Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 2, 2012

Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong

Filed under: Libya,Syria — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong

By Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp

Reflexive opposition to Uncle Sam’s machinations abroad is generally a good thing. It is a progressive instinct that progressively declined in the 1990s, as presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton deftly deployed the U.S. military to execute “humanitarian” missions in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans and progressively increased in the 2000s, as Bush Jr. lurched from quagmire to disaster in transparent empire-building exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, what is generally good is not good in every case. The progressive instinct to oppose anything the U.S. government does abroad became anything but progressive once the Arab Spring sprang up in Libya and Syria, countries ruled by dictatorships on Uncle Sam’s hit list. When American imperialism’s hostility to the Arab Spring took a back seat to its hostility to the Ghadafi and Assad regimes (their collaboration with Bush Jr.’s international torture ring notwithstanding), the Western left’s support for the Arab Spring took a back seat to its hostility to American imperialism.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=1097

June 30, 2012

Reflections on Obamacare

Filed under: health and fitness,Obama — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

On September 9th 2009 Barack Obama gave a speech to Congress that defined his approach to health care:

There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s, where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everyone. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have. Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch. And that is precisely what those of you in Congress have tried to do over the past several months.

This amounted to the opening salvo in a policy debate that seems to have been concluded with the Supreme Court decision this week. There are a number of points that can be made about these two dubious paragraphs.

When Obama was starting out as an ambitious young politician, he had no problem speaking as one of “those on the left” who backed a single-payer system:

As should be obvious to anybody who has been following his sorry career, he is a master trickster who knows how to adopt popular positions when they are to his advantage and to drop them once they are a liability.

Also, in the first paragraph there is this business about those on the right “who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.” Does anybody have an idea what the fuck he is talking about? I for one make a point of listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity from time to time just to see what the anti-Christ is up to but have never heard such an argument from those quarters. In fact the rightwing in the U.S. is very happy about employer-based systems and attack Obamacare mostly on the basis that it is a threat to the status quo.

For me the most interesting point was the one made in the second paragraph, namely that health care represents 1/6th of the economy. While most of the discussion about the Supreme Court decision has revolved around rather secondary questions such as what makes John Roberts tick or how the decision impacts the 2012 presidential race, I remembered something I wrote about health care before Obama became president:

Another adviser with a particular interest in health care is David Cutler, a Harvard economist who was also an adviser to Bill Clinton–surprise, surprise. Cutler wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 asserting that “The rising cost … of health care has been the source of a lot of saber rattling in the media and the public square, without anyone seriously analyzing the benefits gained.”

Anxious to show the good side of rising costs, Cutler and a group of other economists defend the idea that a powerful and profitable medical industry can serve as an engine of economic growth in the USA as the wretched Gina Kolata reported in the August 22, 2006 NY Times.

By 2030, predicts Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, about 25 percent of the G.D.P. will be spent on health care, making it ”the driving force in the economy,” just as railroads drove the economy at the start of the 20th century…

Other economists agree.

David Cutler, an economist at Harvard, calculated the value of extra spending on medicine. ”Take a typical person aged 45,” he said. ”They will spend $30,000 more over their lifetime caring for cardiovascular disease than they would have spent in 1950. And they will live maybe three more years because of it.”

It makes sense to think of insurance companies, drug companies and health care providers as part of the same sector of the capitalist economy. Any threat posed to the insurance companies would also be perceived as a threat to the institutions that provide medical care based on profit. If you are for cutting costs by eliminating the insurance companies, naturally you will want to bring health care costs under control.

On June 8th the New York Times reported on Obama’s contacts with lobbyists from this sector. While the newspaper of record does get pilloried from the left for all the correct reasons, it does do some very good investigative reporting from time to time that led one rightwing idiot I used to work with at Met Life back in 1968 to call it the Jew York Times.

The article begins:

After weeks of talks, drug industry lobbyists were growing nervous. To cut a deal with the White House on overhauling health care, they needed to be sure that President Obama would stop a proposal intended to bring down medicine prices.

On June 3, 2009, one of the lobbyists e-mailed Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s health care adviser. Ms. DeParle reassured the lobbyist. Although Mr. Obama was overseas, she wrote, she and other top officials had “made decision, based on how constructive you guys have been, to oppose importation” on a different proposal.

Just like that, Mr. Obama’s staff signaled a willingness to put aside support for the reimportation of prescription medicines at lower prices and by doing so solidified a compact with an industry the president had vilified on the campaign trail. Central to Mr. Obama’s drive to remake the nation’s health care system was an unlikely collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry that forced unappealing trade-offs.

Since there has been so much liberal jubilation over the Great Victory, including in the pages of the Communist Party’s newspaper, there’s a tendency to forget about the resistance to that very piece of legislation when it first surfaced. Even though it fell far short of the single-payer approach that the young Obama backed, the House Bill in early 2010 included a public option that would have signaled the entrance of the government after the fashion of Medicare. Those who could not afford private insurance would be able to go to a provider that did not operate on the profit principle. Since Obama cared much more about the interests of the insurance companies than the poor, the public option was sacrificed at the altar of the Free Market deities.

Of course, when Obama found it convenient to back a public option, he said so. Words are cheap, after all.

As most people know, the Senate is even more undemocratic than the House. States with small, largely white, rural and reactionary populations get the same number of Senators to represent them as much larger, multiracial, urban and liberal-leaning populations. Montana, for example, has less than a million residents, many of whom are typical Rush Limbaugh fans. Meanwhile, New York, a state that has 20 times as many residents, gets the same number.

Keeping this in mind, how does a Montana Senator, a Democrat named Max Baucus who received thousands of dollars in contributions from Jack Abramoff, the arch-reactionary lobbyist infamous for the crooked deals that landed him in prison, end up supervising the drafting of the Senate legislation that became Obamacare?

The always useful Wikipedia describes Baucus’s economic record:

Baucus has a 74 percent pro-business voting record as rated by the United States Chamber of Commerce. He twice voted to make filing bankruptcy more difficult for debtors, once in July 2001 to restrict rules on personal bankruptcy, and a second time in March 2005 to include means-testing and restrictions for bankruptcy filers.

In March 2005, Baucus voted against repealing tax subsidies that benefit companies that outsource U.S. jobs offshore. On January 4, 2007, he wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling on Democrats to renew President George W. Bush’s fast-track authority for international trade deals.

A perfect background for someone drafting healthcare legislation. And just to make sure that it came out right, he lined up someone named Liz Fowler to write the 85-page piece of legislation that MSNBC and the Communist Party are throwing confetti over.

As it turns out, Fowler was a former executive at WellPoint, a big insurance company. Imagine that! The Guardian described a perfect match between Baucus and Fowler, something that could have been used in an online dating TV commercial:

Baucus took $1.5m from the health sector for his political fund in the past year. Other members of the committee have received hundreds of thousands of dollars. They include Senator Pat Roberts, who last week tried to stall the bill by arguing that lobbyists needed three days to read it.

Baucus holds dinners for health industry executives at which they pay thousands of dollars each to be at the table, and an annual fly-fishing and golfing weekend in his home state of Montana that lobbyists pay handsomely to attend. They have included John Jonas, who represents healthcare firms for Patton Boggs, widely regarded as the top lobbying firm in Washington. Jonas, who formerly worked on the congressional staff, acknowledges that political contributions are intended to buy influence and says it works.

“It would be very naive to say they’re not influenced. The contributors certainly hope they’re influencing and the recipients probably ultimately are influenced,” he said. “I think it’s a morally suspect practice, and then you have to look at its application to see if it’s morally bankrupt … I think what’s bad about the system is it’s got more and more lax over time.

“When I started in this practice you did not talk issues at a fundraiser. It was impolite. And then with this need for money, the system has got coarser over time so that they go around the room asking what issues you’re interested in, much more of a linkage of dollars to a discussion of the issues now.”

The health industry permeates the process in other ways. At Baucus’s side, drafting much of the wording of the reform, was Liz Fowler, a senate committee counsel whose last position was vice-president of the country’s largest health insurer, Wellpoint, which stands to be a principal beneficiary of the new law.

Health companies and their lobby firms also recruit heavily among congressional staffers as a means of maintaining influence.

So that’s what the Communists and Ed Schultz are giddy with delight over, and what the Nation Magazine’s editor Katrina vanden Heuvel called “a beginning to the end of America’s healthcare crisis”–a crappy piece of legislation that was written by an insurance industry lobbyist under the supervision of a yahoo from Montana who took bribes from Jack Abramoff.

