Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2012

Assessing the Russian and Egyptian crackdown on imperialist NGO’s

Filed under: Egypt,mechanical anti-imperialism,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

Spy versus spy

Last month Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, was forced to admit in a BBC documentary that a fake rock was used to spy on Russians. The Independent reported:

A former UK government official has admitted Britain was behind a plot to spy on Russians with a device hidden in a fake rock, it emerged today.

Russia made the allegations in January 2006, but they were not publicly accepted by the UK before now.

Jonathan Powell, then prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, told a BBC documentary: “The spy rock was embarrassing.

The Russian security service, the FSB, linked the rock with claims that British security services were making covert payments to pro-democracy and human rights groups.

Then president Vladimir Putin later introduced a law restricting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from getting funding from foreign governments, causing many to close down.

Cracking down on NGO’s is old news in Russia. Back in 2005, a law was passed that effectively made it impossible for Amnesty International, Greenpeace or any other group with foreign funding to operate in Russia.

Putin has often played the nationalist card, most recently accusing Golos, an electoral watchdog, of being a tool of the West, as the NY Times reported in December:

Golos’s critics in the Russian government say its work is tainted by the money it receives from two American agencies, the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development. A promotional video clip for a report scheduled to be broadcast on Friday on the NTV channel, owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, features images of suitcases stuffed with $100 bills juxtaposed with footage of Golos’s leaders as a portentous voice asks, “Who is behind these ‘independent observers?’ ” A pro-government blogger has posted what appears to be paperwork showing that Golos received $92,653 from the United States government for the month of February.

Global Research, a website run by Michel Chossudovsky who is arguably the planet’s leading exponent of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” line of reasoning, published an article by Eric Walberg on February 9th titled Vladimir Putin and Russia’s “White Revolution” that described the judo-practicing ex-President as a kind of “lesser evil” to the opposition in the street that has been likened to the white wine-drinking/brie-eating crowd on the north side of Tehran that had the unvarnished nerve to oppose Ahmadinejad:

Putin’s statist sovereign democracy – with transparent elections – might not be such a bad alternative to what passes for democracy in much of the West. His new Eurasian Union could help spread a more responsible political governance across the continent. It may not be what the NED has in mind, but it would be welcomed by all the “stan” citizens, not to mention China’s beleaguered Uighurs. This “EU” is striving not towards disintegration and weakness, but towards integration and mutual security, without any need for US/NATO bases and slick NED propaganda.

I date my distrust for this kind of apologetics to 2002 or so when Jared Israel began to post material to Marxmail that elevated Putin into some kind of “anti-imperialist” hero. I could tolerate his over-the-top worship of Milosevic, even though I was sometimes embarrassed to be on the same side of a debate with him against KLA supporters on the left, but something about the pro-Putin propaganda really turned me off. Israel’s articles should sound very familiar to those who have been exposed to this sort of thing on Counterpunch, Global Research, and MRZine:

…the US establishment, and the Empire of which it is a leading part – perhaps we should call it the New World Empire – is very much interested in protecting its current hegemonic position in the world from possible future challenges coming from Eurasia – namely, from the still-nuclear-armed former Soviet Union.

To “strengthen civil society” these fake-democracy funding agencies set up NGOs, newspapers and TV stations and political parties as a Fifth Column to destabilize local societies along vulnerable lines of conflict. Or they inflame regional conflicts in the guise of “peace” and “mediation” groups. Ultimately these Fifth Column groups stage, or attempt to stage coup d’états, always under the guise of democratic reform, thus putting US operatives in power.

This happened in Yugoslavia and Philippines. It was attempted in Belarus and Venezuela. The basis is being laid for such coup d’états all over the former Soviet Union.

Looking back on this period, I’d have to say my instincts were pretty healthy. Within a year or so, Israel had dropped the “anti-imperialist” pose and begun to write articles defending the Likud and calling 9/11 an inside job. There was always something conspiratorial about his mindset and it was a fairly easy transition from hating the KLA to hating Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular. If there is any consolation, he seems to be retired politically.

The Egyptian army has studied Putin’s methods apparently, but is acting even more boldly—throwing Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in jail for working for an NGO that gets overseas funding without the government’s permission. (The LaHoods are Lebanese Christians.)

In today’s N.Y. Times, Thomas Friedman waxes indignantly over this affront:

Sadly, the transitional government in Egypt today appears determined to shoot itself in both feet.

On Sunday, it will put on trial 43 people, including at least 16 U.S. citizens, for allegedly bringing unregistered funds into Egypt to promote democracy without a license. Egypt has every right to control international organizations operating within its borders. But the truth is that when these democracy groups filed their registration papers years ago under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, they were informed that the papers were in order and that approval was pending. The fact that now — after Mubarak has been deposed by a revolution — these groups are being threatened with jail terms for promoting democracy without a license is a very disturbing sign. It tells you how incomplete the “revolution” in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back.

This sordid business makes one weep and wonder how Egypt will ever turn the corner. Egypt is running out of foreign reserves, its currency is falling, inflation is rising and unemployment is rampant. Yet the priority of a few retrograde Mubarak holdovers is to put on trial staffers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are allied with the two main U.S. political parties, as well as from Freedom House and some European groups. Their crime was trying to teach Egypt’s young democrats how to monitor elections and start parties to engage in the very democratic processes that the Egyptian Army set up after Mubarak’s fall. Thousands of Egyptians had participated in their seminars in recent years.

Now if you were a consistent “anti-imperialist”, you’d have to back the Egyptian military, right? That would seem to be the position of Global Research, which has never been afraid of sounding stupid. In an article by Tony Cartalucci titled The US Engineered “Arab Spring”: The NGO Raids in Egypt, we learn that the “Arab Spring” was nothing but a Western conspiracy—not that different it would seem from 9/11:

In January of 2011, we were told that “spontaneous,” “indigenous” uprising had begun sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, in what was hailed as the “Arab Spring.” It would be almost four months before the corporate-media would admit that the US had been behind the uprisings and that they were anything but “spontaneous,” or “indigenous.” In an April 2011 article published by the New York Times titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” it was stated:

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington.

The article would also add, regarding the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED):

The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.

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

Cartalucci informs his readers that other nations are under siege from the West in this fashion, including Thailand, Russia, Myanmar and Malaysia—a virtual rogue’s gallery. Now, to give credit where credit is due, this at least has the merit of consistency: in order to take a position on a conflict between a state and its opponents, all you have to do is determine whom the West supports and then take the opposite position. In the case of Myanmar, Cartalucci is not afraid to stake out a truly absurd position: “’Democracy icon’” Aung San Suu Kyi’s entire political apparatus is US and British funded.” You see, it does not really matter how many peasants and workers have been murdered fighting for a better society. As long as there is US and British funding, that’s all you need to know.

This, I should add, is not the most outrageous position staked out by Global Research. Applying the same logic, Michel Chossudovsky has rendered the verdict that Occupy Wall Street was the American “color revolution”, implying of course that the cops had every right to pepper-spray demonstrators.

If you really want to understand how such people think, there are two important things to keep in mind. Firstly, this is the Stalinism of our age. While the CPUSA and other such groups would never dream of arguing along these lines, something that would isolate them in the “progressive” circles they travel in, this is exactly how Stalinism made the case against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the 1930s. You had the imperialists on one side and “actually existing socialism” on the other. Anybody who failed to “defend” the USSR, which really meant defending every one of Stalin’s twists and turns, was an enemy of the Soviet Union. While few people outside the Stalinist milieu ever accused Trotsky of being on the imperialist payroll, this was the line of attack in the Moscow Trials.

