Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 19, 2015

Two new poetry books

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm

For those who have been reading this blog over the years, you’ll probably be aware of my past references to Paul Pines, a Bard College classmate from the early 60s who I regard as one of America’s finest poets. Paul has a new book out that contains all the pleasures of his past work, especially the ability of his poems to tell a tale in striking language. Or as Ezra Pound once put it: “‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’” Here is a selection from the new book, a collection of poems inspired by his beautiful daughter I had the good fortune to meet a few years ago:

Zorro by the door chews his bone
Ben Webster on NPR
plays Making Whoopee
my wife in the bedroom
talks on the phone

I recall other lives
on the lower East Side
in Cholon
nights in smoky clubs
listening to Eddie Jefferson
wandering Belizean bush
over empires buried
under half an inch
of earth…

until my daughter
wonders what I’m doing
alone in the dark
asks, Daddy, are you all right?

Sure, I say
knowing she’s afraid
I’ve gone too far away
and might never
come back

Like Paul Pines, who has an affinity with indigenous peoples as might be evident by his reference to “empires buried” in Belize above, John Kaniecki writes about native Americans in a number of poems in his “Poet to the Poor: Poetry for the Bottom One Percent”.

The publisher has some biographical information about John:

John Kaniecki is a member of the Revolutionary Poet’s Brigade and Secretary for Rhyming Poet’s International. John volunteers as a missionary in the inner city of Newark , New Jersey, for the Church of Christ at Chancellor Avenue. John is active in the antiwar movement. In particular, John is a strong advocate of the rights of indigenous people.

This poem expresses his advocacy. (Chief Joseph was the leader of the Nez Perce who led an armed struggle against forced removal from their homeland in Oregon.)

Chief Joseph’s Bones

I cried out calling for Chief Joseph’s bones
I could not be heard
Not a solitary word
Amongst the lonely cries and bitter moans
Chief Joseph where do you dwell
They have deformed paradise
And concocted a concrete hell
If only they heeded your advice
If they would but listen
The sky would be clear and the blue lakes glisten
We would live off of the bounty of the land
And God’s deepest secrets understand
Instead our heaven is a sickly gray
Waters poisoned the soil spoiled

Who can really say
For what we have laboriously toiled
Chief Joseph your wisdom was profound
Truly Mother Earth none can own
If they had only known
A better world for all we would have found
All the money of every nation, of every style
Is a pile of paper sick and vile
Give me the cool summer breeze
And a life for God to please
I seek not kingdoms with golden thrones
My deepest desire is to find
A brave man gentle and kind
A man who walks no more
Who kept his spirit pure
Chief Joseph’s bones

November 17, 2015

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

Source: In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek

A history of bombing

Filed under: militarism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

Apparently we have reached such a stage in the degeneration of the Baathist amen corner that John Wight now writes articles justifying the use of barrel bombs:

Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of atrocity. However just as the atrocity of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today.

This is what Malcolm X referred to once as turning the victim into the criminal.

When Assad worked out an agreement brokered by Vladimir Putin to get rid of his chemical weapons (at least those that could not be hidden away for future use), the antiwar movement—such as it was—patted itself on the shoulder for pressuring the USA and Britain from launching a Bush-style invasion of Syria as if this was ever in the cards.

Assad’s move was pretty smart seen in retrospect. It gave him a blank check starting in October 2013 to step up his aerial bombing campaign including the use of barrel bombs.

Writing for CounterPunch, Cesar Chelala, a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, demonstrated an ability to distinguish right from wrong that so many of our newly emerged laptop bombardiers like John Wight cannot. In an August 11, 2014 article he outlined the position that the entire left should embrace:

UN Security Council Resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, ordered all parties to the conflict in Syria to end the discriminate use of barrel bombs and other weapons in populated areas. In spite of that, both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments continue using them against civilians. Human rights groups have characterized them as weapons of terror and illegal under international conventions.

It is of interest that Chelala has included Iraqi barrel bombing in the equation. I confess to not having kept up with this part of the depravity of the al-Maliki regime, whose membership in the “axis of resistance” apparently required savage attacks on the Sunni population that made it possible for ISIS to get a foothold.

My own position is pretty radical. I am opposed to aerial bombardment period. Reading Sven Lindqvist “A History of Bombing” that was published in 2000 shaped my thinking on this matter. I was familiar with Lindqvist through an earlier book titled “Exterminate All the Brutes” that was about how Hitler’s genocidal policies were first carried out in Africa. Lindqvist’s book makes the case against bombing from the air through an examination of the ideology that justified it as well as the murderous effects when either the bad guys or “the good guys” carried it out in places like Dresden or Hiroshima. In the excerpt below, he shows how abhorrent the idea of aerial bombing was to the military, so much so that an Italian military man who advocated it was court martialed. We have come a long way when the “anti-imperialist” left cheers on Russian bombing (as well as French and American) in a fashion that reminds me of George Jessel appearances on American television in the 1960s when he would show up in an Uncle Sam suit to “support the troops”.




The first person to step forward and openly acknowledge what the others were hiding was the Italian Giulio Douhet. He arrived as a young cadet in Torino, the capital of the Italian auto industry, and wrote his first book on the military use of motor vehicles (1902). In 1910 he published a book on the problems of the air force, and in 1912 he was appointed chief of the newly formed air squadron in Torino. The next year he and Gianni Caproni constructed the first heavy bomber, a tri-engine monster created to make bombardment from the air the dominant form of attack.

When the World War broke out, Douhet became famous for his criticism of the way the war was conducted and his impassioned pleading for the use of the heavy bomber. The generals were enraged, and Douhet was relieved of his post and court-martialed. But he was justified when the defeat of Italy in 1917 proved that his criticisms had been correct. Several years later the Ministry of War published Douhet’s most important work, ll dominio dell’aria (Dominion of the Skies, 1921). It came out in German in 1935 and in English in 1942, but long before then it had exercised decisive influence on military thought, not least in Great Britain.


Douhet’s principal argument is that war is transformed by the technical means at its disposal. Barbed wire and rapid-fire arms transformed warfare on land, the submarine transformed war at sea. The air force and poisonous gas will lead to changes just as great. The war of the future will be total war.

In the old days, civilian life could go on relatively undisturbed behind the front. International even created a legal distinction between “combatants” and “noncombatants.” We have passed this stage, Douhet argues, since air warfare makes it possible to attack the enemy lehind the fortified lines. It erases the distinction between soldiers and civilians.

Air raids can never hope to achieve the same precision as artillery fire. But neither is that necessary—targets for bombs should always be large.

In order to succeed, air raids must be carried out against very large centers of civilian population. Is this forbidden? All international agreements reached during peacetime will be swept away like withered leaves during war. So let’s forget false hopes. When you’re fighting for your life—and today that’s the only way to fight—you have the sacred right to use any able means to avoid going under. To destroy your own people for the sake of a few graphs of legalese would be madness. Air warfare offers for the first time the chance to the enemy where he’s weakest; poisonous gas can make that first blow fatal.

It has been calculated that 80 to 100 tons of poisonous gas would suffice to enclose London, Berlin, or Paris in deadly clouds of gas and destroy them with strategically placed bombs, while the gas prevents the fires from being extinguished.