Off with their heads.

June 28, 2012

Obama on mandates in 2008

Filed under: health and fitness,Obama — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

June 27, 2012

Crooked Timber’s neo-Austrians

Filed under: conservatism,economics,Red Plenty — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Ludwig von Mises

I had a very strong sense of déjà vu reading the posts and the comments during the Red Plenty seminar at Crooked Timber, a liberal group blog resting comfortably on Keynesian/Fabian principles as if they were overstuffed cushions. They brought me back to objections I heard to a planned economy on the original Marxism list and on PEN-L in the early to mid-90s, when market socialism and its kissing cousin analytical Marxism were all the rage.

Striking a repentant pose, Ken MacLeod, science fiction novelist and erstwhile fan of Frank Furedi’s brand of socialism, commented:

In the 1970s I thought that central planning combined with democratic control along the lines argued for by (e.g.) Ernest Mandel was possible and desirable. Towards the end of the decade I stumbled upon the economic calculation argument, as briefly stated by David Ramsay Steele in a readable pamphlet. I didn’t understand it fully but I kept worrying at the problem it posed. In the 1980s I read Geoffrey Hodgson’s The Democratic Economy, and Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism, which made some socialist sense of the same argument. More recently I’ve been interested in the more radical market socialism proposed by David Schweickart.

While it is hard to figure out where he is coming from politically, seminar participant Cosma Shalizi, a statistics professor at Carnegie-Mellon, says more or less the same thing:

We are pushed back, inevitably, to the planners having to make choices which express preferences or (in a different sense of the word) values. Or, said another way, there are values or preferences — what Nove called “planners’ preferences” — implicit in any choice of objective function. This raises both a cognitive or computational problem, and at least two different political problems.

The cognitive or computational problem is that of simply coming up with relative preferences or weights over all the goods in the economy, indexed by space and time. (Remember we need such indexing to handle transport and sequencing.) Any one human planner would simply have to make up most of these, or generate them according to some arbitrary rule. To do otherwise is simply beyond the bounds of humanity. A group of planners might do better, but it would still be an immense amount of work, with knotty problems of how to divide the labor of assigning values, and a large measure of arbitrariness.

Despite the sympathies that the seminar participants have for a nice polite liberalism, the intellectual roots of what Shalizi calls a “cognitive or computational problem” can be found in the writings of Ludwig von Mises, a luminary of the Austrian school of economics that begat Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and a host of others considered anathema in these circles and whose ideas about deregulation and free markets have led to immense suffering in Greece, Spain, and most of the third world.

In the pamphlet by David Ramsay Steele referred to by Ken MacLeod, von Mises is singled out as having figured something out that eluded socialists:

Of the trio which unleashed the economic calculation argument, Weber, Brutzkus and Mises, the outstanding figure was undoubtedly Mises. His statement was published first, it was soon incorporated into a comprehensive critique of socialism in all its aspects, Die Gemeinwirtschaft (Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis), it quickly reached a wide audience of socialists and was so stinging and provocative that it could not be ignored.

Steele recapitulates the arguments found in the 1920 “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” that can be downloaded from the Ludwig von Mises institute website. This is a classic work for rightwing economics professors everywhere, the people that Michael Perelman labeled a “mafia” in a Nation Magazine article by Christopher Hayes on the degraded economics profession.

Antoaneta Dimitrova, another liberal professor who took part in the Red Plenty seminar, had this advice for the Greek victims of neoliberal-inspired economic collapse:

It may be anathema to Greece to let go of some national sovereignty as Eastern Europeans did when negotiating with the EU and submitting themselves to the guidance of the European Commission and sometimes also the IMF in their reform efforts. But, undemocratic and asymmetric as this external guidance has been, procedurally speaking, it has, on balance, proved good for democracy and governance in Eastern Europe.

Well, what does it matter if IMF reforms are undemocratic so long as if everything works out at the end of the day–to use a cable TV news show cliché? After all, the ends justify the means, don’t they? You gotta break some eggs to make an omelet, after all.

That’s something that old von Mises himself understood when he became an economic adviser to Engelbert Dollfuss, the fascist dictator in Austria. Here’s the self-described liberal economist in his 1927 “Liberalism: A Socio-Economic Exposition:

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.

The deeds of the Fascists and of other parties corresponding to them were emotional reflex actions evoked by indignation at the deeds of the Bolsheviks and Communists. As soon as the first flush of anger had passed, their policy took a more moderate course and will probably become even more so with the passage of time.

That sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it? When the Chicago boys, the ideological heirs of Ludwig von Mises, went down to Chile, they might have felt a momentary twinge of embarrassment about all the people being tortured, but in the long run it was for the good for the Chilean people to be saved from central planning. As Henry Kissinger once put it, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

Many years ago I—like my friend Doug Henwood—was a libertarian and took all the bullshit I read in National Review seriously. Well, half-seriously anyhow. Back in 1960, when JFK was a candidate, I decided to join the Young Americans for Freedom with my rich cousin Louis (who had material incentives to believe in this nonsense) in order to spite my high school classmates. As someone who was very “unpopular” back then, I decided to find other reasons for people to hate me besides being un-athletic and short. I embraced conservatism for the same reason that Charles Bukowski told his classmates in a Los Angeles high school before WWII that he liked Hitler—just to rile them up.

To refresh my memory of what the Austrian school was about, I read (very possibly reread) “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” by von Mises. Most of it consists of warnings about attempting to organize an economy other than on the basis of “economic calculation”, in other words money.

One may anticipate the nature of the future socialist society. There will be hundreds and thousands of factories in operation. Very few of these will be producing wares ready for use; in the majority of cases what will be manufactured will be unfinished goods and production goods. All these concerns will be interrelated. Every good will go through a whole series of stages before it is ready for use. In the ceaseless toil and moil of this process, however, the administration will be without any means of testing their bearings. It will never be able to determine whether a given good has not been kept for a superfluous length of time in the necessary processes of production, or whether work and material have not been wasted in its completion.

Von Mises was a member in good standing of the Austrian school of economics whose founder Carl Menger came up with the idea of marginal utility. The basic idea goes something like this. A consumer good like a hot dog might bring maximum enjoyment on the first eating, but subsequent dishes might provide a diminishing return—unless of course you compete professionally like Takeru Kobayashi who ate 69 Nathan’s hot dogs in ten minutes on July 4, 2011, setting a new Guinness world’s record. When I read about marginal utility, I can’t help but think of the stump speech that Peter Camejo used to give in the early 70s. Under socialism, there would be so much abundance that food would be virtually free. So if somebody walked out of a grocery store with a bunch of apple pies, the reaction would be to call mental health professionals rather than the cops.

Philip Wicksteed, a British preacher and disciple of the Austrians, tried to explain the theory this way:

We may now go on to the next great step in advance in our analysis of the scale of preferences or relative estimates. We have noted incidentally more than once that the question may arise not only, for example, whether to buy any new potatoes at all, but also how many to buy. Suppose the usual consumption of potatoes in a family is about 4 lbs. a day (2 stone a week), and sound old potatoes are about ½d. the lb. If new potatoes are 2d. the housewife may determine to buy 2 lbs. that week, for a treat, reckoning that they will go once round on Sunday, the second dish to be of old potatoes as usual, or if that takes too much trouble the second dish to be dispensed with. If they are 1½d. a lb. she may buy 4 lbs. and have all new potatoes on Sunday, or one dish on Sunday and one on some other day in the week; or she may buy enough for the birthday dinner of one of the children. But when new potatoes come down to a penny she will buy no more old potatoes at all.

What all this has to do with the rejection of socialism might not be obvious at first blush. Somebody trying to decide whether to buy potatoes or not would not, for example, explain the famine in the Ukraine of the early 30s, would it?

Von Mises took the marginal utility theory and applied it to money. Thorsten Polleit, an economist working for a precious metals firm, has a piece on the von Mises website titled What Can the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility Teach Us?  that concludes with this profound lesson:

Violations of individual property rights (for instance through government taxation, regulations, etc.) will make property owners value present goods increasingly more highly than future goods — a conclusion which follows from the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Violations of individual property rights thus raise peoples’ time preference, increasing consumption at the expense of savings and investment, thereby reducing (or even reverting) the pace of capital accumulation. An interventionist-socialist societal order will therefore necessarily lead to impoverishment relative to a free market societal order, in which there are no systematic violations of individuals’ property rights.