It is easy to understand why some people are enamored with the “follow the money” way of thinking. It saves you from the trouble of dealing with contradiction. Instead of seeing the complex reality of young Egyptians turning to the NED for funding or to Gene Sharp for training, they simply lump them with Georgians, Serbs or any other “color revolution”. Essentially, this is a form of formal logic that most people absorb growing up in bourgeois society. It takes the form of “if a = b, then c”. But what if a is both b and not b? Arrghh. Don’t bother me with complexities…

The other thing to understand is that the conspiratorial mindset is very deeply engrained in some sectors on the left. Do you remember the old Mad Magazine spy versus spy comic? I suppose most of you are too young to remember, but it depicted a world in which spying counted for everything. It was very much tuned in to the zeitgeist that included James Bond novels and Cold War media reports about Soviet spies under every bed.

In such a world, the needs of—for example—Hungarian workers did not count. 1956 was about nothing except Western spooks trying to subvert a “socialist” country. If the reality of working class exploitation under Stalinist bureaucracy got in the way, the best remedy was to sweep it under the rug.

Unfortunately, the only thing that got swept under the rug after more than a half-century of lies, violence and corruption was the socialist experiment itself. Surely we can do better in the 21st century.

February 20, 2012

Sign a petition against racist t-shirts

Filed under: racism,Sikhs — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

February 17, 2012 (Fremont, CA) – The Sikh Coalition urges consumers worldwide to sign our petition to CafePress, demanding that the company stop selling racist t-shirts that promote bigotry against Sikhs.

CafePress, Inc. is based in San Mateo, California and is one of the largest online retailers in the United States.  Sadly, the company website offers for sale a pair of t-shirts that say “No More Ragheads!” and “No More Towelheads!”  These racial slurs are often used to disparage the Sikh turban and have been used against Sikhs in the context of hate crimes.

If you believe that CafePress should remove these offensive and dangerous products from its inventory, please make your voices heard and sign our petition today.

John Holloway’s lowered horizons

Filed under: autonomism,Greece — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

John Holloway

Last Friday John Holloway wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free titled “Greece shows us how to protest against a failed system” that encapsulates the weakness of autonomist Marxism.  Best known for his controversial 2002 “Change the World without Taking Power”, Holloway’s article addresses itself mostly to the liberating effects of rioting:

I do not like violence. I do not think that very much is gained by burning banks and smashing windows. And yet I feel a surge of pleasure when I see the reaction in Athens and the other cities in Greece to the acceptance by the Greek parliament of the measures imposed by the European Union. More: if there had not been an explosion of anger, I would have felt adrift in a sea of depression.

But when it comes to the concrete measures that can finally remove the stinger from the neck of the Greek people, he sets the bar rather low:

Behind the spectacle of the burning banks in Greece lies a deeper process, a quieter movement of people refusing to pay bus fares, electricity bills, motorway tolls, bank debts; a movement, born of necessity and conviction, of people organising their lives in a different way, creating communities of mutual support and food networks, squatting empty buildings and land, creating community gardens, returning to the countryside, turning their backs on the politicians (who are now afraid to show themselves in the streets) and creating directly democratic forms of taking social decisions.

You’ll notice that every single one of these measures amount to a kind of counter-culture that effectively accept the continuation of corporate/financial predation. It is as if somebody wrote an article in 1932 putting the best possible face on people in the American countryside going out to shoot squirrels because they lacked the money to buy meat. It also makes you wonder how tuned in Holloway is to the needs of ordinary working people. An unemployed father of six children who cannot pay his rent is not likely to be cheered by the advice that he and his family can go squat in an abandoned building. In general, what Holloway is offering is a kind of life-style that might be attractive—so to speak—to people who have not entered the work force to begin with but it is not the sort of thing that can rally the vast majority of Greeks who are wage slaves, past or present.

With respect to returning to the countryside, this is a “solution” that the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine finds quite acceptable:

Astoundingly, about 80 percent of Greeks own a home. It may be on family land on a distant island, but it is still a home. Zacharias, for example, lives on land that his grandfather bought decades ago with coupons from a newspaper promotion. Many of those who have lost jobs in the city therefore have rural homes to retreat to, though whether there is income once they get there is another matter.

The real consideration that does not seem to enter Holloway’s mind, however, is whether such a forced retreat to the countryside is consistent with the emancipatory agenda of Marxism. Freedom is not really about finding personal solutions to capitalist crisis, like going to live in the countryside until the storm blows over. When you stop and think about it, this is about as liberating as some college graduate moving in with their parents because he or she can’t find a job.

This leads us to the question of what this has to do with Marxism at all. The autonomist Marxists, particularly those roosting in the academy like Holloway, Harry Cleaver, and even Toni Negri, are all serious Marxist scholars having written oceans of ink over commodity fetishism, value theory, etc. What they don’t appear to understand is the political agenda of Marxism, which is to make a socialist revolution that will lead to working class power over the economy.

To some extent, they all reflect the spirit of the 1960s New Left that was oriented to “alternative” institutions, ranging from food coops to squats. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such initiatives but to turn them into the ultimate goal of radical politics is selling us short for as long as the bourgeoisie has its fingers on the trigger, no such institutions can last very long.

I first became aware of the ideological evolution away from politics in the direction of community-based institutions when reading “Globalization and its Discontents: the rise of postmodernist socialisms” in 1997. Authors Orlando Núñez (an FSLN leader), Boris Kagarlitsky (Kargalitsky would eventually disown the book), and Roger Burbach (a scholar/activist I retain great respect for despite this book) wrote:

The left has to accept the fact that the Marxist project for revolution launched by the Communist Manifesto is dead. There will certainly be revolutions (the Irananian Revolution is probably a harbinger of what to expect in the short term), but they will not be explicitly socialist ones that follow in the Marxist tradition begun by the First International.

Instead, they lowered their horizons as Holloway has:

In both the developed and underdeveloped countries, a wide variety of critical needs and interests are being neglected at the local level, including the building, or rebuilding, of roads, schools and social services. A new spirit of volunteerism and community participation, backed by a campaign to secure complimentary resources from local and national governments, can open up entirely new job markets and areas of work to deal with these basic needs.

It must be said, however, that Holloway probably would not be the least bit interested in securing “complementary resources” from local and national governments. Who would want to be tainted by money received from the evil state apparatus?

Back in 2003, before I began blogging, I reviewed John Holloway’s “Change the World without Taking Power”.  Now would be a good time to reproduce it here:

Fetishizing the Zapatistas: a critique of “Change the World Without Taking Power”

As should be clear to even the most casual observer on the left, the Chiapas rebellion has become as much of a paradigm for the post-Marxist left as October 1917 was for an earlier generation of Marxists. The collapse of the USSR, the difficulties faced by socialist Cuba and an ostensibly brand-new way of doing politics in Chiapas put wind in the sails of ideological currents that never were committed to classical Marxism to begin with, including the autonomist and anarchist movements. In contrast to the anarchists, autonomism has positioned itself as retaining the emancipatory core of Marxism, while disposing of the dross. This is one of the central messages of John Holloway’s “To Change the World Without Taking Power”. We will assess this claim in due time, but first some background on the Zapatista left in general and how it took shape.

Although the Chiapas revolt grew out of Mayan resentment over unemployment, land hunger, racism and other injustices that face indigenous peoples everywhere in the world, it transformed itself very rapidly into a global movement that at time appeared as spokes radiating from Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop, just as an earlier generation rotated around the Kremlin.

The Zapatistas became hosts of a series of ‘encuentros’ (encounters) in Mexico and elsewhere, the first of which was held in Chiapas in August 1996, two and a half years after the start of their revolt. Some 3,000 guests from 43 different countries came together as part of an International Encounter Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity to discuss how to “change the world”.

With the armed revolt at an end, the EZLN had begun to explore nonviolent options. According to the August 5, 1996 Guardian, some high profile guests including Danielle Mitterrand (the wife of the French social democratic leader), Eduardo Galeano and Douglas Bravo were encouraged by this transition. Bravo was himself a former guerrilla fighter in Venezuela during the 1960s but became committed to a kind of “civil society” reformism that eventually led him to join the opposition to Hugo Chavez.

