Redness of the Red in Technicolor” and began making decidedly uncommercial films in Berlin. Becoming obsessed with “German images” like forests, superhighways and blond braids, he reworked them into a film critique of Nazi totalitarianism. His best known work is “B-52″, a documentary on the bomber that the NY Times reviewer described as follows:

”B-52” has grimly detailed accounts of other broken-arrow accidents in Greenland and Spain. A tour guide talks about the Spanish one while showing off a portion of a bombshell at a museum, and a civilian investigator is seen still checking water samples in Goldsboro for signs of nuclear contamination more than 30 years later, mentioning ”a small piece of a nuclear weapon they were unable to recover.” There are horrific stories about the bomber’s use in Vietnam by veterans of that conflict. When Mr. Bitomsky isn’t being glib and uses his interviews to subtly tear down the wall of propaganda about the plane’s efficacy, ”B-52” is absorbing and clear.

None of the black leather clad morality enforcers cared about any of that. All they knew is that Maxwell typified the Schicki-Micki threat to Kreuzberg, a term that means Mickey Mouse chic. It can be likened to “gentrification” in New York and particularly the “yuppie” threat to the Lower East Side in the 1980s that the local counterparts resented even though they never threatened to drive any restaurants out of the neighborhood. In fact, I was friendly with a French chef named Bernard Leroy, who opened a restaurant on Avenue C, the Lower East Side’s equivalent of Oranienstrasse. (He also had a show on WBAI at the time, when it was still very listenable if not compelling radio.) In 1988, the very year that Mayer filed her report, the NY Times reviewed Bernard’s restaurant:

Slum chic may be the next fad in French bistros, what with the success of Bellevues, the Gallic diner on a tawdry block of Ninth Avenue near 37th Street, and now Bernard Organic French Cuisine, at Ninth Street and Avenue C, a scary, drug-plagued neighborhood that makes the Port Authority Bus Terminal’s environs look like Scarsdale.

The creation of the 31-year-old French-born Bernard Leroy, the year-old restaurant is packed nightly, testimony to the resoluteness of trend-seeking Manhattan diners. Mr. Leroy says he uses organic produce and meats ”as much as possible,” doing most of his shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket. He worked at restaurants in France before moving to New York 10 years ago and taking jobs at the caterer Glorious Food, the SoHo Charcuterie and La Petite Ferme. He chose the Avenue C location because, quite simply, ”I could afford it,” he said.

I believe that most local denizens welcomed Bernard into the neighborhood. Maybe that’s a function of their not having been indoctrinated into proper autonomist values. As far as I can remember, they were also big fans of Lydia Lunch, a resident of the neighborhood, as well.

Brigitte Bitomsky’s sole intention in opening Maxwell was to allow people to eat healthy food, like crisp vegetables and fresh fish with interesting spices, an offense in some eyes equal to nuclear power or gang rapes. The restaurant had one room with seven wooden tables and thirty wooden chairs, simple enough. Their mistake, however, probably was using linen tablecloths and napkins, which surely betrayed support for American imperialism.

They opened for business on Christmas of 1985.

In the summer of 1986, the Bitomsky’s figured out that they had become the “enemy”. After furious fighting between the cops and the “mollis” on May Day and in ensuing months, things had become polarized between the hard core left in Kreuzberg and just about everybody else. On one side you had the autonomen in black leather, on the other side you had people who drove SUV’s, Ronald Reagan, the neo-Nazis and Brigitte Bitomsky’s restaurant. People would stop Hartmut on the street and ask him about the ratio between wages and profits in the restaurant, or its “infrastructure”.

Late one night when there were only four customers in the restaurant, nineteen men and women clad in black leather and wearing Doc Martens stormed into the restaurant, started throwing beer cans and turning over furniture. The Bitomsky’s first reaction was to think that they were dealing with neo-Nazis. Some people who ran a soup kitchen down the street told them that they had been victims of the Redskins, a hard-core autonomist gang. They were advised to offer them payoffs, just as if they were characters in “The Sopranos”.

The Redskins came back on Sunday and instructed the Bitomsky’s that they were going to stand trial. They were denounced by an autonomist Vishinsky who demanded to know: “What are you doing in Kreuzberg? You are destroying the infrastructure of Kreuzberg”. Yes, the poached tilapia was certainly a threat to humanity.