‘The thought is of course harrowing,” writes Douhet. Especially terrifying is the knowledge every advantage belongs to the one who strikes first. So it will not be possible to wait for opponent to take up these so-called inhuman and illegal weapons first for you to obtain entirely unnecessary) moral right to make use of these weapons yourself. No, necessity will force every nation to use the most effective weapons available, immediately and with the greatest possible ruthlessness.


The prophets of strategic bombing were advocating war crimes. Among the states that had signed the 1907 Hague Convention, “bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, flings or buildings which are undefended, is prohibited.”

But the word “undefended” remained ambiguous, argued James Witford Garner, when he, an expert in international law, summarized the First World War in International Law and the World War (1920).

In air attacks on cities, military damages had been insignificant or nonexistent, while non-combatants had been subjected over and over again to illegal destruction of life and property. Warfare had regularly done what it claimed to avoid while failing to do what it claimed to achieve.

So new rules were necessary. Garner suggests that air attacks should be allowed “within the military zone,” while it should be forbidden “to make attacks on cities and villages far behind the lines.”



“What are the rules for this kind of cricket?” asked the newly appointed chief for India’s Northwest Province, Sir John Maffrey. The air force headquarters for India answered that international law did not apply “against savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilized warfare.” Warning ought to be given before an attack (so that people could take cover), but on the other hand, the attack should be a surprise (since that would increase the death toll). Loss of life was, after all, what made the greatest impact on morale.

Women held little value for the Afghans, reported headquarters, but instead were considered “a piece of property somewhere between a rifle and a cow.” So killing Afghani women could not be justly compared with similar losses among European civilians.

In 1922 a RAF memorandum lists a series of available means of terror: timed bombs; phosphorus bombs; “crow’s feet,” which maimed humans and livestock; whistling arrows; crude oil used to pollute drinking water; and “liquid fire,” a forerunner to napalm. ‘There was no sign of discomfort” regarding such methods in war, writes the English historian Charles Townshend.



The pilot found the Hottentots on a little plateau about 3,000 feet above sea level. ‘There they sat, warming themselves by tiny fires for they can hardly exist at night without their fires,” said the Johannesburg newspaper the Star in a report from the Boridelzwart uprising in Southwest Africa, 1922. It was at dawn on a Sunday morning, and the plane carried a full load of bombs and ammunition. “These ‘little yellow men” were taken completely by surprise. They had often sought refuge from their enemies here—ten men could hold the mountaintop against an army. But now they were completely at the pilot’s mercy.” “Bombs were dropping from 100 feet. Machine-gun fire was opened. Many of them tumbled into the gorge . . . scores were killed. Those who could escape fled in all directions. . . . Now their flocks and herds are scattered. Heaps of carcasses are piled up in the reserve. Huts have been burned down to the ground. . . . The Hottentots, if one may judge from the admissions of prisoners, are absolutely dismayed by this new actor in native warfare. . . . The aeroplane, the natives may find, has made war an impossible thing for them.”


Several days later, the Star’s reporter places these events in a larger context. Now the story is seen as a chapter in the natural extinction of the race: The Hottentot is too devoted to his animals. Every animal he has ever owned is burned into his memory. If his herd is taken from him, he loses his will to live. Of the ten Hottentot tribes, three have already died out. The rest are in the process of disappearing. These days, when societies are formed for all kinds of threatened species, it might be time to form one in defense of the Hottentot, the Star’s reporter concludes.

South Africa continued to bomb uprisings in Southwest Africa in 1925, 1930, 1932, and so on up to 1989, when Namibia became independent.


For Theodore Savage and his neighbors out in the country, the first bombing raids on London are nothing more than a glowing spectacle against the night sky. But refugees stream in like huge swarms of “human rats.” Driven to desperation by fear and hunger, they flood the countryside. “Women, like men, asserted their beast-right to food—when sticks and knives failed them, asserted it with claws and teeth; inhuman creatures, with distended and wide, yelling mouths, went down with their fingers at each others’ throats, in each others’ flesh . .”94 In Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (1922, revised 1928) England has been bombed back into the primitive state depicted by Hobbes, Malthus, and their successors.

Timid little Theo does not turn into a true wild beast, but he learns to hunt rabbits and root garbage like an abandoned dog, always hungry, always afraid, always on his guard th strangers and neighbors, for everyone is his enemy. When tribes gradually start to take form, it is on the basis of fear, brutality, superstition, and the hatred of strangers. A ‘anatic preaches the new gospel—salvation through ignorance.

In the end, the old, helpless Savage is the only survivor of the legendary age before the Catastrophe. For his grandchildren his name becomes a symbol of a dead civilization, so used that no one knows any longer what it was for or how it was lost.



Who is it that bombs us back to barbarism? In Anderson Graham’s The Collapse of Homo Sapiens (1923) the answer is very clear. It is Africans and Asians who, for some reason, have been able to achieve the technological expertise that up to this point has esis for the superiority of the West. Before the novel is over, we have learned that universities must take the blame for their criminal foolishness in teaching students of foreign races.

“They had even discovered a deadlier gas than ours, and explosives of such power that two or three bombs had been enough to wipe London out of existence.” And now the dark races are using this advantage to level the civilization they hate.

The bombers fly so low that you can see the dark skin of the soldiers and their foreign uniforms, you can hear their crude laughter as they drop their little bombs.

They gassed such as made a stand and hunted to death those who ran away. Such children as escaped fled in mad terror to the wastes and the woodland, where they lost the last tatters of civilisation. . . . In winter they died as the flies do because they had not the wit left to store against its rigours. . . . The tree that has taken centuries to grow can be cut down in an hour.”



There is no pretense in Douhet. He knows what it’s all about and he says it openly, shamelessly, almost with pleasure.

He was followed by a string of lesser prophets, who tried to give terror a more human face.

The good thing bout air warfare is that instead of killing people, we can destroy their economy, writes the British military theorist J.F.C. Fuller in The Reformation of War (1923).

The bombardment of bridges and railways stops the transport of food and ammunition to combatants. It then becomes unnecessary to kill them. “Thus in the extended employment of aircraft, we have the means at hand of compelling a bloodless victory.” Gas provides an even greater means of humanizing war. If deadly gas is used, soldiers will at least not have to be shot to pieces. With the use of mustard gas, men will be injured, but only rarely killed. If nerve gas is used, the men simply fall asleep and can be disarmed without even being injured. Air raids are immoral only if they cause greater harm than ground warfare. The war of the future might indeed be harder on the civilian population, but on the other hand, wars will be shorter and less bloody, predicts Fuller. Five hundred airplanes, each loaded with 500 five-kilo bombs filled with mustard gas can injure 200,000 Londoners in a half-hour, changing the city to a raging madhouse. A landslide of terror would sweep aside the government in Westminster. ‘Then will the enemy dictate his terms. . . . Thus may a war be won in forty-eight hours and losses of the winning side may be actually nil!”