When asked what he expected from the gathering, Subcommandante Marcos said: “I haven’t a damn clue.” This led French intellectual Regis Debray to comment. “This is a return to the essential resistance.” Debray, like Bravo, was once part of the foquismo left in Latin America but in more recent years has become part of the French cultural establishment, serving for a time as adviser to President Mitterand whose wife shared Debray’s enthusiasms for heterodox leftisms.

These encuentros had a tremendously energizing effect on the post-Marxist left in the same way that Comintern conferences in the early 1920s had on people like John Reed. Unlike the Comintern, these gatherings adopted the discourse of the anti-globalization movement. Instead of hearing Bukharin presenting an analysis of the latest stage of imperialism, the delegations focused on ‘neoliberalism’, privatization and other symptoms of the underlying capitalist crisis. The search for solutions in Chiapas stopped short of obviously passé measures such as socialist revolution.

Even though the imagination-challenged Marxist movement tended to shy away from these gatherings, as early as the second–held in Spain in 1996–some stodgy participants were beginning to get impatient and think in terms of goals, even though this was the last thing on Subcommandante’s mind. As Gustavo Esteva writes in the collection “Auroras of the Zapatistas” (Midnight Notes, 2001), a tension arose between those “who fully enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share with others” and those who sought “a manifesto, an organization, a political platform…”

By 1998, the encuentros began to shift perceptibly toward becoming the anti-globalization movement of today (well, perhaps not post 9/11, but of a couple of years ago at least). Yale Professor David Graeber, who has become a highly visible opponent of Marxism and defender of this new way of doing politics (or rather not doing politics), claims that this movement was born in Barcelona that year:

The real origins of the movement, for example, lie in an international network called People’s Global Action (PGA). PGA emerged from a 1998 Zapatista encuentro in Barcelona, and its founding members include not only anarchist groups in Spain, Britain and Germany, but a Gandhian socialist peasant league in India, the Argentinian teachers’ union, indigenous groups such as the Maori of New Zealand and Kuna of Ecuador, the Brazilian landless peasants movement and a network made up of communities founded by escaped slaves in South and Central America.


One year later the Seattle protests erupted and the world’s attention became riveted on this new movement that apparently had its origins in Chiapas, Mexico. While some of the popularizers of this new movement put their message across in the mass media, a significant number were based in academia. At the University of Texas, Harry Cleaver synthesized autonomist Marxism and fashionable ideas about the power of the Internet in order to advance the idea that Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop represented something entirely new. He writes:

The rhizomatic pattern of collaboration has emerged as a partial solution to the failure of old organizational forms; it has –by definition– no single formula to guide the kinds of elaboration required. The power of The Net in the Zapatista struggle has lain in connection and circulation, in the way widely dispersed nodes of antagonism set themselves in motion in response to the uprising in Chiapas.

While it would be foolish to underestimate the power of the Internet, one might plausibly raise the question of whether technical-organizational dichotomies between hierarchies and networks get to the heart of the challenges facing the left. As we move into a period of deepening social and economic crisis punctuated by brutal imperialist adventures, the Internet will eventually become part of the political landscape just as the mimeograph was in years past. But technology can be no substitute for a careful assessment of the relationship of class forces on the ground and intelligent strategies and tactics based on that analysis.

A balance sheet on the progress made by the EZLN in overcoming historic injustices to the Mayan people must be made on the basis of tangible gains. It is doubtful whether the Internet can ever serve as a panacea for problems that nag away at the Mexican left, Chiapas included. While the telephone and mimeograph machine undoubtedly did a lot to empower the trade union and social movements in the USA, it was ultimately strategy and tactics that determined the outcome.

Turning now to John Holloway’s “To Change the World Without Taking Power”, we enter a terrain where such mundane matters seem to matter little. Taking Subcommandante Marcos’s refusal to specify goals or the methods necessary to achieve them as a starting point, Holloway has written a book that effectively inflates the Zapatista style of politics into a post-Marxist Communist Manifesto.

For narrow-minded technicians like myself who like to keep databases of such things, this is now the third new communist manifesto to occupy a place on my bookshelf alongside Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” (Zizek, “Nothing less than a rewriting of the Communist Manifesto for our time”) and Guattari-Negri’s “Communists Like Us” which purports modestly to “rescue ‘communism’ from its own disrepute.”

At first blush, all of these books seem driven by the need to proceed directly to something called communism without passing go. All the sordid business associated with what Bukharin called “the transition period” will somehow be leapfrogged by a monumental act of will, especially the bugbear of the autonomist movement: the state.

In chapter two (Beyond the State), Holloway argues that it doesn’t do any good for working people to create their own state: “If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed.” Correctly observing that China and Russia failed to “promote the reign of freedom”, Holloway manages to avoid any reference to Cuba. Since Cuba defies any easy pigeonholing as a totalitarian dungeon, it tends to be swept under the rug in autonomist literature.

Holloway explains that Marxist assumptions about transforming society fail to take into account that “capitalist social relations, by their nature, have always gone beyond territorial limitations”. So, it becomes an exercise in futility to smash the capitalist state and replace it with a workers state of the kind conceived by Lenin in “State and Revolution” for to do so would simply re-introduce oppressive power relations, especially those refracted through a nominally socialist society’s ties to the outside capitalist world. Or, as the Who once put it in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

Holloway expresses the same sentiments in a more polished manner: “You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.”

Far be it for me to even suggest that something as passé as Marxist dialectics can still have some value, it would appear to me that speaking in terms of power versus non-power cedes too much to formal logic. While it is true that a woman cannot be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, certain social phenomena have contradictory aspects. For example, when Father Gapon organized a demonstration to present a petition to the Czar, some 200,000 St Petersburg workers marched behind him with pictures of the Tsar, religious icons and church banners. Instead of dismissing this as a genuflection before Czarism, Trotsky saw the other side of the process: “Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St Petersburg, he merely released it and events completely overtook him.”

Oddly enough, despite a tendency toward cryptic formulations, Subcommandante Marcos himself can be quite specific on the value of power:

When we governed, we lowered to zero the rate of alcoholism, and the women here became very fierce and they said that drink only served to make the men beat their women and children, and to act barbarically, and therefore they gave the order that no drink was allowed, and that we could not allow drinking to go on, and the people who received the most benefit were the children and women, and the ones most damaged were the businessmen and the government…

The destruction of trees also was prohibited, and laws were made to protect the forests, and the hunting of wild animals was prohibited, even if they were from the government, and the cultivation, consumption and trafficking in drugs were prohibited, and these laws were upheld. The infant death rate went way down, and became very small, just like the children are. And the Zapatista laws were applied uniformly, without regard for social position or income level. And we made all of the major decisions, or the ‘strategic’ ones, of our struggle, by means of a method that they call the ‘referendum’ and the ‘plebiscite’. And we got rid of prostitution and unemployment disappeared as well as begging. The children had sweets and toys. And we made many errors and had many failures. And we also accomplished what no other government in the world, regardless of its political affiliation, is capable of doing honestly, and that is to recognize its errors and to take steps to remedy them.


In a certain sense, attempts to seize power and transform all of society along the lines described by the Subcommandante are doomed to failure unless humanity overcomes something called “fetishization” which functions in Holloway’s schema as a kind of tragic flaw, like Oedipus’s pride or Dr. Frankenstein’s mad desire to create life from the parts of dead bodies.

As most people are probably aware, fetish is a term that has its origins in anthropology. It is a charm or amulet that has magical powers for so-called primitive peoples. It is etymologically related to the word factitious, which means artificial. Freud and other experts on abnormal psychology have used the word to describe sexual attachments to objects like shoes and other garments. For example, according to the tell-all memoir of his mistress, President Salinas of Mexico had an Imelda Marcos-like fetish for charro suits, the silver-buckled outfits and matching sombrero, boots and spurs worn by mariachi singers. She reported that over 70 were hidden away in his closet.

