Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2010

Please contribute to Swans

Filed under: swans — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

This is a pitch for Swans Magazine that is having its yearly fund-drive. Yesterday I told Gilles d’Aymery, the editor, that donations might be slow coming in since there is a widespread assumption that everything is free on the Internet.

That is simply not true. To maintain a website like Swans involves monthly payments to an ISP, yearly registration for a domain, and lots of other costs involved with infrastructure. Before Marxmail was made part of the U. of Utah economics department network, I was paying up to $200 per month so I know what I am talking about here.

This of course does not begin to address the hard work that Gilles puts into a very fine magazine. I don’t think that this fund-raising effort will amount to a yearly wage, since the goal is $2500 as opposed to Counterpunch’s $75,000 goal for its own fund drive taking place now.

I have been writing for Swans since 2003 and consider it the only place worth my time and effort. After seeing the capriciousness of both high-profile websites like Counterpunch and Znet, as well as academic leftist publishers, Swans continues to impress me as an essential vehicle for both political and cultural thought on the left. It is a place where you will find Michal Barker’s ongoing investigations of how Soros-style philanthropy undermines the left, while supposedly supporting it. It is also where you will find a new contributor Paul Buhle writing about comic book art, his latest passion in a life-long career writing about popular culture from a Marxist perspective. You simply could not find better writing in print or electronically no matter how hard you tried.

With a modest goal of $2500, it should not be hard to meet with relatively modest contributions. I am about to donate $25 through Paypal (http://www.swans.com/about/donate.html) and urge you to do so as well. $5 or $10 would hardly make a dent in your budget but it would certainly matter a lot to the Swans editors when received from a large number of people. Like many Americans, Gilles and his wife and co-editor Jan Baughman are going through some hard times now and every little bit will help.

Thanks for your consideration.

Dropping a film class at Columbia University

Filed under: Academia,Film — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

Professor Jane Gaines

Last Monday night I decided to drop a film documentary class I had been taking at Columbia after getting my first assignment back from Jane Gaines, the professor. I had completely forgotten how bad a reaction I have to getting papers graded or critiqued.

The first assignment was to define “what is documentary” in a half-page, single-spaced, mine is below. My frustration with the class had a lot to do with this assignment. How do you answer something like that in what amounted to a quarter of a page? After she gave us the assignment, she grinned and said that it would be a real challenge to stay within that limit. I don’t know. I found that it undermined my thought process. But then again, I probably write 10,000 words a month so I am not typical.

Just three months short of my 66th birthday, the last thing I needed was to go through the humiliating experience of a professor giving me a C, or in this instance reading her criticisms all over my submission no matter how well-intended. I was flabbergasted by her insistence that I use the term “motion picture” instead of “movie”. I used that term deliberately for the same reason that Harvey Pekar once told me he preferred the term comic book to graphic novel. Who needs that kind of snobbery? After all, if David Bordwell, one of the top film scholars in the world, can title a book “The way Hollywood tells it: story and style in modern movies”, then why should Gaines object? Of course, professors are the final arbiters in such matters just as my project manager at work is the final arbiter of how I do my work. At least in that case, I am getting paid for my troubles.

It is not just classes that I have taken at Columbia that present such a problem. A few years ago, I finally resolved not to submit articles to leftist academic journals since I resented going through the process of peer review. My last experience with RRPE, the URPE journal, was particularly off-putting. I was told by one of the peer reviewers that an article about Max Frankel’s book on the Cuban missile crisis would be enhanced by the perspective found in a Socialist Workers Party book on Cuba. Who needs that shit, even if it came from a tenured professor at the U. of California?

I had mixed feelings about the class to begin with. I was far more interested in a workshop on making documentaries in the spring term, but Gaines’s class was a prerequisite. I decided that it was worth my time since at least I would be getting what I expected to be a survey on documentaries going back to the days of Auguste and Louis Lumière, who invented the genre. I also hoped that she would point out what “worked” in documentaries and what did not.

