Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 3, 2015

The Hand that Feeds

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION APRIL 3-5, 2015

Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick’s “The Hand That Feeds”
The New Face of the American Class Struggle
by LOUIS PROYECT

A 1954 film titled “Salt of the Earth” told the story of a courageous strike by the mostly Mexican-American zinc miners against a ruthless corporation that was based on a 1951 strike in New Mexico. Produced by Paul Jarrico and directed by Herbert Biberman, two Hollywood blacklistees, it was remarkable for both its power as film and for its fearless radicalism in a time when the left was being hounded out of existence. It derived much of its strength from the casting of New Mexican miners in leading roles, such as Juan Chacon, the president of a miner’s union, as a strike leader. And of critical importance in a time when reaction was running full throttle, the film depicted a victory of workers against insurmountable odds, just as had taken place in 1951.

I could not help but think about the 1954 classic when watching a screening of “The Hand that Feeds”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. If “Salt of the Earth” was a fictional film based on the facts of a real life strike, “The Hand that Feeds” is by contrast a factual film with all of the heartrending drama of a fictional film blessed with a “star” who led a struggle of twenty workers at Hot and Crusty, a bagel shop that was a stone’s throw from Bloomingdales in New York. In a panel on storytelling I chaired at this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival, a documentary filmmaker explained that casting is as important for the documentary as it is for narrative films. One cannot imagine better casting for this documentary than the mostly undocumented Mexican workforce at Hot and Crusty, starting with Mahoma López, the 2014 counterpart to the Juan Chacon of sixty years ago.

read full article

April 2, 2015

Countering apologetics for the Baathist apocalypse: Once again, Assad regime responsible for sectarianism in Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Countering apologetics for the Baathist apocalypse: Once again, Assad regime responsible for sectarianism in Syria.

March 31, 2015

Thermonuclear

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

A week ago I woke up from one of my frequent end of the world nightmares that usually involve themes like space invaders with death rays, blizzards in August, the Hudson River catching fire, etc. This time it was about an H-Bomb being dropped on NYC. The dream did not include a fireball, just the opposite. I was in my apartment and the lights went out, like in a blackout but there was total darkness. In the dream that meant an H-Bomb had hit. In an odd way the blackout was more terrifying than a fireball—don’t ask me to explain.

As someone who was technically born in advance of the baby boomers, nuclear war has been on my mind in one way or another since I was six years old. We used to have “duck and cover” drills in grade school. The teacher would clap his or her hands and then say, “Okay children, get under your desks and cover your eyes.” I distinctly remember seeing this around that time:

So freaked out was I by this that I used to ask my mom when we out driving in the family car if a harmless cloud like this cumulus nimbus was an H-Bomb going off.

I was reminded of the nightmare when an article appeared in the NY Times about the censoring of a book on the bomb written by someone who worked on it:

For all its horrific power, the atom bomb — leveler of Hiroshima and instant killer of some 80,000 people — is but a pale cousin compared to another product of American ingenuity: the hydrogen bomb.

The weapon easily packs the punch of a thousand Hiroshimas, an unthinkable range of destruction that lay behind the Cold War’s fear of mutual annihilation. It was developed in great secrecy, and Washington for decades has done everything in its power to keep the details of its design out of the public domain.

Now, a physicist who helped devise the weapon more than half a century ago has defied a federal order to cut from his new book material that the government says teems with thermonuclear secrets.

The author, Kenneth W. Ford, 88, spent his career in academia and has not worked on weapons since 1953. His memoir, “Building the H Bomb: A Personal History,” is his 10th book. The others are physics texts, elucidations of popular science and a reminiscence on flying small planes.

He said he included the disputed material because it had already been disclosed elsewhere and helped him paint a fuller picture of an important chapter of American history. But after he volunteered the manuscript for a security review, federal officials told him to remove about 10 percent of the text, or roughly 5,000 words.

“They wanted to eviscerate the book,” Dr. Ford said in an interview at his home here. “My first thought was, ‘This is so ridiculous I won’t even respond.’ ”

While the story of the censorship was what prompted this article, my main interest was in the sentence: “The weapon easily packs the punch of a thousand Hiroshimas.” What kind of scientist would work on such a project? The talk all week long has been about co-pilot Andreas Lubitz who was responsible for the death of 150 people including him. How does someone with a BA from Harvard and a PhD from Princeton use his skills to develop such a horrible weapon? Or maybe the answer is in the fact that he went to such places. Maybe a degree from some state college would have brought him closer to reality.