Holloway uses the term in its Marxist sense, which he describes as a “central category” in Capital even though “it is almost completely ignored by those who regard themselves as Marxist economists”. As understood by Marx and by Holloway as well, it is tied up with alienation, especially that between the worker and the commodity he or she produces. He sees fetishization as the main target for those who would change the world: “Any thought or practice which aims at the emancipation of humanity from the dehumanization of capitalism is necessarily directed against fetishism.” But Holloway takes Marx one step further. It is not simply the separation between worker and commodity; it is also by extension the separation between doing and done, and between subject and object. Thus, what begins as an attempt grounded in political economy to elucidate how capitalism appears to the ruled as a permanent system shades off into a kind of philosophical critique of Cartesian dualism:

Constitution and existence are sundered. The constituted denies the constituting, the done the doing, the object the subject. The object constituted acquires a durable identity. It becomes an apparently autonomous structure. This sundering (both real and apparent) is crucial to the stability of capitalism. The statement that ‘that’s the way things are’ presupposes that separation. The separation of constitution and existence is the closure of radical alternatives.

Leaving aside the question of how to translate this sort of thing into a punchy leaflet that will grab the attention of the average worker, it does not really convey what Marx was all about in philosophical terms. As a materialist, Marx saw human beings as part of the physical universe: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.” (German Ideology)

Within this context, ideas arise from social relationships: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour.” (German Ideology)

While expressed in somewhat different terms than Holloway’s heterodox views on “fetishization”, the notion ideas arising from material conditions conveys much more accurately Marx’s understanding of the relationship between humanity, ideology and class society. Historical and material conditions govern the way we think. In order to become free human beings unconstrained by bourgeois ideology, it is necessary to abolish commodity production, which is the substratum of bourgeois society. Struggles against “fetishism” are rather futile as long as commodity production is generalized throughout society.

For Marx, the only way to overcome alienation (and fetishism, by implication) is to change material conditions:

This ‘alienation’ (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an ‘intolerable’ power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’, and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the ‘propertyless’ mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. (German Ideology)

This is the reason that Marxists have historically targeted the state. In order to achieve a classless society, it is necessary to develop the productive forces to such a high degree that competition for goods becomes more and more unnecessary. As leisure time and the general level of culture increases, human beings will enjoy a level of freedom that has never been attainable in class society.

For a variety of reasons, socialist revolutions have occurred in backward countries where the development of productive forces has been hampered by a number of factors, including imperialist blockade, technological and industrial underdevelopment, low productivity of labor and the need to stave off invasions and subversion–in other words, the kinds of conditions that make a country like Cuba fall short of communist ideals. Notwithstanding Cuba’s difficulties, the revolution has made a significant impact on peoples’ lives, so much so that it earned the praise of James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, in May of 2001: “Cuba has done a great job on education and health and if you judge the country by education and health they’ve done a terrific job.”

Wolfensohn was simply recognizing the reality of statistics in the bank’s World Development Indicators report that showed Cubans living longer than other Latin Americans, including residents of the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Literacy levels were on a par with Uruguay, while the life expectancy rate was 76 years, second only to Costa Rica at 77. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.

While it is true that Cuba is enmeshed in a myriad of ways within the world capitalist economy, it did withdrew from the World Bank and its sister lending agency, the International Monetary Fund, in 1959. Despite the collapse of the USSR and continuing efforts to destroy the country economically by the USA, Cuba continues to develop its productive capabilities and raise the cultural level of the people.

Turning to Chiapas, the general picture is far less encouraging. In a February 3, 2003 Newsday article titled “Infant Deaths Plague Mexico”, we learn that the Comitan hospital serves nearly 500,000 people in Chiapas. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate. Meanwhile, the February 21, 2001 Financial Times reported on a study conducted by the Association for the Health of Indigenous Children in Mexico in the village of Las Canadas, Chiapas. It found that not one girl had adequate nutritional levels compared with 39.4 per cent of boys. Female malnutrition has actually led to physical shrinking over the last decade from an average height of 1.42 meters to 1.32 meters. At the same time, more than half of women who speak an indigenous language are illiterate – five times the national average.

While nobody can blame the EZLN for failing to make a revolution in Mexico, we would be remiss if we did not point out the obvious material differences between the two societies, especially in the countryside where poverty has traditionally been extreme. With its abundant natural resources, including oil and fertile farmland, it is not too difficult to imagine how much of a difference a socialist Mexico would have made in the lives of the poor.

For John Holloway, access to decent medical care seems far less important than “visibility”, a term that he sees as practically defining Zapatismo and presumably missing altogether in dreary Cuban state socialism. This is expressed through the balaclava, the mask that Subcommandante wore at press conferences and which has since been appropriated by Black Block activists breaking Starbucks windows in the name of anti-capitalism: “The struggle for visibility is also central to the current indigenous movement, expressed most forcefully in the Zapatista wearing of the balaclava: we cover our face so that we can be seen, our struggle is the struggle of those without face.”

While every movement certainly needs an element of mystique, it is doubtful that the Zapatista movement could sustain itself over the long haul using such symbols. Nor is it likely that it could succeed without linking up to a dynamic, rising mass movement in the rest of Mexico. Localized peasant struggles have a long history in Mexico going back to the 19th century. If you strip away the balaclava and Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop, you will find all the elements that ultimately frustrated the efforts of the original Zapata, namely the failure of a regional uprising to become part of a general assault on state power and the social and economic transformation of society.

To fetishize these sorts of incomplete and partial rebellions as a new way of doing politics not only does a disservice to the valiant efforts of the Mayan people, it also creates obstacles to those of us who also want to change the world but on a more favorable basis. For in the final analysis, it requires a democratic and centralized movement of the working class and its allies to take power in a country like Mexico.

February 18, 2012

The black bloc, jihadism, and Counterpunch

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,black bloc idiots,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Anybody who reads Counterpunch on a regular basis as I do (I also donated $50 to a recent fund-drive and subscribe to the electronic version of the newsletter—so I do understand its value) must be aware of its two highest priority talking points of late:

1. Al-Qaeda type jihadists are a terrible danger to al-Assad’s Syria and good enough reason to back the dictator. For example, Peter Lee wrote an article in this weekend’s edition:

More worryingly, al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic attempt to piggyback on the spiraling unrest in Syria—and the car bombings in Aleppo which, if not the work of Zawahiri’s minions, can probably be traced back to al-Qaeda’s Gulf-funded Sunni Islamist fans in western Iraq—are a warning that backing the feckless SNC in an agenda of regime collapse is not going to be the carefree, Iran-bashing romp so many interventionists are advertising.

2. Chris Hedges’s attack on the black bloc is an ominous threat against radical politics in the U.S. and every effort must be mounted to defend the vandalistas, either critically or uncritically. One of the prime examples is an article that appeared in the February 9th edition by Peter Gelderloos, the author of the aptly named “How Nonviolence Protects the State”. In the article, titled “The Surgeons of Occupy”, Gelderloos draws an unfortunate amalgam between the black bloc and the anarchist movement as a whole: “But beneath the black masks, anarchists have been an integral part of the debates, the organizing, the cooking and cleaning in dozens of cities.” So, in effect, when Hedges attacks vandalism, he is also attacking cooking and cleaning—I suppose. I say suppose because Gelderloos, like many black bloc aficionados, is skilled at demagogy. Or more accurately, uses demagogy rather ineffectively to avoid a serious debate.