My interest in this was not academic. After retiring in a couple of years, I hope to do some of my own work on subjects that matter a lot to me, including a project that would involve interviewing ex-SWP’ers. About 5 years ago I collaborated with an old friend of mine from the SWP who was videotaping Trotskyists who had been active in the 30s and 40s. I opened doors for him to a group of Cochranites, whose viewpoint obviously meshes with my own.

It took me approximately three weeks to figure out where Gaines was going in this class and by the fourth week I was ready to drop it, even if I hadn’t been the unhappy recipient of her comments on my assignment. The assignment itself should have been a tip-off that we were on different tracks.  For me, “What is a documentary?” is a question with very little interest. After having reviewed over 100 documentaries on Rotten Tomatoes over the past decade or so, it never entered my mind that this was worth considering. As it turns out, this is a major concern of academics doing what they call film theory.

Now, based on her course’s description on the Columbia website, you would think that we’d have a similar take on things:

Film MA/MFA: The Documentary Tradition

Jane Gaines, Professor

This core of this course is the radical tradition in documentary, with special emphasis on the U.S. 1930s in New York (The Film and Photo League, Nykino).

The historical approach begins by asking whether the Lumière actualité is or is not the precursor of what has become the PBS style documentary. Students think about the theory and practice of social change media, beginning with the 1920s Soviet Socialist tradition (Dziga Vertov), the British Empire Marketing Board (John Grierson), the French cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin) and the National Film Board of Canada, internationalized with focus on China and Iran, updated with the question of documentary footage on YouTube. A feature of the course is the challenge to the definition of “reality” posed by the contemporary faux doc or “mockumentary” as well as documentary work that is both fiction and not what we would call “fiction.”

If you google “Jane Gaines” and “Marxism”, you’ll get 1,750 hits. From a cursory glance, you’d think that you were dealing with a hard-core commie. But on closer examination, you begin to learn that her Marxism is the sort of thing you hear at academic conferences and read in journals read geared to other academics. For example, in an article titled Women and representation that she wrote for Jump Cut, a leftist film magazine, she sets down her agenda. The key sentence in this excerpt is italicized:

Camera movement, continuity editing, framing, narrative unity, spectator point of view, and the spectacle of woman are all analyzed in feminist counter-cinema. In theory this is a continuation of Godard’s project to combat ideological forms with film form. Counter-cinema also borrows from Brecht’s idea that annihilating pleasure and identification can effect critical distance and ultimately a change of consciousness in the theatrical audience. The final “test” of counter-cinema has to do with whether the film shows that what we are seeing is shaped by cinematic form and that beyond the experience of the film, there is no such thing as unmediated reality to know.

Leftist filmmaking will find drawbacks to this approach. First of all, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. Those of us who eat, sleep and breathe political theories of representation, who have made the politics of meaning our life’s work, are not always aware of the degree to which our own consciousness is shaped by words, images, or other signifying material. Are we asking too much of a film text if we expect it to effect change on its own, especially if it is seen out of the context of political organizing and education efforts? Second, why should a film which considers its own signification process necessarily have to require its audiences to know advanced film theory in order for them to enjoy, appreciate and, hopefully, reflect on what they see?

The tip-off is “political theories of representation”. This should let the reader know that we have crossed over into the rarefied territory of Saussure, Barthes, Derrida and Gayatri-Spivak. Professor Gaines is mainly interested in how film documentaries represent the world, not in the world itself.

Let me illustrate. In my post on the movie “Catfish”, I first articulated my disaffection with her approach. You’ll note that I describe her as a good professor. Momentarily, I will explain why I would revise that opinion:

In my class, there is a preoccupation with the question of what a documentary is meant to do. The professor, a very good one indeed, has selected readings and classroom screenings that stress the ambivalence of the filmed image. Two weeks ago we watched the Zapruder film, a paradigm of multiple interpretations. My guess is that this area of investigation dovetails neatly with the remaining influence of postmodernism in the academy, particularly strong at a place like Columbia.

It even extends to films that would appear to have little to do with something like Capturing the Friedmans. A recent class was focused on agitprop movies from the 1930s, including a remarkable Belgian film by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck called Misery in the Borinage that called attention to the miserable working and living conditions of the working class. In one scene that the professor highlighted, we see cops attacking a picket line in front of a factory. We learned from Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary that Ivens and Storck had workers reenact the original incident using themselves in the role of cops. “Aha”, she said, “how real can the movie be when the workers are dressed up as cops?”