In Baghdad in February of 1923, the newly arrived staff officer Lionel Charlton visited the local hospital in Diwaniya. He had expected diarrhea and broken bones, but was instead suddenly and surprisingly confronted with the results of a British air raid. The difference between a police baton and a bomb was brutally obvious. Had it been a question of war or an open rebellion, he as an officer would not have had any complaint, he writes in his memoirs, but this “indiscriminate bombing of a populace … with the liability of killing women and children, was the nearest thing to wanton slaughter.” He became more and more doubtful about the methods with which “an appearance of law and order” was maintained in Iraq. Soon a new sheik had stirred up a rebellion and had to be punished. But from 3,000 feet it was not so easy to target him specifically. When the bombs exploded without warning in the crowded bazaar, innocent and powerless subjects would be killed along with their oppressors. Was it right for an entire city to suffer for one man’s crime? And was he even a criminal himself? Perhaps the informants who had fingered him had personal reasons to go behind his back. To bomb a city on those grounds was a form of tyranny that threatened to make the British even more hated. Charlton’s superior, John Salmond, made no bones in admitting that the bombs struck at the innocent. But the established political line had to be followed. If the air force was to survive as an independent branch of service, it had to prove its efficiency and could not afford sentimentality. As expected, when the rebellious sheik was bombed, more than twenty women and children lost their lives. Charlton no longer wanted any part of it. He requested to be relieved of his post on grounds of conscience. Headquarters sent him back to England, where he was forced to retire in 1928.


Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 1:37 pm

Pope Francis: Marxist cleric

Rick Wolff: Marxist professor emeritus

November 16, 2015

Understanding the rise of ISIS

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

Jihadists in Fallujah, 2004, when they were good guys

After George W. Bush invaded Iraq, the left followed the war with keen interest hoping against hope that the American military would be sent packing in the same fashion as Vietnam thirty years earlier. Even though there was little evidence of socialist ideology among the Sunni or the Shiite militias who fought the Americans more sporadically, the consensus was that they deserved our support.

Like some of the key battles in Vietnam such as the Tet Offensive of 1968, the battle for Fallujah became a turning point in the war. Writing for CounterPunch on November 13, 2004 Mike Whitney professed his admiration for the “mujahideen” quoting a Pepe Escobar article to the same effect. Both men were ready to hoist the fighters on their shoulders and Whitney went so far as to regard them as students of Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara:

Former or retired Iraqi army officials have always been serious students of Viet Minh tactics and Che Guevara’s theory of the guerrilla foco (center of guerrilla operations). Now they are applying this to urban warfare.

Now, 11 years later, very few people would take up the cause of mujahideen, which is the Arabic word for “people performing Jihad”. Even less so if the men carrying it out were retired Iraqi army officers who appear to be exactly those who are running ISIS’s military operations today. Apparently, when an armed struggle is being waged against Washington, it makes little difference if the ideology is Salafist or Marxist but when Bashar al-Assad is targeted, all bets are off. Ipso facto, shooting at Baathist soldiers makes you a fascist.

There was very little interest on the left in exactly what life was like in Fallujah back in 2004 except that we admired the courage of the citizens. But as “liberated territory”, it doesn’t sound that much different from places under ISIS control today as Nir Rosen reported in an article titled “Resistance: Meet the People of Fallujah” that appeared in the October 2004 Socialist Review, the monthly magazine of the British SWP:

They had banned alcohol, western films, make-up, hairdressers, ‘behaving like women’ (ie homosexuality), and even dominoes in the coffee houses. Men found publicly drunk had been flogged, and I was told of a dozen men beaten and imprisoned for selling drugs. Islamic courts were being established in association with mujahideen units and mosque leaders, meting out punishment consistent with the Koran. Erstwhile Ba’ath Party members told me they were expiating the sins of their former secularism, and Ba’ath ideology had now become Islamist. An assistant to the mayor confirmed that there were Islamic courts with their own qadis, or judges, who acted independently of the police.

One of the men most responsible for imposing Wahhabist norms in Fallujah was one Abu al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of a militia called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad), a group that would reconstitute itself as Al-Qaeda in Iraq in October 2004. Zarqawi was so extreme that he alienated Osama bin-Laden. This was a guy heavy into suicide bombings against Shi’ite mosques, beheadings and other gruesome tactics we associate with ISIS. The left had a tendency to discount such behavior since after all it was the broader anti-imperialist goal that mattered. The spin-doctoring talent that some people developed in this period prepared them for yeoman work in the Baathist amen corner years later. John Wight excuses barrel-bombing open-air markets in Syria in the same way some excuse Dresden or Hiroshima. When excesses are committed in a war on fascism, they can be forgiven unless of course you are Joseph Heller or Howard Zinn.

Between al-Zarqawi and bin-Laden there were also differences on orientation with al-Zarqawi favoring the building of an Islamic state and bin-Laden more inclined to fund and organize likeminded movements around the globe. Furthermore, bin-Laden frowned on the idea of sectarian violence—believe it or not. When al-Zarqawi, a crude and violent man by temperament, told bin-Laden that he was into killing Shi’ites, bin-Laden was appalled.

Another thing to keep in mind is that bin-Laden’s prestige, such as it was, originated in the battles against Russian troops in Afghanistan while al-Zarqawi’s “cred” rested on his feats in Iraq. Henceforth, this would favor the emergence of ISIS that had a base of younger fighters who had taken part in battles such as Fallujah.

Despite the sharp differences, it served al-Zarqawi’s practical interests to form Al-Qaeda in Iraq since it could benefit from both funding and staffing from the parent organization’s worldwide network.

On October 15, 2006 al-Qaeda in Iraq spawned a new group called the Islamic State in Iraq that was known by its initials: ISI. For the next two years it would build up its power in Anbar province, where ISIL would seize control a few years later—including Mosul the second largest city in Iraq. So in a very real sense, there was a dotted line between Fallujah in 2004, the city that raised the spirits of the left to new heights, and the targets of Russian bombing today. Nothing has changed socially or politically in Anbar province except where it fits into the geopolitical chess game. Orwell put it this way:

Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.

The cruelty of ISI had so alienated the Sunnis of Anbar province in whose name it was supposedly acting that it gave the Americans the opening it needed to create the “Awakening” movement in 2006 that pitted powerful tribal elements against the jihadists.

Once the jihadists had been sent packing from Anbar Province, Baghdad had the possibility of ruling over a united Iraq but Shi’ite sectarianism would eventually alienate Sunnis to such an extent that a new opening was provided to the followers of one Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had taken over for al-Zarqawi and would become the public face of ISIS.

In 2012 and 2013, there was a protest movement in Fallujah, Mosul and other Sunni-dominated cities that was similar in spirit to the Arab Spring of 2011. In December 2012, the Iraqi police arrested Rafi al-Issawi in Fallujah who was one of the top Sunni politicians in Iraq, had served as Minister of Finance under al-Maliki and had been a thorn in the side of the Shi’ite establishment. Al-Maliki accused him falsely of being an al-Qaeda operative but his main offense was pressing for Sunni rights.

Writing for CounterPunch, Iraqi journalist Eman Ahmed Khamas described al-Maliki as a sectarian bully cut from the same cloth as Bashar al-Assad:

Maliki claims that he leads a vibrant democracy, but he heads an authoritarian regime and monopolizes six high governmental posts: chief of staff, minister of defense, minister of interior, chief of intelligence, and head of national security. Even his partners in the Shiite alliance have been excluded, let alone his Sunni opponents. He is supported by the theocracts in Iran and he has supported the Syrian regime, one of the most notorious autocracies in the region. In a televised interview, Maliki threatened to liquidate those who demonstrate for justice and better services, and described them as a ‘stinking bubble’. Indeed, his SWAT forces used lethal weapons against peaceful protestors several times. In the town of Hawija, for example, at least 50 unarmed men were slaughtered last April. In other cities, such as Basra, Nassyria, Fallujah, and Mosul, protestors have been beaten, arrested and killed.