I had no idea who Gelderloos was, but was intrigued to discover in the midst of a spittle-flecked attack on me by a Kasama Project commenter (I am a “Pseudo-Trotskyist renegade… practicing revisionist right-deviationism”) that “Gelderloos makes statements of support for the mass-murder of Spanish civilians by the right-wing Muslim group Al-Qaeda” in “How Nonviolence Protects the State”.

Wow, how about that!

As it turns out, there is a pdf version of the book. Wasting no time, I tracked down the passage in question and converted into regular text:

A good case study regarding the efficacy of nonviolent protest can be seen in Spain’s involvement with the US-led occupation. Spain, with 1,300 troops, was one of the larger junior partners in the “Coalition of the Willing.” More than one million Spaniards pro-tested the invasion, and 80 percent of the Spanish population was opposed to it, but their commitment to peace ended there—they did nothing to actually prevent Spanish military support for the invasion and occupation. Because they remained passive and did nothing to disempower the leadership, they remained as powerless as the citizens of any democracy. Not only was Spanish Prime Minister Aznar able and allowed to go to war, he was expected by all forecasts to win reelection—until the bombings. On March 11, 2004, just days before the voting booths opened, multiple bombs planted by an Al-Qaida-linked cell exploded in Madrid train stations, killing 191 people and injuring thousands more. Directly because of this, Aznar and his party lost in the polls, and the Socialists, the major party with an anti-war platform, were elected into power. The US-led coalition shrunk with the loss of 1,300 Spanish troops, and promptly shrunk again after the Dominican Republic and Honduras also pulled out their troops. Whereas millions of peaceful activists voting in the streets like good sheep have not weakened the brutal occupation in any measurable way, a few dozen terrorists willing to slaughter noncombatants were able to cause the withdrawal of more than a thousand occupation troops.

So nonviolence lacks “efficacy” but killing 191 Spaniards in train stations does not. A while back, I made a big deal about a book on Infoshop.org making the case that the black bloc is following in the steps of the Weathermen but this reaches level of insanity that simply takes my breath away.

What can we say about this? Can we make a connection between the black bloc and jihadism? Probably not. But I would say this. Alexander Cockburn would be well-advised to exercise a bit more editorial scrutiny in the future. I know that it gets hard when you hit 71 to stay on top of details but I am quite sure that there would be any number of interns out there who would be willing to give him a hand, if for no other reason to spare a once very admired journalist from allowing his website to embarrass itself further.

February 17, 2012


Filed under: Film,sports — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

As I work my way slowly through the more than 50 dvd’s I received from the studios for NYFCO’s 2011 awards meeting, a pattern emerges. The more a film is hyped, the more I find it lacking. Some I can sit through like “The Artist”, the recipient of NYFCO’s best movie of the year award, mostly out of a morbid sense of curiosity. Others, like “The Descendants”—a close runner-up, get tossed into the garbage can after 15 minutes or so.

Among those received from the major studios, “Undefeated” stood apart as a truly moving experience even though it was not hyped at all. A product of the Weinstein Company, it slipped into local movie theaters today even though it was submitted to us for a 2011 best documentary award.

Just to make sure there is no confusion, this is not the documentary about Sarah Palin with the same name. Instead, it is fairly straightforward account of a high school football team from inner-city Memphis that was traditionally the doormat of the league but managed to vie for the state championship in 2009 against all expectations. When you first start watching it, you will be instantly reminded of the plucky underdog human interest stories found on HBO’s Real Sports show hosted by Bryant Gumbel. It also evokes “Friday Night Lights”, a highly regarded weekly show about high school football on NBC that had its final show last year. Finally, there are similarities with “Blind Side”, the simply awful movie starring Sandra Bullock as a southern housewife who rescues a Black teenager from poverty in a calculated bid to help the home team win a championship. The same sort of thing happens in “Undefeated” but is totally devoid of the kind of paternalism found in “Blind Side”. The primary interest is not winning a championship but tutoring the kid so he can get into college on a football scholarship.

The thing that makes “Undefeated” so powerful is the personalities of the principal figures, starting with the volunteer coach Bill Courtney who looks like a young John Madden, especially around the girth. Courtney is a white southerner who loves football more than anything in the world. While driving to work one day, he noticed some kids on the football field at Manassas High School nearby the lumber yard where he worked as a salesman. After making some inquiries, he found out that they needed a coach and he applied for the job.

I saw the movie in November, at the peak of the anger and disgust over the Penn State pedophilia scandal. As repulsive a figure Joe Paterno was, the film reminded me of why he was also revered by so many football players and students. There is something about the bonds between a coach and young men that can bring out the best of all involved in athletics, even though I never participated in team sports myself and acknowledge the way that amateur sports in the U.S. follows the cash nexus and fosters bad behavior all around.

One scene in particular made this point for me in spades. One of Courtney’s players has tremendous anger issues. He has also just gotten out of jail. After a flare-up with another player on the team at practice, he decides to quit on the spot and begins walking home. Courtney drives up alongside him with two wheels on the sidewalk and two on the street. As the youth glowers in anger and refuses to engage with him, Courtney continues to plead with him about the good of the team and about how playing football will help him deal with other problems in life. It is far more compelling than anything I have ever seen in a movie about sports and a reminder of why documentary beats fiction films on its own turf so often. If you are interested in human drama, why waste time with artificial melodrama of the sort found in “Blind Side”. Ordinary human beings are far more interesting, especially the remarkable kids and adults in “Undefeated”.

“Undefeated” is playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side and at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square Theater. Trust me, you won’t find a more powerful or a more likable film anywhere in New York right now.

February 16, 2012

El Sistema

Filed under: music,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

NY Times February 15, 2012
Fighting Poverty, Armed With Violins

CARACAS, Venezuela — Corrugated tin roofs, ramshackle cinder-block huts, labyrinthine streets caked with garbage and rubble, the possibility of random violence at any turn. And this section of the Sarría barrio is not even bad for Caracas.

But Sarría also plays host to a center of El Sistema, Venezuela’s program of social uplift through classical music. So just across the street from such blighted scenes young children with violins and French horns and trumpets filled the spaces of an elementary school on Tuesday.

A brass ensemble barked in a corridor open to the Caribbean air. A percussion group rumbled in a dirt courtyard nearby. In a classroom newly hatched violinists played a G major scale and simple Venezuelan tunes after a week of learning. At least two choirs were rehearsing.

The contrast was stark but also typical of El Sistema, which was founded in 1975 but became widely known only in the last five years thanks in part to the meteoric rise of its most famous product, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Mr. Dudamel, 31, became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 and is now in Caracas with his orchestra for a cycle of the Mahler symphonies.

“It’s my goal to keep going, so I can be a great musician,” said Emily Castañeda, 10, who began playing French horn two weeks ago and was producing honorable sounds during a lesson. Or, added Emily, whose mother is a cleaning woman and who does not know her father, she might become a doctor.

El Sistema’s aim is to address a depressingly universal problem: how to remove children from poverty’s snares, like drugs, crime, gangs and desperation. The method, imagined by El Sistema’s founder, the economist and trained musician José Antonio Abreu, was classical music. Orchestras and music training centers around the country were established to occupy young people with music study and to instill values that can come from playing in ensembles: a sense of community, commitment and self-worth.

With nearly one-third of Venezuela’s population of 29 million under 14, the need is large.

Since the program’s founding, El Sistema estimates that it reaches 310,000 children in 280 teaching locations, called núcleos, said Eduardo Méndez, the executive director. About 500 orchestras and other ensembles, from preschool groups using paper cutouts of instruments to the world-class Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, fall under El Sistema’s umbrella. Mr. Abreu has said his goal is to reach 500,000 children by 2015.

The program has become the envy of the music world, inspiring similar programs in many countries and attracting influential proponents like the conductors Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle. It has prompted a number of books and documentaries, countless news reports and a steady flow of musicians and educators tramping through showcase núcleos.