I found this question a lot less interesting than what kind of message Ivens and Storck were seeking to deliver and what their political affiliations were. But then again, I am the unrepentant Marxist.

With such doubts already present in my mind at the beginning of Monday’s class, I was ready to drop the class almost immediately after getting my assignment returned to me. But I decided to stick around for the rest of the class, as long as I was there.

Two things occurred that lowered my estimate of Gaines as a teacher. She tended to treat Columbia students in a belittling manner all along, a liberty she presumably enjoyed as a tenured faculty member. (My untenured wife is loath to tell a student to turn off his cell phone for fear that he would retaliate in a student evaluation.) But last Monday it really struck me how mean she can be. The class starts at 6pm and goes to 9:45, a function of the complete film screening that takes place in each session. So students obviously get hungry. Around 6:30 she spotted a student eating some granola and walked up to her during the lecture and said, “Our rule here is that if you bring something to eat in this class, you have to bring enough for everybody else.” That was typical behavior, but even worse would follow.

Gaines switches between Powerpoint and film excerpts throughout her lectures. Last Monday after she was illustrating some point about “representation” through an excerpt of a movie about a mentally ill woman made by her daughter, the teaching assistant did not switch back to the Powerpoint slides immediately. Gaines waited for a few seconds and then upbraided the TA in full view of the class using the tone of voice you associate with a woman complaining about her maid—good help is hard to find nowadays.

I have no idea what makes these high-falutin’ post-Marxist film theorists tick. Her behavior reminded me of how another celebrity leftist academic treated his students:

Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each course, he announces that all students will get an A and should write a final paper only if they want to. “I terrorize them by creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers,” he says. “And I get away with this because they attribute it to my ‘European eccentricity.’”

Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.

From “Enjoy Your Zizek! An Excitable Slovenian Philosopher Examines The Obscene Practices Of Everyday Life — Including His Own

By Robert S. Boynton in the October 1998 Lingua Franca

October 21, 2010

U. of Michigan students protest IDF speakers

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

How Harvey Pekar died

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

Coroner rules that Harvey Pekar’s death due to ‘natural causes’

Published: Tuesday, October 19, 2010, 4:18 PM     Updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2010, 6:22 PM
Pat Galbincea, The Plain Dealer Pat Galbincea, The Plain Dealer
Harvey Pekar.jpg
Los Angeles Times
Harvey L. Pekar as he appeared in this 2003 photo while he was in Los Angeles.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — American Splendor comic writer and Cleveland native Harvey Pekar died July 12th of an accidental overdose of two anti-depressant medicines, according to the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office.

The 70-year-old Cleveland Heights resident was found dead by his wife, Joyce Brabner, in their home. His death was not a suicide, said coroner spokesman Powell Caesar, and Coroner Frank Miller ruled his death by natural causes on Pekar’s death certificate Sept. 27th.

“He did not take his own life,” Caesar said. “His death came as a result of accidental ingestion of fluoxetine and bupropion.”

Fluoxetine is used as a treatment for major depression, and bupropion is used for depression and smoking cessation. The latter drug can lower a person’s seizure threshold when used incorrectly.

In 1990, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and more recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. He also suffered with high blood pressure, asthma, and clinical depression.

Pekar, a 1957 Shaker Heights High School graduate, chronicled his life and times in the acclaimed autobiographical comic book series American Splendor. He portrayed himself as a rumpled, depressed, obsessive-compulsive ‘flunky file clerk’ engaged in a constant battle with loneliness and anxiety.

Describing American Splendor, Pekar wrote, “the theme is about staying alive…Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts…I’ve tried to control a chaotic universe. And it’s a losing battle.”

He became a working man’s celebrity with his raucous appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” until Pekar was banned after an on-air argument.