During Reagan’s presidency I joined Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility because it was organizing against Star Wars, a strategic weapons defense program that was based on artificial intelligence. As someone who had been involved with any number of software development projects that crashed and burned, the idea of using software as a shield against nuclear attack seemed insane. Even scarier was the idea that Star Wars might work since it would give the USA an incentive for a first strike. If 95 percent of Soviet missiles could be shot out of the sky, maybe the loss of a 150 million people or so would be worth it. As Reagan put it:

Thur Dec 3 1981: NSC meeting–I approved starting a Civil Defense buildup. Right now in a nuclear war we’d lose 150 million people. The Soviets could hold their losses down to less than were killed in WWII.

It was not reassuring that Reagan had put one T.K. Jones in charge of Civil Defense, who had shocked people in 1982 by stating: “It’s the dirt that does it … if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” For a disturbing look back at this period, I recommend Alexander Zaitchik’s Salon article “Inescapable, apocalyptic dread: The terrifying nuclear autumn of 1983” where he writes:

T.K. Jones’s breathtakingly idiotic ideas about nuclear war did not stop with civil defense. He also believed America would recover from a nuclear war within a few years. The idea that the U.S. could “bounce back” from a nuclear exchange was actually quite widespread in Reagan’s Washington. Reagan’s FEMA distributed leaflets to municipal governments stating, “With reasonable protective measures, the United States could survive nuclear attack and go on to recovery within a relatively few years.” His appointee to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency described nuclear war as “a destructive thing, but still in large part a physics problem, possible for any society to survive.” In the spring of 1982, Reagan personally proposed a $4 billion civil defense plan for evacuating major cities and housing refugees in above-ground rural “shelters.” Local officials across the country from Ed Koch down scoffed at claims the plan would save 80 percent of the U.S. population. It was as if nobody in government knew that modern thermonuclear weapons made the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs look like firecrackers by comparison.

Right now there are 4,000 nuclear weapons ready to fire, the bulk of which are in the USA and Russia. Perhaps the one thing that ironically blocks their usage, despite all the overheated rhetoric about Syria or Ukraine et al sparking WWIII, is the stake that the ruling class has in preventing all-out war. Just put yourself in the shoes of the Koch brothers who probably spend a million dollars a week on personal consumption or a Russian oligarch with a 20,000-foot apartment in London or New York, why would you want to lose all that?

On the other hand, the tragic downing of Germanwings Flight 9525 is a reminder that a deranged individual can take actions that defy the tightest controls.

March 30, 2015

Sectarianism Unbound

Filed under: middle east,religion — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

On August 22, 2013,  a letter to the Financial Times went viral on the Internet:

A short guide to the Middle East

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

Not long after the letter began making the rounds, some bright chap at Slate created a graphic to illustrate the points being made by K.N. Al-Sabah:

Screen shot 2015-03-30 at 1.04.15 PM

About a year later, an article appeared on the Think Progress website that took up the same pretzel-logic Byzantine alliances:

And one year later, and within the past few days, the ultimate graphic on the schizoid alliances in the Middle East and North Africa showed up at Karl reMarks, a very smart and witty blog about the region.

I suppose none of this matters to the conspiracy theorists on the left who continue to insist that the USA and Saudi Arabia are responsible for all the woes in the Middle East and North Africa that stem from their desire to crush the secular and progressive Baathist government in Syria as a prelude to war with Iran.

One supposes that the wind has been blowing the sails of this analysis given the situation in Yemen, where the USA has lined up behind Saudi attacks on the Houthi who are depicted as Iranian puppets even if that is a simplification. More often right than wrong, Juan Cole provided some useful insights to the conflict at the Nation:

The Houthis have pledged to topple the Saudi throne; they chant “death to America” and have friendly relations with Iran. Nothing could be more threatening to the Saudis than a grassroots populist movement of this militant sort, and that it springs from a Shiite population makes it worse. The Saud dynasty is allied at home with the Wahhabi movement, which typically views Shiite Muslims as worse idolators than Hindus. Still, the late King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his national Advisory Council, the embryonic Saudi parliament, and deployed the Ismaili Shiites of Najran against Yemen. It is not Shiite Islam that is the red line for the kingdom, but populist movements that talk dirty about the Saudi monarchy.

Not long after General al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, he pledged his support to Bashar al-Assad who he saw as fighting a common enemy, the dreaded Islamist terrorists. Given his hatred for alleged Sunni extremists, you’d think he’d take the same side as the Shiites in Yemen. But as the bizarro chart put up by Karl Sharro would indicate, politics is not that simple. The NY Times reported on March 26 that Egypt was about to join with Saudi Arabia in crushing the Houthis:

Egypt said Thursday that it was prepared to send troops into Yemen as part of a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, signaling the possibility of a protracted ground war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

A day after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other states began hammering the Houthis with airstrikes and blockading the Yemeni coast, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt said in a statement that the country’s navy and air force would join the campaign. The Egyptian Army, the largest in the Arab world, was ready to send ground troops “if necessary,” Mr. Sisi said.

