Much cooler than John Travolta and Uma Thurman
May 17, 2011
$60 Million Gift to Bolster Bard College’s Global Work
Bard College, a small liberal arts institution in the Hudson Valley, has received a $60 million gift from the Open Society Foundations in recognition of its global involvement, which includes programs in New Orleans, Nicaragua and Russia, officials are to announce on Tuesday.
The gift from Open Society, which George Soros created in the 1980s to foster democracies around the world, will help the college bring its disparate programs under a new umbrella, the Bard College Center for Civic Engagement, and assure their continuing operation and growth.
“We decided to create an institutional culture of serious, thoughtful and nonpartisan engagement in the world,” said Leon Botstein, Bard’s longtime president. “Bard has really taken seriously all of the John Dewey arguments about the relationship between education and democracy. It can’t be done merely through the curriculum.”
The $60 million grant is enormous for Bard, which has a relatively small endowment of $200 million. It requires the college to raise an additional $120 million from other donors, though the Soros money will begin to flow before that goal is met.
Dr. Botstein has had a close relationship with Mr. Soros for years, serving on boards of the Open Society Foundations and as chairman of the Central European University in Budapest, which Mr. Soros established.
“As a general rule I do not support higher education in the United States,” Mr. Soros said in a statement. “This grant represents a departure that will help Bard in its efforts to transform liberal education and bolster critical thinking worldwide.”
For years, Bard, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has steadily expanded its academic programs in the United States and abroad. Some programs were begun by faculty members, others by former students; they were institutionalized by the college.
A former student created the Bard Prison Initiative, which brings degree-granting courses into five New York correctional facilities; a professor developed a dual-degree program in liberal arts with St. Petersburg State University in Russia.
Closer to its Hudson Valley campus, the college operates public high schools in Manhattan, Queens and Newark that incorporate college-level coursework. In New Orleans, about 10 percent of high school juniors and seniors take college-level courses through a Bard program created by former students.
Other service-learning projects and education programs are in Nicaragua, the West Bank, Kyrgyzstan and South Africa. “We don’t go where it’s beneficial for Bard; we go where we see a need,” said a college spokesman, Mark Primoff.
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(written in 2000)
I just returned from Bard College, where graduation ceremonies for the class of 2000 and a reunion for my graduating class of 1965 were held.
Bard is an interesting institution. Along with Black Mountain College, Bennington, Antioch and Goddard, the school was seen as an experiment in progressive educational philosophy. These schools either involved ambitious, but largely unsuccessful, work-study programs or in the case of Black Mountain expected students to work on the upkeep of the college itself, through gardening for food served in the cafeteria, etc. John Dewey’s progressivism was a strong element mixed with New Deal idealism.
All of these schools went through big financial crises at one point or another and one, Black Mountain– the eagle of the lot–succumbed in the 1950s. Even in its grave, the school was seen as one of the great cultural influences of the 20th century, either through the literary journal edited by faculty member and dean Charles Olsen, or through art classes taught by well-known modernists such as Joseph Albers.
The others hit a brick wall in the 1960s and 70s as American society entered a post-affluence period when the realities of the job market militated against the kind of intellectual hothouse atmosphere of a place like Bard or Bennington. The schools were forced to become more competitive and the financial and curricular restructuring was often quite painful, as indicated in an article about Bennington in today’s NY Times:
Founded in 1932 as a women’s college challenging educational orthodoxy, the upstart developed a history of innovation, a tradition of teacher-practitioners — often cutting-edge figures in art, drama, dance and literature — working in close relationship with their student-apprentices and, in recent decades, academic politics of exceeding viciousness.
But with the college having fallen on hard times by 1994, its niche nibbled away by changes in the Ivy League and other institutions, its student body reduced in quantity and quality, some of its faculty lapsing toward mediocrity and its finances in peril, the trustees, the administration and the faculty came up with a restructuring plan called the Symposium after a two-year agonizing reappraisal.
A third of the faculty — 26 of 79 professors — was fired in a single stroke in 1994.
Bard solved its financial crisis in a less extreme fashion. When Leon Botstein assumed the presidency of the college in 1975 at the age of 28, the youngest such office-holder in the United States, he elected to curb the “excesses” of the old Bard and to restyle the school as a competitive liberal arts college in the mode of Swarthmore, Haverford or Reed. He has been eminently successful. One out of 10 applications are approved today, while back in 1961, when I was a freshman, the ratio was something like 1 out of 3.
Despite Bard’s mediocre reputation, it was an important institution. From 1933-44, it added distinguished European emigres, in flight from fascist Europe, to the faculty. Among them were painter Stefan Hirsch, political editor Felix Hirsch, violinist Emil Hauser of the Budapest String Quartet, philosopher Heinrich Bluecher, economist Adolf Sturmthal, and philosopher Werner Wolff.
Botstein is a well-respected public figure, whose musings appear regularly on the NY Times op-ed page, including a piece on standardized testing today (5/28), to which he is opposed. He is also a mediocre symphony orchestra conductor, who compensates for lackluster performances with his dedication to neglected composers, including Schoenberg about whom Botstein has recently edited a collection of essays.
But Botstein’s real gift is for fund-raising, about whose propriety I have had occasion to take exception to. Botstein has a tremendous affinity for hooking up with very wealthy but very compromised figures, a failing that remains lost on most Bard graduates except the occasionally disgruntled Marxist like myself.
In 1987 I received a mailing from the alumnus office crowing about Botstein’s new appointees to the Board of Trustees. One was Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout artist and Bard Graduate, whose sleazy behavior served as the inspiration for the Gordon Gecko character in “Wall Street”. Edelman’s takeovers often resulted in the permanent unemployment of “excess” workers. The other appointee was Martin Peretz, the editor of New Republic who used the formerly liberal magazine to stump for contra funding. Since I was heavily involved with sending volunteers to Nicaragua, I blew my stack and wrote Botstein a heavily sarcastic letter congratulating him for sniffing out rich scumbags who would help him balance the school’s books.