Punching the Clown; Jolene

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:23 pm

Over the past couple of days, I watched two movies opening soon in NYC that represent the indie spirit at its best. One is a comedy called “Punching the Clown” that can be described as a mixture of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Flight of the Conchords”, but much funnier. The other is “Jolene”, a darkly comic picaresque tale based on an E.L. Doctorow short story about a young woman from the South who survives physical and psychological battering from a number of men until she lands on her feet as a comic book artist in Los Angeles determined to tell her life story as a comic book.

“Punching the Clown” stars Henry Phillips as a folk singer named Henry Phillips who performs his own satirical material. In other words, he is playing himself but with comic exaggeration. Early in the film, he gets a gig singing at a pizza parlor on the very night that a Christian Senior Citizens group is meeting. Unaware of who was in the audience, he performs “The End of the World”, a song with these lyrics:

Last night I was flipping channels
And I saw some tele-evange-preacher guy
Talking about some prophecies
And I think I heard him say
That tomorrow is the end of the world
So I drank my best bottle of wine
Because there’s no need to save the finer things in life
When tomorrow is the end of the world

Needless to say, the audience is left cold by his performance. Like so many aspiring entertainers have done in the past, he drives out to Los Angeles to seek his fortune and to advantage of his brother’s standing invitation to crash on his sofa. His brother Matt (Matt Walker), an aspiring actor, has yet to find success himself and ekes out a living dressing up as Batman for appearances at children’s birthday parties.

Matt introduces him to an agent named Ellen Pinsky (Ellen Ratner), who is a masterpiece of comic invention. When she tells Henry that she is going to describe him as James Taylor on smack to industry executives, he reminds her that this is redundant since Taylor was a heroin addict. She begs his pardon, but uses this tag in phone conversations promoting her client. Ellen Ratner, like Phillips and Walker, has an extensive background in stand-up. Although the press notes do not describe “Punching the Clown” as improvisatory, it has that feel—much like an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.

Like “Flight of the Conchord”, another comedy about underachieving folk singers, the humor in “Punching the Clown” is bone-dry, and relies on Henry Phillips simply brilliant performance of…himself. In real life, he is a bit more successful than his film equivalent, having performed on Comedy Central and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live.

The movie was directed, produced and co-written with Gregori Viens, who has taught film in Los Angeles for a number of years. His students and teaching assistants participated in the making of the film and they should be proud of themselves.

30 years ago, just after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I took a writer’s workshop class at NYU where the teacher made a point that has stuck with me over the years. He said that comedy writing is much harder than any other genre. Considering the crap that is billed as comedy nowadays, from Judd Apatow to Woody Allen for the better part of the last 3 decades, you really have to grab an opportunity to see something genuinely funny when it comes along. In one of the promotional squibs that appear on the cover of the screener I received from the publicist, Sarah Silverman describes it as “the best movie about comedy I’ve seen so far.” Damned right.

“Punching the Clown” opens tomorrow at the Quad in NYC and should not be missed.

* * * *

Like “Brokeback Mountain”, “Jolene” made its initial appearance as a New Yorker Magazine short story. Like many short stories, there is no dialog in Doctorow’s original. Screenwriter Dennis Yares has done a superb adaptation in this, his first produced script. He has fully captured the sardonic flavor of Doctorow’s tale that contains some of his best writing. The story was part of his 2004 collection “Sweet Land Stories”, that can be read—as usual—with gaping holes on Google. It begins:

She married Mickey Holler when she was fifteen. Married him to get out of her latest foster home where her so-called dad used to fool with her, get her to hold him, things like that. Even before her menses started. And her foster mom liked to slap her up the head for no reason. Or for every reason. So she married Mickey. And he loved her—that was a plus. She had never had that experience before. It made her look at herself in the mirror and do things with her hair. He was twenty, Mickey. Real name Mervin. He was a sweet boy if without very much upstairs, as she knew even from their first   date. He had a heel that didn’t touch the ground and weak eyes but he was not the kind to lay a hand on a woman. And she could tell him what she wanted, like a movie, or a grilled-cheese sandwich and a chocolate shake, and it became his purpose in life. He loved her, he really did, even if he didn’t know much about it.