So, if the Egyptian military shared the Baathist determination to root out and destroy religious extremists, why would it now side with their ultimate source, the geopolitical equivalent of the Queen monster that Ripley ejects from the spaceship in the final moments of “Aliens”? Or maybe, as Cole points out, the real enemy is any social or political formation that challenges oligarchic rule whether it upholds Sunni or Shia theological precepts. In Syria, it was the Sunni farmers and small businessmen who rose up against crony capitalism.

In a very useful article by Gabriele vom Bruck, an anthropologist with a focus on Yemen, that appeared on CounterPunch, you can get an idea of why the Saudis might have it in for them:

Against the background of the wars fought by the Houthis since 2004 and the distribution of power in the new government, it comes as no surprise that when they entered Sanaa, their first targets were Al-Iman University (a Salafist-inspired college run by the controversial Islahi leader Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and illegally built on an endowment belonging to the Houthi family), a military complex under the command of General Ali Muhsin, and the homes of members of the al-Ahmar family and other leaders of Islah [the former ruling party].

Reminiscent of the pictures of the luxurious homes of the Qaddafi family in 2011, Yemenis are now presented with images of the villas of Islah leaders on a television channel owned by the Houthis. Sanaa residents tell tales of beautifully lush gardens with gazelles and swimming pools, large diwans and automatic generators — aware of the fact that half of Yemen’s population lives under the poverty line. The underlying moral discourse serves to reinforce the Houthis’ claim that the “real” revolution is only now occurring. By the time Houthi militias occupied central government buildings in Sanaa, the losers appeared to be Islah and the GCC countries [Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance led by Saudi Arabia]. Those countries sponsored the transition agreement because they saw it as a way to demobilize the very social and political forces who had in 2011 demanded wide reaching structural changes which might have collided with their interests in Yemen and the demands of their own domestic constituencies.

Just as is the case in Syria and was true in Libya earlier, the Houthis are rebels that combine religious, tribal and other non-class allegiances that stand in the way of them becoming an instrument of national salvation as was the case with the July 26th Movement in Cuba or the NLF in Vietnam.

Indeed, at the outset the Houthis had a distinctly ISIS ring, even if based on a different lineage as Charles Schmitz explained in an article in the Middle East Institute, a think-tank run by Richard A. Clarke, a career State Department official who opposed the war in Iraq. Schmitz refers to Zaydism, the religion of the Houthis:

Zaydism, the religion of the imams that ruled Yemen for a thousand years, was severely repressed by Republican leaders during the years of the Yemen Arab Republic. A key component of Zaydism under the Imams was the idea that only the Sada, those in the blood line of the family of Fatima and Ali, are eligible to rule the Muslim community. In spite of the political diversity among the Sada, Republican leaders attack them all as agents of the ancient regime; the government promoted Sunni Salafism and Wahhabism, imports from Saudi Arabia, in the Zaydi heartland as alternatives.

The notion that bloodlines have any value in creating a modern state that is committed to the welfare of all its citizens strikes one as counterproductive to say the least. If some Sunnis dream of restoring the caliphate and beheading anybody who gets in the way, what makes Zaydism any better even if its adherents forsake beheading?

My last article for Critical Muslim appeared in issue #10 that was devoted to an examination of the Sect form. A number of articles can be read on the journal’s website that I strongly recommend, starting with an article by editor Ziauddin Sardar and co-author Merryl Wyn Davies titled “Sectarianism Unbound” that begins:

Taz’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule. So the slots between the news bulletins are filled with what they call tazaabi tottas – acidic bits, short satirical skits. In one particular sketch, a man, sitting on a bridge, is about to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He is spotted by a passer-by who runs towards him shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ The two men then engage in the following dialogue:

‘Why are you committing suicide?’

‘Let me die! No one loves me.’

‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you a Muslim, or…’

‘Allah be Praised! I am a Muslim.’

‘I too am a Muslim. Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’

‘Sunni.’

‘I too am a Sunni. What is your school of law?’

‘Hanafi.’

‘Me too! Do you belong to the Deobandi or Bralevi sect?’

‘Deobandi.’

‘Me too! Are you a Tanzihi (pure) Deobandi or a Takfiri (extremist) Deobandi?’

‘Tanzihi.’

‘Me too! Tanzihi of Azmati branch or Farhati branch?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati branch.’

‘Me too!’ Tanzihi Farhati educated at University of Amjair or Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad.’

‘Infidel, kaffir! You deserve to die!’

The man who came to help then pushes the suicidal man over the bridge.