The attention has made Sistema officials adept at playing host to visitors, who receive a warm but fairly controlled welcome, which is usually necessary in dangerous areas. These officials and Sistema fans speak in near mystical terms of Mr. Abreu and his program’s results.

The populist government of Hugo Chávez is also happy with the program, pouring 540 million bolivars, about $64 million, a year into it. Foundations and donors add various amounts each year as well as gifts of instruments.

The Sarria núcleo, on the city’s northern edge, is housed in a prekindergarten-through-sixth-grade school of 1,200. In an arrangement with the government it offers after-school activities from 2 to 6 p.m. for 600 children.

Sarria embodies many of the principles that seem to make El Sistema so successful. All instruction and instruments are free. No child is turned away, teaching is done in groups, and many of the instructors have passed through El Sistema themselves (and are thus committed to the movement). Public performance is ingrained from the beginning. The núcleo is within walking distance of the students’ homes.

All performers are given medallions that have the image of a violin on one side and the motto “Tocar y Luchar,” “To Play and to Fight,” on the other.

“From the time they start playing and performing for others, they feel they are proud of what they are doing,” Mr. Méndez said.

The Sarria orchestra was in the final throes of rehearsing for a concert this week. The núcleo’s director, Alejandro Muñoz, 32, was conducting. He is a stern figure who had already assigned some timeouts to talkative members. They were playing Handel’s “Water Music” and “Alma Llanera,” considered an unofficial Venezuelan anthem that every Sistema orchestra player learns.

“The main thing in our núcleos is the quality,” Mr. Méndez said. “We teach them with the best quality possible.”

Mr. Muñoz, a violinist, was himself born in a barrio and passed through a núcleo. “My mother thought it would be a safe place,” he said. He was identified as a conducting prospect and sent to a conservatory.

At Sarria the beginning violin teacher was Ismenia Molina, 51, who was one of the earliest members of the first Sistema orchestra, giving her the aura of a founder. She has been with El Sistema for 33 of her 51 years.

El Sistema also has choirs and programs to teach instrument-making and repair.

Things don’t always run smoothly in the program. Tensions sometimes arise between Sistema officials and the administrators of the buildings they use. The program’s growth sometimes outpaces the supply of teachers and instruments. Parents don’t always cooperate in getting children to rehearsals or lessons. Instruments are stolen in this crime-ridden country.

One fact sometimes overlooked is that Sistema is also open to people from middle-class or upper-middle-class families.

The Sarría núcleo’s founder, for instance, Rafael Elster, had a privileged upbringing. Mr. Abreu assigned him to set up the núcleo in 1999, and he spent 10 years there, suffering several armed robberies and the cleaning out of his house.

The majority of Sistema children do not go on to musical careers, but many come back and work for El Sistema anyway. Mr. Méndez, for instance, is a lawyer.

“Once you get touched by El Sistema,” he said, “you will never leave El Sistema.”

Was Lenin a lying manoeuvrer?

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

Weekly Worker 901 Thursday February 16 2012

Falling out over a Cliff

by Lars Lih

Was Lenin a lying manoeuvrer? Were the Bolsheviks a cult led by an all-knowing leader and staffed by narrow-minded minions? Lars T Lih joins in the debate over Tony Cliff’s biography and debunks some myths held by both left and right

An interesting debate has broken out concerning certain issues in the history of Bolshevism. Pham Binh started things off with a vociferous attack[1] on the first volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of VI Lenin.[2] Paul Le Blanc leapt in to defend Cliff and to dismiss Pham’s criticisms.[3] Pham and le Blanc had a further exchange,[4] and Paul D’Amato also weighed in.[5]

My contribution to this discussion restricts itself to two specific issues: the 3rd Congress in 1905 and the Prague Conference in 1912. I feel compelled to make a statement because my work is cited both by Pham and Le Blanc; more to the point, I have familiarised myself with the original Russian-language sources for both episodes and therefore feel I have something to say. On one issue – the 1905 Congress – I will repeat a critique of Cliff that I have made twice before, since, insofar as I know, no-one has really responded to it. On the other issue – the 1912 Conference – recent study of primary sources has caused me to change my mind, with the result that I am cited in defence of views I no longer hold.[6]

full: http://cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004719

February 15, 2012

3 Idiots

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

I am not even sure how I discovered the 2009 Bollywood film “3 Idiots” buried under a trash heap of the typical Cineplex offerings on Netflix, but can recommend it as one of the best feature films I’ve seen this year. Indian audiences would agree with me as it is now the highest-grossing film in Indian history. Since “3 Idiots” was developed primarily for their domestic market—the Indian Cineplex, so to speak—it is of some interest that it is also the highest grossing film exported to international markets as well. If there’s any confirmation of the thesis of Andre Gunder Frank’s “ReOrient”, namely that China and India will eventually dominate the West once again, it is to be seen in a film like “3 Idiots” that is smarter, funnier, and more moving than anything coming out of Hollywood in years.

The good news is that the film can be seen on Youtube, as well as rented from Netflix:

While it incorporates the usual Bollywood elements of sentimentality, soap-opera like plots, broad comic situations, and song-and-dance routines, it is not the typical escapist fare that Indian audiences dote on. A typical Bollywood film might be about a love triangle, for example. But “3 Idiots” is about something very topical, namely the pressure-cooker environment of engineering schools and the mini-rebellion of three students against an ossified administration that values high grades and conformity over innovation. You can find echoes of “The Paper Chase” and even “Animal House” but in the final analysis it is uniquely Indian.

We meet the three main characters in their freshman year at the Imperial College of Engineering (ICE), the Indian equivalent of MIT that has the most competitive admission standards and the toughest classes in the nation. One “idiot” is Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi), who is the poverty-stricken family’s only hope for a decent life. His father is an invalid former postman, his mother the sole income provider who complains bitterly about not having bought a new sari in years, his sister a 28 year old single woman who will never get married because the family can’t pay for a car, a necessity for a dowry. When we first meet him in his dormitory room, he is praying fervently to a shrine of deities that he will succeed.

The second “idiot” is Farhan Qureshi (R. Madhavan), who comes from a relatively prosperous family but has little interest in engineering even though his father is determined that he make it in this profession. His heart is really with wildlife photography.

The third student is not an “idiot” by any stretch of the imagination. He is nicknamed “Rancho” by Raju and Farhan just before they become a closely bonded trio. Rancho is short for his ponderous full name Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad. When Rancho first shows up at the dormitory, he is ordered to strip down to his underwear by an upperclassman hazing the incoming freshmen including Raju and Farhan. After Rancho rightfully decides that he did not go to ICE to get hazed, he runs into his room and locks the door behind him. This infuriates the bullying upperclassman who warns him that if he does not come out of the room by the count of ten to get hazed, he will piss on his door—evoking “The Three Little Pigs” and the big bad wolf.

Like a clever little pig, Rancho cobbles together a metallic conduction device that is connected to an electrical outlet on one end and a spoon on the other that is pushed under the door. As soon as the first drops of urine hit the spoon, the upperclassman howls in pain after getting a good electrical shock. This turns Rancho into an instant hero to all the freshmen and a good friend to Farhan and Raju.

In his first week, Rancho runs afoul of the school’s dean, Professor Viru Sahastrabudhhe (Boman Irani), who is nicknamed “Virus” by the students. He is to ICE as Dean Vernon Wormer is to the Faber College of “Animal House”. Virus greets every freshman class with the same lecture. You need to get good grades in order to succeed. That will open all sorts of doors for you, including a well-paying job in the United States. When Rancho defies Virus by stating that the real goal of an education is to develop inquisitive minds and a love of engineering, he drags the impudent student into a large lecture hall and announces that they have a new teacher: Rancho. He is ordered to go to the podium and lecture the students.