The one thing you will note throughout the Austrian school literature, as well as its offspring from Chicago to business schools everywhere, is its emphasis on the individual. As Margaret Thatcher, one of their most fervent supporters put it in a 1987 interview: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

If you want to shift the focus away from social classes, this comes in very handy. Instead of trying to explain why millions of people don’t have the money to buy food and need to rely on food stamps, you create artificial scenarios where an abstract human being is contending with abstract baskets of goods. This is fundamentally how bourgeois economics is taught. In good times, it might pass muster but during a depression it prompts a Charles Ferguson to make an Academy award winning documentary that exposes people like Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard for the con artist that he is.

In doing some research on this article, I was happy to see that Nikolai Bukharin, my favorite Bolshevik next to Leon Trotsky, wrote a book that took the Austrians on. Titled “Economic Theory of the Leisure Class”  and written in the same year as von Mises’s dreadful “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth”, it puts the focus on social classes rather than the individual.

Bukharin described the Austrian school in sociological terms as expressing the class outlook of the rentier, a representative of the dominant financial bourgeoisie that “is not capable of looking forward.” Bukharin describes their philosophy as “Enjoy the moment,” a characterization that would still apply to the hedge fund operators of today with their $30 million dollar penthouses and fleets of Ferraris.

The industrial bourgeoisie was consumed with the need to produce but this parasitical class was much more focused on consumption, hence the preoccupation of the marginal utility theorists with their potatoes, etc. Bukharin elaborates:

This crass individualism is likewise neatly paralleled in the “subjectivist-psychological” method of the new tendency. To be sure, the theorists of the bourgeoisie had assumed an individualistic attitude even in earlier periods; they always enjoy making references to Robinson Crusoe. Even the representatives of the “labour value theories” based their position on individualistic references: their labour value was not, as one might perhaps expect, the social objective law of prices, but the subjective evaluation of the “economic subject” (the economic man) who evaluates the commodity variously, depending on whether the expenditure of labour has been connected with greater or less inconveniences (for example, Adam Smith).

The brunt of Bukharin’s critique is directed against Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, whose rejection of Marx’s value theory was also based on marginal utility theory. Just as Crooked Timber became a hotbed of von Mises’s calculation thesis around the novel “Red Plenty”, so it became the sounding board of attacks on value theory based implicitly on Böhm-Bawerk. In a series of articles laying siege to Karl Marx, communism, and revolution, one of the blog owners—an Australian economist named John Quiggin who has more awards than Heineken beer–came close to being sued for plagiarism by the Böhm-Bawerk estate:

For those engaged in attempts to achieve a better, more equal and more sustainable society, Marx’s theory of value has little to offer. What can it tell us, for example, about the relative merits of trying to promote equality through higher minimum wages, through more progressive taxation or through expansion of public ownership? But, in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere Marx had a lot to say about capital and capitalism that was, and remains, both interesting and insightful.

Considering the fact that Quiggin’s article was titled “Marxism without revolution: Capital“, it is hard to figure out why he felt the need to characterize Marx as “interesting and insightful”. As Karl Marx might have put it when his Jewish roots were acting up, “Favors like this who needs?”

Invoking the good Nikolai Bukharin, one might feel the need to look at Crooked Timber sociologically. How is that 100 years after the Austrian school was in its heyday, the professors on this high-profile blog are attempting to use the same arguments and for the same purpose: to put the final nail in Marx’s coffin.

There was an Austrian social scientist (a Hungarian citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire actually) who was von Mises and Böhm-Bawerk’s contemporary but drew much different conclusions about the capitalist system. His name was Karl Polanyi and his best-known work was “The Great Transformation”, a broadside against markets and those who serve as its apologists.

In June 1989, Monthly Review magazine published an article by Kari Polanyi Levitt, his daughter and only child, and Marguerite Mendell titled “The Origins of Market Fetishism”. It is worth quoting at some length:

In the setting of intellectual Vienna of the 1920s, Mises and Hayek and their associates were the misfits–the remnants of old Vienna’s privileged urban elites whose security had been shattered, whose savings had been decimated by wartime and postwar inflation, and whose taxes were financing the pioneering housing programs of Vienna’s socialist municipal administration. In their parlors and favorite coffee houses the patrician middle classes, now deprived of their prewar privileges, fed their fears of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” They were particularly terrified by the 1926 Linz Program of the Social Democratic Party which resolved to defend Austria’s democratic constitution–by armed struggle if necessary–against threats by the Christian Socials to crush the working class and its organizations. They made common cause with the rising forces of clerical reaction which eventually led to the suspension of Parliament in 1933 and the violent destruction of the working-class movement in February 1934, leaving the country defenseless against Hitler’s occupation in 1938. The heirs of the Liberal tradition of the 1860s joined forces with clerical fascism in their paranoiac fear of the working classes.

A special target of Hayek’s polemics in the 1920s was the regime of rent control and public housing, which effectively eliminated private high-rental residential construction. (Hayek: 1929) Working-class families were now privileged in access to low-rental, bright, spacious, modern apartments with parks, kindergartens, and other communal facilities. These programs, together with a sweeping educational reform based on Alfred Adler’s theories of psychology, plus the large-scale participation of the working people of Vienna in a remarkable variety of cultural, recreational, and educational activities organized by the Socialists made “Red Vienna” a world-class showpiece of avant-garde urban lifestyle.

The elite of the intellectuals of Vienna were socialist sympathizers. In Vienna alone 350,000 people belonged to Social Democratic organizations, while socialist trade unions comprised 700,000 workers. “Never before or since,” wrote Ernst Fischer, “has a Social Democratic Party been so powerful, so intelligent, or so attractive as was the Austrian party of the mid 1920s.” (Fisher: 143) According to another contemporary, the “piecemeal reforms were to be the first building blocks of a future socialist society.” (Zeisel: 123)

“The ultimate justification of socialism derived from our expectation that it would usher in a new man, a new morality…. The essence of being a socialist is the holding of certain ethical positions about justice and about duties to our fellow man.” (Zeisel 123, 131) As we shall see, it is precisely the fundamental conflict of values which underlies the contending visions of democratic socialism and individualistic libertarianism.

For those who have been keeping track of current events, this does not sound that much different from the planet earth in the last 3 years or so, with its Arab Spring, its Greek protests against austerity both in the streets and in the ballot boxes, as well as the Occupy Movement in the USA which lives on despite its eviction from public spaces.

Our goal, of course, is to build once again a massive socialist movement that will not only give these neo-Austrians the fright of their lives but wipe a decadent system off the face of the earth.


June 25, 2012

The University of Virginia fracas

Filed under: computers,Education — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

Over a 22 year career in Columbia University’s IT department, I naturally followed administrative affairs at other universities. I began reading Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1990 mostly as a way of keeping up-to-date with “back office” concerns, especially how computer systems were being used. After a few months, I discovered that this trade magazine could also be relied upon for useful coverage of “the culture wars”, such as Ward Churchill’s firing, etc.

When I first got wind of the forced resignation of the University of Virginia’s President Teresa Sullivan, I wrote it off as some kind of turf battle. As a kind of relic of the medieval world, universities tend to divide into fiefdoms so firings and forced resignations are par for the course. But after a while it became obvious that what happened there had a lot more to do with what’s happening in American society over the past decade or so as the corporate elites of one percent infamy tighten their control over every aspect of our lives, including the Ivory Tower.

Sullivan’s resignation was announced on June 10 and reported in the Chronicle as resulting from “significant disagreements between Ms. Sullivan and the Board of Visitors [another term for board of trustees] about how best to position the historic institution for success in the 21st century.” She had come to U. Va. from the University of Michigan, the same institution that Columbia’s Lee Bollinger had ruled before coming here. As you would expect, she was probably no different than Bollinger or 90 percent of the presidents running colleges today, people once described by Upton Sinclair in “The Goosestep: a study of American Education”:

Thus the college president spends his time running back and forth between Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning. He pleads with the business man to make a little more allowance for the eccentricities of the scholar; explaining the absurd notion which men of learning have that they owe loyalty to truth and public welfare. He points out that if the college comes to be known as a mere tool of special privilege it loses all its dignity and authority; it is absolutely necessary that it should maintain a pretense of disinterestedness, it should appear to the public as a shrine of wisdom and piety. He points out that Professor So-and-So has managed to secure great prestige throughout the state, and if he is unceremoniously fired it will make a terrific scandal, and perhaps cause other faculty members to resign, and other famous scientists to stay away from the institution.