As someone who has been struggling against socialist sectarianism for the past 35 years, I of course am in no position to feel superior to Muslims dealing with a similar problem. And in a very real sense, the surmounting of sectarianism on the left is a possible key to surmounting it in the Middle East and North Africa beset by tribalism and confessional hair-splitting.

As long as there are insecurities in a world based on commodity exchange and wage labor, religion will meet certain emotional and psychological needs. But perhaps an injection of godless communism in a region that has been torn apart by different notions of obeisance to god will create the conditions in which Muslim leaders will arise who see the world as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz did: “True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological, and racial ingredients, or characteristics, to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was better known as Malcolm X.

March 29, 2015

The Syrian Revolution struggles on

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

The Syrian Revolution struggles on.

On the SWP’s turn toward Israel

Filed under: cults,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

SWP leader Norton Sandler: “There is no Zionist movement today”

I had quite a few misgivings about writing this article since the SWP of the USA is such a minor player. Yet its Zionist evolution is of such a shocking nature and because so many ex-members—including me—have been so perplexed by it that I finally decided to put something together.

I very rarely write about this group nowadays but at one time it mattered a lot more to me. I was a member from 1967 to 1978 and at the time I left it had about 1500 members. Now it has around a hundred or so mostly aging (like me) cadre. I maintain a mailing list on the group at Yahoo that was originally designed to shunt discussions about it from ex-members off of Marxmail that really didn’t need to be burdened by such trivia. Ninety percent of our subscribers have no idea what the SWP was, even if at one time it was the apple of Leon Trotsky’s eye.

The Militant newspaper article that prompted this response appeared in the April 6th edition that was posted to their website yesterday. Titled “Israel vote marks political openings for workers, Arabs”, it celebrates Bibi Netanyahu’s election:

A strong vote for the Likud Party in the March 17 Israeli elections ensures the next government will continue to be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The results reflect concerns of working people there that U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy makes the threat of attacks from Iran and the reactionary Islamist Hamas forces that rule Gaza more likely.

If you read these sentences in isolation, you’d think you had stumbled across a NY Post or WSJ editorial except for the boilerplate reference to “working people”. A subsequent paragraph under the subheading “Views from the Left” is even more ghastly:

Virtually the entire U.S. and Israeli petty-bourgeois left holds the view that a Netanyahu victory proves working people in Israel are hopelessly reactionary. Some were dismayed, others overjoyed at the result.

Gideon Levy, a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, heaped scorn on working people, writing that the election showed “the nation must be replaced,” and called for “general elections to choose a new Israeli people — immediately.”

The Times published a column March 18 by Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which supports the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel. “The biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel,” Munayyer wrote. “It can’t and it won’t.”

He said he was glad, because if Netanyahu had lost, their boycott efforts would have been weakened.

Supporters of the boycott say it’s aimed at forcing Tel Aviv to end its control of the West Bank and its embargo of Gaza. But the campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map.

Now there are some good people on the left who oppose the BDS campaign, like Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky but the SWP is coming from a different place altogether. The notion that the “campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map” is not the sort of thing you’d hear from Norman Finkelstein. Rather it reeks of Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz and Abraham Foxman.

When I was a member, the SWP was probably the most consistent defender of Palestinian rights on the left, with former left-Zionist group member Peter Buch a tireless speaker and writer of books such as “Burning Issues of the Mideast Crisis”. You can still see some anti-Zionist books on sale at Pathfinder such as Dave Frankel and Will Reissner’s “War Against the Palestinian People” but their analysis is at odds—obviously–with the current line of this sect. What you would expect from a group that has changed its line by 180 degrees is some explanation but none has been forthcoming. Of course, this is the norm for Stalinist parties but not one founded to promote Trotskyism. The adoption of such bureaucratic norms was completed a long time ago in the SWP even as it continues to pay lip service to Leninist norms.

By some standards, the SWP is even more egregious in dumping long-hold positions sans explanation than the CPUSA. Only four years ago the Militant posted excerpts from a document written by cult leader Jack Barnes for the 2006 convention that stated:

What the Israeli rulers are seeking to impose in order to consolidate Israel within borders of their own choosing is not a “peace process,” as it’s dubbed by liberals in the big-business media. It’s the consolidation of an Israel still based on the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian majority, together with the “right of return” of those of Jewish parentage—and only those of such parentage.

Only four years later, the Militant defends that “right of return”:

The point of the Law of Return, a key aspect of Israeli law since its founding, is not to foster religion, but to guarantee a safe haven for those facing Jew-hatred around the world.