Apparently Botstein doesn’t enjoy being criticized in this fashion. He sent me a long angry reply defending his actions. In a way it is easy to understand Botstein’s self-righteousness. In his own eyes, he must appear practically a Bolshevik. After all, didn’t he set up an Alger Hiss chair at Bard (of course, taking the big money connected to the position) and give well-known Marxist and Green activist Joel Kovel the job? In a characteristically Botsteinian gesture, he also set up a Henry R. Luce chair for faculty at Bard at the same time. Critics, according to a NY Times Magazine profile (Oct. 4, 1992) “see the incongruity as opportunism; he sees the essence of free inquiry.” His growled at the interviewer, “People have so little tolerance for dissent. What happened to free thought? Individual ideas? What happened to Thoreau? What happened to this tradition in America?” You’re either for ‘em or agin ‘em. What are we discussing, subtle issues with a meat cleaver?”
Continuing in this vein, Botstein co-opted multimillionaire investor and liberal Leon Levy to set up an Economics Institute at the College, where PEN-L’er Matt Forstater used to work. Levy writes occasionally for the centrist periodical “New York Review of Books,” where his preoccupations about income inequality and “irrational exuberance” on Wall Street serve the same kind of faux progressivist agenda that Felix Rohatyn’s articles used to in the 1980s.
About 5 years ago a trade union organizer wrote to PEN-L asking if there were any Bard College graduates on the list. It seemed that the Levy offspring were owners of an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan whose waiters were attempting to win bargaining recognition. The organizer needed an alumni directory so that letters informing them about the situation could be sent out. It gave me sheer pleasure to send said directory to the union as well as to learn that the administration went ballistic over the “misappropriation” of school property.
In the 1990s Botstein’s recruitment efforts turned up another Golden Goose in the person of Susan Soros, Mrs. George. The Soroses are not to be trifled with, as seen by this London Times May 8, 1991 piece:
A CHAUFFEUR-BUTLER and his cook-housekeeper wife yesterday won their claim for compensation for wrongful dismissal against a multi-millionaire philanthropist whose wife dismissed them without warning.
Susan Soros, the American wife of George Soros, a Hungarian expatriate who is chairman of the Quantum Fund of New York, had told an industrial tribunal in London that Patrick Davison and his wife Nicki had turned her London home into an ‘uninhabitable battlefield’ when she brought a cordon bleu chef from New York.
She said that arguments between her South American chef and the Davisons had kept her awake at night, and that the Davisons had refused to give the chef money to buy ingredients or to show her the food shops.
Yesterday the tribunal unanimously decided that they preferred the Davisons’ evidence to that of Mrs Soros, who they concluded had no legitimate grounds for dismissing the couple.
1991 was a bad year for Susan Soros. Not only did her kitchen staff get uppity, she was turned down for the job of director of graduate education at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. So with $20 million of her husband’s money, she started her own school at 18 West 86th Street. Naturally, she couldn’t get away with calling it the Susan Soros Museum, but Botstein suggested that calling it the Bard College Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts might work. One can only assume that such a generous gesture has benefited Bard College in ways that transcend art.
At yesterday’s commencement, Susan Soros was on hand to present an honorary degree to Ludmila A. Verbitskaya, the first female rector of the State University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Ms. Verbitskaya profusely thanked Botstein for all the help Bard College had made available in the transformation of her institution into one befitting Russia’s new ‘open society’. The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Its victory has ensured that a generation of Russian youth will never enjoy a college education and will likely end up marginalized as alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes.
In his commencement address, Botstein urged the class of 2000 to eschew the kind of greed and cynicism that pervaded American society in recent years. I sat there marveling at his breathtaking inability to understand himself and his social role. Do such movers and shakers really take themselves seriously? Perhaps Bard would have been better off with a dreamer and visionary like Charles Olsen in charge. It might have died in the 1970s, but it would have been honored for a glorious lifetime of service to education and humanity.
May 16, 2011
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West says. “It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that’s true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It’s a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.
“He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” he says. “He’s got two homes. He has got his family and whatever challenges go on there, and this other home. Larry Summers blows his mind because he’s so smart. He’s got Establishment connections. He’s embracing me. It is this smartness, this truncated brilliance, that titillates and stimulates brother Barack and makes him feel at home. That is very sad for me.
At the very least, William I. Robinson’s article “The Crisis of Global Capitalism and the Specter of 21st Century Fascism” has the merit of seeking to make a clear distinction between what took place in the 20s and 30s and what might be happening now, even if it ultimately fails:
A 21st fascism would not look like 20th century fascism. Among other things, the ability of dominant groups to control and manipulate space and to exercise an unprecedented control over the mass media, the means of communication and the production of symbolic, images, and messages, means that repression can be more selective (as we see, e.g., in Mexico or Colombia), and also organized juridically so that mass “legal” incarceration takes the place of concentration camps. Moreover, the ability of economic power to determine electoral outcomes allows for 21st century fascism to emerge without a necessary rupture in electoral cycles and a constitutional order.
This is certainly a step forward from the sort of thing I have been hearing for the past 40 years or so when politicians like Richard Nixon were being described as fascists getting ready to crush the left. Oddly enough, Democratic Party presidents were never described in such terms. To Robinson’s credit, he has tried to theorize a new type of fascism that owes little to the kind of hysteria found in the pages of CPUSA publications that was mostly intended into motivate a vote for the Democrats.
Despite my disagreements with Robinson over this matter, I should state that I have the highest regard for him as both an intellectual and a revolutionary journalist. Back in the late 1980s, Nicaragua solidarity activists relied on his Guardian articles (the defunct America radical weekly, not the British newspaper) co-written with Ken Norsworthy. He was a member of Union of Nicaraguan Journalists (past member and officer 1984-1990).
Back in 2009 Robinson became a target of the Israel lobby after an email he wrote to his class at U. Cal Santa Barbara compared Israeli treatment of Gaza to the Nazis. Frankly, I find this analysis rather emotionally engaging even if I am dubious about it politically.
The major emphasis in Robinson’s article is on what he perceives as an intractable and systemic economic crisis, one that he likens to the Great Depression:
This is not a cyclical but a structural crisis – a restructuring crisis, such as we had in the 1970s, and before that, in the 1930s – that has the potential to become a systemic crisis, depending on how social agents respond to the crisis and on a host of unknown contingencies. A restructuring crisis means that the only way out of crisis is to restructure the system, whereas a systemic crisis is one in which only a change in the system itself will resolve the crisis. Times of crisis are times of rapid social change, when collective agency and contingency come into play more than in times of equilibrium in a system.
