Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2015

My days in Houston on assignment for the Socialist Workers Party

Filed under: Texas,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

In the May 4th issue of the Militant, there’s a peculiar article but probably not that much more peculiar than many that have appeared there in recent years, as the tiny cult enters its death throes.

Titled “SWP’s 45 years of rich political history in Texas”, it gives the impression that the party is stronger than ever even though the article is basically a farewell to Texas:

“We can join in increasing labor resistance today,” Warshell said, “like the strike by Steelworkers in area oil refineries and widespread proletarian struggles against police brutality. There are new openings for communists today to build our movement and recruit.

“We’re leaving Houston and closing the branch here,” he said, “but as the class struggle deepens and the party grows, we will be back.”

Increasing labor resistance and leaving Houston? How do these two things go together? Who knows? Who cares?

The SWP once did have a remarkable presence in Houston and the rest of Texas that is referred to briefly:

The SWP and Young Socialist Alliance in Texas grew out of the fight against Washington’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s, said Joel Britton, an SWP leader from Oakland, California. Party branches were built in both Houston and Austin.

As a result of the party’s growing public presence, it became a target of the Ku Klux Klan, as were Black rights’ fighters, anti-war activists, and KPFT, the local Pacifica radio station.

“Houston’s KKK operated with true impunity, tied in with the police force, the sheriff’s department,” and other parts of the so-called justice system, Britton said.

“One of the high points in the fight against Klan attacks was when Debbie Leonard, SWP candidate for mayor in 1971, debated a top Klan leader — not once but twice,” Britton said.

But most of the article is the standard recitation of the party’s “turn to industry” that in fact has left it not only incapable of continuing in Texas but has sealed its doom everywhere else. In a normal organization, there would be feedback mechanisms to allow it to reverse course but in this bizarre cult that is led by someone more than a bit tetched, there is no turning back.

I arrived in Houston in the winter of 1973 in order to help organize a faction fight against a sizable minority in the branch that supported the Ernest Mandel-led wing of the Fourth International that supported guerrilla warfare in Latin America. After a year or so in Houston, the sixties radicalization began to disappear before our very eyes as we scrambled around for new sources of recruitment. It was around this time when I began to feel more and more alienated from the party and its stifling peer pressure both socially and politically that the thoughts of dropping out began to take shape. I only regret that I hung around for another four years.

In any case, you will see the pages from my unpublished memoir about the time I spent in Houston. As is always the case, I am free to post this material under the provisions of fair use legislation, plus rights afforded me as the copyrighted author of the text and the full permission of the artist to circulate the memoir.

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The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

Filed under: anarchism,Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 12:56 pm
Monkeywrenching the Machine

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey


Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.

Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.

In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.

“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.

The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.

We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which Abraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.

Read full article

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia and the truth about al-Qaeda

Filed under: indigenous,Islam,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Since I don’t have access to retired intelligence agency officials either in the USA or Pakistan, I am not in a position to judge most of Seymour Hersh’s 10,000 word article in the LRB but I do want to weigh in on one paragraph:

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’

As should be obvious, Hersh is repeating a claim that he has made for some time now and that is embraced by most of the left, at least that part of the left that views Saudi Arabia as behind al-Qaeda. The words “what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida” resonates with perhaps 30,000 articles that have appeared in places like WSWS.org et al. It is part and parcel of an analysis that Saudi Arabia used al-Qaeda as a proxy in Syria and that its ultimate goal was war with Iran, its Shi’ite enemy.

You can read a 2007 New Yorker article in which Hersh argues along those lines:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Really? Hadn’t Hersh noticed that the USA had spent trillions of dollars installing and then bolstering a Shi’ite government in Iraq that had close ties to the Iranian clerics? Was Maliki a secret Sunni? Who knows? Since Hersh has a way of unearthing conspiracies, maybe there’s an article he wrote somewhere that identifies Maliki as a secret Sunni operative.

This is not to speak of Osama bin-Laden’s attitude toward US relations with Saudi Arabia. Has Hersh forgotten what turned bin-Laden against the USA? It was the presence of American (as well as British and French) troops in the spiritual heart of Islam that apparently led to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was in fact a dagger aimed as much at the Saudi royalty as it was American interests. That is why, of course, Osama bin-Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991.

In addition, Hersh does not seem to be aware that the Saudis fought a pitched battle against al-Qaeda militants in May of 2005 that left 18 dead in a 3-day battle. Furthermore, the violence has continued up until this day. Just this month the Saudi police arrested a number of al-Qaeda members for their role in organizing a suicide bomb attack in Riyadh.

Maybe the confusion is that some Saudi businessmen have given money to jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and that a number of the 9/11 terrorists had Saudi citizenship. If that is the criterion for judging “Saudis” to be behind al-Qaeda, then you might as well claim that “America” was aiding the Sandinistas since Tecnica brigades regularly brought tons of equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s and even provided volunteers to government agencies—including me. I never would make such a claim myself but then again I don’t write for the New Yorker Magazine and other blue chip journals (except CounterPunch.)