Sullivan, like Bollinger, spent her time running between Mammon and God at U. of Va. but apparently not fast enough to assuage “visitor” Helen Dragas, a rector of the university and a real estate developer. What? You were expecting a poet or a sculptor maybe? Dragas’s main ally on the board was Vice Rector Mark Kington, who ran an asset management firm, another prerequisite for overseeing an institution of higher learning. The third and most interesting member of the anti-Sullivan triumvirate was Peter Kiernan, who was chairman of U. Va.’s Darden Business School board of trustees and formerly a Goldman-Sachs partner. This Kiernan is a real piece of work, based on the fawning NY Times Dealbook profile from February 29th of this year written by the loathsome Andrew Ross Sorkin, infamous for his article sneering at Occupy Wall Street.

Ultimately, Mr. Kiernan, 58, says he believes we need to put aside political differences to solve our national problems and avoid losing our place in the global pecking order, a doctrine he calls “radical centrism.”

“I was really writing the book to people to say, here’s what you’ve got to do to lead the country in uncertain times,” Mr. Kiernan said, over a recent lunch at the Peking Duck House in New York’s Chinatown. “For once, I wanted to read a book that is agnostic to political parties.”

At Goldman, Mr. Kiernan – a rugged Irish Catholic with a firm handshake and a polished demeanor straight out of Wall Street central casting – was better known for his philanthropy than his politics. He headed the Robin Hood Foundation, an antipoverty group whose ranks are populated by financial titans, and led a charity bicycle ride through Vietnam in 1998, with the proceeds going to disabled veterans.

So, when you put together people like Dragas, Kington and Kiernan, the results are predictable. They will be focused on the university’s “bottom line”, and all the rest—from scholarship to teaching young people how to become good citizens—be damned. Kiernan, like Kington, resigned not long after the national media got a hold of the Sullivan story. This was obviously meant to release some steam rather than solve the underlying problem, namely Mammon running roughshod over culture.

The smoking gun in all this was an email from Dragas to Kington calling attention to a Wall Street Journal article touting the benefits of computerized classes written by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe. (Don’t miss Doug Henwood’s interview with Moe here.) Dragas’s subject heading was “we can’t afford to wait”. The title of the WSJ article was most revealing, almost as written to illustrate volume one of Karl Marx’s Capital: “The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education”. While Marx usually wrote about this in the context of Britain’s textile mills, apparently 21st century capitalism has every worker in its sights, including those in the halls of ivy.

Chubb and Moe are Hoover Institution scholars. Yes, I know, you weren’t expecting that. Both are fanatical rightwingers who have targeted teachers both at the college and secondary education level. They don’t see any particular need to be at Harvard to get a top-flight education:

The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education. Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)–as has happened in every other industry–making schools much more productive.

One would be hard-pressed, however, to say whether they want to make a Harvard education available globally to any son or daughter foolish enough to part with their money, or to adopt a different education model altogether:

Don’t dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either. Institutions such as the University of Phoenix–and it is hardly alone–have embraced technology aggressively. By integrating online courses into their curricula and charging less-than-elite prices for them, for-profit institutions have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the last decade, now topping 10%. In time, they may do amazing things with computerized instruction–imagine equivalents of Apple or Microsoft, with the right incentives to work in higher education–and they may give elite nonprofits some healthy competition in providing innovative, high-quality content.

As to be expected, Chubb and Moe swept for-profit school failure under the rug. If this type of institution is supposed to be a harbinger of things to come in higher education, American society will be going down the drain a lot faster than anybody expected. What places like these are best at is not educating people, but ripping them off. Through clever advertising campaigns, from all appearances the number one placement on NYC’s buses and subways, they tell working class kids—especially Blacks and Latinos—that a degree from such a school will get them a good job.

The Huffington Post reported  on what really makes for-profit institutions tick. Here’s a hint. It is not computers, but the cash register:

And despite the considerable cost, federal data show that for-profit colleges on average devote less than a third of the money that public universities do toward student instruction, and less than a fifth of the money spent on students by private non-profit institutions.

Much of the money is instead going toward marketing and recruiting new students, and to executive compensation and profits. According to securities filings for some of the larger publicly traded corporations that own for-profit schools, more than 30 percent of revenues are being redirected toward marketing efforts and administrative costs.

There is a tremendous irony in the U. of Va. crisis considering the school’s origins in 1819. It was founded by Thomas Jefferson and the first board of trustees included him, and two other former presidents James Madison and James Monroe.

In a letter written to British scientist Joseph Priestley, Jefferson declared: “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

We’ve come a long way from the “cup of knowledge” considering what can be found on the university’s website, even before Dragan’s vision for the future is realized. This is from the Corporate Connections page, shamelessly placed as a link on the university’s home page.

Welcome to the University of Virginia’s “Corporate Connections” gateway. This site will help you navigate through the variety of ways the University relates to and collaborates with business, industry and private foundations.

The Corporate and Foundation Relations office seeks to maximize contributions and other support to the University of Virginia from corporations and foundations, by creating, maintaining and enhancing mutually beneficial relationships between these entities and university units.

We provide an infrastructure for prospect coordination, planning, solicitation and other services that empower university units to conduct these activities in the most effective manner. Our central staff can help you get started based upon your interests and needs. Call (434) 924-4159, e-mail Nick Duke, or write: Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400807, Charlottesville, Virginia 22904-4807

Among the fruit borne from this poisonous bush is this:

Philip Morris USA Supports Medical Research and Business Leadership with a $25 Million Gift to U.Va.

This is a bit of Philip Morris PR designed to deflect attention from its primary purpose, namely to sell cancer sticks. It should be mentioned as well that the “Nick Duke” inviting emails above is none other than Nicholas R. Duke, a scion of the tobacco-growing empire. How appropriate.

In addition to the company’s support for the University of Virginia, Philip Morris USA has made significant investments in youth-smoking prevention and cessation programs and in research.

Since 1998, Philip Morris USA has invested $1 billion in youth-smoking prevention programs through its Youth Smoking Prevention department and its responsible retailing incentives.

Between 1999 and 2006, Philip Morris USA has provided grants in excess of $176 million to schools, school districts and youth-focused organizations across the United States to help them implement programs that help young people develop confidence and avoid risky behaviors, such as smoking.

Somehow the tobacco giant’s good intentions were lost on the government of Uruguay that like other subversive states in Latin America decided to put the health of its population above that of what Upton Sinclair called Mammon. From the Daily Beast:

Except over a glass of ruby Tannat wine or a sizzling tenderloin, most people pay little mind to Uruguay. But just mention this demure South American nation to the tobacco industry and watch the smoke billow. A long-burning row between the government in Montevideo and cigarette maker Philip Morris is slowly turning into the mother of asymmetric battles.

Earlier this year, little Uruguay (68,000 square miles, half again the size of Cuba), with a population of 3.5 million and a GDP of $44 billion, tightened the already drastic restrictions on local sales of cigarettes. The international tobacco colossus, with a market capitalization of $107 billion and legions of high-priced lawyers and lobbyists from Bern to the Washington Beltway, struck back, filing a complaint with the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. The battlefield is minuscule, the size of a pack of smokes. But the case is starting rows over national sovereignty, free trade, and public health that show little sign of dissipating any time soon. Through it all, Uruguay has stood firm, showing it can go toe to toe with giants.

Of course, I am obliged to inform my readers that there is a certain consistency in the U. of Va.’s ties to Phillip Morris. After all, the main cash crop on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation was tobacco.

June 22, 2012


Filed under: Africa,anthropology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Watch Trailer here

When documentary filmmaker Cevin Soling was in seventh grade, his social studies teacher passed out a copy of an essay by Lewis Thomas titled “The Iks“. It referred to a small tribe in northern Uganda that might have been called “the Ickies” based on what Thomas wrote:

The message of the book [anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s “The Mountain People”] is that the Iks have transformed themselves into an irreversibly disagreeable collection of unattached, brutish creatures, totally selfish and loveless, in response to the dismantling of their traditional culture. Moreover, this is what the rest of us are like in our inner selves, and we will all turn into Iks when the structure of our society comes all unhinged.