“Jolene” is directed in the spirit of pulp fiction and perhaps the comic book that the eponymous lead character dreams about. It is as lurid as a telenovela and sucks you in from the very beginning, like good gossip. Although I had always associated E.L. Doctorow with high-minded fiction about important social and political themes, this story reminds me of what a superb story-teller he is. As is the case with all successful story-writing since the days of Homer (leaving aside questions of whether it is art), you want to turn the pages to find out what happens next to the characters. It is what keeps you up reading through the night or makes you miss your subway stop. To its credit, the people who made “Jolene” have retained Doctorow’s grip on your attention.

After Jolene’s marriage to Mickey ends, she ends up in Phoenix working as a roller-skating waitress at a Dairy Queen. There she meets Coco Leger, the sleazy but handsome owner of a tattoo parlor who offers her a job as an apprentice tattoo artist. Throughout her unfortunate life, painting is the one thing that brings her happiness. She also enters into a bad marriage with Coco, bringing it to and end after his other wife shows up unannounced with her baby son one day. When he drives off with her, she busts up his parlor, steals money from his cash register and calls the cops on him, leaving a stash of his cocaine in full view. When she had first learned of his cocaine peddling, he defended himself by saying “no artist can make it in the USA unless he has somethin’ on the side.”

“Jolene” does not offer any profound insights into the human condition, but it is first rate entertainment, something that is in short supply at your local Cineplex. The movie opens on October 29th at the Village East Theater in NY, and in Seattle and Santa Fe on the same day. It also opens on November 5th at Laemmle’s Sunset Five in Los Angeles.

Highly recommended.

October 20, 2010

Report #2 on the French struggle

Filed under: France,workers — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

(From Dan K.)

Posted on 10/20

Good news, the oil depots at Donges, near Nantes, are once again blocked by over 500 strikers, most of them dockers, railway workers, teachers and workers from the nearby Donges reffinery. And an additional fuel depot has been blocked near Dunkirk.

More good news, according to the railway companies, less than 10% of freight trains have reached their intended destination this week. “This represents substantive losses for the railways and their clients”.

But France has started importing refined petrol from neighbouring countries. As well as electricity to make up for the 20 000MW decrease in electricity production due both to strikes and to maintenance problems with two nuclear power stations.

In my home town, the 700 riot police, including a SWAT team !, are still guarding the oil depots and have also deployed next to the train station to prevent railway workers from crossing the railway lines and reaching the depots.

Tomorrow, five groups will set up road blocks in various shopping and industrial zones from 4 AM onwards, to try and lure the riot police away from the Z.I.S. Most local unions have called upon their members to join these road blocks and we are expecting yet more re-enforcements from around 2 000 students.

Bad news, the Army has been called in to collect the garbage in MArseille and St Etienne. I kid you not !

Anyway, many workers agree that setting up a General Meeting of all the strikers from every industry at around 12 o’clock every day, to collectively decide on matters of strategy and tactics. Some local union leaders too. But others are quite reticent, and say it is better to keep in touch through an “informal, cell phone based network of comrades” (by which they mean people they know in other unions).

And yes, we have to really start talking about the logical implications of what we’ve been doing over the past six days, i.e. refusing to obey and actively fighting the government and the bosses. Although everybody is saying that the bourgeoisie-backed government is illegitimate, few are actually saying that workers “should” start taking steps towards managing things themselves. At the moment, the aim is to force Sarkozy to back down, and yet we all know that the anger and frustration that is fueling this strike runs far deeper than a simple political exercise.

OK; off to bed.

Palestinian resistance at Bi’lin

Filed under: Palestine — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

Report on the French struggle

Filed under: France,workers — louisproyect @ 12:40 am

(Posts from France by Dan K. to the Marxism mailing list.)

I’m exhausted.

I’ve spent the last three days going from road block to road block, together with teachers, railroad workers, truckers, nurses, etc.

So far, in our sector, we’ve managed the feat of keeping the Arnages oil depot totally closed since Friday 4 AM !

As a result, all the petrol stations in a radius of 70 kms are closed, completely out of gas.