Brigitte told Mayer what happened next:

It was hot, and August, and we had only four customers—plus Hartmut, sitting by the door, waiting, and, of course, the whole world watching. But they took us by surprise when they came. You see, we were watching for motorcycles and boots and bomber jackets, and this time it was different. There were only three of them, to begin with. Three men with dark sunglasses and woolen caps pulled low on their foreheads—and carrying buckets. Three men carrying three buckets full of shit and emptied the shit in my restaurant and then they vanished. At that moment, it was all over. We cleaned up and closed the restaurant for good. Who would ever want to eat at Maxwell again?

I will conclude with Kastiaficas’s insightful take on the blind alley that this movement had marched into. Keep in mind that he is one of the foremost defenders of autonomism in the academy, along with John Holloway.

No matter how heroic its members, the existence of an oppositional movement does not necessarily mean that a new psychological structure has emerged which stands in contrast to the unconscious structures of the old social order. By themselves, combativeness and a constant willingness to fight, are not revolutionary attributes — indeed, they are probably the opposite. Even at a moment when the Autonomen were the only public force in Germany directly to oppose the fascist wave of violence which swept across the country in 1992, fights broke out among those who went to Hoyerswerda to stop the pogrom. Internal dangers are all the more real since there are elements to the Autonomen containing within them the seeds of aggression and destruction. “Punk rules,” once a popular slogan, has counterparts today in equally absurd ideas: “Germany-all downhill now” and “Fire and Flames.” The pure nihilism present to some degree in the movement is expressed in a variety of ways. Indications like the combat boots and black leather jackets worn by many militants can be disregarded as superficial, but equally obvious characteristics of the scene merit attention: a scathing anti-intellectualism, an overt and often unchallenged “male” process of events, and random violent clashes among members of the scene. To put it mildly, the movement often fails to establish peaceful and supportive community, and it also contains a dose of German national pride. Both the Greens and the Autonomen have been widely criticized for focusing too much on the German movement’s needs and not enough on the international movement. On these levels, they have not broken with some of the worst dimensions of their cultural tradition.

When you keep in mind that these are the very people who are widely regarded as the inventors of the black bloc tactic, some deep thinking about its role in mass protests has to take place.

In a series of posts to follow, I will take a close look at what happened in Seattle in 1999 and other landmark battles involving the black bloc.

December 4, 2011

Malefactors of great wealth in three new films

Filed under: capitalist pig,Film,financial crisis,oil — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Regular readers of my film reviews know that I do not tend to hype a film. Except for a comment like “a must see”, I generally prefer understatement. That being said, I strongly urge New Yorkers to go see the documentary “The Big Fix” that opened on Friday at the AMC Loews Village Theater. Co-directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, a husband and wife team, it is a searing investigation of BP’s ongoing trashing of the Gulf of Mexico that has largely gone unreported since the supposed capping of the Deepwater Horizon well and the cleaning up of the Gulf.

As someone who generally keeps up with environmentalist issues, I sat watching a press screener with my mouth agape at the horrors perpetrated by an out-of-control oil company and their paid servants in Congress. No other film have I seen in the past five years or so has left me with the feeling that the people running the country—both in government and in corporate boardrooms—are no different than the mafia. In fact we might be better off if the mafia was running the country since these gangsters at least have a feudal sense of noblesse oblige.

Josh Tickell is a Cajun, a descendant of French settlers in Louisiana, who grew up to become a film maker rather than a musician, cook, or oil field worker that are the typical jobs that members of this ethnic group take on. But despite his achievements as a documentary filmmaker, his heart is obviously with the working people of Louisiana, who are being screwed royally by BP.

The film begins with a historical survey of Louisiana that establishes its status as a kind of internal colony of the U.S. With the stranglehold of oil companies on the state’s political machinery, those in the “99 percent” have much more in common with the people of Iran under the Shah than they do with most Americans. As the film points out, British Petroleum was a key player in Iran until the 1979 revolution and now views Louisiana as just another source of superprofits, whatever happens to the environment and the local population being utterly immaterial.

There is some fascinating archival footage of Governor Huey Long, who was dubbed a “fascist” when I was a high school student. “The Big Fix” makes a convincing case that Long only became demonized when he demanded that oil companies doing business in Louisiana pay their fair share of taxes.