When the USA began to call for al-Maliki to step down in order to prevent the growth of ISIS in Iraq (the group had changed its name to reflect its new caliphate ambitions), some interpreted this as a move to destabilize Iraq. Apparently the slaughter of peaceful protesters was necessary to keep a leader of the axis of resistance in place. Never one to mince words, Mike Whitney described the Sunni protests as being “nurtured by US Intel agencies that armed, trained and funded the respective wahhabi crackpots who then moved into Iraq”—in other words the same kinds of people he compared to Che Guevara in 2004 were now “wahhabi crackpots”.

When ISIS overran Mosul and other cities in Anbar Province, it inherited a vast supply of armaments abandoned by the Iraqi army including 2,300 armored Humvees worth a cool billion dollars. These Humvees came in handy in suicide attacks on government strongholds. Besides the Humvees, ISIS got its hands on Russian T-72 tanks, heavy artillery, American Stinger MANPADs, anti-tank TOW missiles, and anti-aircraft cannons. So for all the talk of USA arming ISIS, you can say that this is true but only in the sense that American banks supplied cash to John Dillinger in the 1930s.

For the Baathist amen corner, this historical background is best swept under the rug. What they are far more interested in is evidence of a conspiracy by Washington to create ISIS. A document posted to Judicial Watch has gotten heavy rotation as they say about Beyonce albums on FM pop music stations. Writing in the Guardian on June 9, 2015, Seumas Milne claims that a Pentagon report written in August 2012 “welcomed” a Salafist principality of the kind that ISIS now refers to as a caliphate—this despite the fact that the report views such an outcome as having “dire consequences on the Iraqi situation”. How Milne can extrapolate “welcome” out of “dire consequences” is rather a mystery but over the past four years I have become accustomed to such journalists playing fast and loose with the facts.

Flush with a massive armory, ISIS expanded into Syria in order to impose a caliphate on its people and the rebel groups that had been fighting to overthrow Assad, including al-Nusra—the al-Qaeda affiliate. Since people like Milne are committed to making an amalgam between ISIS and the Syrian rebels, you can expect very few references to the facts on the ground. In June of this year, al-Nusra launched an assault against ISIS in West Qalamoun vowing to fight “until its last breath to push them to take back their takfiri trend and bloodshed against Muslims.” Needless to say, the FSA has repelled ISIS as well on countless occasions sometimes in collaboration with the Kurds. Seumas Milne, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn have never mentioned these confrontations for obvious reasons.

ISIS now controls a vast swath of territory in Syria despite all attempts by rebel groups to oust it. One would think that given Bashar al-Assad’s insistence that his fight is one against “terrorism” he would be anxious to bring the fight to ISIS as well.

Not exactly.

In June 2011, Bashar al-Assad declared a general amnesty that was intended to achieve two goals: the first to burnish his image in the West as a “reformer” as Hillary Clinton put it; the second to allow die-hard jihadists to constitute a counterforce to the democratic opposition (a term I prefer to “moderates”.)

Among the men released from prison were two brothers, Amr and Firas al-Absi. Amru became a member of ISIS’s ruling Shura Council and is reported to be in charge of ISIS’s media arm. Firas, who was killed by a rival jihadist, was involved with helping ISIS get a foothold in Syria. This was no accident. A former member of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate told the National on January 21, 2014: “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades.”

Until fairly recently, there have been few battles between ISIS and the Syrian government, which pursued a policy of benign neglect. In 2014 two out of three ISIS attacks were against rebel groups opposed to Assad, according to data gathered by Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center’s (JTIC). For the most part, ISIS’s focus has been on the relatively sparsely populated territory of eastern Syria that abuts Iraq and that is part of its “caliphate”. Most Syrians live in Damascus and other heavily populated cities in western Syria on the Mediterranean coastline. One reason that ISIS was able to seize control of the east was Baathist abandonment dictated by the need to concentrate its forces around Damascus, Homs and other cities seen necessary for the creation of an eventual creation of an Alawite dominated mini-state.

The Baathists and ISIS also had worked out mutually beneficial commercial ties. After seizing Syria’s oil and gas fields. ISIS began selling fuel to the government, a necessary element of the war machine. The Syrian air force made the wise decision not to bomb ISIS controlled territory. Why jeopardize the flow of fuel needed to keep helicopters aloft so they can carry out mission-critical barrel bomb attacks on open-air markets?

Turning to Patrick Cockburn’s recently published “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the new Sunni Revolution”, you get a rather skewed account of what has transpired especially in chapter six titled “Jihadis Hijack the Syrian Revolution”. Oddly enough for a book purportedly about the rise of ISIS, there is very little discussion of ISIS per se in this chapter. Mostly Cockburn is content to dismiss all rebel groups as “jihadists” at odds with the original peaceful and democratic mission of the Arab Spring in Syria.

And when he does refer to ISIS, it is erroneously: “By 2014 the war had reached a stalemate and the armed opposition was dominated by ISIS.” He makes such an assertion without once engaging with the findings of the JTIC report or the commercial ties between ISIS and the regime. ISIS certainly is armed to the teeth but “opposition”? Really?

He tells his readers that the jihadists were welcomed by local people for restoring order after the “looting and banditry” of the FSA. One might expect an august member of the journalistic profession to provide some references to back up this characterization but there is none. Since Cockburn’s experience in Syria has been as a reporter embedded with the army for the most part, direct experience with the FSA is minimal at best.

As a kind of proof that jihadism was Syria’s destiny, Cockburn tells the story of Saddam al-Jamal, a FSA commander who defected to ISIS. He was reported to have said that FSA commanders “used to meet with the apostates of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and with the infidels of Western nations such as America and France in order to receive arms and ammo or cash”. Al-Jamal supposedly symbolized the susceptibility of all rebels, including “moderates”, to the siren song of jihad. Cockburn credits Brown Moses for coming up with the goods on Saddam al-Jamal but neglects to tell his readers the circumstances in which this “conversion” took place as indicated in an update to the original post on the Brown Moses blog:

The supposed defection of the Saddam al-Jamal, commander of the Allahu Akbar brigade, to ISIS was not a wholly voluntary act. ISIS has been in constant combat with over 15 FSA units in northern Syria throughout the past few months in an effort to expand their zones of total control. The Ahfad Al-Rasoul brigade, of which the Allahu Akbar Brigade was an affiliate, is one of these units. Because of the existing tensions with Allahu Akbar’s parent unit, ISIS stormed an Allahu Akbar command post in Deir Ezzour, taking the brigade’s weapons cache and killing several fighters, including the brother of Saddam Al-Jamal. Having lost his brigade, his weapons, and his brother, Mr. Al-Jamal pledged allegiance to ISIS to protect himself. Ideological factors were not at play.

Finally, there is Cockburn’s report that he witnessed al-Nusra fighters storming an apartment complex in Adra in early 2014, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.

In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed JAN [al-Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.

In his Independent article where this atrocity was first mentioned, you discover where his information came from in the very first paragraph:

“They came through the main sewer at 4.30am and caught us by surprise,” says a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali, describing the rebel capture of part of the industrial town of Adra, just north of Damascus.

This is par for the course. Patrick Cockburn writes a book making the case that jihadists have hijacked the Syrian revolution and the key eyewitness backing this is a Syrian soldier. This reminds me of the coverage of the war in Vietnam when the NY Times routinely cited a South Vietnamese officer on how the NLF had committed one atrocity or another. As they say, the first casualty of war is the Truth. One tends to think of Judith Miller or Wolf Blitzer when these words are brought up. How sad it is to think of Patrick Cockburn in the same terms.