Rancho then picks up the engineering textbook and glances through the pages for a few seconds. Then he faces the students and Virus, who is sitting among them, and asks them to define “Rajufication” and “Farhanimate”. They have five minutes to find the answer. Assuming that the words are in the textbook, they (including Virus) furiously leaf through the book trying to come up with the answer. When the five minutes are up, Rancho tells them that the words were made up out of his friends’ names. The students get the lesson that textbooks don’t always have the answer, thus embarrassing and infuriating Virus who thereupon begins to refer to the three friends as “the idiots”.

Rancho is played by Aamir Khan, who is one of Bollywood’s most inventive actors. He is best known for playing the anti-colonialist cricket player in “Lagaan”. Khan is simply brilliant as Rancho, obviously feeling a real affinity for a character willing to challenge conformity and snobbery.

Although the film is a light-hearted comedy for the most part, it includes some really dark moments especially the suicide of a fellow student who Virus has decided to expel for failing to complete a project on time. Even when the student tries to get an extension because he was busy tending to his sick father, it is to no avail.

While most Americans are aware of the frighteningly high number of student suicides at high-pressure institutions like MIT and Columbia, the numbers in India are even greater. On November second last year, the Times of India reported:

NEW DELHI: Here’s a compelling argument for education reforms in the country: student suicides have increased 26% from 2006 to 2010, with Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai accounting for most victims, in that order. And this is just the official data.

While 5,857 student suicides were reported in 2006, the figure jumped to 7,379 in 2010, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. In other words, 20 students killed themselves every day in 2010, something both academicians and mental health professionals blame on a flawed education system where performance pressure ranks above all else. For the first time in five years, Maharashtra recorded the largest number of suicides in 2010, followed by West Bengal.

“The examination system and the selection process for institutions of higher education weigh heavily on young people,” says Shyam Menon, vice-chancellor of Ambedkar University in Delhi. “The volume of students passing out of the school education system and vying for admission to tertiary education has dramatically increased over the years, with competition levels increasing too. At a time when higher education can result in social mobility, the stakes are very high. Today, there is a greater link between employability and higher education.” Menon believes changes in the education system over the years reflect the changes in the Indian middle-class and their high aspirations, which push young people to perform or perish.

To dramatize the importance of creative thinking, the film ends with a demonstration of inventions at a school where Rancho holds sway. All of them have the same kind of DIY ingenuity manifested by the electric shock gizmo seen in the hazing scene and all of them are actual inventions by ordinary Indians:

The real brains behind 3 idiots

By: Vivek Sabnis

3 simple yet amazing inventions that debuted in the film have brought fame for their inventors

With the release of 3 Idiots, there are three innovators who have finally got due credit. We are talking about Jahangir Painter (49), a Maharashtrian, Mohammad Idris (32) from UP and Remya Jose (20) from Kerala who have given their inventions the scooter flour mill, cycle-based horse shaver and pedal-driven washing machine respectively for the film.

3 idiots has used these three innovations in the film for Aamir Khan, Madhavan and Sharman Joshi.

The inventions were sourced by Prof Anil Gupta, National Innovation Foundation, Honey Bee Network, Sri Raghvendra Institute of Science and Technology (SRIST).

Said Gupta, “3 idiots will not only bring the innovations before the masses, but Vidhu Vinod Chopra and his team have promised to create a fund for the three innovators after the release of the film.”

“We’re hoping that these innovations will be used by entrepreneurs in our country as Bollywood films have a wider audience and are viewed by people even in remote areas,” said Gupta.

Painter runs a small painting workshop in Jalgaon. He has earlier won a consolation prize for making a spray painting compressor device. Now that his scooter flour mill has made him famous, he is planning to invest in some more innovations.

February 14, 2012

What do the Autonomen want?

Filed under: black bloc idiots — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

{MSZ – Gegen die Kosten der Freiheit (Munich) 2/1988}

The worldview of the Autonomen is quite simple. It is only them and the “pigs” with their “system.”
What do the Autonomen want?
With “hatemasks” and “slingshots” …

The “hate mask” is the identification badge of the Autonomen. Originally, covering the face only served the purpose of concealing their bourgeois identities from surveillance by state agencies, which define any criticism as a potential threat to the state and democracy, preventively recording and carefully filing away any halfway organized statement of discontent in order to be able to apprehend the persons concerned.

For the Autonomen, this defensive act of disguise has become a symbol of resistance, a bit of material that no longer hides the identity, but makes it recognizable: the identity of the Autonomen as “street fighters.” With it they distance themselves not only from the enemy, the state power, but also from everyone else who is not quite sympathetic to them. They pride themselves on practicing opposition to the existing state. Their “combativeness” distinguishes them from all other protesters:

“What sets us apart from others on the left are the stones in hand and the billy clubs against our necks. In the tear gas clouds we feel most autonomous. What holds us together beyond that, we do not know.” (Autonomen Berlin leaflet)

The “hate mask” is an essential part of Autonomen clothing which – supplemented by combat boots, clubs, cushioned leather jackets and helmets – makes up the uniform of the “Black Blocs.” The uniform represents not only their subordination to a common purpose and the absolute right to exercise force, it serves primarily to distinguish between friend and foe in battle.

With their meager protective clothing and “stones in hand,” they oppose “billy clubs against their necks,” clouds of tear gas, mace sprays, and the state’s other order-maintaining household cleaning products; at most, with “slingshots” that in bourgeois horror scenarios are built up with chilling admiration into “precision catapults.” The very basic military superiority of the opposing side is no occasion for the Autonomen fighters to consider whether this fight cuts the mustard.

full: http://www.ruthlesscriticism.com/autonomen.htm


Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Besides being Jewish, terminally neurotic and a bit of a clown, there’s one other thing I have in common with Woody Allen (of course, his clowning ended 25 years or so ago); I am a big fan of the N.Y. Knickerbockers. Now I would never be in a position to buy a ticket for $100, their going price, but I follow them closely even though it has been almost two decades since I was in the habit of watching them play. That was the team that included Patrick Ewing at center and John Starks at guard. While they never won a championship, they were in the words of Marlin Brando in “On the Waterfront”, a real contenda.

The Knickerbocker team that did win championships was about as accomplished as any team in the past half-century. That was the team with Willis Reed at center and Walt Frazier at guard that won championships in 1970 and 1973. In one of the most legendary games in the franchise’s history, Reed started game seven in 1970 despite a torn muscle in his right leg against the storied Los Angeles Lakers led by Wilt Chamberlain.

The Knicks went through a dry spell until 1985 when they drafted Patrick Ewing as the number one choice in the draft that year. Ewing was a real warrior who was born in Jamaica and starred at Georgetown University. Unfortunately he never had anybody of Walt Frazier’s caliber to co-lead the team. John Starks was a good shooting guard but often took ill-advised 3 point shots when he was cold, just as the case with Knick forward Carmelo Anthony today. Greg Anthony was the point guard who had even weaker shooting skills than Starks but was good on defense. In fact that was the best thing you could say for Patrick Ewing’s Knicks, they knew how to play defense.

Here’s John Starks’s most memorable play, getting past Michael Jordan to dunk in the playoffs with Chicago in 1993.

The Knicks went through another dry spell that has continued pretty much until now. James Dolan, the team’s owner, hired Isiah Thomas in 2003 to run the team. Despite Thomas’s great skills as a player for the team-oriented Detroit Pistons, he never had any sense of how to put a team together.

Thomas’s approach was to sign very expensive contracts with big-name players without regard to whether they complemented each other. While all sports require teamwork, there is none in my opinion that puts as much of an emphasis on it in order to succeed as basketball.

If the team was an embarrassment on the court, it was Thomas’s off-court behavior that really tarnished the franchise’s reputation almost beyond repair. In 2006 Anucha Browne Sanders, a top female executive for the Knicks, sued Thomas and Madison Square Garden, the team’s owner, with sexual harassment. Thomas and his boss James Dolan practically made a joke out of the suit. The court decided it was no joke at all, awarding Sanders $11.6 million.