The Tickells decided to go down to Louisiana to make a film after becoming convinced that BP was involved in a cover-up. The film combines their own cloak-and-dagger filming of the company’s deceitful practices as well as interviews with economists and scientists who make the case that the Gulf of Mexico is practically dead now, despite BP’s nauseating commercials about people coming down to enjoy the seafood and the beaches.

The gist of their investigation reveals that the waters appear clean because BP has been spraying enormous amounts of Corexit, a chemical dispersant used widely by Exxon and BP after one of their disasters. The purpose of Corexit is to reduce oil slicks into tiny droplets that sink beneath the surface of the water, thus making it appear as if it is clean. However, small fish ingest the chemical and are then eaten by others higher up on the food chain. As one long-time fisherman in the area told the Tickells, dolphins can be seen coughing as they rise to the surface of the water.

Whole coughing dolphins is an image that is hard to shake from your mind, what is even harder to shake is the sight of ulcerated skin that is fairly endemic to people living near the waters. So pervasive are the toxic chemicals used in the “clean up” that Rebecca Tickell became permanently affected herself and will probably never enjoy a complete recovery from various illnesses, including the lingering effects of chemically-induced pneumonia.

The final moments of the film are devoted to an exploration of how BP gets away with its criminal activity, which involves many of the same themes raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It pays millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans alike in order to get them to serve as lackeys. What is even more disheartening is to see how compromised the university system is in Louisiana. Typical is Ed Stapleton, a professor emeritus at LSU who was initially alarmed by the impact of the BP spill but after the company lavished 10 million dollars on the school he became a fixture on shows like David Letterman giving jocular remarks on how clean the waters were. The only parallel is watching some of the nuclear industry functionaries in Japan announcing to their countrymen that there was nothing to worry about.

“The Big Fix” is the real deal. It does not spare any politician or corporate functionary and goes after Obama with the kind of fury that I have not seen in any documentary since this rotten tool of corporate America took office. The film relies on Chris Hedges to help make their case and he is in fine fettle. Don’t miss this one. It will remind you why you became a socialist and if you are still a liberal, it will turn you into a fire-breathing revolutionary.

Like most people on the left, I regarded the fight between Mikhail Khodorkovsy, the president of Yukos Oil and the richest man in Russia, and Vladimir Putin as a pissing contest between two skunks.

Although the documentary titled “Khodorkovsky” that opened on Friday at the Film Forum is not intended to persuade anybody that the oligarch had any redeeming social value, it does make a pretty convincing case that he was victimized mostly because he stood up to Putin. When Putin told him to stay out of politics, Khodorkovsky did not back down. For his efforts, he was sent to prison for six years for widely regarded as trumped up charges on tax evasion and just recently had another six years tacked on.

Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, his mother was not. He was a member of the Communist Party youth group when the USSR was still intact and learned how to make money hustling in its ranks by acting as a kind of social director. Using his Komsomol connections, Khodorkovsky set up the bank Menatep when Gorbachev was still in charge.

The money he made running Menatep allowed him to bid successfully for the state-owned oil company that would become Yukos. Unlike other oligarchs, he shunned the lavish lifestyle and had no use for gangster entourages that became endemic in the early years of the post-Soviet Union.

The documentary was directed by Cyril Tuschi, a German who adopts a somewhat detached and bemused attitude throughout the film suitable for his ambivalence toward Khodorkovsky. It is not clear to me that Tuschi had much interest in the broader questions of post-Communist society, the contradictions of capitalism, or anything else that matters to my usual readers. He seems to be motivated to tell an interesting story about a rather dubious figure and does a reasonably good job.

Mentioned only fleetingly in the film was Khodorkovsky’s attempts in 2003 to form partnerships with Western oil companies, something that Putin regarded as inimical to Russian interests. At the time, some leftists gave critical support to Putin as a kind of “anti-imperialist”. While not using this term, Vladimir Popov did make the case in the March-April 2007 New Left Review for Putin as a kind of imperfect defender of Russian interests in acting against the oligarchs.