November 14, 2015

Three films of note

Filed under: Brazil,Film,immigration,workers — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

Opening at the IFC Center on November 20th, “Mediterranea” is a timely narrative film about immigration, an issue that has been dominating the media for the past year or two. In this instance, the characters are not political refugees but a couple of brothers from Burkina Faso who are trying to make to Europe in hope of a better life.

While most people who have been following the immigration story are aware that the voyage across the Mediterranean Ocean on rickety boats has cost the lives of more than 2000 people this year, the film dramatizes the hazards that must be faced even before they reach the boat. The two brothers, Ayiva and Abas, join a group of about twenty people who must reach their point of departure in Algeria by first traveling through the Libyan desert. Relying on a guide who they are told to trust implicitly, they are ambushed by Libyan bandits who obviously got tipped off by the guide. They are ordered to surrender their hard-earned cash and other valuables. When one man begins complaining loudly even as he has complied with their demands, he gets a bullet in the head.

Eventually the two brothers make it to Italy—just barely—where they make their way to a small town in the countryside where they hope to hook up with other Burkina Faso immigrants. After being warmly greeted in town by their brethren, they are escorted to their new home—a room in a shantytown hovel. Between the two brothers, there are conflicts over their situation with Ayiva seeing the glass half-full and Abas seeing it as ninety percent empty.

Like most of the other male immigrants, they end up as farmworkers picking oranges for an Italian family that looks upon them kindly but patronizingly. The grandmother insists on being called Mother Africa while the teenaged granddaughter turns over a carton of oranges because she is feeling bitchy. Her father is fair to his workers but only so far as it goes. When Ayiva practically begs him to help secure the papers necessary for permanent residence, the man lectures him about his grandfather who relied on nobody except his family when he came to the USA.

The film is remarkable by staying close to the realities of immigrant life without resorting to the melodrama that many of these types of films deem necessary. It is about the daily struggle to make a living in difficult circumstances and the small pleasures that come with the gatherings of fellow Burkina Faso men and women at night as they share drinks, listen to Western music, and shore each other up for the next day’s travails.

The press notes indicate how the director came to make such a film:

It would be pretentious on my part to claim that I have experienced anything remotely close to what the immigrants are experiencing —I can only be an outside observer here. However, because of my own background, I could approach the story of African immigrants in Italy with some personal connections. My mother is African-American and my father is Italian. And I’ve always been very interested in race relations, with a particular interest in the role of black people in Italian society. So when the first race riot took place in Rosarno in 2010, I immediately went down to Calabria to learn more about the circumstances that lead to the revolt. It was an event of historical proportions because it opened up for the first time the question of race relations in an Italian context. So I started talking to people and collecting stories about their lives. I settled there permanently and began to think about a script.

Although it should not be a factor in either reviewing or seeing this exceptionally well-made and politically powerful film, a few words about Burkina Faso would help you understand why such people would take the arduous trip across the Mediterranean to an uncertain future.

In 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara, who was to Burkina Faso as Hugo Chavez was to Venezuela, led a popular revolution in Upper Volta, a former French colony. Once in power, he changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, which meant “Land of Upright Men”, and embarked on a bold series of social and economic reforms targeting the country’s poor, especially the women. Called the “Che Guevara of Africa”, he consciously modeled his development program on the Cuban revolution.

Unlike in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez was saved from a coup attempt by the power of the people, the Burkina Faso experiment had a tragic outcome. Blaise Compaoré, acting on behalf of Burkina Faso’s tiny but powerful bourgeoisie and their patrons in France, overthrew Sankara in 1987.

For the next twenty-seven years Blaise Compaoré created the conditions that forced people like Ayiva and Abas to risk everything on a voyage that could cost them lives at worst and at best to end up picking oranges for minimum wages. In 2006 the UN rated Burkina Faso as 174th in human development indicators, just three places from the bottom. With cotton plantations dominating the rural economy, the country is locked into the traditional neocolonial, agro-export dependency.

Last year when Compaoré proposed a change to the constitution that would allow him to run for office once again after the fashion of Robert Mugabe, the country erupted in protests and he fled the country. In the aftermath, there have been various attempts by military figures to run the country temporarily until elections were held next year. Suffice it to say that none of them measures up to Thomas Sankara. One hopes that the same kind of courage and determination that led the characters in “Mediterranea” to make the arduous trip to Italy will serve to make Burkina Faso the “Land of Upright Men” once again.

Following in the footsteps of this year’s “A Second Mother”, a Brazilian film about class divisions between master and servant in a wealthy household, “Casa Grande” incorporates much of the same tensions and even a central character—a teenage son who is uncomfortable with privilege.

In “Casa Grande”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York, we meet Jean the teenage son early on as he sneaks into the bedroom of Rita, one of the family’s two maids. Overloaded with raging hormones, he can barely restrain himself as Rita—a beautiful young woman—tells him about a tryst she had with a motorcyclist whose name she did not even know. He took her to an alley, lifted up her skirt, and began kissing her bottom. As Jean begins to make a move on Rita, she holds him off and sends him back to his room—the only power that she can exercise in a house where class privilege is on display every minute of the day.

Hugo, Jean’s father, is impatient with Jean who has a slacker temperament. It is not just that the youth is unmotivated, although that is a problem, it is more that he is not very smart—the same flaw that existed in the young man in “A Second Mother”. That does not stand in the way of the close relationship he has built with the hired help and in fact makes it more possible. For someone barely capable of passing Brazil’s onerous entrance exams for college, there is little point in pretending that he is something other than a kid who likes music and women. When Severino the chauffeur drives him to school in the morning, the main topic of conversation is how to “score”. It is clear that Jean has much more of a rapport with the driver than his martinet of a father who expects him to join Brazil’s bourgeoisie.

This is a bourgeoisie that Hugo is barely clinging to having lost his job as an investment adviser and who is now deeply in debt, so much so that every penny must be accounted for in Casa Grande. Before the family gathers for dinner in the evening, he reminds them to shut out the lights in their room before they sit down at the table. We eventually learn that Hugo, despite all his displays of privilege, has not paid the servants for the past three months and that he will be forced to sell their mansion in a gated community designed to keep out people from the lower classes.

When Jean develops a relationship with Luiza, a young woman of mixed ancestry, race joins class in forcing Jean to decide where his loyalties lie. The main topic of conversation at dinner gatherings is Brazil’s new affirmative action law that will allot 40 percent of the posts in many public institutions to Black or brown people, including Luiza. When she insists to Hugo that she deserves a spot in college because of the new law’s commitment to compensating for slavery, he spits out that he earned his place in society. Nobody ever gave him anything.

His place in society is exactly what is in jeopardy now. Although the information will be familiar to Brazilian audiences, I had to research the nature of Hugo’s immanent downfall on the net. It seems that he owned thousands of shares in OGX, the second largest oil and gas company in Brazil after Petrobras. This is a company that would go broke eventually because of the mismanagement of its CEO Eike Batista, who was an even bigger screw-up than Hugo.

In 2008 Forbes listed Batista as the 8th richest man in the world. Five years later he would be ruined because OGX was pumping only 15,000 gallons of oil out of the ground rather than the 750,000 it predicted. This year Brazilian cops seized seven cars from Batista, including a white Lamborghini Aventador, and all the cash he had left.