Despite his attempt to ground his analysis in 21st century realities, he cannot avoid analogizing to the 20th. In characterizing the Obama administration as “a Weimar Republic in the United States”, he suggests that history might repeat itself in Hitlerian fashion. Robinson is not the first highly respected thinker to invoke the Weimar Republic. Last April, when Chris Hedges interviewed Noam Chomsky for Truthdig, the two concurred that the USA was like the doomed German republic. Chomsky said:
It is very similar to late Weimar Germany. The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.
My response to Chomsky focused on the economic differences:
To start with, the economic situation during the late Weimar Republic was far worse than today in the U.S. In 1932, there were 5 million unemployed German workers out of a total population of 66 million, an unemployment rate of 30 percent–twice what we are suffering in the U.S. today. Also, keep in mind that unemployment insurance, which had been introduced in Germany in 1927, was the victim of fiscal austerity after the 1929 market crash. All public funding was suspended, which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed.
To Robinson’s credit, the economic analysis is far more engaged with current day realities than most comparisons with the 1930s. He highlights three developments:
1. Militarized accumulation: He states that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “generate enormous profits for an ever-expanding military-prison-industrial-security-financial complex.”
2. Raiding and sacking of public budgets: “Transnational capital uses its financial power to take control of state finances and to impose further austerity on the working majority, resulting in ever greater social inequality and hardship.”
3. Financial speculation: The collapse of 2008 marked the culmination of years of speculation in much the same way that 1929 did. Although he does not specifically to Black Friday, it is clear that he conceives of the subprime meltdown as a turning point in the capitalist system’s ability to function normally.
One of course might question whether the analogy with 1929 makes as much sense as would one with the 1890s when both the U.S. and Britain were deep into Empire-building. In a period of rampant social Darwinism, speculators such as J.P. Morgan virtually ran the government—regardless of whether a Republic or Democratic occupied the White House. You also had state and municipal governments that did little to assist the unemployed or the poor, as a visit to New York’s Lower East Side or London’s East End would attest. Finally, you had war after war. Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Sudan, China, and Egypt all experienced the sting of gunboat diplomacy.
Indeed, if you pay close attention to the words of Tea Party politicians and the hired guns of the Heritage Foundation, you will see that their model is not Nazi Germany but Grover Cleveland’s America. Of course, we should never forget that Cleveland, an enemy of trade unions and an arch-imperialist, was a Democrat just like his protégé in the White House today.
Robinson’s invocation of the Weimar precedent is not that far from Chomsky’s:
Obama’s campaign tapped into and helped expand mass mobilization and popular aspirations for change not seen in many years in the United States. The Obama project co-opted that brewing storm from below, channeled it into the electoral campaign and then betrayed those aspirations, as the Democratic Party effectively demobilized the insurgency from below with more passive revolution.
In this sense, the Obama project weakened the popular and left response from below to the crisis, which opened space for the right-wing response to the crisis – for a project of 21st century fascism – to become insurgent. Obama’s administration appears in this way appears as a Weimar republic. Although the social democrats were in power during the Weimar republic of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s they did not pursue a leftist response to the crisis but rather sidelined the militant trade unions, communists and socialists, and progressively pandered to capital and the right before turning over power to the Nazis in 1933.
As I have stated often to the point of becoming tedious, it makes little sense to talk about fascism without reference to the “disease” it was meant to cure, namely proletarian revolution. In Spain, Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s there were massive revolutionary parties that fought pitched battles with the cops and the army. The social and political crisis was so deep that the ruling class made a pact with the devil. It backed an Adolph Hitler as a last resort against their sworn enemies in the trade unions and socialist parties. Who are the enemies of big business today? A Rich Trumka whose most “rebellious” gesture is being interviewed by Rachel Maddow? And what kind of “popular and left response” has the ruling class shaking in its boots? In the 2008 elections, Gloria La Riva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation received 7,333 votes. By comparison, the Communist Party of Germany got 14.5 percent of the vote in 1932. What’s more important, however, is that the CP had the ability to call workers out on a general strike and often exercised that option, often to the point of engaging in open fighting with the cops and the army. Of course, the militancy did not compensate for a suicidal ultraleft policy that equated the SP to the Nazis, a topic for another article.
Turning now to Robinson’s characterization of “21st Century Fascism”, we have to respect the seriousness of his effort even if we reserve the right to disagree with him. He enumerates six features:
1. The fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power. This is a reference to the Tea Party being funded by ultraright billionaires, etc. While it is certainly true that German big business, particularly in heavy industry, backed Hitler’s storm troopers, there is little evidence today that the Tea Party is involved in the kind of violent attacks on the left and the trade union movement that took place in the 1920s. As odious as they are, they are primarily a bloc of voters who seek to elect politicians committed to turning back the clock to 1890, not 1933.
2. Militarization and extreme masculinization. Robinson worries about the top brass becoming more involved in policy making. There is something to be said for this, but one wonders if this is something that can be linked to fascism. Going back again to the 1890s, the German state was dominated by the military but it followed bourgeois democratic norms, which is to say that it harassed the socialists, embarked on a colonization program, etc. Perhaps the more things change the more they stay the same.
3. A scapegoat which serves to displace and redirect social tensions and contradictions. This is a reference to the crackdown on “illegal immigrants”. One has to note that the movement for immigrant rights developed a powerful momentum before Obama’s election but has maintained a much lower profile since then. Unfortunately, this appears to be a product of ideological confusion over having a Democrat in the White House rather than fascist terror.
4. A mass social base. Robinson alleges that a social base is being “organised among sectors of the white working class that historically enjoyed racial caste privilege and that have been experiencing displacement and experiencing rapid downward mobility as neo-liberalism comes to the US – while they are losing the security and stability they enjoyed in the previous Fordist-Keynesian epoch of national capitalism.” This is a most intriguing proposition. I look forward to Robinson’s documentation in support of that.
5. A fanatical millennial ideology involving race/culture supremacy embracing an idealised and mythical past, and a racist mobilisation against scapegoats. This sounds pretty much like a permanent leitmotif of American society going back at least to the Know-Nothing Party but then again what do I know?
6. A charismatic leadership. Robinson admits that this has been “largely missing” in the U.S. but points to figures such as Sarah Palin and Glen Beck as harbingers. One can only wonder if this article was written before Fox TV booted Beck for low ratings.