That’s from another abysmal article titled “Debate flares in Israel over bill to set exclusive national rights for Jews” that appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue, one that also claims that Israel is “the most secular country in the Middle East”, a formulation that is associated with the Israel lobby. Israel is also flattered as the most democratic:

The 1948 declaration also promised Arab residents “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” While Israel was created through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws are widely used today by Arab citizens to fight discrimination in jobs, housing and government services, and for the exercise of political rights.

Palestinians see it differently. In a document titled “History of the Palestinians in Israel” published by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the authors state:

Israel never sought to assimilate or integrate the Palestinian population, treating them as second-class citizens and excluding them from public life and the public sphere. The state practiced systematic and institutionalized discrimination in all areas, such as land dispossession and allocation, education, language, economics, culture, and political participation. Successive Israeli governments maintained tight control over the community, attempting to suppress Palestinian/Arab identity and to divide the community within itself. To that end, Palestinians are not defined by the state as a national minority despite UN Resolution 181 calling for such; rather they are referred to as “Israeli Arabs,” “non-Jews,” or by religious affiliation.

In light of this, it is most telling that the Militant article refers to Arab citizens rather than Palestinians.

So what do we make of all this, a question more pressing for ex-members like me who not only spoke numerous times on Israel and the Palestinians at public meetings (my family was very pro-Zionist) but devoted time and money to an organization that we saw as principled and fearless on the Middle East.

The turn toward Israel seems to have begun with a spate of articles in 2006 that took up the question of “Jew-hatred”, a term the sect prefers to anti-Semitism even if it has no currency outside their circles. It was linked with some accuracy to a number of articles that had begun to appear blaming the Israel lobby for promoting a foreign policy that was inimical to American interests—the kind of article associated with realpolitik academics like Mearsheimer and Walt. Needless to say, such articles don’t constitute an ‘existential threat’ to Jews as if they could lead to concentration camps and all the rest. But you wouldn’t know that from hysterical articles such as “More middle-class radicals promote Jew-hatred”  that appeared in the May 15, 2006 Militant:

The dangerous logic of such arguments peddling Jew hatred (to say “anti-Semitism” would be putting it mildly) should not be lost on working people. Such conspiracy theories have been the stock-in-trade of ultrarightists and fascists—mortal enemies of the working class and its allies. Petras’s arguments also point to the political evolution of many middle-class “socialists” like him.

But this was just the opening act in the farce that would follow. In 2009 a startling article appeared under the title “’Zionism,’ its use today, not in 1948” by Norton Sandler. He blithely assures his readers that Zionism existed once upon a time but no longer:

The Palestinian population in the West Bank and in Gaza is approaching 4 million. Faced with these demographic trends, the majority of the Israeli ruling class has given up the dream of a “Greater Israel.” They are forced to opt for what they consider the only pragmatic solution—maintaining a majority Jewish state within borders of their own choosing. This is hardly the Zionist movement’s dream of an Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

This is really atrocious given the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Since the Jordan River is the eastern border of the West Bank, does anybody doubt that Israel’s goal is to expand settlements throughout the West Bank until it is effectively part of Greater Israel or whatever it is called? Sandler’s article serves as Zionist propaganda. Make no mistake about it.

Just a little background on Sandler’s article. He first used the formulation of Zionism not existing today in a talk he gave to a gathering of the SWP’s co-religionists in London. This prompted a letter to the paper by Joaquin Bustelo, a former member:

I think the position expressed by Norton Sandler in the Militant that “There is no Zionist movement today” is mistaken. This reactionary European colonial-settler national movement still exists, and has as its maximum expression the state of Israel, as well as organized expressions in other countries in the form of groups to organize or lobby for aid to Israel and so on.

Unfortunately, Sandler’s statement leads him to further say that Zionism “has become an epithet … a synonym for ‘Jew’ that helps fuel Jew-hatred.” This is a completely unwarranted concession to those who say any criticism or opposition to the state of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.

Finally, while the Militant projects a “perspective” of a united struggle by all working people in the region for a democratic, secular Palestine, that cannot be a substitute for expressing unconditional solidarity with and support to the just national struggle of the Palestinian people, something which unfortunately is not mentioned in the article.

Joaquín Bustelo
Atlanta, Georgia

Of course, the Militant dropped the demand for a democratic, secular Palestine not too long after this letter appeared.

So how did this all happen? Is Israel paying off Jack Barnes, the cult leader? I doubt that any sensible state power would waste its money, especially on a bizarre sect that exists on the fringes of American politics.

The explanation is social in nature—or to put it another way, the lack of a social foundation. Groups on the left to one extent or another reflect social pressures. For example, the French Trotskyist movement in 1968 adapted to the ultraleft student movement. The CP in the USA adapts to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It is through social interaction with a broader milieu that such parties formulate strategy and tactics. When a party’s social base is progressive, such as the Bolshevik’s in 1917, the results are salutary. When, however, it rests on a questionable social base such was the case of the Second International and the trade union bureaucracy in 1914, the results are disastrous.