Perhaps the confusion is over the actual national identity of bin-Laden and the 9/11 “Saudi” terrorists. Yes, it is true that they had Saudi citizenship but their relationship to the ruling families is not what it might appear.

The bin-Ladens were originally from Yemen and had a strong sense of identity with the Qahtani tribe that was based there and that resented the Adnan tribe that dominated the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni connection was very strong in al-Qaeda, according to Akbar Ahmad, the author of “The Thistle and the Drone”, 95 percent of al-Qaeda was Yemeni or Saudis who were born and raised in Yemen, particularly the Asir region. Ten of the 9/11 attackers were ethnically tied to the Asir tribes, including Mohammad Atta—the mastermind. The 9/11 Commission stated that a number of the men who formed the reserves for the attack were Yemenis as well.

If you want to learn more about the Yemeni connection, I strongly recommend Ahmad’s book that argues that tribalism rather than Islam explains the particularly violent revenge motif that runs like a red thread through Sunni-based jihadi movements globally. He explains that the tribes of Asir are largely nomadic and trace their origins to the Qahtanis.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia that was descended from the Adnans annexed the Asir region in 1934 through a bloody war that cost the lives of 400,000 people. The annexation was followed by an invasion of Saudi clerics who forced their Wahhabi beliefs on the conquered tribesmen. Ahmad’s description of the vanquished Asiri tribes is striking:

The Asir men wore skirt-like apparel revealing much of their legs, and they went without socks. Famously known as “flower men”, they kept their hair long and adorned it with flowers. Even their turbans were decorated with flowers, grass and stones.

An Asiri tribesman

Within decades the Asiri tribes were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Wahhabi/Adnan culture just like American Indians being forced to become “white”.

Although he was from a different part of Yemen originally, Osama bin-Laden’s father felt at home in Asir. He was there to lead a construction crew that was building highway 51 from the north into Yemen with Saudi funding. Although he got rich, the Asiris got nothing from the oil wealth that was lubricating Saudi society. In 1980 the province had only 535 beds for 700,000 residents. The Asiris regarded the Saudis as arrogant and resented their vulgar displays of wealth.

In 1979 the resentment boiled over into an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 127 Saudi cops were killed and 117 Asiri rebels died as well in the fighting. A further 63 were beheaded after being captured.

Like the Chechens, another conquered people, the Asiris soon found international outlets for their anger. In the 1980s it was the primary recruiting ground for foreign fighters joining the Afghan resistance. Many of them would go on to join the group that bin-Laden formed in 1988: al-Qaeda. In the following decade, these militants would form the backbone of the resistance to the Saudi royal family and its American backers.

I doubt that any of this would be of interest to Seymour Hersh who thrives on reductionist conspiracy theories but if you are in the least bit curious about such realities, I urge you to read Akbar Ahmad’s very fine study of tribal Islam.

May 12, 2015

Metropolis has arrived

Filed under: computers,workers — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-12 at 1.58.24 PM

Whenever you drive up to a McDonald’s window, or push your grocery cart to a Stop & Shop checkout line, or head to the register at Uniqlo with a blue lambswool sweater in hand, you, too, are about to be swept up into a detailed system of metrics. A point-of-sale (P.O.S.) system connected to the cash register captures the length of time between the end of the last customer’s transaction and the beginning of yours, how quickly the cashier rings up your order, and whether she has sold you on the new Jalapeño Double. It records how quickly a cashier scans each carton of milk and box of cereal, how many times she has to rescan an item, and how long it takes her to initiate the next sale. This data is being tracked at the employee level: some chains even post scan rates like scorecards in the break room; others have a cap on how many mistakes an employee can make before he or she is put on probation.

Until recently, most retail and fast-food schedules were handmade by managers who were familiar with the strengths of their staff and their scheduling needs. Now an algorithm takes the P.O.S. data and spits out schedules that are typically programmed to fit store traffic, not employees’ lives. Scheduling software systems, some built in-house, some by third-party firms, analyze historical data (how many sales there were on this day last year, how rain or a Yankees game affects revenue) as well as moment-by-moment updates on the number of customers in the store or the number of sweaters sold in the past hour or the pay rate of each employee on the clock—what Kronos, one of the leading suppliers of these systems, calls “oceans of valuable workforce data.” In the world of retail, all of this information points toward one killer K.P.I.: labor cost as a percentage of revenue.