I slept 4 hours on Friday night, 6 hours on Saturday, 2 on Monday … Today, we got the main Teachers’ Union to call on all striking teachers to come and help block all the remaining fuel depots.

The police can’t intervene, because the truckers have established road blocks on the major roads leading to the oil depot.

What is incredible is that despite the fact that there is no more oil available, and therefore that people are blocked at home, a resounding 71% of the population approves of the strike (according to today’s opinion polls).

The movement is set to last at least another week. I spent the whole of Sunday night with transport (railway and truckers) workers playing cards and drinking beer. It was quite cold (2°C) around 4 AM, but the railroad workers brought several truck-loads of “palettes” (empty wooden containers) and we lit a might bonfire.

Striking workers from the neighbouring  Renault factory brought firecrackers and we spent the wee hours of the morning lighting them.

Workers are determined to fight until the bitter end. Workers who chose not to go on strike are being encouraged to donate part of their salary to the workers of the most “strategic” sectors, especialy the Donges raffinery.

Personally, this is my 6th day of Strike. An open-ended strike that might not be the best way of going about things, the consensus now being that “revolving” strikes (15% of the workforce on strike on a given day) would enable us to hold out longer.

The support from “ordinary people” is astounding. When we block a freeway, drivers often honk to support us, give us money, hand us daily newspapers, even though we are effectively blocking them.

I’ve decided to stay on strike for a further three days but to spend more time with my family, which is also what the union is advocating. Some comrades have spent 4 days without going home and the union is worried this may cause trouble with spouses,who are forced to look after the kids, which would further undermine our resolve.

All 12 French oil refineries are on strike until next Friday. Many depots are blocked. Half the trains in France are blocked (including in major railroad nodes).

Truckers have blocked the roads leading to the main production areas, and factories cannot function because they lack raw material and pieces (they don’t have any stocks of materials stored because they believe storage costs money).

Anyway, the mood is indescribable. Workers from every sector are united and determined, and for the first time, many workers can chat with people employed in other industries knowing that they share a common goal.

The only problem is, it will be hard, very hard to go back to work. But thanks to the government, people are prepared to remain on strike until next week. Then we’ll see.

It’s a general strike and a lot of ordinary workers I’ve talked to are determined not to resume work until the retirement age is brought back to 60.

Some problems remain, even though A LOT, a great, great deal, has been accomplished since last Tuesday.

1) The strike is now indefinite

2) The union membership is demanding support from the union bureaucracy which is forced to yield

3) Public opinion overwhelmingly supports the strike

4) The economic impact of the blockade is being increasingly felt by the bosses, who are now uncertain whether to follow the government or call for a truce.

5) the strike has bread true comradeship between workers of very different sectors, and the blur/white-collar worker gap is slowly being bridged.

6) despite the loss of wages, the determination of workers is still extremely strong, BECAUSE they can actually see that although they are loosing money, so are the bosses.

negative points :

1) the government has declared a state of emergency and is threatening to impose prison sentences on “those who seek to destroy the country”. Of course, nobody takes those threats seriously, but still…

2) agents provocateurs are burning down public buildings and then blaming this on strikers.

3) the government is trying to appear as “the restorer of order” and is increasingly accusing the unions of “undemocratic behaviour, because picket lines prevent those who wish to go to work from doing so”.

4) tensions are rising between the union rank and file and the union leadership. There are rumours that the leadership is ready for a “sell-out”.

5) left-wing political parties are telling people that going on strike is well and good, but voting for a “socialist” candidate in the 2012 presidential election is the only way forward. Yeah ! A “socialist” government, just like in Greece !

I’ve lost a fourth of my monthly salary so far, have had my car window smashed by people unknown, but am feeling very happy by the way ordinary people have decided enough was enough.

I suppose I should get ready for a rude awakening.

October 19, 2010

Social Networking in an atomized society

Filed under: financial crisis,socialism,technology — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

While the social isolation that led Catfish’s Angela Pierce to construct multiple identities on Facebook in a bid to break out of that isolation does not fit neatly into the standard Marxist analysis, it is broadly speaking symptomatic of a society that has become increasingly atomized. While most people understand that a deficiency in food, shelter and health care is immediately traceable to the economic circumstances capitalism foists on a defenseless population, there are broader needs that the system cannot deliver.