If you want to understand the turmoil in Brazil today, there’s no better place to go than the Cinema Village to see this brilliant dissection of a society falling apart at the seams.

Finally, there’s “Barge”, a 71-minute documentary showing tomorrow at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas on 260 W 23rd St, between 7th and 8th Avenues as part of the NY Documentary Film Festival that runs until the 19th (the schedule is here: http://www.docnyc.net/schedule/).

In this marvelous work by Ben Powell, we accompany a crew as they navigate the Mississippi River from Rosedale, Mississippi to points northward. The film alternates between gorgeous vistas of the river, the men at work on the boat, and interviews that you have to strain a bit to understand since the drawls are so thick you can cut them with a knife. (Will Patterson’s minimalist film score is a winner, the best Philip Glass-inspired work I have heard in decades.)

The interviews are what make this film stand out. If you have read Studs Terkel’s “Working”, you’ll get an idea of what inspired Ben Powell to make such a film. In a period when workers are undervalued, you’ll be impressed with how the crew see themselves—as men who help keep the country going. One nails it this way: most of everything you touch gets there on a barge, including the concrete of the sidewalks you walk on and the plastic your groceries are packaged in. With so much of American society consumed with “making it” on an individualist basis, it is great to see a collectivist ethos that goes back centuries at least.

November 13, 2015

Democracy, Mugabe-Style

Filed under: Africa,democracy — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

Democracy, Mugabe-Style

Beginning on Wednesday November 18th, the Film Forum in New York will be showing “Democrats”, a cinéma vérité documentary judged best at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Directed by Camilla Nielsson, a Danish director trained at NYU who has made political documentaries since 2003, it consists exclusively of footage of two Zimbabwean lawyers as they go around the country making the case for and against Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. On the pro side is Paul Mangwana, a former Minister of Information; on the con side is Douglas Mwonzora, an adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Both men have been assigned by their rival parties to work on a new constitution. It is 2008, when Mugabe and Tsvangirai rule Zimbabwe in a nominally power-sharing arrangement that resulted from political and economic pressure, particularly from the USA and Britain. Serving on the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (COPAC), they traveled across the country over a three year period to monitor community meetings tacitly organized to hear ordinary people express their views on matters such as term limits, etc.

Almost as if on cue from central casting, the ZANU-PF representative Paul Mangwana is cynical and mocking, implying on numerous occasions that he regards the whole exercise as a dog and pony show. By contrast, Mwonzora is sober and thoughtful.

However, don’t expect a simple morality tale to unfold. The film is much more interested in demonstrating the tangled nature of Zimbabwean politics where Mugabe’s continuing rule after 35 years is only partially based on violence. To a large extent the dominance of the ZANU-PF is a function of the ineptitude of the opposition as can be gleaned from a key scene. When Mwonzora shows up at rural village to get a report on how the meetings on the draft constitution went, an MDC member tells him it did not go well at all. Their party members showed up drunk and unclear about their purpose. For Mangwana, the domination of the meeting by ZANU-PF members was easy to understand. Smiling like the cat that ate the canary, he says that his party was better organized.

Read full review

November 11, 2015

This is not 2003

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:24 am

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 9.23.26 PM

(Commentary written by the editors of Salvage Magazine.)

Assad lost no time in using the crisis to bolster his narrative, tweeting ‘if you are worried about refugees stop arming terrorists’. When many on the Left have effectively taken this as their line, we have passed from the realms of campism, of some un-nuanced and notional ‘anti-imperialism’, to that of bad faith and fantasy.

This bad faith is important not merely with regard to its own truth-claims, but for what it says about the Left’s self-image and concomitant actions. A flawed analysis, narcissism and activist-conservatism are here all mutually reinforcing.

The proximate bad faith lies in the account of the Syrian Revolution. At a deeper level, there’s a gross misrepresentation of reality (including to oneself, perhaps) in the clinging to an image of imperialism from the high point of US unilateralism, circa 2003. This is nostalgia for a time when the Left seemed to be a player, when the Stop the War movement was in a coherent political confrontation with that Bush-era imperialism, rather than an impotent observer of a bloody and widening gyre.

Does the bad analysis or the self-aggrandisement come first? Yes. The bad analysis or the self-aggrandisement comes first.

Anti-anti-Assad-ism has it that the refugees are fleeing Syria because the US and its allies have funded an Islamist counter-insurgency against an anti-imperialist regime. Plans are supposedly afoot for more extensive intervention, for regime change along the lines of Baghdad 2003. Daesh is the weapon deployed (all of the Syrian oppositions being assimilated into it in this account), and it was, in the words of Seamus Milne, ‘incubated by the West’s supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups’.

Scepticism on any of these points can provoke heavy-handed contempt for ‘gullibility’ about the perfidious US. So let us be clear: that the US would be willing to carry out this (or almost any other) plan is not in doubt. Whether it did, however, in this case, and whether the Syrian revolt was as so depicted, are questions susceptible to logic and evidence. In fact, the popular revolutionary character of the Syrian uprising in its early days has been documented by participants and observers – the Syria Freedom Forever website being an excellent point to start. Partisans of this imperialist conspiracy narrative, however, are somewhat impervious to such data.

There certainly is an imperialist intervention in Syria, one in which the US and UK are participating. It is, though, not aimed at removing the Ba’athist regime but, tacitly, at maintaining it, in such a form as can govern at least part of the country. For a year this coalition has been bombing Syrian targets – or in the UK’s case, British citizens in Syria whom David Cameron has taken it upon himself to assassinate. Not a single Syrian regime target has been struck. It is Daesh which has borne the main brunt of the bombing, but their ideological and military competitors on the armed Takfiri right, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and opposition battalions affiliated with neither party, have also been attacked.

But this anti-Daesh air campaign is in the main a sideshow. The imperialist power busiest in Syria is Russia, working with its local ally Iran. Russian troops are now deployed in near-combat roles in Syria, Russia unleashes ferocious air-strikes occasionally against Daesh, mostly against other Assad opponents (provoking slathering Russophilia in sections of the British press, left and right): the Russian foreign minister has called upon the US military to co-operate with them. The presence of Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi and Hezbollah Shi’a militias shoring up Assad – indeed, giving the regime orders – is old news. It is thisconcatenation of extra- and intra-regional forces that most actively seeks the partition of Syria to advance their interests: in Istanbul in August, representatives of Tehran and Nasrallah met leaders of Ahrar al-Sham (the authoritarian Sunni militia dominant in the Aleppo countryside) to discuss such a plan on a local level. There were no Syrian negotiators on the regime side.

If there is no evidence of direct external intervention against the Syrian regime – to the contrary – then what of the claim that Daesh is a creation of the US? It is obviously true that it would not exist without the occupation of Iraq. That is not the same as claiming the US created Daesh, let alone in a burst of evil genius – and, to be clear again, we need no convincing of the evil, the genius, or the evil genius of the US administration, only that there is, to put it mildly, insufficient evidence for this particular claim.

The Assad regime itself enjoyed a far closer relationship with these Takfiris, providing lines of logistical support to them during the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq and the civil war that ensued from it; releasing them from prison at the outbreak of the Syrian revolution; leaving their positions untouched while flattening opposition civilian areas; buying oil from the fields they have seized. Not only is it not the case that Daesh and the regime are the only protagonists in Syria: they are barely enemies.