In postwar America, many retailers sought to increase profits by maximizing sales, a strategy that pushed stores to overstaff so that every customer received assistance, and by offering generous bonuses to star salespeople with strong customer relationships. Now the trend is to keep staffing as lean as possible, to treat employees as temporary and replaceable, and to schedule them exactly and only when needed. Charles DeWitt, a vice president at Kronos, calls it “the era of cost.”

from “The Spy Who Fired Me: The human costs of workplace monitoring” by Esther Kaplan. The article is behind a paywall in the March 2015 Harpers but thankfully can be read in its entirety here: http://populardemocracy.org/sites/default/files/HarpersMagazine-2015-03-0085373.pdf

Three Hot Docs films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Despite the fact that the three documentaries under review here have already been shown at the Hot Docs Film Festival that ran from Apr. 23 to May 3 in Toronto, they deserve your attention since there is every possibility that they will be shown at other festivals and—best of all—receive distribution at finer movie theaters. As is so often the case, the documentary is a worthy alternative to the rancid feature films churned out by Hollywood if for no other reason that they are grounded in reality and as such tend to engage with the sort of issues that engage my readers. To wit, “Peace Officer” is about the militarization of police departments in Utah; “A Sinner in Mecca” is about a gay Muslim on a hajj; and “Speed Sisters” is about three young Palestinian women who have become famous for racing cars in the West Bank and elsewhere. Not only are these three films penetrating looks at social reality, they are entertaining especially for their ability to tell stories about remarkable individuals—a task that commercial filmmaking subordinated long ago to special effects and cheesy formulas geared to the adolescent mind.

“Peace Officer” begins with its subject William “Dub” Lawrence emerging from a septic tank with some wadded toilet paper wrapped around a pump—not exactly a scene that promises anything to do with SWAT teams and their abuses, although Lawrence goes on to say that cleaning septic tanks is a more honorable profession than politics. As the former sheriff of Davis County in Utah, an elected post, he is certainly qualified to make such comparisons.

In 1974, Lawrence decided that Davis County, which is in the northern suburbs of Salt Lake City, needed a SWAT team. As the film explains, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units were created first in Los Angeles by Darryl Gates in the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965 as a kind of heavily armed response to that urban uprising and others that might ensue such as the 1974 shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) that had kidnapped Patty Hearst.

Fast forwarding to 2008, Lawrence—long since his departure from police work—was horrified to discover that the very SWAT unit he had created had taken the life of his son-in-law, a 36-year-old firefighter named Brian Wood who had physically assaulted his wife during a mental breakdown and was threatening to kill himself with a revolver inside his pickup truck. The cops held a press conference after his death claiming that he had shot himself in the heart but a skeptical Dub Lawrence eventually discovered that he was shot by a sniper cop during a frenzy that had been mounting ever since the SWAT team surrounded the distraught target of a mission utterly unlike the confrontation with the SLA or any other urban uprising that the SWAT teams had been created to overcome. What Lawrence discovered to his dismay is that the cops had begun to think of themselves more as soldiers putting down an enemy combatant rather than peace officers in the film’s title.

After analyzing the evidence of spent bullets and their trajectory at his son-in-law’s house, Lawrence charged the cops with not only lying about how Brian had died but of covering up their extrajudicial killing. The cops had claimed that he was a threat to both them and to the neighborhood as if the dozens of heavily armored and armed marksmen could not contain a single man with a revolver.

So traumatized by his son-in-law’s killing and the example that this botched military intervention had set, Dub Lawrence made himself available to other families that had lost a son or daughter to SWAT teams, including Matthew Stewart, an army veteran who had been growing marijuana in his basement for his personal use. The cops came to his house in the middle of the night, just as American GI’s had done in Iraq as standard practice, and began firing their weapons at him when they spotted him with a revolver in his hand, evidence in all likelihood of Stewart defending himself against a home invasion. In the melee that followed, one cop was killed by “friendly fire” and Stewart shot one other. Charged with murder, Stewart hung himself in a jail cell rather than face execution or life imprisonment—all for growing weed in his basement.

Dub Lawrence’s son-in-law and Matthew Stewart were about as “white bread” as you can imagine and cut from the same all-American cloth as other Utah natives but ultimately victimized by the same homicidal tendencies that have been on display in Ferguson and elsewhere as the film makes abundantly clear. On November 23rd 2014, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that cop killings in Utah outpaced drug, gang and child-abuse homicides.

Now 70, Dub Lawrence has become a fearless, principled and savvy critic of the illegal and fatal police practices that have sparked a new civil rights movement. As the “star” of this documentary, this defender of the idea that the first obligation of a cop is to “keep the peace” is a real hero as opposed to the never-ending references to cops as heroes in the mainstream press.

As is so often the case with documentaries, they have only an outside chance at theatrical distribution. It is my hope that not only will it make it to the usual venues but also get picked up by the broader movement and shown at college campuses and high schools where the new activists involved with “Black Lives Matter” can be found. This is a film that holds out the hope that a broad-based movement committed to the right of a citizen to live in peace and to be protected from death squads in uniform will be respected.

I urge you to check the screenings page for “Peace Officer” from time to time to see if it is arriving in your neck of the woods since this is about as timely and as moving a documentary film as you will see this year or any year.