I appreciated Tony Wood’s response to Popov’s article that appeared in a subsequent issue:

The reassertion of state control over strategic companies and sectors has been seen as a sign of stealth nationalization—the state using its administrative powers to crush Khodorkovsky’s Yukos and, more recently, even muscle aside multinational companies such as Shell. Western establishment analysts have diagnosed these developments as a case of ‘resource nationalism’, likening Putin’s actions to those of Chávez or Morales, while the latest leitmotif of Russian political discourse has been the idea of ‘sovereign democracy’—essentially referring to Russia’s ability and determination to pursue an independent course, no longer reliant on loans or approbation from the West.

Neither of these concepts is an adequate measure of the orientation and outlook of Russia’s contemporary elite. As noted above, the Putin administration has not actively redistributed oil wealth to those dispossessed by the ‘reforms’ of the 1990s; indeed, its tax regime seeks precisely to benefit the wealthy still further, while the monetization of benefits and increased charges for utilities penalize the poor. Though the poverty rate is declining and wages rising, any significant drop in oil prices will likely reverse these trends, which will once again have the most severe impact on the lowest income strata. The decision to spend the oil windfall on euros and dollars, meanwhile, is ostensibly motivated by a desire to keep inflation in check; but in a context of continued infrastructural dysfunction, such prudence is a form of deferred suicide, starving the nation of the public goods that would secure its survival in the longer term.

Turning from documentary to fiction, I can recommend “Margin Call”, now playing in theaters all across the U.S. as the best dramatization of the 2008” subprime meltdown whose effects are still being felt.

By contrast, Oliver Stone’s follow-up to Wall Street is incoherent trash and the HBO mixture of fiction and documentary titled “Too Big to Fail”, starring William Hurt as Henry Paulson, is best described as a whitewash of bankster malfeasance. With a screenplay by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who was stupid enough to write a column about taking a phone call from one of these types of scumbags asking whether he had anything to worry about with the OWS movement, this is a story about the public-mindedness of Paulson and company who saved the country from going under. It was hard to take this seriously when the HBO movie aired. It is even harder now in light of a Bloomberg News report:

The Federal Reserve and the big banks fought for more than two years to keep details of the largest bailout in U.S. history a secret. Now, the rest of the world can see what it was missing.

The Fed didn’t tell anyone which banks were in trouble so deep they required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day. Bankers didn’t mention that they took tens of billions of dollars in emergency loans at the same time they were assuring investors their firms were healthy. And no one calculated until now that banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its January issue.

Saved by the bailout, bankers lobbied against government regulations, a job made easier by the Fed, which never disclosed the details of the rescue to lawmakers even as Congress doled out more money and debated new rules aimed at preventing the next collapse.

Directed by J.C. Chandor (his first film), “Margin Call” takes place in a 24 hour span as a financial analyst—an MIT graduate with an engineering degree–discovers that his firm’s collateralized mortgage holdings were likely to bankrupt the company given the direction of the market.

The CEO, played to a tee by Jeremy Irons, orders the traders to dump the subprime holdings on unsuspecting customers no matter the long-term consequences. Playing his second in command, Kevin Spacey bridles at this proposal and only accedes under pressure. This was the only thing in the film that did not quite ring true. If you get to be second in command at a place like this, clearly modeled after Goldman-Sachs, you sold your soul to the devil long before becoming that powerful.

The movie has a crackling electricity and very fine dialog rendered in a realistic manner. Throughout the entire film, there is no attempt to offer up a back-story or anything that would make the characters sympathetic. The net effect is like looking at an aquarium full of piranhas and hoping that the glass doesn’t break.

That being said, none of the characters in the film is “evil” in the sense that Gordon Gekko was in “Wall Street”. They are simply doing their job. That is actually what makes the film so powerful. It is not interested in exposing crooks but in putting the financial system under a microscope. That, after all, is what Karl Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.

How to spot a Communist

Filed under: humor — louisproyect @ 5:35 am

December 3, 2011

The Sikh struggle through the prism of film

Filed under: Film,india,religion — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

Like most people, before 2007 I only knew Sikhs by their appearance—and particularly the physically imposing men with their turbans and beards. But in May of that year, I saw something that turned me around–Shonali Bose’s “Amu”,  a dramatization of what amounted to genocide in India in 1984.

In the press notes for the film, Shonali wrote:

Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.

Now, four years later, I return to the Sikh struggle once again through the prism of film.