They breed without love or even casual regard. They defecate on each other’s doorsteps. They watch their neighbors for signs of misfortune, and only then do they laugh. In the book they do a lot of laughing, having so much bad luck. Several times they even laughed at the anthropologist, who found this especially repellent (one senses, between the lines, that the scholar is not himself the world’s luckiest man). Worse, they took him into the family, snatched his food, defecated on his doorstep, and hooted dislike at him. They gave him two bad years.

Three decades later, Soling decided to travel to Ik territory and meet the people who were either maligned by Turnbull or lived up (or down) to the portrait. The chronicle of that voyage is in the marvelous documentary “Ikland” that closed yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York City but can be ordered from the film’s website. As someone who has followed controversies in academic anthropology for the better part of two decades, I can say that this film should be required viewing in anthropology classes everywhere. It is a singular lesson in how the social scientist can impose their own worldview on an innocent people in a manner that reminds one of  colonial domination. After all, Turnbull’s Britain once ruled all of Uganda so why shouldn’t he have his way with a mere tribe?

While it was within the realm of possibility that the Ik were as bad as Thomas portrayed them (he did blame their obnoxious traits on circumstances forced on them rather than any genetic predisposition), Soling must have sensed that another reality lurked beneath the surface as he said in a statement on the Ikland website:

I also had guiding principles of what not to do. I did not want to take an objective detached approach of treating people as experimental subjects, where comparisons to the viewer become implicit. At the same time, I did not want to take the other extreme of idealizing their society. When people were interviewed, I designed a conversational tone to overcome inherent distance, which focused on their daily concerns and enabled their dignity to emerge.

On my own website, I include these words from Frankfurt School luminary Max Horkheimer: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

After watching “Ikland”, one cannot help but think that Soling’s trek into Ik territory was also a “voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief” that the intended subjects of the film were so deserving of having their story told that any sacrifice made on their behalf would be worth it. In Soling’s case, and that of the tiny production staff that accompanied him, that sacrifice might have been their lives.

As documented in the film with surprising casualness and even a comic tone, the trip into northern Uganda involved numerous threats to health and safety. Soling and his comrades sleep in an infirmary in a tiny village, the nearest thing to a hostel in the Ugandan countryside en route to their destination. In nearby beds, there are people suffering from Dengue fever and anthrax. As they continue north, they pitch tents on a dirt road (more like a trail) and are awoken in the middle of the night by growling lions just outside the flaps. In a phone interview conducted with the director last night, he revealed that the only thought that came to him was this is where I am going to die. Continuing further, they run into a herd of elephants and once again escape with their lives. (African elephants—unlike their Indian brethren—are not only untrainable, they are violently hostile to people.) But the biggest threat of all was bandits and the feral combatants of The Lord’s Resistance Army, a group prone to wanton amputations and executions. While on the road in the middle of the night, the tiny convoy is attacked by small arms fire and only survives by driving ahead on punctured tires.

When they finally arrive in Ik territory, they are greeted warily. Few whites venture that far north and the Ik people tend to view all outsiders with some degree of suspicion since they have been preyed upon by hostile tribes in Uganda and the Turkana from Kenya to the north. The Turkana are warlike pastoralists who raid in order to steal food and cattle or goats reminding me in some ways of the Comanche who used to launch raids into Mexico in the 1850s. Despite having lost a number of their tribe to Turkana raiders in recent days, an Ik leader tells Soling that the Turkana can be generous when times are good. Given the desertification impacting almost all of northern Africa today and the exploitation of fertile land for agri-exports like coffee or cotton, it is understandable why the Turkana would be on the warpath much of the time.

Once the film crew settles into a daily routine with their hosts, we learn that Colin Turnbull’s analysis was not to be trusted. Like most people living communally, the Ik share their goods. When asked if some of the tribe hoards during a famine, they reply that in such times nobody has anything so there is nothing to hoard. Soling’s goal in enabling the Ik “dignity to emerge” is met with flying colors. As survivors of terrible privations, the Ik remain stoic and generous with each other and accepting and good-natured toward their guests. Perhaps the only defecation left on a doorstep was Colin Turnbull’s misbegotten book.

One of Turnbull’s sharpest critics within the profession is Bernd Heine, whose “The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda” (African: Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 55, No. 1, 1985) sets the record straight.

To start with, Turnbull visited the village of Pirre, an Ik center, but he came at a time when war forced non-Ik peoples to seek temporary refuge since it was the only village in the area that was policed and hence safe from banditry or terror. At times, therefore, the Ik were a minority there. Some of his main informants were not Ik at all but members of the Diding’a tribe.

Another of Turnbull’s errors was to view the Ik as hunter-gatherers like the pygmies he had also researched. He theorized that their anti-social behavior had something to do with being deprived of their livelihood since the state had banned hunting in Kidepo National Park, something that Lewis Thomas repeated:

The small tribe of Iks, formerly nomadic hunters and gatherers in the mountain valleys of northern Uganda, have become celebrities, literary symbols for the ultimate fate of disheartened, heartless mankind at large. Two disastrously conclusive things happened to them: the government decided to have a national park, so they were compelled by law to give up hunting in the valleys and become farmers on poor hillside soil, and then they were visited for two years by an anthropologist who detested them and wrote a book about them.

Thomas got the business about an anthropologist detesting them right, but they were never nomadic hunters. Instead they were farmers for at least 3000 years according to Heine, and as such quite good at it. Turnbull never figured out that they were farmers and kept looking for evidence of hunters being deprived of their way of life, almost one supposes like members of the NRA having their worst nightmare come true.

One of the most amusing and revealing passages in Heine’s critique deals with Turnbull’s flawed understanding of the Ik language:

Usually one of the first things an anthropologist in the field learns is the greetings. Turnbull made an effort, but with limited success. He notes, for example, that ‘the common, everyday greeting’ is ida piaji (Turnbull, 1974: 246). The Ik have a wide range of greeting forms, depending in particular on the time of the day. One of them is i-ida? (‘Are you [all right]?’), to which one replies, i-ida ‘bia ‘j? (‘Are you [all right] as well?’). It is probably the latter which he calls the ‘traditional’ or ‘common, everyday greeting’. It would seem that for all the two years he lived among the Ik he was not aware that he was greeting them with a reply to a greeting, furthermore with one which is used neither during the morning (ep-ida) nor during the afternoon hours (iria-ida).

I got a laugh out of this since my Turkish professor once read me the riot act when I told him “güle güle”, as a way of saying goodbye. Don’t you know, he said, the person staying behind says this, not the person leaving? Of course, I never claimed to be an expert on Turkish culture so I might be excused. Turnbull is another story altogether apparently.

I will conclude with Heine’s own restrained but devastating conclusion:

At first it was difficult to understand how Turnbull came to treat the Ik in his writings the way he did. The longer I was able to talk to the Ik about his work the more I got the impression that he tended to project his own feelings on to his research subjects. There are in fact some indications that what he claims to be typical Ik behaviour is rather an indication of his own mentality. For example, although dealing with a people he suspected to be hunter-gatherers his writings suggest that he was entirely ignorant of the plant and animal life of Ik country. Yet, as I have shown above, he concludes that it is not he himself but rather the Ik who are unfamiliar with their fauna and flora (Turnbull, 1967: 63).

When he observes that for the Ik ‘Misfortune of others was their greatest joy’ one is reminded of passages like the following, his descriptions of his own feelings and behaviour, which seem to point to his own frustrations:

It was one of the few real pleasure’s I had, listening to his shrieking and yelling when they caught him and did whatever they did … and then watching him come flying out of the odok holding his head and streaming with tears… [Turnbull, 1974, 102]

it was a pleasure to move rapidly ahead and leave Atum gasping behind so that we could be sitting at the di when he finally appeared and laugh at his discomfort. [Ibid., 178]

The unpleasantness of returning was somewhat alleviated by Atum’s suffering on the way up the stony trail. Several times he slipped, which made Lojieri and me laugh … [Ibid.]

The frustrations he encountered among the Ik are described in great detail, but he goes on to note: ‘For want of something to do, I used to measure the amount of rain that fell … The exactness of detail was no measure of my academic zeal, simply of my own frustration and boredom’ (Turnbull, 1974: 212). He describes the lack of mutual trust that he finds characteristic of the Ik, but he himself is not prepared to trust anybody, as sentences like the following suggest: ‘I disbelieved every word of this on principle…’ (Turnbull, 1974: 228).