In 2007 Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim originally from India, made a film titled “A Jihad for Love” that was the counterpart to “Trembling Before G-d”, a documentary about gay orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their faith with their religion’s official homophobia. Sandi DuBowski, who directed “Trembling Before G-d” served as Sharma’s producer so the two films were obviously linked in the minds of both parties.

Sharma has followed up with “A Sinner in Mecca”, a very personal film about basically the same subject but focused on his own experience. It cuts back and forth from New York City, where Sharma lives with his husband, and Saudi Arabia where he has gone for a hajj. Despite his faith, he has trepidations about traveling in Saudi Arabia where supposedly you can be beheaded for being gay as the film asserts in the opening moments. It must be said that although gays are hounded and frequently receive corporal punishment, some experts claim that beheading or any other form of capital punishment does not take place.

In a way, this was not something that the director had to worry about since he was in Saudi Arabia to pray and not to play (especially since he is happily married.) Indeed, the primary emphasis is on the rituals that attend a hajj, something that ultimately makes the film so compelling.

Poised on the razor’s edge, we accompany Sharma in places such as Medina, Mecca and in the desert as he tries to fulfill his obligations as a Muslim all the while second-guessing his faith, especially when he slaughters a goat as the culmination of his spiritual cleansing. In his blood-spattered garments, he wonders what this has to do with holiness.

This is a particularly important question facing all the “sky religions” that originate from the Old Testament. As the film explains, this Muslim ritual is tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac (referred to as Ishmael in Islam). God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son but at the last minute told him that he was only testing his faith and to sacrifice a goat instead:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

I never considered this strange biblical tale until I began reading Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” at Bard College as part of my voyage through existential literature. As it turns out, you can read the entire text at http://www.whitenationalism.com/etext/fear.htm. Although the owner of the website does not explicitly state what this ghastly tale has to do with white nationalism, you can surmise that as a defense of blind obedience to God, it strengthens the case that authority in and of itself is a good thing. As a guide to spirituality—whatever that means—it seems useless.

Despite all the attempts to wed “sky religions” with progressive values, it is always tales like Abraham and Isaac or God visiting plagues on the Egyptian people for the misdeeds of the tyrant who ruled over them that make me leery of all the god stuff. I can understand Parvez Sharma’s need for faith but ultimately the only belief that can sustain me as I grow older and more thoughtful about the big questions of life and death is that our salvation is in revolutionary change even though that requires a greater leap of faith than any story in the bible.

As might have been expected, the women who race cars in “Speed Sisters” are hardly involved in anything resembling Le Mans. The cars they drive are indistinguishable from ordinary road cars except for the fact that they have been stripped of extra weight and have souped-up engines.

The races are based not on head-to-head competitions on an oval track or a racecourse such as Le Mans but in contained spaces not much larger than a football field where the driver has to navigate through narrow paths on frequent right angles without straying off course. It is roughly analogous to an event like Le Mans as a miniature golf course is to the Masters in Augusta.

The three women in “Speed Sisters” are hardly what you imagine as the typical Palestinian. They are relatively affluent and altogether secular. Their main obstacle would seem to be the sheer difficulty of paying for a mixture of profession and hobby. The chief reward appears to be trophies they receive for turning in the best time at one of these events.

That being said, they run into the same challenges as any Palestinian, including hours spent trying to get through a checkpoint or dodging rubber bullets or tear gas during one of the many confrontations between activists and the IDF.

The story being told in “Speed Sisters” is not the same as a typical documentary about the Palestinian struggle but rather one of a group of women trying to achieve normalcy in highly abnormal conditions. As such they have an affinity with the gay people lining up to get married in “A Sinner in Mecca” during one scene taking place in New York that includes Parvez Sharma standing on line with his husband to be.

In trying to make it as a racer, the women have much in common with their counterparts in NASCAR country except for the fact that they are living under an occupation. Parvez Sharma makes films about gay Muslims being accepted on their own terms, including his own mother who was pleading with him to “find a nice girl” until her death from cancer.

As a dimension of revolutionary change in the 21st century, isn’t it about time we recognized that when people struggle to enjoy the same rights as those afforded to white, heterosexual Christians, the results can be explosive? That’s the ultimate contradiction of the struggle for democratic rights that the left has to cope with if it is to have any impact on the social struggles in the Middle East for sexual and political freedom.

May 10, 2015

Accident at Indian Point

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-10 at 3.25.37 PM

Just by coincidence, I got an email this morning from Michael Meeropol at the very minute I was watching a TV news report on an accident at Indian Point nuclear power plant. His email had nothing to do with the accident but it reminded me that I had planned to say a word or two about his daughter Ivy Meeropol’s documentary on Indian Point that I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last month.

I should mention that this is not one of my favorite film festivals because a few years ago I was prevented from seeing a documentary about herring—of all things—by the festival staff because I had neglected to register for that showing but one later in the week. Even when the publicist intervened to tell them I was okay, I still could not get past them—as if I had a suicide bomb under my shirt or something.