On October 14th I attended the opening night of the Sikh Film Festival in New York and saw two documentaries that went to the heart of the problems facing this 25 million strong religious group, three-quarters of whom live in Punjab, India, as well as other South Asians suffering from economic oppression.

Harpreet Kaur’s “A Little Revolution: A Story of Suicides and Dreams” featured the director in her campaign to win justice for the surviving family members of Punjabi peasants who have killed themselves out of desperation. Like so many peasants in India, Sikh and non-Sikh, the industrial transformation of Indian farming has condemned many to crushing debts.

Obviously related to the first documentary in terms of its economic focus, Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Agatha Maciaszek’s “The Ulysses” tells the story of Bangladeshi undocumented workers who are living in limbo. Deceived into thinking that they were destined for Europe and gainful employment, they are stranded in Ceuta, Morocco, a European enclave, where they construct a shanty-town and look after each other’s needs.

It is an obvious testimony to the ecumenical character of Sikh society that a film featuring the plight of non-Sikh peoples is featured on opening night.

Arguably, the Sikh religion is rooted in the same kind of belief in social equality that marked the early days of Christianity, long before that religion became associated with imperial power and intolerance. In Purnima Dhavan’s “When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799”, a book that can be read in part on Google, we learn:

The creation of the Khalsa [initiated Sikh] is important for many reasons. Its foundational texts questioned every facet of the social and political hierarchies that dominated peasant life in the seventeenth century. Other than challenging the moral right of the Mughal emperor to rule, Khalsa Sikhs, who were among the first to describe appropriate Khalsa practices, also questioned the hierarchies of caste and inherited privilege that dominated their world.

In one of the talks given at opening night of the Sikh Film Festival, a Sikh leader gave a brief overview of this formative period that involved some legendary battles of vastly outnumbered Sikh fighters against the Mughal army. Unlike the Old Testament, these heroic encounters were true and did not involve divine intervention. In point of fact, the Sikh religion has little use for such deus ex machina miracles or any other superstitions, as the Sikh wiki points out:

Superstitions and rituals should not be observed or followed, including pilgrimages, fasting and ritual purification; circumcision; idols & grave worship…

Sikhism does not have priests, they were abolished by Guru Gobind Singh (the 10th Guru of Sikhism). The only position he left was a Granthi to look after the Guru Granth Sahib, any Sikh is free to become Granthi or read from the Guru Granth Sahib.

Over centuries, and largely driven by a need to defend themselves against those who would crush their religion, Sikh men became accomplished fighters and actually built up a sizable empire of their own that straddled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India.

Eventually the Sikhs encountered an enemy army that they could not vanquish, namely the British colonists of the mid-19th century who fought two wars of subjugation that eventually led to the loss of Sikh power in Punjab. Once they were conquered, the Sikh warriors were heavily recruited into the British army because of their fighting skills.

While much of Karl Marx’s writings on India is problematic, relying on specious secondary sources, his 1858 Tribune article on “The Revolt in India”  is worth noting:

A conspiracy to murder their officers and to rise against the British has been discovered among several Sikh regiments at Dera Ismael Khan. How far this conspiracy was ramified, we cannot tell. Perhaps it was merely a local affair, arising among a peculiar class of Sikhs; but we are not in a position to assert this. At all events, this is a highly dangerous symptom. There are now nearly 100,000 Sikhs in the British service, and we have heard how saucy they are; they fight, they say, to-day for the British, but may fight to-morrow against them, as it may please God. Brave, passionate, fickle, they are even more subject to sudden and unexpected impulses than other Orientals. If mutiny should break out in earnest among them, then would the British indeed have hard work to keep their own. The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India; they have formed a comparatively powerful empire; they are of a peculiar sect of Brahminism, and hate both Hindoos and Mussulmans.

As I said, Marx did not get everything right. Although I am no expert on the Sikh religion, the idea that they are a “sect of Brahmanism” sounds wrong. But from what I have been reading lately, the notion that “The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India” seems indisputable.

Indeed, Marx was right on this. As the fight for Indian independence grew apace, the Sikhs became vanguard fighters. Launched in part to break the hold of corrupt Mahants (custodians) over Sikh Temples, who were often in fact not even Sikhs, it turned into a fight against the British who propped up the Mahants in their typically colonizing mode of operation.