The Ik are portrayed as a people lacking social integration, but if there is anyone who shows no interest in social integration it is Turnbull himself. He isolates himself behind a stockade ‘even bigger and stronger than that of my neighbours’ (Turnbull, 1974: 63), and ‘I used to shut myself up in the Land-Rover again to cook my meals and to eat them there’ (Turnbull, 1974: 79). It is not surprising, therefore, that my Ik informants frequently told me, ‘He made his observations in the bush, not where people were.’ To conclude, my observations have confirmed the claim made by Beidelman (1973: 171) in his review of The Mountain People: This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.

June 20, 2012

The Houla Massacre

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Last month more than 90 people, including 32 children under the age of 10, were killed in a village in the district of Houla in Syria. The immediate response of the major media was to accuse pro-Assad forces, either the army or militias, of the crime. The NY Times reporting was typical:

The New York Times

May 27, 2012 Sunday

Late Edition – Final

Many Children Among Victims In Syria Attack

BYLINE: By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and HWAIDA SAAD; An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.

The White House said the attack was ”a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.”

Gory images posted online — particularly the scene of rows of dead children smeared with blood — prompted an emotional outpouring of antigovernment demonstrations across Syria and calls for sectarian revenge.

Activists said that much of the slaughter had been carried out by pro-government thugs, or ”shabiha,” from the area. Houla is a Sunni Muslim town, while three villages around it are mostly Alawite, the religion of President Bashar al-Assad and whose adherents are the core of his security forces. A fourth village is Shiite Muslim.

A man in a black knitted mask who appeared on one YouTube video, for example, said it was time ”to prepare for vengeance against this awful sectarian regime.”

The rebel Free Syrian Army, the loose federation of armed militias across the country, issued a statement saying it was no longer committed to the United Nations truce because the plan was merely buying time for the government to kill civilians and destroy cities and villages.

”We won’t allow truce after truce, which prolongs the crisis for years,” the statement said.

The Syrian government blamed ”terrorists,” its catchall phrase for the opposition, for killing the civilians.

There are two things to be noted here. One is the reliance on accounts from activists opposed to Assad. The other is the NY Times reference:  “An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria. Since the foreign press is largely excluded from Syria, or tightly controlled by the state, the assumption is that the aforementioned reporter is in Syria, but was not even reporting from Houla.

Two of the most respected foreign reporters on the ground in Syria were Anthony Shadid of the NY Times and Marie Colvin of the London Times. Both have died–Shadid of untreated asthma and Colvin from gunfire during a battle in Homs.

Because the Syrian state is hostile to foreign media and vice versa, and because foreign reporters are excluded or tightly managed, the foreign press has relied heavily on the anti-Assad opposition. Media coverage has occasionally gone beyond mere bias and taken the form of the somewhat hackneyed phrase: “The first casualty of war is truth”.

One of the first to catch the foreign media in the act was blogger Clay Claiborne, who is no friend of the Baathist state. Claiborne took note of the fact that a photo used by the BBC to show those slaughtered in Houla was actually taken in Iraq in 2003. Although it was up for only 90 minutes, one of the pro-Assad websites claimed  asked: “In the face of such damning manipulation, why then would so many people still believe the mainstream media’s version of reality in countries like Syria?” Those are the words of Alex Jones, a 9/11 Truther and anti-immigration diehard.

Claiborne posed the following questions about the bogus photo:

My question is: What is going on here? Clearly the BBC made a blunder by publishing the picture as it did. They claimed it was an unverified photo from an activist and I don’t think anyone is seriously claiming that they used di Lauro’s photo on purpose. It was on his website. They would have had to know it would be exposed as a fake in short order. They would have been setting themselves up for a fall.

No, I think the BBC was setup by someone else. Most certainly the “Activist” that sent the photo to the BBC. That entity almost certainly knew the photo was fake, probably got it from the di Lauro website, and should have known it would be exposed as a fake in short order. Therefore their purpose was certainly not to expose the crimes of the Assad regime against the Syria people but instead to obscure then. All of these outlets harping on the fake photo are also using it to imply that the massacre was fake.

The BBC photo was just the initial salvo in a full-scale defense of the Baathist state, supposedly an innocent victim of imperialist machinations. On June 9th an article appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by Rainer Hermann that has been picked up by all the pro-Assad websites and that likely got its first airing on Moon Over Alabama, an erstwhile propagandist for Muammar Qaddafi. The Moon translated and posted what it considered the most relevant passage in Hermann’s article:

Syrian opposition members who are from that region were during the last days able to reconstruct the most likely sequence of events based on accounts from authentic witnesses. Their result contradicts the pretenses from the rebels who had accused regime allied Shabiha they alleged were acting under the protection of the Syrian army. As opposition members who reject the use of lethal force were recently killed or at least threatened, the opposition members [talking to me] asked that their names be withheld.

The massacre of Houla happened after Friday prayers. The fighting started when Sunni rebels attacked three Syrian army checkpoints around Houla. These checkpoints were set up to protect the Alawi villages around the predominantly Sunni Houla from assaults.

One attacked checkpoint called up units from the Syrian army, which has barracks some 1500 meters away, for help and was immediately reinforced. Dozens of soldiers and rebels were killed during the fighting around Houla which is said to have lasted about 90 minutes. During these fights the three villages were closed off from the outside world.

According to the witness accounts the massacre happened during this timeframe. Killed were nearly exclusively families from the Alawi and Shia minorities in Houla which has a more than 90% Sunni population. Several dozen members of one extended family, which had in recent years converted from Sunni to Shia believe, were slaughtered. Also killed were members of the Alawi family Shomaliya and the family of a Sunni member of parliament who was [by the rebels] considered a government collaborator. Members of the Syrian government confirmed this version but pointed out that the government committed to not publicly speak of Sunnis and Alawis. President al-Assad is Alawi while the opposition is overwhelmingly from the Sunni population majority.

As was the case in the NY Times article, Hermann was reporting from Damascus and not on the spot in Houla. The only thing that struck me as a bit implausible in Hermann’s article is this: “Members of the Syrian government confirmed this version but pointed out that the government committed to not publicly speak of Sunnis and Alawis.”

I really have to wonder how he can say this when early reports, also widely circulated by pro-Assad bloggers, made it clear that no such commitment existed. Early on, in a departure from the one-sided version of the NY Times, Bloomberg News presented the government version:

Among the dead in Houla was the family of a lawmaker who refused to withdraw his name from the parliamentary vote, Haddad said. Several hundred militants carried out the killings in Houla, General Qassem Jamal Suleiman, who heads the Syrian investigation into the killings, said May 31.

Syria has found evidence that fighters from Libya and Tunisia with ties to al-Qaeda are “already among the rebels,” Haddad said, adding that some of the massacre was filmed. “The main aim is to cause failure of the Annan plan and to provoke foreign military interference.”

Apparently, General Qassem Jamal Suleiman did not get the message about not blaming anybody in public. Maybe his cell phone was off that day.

But the plot thickens, as they used to put it on radio serials when I was a little kid.

Yesterday Der Spiegel, another big-time German publication, made their own phone calls to “eyewitnesses” and their account  differs from Herman’s:

Defending the Rebels

Eyewitnesses Contradict Houla Massacre Claims

By Christoph Reuter

Recent German media reports have suggested that Syrian rebels carried out the Houla massacre and then blamed President Assad’s forces. But eyewitnesses to the killings contradict those claims.

It was the afternoon of May 25, when Houla near Homs became internationally famous as a synonym for the brutality of the Syrian regime. It was the site of a massacre where 108 people died, mostly women and children.

In recent days, German media reports have suggested that rebels carried out the massacre and then blamed Assad’s troops. Reports from eyewitnesses who spoke to SPIEGEL give a different impression, however.

Aiman Hassan Abd al-Rassak, a farmer and survivor of the massacre, watched as buses containing Syrian military troops drove up the hill where the village of Fullah is located, half a kilometre to the south, shortly before 5 p.m. on that day. Some 60 to 70 uniformed men marched towards the village, accompanied by around 200 men in civilian clothes.

Al-Rassak, who had recently been arrested, found a hiding place between the bushes and fields. Just minutes later, he heard his wife and five children being killed.