In 1995 Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote an article titled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital in the Journal of Democracy published by the National Endowment for Democracy, a government body best known for its meddling in places like Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran, etc. The article was expanded into a best-selling book of the same title in 2000.

Putnam frets over the decline of civic engagement and community but as the reference to “social capital” would imply from the standpoint of making the capitalist system function adequately:

The norms and networks of civic engagement also powerfully affect the performance of representative government. That, at least, was the central conclusion of my own 20-year, quasi-experimental study of subnational governments in different regions of Italy. Although all these regional governments seemed identical on paper, their levels of effectiveness varied dramatically. Systematic inquiry showed that the quality of governance was determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs–these were the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it.

Putnam tries to pin the blame for a decline of social capital on a number of trends that have gathered momentum since the 1960s:

1. The movement of women into the labor force: This has reduced the time and energy necessary for groups such as the PTA, the League of Women Voters, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Red Cross, according to Putnam.

2. Mobility: A population that picks up and moves every few years will tend not to put down roots of the kind that would lead to civic engagement. Putnam writes: “It seems plausible that the automobile, suburbanization, and the movement to the Sun Belt have reduced the social rootedness of the average American.”

3. Other demographic transformations: The family has traditionally provided the foundation for social ties but “fewer marriages, more divorces, fewer children” undermine their formation.

4. The technological transformation of leisure: Technological trends, especially television and the Internet, are “individualizing” the use of leisure time. We can assume that Putnam’s 2000 book would certainly have identified the Internet as another atomizing trend.

Putnam considers the same question that bedeviled V.I. Lenin in a concluding section titled “What is to be Done”. Facebook, which he does not refer to by name since it did not exist in 1995, would be ruled out:

What will be the impact, for example, of electronic networks on social capital? My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley–or even in a saloon–but hard empirical research is needed. What about the development of social capital in the workplace? Is it growing in counterpoint to the decline of civic engagement, reflecting some social analogue of the first law of thermodynamics–social capital is neither created nor destroyed, merely redistributed? Or do the trends described in this essay represent a deadweight loss?

As we might have expected from a Harvard professor, so accustomed to the role of gatekeeper to the capitalist system, there is no understanding of the role of the economic system in creating an atomized population. Marx called attention to the impact that the new social system was having on traditional binds in The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

In the face of the melting of old relationships into air, reactionaries try to breathe life into institutions that have lost their viability: the nuclear family, the church or synagogue and an idealized small-town community. It is the kitschy Reagan-era iconography that people like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin want to shove down our throats even as they work day and night to strengthen the corporate dreadnaught that is destroying the possibility for “the way things used to be”.

The United States probably leads the world in smashing the kinds of social ties over which Putnam waxes nostalgic. It has all but destroyed the family farm and turned rural America into a wasteland that will not support an economically viable population of small shopkeepers and factory workers enjoying lifetime employment at a paternalistic firm. The naked drive for profit what is destroying the Norman Rockwell version of America more than anything.

While it is inconceivable that the pretty, bright, young things that made Catfish could have ever concerned themselves with the conditions of life in Ishpeming, I was struck by the abandoned horse farm and office building that were supposedly the place where Nev Schulman’s idealized lover and her sister’s artwork would be found respectively. Both were obvious victims of Michigan’s economic collapse.

In the 1930s and the 1960s people came together and formed new social ties largely as a response to an economic and social crisis. While few people would want to see a return to the massive unemployment of the Great Depression or the unending warfare of the 1960s and 70s that cost the lives of American servicemen by the tens of thousands and Vietnamese villagers by the millions, there was something positive about people coming together collectively to fight against injustice and to develop social ties through a common interest in economic justice and peace.

It is too soon to say whether the current crisis will have the same exact effect, but there is little doubt that a need for survival will force people away from their televisions and their computers and into what Putnam calls “civil society”. The capitalist system has a way of creating its own gravediggers and we might as well enjoy each others’ company while we go about our work with shovels in hand.

French workers set an example

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm
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