Agnes Smedley wrote an article for the July 2, 1924 Nation Magazine titled “The Akali Movement—An Heroic Epic”. These are the concluding paragraphs:

According to the official statement of the S. G. P. Committee, published throughout the Indian press, the massacre at the Gangsar shrine in Jaito was deliberately prepared by the British Government. In the immediate vicinity of the shrine, declared the committee, and concealed behind some buildings, the authorities erected a special barbed-wire in-closure to serve as a trap into which the Akalis were to be driven and beaten. The scene leading to the temple looked like a European battlefield. The road leading to the shrine was inclosed by a barbed-wire barricade on the one side and on the other bullock carts chained together. Behind the carts, villagers, armed with clubs and drunk with liquor which had been freely supplied them, were stationed in three rows. According to the statement of Pundit Malaviya, organizer and founder of the great Benares Hindu University, in a speech before the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi, and according to the statement issued by the S. G. P. Committee, these villagers had been recruited from the surrounding villages, one from each family, on the threat of confiscation of land and expulsion from the state of any family which did not send one representative. A platoon of infantry, two detachments of cavalry, and sappers and miners were ready to receive the Jatha. Lewis guns were fixed at various places. And, more significant still, a, trench had been dug around the temple, filled with water, and then strewn with grass and twigs to give it a deceptive appearance.

The Jatha realized its fate as it approached, but it was under a sacred pledge. In a calm and devotional mood, and singing hymns, it advanced. The English commander gave a signal with a flag, and fire was opened. The Akalis did not waver, but marched forward, with hands upraised and with voices raised in a mighty religious hymn. As their comrades fell about them they picked them up and marched on. Realizing that to stop them meant to kill the last man, the cavalry surrounded them. Some thirty Sikh women in the procession, one whose baby was killed in her arms, attended the wounded; upon their refusal to withdraw they were lashed and beaten. The dead and wounded lay for twenty-four hours without any medical assistance. Some of the dead bodies were piled on pyres, drenched with kerosene oil, and burned. Others were finally loaded on carts like so many sacks of grain, and taken to the fort where the prisoners were detained.

Since the Jaito massacre five more Jathas of 500 have reached Jaito, only to be arrested. As they leave Amritsar on their long march the streets and housetops are jammed with people crying “Sat Sri Akal.” Each night they rest and educate the peasants. Crowds of people wait for hours along the routes, ready to offer them, free of all charge, food and drink.

The Akali epic is not yet ended. It has again raised India from the depression which followed Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest. It has ceased to be purely one of religious reform. It is a social and political movement led by men who prefer martyrdom to surrender. Almost every Sikh now claims the honor of being an Akali, a name drawn from the deep wells of Sikh persecution which means one who is pure in spirit, “the Deathless.”

Last Thursday I attended a press screening for “I am Singh” that opened yesterday at Big Cinemas in NY, a theater specializing in Asian films. This is a film that dramatizes the struggle against racist attacks on both Sikhs and Muslims that took place in the aftermath of 9/11.

The title of this film is almost the same as “I am Sikh” since the name Singh, which means lion, is automatically given to Sikh boys just as Kaur (princess) is given to girls. The main character is Ranveer Singh (Gulzar Chahal) who is summoned to Los Angeles from India by his mother. In the parking lot of their restaurant, skinheads have attacked his father and two older brothers. After accusing them of being behind the 9/11 attack, they begin beating them with baseball clubs. The father is in a hospital, one brother is dead, and the other is in jail falsely accused of attacking his own relatives. In this film, the Los Angeles police department is depicted as riddled with racists. No, it is not a documentary.

After Ranveer comes to Los Angeles to investigate, he finds two allies in the fight to achieve justice. One is a barrel-chested long-time Sikh member of the police force who is fired for refusing to remove his turban while on duty (played by Bollywood veteran Puneet Issar, the film’s director). The other is a Muslim from Pakistan who witnessed the skinhead attack and was also falsely accused of being a 9/11 plotter simply because his father had the same name as someone who sold a cell phone to Mohamed Atta. Once again, I have to remind you that this is not a documentary.

For those who have never seen a Bollywood film, be prepared. The actors act in a way that is a throwback to cinema’s early days, long before there was such a thing as “method acting”—something that probably never made much of a dent in Indian film to begin with. People went to movies in order to enjoy something that was about as far from “natural” as could be expected. Think of Kabuki and you get an idea of the stylized manner of Bollywood that I personally enjoy immensely.