Two further eyewitnesses, Umm Shaalan Abd al-Rassak and Samira Suwai, also observed the two groups of military and civilian-clad men as they gathered on the hilltop and walked into the Taldo district. The army’s grenade bombardment of Houla had stopped shortly before.

Another witness, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Saria, described the arrival of two big white buses and at least three large cars. He also saw soldiers in uniform, intelligence officers with weapons and men wearing tracksuits and civilian clothing carrying machetes and clubs.

It was only these men who went into the houses, he reports. It is impossible to prove whether they were really shabiha militia from Fullah and neighbouring Alawi villages. That seems to be a reasonable assumption, however, seeing as they arrived by foot in the village on the hill.

Other statements by witnesses also contradict the recent reports, published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other outlets, which blamed the opposition for the massacre. Contrary to the reports, only Sunnis live in Houla, and not any Shiite converts who are loyal to the regime.

And why in any case would rebels carry out a massacre of their own supporters, who were, incidentally, buried with the participation of Sunnis from Houla?

So who’s telling the truth? I have no idea. I would say this, however. If you think that Der Spiegel’s reporting is to be rejected out of hand because it is supposedly biased against Bashar al-Assad, keep in mind that they published this as well back on March 29:

An Executioner for Syria’s Rebels Tells His Story

By Ulrike Putz in Beirut

Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses committed by Syrian rebels in their stronghold of Homs. But one member of a rebel “burial brigade” who has executed four men by slitting their throats defended his work in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. “If we don’t do it, nobody will hold these perpetrators to account,” he said.

Hussein can barely remember the first time he executed someone. It was probably in a cemetery in the evening, or at night; he can’t recall exactly. It was definitely mid-October of last year, and the man was Shiite, for sure. He had confessed to killing women — decent women, whose husbands and sons had protested against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. So the rebels had decided that the man, a soldier in the Syrian army, deserved to die, too.

Hussein didn’t care if the man had been beaten into a confession, or that he was terrified of death and had begun to stammer prayers. It was his tough luck that the rebels had caught him. Hussein took out his army knife and sliced the kneeling man’s neck. His comrades from the so-called “burial brigade” quickly interred the blood-stained corpse in the sand of the graveyard west of the Baba Amr area of the rebel stronghold of Homs. At the time, the neighborhood was in the hands of the insurgents.


Not the kind of reporting one would expect from a pro-rebel outpost.

Oddly enough, there is a curious kind of role reversal going on with the pro-Assad left. Despite its disdain for organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, its intervention into the Houla massacre has followed the same logic. Basically, the questions that preoccupy Marxists, namely those that revolve around historical tasks, are pushed to the side in favor of a kind of casuistry based on which side is more brutal.

And closely associated with this is a line of reasoning in which the Jihadist tag trumps everything. As was the case with Libya all that is required is proof that the Free Syrian Army consists of al-Qaida operatives and then a guilty verdict is assured. You find this most of all on the left (broadly interpreted) from Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar who gets as worked up over Sunni extremists as the late Christopher Hitchens on a bad day.

One of the odder things I’ve noted on the Houla controversy is the kind of politics makes strange bedfellows affinity between leftists like Michel Chossudovsky (again, broadly interpreted) and some howling Islamophobes like Pam Geller. Here’s Geller dredging up  all the talking points of the pro-Assad left around Houla:

Here is part of the reason I have not been screaming for the ouster of the Assad regime. Clearly, I am no Assad fan, but I am much less a fan of the jihadist rebels. As we have seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc., there are Islamic groups that are far more gruesome than the secular regimes they overthrow. The Muslim Brotherhood is agitating for overthrow and is calling for intervention.

Jordan for the first time publicly stated that its security officials arrested two jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida on their way to Syria to fight against President Bashar Assad.

The bloodshed and the massacres are as much the work (if not more) of the “opposition”; knowing the enemedia, Islamic supremacists, and their apologists will blame Assad.

    Syria: Houla massacre blamed on Assad regime actually work of jihadi rebels  Jihadwatch

    And the BBC illustrated its report on the Houla massacre with a ten-year-old photo from Iraq. All this goes to show: when it comes to jihad violence, you just can’t trust the mainstream media. At all. Not even a little bit. “Report: Rebels Responsible for Houla Massacre,” by John Rosenthal in National Review, June 9…

This is the same Pamela Geller who encouraged Israel to “stand loud and proud. Give up nothing. Turn over not a pebble. For every rocket fired, drop a MOAB. Take back Gaza. Secure Judea and Samaria. Stop buying Haaretz. Throw leftists bums out.”

Maybe Geller was on to something. Perhaps being for Israel and being for Assad is not such a contradiction in terms:

The Assads were in many ways ripe for celebrity treatment by the news media. The president, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, received part of his education in Britain, where he met his wife, a Briton of Syrian descent who grew up in London and worked as an investment banker in New York.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who once worked for a charity sponsored by Mrs. Assad, summed up the appeal the Assads had for some news outlets: “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”

–NY Times, June 12, 2012

Washington Institute for Near East Policy Board of Advisers:

Max M. Kampelman
Senior Diplomat

Henry A. Kissinger
Secretary of State

Samuel W. Lewis
U.S. ambassador to Israel

Edward Luttwak
Center for Strategic and International Studies

Michael Mandelbaum
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Robert McFarlane
National Security Advisor

Martin Peretz
Editor in Chief and Chairman, New Republic

Richard Perle
Assistant Secretary of Defense

James G. Roche
Secretary of the Air Force

George P. Shultz
Secretary of State

R. James Woolsey
Director of Central Intelligence

Mortimer Zuckerman
Publisher, U.S. News and World Report

Ultras Ahlawy denounce Egyptian army

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

From the Ultras Ahlawy wiki:

Ultras Ahlawy (UA-07) is an Egyptian ultras group that supports the Cairo-based Egyptian Premier League football club Al-Ahly.[1] The group was founded in 2007 by former members of the first Ahly support group, Ahly Fans Club (AFC). Ultras Ahlawy raised its banner for the first time at a match against ENPPI on 13 April 2007. Ultras Ahlawy also supports the Al-Ahly basketball, volleyball, and handball teams.

June 19, 2012

Our dying corporate class is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish

Filed under: immigration,Occupy Wall Street,racism — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Over the past few days, I have noticed a couple of articles sizing up the Occupy movement’s status. One comes from the left, and the other from an inside-the-beltway liberal pundit. Let me dispense with the last one first.

Although he is obviously at the Washington Post because his opinions jibe with his employer’s, I always find Dana Milbank worth reading, if for no other reason than he avoids the circumlocutions typical of the op-ed writer. In a piece titled Occupy Wall Street movement has hit a wall, Milbank makes an amalgam between Van Jones and Robert Borosage’s Take Back the American Dream Conference and the sans culottes movement that raised hell on Wall Street and dozens of other cities last year. It is understandable why he would confuse the two, since in his eyes Van Jones is “far left”. When I noticed that, I dashed off a letter to Milbank:

Dana, you have to get out more. Jones is an old-fashioned liberal, like George McGovern. I, on the other hand, am a far leftist. I would like to see the publishers of the Washington Post stripped of their assets and put in prison for their role in backing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. You should be spared, of course, after undergoing ideological rectification.

Borosage, like Jones, has attempted to co-opt the Occupy movement as this excerpt from Milbank’s article makes clear:

Robert Borosage, whose Campaign for America’s Future puts on the annual conference, encouraged the activists to take the long view, likening their position to that of progressives in the late 19th century. “Now we are back to that same kind of inequality, that same kind of robber-baron money politics,” Borosage said from a stage festooned with the words “99% Power” and other slogans. “And what’s exciting is we’ve seen the first stirrings in Wisconsin and Ohio and Occupy Wall Street, which spread across the country like wildfire.”

The Wisconsin drubbing was a “stirring”? And Occupy Wall Street? It did spread — but the fire quickly died.

Nelini Stamp, an Occupy leader, spoke at one of the sessions about how the movement went from a day in September when “all of a sudden something happened” to the “dismantling of the parks, city by city.” Stamp described the events of the fall as “a moment in time, and that moment sparked a movement.”

One imagines that Stamp felt an affinity with Van Jones and Robert Borosage based on her affiliation with the Working Families Party in NY that is 3rd party in name only. In the last election, it unfortunately used its ballot line for the dreadful Andrew Cuomo, who can best be described as Scott Walker Lite.