There’s a certain irony, of course, in Ivy Meeropol making such a film since her grandparents were none other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the subject of her first documentary in 2004. As the “atom spies”, they were charged with giving Russia “the secret” of how to make a nuclear weapon. For the longest time the left upheld the analysis of Walter and Miriam Schneir that they were wrongly accused. When it was revealed that Julius was passing information to the Soviets, the left had a feeling of being had. I always felt that the best tack would have been for them to admit it and defend it as necessary for the survival of the USSR. My strong suspicion is that if the Soviets lacked such a self-defense, WWIII would have taken place in the mid-50s with genocidal results.

As for the accident, a representative from Entergy, the vultures who own the plant, told viewers that the transformer fire took place in a building separate from the reactor and posed no danger (except of course, for the toxins that poured into the air and the water). CNN’s report was par for the course:

A transformer failure at the Indian Point nuclear power plant caused an explosion and fire at the facility Saturday evening, sending billows of black smoke into the air near Buchanan, New York.

The fire broke out on the non-nuclear side of the plant, about 200 yards away from the reactor building, according to Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi.

“The fire is out and the plant is safe and stable,” Nappi said. Federal officials said one reactor unit automatically shut down.

Meeropol’s film had unprecedented access. Not only does she take you through a guided tour of the innards of Indian Point, she was also able to take her crew through the Fukushima wreckage in what was obviously a risk to her health and safety. In addition, she managed to gain the confidence of the guy at Indian Point who was responsible for maintaining safety in the same fashion as Jack Lemmon in “China Syndrome”. Since the guy rides a motorcycle to work rather than a Prius, that struck me as less than reassuring.

Gregory Jaczko

Corey Stoll

The star of the movie is Gregory Jaczko, who was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Corey Stoll who played the Congressman was used as a tool by Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”. While not quite an anti-nuclear convert after the fashion of Jack Lemmon’s character, Jaczko became convinced after Fukushima that tighter safety standards were required in the industry. For this, the NRC decided to dump him but not on the basis of his call for safer procedures but for alleged misconduct as a manager. After he was dismissed, they were able to document that none of the charges such as verbal abuse to underlings had any merit. It was simply the case that the industry, including Entergy, did not want to pony up the extra money to make the plants safer.

There is some question whether any amount of money could make Indian Point safer. By everybody’s admission, the plant was already obsolete in the 1970s so not only were power transformers ready to blow, so was just about everything else in the plant. The New York Daily News, a rightwing tabloid, reported four years ago:

Federal inspectors found “near-miss” accidents at Indian Point on the Hudson and 13 other U.S. nuclear power plants last year, a watchdog group charged on Thursday.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission data, claimed that “many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems.”

In the inspection of Indian Point about 25 miles from New York City, NRC auditors found that “the liner of a refueling cavity at Unit 2 has been leaking since at least 1993.”

The USC report charged that “By allowing this reactor to continue operating with equipment that cannot perform its only safety function, the NRC is putting people living around Indian Point at elevated and undue risk.”

In addition to interviewing industry officials and Indian Point personnel, Meeropol put the spotlight on an activist named Marilyn Elie, a retired schoolteacher who lived only a few miles from Indian Point. Understandably, she and other local folk would worry about a potential Chernobyl in their midst. For that matter, given the plant’s proximity to New York City, all of us should get involved with shutting the plant down since a catastrophe just thirty-five miles from Manhattan would be a threat to our lives as well.

As someone with a longstanding concern about saltwater and freshwater life, I was particularly outraged by the plant’s cooling method, which is to suck in water from the Hudson to cool the reactors and then cycle it back out to the river at many degrees higher than is safe for fish. In fact, this is the Achilles Heel of the plant. It has been denied a license renewal because the water cooling technology has been deemed inimical to the river’s health and safety—leaving aside the whole question of a Fukushima type meltdown. Given the likelihood that Entergy will not spend the money to replace the cooling system and that Governor Cuomo is opposed to it in toto, there is a good chance that the reactor will be history after 2015. Let’s hope that Meeropol’s documentary gets shown on PBS, where it will scare the bejeezus out of New Yorkers who wouldn’t cotton to the idea of a Fukushima type meltdown ruining their runs in Central Park and Sunday brunches at outdoor tables.

Speaking of which, the film took us on a tour into the area where spent fuel rods are kept. This, to put it as gingerly as possible, is a disaster waiting to happen. Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter of longstanding and hardly a Marxist “catastrophist”, informed his readers of the risk:

The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactors has set off calls to close nuclear power plants around the world. But closing reactors alone would do nothing to address what caused the real damage in Japan—the spent fuel rods that are supposed to be cooling in pools. When three of the seven pools were damaged, and in one case entirely drained, by the tsunami, the spent rods began emitting high levels of radiation.