At the press screening, there were a number of my film critic colleagues who were guffawing at the histrionic delivery of some of the actors. I had to restrain myself from going over to one of the louder ones and giving them a piece of my mind. The provincialism of some New Yorkers can be shocking.

I can recommend “I am Singh” as a powerful statement of Sikh resistance to attempts to scapegoat them. That people can be beaten or killed for simply wearing a turban is a threat to some of our most basic rights as Americans, rights that were not handed down by the rich and the powerful but won through struggle. (The Sikh community, including youth who are involved with The Sikh Activist Network, is carrying out the social struggle depicted in “I am Singh” in real life. )

Finally, the song-and-dance numbers in “I am Singh” are about as breathtaking as in any Bollywood movie I have ever seen. Trust me, unless you have seen 6’5” Sikh men dancing with swords, you haven’t seen nothin’ Here’s a clip from the movie’s official website that will give you an idea of the treat that awaits you.

November 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Into the Abyss

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm

IMDB lists 62 works by Werner Herzog going back nearly a half-century, most of them documentaries like this year’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Into the Abyss”. After viewing them recently as screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration by our yearly awards meeting on December 10, I concluded that Herzog deserved some kind of lifetime achievement award. When you compare his body of work to some under 30 year old graduate of the NYU film school whose Sundance entry gets turned into the second coming of “Citizen Kane”, it dawns on you how degraded the Hollywood star-making business has become.

Over on Facebook Counterpunch co-editor Jeff St. Clair warned me that the only way to watch “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is in 3D, but unfortunately I never got around to see this highly regarded documentary about 25,000 year old cave paintings in Chauvet, France when it was in the theater. (Update, I just discovered that it still playing at the IFC Center in NY.)

That being said, I found the experience of seeing these paintings totally riveting and am grateful to Herzog for committing himself to a project that at first blush might appear to conform to PBS’s dry as dust “educational” fare.

Not long ago a friend asked me to contribute to an online symposium about whether the left has a future. He was feeling rather gloomy at the time but has picked up noticeably since OWS. I tried to frame my contribution in terms of the long view of history. When you consider that our ancestors were executing such beautiful works 25 millennia ago, you tend to have much more confidence in our possibilities as a species. Of course, they had a leg up on us since they were not bound by the need to produce commodities for the market.

Just by coincidence I turned on the John Batchelor show on WABC radio the same day I watched “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” in the middle of an interview with Michael Balter, a science journalist who I have had friendly correspondence with over the past few years, especially over our shared aversion to some of Jared Diamond’s excesses, particularly his infamous New Yorker article on the supposedly bloodthirsty nature of Papuan New Guinea tribesmen.

Batchelor, who is an amazingly erudite fellow despite his extremely backward Republican Party politics, was discussing cave paintings with Balter, who is something of an expert in the field. Fortunately, you can listen to the podcast here, with Balter entering 10 minutes into the clip.

Since the interview is far too short (Batchelor usually gives someone from the Israel lobby a full half-hour), you can get a longer version in the Balter article that was discussed on the show here.  Interestingly enough, Balter told Batchelor that when the artist painted spots outside the horse’s body, this was not a sign of his or her incompetence but rather an exercise of artistic license. When you look at the amazingly representational techniques of the cave paintings in Herzog’s documentary, you will have to agree. These people knew where to put the spots, even if they chose on occasion to put them where they didn’t belong just as Picasso chose a higher level of “realism” through his cubist works, or for that matter, the African works that inspired them.

Looking a bit deeper into Balter’s two articles, it turns out that they have more in common than you would think at first blush. Jared Diamond is just one among a number of evolutionary psychologists who views the modern state, with its gendarmes, courts and prisons, as a Hobbesian protection against mankind’s worst tendencies, which were virtually given free rein at the very time these luminous wall paintings were being made. Somehow, I would feel safer among the people who made such paintings than those who are launching drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan.

Jared Diamond’s co-thinker Stephen Pinker got the usual reverential treatment in the mainstream press today in a New York Times profile titled Human Nature’s Pathologist  that repeats his hypothesis uncritically: “Human violence started dropping thousands of years ago with the formation of the first states, Dr. Pinker argues. For evidence, he points to archaeological studies and observations of stateless societies today. With the birth of the first states, rates of violence began to fall, and they have dropped in fits and starts ever since.”