Milbank is something of a cynic so it is difficult to figure out whether he is lamenting over the ostensible collapse of Occupy or gloating over it. Despite his past employment in the bourgeois press, or perhaps because of it, Chris Hedges is just the opposite of Milbank. He wears his heart on his sleeve nowadays and we are all the better for it.

Hedges is a regular contributor to Truthdig.com, a website founded by Robert Scheer, who like Hedges, was once employed by the bourgeois media—in his case the LA Times. Hedges’s article is titled “Occupy Will Be Back” and uses his own words to approximate what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Here’s Hedges:

Our dying corporate class, corrupt, engorged on obscene profits and indifferent to human suffering, is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish. No one knows when. No one knows how. The future movement may not resemble Occupy. It may not even bear the name Occupy. But it will come. I have seen this before. And we should use this time to prepare, to educate ourselves about the best ways to fight back, to learn from our mistakes, as many Occupiers are doing in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other cities. There are dark and turbulent days ahead. There are powerful and frightening forces of hate, backed by corporate money, that will seek to hijack public rage and frustration to create a culture of fear. It is not certain we will win. But it is certain this is not over.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Having lived through the 1950s and 60s, when the American economy was expanding at an unprecedented rate, I saw the ability of the American ruling class to maintain its hegemonic status. There were challenges from African-Americans but a combination of repression and crumbs from the table appeared to remove that threat, just as an end to the war in Vietnam and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion acted as a pressure valve to release steam from the system.

Things are different now. Today’s NY Times reported on the desperation that many long-term unemployed are facing:

Sam Chea, 38, who lives in Oakland and works nights delivering pizzas for Domino’s, said that he had been feeling the pinch at grocery stores, and worried that his lack of a college education was making it harder for him to find decent work. The other day he went to the nearby city of El Cerrito to apply for a second job at Nation’s Giant Hamburgers, a regional chain.

“I’ll be more secure with another job,” he said. “It’s scary. I don’t have an education, and I’m worried about my rent.”

“Everything’s gone up. Rent went up, gas went up, food went up, milk went up, cheeseburgers went up, even cigarettes went up,” said Mr. Chea, who had stopped at the barbershop to spiff up before his job interview. “I’m used to getting a haircut for $6 or $7, but they charged me $9. Even haircuts have gone up.”

In my recent post on the rascally Walter Russell Mead, someone commented that the left is too old to make an impact. I understand that if I am typical of the left (at the age of 67), this is a real problem. But another commenter wrote a rejoinder that is in line with Hedges’s piece and Marx’s before him:

You are obviously not in touch with the contemporary US revolutionary left, made up almost entirely of people under 35 — in other words, the generation subjected to one of the most radical periods of transferring social costs onto the backs of the working class. Our generation faces a situation of despair, ruin, indebtedness, political nihilism, old-folks-cynicism, mainstream political cretinism, and no future. You would benefit greatly by contacting the student, youth, people of color, and young working class movement in your local city. What you might find is in fact a vibrant undercurrent of dignity facing a situation that your generation, weaned on the massive capitalist high growth of the 50s, did not have to contend with. The “humble folks of the working class” are the young black, brown, yellow, red, and white youth on your streets today. Go meet them – they’re everywhere.

In my view, the Occupy movement has played a most useful role whatever its current status. At a moment when the Obama White House had much of the soft left in a state of suspended animation, they burst on the scene and demonstrated through their action that there had been no change and that they, to paraphrase Dante, had seen the words written large: “Abandon all hope all ye who live in the U.S. and are not hedge fund managers.”

Like the Zapatistas, who also defied the neoliberal “end of history” consensus like a lightning bolt out of the blue, these scruffy and more often than not organized anarchists (yes, I know, that is a paradox) raised such a ruckus that politics in America went through a sea change. They raised awareness that working people were being screwed and inspired hundreds of thousands to join them in protests against an unjust system.

I thought of the Occupy movement when I attended the Silent March against Stop and Frisk on Fifth Avenue last Sunday. This was a demonstration that really captured the militancy and spirit of unity that could be seen during the best of the Occupy protests.

You can get a flavor of the demonstration from this brief clip taken on my brand-new JVC professional camcorder whose myriad buttons and menus confuses even a geek like me. Look in particular for the women marching in the name of their beautician’s school!

For a report on the march that I couldn’t begin to top, I recommend Gary Lapon’s article  in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization (not to be confused with the moribund sect of the same name led by Jack Barnes.)

According to the NAACP, the march was silent “as an illustration of both the tragedy and serious threat that stop-and-frisk and other forms of racial profiling present to our society. The silent march was first used in 1917 by the NAACP–then just eight years old–to draw attention to race riots that tore through communities in East St. Louis, Illinois, and build national opposition to lynching.”

Participants in the demonstration explained how this has become a civil rights issue of today. “I’ve been stopped and frisked for a case of mistaken identity,” said Justin, a high school senior in Brooklyn. “The cops stopped and searched me without a warrant, without anything–and they just said, ‘Mistaken identity.'” As Justin continued:

It’s getting crazy. My little brother just got stopped the other day for no reason…He’s only 11, but he’s a big kid, so they thought he was older, and they searched him. He was scared, he went home crying to my mother. People are scared to come out of their home thinking they’ll be searched by the cops. It shouldn’t be like that.

Dina Adams of the legal aid group Bronx Defenders said she had a lot of personal experience with stop-and-frisk. “I have three teenage sons, and so this is a battle that I go through three times as hard,” she said. “It impacted [my middle son] so much that where his schooling and everything–his whole life, seemed to have gone upside down.”

“The NYPD has too much power,” Adams said. “They need to stop focusing on Blacks and Latinos, stop focusing on our youth, stop screwing their lives up.”

As I have said in the past, it would be useful if socialist groups rethink what it means to have a “program”, too often an assemblage of doctrinal tenets held on disputed points going back at least a hundred years and calculated to distinguish the group’s “brand” from others on the left. Why not adopt a much simpler program based on Dina Adams’s words: “Stop screwing up our lives”.

Yes, youth will be heard.

While Obama has gotten pats on the back from the liberal left on his decision to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, it would be more accurate to say that he made this decision more on the basis of stopping the blows raining down on his back, head, and shoulders from young activists tired of dealing with the immigration cops that he had sent after them.

The NY Times reported on June 17:

In recent weeks, the White House faced intense pressure from some of its closest allies — their voices often raised in frustration — to provide some relief for immigrant communities. The urging came from Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the top two Democrats in the Senate, and the Hispanic caucus in the House of Representatives, as well as Latino and immigrant leaders across the country.

Bleak figures reported early this month by the Department of Homeland Security showed that a yearlong program designed to shift enforcement away from illegal immigrants who pose no security risk was not producing results, with only about 500 young students nationwide spared from deportation.

And last week, students without immigration papers started a campaign of sit-ins and hunger strikes at Obama campaign offices in more than a dozen cities, saying that despite his promises, the president was continuing to deport immigrants like them.

I’d like to think that those sit-ins and hunger strikes were ignited not only by Obama’s reactionary nativist policies but by the example last year of young people putting their bodies on the line.

Here’s a good look at what they were doing:

June 18, 2012

New contributions to North Star symposium on SYRIZA

Filed under: Greece,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

Lessons for Socialists, From Occupy Boston to Greece

by admin June 17, 2012

By Doug Enaa Greene of the Boston Occupier It is an interesting moment for socialist activists in the Occupy movement. Although I have called myself a revolutionary communist for more than a decade, it was not until Occupy Boston started on September 30, 2011 that I can date my introduction activism. Since that time, I […]


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Thumbnail image for What Can American Leftists Learn from the Success of SYRIZA?

What Can American Leftists Learn from the Success of SYRIZA?

by admin June 16, 2012

By Richard Estes, anti-authoritarian activist and blogger Even now, the significance of SYRIZA’s success in the recent Greek parliamentary election is not well understood. While leftists bicker over whether SYRIZA is reformist (ones senses the ghosts of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) lingering in the background), Greek workers […]


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Thumbnail image for Another Occupy Is Possible – and Necessary

Another Occupy Is Possible – and Necessary

by admin June 15, 2012

By Chris Maisano of Democratic Socialists of America and the Jacobin editorial board At the height of Occupy Wall Street’s efflorescence, when the enragés who took up residence in Zuccotti Park succeeded in raising the battle standard of the 99% for the entire world to see, I sat down for an interview with Frances Fox […]

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