Mike Lupica, a sports writer for the N.Y. Daily News with generally liberal attitudes on issues beyond sports, sized up the outcome on September 21, 2007:

Imagine Anucha Browne Sanders not thinking she was in the presence of true genius working with somebody like Thomas, who has the largest payroll in his sport and has had it for years and has not yet produced a single playoff victory.

“Stop talking right now!” Mills quotes James Dolan as saying to Browne Sanders in the famous meeting where he supposedly decided she wasn’t as smart as all the other geniuses in the room.

In that moment Dolan sounds like what he is and always will be: a spoiled rich boy. He eventually decided he didn’t want Browne Sanders around anymore and that was that, he didn’t need to listen to lawyers. And Thomas? You think he was ever going to listen to some pushy woman who refused to see things his way?

Here is a quote from a story Christian Red and T.J. Quinn wrote in this newspaper last year, about Thomas’ days running the Continental Basketball Association into the ground. It comes from a woman named Diane Bosshard, who owned the La Crosse Bobcats with her husband before selling the team to Thomas:

“He ruled with intimidation. It was just like, ‘If I swear enough or if I act like I’m tough enough you’re going to back down.'”

Anucha Browne Sanders didn’t back down at the Garden, doesn’t back down in 23A, where they want her job performance to be on trial. That shouldn’t put jurors to sleep. It should have them rolling in the aisle.

A year later Thomas was replaced by Donnie Walsh, a 67 year old former president of the Indiana Pacers who had a solid track record, even managing to get some use out of Isiah Thomas who coached the Pacers for a while before moving on to the Knicks. Walsh’s goal was to clean house at the Knicks, first of all by unloading the expensive but unproductive talent and secondly by enforcing higher ethical standards—a fairly easy goal to accomplish in light of the fact that anything would be better than the cesspool Thomas ran.

Walsh’s first executive decision was to hire Mike D’Antoni, the former coach of the Phoenix Suns. Although the Suns never won a championship, they were always in the playoffs. D’Antoni was committed to offense-oriented play that involved a high tempo running game and the so-called “pick and roll”. Rather than try to explain it, I’ll refer you to the clip below:

Not long after hiring D’Antoni, Walsh offered Amare Stoudemire, one-half of the Phoenix Suns’ pick-and-roll team, a fat contract. With a group of young, newly drafted talent, the Knicks were finally starting to look respectable. But in a calculated bid to lure people to the Garden, team owner James Dolan traded most of these new players to the Denver Nuggets in order to land Carmelo Anthony, a flashy shooter with few defensive skills. Once the Rockets unloaded Anthony, they began playing better than ever.

This year the Knicks started off abysmally, a function mostly of lacking a true point guard who knew how to distribute the ball. Lacking such a player, Carmelo Anthony got a green light to hog the ball, making other players less effective than last year, including Amare Stoudemire.

What the Knicks needed was somebody like Steve Nash, who was not only a terrific basketball player but politically courageous. In 2003 Nash had the guts to oppose the war in Iraq during a time of war hysteria that nearly ruined the careers of the Dixie Chicks and Bill Maher. Considering the close ties between professional sports franchises and the national-security state, Nash was putting his career on the line as Common Dreams reported:

APPARENTLY A COUNTRY music concert is the wrong place for a war protest, the Academy Awards show is OK as long as you keep it short, and a basketball game … well, that’s still up in the air for debate.

When the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks told a London audience that she was ashamed that she and President Bush are from the same state, many Texas radio stations refused to play the group’s songs. She quickly apologized. Former Santa Clara and current Dallas Mavericks star Steve Nash, though, has not apologized for his anti-war comments and said fan reaction to his stance has been “unbelievably positive.”

It all started with Nash wearing a T-shirt to All-Star activities in Atlanta that said, “No War. Shoot for Peace.” Nash continued his protest of the war, as reporters asked him about his shirt and his beliefs, up until and after the first U.S. bombs hit Iraq last week. Those who haven’t been receptive to Nash are those that don’t think a basketball player should be using his forum to speak out on politics, especially a Canadian basketball player.

“From the start, I spoke out just because I don’t want to see the loss of life,” Nash told ESPN. “People are mistaking anti-war as being unpatriotic. This has nothing to do with the fact that I’m from Canada. This is a much bigger issue. But now that we’re in battle, I hope for as many lives to be spared as possible (and) as little violence as possible before a resolution.”

The Knicks were short on money under a salary cap that NBA teams must adhere to, so their top choice for a point guard was one Baron Davis, who can best be described as someone from the remainder bin. He used to play with Lebron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers but has been inactive for over a year because of a herniated disk. In his place, the Knicks have used guards with no experience playing point, like Toney Douglas, or men with experience but who are over the hill like Mike Bibby. The net result was a dismal start that had fans clamoring for Mike D’Antoni’s firing.

Out of desperation, D’Antoni decided to let benchwarmer Jeremy Lin play the point guard position on February 4th. The results can be seen here:

Knicks commentator Walt Frazier can barely contain his enthusiasm.

In the five games that have featured Lin as point guard, he has achieved a status equal to some the greatest players of all times. The N.Y. Times’s Nate Silver came up with some revealing statistics:

The New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin has scored at least 23 points in each of his last four games, including 38 on Friday night against the Lakers. He has also recorded at least seven assists in each game, and he has been efficient, shooting at least 53 percent from the field each time.

Just how common is something like this? I searched basketball-reference.com for other streaks that were in the same general ballpark: players who scored at least 20 points, had at least six assists and shot 50 percent over a period of four consecutive N.B.A. regular season games.

Since the 1985-86 season, 41 players have had such a streak in addition to Lin.

It is an extremely impressive list. All but seven of the players made at least one All-Star appearance in their careers, with about two-thirds of them selected to the All-Star team multiple times. The list includes nine Hall of Famers — and a number of other players who are sure to make it once they retire. The players on the list account for 17 of the last 28 M.V.P. awards.

Now this would be impressive enough on its own merit, but the real eye-opener is how unexpected this all was given Lin’s background. He was a Harvard University graduate, where there is no such thing as a basketball scholarship. Most basketball players come from powerhouses like Duke, Michigan State and UCLA, not the Ivy League. Since 1954, there has only been a single professional basketball player from Harvard and that is Jeremy Lin.

The other remarkable thing is his ethnicity: Chinese-American. The last stand-out Chinese player in the NBA was Yao Ming, who was forced to retire because of repeated foot injuries. Lin’s background was totally unlike that of Yao Ming, who was part of China’s well-oiled basketball machinery heavily reliant on state funding.

The Times once again commented on how he came out of left field:

Some coaches have wondered whether Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent, did not receive a closer look by recruiters because of his ethnicity. Coaches have said recruiters, in the age of who-does-he-remind-you-of evaluations, simply lacked a frame of reference for such an Asian-American talent.

Another big reason for the lack of interest might have been because Lin never possessed jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism. That made it hard for recruiters to pick up on his quick first step, his passing skills or his uncanny sense for the game simply from watching him at an Amateur Athletic Union tournament or in a high school playoff game.

“I just think in order for someone to understand my game, they have to watch me more than once, because I’m not going to do anything that’s extra flashy or freakishly athletic,” Lin said in 2010.

Because he is a fervent Christian, some have been led to speculate whether he is going to be basketball’s Tim Tebow but if you listen to Lin’s comments after a basketball game, he tends to credit his coach and his fellow players rather than God.

There’s been a bit of a controversy growing out of boxer Floyd Mayweather’s twitter on Jeremy Lin: “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.” Well, maybe so, but they weren’t doing it for the N.Y. Knickerbockers.


Dave Zirin’s really good article on the differences between Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow.


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