Apart from such considerations there is the world of tiny sects that have no social base such as the SWP or the Socialist Equity Party or the Spartacist League. They tend to have a relationship to a great genius whose ideas are fairly unpredictable. It is worth mentioning that the SWP’s politics are far more capricious than the other two groups for the simple reason that its leader seems more unmoored from a stable base such as was the case with Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”.

Extending the flight metaphor a bit further, the membership of the SWP put itself in the hands of a pilot who was as mad in his own way as Andreas Lubitz. While nobody has died as a result of their membership in the SWP, it is hard to argue with the proposition that the party’s wreckage is strewn across the ground as a result of the megalomania and flawed analyses of its potentate.

John Renbourn, 70, Eclectic Guitarist Who Founded the Pentangle, Dies

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm

Photo

John Renbourn in 1966, before he founded the group the Pentangle with with the guitarist Bert Jansch. Credit: Brian Shuel/Redferns

John Renbourn, an English guitarist known for his light-fingered fusion of classical, folk, blues and jazz and for his work with the group the Pentangle, was found dead on Thursday at his home in Hawick, Scotland, near the English border. He was 70.

He had been touring with another guitarist and singer, Wizz Jones, who was one of his earliest influences. When he did not show up for a concert in Glasgow on Wednesday, his agent contacted the police. The cause had not been determined, but a police spokeswoman said there were “no suspicious circumstances.”

Mr. Renbourn was both an antiquarian and an innovator — part of a generation of British and American guitar virtuosos who in the 1950s and ’60s reached deeply into traditions but were not bound by them.

As early as the 1960s, Mr. Renbourn delved with scholarly dedication intomedieval and Renaissance music; his “Complete Anthology of Medieval and Renaissance Music for Guitar.” a sheet-music collection of 28 pieces, was published in 1995. He learned British folk songs and sang them in an amiable tenor, and he was drawn to ragtime and the blues, particularly the fingerpicking complexity of early rural blues.

Mr. Renbourn at the Moseley Folk Festival in 2010. Credit: Simon Hadley/Rex Features, via AP

His music also used the harmonies and phrasing of jazz guitar and an occasional hint of flamenco, and he studied the sitar and the shakuhachi, the Japanese wooden flute.

He was a founder of the Pentangle — which he named after the five-pointed star, symbolizing five virtues, on the shield of Sir Gawain in the medieval Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” — in 1968 with the guitarist Bert Jansch, the singer Jacqui McShee, the bassist Danny Thompson and the drummer Terry Cox.

The core of the group was the pairing of Mr. Renbourn and Mr. Jansch, who made their first duo recordings in 1965. They forged a tandem style that became known as “folk-baroque,” full of gnarled harmonies, spiky counterpoint and melodic filigree.

The quintet added Ms. McShee’s soprano — she had sung on Mr. Renbourn’s 1966 album, “Another Monday” — and a jazz-inflected rhythm section to make music that was mostly acoustic (although Mr. Renbourn played some electric lead guitar), intricately arranged and pointedly eclectic. Its repertoire included the group’s new songs, an a cappella medieval dirge, a girl-group remake, Charles Mingus pieces, blues tunes and traditional ballads.

The Pentangle first visited the United States in 1969, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, at Carnegie Hall and — opening for the Grateful Dead — at the Fillmore West. The original version of the group made its last studio album, “Solomon’s Seal,” in 1972 before touring and then disbanding. The group reunited in the early 1980s, but Mr. Renbourn left before it made any new records.

The original quintet eventually regrouped for the BBC Folk Awards in 2007, and went on tour in 2008. It also played concerts in 2011, its last shows before Mr. Jansch’s death in October 2011.

Mr. Renbourn had a prolific career both before and after the Pentangle years. Born in London on Aug. 8, 1944, he got his start in folk clubs there and made his first album in 1965 with Dorris Henderson, an American singer based in London.

He also recorded extensively on his own and in collaboration with many luminaries of British and American folk music, among them the American folk-blues guitarist Stefan Grossman, with whom he made four studio albums and a live album, and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. Their collaboration (“Wheel of Fortune,” 1994) brought Mr. Renbourn a Grammy nomination.

Mr. Renbourn’s final studio album was “Palermo Snow,” released in 2010.

He had a pedagogic side. In the early 1980s, well into his career, he enrolled in a three-year music course at Darlington College in England, where he would later teach. He published sheet-music anthologies, including a piece from the revered Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, and an instruction book, “John Renbourn Fingerstyle Guitar.” He taught guitar at universities in the United States (including Columbia), Canada and Britain, and held guitar workshops across Europe.