There certainly will be a fascist threat in the future in the U.S. since the objective conditions will force more and more workers to emulate the vanguard (I use this term in the true sense and not as the nutty Marxist-Leninists use it) that emerged in Wisconsin. As attacks on the trade unions escalate, working people will be forced to organize themselves and to escalate their militancy. The fact that the cops refused to crack down on the protesters indicates that this movement will have the capacity in the future to paralyze the forces of repression. In such an event, the state will be forced to call upon the dregs of American society. This will be a lumpen element that has little in common with the couch potato fans of Glen Beck who go to Tea Party rallies. The American fascist movement will recruit the same sort of people who joined the KKK, except that the appeal will be on the basis of defending the American “way of life” rather than Dixie. You will also see the coffers of the Koch Brothers opening up to such scum. In a time of rising unemployment, there will be plenty of lumpen types who would be happy to break up a meeting in exchange for a couple of hundred dollars.
When that time comes, we will certainly respond to the call issued by Robinson in the final paragraph of his article:
The counterweight to 21st century fascism must be a coordinated fight-back by the global working class. The only real solution to the crisis of global capitalism is a massive redistribution of wealth and power – downward towards the poor majority of humanity. And the only way such redistribution can come about is through mass transnational struggle from below.
May 13, 2011
Two films have come my way recently that deal in their own way with the systematic brutality of modern armies. “Burma Soldier”, an HBO Documentary that airs on Wednesday May 18, tells the story of Myo Myint who joined the Burmese army in 1979 at the age of 16 and trained as specialist clearing landmines. An attack by Burmese insurgents severely injured Myint, leaving him without a leg, an arm and most of the fingers on the hand of the remaining arm. What he lost physically was offset by a political and spiritual transformation that turned him into a pro-democracy activist. Not only is “Burma Soldier” a stirring portrait of one man’s struggle against physical and political adversity, it is an excellent introduction to the country’s history. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York, “City of Life and Death” is a fictional account of the so-called Rape of Nanking, the Japanese army’s assault on China’s capital city in 1937 based on Iris Chang’s 1997 best-seller. I can recommend it but with major qualifications.
Even before his calamitous injuries, Myint began to question the cruel and anti-democratic role of the military. To start with, the dominant Burma nationality sought to impose itself on other ethnic groups in the same fashion as the Turks over the Kurds, or the Chinese over the Tibetans. The military that had seized power in 1962 sought to forcibly assimilate the “lesser” nationalities into its own warped vision of Burmese identity in accordance with the arrogant “modernizing” vision of both British colonialism and the “socialist” powers that forgot that there is no socialism without democracy.
He saw countless acts of brutality when on duty. Women, especially from the non-Burma nationalities, were forced to work as porters and even to walk in front of the soldiers in mine-infested terrain. Insurgent captives were routinely tortured. Myint recounts one incident in which a knife was plunged through the cheeks of a man during the course of an interrogation.
As you watch “Burma Soldier”, you cannot help but be reminded of the unfolding drama in the Middle East as one self-described “socialist” or “radical” government seeks to impose itself on a restive population. It is useful to remember that the brutal and corrupt Burmese military that has as dominant a role in the national economy as is the case in China or once was the case in Turkey.
General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.
After leaving the army, Myint embarked on an intellectual journey that led him to read a wide variety of philosophical and political books. He came to the conclusion that the system had to be transformed. He became an activist and took part in demonstrations following the 1988 economic restructuring. He also started a secret library of banned books. When he was arrested at a rally, he told the judge at his trial that “I don’t believe in the military regime”. That act of defiance led to a 15 year prison sentence.
The oppressive system in Burma has led to remarkable acts of courage from individuals such as Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest for about the same number of years Myint was in prison. In the 1990 general election, her party won 59% of the votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. The army decided that the people’s will meant nothing and have ruled by terror for more than the past 20 years. One can only hope that the people of Burma will finally prevail since history and the unshakeable will of people like Myo Myint are on their side.
“City of Life and Death” is an unrelenting journey through the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 that some scholars believe resulted in the deaths of as many as 300,000 civilians. Considering that these deaths occurred in the span of weeks rather than years, it has led some to consider it as one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century in terms of the time-frame.
Hewing closely to the findings of Iris Chang, Chinese director Lu Chuan tells a tale of unremitting cruelty that amounts to a holocaust for his own people. Indeed, this story included its own Oskar Schindler, one John Rabe, a German businessman (despite his Anglo-sounding name) that ran Siemen’s branch operation in Nanking, who confronted the Japanese army over its abuses and sought to protect civilians in a Safety Zone that was often disregarded by the occupiers. In one scene, they come into the Safety Zone in order to dragoon 100 Chinese women into working as sex slaves for their troops.
Rabe (John Paisley) has a Chinese male secretary named Tang (played by Fan Wei, a Chinese comedian in a decidedly non-comic role) who like his boss appeals to the dubiously better judgment of the Japanese. In a departure from conventional holocaust type narratives, John Rabe is a member of the Nazi party who uses his ties to Hitler to sway the Japanese military brass. In one of the unfortunately all-too-glaring missteps of this well-intentioned film, there is no attempt to put his humanitarian impulses into any kind of context. We can only surmise that Rabe had an emotional attachment to the Chinese people that stemmed from having living in Nanking since 1909.
As might be expected, Tang is a passive figure who follows Japanese orders in more or less the same way that the Judenrat cooperated with Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, at least until the full horror of Japanese occupation is revealed. In one of the film’s more wrenching scenes, the soldiers hurl his 11 year old daughter through the second story window of an apartment building killing her instantly. Her offense was to try to interfere with a Japanese detachment that was rounding up Chinese women for a “comfort station”, including her mother.
Given the unrelenting procession of horrors that are depicted in this 133 minute film (Chinese captives burned alive, etc.), one might ask what might motivate an audience to remain in its seats until the bitter end, about which there is no doubt from the very beginning.
The NY Times review puts its finger on one of the film’s strengths:
“City of Life and Death” isn’t cathartic: it offers no uplifting moments, just the immodest balm of art. The horrors it represents can be almost too difficult to watch, yet you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must. In one awful, surreal interlude, severed male heads swing from rope like ornaments, while in another, Japanese soldiers — having buried some Chinese men alive — stamp down the earth as if planting a crop.
Although I recommend this film with some reservations, I have to wonder about the strange world we are living in when the “immodest balm of art” suffices. Somehow, the visual power of Lu’s film is expected as a pay off when all else fails in terms of our conventional expectations of drama. Shot in black-and-white, it certainly grips your attention with its flair for the macabre.