The US has, in truth, directly funded and armed a militia in Syria: 54 men, in total. Other prospective members abandoned the programme because it was demanded that they fight Daesh, not Assad. Contrary to the anti-anti-Assadists, then, the armed opposition, in other words, have refused imperialist aid to maintain their strategic autonomy.

The only faction in Syria able to call on significant Western military aid – indeed to call in US airstrikes in their fight against Daesh – are the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Unity Party, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK) and its militia the YPG (Popular Protection Units). Recently, reports have emerged claiming that US special forces are aiding the YPG on the ground – which is telling, if there is truth to the claims from some other rebel groups (and, unsurprisingly, Ankara) that the PYD has been willing to collaborate with Assad. Rather than being condemned by the global Left, as was – in usually, if not always, unthinking fashion – the Free Syrian Army, for calling for Western intervention, the PYD has been lauded.

For the most part the Left has failed to deal with the complications or implications of such a political dilemma, of embattled progressive forces demanding – and in this case amply receiving – aid from imperialism. This refusal to engage stems from the Left’s allergy to looking complexity and tragedy square on, to situations wherein all options are equally bad, where there is nothing for which a radical Left can meaningfully call. The most common response is simply to ignore the US alliance with the PYD, and to elide all Arab opposition (some of whom actually fought with the YPG against Daesh in Kobane) with Daesh.

The 2003 nostalgia, reading Syria as a continuation of the moment of Bush-Cheney militarism, is a flight from reckoning both with the impotence of today’s Left, and with the shifting realities of geopolitics. In its understanding of the Arab revolutions and their consequences, and of the nature of contemporary imperialism, it is a failure.

We must start from the recognition that the so-called ‘Arab spring’ was revolutionary in character – not excluding Syria – andthat the barely-comprehensible butchery and reaction in the region is a consequence of the defeat of those revolutions.

In the absence of a rooted, at least partially organised, agent of change with some conception of social relations to come after revolutionary confrontation, and with the potential to strive for any political hegemony, this is what revolutions will be like. There is none better to wait for. We must own that contradiction, not flee from it into nostalgic fantasy. There is a politics that demands the masses stay in their place because what’s likely to replace oppression is chaos, but it is that of Edmund Burke and Joseph De Maistre, not Marx or Luxemburg.

The civil wars in Syria, and their inverted image in Yemen where the Sisi counter-revolution has now committed ground troops, is not comprehensible through the lens of US power à la 2003. Those committed to that optic should ask themselves why they are so invested. The geometry of contemporary imperialist rivalry – multi-, uni-, or even a-polar – remains obscure.Salvage will devote future pages to its investigation.

The external Great Powers, Russia and the US, continue to support their clients and pursue their interests, as they always will. And their local clients – and the clients of those clients – pursue their own, in a rubble of fractured counter-revolution, in which it is no surprise they often find themselves at odds with the trajectories of their (former) patron(s), in multiple, sometimes contradictory, directions.

The petro-reactionary state of Saudi Arabia is the main supporters of the Sisi counter-revolution in Egypt: but Sisi is an ardent admirer of Assad, against whom are ranged such forces as Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis collaborate, then, with the US campaign against Daesh in Syria, which has, if loosely and uncomfortably, brought together the Iranians and Americans, Riyadh pursues an even stronger line against the loosely pro-Iran Houthis in Yemen.

This is not 2003.

November 10, 2015

How Swedish Social Democracy became neoliberal

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

“Socialist” Volvos now built in “Communist” China
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(This is the ninth in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. It is an introduction that relates Swedish socialism to Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership with Hitler. Part six covers the social pact that labor and capital agreed upon in 1938. Part seven addressed the question of “Who Rules Sweden” Part eight looked into the Stockholm School of economics that served as as the foundation for Social Democratic policies..)

In 1938 the Swedish trade unions (Landsorganisationen) and the SAF, the Swedish equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce (Svenska arbetsgivareföreningen), signed an accord at Saltsjöbaden that would define the parameters of class peace for the next forty years. Under successive Social Democratic (SAP) governments, the system became known as “socialism” even though it was really a welfare state and nothing more. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that it keeps this myth alive even though measured by the standards of the 1938 agreement Sweden has not been “socialist” for more than 25 years.

In the historic split between the reformists of the Second International and the Comintern, there was never any difference over the goal. Both Lenin and Eduard Bernstein claimed that they were in favor of a classless society. They only differed on the means. Until the 1930s, the Swedish social democrats could at least be described as orthodox Bernsteinites. But in the years leading up to 1938, they transformed themselves into something entirely different. They became socialists in name only. Independently of John Maynard Keynes, they developed policies that are largely associated with the term “Keynesianism” such as:

  1. Deficit spending as an anti-recessionary measure
  2. A highly progressive income tax
  3. State subsidized housing, medical care and education.
  4. Generous unemployment and welfare payments
  5. Partnership between labor and capital over industry-wide and plant-specific policies (in Michael Moore’s latest documentary, tribute is paid to the inclusion of trade union representatives on the board of directors of Mercedes-Benz.)
  6. A specifically Swedish enhancement to the welfare state and one viewed as in line with classically “evolutionary” socialism was called “wage-earner funds”. (They were also called Meidner funds after the economist who first conceived of them.) Supposedly a percentage of pre-tax profits plus a part of wages would be allocated to an pool that would buy shares in the companies, gradually taking them over.

When Bernie Sanders talks about socialism, he is talking about such policies. I too would like to see them adopted in the USA. Unfortunately, they have disappeared for the most part from Sweden as it speeds rapidly toward adopting the Anglo-American Reagan/Thatcher/Clinton/Obama neoliberal model.

The economists who formulated a Keynesian model were graduates of the Stockholm School of Economics, an institution I wrote about in an earlier installment in this series. This business school was launched in 1909 with Knut Wallenberg’s funding. As you probably know, if you have been reading these series of articles, the Wallenbergs were the Rockefellers of Sweden but with a decidedly more liberal outlook—at least until economic growth in the advanced industrial countries slowed down to a crawl in the early 70s.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to explain why the post-WWII boom came to an end (I would refer you to Harry Shutt’s The Trouble with Capitalism for information), suffice it to say that the Wallenbergs switched gears in the early 1970s just as most major donors to the Democratic Party would.)

In 1978 a Wallenberg favorite named Curt Nicolin became head of the SAF and embarked on a path to tame the Swedish trade unions and to force the social democrats to adopt neoliberal economics. If you’ll recall what was happening in the USA at the time, a climate of “lean and mean” had begun to set in. Even before Reagan had taken office, President Carter had lectured the American people on the need to tighten their belts. Think tanks on both the liberal left and the right had come to the conclusion that in order to have an expanding economy, it was necessary to become more competitive. This meant working longer hours and accepting the need to cut “wasteful spending” on welfare.

In Sweden the SAF funded a massive propaganda attack on the “wage-earner funds” meant partly to put the kibosh on the program and also to put the entire Swedish model on the defensive.