For an alternative to this hogwash, I can’t recommend highly enough Douglas Fry’s review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature that appears in the latest issue of Bookforum, one of the few print publications I subscribe to. Fry, like Brian Ferguson whose work I have reviewed here, is a critic of evolutionary psychology’s Hobbesian impulses. He writes:

For most of humanity’s existence, humans lived in nomadic bands and did not suffer from the chronic warfare, torture, slavery, and exploitation that Pinker, trailing Thomas Hobbes, imagines to be our species’ nasty and brutish natural state. For one thing, the very nature of nomadic-band social organization makes warfare, slavery, or despotic rule well-nigh impossible. The small social units lack the ability to engage in large-scale slaughter—and since positions of authoritative leadership are also lacking, there is nothing to plunder, tools and weapons are rudimentary, and population density is extremely low. For another thing, the archaeological facts speak clearly, showing for particular geographical areas exactly when war began. And in all cases this was recent, not ancient, activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering. Pinker ignores this evidence. He also makes a big deal about the recent rise in gender equality and human rights, but turns an unaccountable blind eye to the highly demotic character of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.

There’s a well-established body of literature chronicling early humanity’s egalitarian and peaceful past. In The Foraging Spectrum (1995), for instance, Robert Kelly offered this summary of the salient features of hunter-gatherer social life: “small, peaceful, nomadic bands, men and women with few possession[s] and who are equal in wealth, opportunity, and status.”

After watching only a few minutes of Werner Herzog’s luminous documentary, you too will come to the conclusion that our ancestors existed as “peaceful” bands “equal in wealth, opportunity, and status”. Our goal, of course, is to re-establish these conditions on the basis of modern technology—socialism, in other words.

Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, “Into the Abyss” is a denunciation of capital punishment centered on a sensational murder case in Conroe, Texas involving two deeply disturbed youths named Michael Perry, who was executed on July 1, 2010, and Jason Burkett, who is serving a life term. The jury decided to spare his life after Burkett’s father, a long-time criminal serving a lengthy term in the same prison as his son, begged it to have mercy on Jason.

Herzog’s interviews with Perry took place just 8 days before his execution and have the same harrowing quality as Nick Broomfield’s documentaries on Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute and serial killer also dramatized in the film “Monster”. Broomfield’s films have an exploitative character in which his refined British persona is in stark contrast to Wuornos who mixes profanity and Christian pieties often in the same breath. Herzog’s interviews with Perry and Burkett come close to having the same voyeuristic quality. When European film-makers visit places like Florida and Texas, especially their seamier locales, there is a risk that they are hosting a kind of rarefied freak show.

Militating against this danger is Herzog’s obviously deeply-felt conviction that the death penalty is unjust. In the most telling interview in the film, he interviews the former head of executions at Huntsville prison in Texas, where the orgy of killings have been taking place since the Supreme Court gave the green light to capital punishment. In a gripping testimony, the man describes his horror over the execution of Texas’s first female prisoner. From that point on, he was no longer capable of going forward in his post and was haunted by memories of past executions. When he quit his job, he was forced to give up his pension. In the period we are living in, there is no greater testimony to a man’s willingness to act on his beliefs.

Although Herzog focused more on the dysfunctional families and hardships that turned Perry and Burkett into murderers, there are images of Conroe, Texas that will convince most people that poverty was to blame for their anti-social behavior and that of many of their peers, who appear to accept drugs, alcohol, petty crime and violence as normal.

Conroe is just north of Houston, where I spent two years in the mid-70s as an activist in the Trotskyist movement. It is clear to me that something of the same process that has turned places like Detroit and Newark into a post-apocalyptic landscape is occurring in Texas as well. Despite its reputation as a get-rich frontier state bastion, Texas is obviously sinking into the same pit as the rest of America. With conditions such as those that obtained in Conroe, we can certainly expect murders, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, to continue unabated. Werner Herzog’s movie is a strong voice against that trend, even though a major social movement will have to come into being to eliminate both poverty and the senseless crimes that grow out of it.

Chris Hedges speaks at Harvard on OWS

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm

 

(for part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugU6ELwbi_o)
(for part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKSUfCG7ax4)

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