But despite my admittedly close attention to the gruesome action, I found myself troubled throughout by the film’s lack of context. There is nothing at all to explain why the Japanese occupation was so barbaric. In many ways, the film reminded me of the 1997 “Welcome to Sarajevo” that depicted the Serbs in pretty much the same terms, as demonic forces that killed for the love of killing.
Iris Chang’s book set the tone for the film by adopting the same stance toward the Japanese whose culture apparently set them on the course of a Nanking holocaust in the same way that German culture prepared the extermination of the Jews. Some critics of her books take exception to that view, however. In a 1998 review that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, David M. Kennedy wrote:
Elsewhere Chang serves notice that “this book is not intended as a commentary on the Japanese character,” but then immediately plunges into an exploration of the thousand-year-deep roots of the “Japanese identity”–a bloody business, in her estimation, replete with martial competitions, samurai ethics, and the fearsome warriors’ code of bushido, the clear inference being, despite the disclaimer, that “the path to Nanking” runs through the very marrow of Japanese culture.
In my view, wartime savagery is not the reflection of any national culture but instead the result of indoctrination that young men and women receive when they are drafted or when they enlist during the kind of fervor that arose after 9/11. Military training consists mainly of getting normal people to get used to the idea of killing, a most unnatural form of behavior no matter what a sociobiologist might tell you. It is not in our culture or in our genes. It is rather in the propaganda system of the hegemonic powers and their drill instructors that are carefully selected for their ability to transform ordinary people into killers. For insights into this, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”.
May 9, 2011
This morning I feel beat to shit.
I woke up at 3am last night and began obsessing for a good two hours over Random House, the scumbag publishers and their editor Chris Schluep who keeps giving me a run-around on the book I did with Harvey Pekar. Harvey always spoke well of Schluep but I can’t help but think of him as a cog in a big machine that I never would have had any dealings with had I not been assured by Pekar that he was under contract for two new books, including the one I was doing with him.
My take on publishing jibes with the one depicted in the movie “Wolf”, starring Jack Nicholson as a top editor who gets shafted by a Rupert Murdoch type media mogul who has just taken over his company. After being bitten by a wolf, Nicholson not only becomes a werewolf, he develops the aggressiveness needed to succeed in the publishing business. In one memorable scene, he pisses on the shoes and pants legs of a rival who has landed his job after the takeover. That, to me, smacked of verisimilitude.
I first got warnings that the book was going to end up shit-canned after seeing an article in the NY Times titled “The Unsettled Afterlife of Harvey Pekar” that dealt with some prospective posthumous projects. It refers to a couple of Random House possibilities, but not mine:
Random House is publishing at least two more of his graphic books: one, called “Huntington, West Virginia, ‘On the Fly,’ ” in which Mr. Pekar reflects on promoting his movie and other books, and a second, written with Ms. Brabner, called “Harvey and Joyce’s Big Book of Marriage.”
Now I can understand why Random House would have prioritized these books since they appeal to his fan base, people who could never get enough of his tales of woe about working as a file clerk or butting heads with the rich and the powerful—like David Letterman. Too bad I don’t know how to draw; otherwise I’d have come up with a comic strip about my own frustrations dealing with a colossus like Random House.
I always felt skeptical about the idea of Random House coming out with a book about my own life. Who in their right mind would spend good money to read about the trials and tribulations of a Marxist activist when there were all sorts of books by celebrities like Bettheny Frankel or Rob Lowe that you could read on the beach?
As it turns out, Pekar decided to do something with me because he was probably tired of writing about himself. Like his earliest collaborator R. Crumb, he was exploring new ways of expressing himself. Crumb eventually wearied of doing comics about his own neurotic sexual and racial obsessions; likewise I am sure with Pekar’s sad sack tales. At least that’s my take. He told me numerous times that he was seeking to become the Studs Terkel of our generation. My story amounted to the sort of thing you can read in “Working” or any of his other “as told to” classics. Too bad that Harvey didn’t live into his nineties like Studs. And too bad for me that I got drawn into a project that had no future after his death.
What steams me up the most is the feeling that I have been ripped off. I spent a good four months writing and rewriting the material that would eventually be illustrated by Summer McClinton, a young and very gifted artist whose work Harvey raved about. Now Random House’s contract was with Harvey and not me obviously. His widow Joyce Brabner and the artist have been paid off, fulfilling Random House’s obligations for a book that is now dead and buried. A year ago Schluep assured me that the book would be published. It turns out he was probably bullshitting me. It would have been better for me not to have been left hanging. When I raised the topic with him again two months ago, he said that a decision had not been made but he would get back to me within the month. Of course, he did not get back to me. Like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf”, he has the power to piss on me metaphorically speaking. I am not under contract and under capitalism that is how things operate, as any lawyer will tell you.
I imagine that Schluep is not comfortable with all this, having assured me a while back that he is “not a scumbag”. I suppose he is not but the company he works for surely is.
In 1998 Random House was taken over by Bertelsmann, a German media company with 103,000 employees. Now Bertelsmann has a most interesting history—just the sort of venue for a memoir by an unrepentant Marxist as the BBC reported on October 8, 2002:
German media giant Bertelsmann has admitted it lied about its Nazi past and that it made big profits during Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany using Jewish slave labour.
A commission set up by the firm found Bertelsmann rode the rise of the Nazi party to restructure itself from a religious and school book publisher to supply millions of anti-Semitic texts.
The IHC found Bertelsmann had targeted the youth market with its “Exciting Stories” series and the “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth” annual which pushed its sales up 20 fold.
The IHC said the company’s “legend” that it was a victim of the Nazis was a lie.
The Commission found that Bertelsmann made “indirect” use of Jewish slave labour in Latvia, and Lithuania but not at its German headquarters.
The then head of the company, Heinrich Mohn, also made donations to the SS, Hitler’s special forces and concentration camp guards.
The company had close ties to the Nazi regime, particularly the Propaganda Ministry, and printed 19 million books during World War II, making it the largest publisher for the German army.
Bertelsmann used its “revised” history when it took over the biggest US book publisher Random house in 1998.
Harvey died before I had a chance to share this information with him. As a proud but non-observant Jew, I am sure he would have had a word or two to say about being under contract to a company that used Jewish slave labor.