On a national popular level in advertisements ‘Meidner Funds’ were connotatively linked with central planning and totalitarianism, presented in black and white images, and were juxtaposed with free enterprise, connotatively linked with freedom of choice, decentralised ownership, initiative and democracy, which were presented in colour. The material was also often targeted so as to interpellate certain groups or towns (‘free enterprise good for Vaxjii’; ‘wage-earner funds concern us barbers too, whether we like it or not’; ‘us gas-station owners too, whether we like it or not’). On an intellectual level, the publishing house Timbro published 22 books between 1978 and 1982, half of which were on free markets and wage-earner funds. The publishing house Ratio was oriented towards theoretical and philosophical debate, and also arranged seminars in philosophy and the social sciences on topics pertaining to freedom, democracy and the market. (In the process, some prominent figures of the Swedish New Left, such as Lennart Berntsson, were converted.) In addition to this, SAF and SI continued their support of the more technical think-tanks, SNS and IUI. This elaborate apparatus provided support for the bourgeois parties in the elections of 1979 and 1982, and thus the prerogatives of capital could be defended.

In many respects the partnership between labor and capital in Sweden was like the one that existed in the USA under FDR, Truman and LBJ until the realities of market competition forced a breach. The big difference between other countries and Sweden was the role of the left. Unlike France, Italy or even the USA to some extent, heavy industry was the arena over which the bosses and the Communist Party fought for control. There was never anything like the Flint sit-down strikes in Sweden, at least in the 1930s. (The Adalen General Strike took place in the early 20s when the CP was a much bigger factor.) For Swedish social democracy, the idea was to foster the development of big manufacturers like Volvo that could provide the tax revenues to fund a welfare state. In exchange for class peace, the bosses got a stable workplace and government subsidies.

As the crown jewel of Swedish “socialism”, the trajectory of the Volvo Corporation deserves some close scrutiny. Volvo (and Saab) had a reputation among many liberals and even many on the left as being superior to other car manufacturers for its attention to safety, its refusal to adopt new styles every year or two, and finally for its supposed humane treatment of its workforce. On June 23, 1987 the NY Times reported on how Volvo was abandoning Fordist assembly lines and converting to a work team approach that were being pioneered in its Kalmar plant. The Times reported:

The cars being assembled here are ferried around the plant by separate computer-controlled carriers. Work teams of about 20 people are responsible for putting together entire units of the car, such as the electrical system and the engine. In this batch-work system, each worker typically does a series of tasks.

Equally unusual is where Volvo found Kalmar’s managers. Virtually all of the plant’s 104 white-collar employees came off the shop floor. Moreover, all major decisions at the plant, whose work force totals 920, must be approved by a joint committee representing both labor and management.

Volvo has discovered that workers are much happier under the Kalmar approach. And that has resulted in sharply improved productivity and improvement in quality, as well as profits that are the envy of the world auto industry.

By November 1992, the two work-team plants had been shut down. Furthermore, Volvo announced that all new assembly would take place outside of Sweden. (Saab, which had already been sold to General Motors, also was headed down the same road—finally going belly up in 2012.)

After being sold to Ford in 2000, Volvo finally ended being made in China with Swedish financing. You can understand why. Workers at Geely in China making Volvos on an assembly line (you can be sure) make $5000-7000 per year. That’s much better for the bottom line, after all. Apparently Volvos will soon be made in South Carolina, another bastion of free enterprise.

Winding down the manufacturing base in Sweden did not mean an end to capital accumulation. Like Great Britain that had liquidated its coalmines and steel mills, Swedish capital would find other profitable outlets. As Thomas Murphy, a former CEO of General Motors, once put it: “General Motors is not in the business of making cars. It is in the business of making money.” This could apply as well to the Swedish bourgeoisie.

In a March 1993 Monthly Review article titled “The End of the Middle Road: what happened to the Swedish model?”, Kenneth Hermele and David Vail describe where Swedish capital flowed:

There was no special need to invest those profits in domestic productive ventures, since business was going so well anyway. Instead, the growing profits bred speculation and inflated the prices of real estate, art, stamps, and the like. In order to find an outlet for all this speculative capital, the Social Democratic government thought it necessary to eliminate the little control over international capital flows that it had previously exerted. Within a year or two, Swedish capital had spilled over into Europe and helped push real estate prices in London and Brussels to record highs.

During the latter half of the 1980s, total direct investments virtually exploded, reaching 84 billion SEK (14 billion U.S. dollars) in 1990. The outflow of capital amounted to as much as 7 percent of Sweden’s GNP, or 60 percent of its domestic investment in 1989 and 1990. Approximately 35 percent of those investments were for speculative purposes (real estate and portfolio investments) and centered on London and Brussels. Swedish capital in fact became one of the most active investors in the EC at the end of the 1980s.

This outflow of capital constituted a drain on Sweden’s financial resources, and it also meant that productive investments at home were kept low by the giant and quick profits that could be made on speculation both at home and abroad. As we know now, the bubble burst sooner rather than later, and the losses turned out to be enormous. In Sweden, the banking system lost an estimated 90 billion SEK (18 billion U.S. dollars) on the collapse of the real estate market. Here, private and public commercial banks and the normally-conservative savings and loan institutions had all participated in the scramble. Their enormous losses are now covered by the Swedish state, i.e., by the taxpayers. Thus, wage earners have paid twice for the policy of the Third Road: first, when their wages were sacrificed in favor of profits, and then again when the banks’ losses are covered by the state.

Even as the economic basis for a “Swedish model” was unraveling, the social democrats in office appeared to have little interest in swimming against the stream. In fact, they seemed eager to embrace “new thinking” with relish.

In 1993 Finance Minister Goran Persson began dismantling the Swedish public education system and fostering the establishment of private schools in the same fashion as Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

At the same time the SAP joined hands with the right-wing Swedish Conservative Party (Moderatasamlingspartiet) to make workers responsible for making pension contributions, not the boss. This mean that the longer you are unemployed, the smaller the pension. Socialism? Really?

In a July-August 1994 Monthly Review article titled “Sweden: the model that never was”, Robert Cohen writes:

[Prime Minister] Ingvar Carlsson recently visited Malmo, the third largest city in Sweden and a disaster area in terms of unemployment, cutbacks in social benefits, and privatization of health care and other vital services. For example, the public bus service was recently sold to private owners. This led to immediate personnel reductions, wage cuts, and price increases. The cost of a monthly ticket for a pensioner rose from 100 to 390 kronor overnight, which effectively prevents many pensioned workers from using the bus service. Carlsson’s comment on privatization in Malmo was: “I’m not familiar with the details, but in principle we are not in disagreement with our political opponents,” which amounts to an endorsement of the attack on Malmo’s working class.

In September 2014, the Social Democrats were elected in Sweden in what many considered to be a rejection of 8 years of center-right austerity. In keeping with earlier partnerships with the right, they show signs that they remain committed to neoliberalism. Just three months after being elected, the new prime minister named Stefan Löfven caved in to rightist pressure and adopted an economic program that was more of the same. Even if it finds the votes necessary to reinstitute a “Swedish model”, it is unlikely that it will be able to sustain through unrelenting pressure from the right. It takes a lot more guts to push through a modest Keynesian economics in 2015 as the sad outcome in Greece demonstrates. In fact, it might even take Molotov cocktails to bring about the most tepid of reforms.

In the final analysis, it was inevitable that Sweden became virtually indistinguishable from Britain or the USA since blind economic forces trump policy. If we are interested in true socialism rather than something that rests very much on a partnership with capital, a marriage made in hell to say the least, it probably makes sense to revisit the question of how to get there. That will be the final installment in this series of articles.

November 9, 2015

How Russian and American bombing consolidates support for ISIS

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:32 pm

Source: How Russian and American bombing consolidates support for ISIS

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