His marriages to Jo Watson and Judith Hills ended in divorce. He is survived by three children, Joel, Jessie and Ben.

Mitch Greenhill, who produced three albums by Mr. Renbourn, recalled him in an email: “He was most at home in his practice studio, sheet music on a stand, guitar on his knee, trying to channel the muse that hovered just beyond the temporal world.”

March 27, 2015

Big Data

Filed under: computers,Internet — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

On March 24th Art Francisco posted a link to a NY Times article on my Facebook timeline about Facebook hosting news feeds that read in part:

With 1.4 billion users, the social media site has become a vital source of traffic for publishers looking to reach an increasingly fragmented audience glued to smartphones. In recent months, Facebook has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site.

Such a plan would represent a leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems, as well as accumulating valuable data on them. Facebook has been trying to allay their fears, according to several of the people briefed on the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were bound by nondisclosure agreements.

This prompted Art to raise the following question:

Facebook is a 21st century social network and news medium owned and operated by our ruling class. Don’t we need a social network and news medium that is for the working class?

Louis N. Proyect, you’re a well known facebook pundit on the left, what do you think? Does facebook serve the needs of the movement, or can we do better?

I was glad to hear from Art since it reminded me that I wanted to write about this matter ever since Greg Grandin’s article on “The Anti-Socialist Origins of Big Data” appeared in The Nation on October 23, 2014. Greg’s article took up in turn a New Yorker article by Evgeny Morozov on the Salvador Allende’s planners making extensive use of computers for economic development as part of Project Cybersyn, the brainchild of cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, whose “Designing Freedom”—about his work in Chile—I read some twenty years ago. I was interested in what Beer had to say since my colleagues and I had been involved in a similar project but on a much smaller scale in Sandinista Nicaragua.

We learn from Greg that big corporations appropriated the technology but for contrary ends:

Morozov makes the case that, ironically, it is in Allende’s Project Cybersyn that one can trace the beginning of today’s use of computers by our hyper-linked, consumer-desire economy, by Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping,” Uber and the like, as well as new schemes of “algorithmic regulation” cooked up by neoliberal urban planners, who want to “replace rigid rules issued by out-of-touch politicians with fluid and personalized feedback lops generated by gadget-wielding customers.” Project Cybersyn looks like a “dispatch from the future.” “The socialist origins of big data,” runs a teaser for Morozov’s essay.

Greg supplements Morozov’s customary techno-pessimism by pointing out that computers were used by Pinochet to keep track of the left as part of its overall counterrevolutionary mission.

But there’s a part of the story that Morozov misses, concerning the darker side of the pervasiveness of “big data” in our daily lives. He writes that when Augusto Pinochet staged his Washington-backed coup on September 11, 1973, overthrowing Allende and installing his long dictatorship, he dismantled Project Cybersyn. “Pinochet,” Morozov writes, “had no need for real-time centralized planning.”

But he did have a need for computers, which, Cybersyn notwithstanding, were rare in Latin America in the early 1970s. Washington began to provide Latin America’s right-wing dictatorships with the latest in computer technology, as part of its larger campaign to “modernize” and “professionalize” their intelligence agencies.

Of course, this was not the first time fascists used electronic recordkeeping for repressive ends. Edwin Black’s “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation” demonstrates that the same tab machines being used by insurance companies and banks in the USA were put to use in the Third Reich’s census, which kept track of Jews.

For that matter, the Internet itself was Satan’s Spawn to begin with, when you stop and think about it. It evolved out of ARPANET, a Pentagon project that was designed to link remote computers through a network using TCP/IP.

Morozov has become something of a prophet of doom when it comes to the Internet. In books such as “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” and “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism” and countless articles in Slate, the New Republic, and major media, he issues jeremiads that remind me a bit of the classic New Yorker cartoon with some guy in a long robe, wearing a beard, and carrying a sign—this time with the words “Forsake Twitter to Save Your Soul” or some such thing.

Of course, there’s plenty of grist for his mill with people like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos controlling much of the software we use to communicate and buy things, plus vultures like Time-Warner and Verizon looking after the infrastructure. In an article about FB banning anonymity, Morozov calls for something that sounds like Art Francisco’s “Don’t we need a social network and news medium that is for the working class?”

It’s time that citizens articulate a vision for a civic Internet that could compete with the dominant corporatist vision. Do we want to preserve anonymity to help dissidents or do we want to eliminate it so that corporations stop worrying about cyber-attacks? Do we want to build new infrastructure for surveillance—hoping it will lead to a better shopping experience—that would be abused by data-hungry governments? Do we want to enhance serendipitous discovery, to ensure exposure to new and controversial ideas, to maximize our ability to think critically about what we see and read on the Net.