There were signs that Bertelsmann’s infatuation with Hitler continued well after WWII. In 1983, Stern Magazine, part of the German publisher’s empire, came out with the Hitler Diaries that turned out to be a hoax. A Nation Magazine article dated November 8, 1999 reported:
In 1980 Bertelsmann’s Stern magazine published poems and illustrations supposedly written and drawn by Hitler during World War I under the title “Rhymes by Private First Class H” (“Gereimtes vom Gefreiten H”). Dirk Bavendamm, a 61-year-old German historian who had been instrumental in helping Stern obtain the material, wrote an accompanying article noting that the poems and drawings show Hitler as an ordinary soldier. In one illustration a German soldier gently holds a baby; in another, a soldier helps a mother lying in bed while a baby nestles in a cradle. Subsequently the poems and drawings were determined to be forgeries. (Later, Mohn gave the green light to a Bertelsmann division to purchase the Hitler diaries, by the same forger, which also showed a milder Hitler. They were published in Stern in 1983.)
Bavendamm’s career was not affected. His book Roosevelt’s Way to War (Roosevelts Weg zum Krieg) was published in 1983. Rewriting history, he stated that Roosevelt, not Hitler, had caused World War II. He also wrote that American Jews “controlled most of the media,” and he claimed they gave a false picture of Hitler.
Even if Bertlesmann did not have Nazi skeletons in its closet, its role in turning Random House into another “bottom line” oriented corporation of the sort that has left the USA economically and culturally impoverished was obvious to Andre Schifrin, the founder of the New Press and a sharp critic of the publishing industry. In a February 17, 2003 Nation Magazine article titled “‘Random’ Destruction”, Schifrin commented on the firing of Ann Godoff, the head of Random House whose “mistake was to adhere to the higher standards of Random’s past.”
Bertelsmann sought to turn Random House into something much more commercial in the pursuit of higher profits, pumping out the kind of tripe that can soar to the top of the best-seller list. The NY Times reported that Godoff “considered her unit’s books above the merely commercial popular fiction published by other divisions. She candidly told associates that she felt little personal interest or affinity for commercial romances, thrillers and other page-turners–the meat and potatoes of much of the publishing business.” Hmm. Maybe that was my mistake. I should have put more steamy stuff into the memoir. I did include my romance with a comrade in Houston who had been working as a go-go dancer before I got to town. Harvey told me that I needed to put as much as that stuff in as I could.
In defending itself against charges that it was turning into the publishing counterpart of People Magazine, a Random House spokesman stated “Random House will continue to do many, many books for a niche audience, books that will continue to appeal to the literary critical world.” Sigh, if only that was true. On the other hand, maybe I’ve been selling myself short. They say that the Communist Manifesto became a best-seller in Germany in 2007, around the time that capitalism began its worldwide collapse. Maybe the Bertlesmann CEO decided that it was not in his class interests to publish anything favorable to Marxism, even if it appeared in the style of a Jewish stand-up comedian favored by both Harvey and me.
Ultimately Peter Olson, the guy who ran Bertlesmann’s American operations and who fired Ann Godoff, figured out that it was in his own interest to make Random House follow the short-term dictates of the market. Like so many of the crooks responsible for the collapse of the housing market, mass unemployment, and deepening class inequalities, he figured out what side of the bread was buttered: his own. Schifrin writes:
And there is yet one more factor that cannot be overlooked. Obviously, as the Times and others noted, Olson has “his own targets to meet” His compensation is based on his “success in meeting annual targets each year.” Thus, the personal income of a handful of managers is an essential factor in deciding what the future of American publishing will be.
I suppose I only have myself to blame for getting suckered into this time-wasting business. There’s a mystique about being published that is really quite powerful. It appeals to your sense of vanity in the same way that an appearance on the Letterman show might. If you read Harvey’s account of being in the limelight, however, you will be struck how ambivalent he was. While he hoped to get the word out about his comic books on Late Night, he mostly felt exploited—the butt of Letterman’s frat boy humor.
That’s what happens when you put yourself at the mercy of a powerful corporation. It will find one way or another to fuck you over.
My experiences with print publishing over the years are pretty negative. After submitting a book proposal to an editor at St. Martin’s on Marxism and the American Indian about 12 years ago, I never received a reply. I have to wonder whether editors get some kind of training when they go to work at places like St. Martin’s or Random House on how to make an unheralded writer feel like two cents. It’s about the same story with leftist academic journals that tend to treat you like a dissertation student, subjecting your submission to peer review—as if getting printed in a journal that has a circulation of 2000 is of any importance to me. I get that many visits to my blog every day.
As everybody knows, print publishing is going through a deep crisis. More and more of Harvey’s work began appearing on the Internet through the auspices of The Pekar Project that defines its role this way:
Harvey Pekar’s been mining the mundane for magic for more than 30 years in his autobiographical American Splendor comics. Now he has teamed with SMITH and some remarkable artists to create his first ongoing webcomics series—and some of his jazziest work to date. The new stories will appear every other week, with interviews, creator spotlights, and behind-the-scenes goodies, as well as essays and art from Pekar collaborators and inhabitants of the extended Pekarverse.
Obviously with Harvey’s death, the future of this project is very much in doubt. Clearly, I have the responsibility to make the work I did with him available to the general public on the Web. Ironically, Harvey never used a computer, finding it too confusing. He once told me that Joyce forbade him from using hers. I am quite sure that he would have been gratified to see “The Unrepentant Marxist”, the title of our collaboration, appearing on my blog. After all, that is the title of my blog and the best place for it to appear, all things considered.
Chris Schluep is no longer at Random House.
May 7, 2011
Notwithstanding the title, Andrew Levine’s Counterpunch article “The Illogic of Lesser Evilism: the Obama Example”, opens the door a crack for getting behind Obama once again.
While saying all sorts of churlish things about Obama, Levine reveals his true orientation in the first and last paragraphs:
Barack Obama will likely be the lesser evil in the 2012 election. That may be a reason to vote for him then; perhaps even a compelling reason in some circumstances. But it is not a reason to support him now.
Of course, saying No is no substitute for building a real alternative; but at this point, with an election looming, it is a quick and dirty way to launch a credible threat that just might make the lesser evil less evil. This is why now is emphatically not the time to come to the aid of the Democratic Party. Perhaps in a year and half, for the few minutes we spend in the voting booth, lesser evil logic will be less illogical than it now is. But that will be then; this is now.