The United States has about 100 such spent fuel pools. I visited one a few years ago at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sits up the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York. Indian Point is back in the news because it operates a mere 35 miles outside New York City. More than 20 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plant. Getting out in the case of a disaster would be a nightmare.

Getting in wasn’t easy either. But after taking a course called “radiation training,” undergoing a “dose assessment” (to be measured against my readings afterward, which showed less exposure than to an X-ray) and passing a written test on how to handle myself in a confined space, I was finally allowed to enter the facility. Clad in the jumpsuit, helmet, goggles, and booties made famous by Homer Simpson, I expected to be transfixed by the fully operating core of the reactor just a few feet in front of me.

Instead it was the 38-foot-deep pools, with the spent rods lying at the bottom, that scared me. Unlike the reactor, the pools aren’t “hardened targets” protected from earthquakes or terrorists by a concrete containment dome. At least at Indian Point, the pools lie in bedrock. In the Fukushima facility, and at many American plants, they are above ground, with roofs not much thicker than those at your local swim meet.

I learned that day of a process called “dry cask storage” that seems to offer a safer alternative. In dry casking, a technology that dates to the 1980s but has only been adopted in recent years, the rods are housed outdoors in storage pads 3 feet thick and 100 feet by 200 feet wide. While this sounds promising, it turns out dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

Dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

At Indian Point, authorities only began dry casking in 2008 because the pools were so crowded that there wasn’t room for newly spent rods coming out of the reactor. According to Entergy, the company that owns the Indian Point plant, “reconfiguration of the spent fuel pool is not part of the dry cask storage project.” In other words, the pools won’t be drained any time soon, at least not intentionally.

Finally, I recommend that you acquaint yourself with the Riverkeeper website, a group that has been spearheading opposition to Indian Point and whose members are given a platform in the documentary. I especially urge a look at their “Ten Reasons to Close Indian Point” that should gain the widest attention alongside Ivy Meeropol’s documentary.

May 8, 2015

Message from the Memoirist

Filed under: bard college,literature — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm
Saying No to a System That Would Crush Us

The Poems of Paul Pines


Fifty-four years ago when I was a freshman at Bard College, the Beat Generation was still a presence in our lives. In dorm rooms you could spot copies of Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry” on the bookshelves of the “hippest” students, back when the term referred to the bohemian underground rather than the sort of clothing you wore (not that black turtleneck shirts were not de rigueur.)

Two years earlier I had read about Jack Kerouac in Time Magazine and had decided to join the Beats even if its energies were largely spent. Kerouac’s odysseys continued to inspire some Bardians to take a year off and ship out on freighters or to hitchhike across the U.S. as I did shortly after graduating.

Despite the school’s bohemian reputation, Robert Kelly was the only faculty member who had any kind of connection to the Beat subculture. In 1961 I was able to attend poetry readings organized by Kelly that featured writers in Donald Allen’s anthology, including LeRoi Jones who co-edited Fubbalo with Kelly, a poetry magazine out of the U. of Buffalo where the two men taught before Kelly came to Bard. Jones, of course, transformed himself into Amiri Baraka later on. You got an inkling of where he was going from what he read at Bard, “The System of Dante’s Hell”, a novel about Newark that revealed to me the depth of Black anger about American society.

read full article

A report on The Future of Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States conference

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm


Two time Mayor of Richmond and member of he North Star Network in the early 80s

For those of us involved with the North Star project, last weekend’s conference on “The Future of Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States” could only be seen as an important step forward for left unity. With 200 people in attendance, it was a harbinger of future developments moving us closer to the birth of a new anti-capitalist party that can finally express the yearnings of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the fight for a $15 minimum wage for social change.

Half of the editorial board of North Star was in attendance at the conference, including me (I was not able to attend the Sunday sessions unfortunately). In addition Mark Lause gave a tremendous talk comparing the Progressive Party of Robert La Follette to Debs’s Socialist Party and Matt Hoke handled the online streaming of the event.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12264

May 7, 2015

Neglected masterpieces of cinema

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-07 at 3.44.20 PM

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The latest issue of Class, Race and Corporate Power is now online. Founded by Ronald Cox, a professor at Florida International University, it is a bold attempt to create a unified voice for academics and non-academics on the left as an Open Access journal—in other words, one that does not make use of dead trees and that costs $35 per issue.

The journal includes peer-reviewed articles and non-peered as well, such as the one I have in the current issue titled “Neglected Masterpieces of Cinema”. A while ago Ronald asked to write something on the top radical films. My response was to adapt ten reviews that I had posted over the years that met two criteria:

  1. The films should be ones that the average leftist might not be familiar with, such as—for example—“Crimson Gold”, the 2003 Iranian film that is a lacerating critique of class inequalities and religious authoritarianism that was like others directed by Jafar Panahi almost certain to get him arrested and banned from making films.
  2. The films should also be available through online streaming, either for free on Youtube or at places like Fandor.com, one of the alternatives to Netflix that I have recommended to CounterPunch readers.