This is exactly the kind of sophistry would expect from “a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.” The IPS is a liberal think-tank that was launched in 1963 by Richard Barnet and Marcus Raskin, two disillusioned JFK appointees. Like the Nation Magazine that receives funding from the same wealthy liberals, the IPS tries to straddle the fence between challenging and reinforcing the system. Nothing captures this paradox better than the support that the IPS and the Nation Magazine gave to Barack Obama in 2008, a candidate they hoped would have the same kind of relationship to the liberal left that Bush had to the Christian fundamentalists and incipient tea party formations that helped get him elected.
Levine, who has a long career as an philosophy professor, was described by Richard Wolff in a Spring 2004 Science and Society review of Levine’s “The Future of Marxism” as a brief and early “enthusiast” for Althusser and then a “devotee of the Analytical Marxist school” (AM), a love affair that lasted for a much longer time. As Althusserianism and AM were two of the bigger trends on the academic left in the 1980s, it would be understandable why an ambitious young don like Andrew Levine would try out both pairs of shoes to see which fit better. As was the case with many chastened 60s radicals, Levine must have found the pseudo-scientific pretensions of the AM school much to his liking. As with many who joined up, this particularly Anglo-Saxon ideological trend was a welcome relief from the “third wordlist” enthusiasms of their headstrong youth. Che Guevara T-Shirts were traded in for tweed sports coats and panel discussions at academic conferences in pleasant hotels paid for by the university.
I have no trouble taking Wolff at his word when he says that Levine’s book “excoriates” the 1960s left. As for the future of Marxism, Levine says that it is problematic since—Wolff quoting Levine—“neither Marx nor any of his close followers ever imagined…the proletariat melted away.” Surely, Professor Levine must have missed the people at the University of Maryland who came into his office to empty his waste paper basket and change his light bulbs. They were the ones with the tag “Facilities Department” on their clothing and whom I can assure him belonged to the working class.
Eventually Levine fell out of love with AM as well. This should not come as a surprise since the trend simply lacked the vitality that could have led even half-serious thinkers to new insights. When you boil it down to its essentials, it is nothing less than an attempt to arrange a shotgun marriage between logical positivism and Marxism–something bound to produce mutant offspring.
You can read Levine’s Dear John letter to the AM school in a 2004 collection titled “Handbook of Political Theory”, edited by Gerald F. Gaus and Chandran Kukathas and that can be read in parts on Google/Books. His article, titled “A Future for Marxism”, states that analytical Marxism “collapsed Marxism into liberalism”, a charge that would make imminent good sense to anybody who has read Jon Elster for example.
Despite the fact that the article has the same title as the book that Wolff castigated, it marks a break with AM. In looking at Levine’s copious CV on the University of Maryland website, it appears that his last book came out in 2004, the same time as the article cited above. One does not know whether some new trend has filled the vacuum to replace AM but on the evidence it appears that the semiretired professor has now devoted himself to the role of “public intellectual”, using Counterpunch, The Huffington Post and other such venues to get his ideas out—such as they are.
From 2007 to 2010 Levine blogged as “Democrats Now”. In 2007, he was on board the John Edwards bandwagon, albeit with qualms:
Meanwhile, for the next few weeks, let the optimists among us think John Edwards thoughts – and, since money is to our “democracy” what location is to real estate, send money to his campaign as well, distasteful as that may be.
You’ll note the “distasteful” business. This sort of “holding your nose” posture is necessary when it comes to defending a vote for the Democrats. You really can’t get very far from it when you are in left-liberal territory. Even the women who sang/protested Obama at a West Coast meeting had to say:
We’ll vote for you in 2012, yes that’s true
Look at the Republicans — what else can we do?
Even though we don’t know if we’ll retain our liberties.
Perhaps out of nostalgia for his unwashed radical youth, Levine voted for Nader in 2008, even though he denigrated his campaign as a “Children’s Crusade”. As the Obama presidency unfolded, it was virtually impossible for the IPS or The Nation Magazine to maintain the illusion that a New New Deal was possible. Levine’s blog and countless articles in the Nation pointed out one misdeed or another in arguably the most rightward leaning Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland.
The disenchanted left-liberals, however, kept writing as if ignoring the “base” could have dire consequences for the White House. Written in the tone of a parent warning a child about smoking cigarettes, they assumed that Obama really cared about losing his base. After all, he was a nicotine addict as well. But Obama understood that the Republican nominee would provide all the impetus he needed in 2012 to get the veal pen to vote the right way. As Levine put, it “That may be a reason to vote for him then; perhaps even a compelling reason in some circumstances.” Well, of course. If a Republican wins in 2012, the country will go to hell in a hand basket-all the more reason to replace him or her with a Democrat in 2016, a cycle to be repeated until the Earth plunges into the Sun a million years or so from now.
Perhaps the most curious thing about Andrew Levine is how disjoined his Marxism was from the latter unpaid career he would pursue writing for Huffington Post. One can understand why. It was virtually impossible to get a handle on American politics after a lifetime of reading Jon Elster or G.A. Cohen, two dons who considered the realities of the class struggle beneath them.
In a November 30, 2010 article titled “A New Nader”, Levine considers the electoral choices facing liberals in 2012. He urges Nader not to run because liberals would get all “riled up”. Instead he holds out hope that someone like Russ Feingold would run as an independent, something that Alexander Cockburn urged in Counterpunch.
But one can well imagine that Levine would be persuaded to vote for a Democrat in the primary if he or she was on a par with John Edwards. Indeed, old-fashioned American pragmatism drives his calculations rather than the Marxism that he fashioned a career out of for the better part of four decades.
Until the left can formulate its electoral policies on a class basis, it will continue to vacillate between one “attractive” candidate and another. In class terms, the Democratic and Republican parties are bourgeois, to use old-fashioned language. As long as Goldman Sachs, Exxon, Walmart and all the rest fund both the Obamas and the McCains not to speak of the John Edwards, then the working class will continue to be screwed. You have draw clear class lines between our movement and theirs, something that the Nation Magazine and the IPS are loath to do.
May 6, 2011
Letter in Support of Tony Kushner
May 6, 2011
Dear Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg,
As a member of the faculty at Brooklyn College I am deeply upset about the CUNY Board of Trustees’ actions this week denying an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, someone whose work I have admired for many years. This incident provides strong evidence that the current Board of Trustees is deeply out of touch with both their responsibilities as Board members and the fundamental mission of a public university. My reading of this event is that the Board, in failing to stand up to Wiesenfeld’s political hackery, grandstanding, and slander, is disinterested in the life of the mind, intellectual honesty, or academic merit.
It should go without saying that I feel that Wiesenfeld is unfit to serve on the board of this great institution and should be removed immediately, he is utterly lacking in academic accomplishment, has shown little interest in the role of CUNY as an institution of social integration and opportunity, and appears to be on the board because of political opportunism. He is the epitome of what is wrong with the current system of appointing Board members that rewards the politically connected rather than searching for great intellectual leaders.
But while Wiesenfeld’s sin of commission is abhorrent, I find the lack of resistance to it by the rest of the Board a no less insidious sin of omission. In failing to quash Wiesenfeld’s extremism, the rest of the board revealed their own lack of intellectual and ethical merit. The Board stood idly by while the fundamental tenets of intellectual freedom were torn asunder by McCarthyistic bloviating. Political opportunists revel in moments like this when their rhetorical bomb throwing is rewarded with actual power—always ready to push their agenda when enabled by those who refuse to stand in their way because of decorum, ignorance, or political expediency.
This event, however, has merely revealed a rot that has been long festering. The CUNY Board has utterly failed to defend the core mission of this University. They have allowed political leaders in Albany and City Hall to continually chip away at the resources needed to create opportunity for hundreds of thousands of the City’s young people. Instead of responding with a vigorous defense of the University’s mission they have chimed in with their own plans for privatization, tuition increases, and Potemkin villages of privilege for the few at the expense of the many.
I am further galled by the total lack of respect for the faculty evinced in this travesty. By what intellectual and ethical basis do they have the right to question the decisions of the faculty in such a matter? A group made up of union busting lawyers, political operatives, and investment bankers, seems in no position to make such judgments. This latest incident seems consistent with the Board’s willingness to usurp the role of faculty by taking over decisions concerning curriculum, creating a new community college without basic governance structures, and constantly obstructing the right of the faculty and professional staff union (PSC-CUNY) to bargain over the basic conditions of our worklife.
I call on you to direct the Board to apologize to Tony Kushner and just as importantly the faculty of John Jay College. I also urge you to take this opportunity to make major changes in the composition of the Board. CUNY needs intellectual leaders, with a vision about how to provide excellence in education to those who have faced great challenges in getting here, a vision of what a great public university should be, sitting at the center of the intellectual and cultural life of the city. We don’t need corporate executives, political insiders, and financiers to accomplish this. We need great artists and great thinkers with imagination and the desire for innovation, who will work with the communities of the City to produce the best possible City University of New York. To that end you should immediately replace Jeffrey Wiesenfeld with Tony Kushner on the Board. His is the kind of intellectual, artistic, and ethical leadership we need.
Sincerely, Alex S. Vitale
Department of Sociology
These are the 11 students facing criminal charges for their protest.
Saturday, May 7
7:00pm – 10:00pm
84 Havemeyer Street
The Green Impasse, False Panaceas, and Ecology Through Socialism
By Pham Binh
As the fourth book in the “and Socialism ” series ( Black Liberation and Socialism ; Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation ; Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation), this book is an absolute must read for anyone who is concerned about the fate of the environment that is quickly approaching a point of no return in terms of irreversible damage done. With the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima and horror stories about the effects of fracking appearing in the news almost daily, this book could not be more relevant.
Chris Williams combines data from peer-reviewed scientific journals, sharp political commentary, layman’s English, and a class perspective to produce a book that is engaging, readable, and damn good.
The current environmental movement is at an impasse, stuck on false panaceas like cap-and-trade, cutting individual consumption (“live others so that others may simply live”), and outright reactionary “solutions” that revolve around some form of population control (as if the number of people on the planet was the problem rather than the nature of the relationship between said people and the planet).
Williams does an excellent job debunking these notions with a plethora of factual information and empirical data.
The central contention of the book is that capitalism and its social relations are the root of the problem, not surplus population, individual consumers’ choices, or “bad corporations.” Capitalism is organized around companies making as much money as quickly as possible; if they don’t, their competitors will drive them out of business. As a result, corporations have an incentive to pollute because investing in clean technologies for their business would be costly and cut into their precious profits. Furthermore, there are entire branches of industry that depend on pollution – gas, coal, and the auto industries, to name just a few. They have a vested interest in blocking any kind of meaningful development of green technology or any tinkering with the U.S. transportation infrastructure which is heavily car-centered. Williams also examines how various companies (like British Petroleum) have “greenwashed” their image in order to avoid actually changing their polluting ways.
The theme dominating the second half of the book is the question of what is to be done. The first chapter of this section, “Real Solutions Right Now: What We Need to Fight For,” lays out a variety of achievable short-term goals that a revivified green movement could and should fight for. For example, pushing the government to make major investments in green energy would produce tens of thousands of green jobs, alleviating the unemployment problem and undermining the capitalist economy’s dependence on dirty energy. This example dovetails with another of Williams’ central points: a truly effective environmental movement needs to connect with the only social force within the capitalist system that can win real change – the working class. He gives some examples of how green activists joined forces with unions to win stronger pollution controls in England and elsewhere, and he also does an excellent job showing how environmental degradation is a class issue. Working class people (especially blacks and other minorities) are far more likely to live in polluted areas, near landfills, etc. than middle or ruling class people, and he also takes up the plight of workers and the poor in the Global South, many of whom live in shanty towns that are far worse than the tenements of the early industrial revolution in the West.
The remaining chapters of the book focus on the longer-term solution: abolishing capitalism via a working-class revolution. He looks at the (limited) experience of the Russian workers’ government after 1917 for guidance and shows how the Bolsheviks pioneered conservation efforts in their attempt to organize production based around human need rather than corporate profits. In doing so, he points out that when the party/state bureaucracy led by Stalin seized power for itself, displacing the working class, it reversed the early green policies of the Soviet era and reverted back to capitalist-style exploitation and ruin of the environment to fuel its massive, rapid industrialization drive.
Williams’ book is an excellent polemic on the way forward for the environmental movement and a tremendous contribution to the project of winning an ecologically sustainable socialist society.