The abstract for the article is as follows:

This article will acquaint you with ten of the more important leftwing films I have reviewed over the past sixteen years as a member of New York Film Critics Online. You will not see listed familiar works such as “The Battle of Algiers” but instead those that deserve wider attention, the proverbial neglected masterpieces. They originate from different countries and are available through Internet streaming, either freely from Youtube or through Netflix or Amazon rental. In several instances you will be referred to film club websites that like the films under discussion deserve wider attention since they are the counterparts to the small, independent theaters where such films get premiered. The country of origin, date and director will be identified next to the title, followed by a summary of the film, and finally by its availability.

I would only add that I am currently in the process of expanding on this list by going systematically through the more than 900 film reviews I have written in the past 20 years or so and culling together all those that meet these criteria. As far as I know, there is not a resource on the Internet like this and it is high time that it be made available. Not only will I be listing films that I have reviewed but others that are available online. Also, those that require membership in Fandor.com or any other membership service will be excluded. The overwhelming majority of the films will be freely available on Youtube. Right now I am in the middle of ferreting out American films. This will give you a sense of where I am going with this. I’ll bet you haven’t seen half of these:

  1. Tell them Willie Boy is here
  2. Lonely are the Brave
  3. Bad Day at Black Rock*
  4. Our Daily Bread
  5. The Big Clock
  6. The Emerald Forest
  7. Metropolis
  8. Counsellor at Law
  9. Lion of the Desert

May 6, 2015

Alex Callinicos: propagandist

Filed under: British SWP,Greece,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

One of the bad habits of the “Leninist” press is its tendency to adopt the journalistic standards of the bourgeois press but putting it at the service of a tacitly leftist agenda. Ultimately it rests on a cherry-picking technique that both Time Magazine and Pravda were famous for. In Time Magazine, you would gather that the USSR was a misery-laden concentration camp and from Pravda you would think that the masses of America were groaning under the weight of capitalist oppression in the 1950s when the economy was rising to new heights and American society was basking in relative contentment. The word for this, of course, is propaganda.

To some extent, the left assumes that cherry-picking is not such a problem because the information it is providing is supposed to balance what you read in the bourgeois press. However, it does become a problem when it serves an ideological agenda that undermines our credibility. For example, there is little doubt that the USSR was making great strides in the 1930s but if you ignored Stakhanovitism, for example, you were functioning as a propagandist rather than a Marxist analyst.

Needless to say, the propagandist impulse is strongest when you belong to a “Leninist” party. When I was a member of the SWP, I would not dare admit in a public gathering that Cuba ever did anything wrong. Now that I am no longer a propagandist, I have no problem calling attention to the fact that Cuba has often compromised its socialist principles when confronted by the need to adapt to foreign policy exigencies that might determine the country’s economic survival. For example, because of the PRI’s nationalist origins that had not been completely extinguished, Mexico stood up for Cuban sovereignty at OAS gatherings. This certainly must have persuaded the Cuban leadership not to attack the Mexican government in 1968 when it was gunning down students in Mexico City.

In a classic example of propaganda, Alex Callinicos has been cherry-picking news reports on SYRIZA to make it look as much as possible like PASOK, the social democratic party that ruled Greece along neoliberal lines after the fashion of British Labour or the French SP. This means that anything that cuts across this ideological agenda has to be either minimized or completely sidestepped.

The most recent example of this is an article titled “Has Syriza reached its moment of truth?” When I read such articles, I wonder whether Callinicos is plagiarizing WSWS.org or the other way around.

The brunt of Callinicos’s attack on SYRIZA is directed at a meeting that Alexis Tsipras had in Cyprus with Egypt’s General al-Sisi, a sign apparently of Tsipra’s going over to the dark side. I would be loath to turn al-Sisi into some kind of litmus test for the left in light of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialist’s role in the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013.

On July 5, 2013 the Revolutionary Socialists issued a statement hailing the overthrow of Morsi, describing it as having a significance that “surpasses any participation by old regime remnants, or the apparent support of the army and police.” Really?

A month later, the comrades woke up to reality: “But we have to put the events of today in their context, which is the use of the military to smash up workers’ strikes. We also see the appointment of new provincial governors, largely drawn from the ranks of the remnants of the old regime, the police and generals.”

I should add that some on the left were all too anxious to read the RS out of the movement because they made a mistake in July 2013. “At every stage, the RS sought to subordinate the working class to one or another section of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, in order to block it from developing its own political leadership and organising a conscious political struggle against capitalism and imperialism.”

You can probably figure out who wrote these words, right? It was WSWS.org, the same outfit whose attacks on SYRIZA today are virtually indistinguishable from Callinicos’s.

Once you get past the hysteria over Tsipras meeting with al-Sisi, you discover that it was Cyprus that was the main beneficiary of an economic deal with Egypt, not Greece, as the article cited by Callinicos indicates:

For Nicosia [the capital of Cyprus], energy cooperation with Cairo is a major component of the talks. Egypt has expressed interest in securing natural gas from Cyprus’ Aphrodite offshore field.

Cyprus and Egypt have already signed an EEZ delineation agreement in the hydrocarbon-rich eastern Mediterranean.

In December 2013 the two countries also concluded a treaty on the joint exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves on the median line between the two countries’ respective EEZs.

What is expected from Greece? To avoid joint economic ventures with Egypt because al-Sisis murdered Muslim Brotherhood members? What kind of litmus test is this for countries trying to survive in a capitalist world? Does Callinicos have any idea of how the USSR, even before it became “state capitalist”, reacted to the death of CP leaders in Turkey?

E.H. Carr’s description of these events is essential. He states that Mustafa Kemal decided to eliminate the Communist Party in Turkey that had been constituted as the Green Apple for its ties to a militia called the Green Army primarily made up of peasants that was a contingent of the Kemalist armed forces. On January 6, 1921, the Green Army was brought to heel and its leaders fled to Greece. Kemal next turned his attention to the Green Apple. Carr writes:

Suphi [the CP leader] was seized by unknown agents at Erzerum, and on January 28, 1921, together with sixteen other leading Turkish communists, thrown into the sea off Trebizond — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution. It was some time before their fate was discovered. [Soviet leader] Chicherin is said to have addressed enquiries about them to the Kemalist government and to have received the reply that they might have succumbed to an accident at sea. But this unfortunate affair was not allowed to affect the broader considerations on which the growing amity between Kemal and Moscow was founded. For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.

Now I am not one to advocate this kind of realpolitik but would only say that based on a universal code of conduct, SYRIZA is far less guilty than the Bolshevik leaders Callinicos is so anxious to apotheosize.

Finally we are led to believe that SYRIZA has become part of the “war on terror” because the Cyprus meeting came out with a statement “to jointly combat terrorism and violent extremism for the sake of security in the eastern Mediterranean.” In doing so, it has simply joined the amen chorus at a thousand other leftist websites, including the one I write for. But given all of the difficulties facing Greece, the last thing I expect to see is the Greek military intervening in Iraq or Syria. The only reason this red herring appeared in Callinicos’s article was to tarnish SYRIZA’s reputation, which after all is based on resistance to austerity and not joint exploration of oil fields in the Mediterranean with Egypt. In fact, this article that appears in today’s Financial Times is a much better indicator of SYRIZA’s mettle than all the crap that Callinicos has written:

Financial Times, 5/6/2015
Greece overturns civil service reforms
by Kerin Hope in Athens

The Greek parliament has approved a law proposed by the leftwing Syriza­led government overturning civil service reforms by the previous government aimed at streamlining the country’s inefficient public sector.

The legislation, which was passed on Tuesday night, called for the rehiring of about 13,000 civil servants whose jobs were cut in an overhaul of the public administration agreed with bailout lenders. It also eliminated annual evaluations for civil servants and promotions based on merit.

Giorgos Katrougalos, the leftwing Syriza­led government’s deputy minister for administrative reform, called the measures “a Band­Aid to repair the most extreme injustices and restore legality to the system”.

“This is not our last word, it’s the first step of [administrative] reforms we’re going to make that won’t be neoliberal but will have a social aspect,” he said, without giving details of how his plans to increase the public sector payroll would be financed.

The government rejected claims by opposition lawmakers that the legislation violated the terms of Greece’s current €172bn bailout which requires the country’s government to agree economic measures with creditors before presenting them to parliament. “We aren’t going to consult the institutions [the EU, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund], we don’t have to, we’re a sovereign state,” Nikos Voutsis, the powerful interior minister, told parliament.

The municipal police force, which was disbanded 18 months ago, will be revived and several thousand caretakers at state schools, known as “guards”, are to be rehired.

Almost 600 women cleaners sacked by the finance ministry as a cost­cutting measure are expected to get their jobs back next month. The cleaners, who worked at tax offices around the country, have staged a round­the­clock sit­in for the past 12 months, occupying a stretch of pavement close to the finance ministry building in central Athens after they filed a collective lawsuit claiming unfair dismissal.

“I have a great feeling of satisfaction now that our campaign has succeeded,” said Anna Chrysikopoulou, a tax office cleaner who said she spent several nights a week at the sit­in sleeping in a tent. Mr Katrougalos, a lawyer who specialises in labour disputes, has become a controversial figure in the government.

He was accused soon after his appointment to the cabinet in January of conflict of interest over his involvement in cases of unfair dismissal brought by school guards. Mr Katrougalos denied the allegation, saying other partners in his law firm were representing the school guards. Government officials at the time defended Mr Katrougalos’s appointment on the grounds that his legal specialisation qualified him for the position.

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