Maybe because I was a software developer for 44 years and know what it is involved to create a crappy little financial system for Goldman-Sachs or Columbia University, this sort of proposal strikes me as utterly utopian. As long as we live under capitalism, we are going to have to rely on technology that is a double-edged sword.

It is not only the Internet that is subject to government surveillance. Long before there was an Internet, the left was obsessed over wiretapping. In the SWP, our comrades used to joke about it when we called each other to discuss some antiwar demonstration we were organizing. We were so sure that the FBI was listening in on our conversations, we’d make wisecracks like “FBI, get off our phone call.”

It wasn’t just the phone that was problematic. There was also mail. We assumed that the FBI was opening our mail when it saw fit. But why would we stop using the telephone or the post office to help organize our activity? What would be the alternative? Carrier pigeon? Tin cans connected by waxed string?

I have a different take on these questions, influenced to a large extent by what Lenin wrote (as opposed to what Leninists write.) In “What is to be Done”, he proposed organizational norms that conformed to changes in the mode of production. The “Economists” who preferred struggles to be localized at the plant gate level were a reflection of the more primitive, handicrafts phase of Russian capitalism when shops were smaller and more isolated. He noticed the great concentration of large factories in major cosmopolitan centers and concluded that a more professional and more generalized approach was needed in line with the changed circumstances.

Economism belonged to Russia’s past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.

If the Social Democracy of the early 20th century was a reflection of “Fordist” advances over earlier small-scale manufacturing, isn’t there a need to rethink how we are organized today in light of post-Fordist production, and networked technologies more specifically? If the bourgeoisie relies more and more on such advances for its own purposes, why should the working class be afraid of “being abused by data-hungry governments” as Morozov puts it?

In fact the activists using IPhones to record police brutality for Youtube or Facebook to organize protests do not need to read Lenin to get the green light to build movements that take advantage of the Internet. Our task as Marxists is to help the scattered movements unite into a mighty and united force that is capable of transforming society—in essence the same task that existed in Czarist Russia in 1903 but within the context of less advanced tools.

 

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

A Quixotic Longing for a Benign Authority

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

by LOUIS PROYECT

I attended the press screening for “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” with the expectation that I would learn something about the controversial novelist whose name has become synonymous with Islamophobia. Fully expecting his character (he plays himself) to be a cross between Pamela Geller and Salman Rushdie, I was surprised—if not shocked—to see him rendered as a genial, self-deprecating and altogether likeable individual who wins over his kidnappers in the course of the film. Since the film is fiction, it was up to writer/director Guillaume Nicloux to imagine a writer who met his own ideals—and implicitly that of Houellebecq as well. So instead of imagining the kidnappers as jihadists anxious to take vengeance on a writer who has insulted Islam, they are instead three apolitical but physically intimidating men hired by an unidentified party on a contract basis.

Luc the ringleader is a longhaired Roma with the body of a sumo wrestler who tells Houellebecq that he trained Israeli soldiers in the martial arts including the technique needed to rip off an enemy’s ear, not the sort of person you would want to trifle with. But in a scene that epitomizes the film’s off-kilter comic sense, the tensest moment between captors and captive is over some detail in Houellebecq’s first book—a biography of the Gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Luc insists that the book describes Houellebecq purloining a sweat-stained cushion that belonged to Lovecraft from some museum, which he denies is in the book. As Luc grows increasingly angry at Houellebecq’s denial, the author follows the Falstaffian principle that discretion is the better part of valor and states that he might have forgotten what he wrote after all. Since Houellebecq has the appearance of a Bowery flophouse resident and drinks glass after glass of wine throughout the film (one suspects that it was not grape juice), we suspect that Luc had it right all along.

read full article

March 25, 2015

The Chimpanzee and the Storks: an excerpt from Michel Houellebecq’s “Whatever”

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Celine has entered great literature as others enter their homes.

–Leon Trotsky

An excerpt from Michel Houellebecq’s “Whatever”:

Friday and Saturday I didn’t do much; let’s say I meditated, if you can all it that I remember having thought of suicide, of its paradoxical usefulness. Let’s put a chimpanzee in a tiny cage fronted by concrete barn. The animal would go berserk, throw itself against the walls, rip out its hair, inflict cruel bites on itself, and in 73% of cases will actually end up killing itself. Let’s now make a breach in one of the walls, which we will place right next to a bottomless precipice. Our friendly sample quadrumane will approach the edge, he’ll look down, remain at the edge for ages, return there time and again, but generally he won’t teeter over the brink; and in all events his nervous state will be radically assuaged.

My meditation on chimpanzees prolonged late into the night of Saturday and Sunday, and I finished up laying the foundations for an animal story called Dialogues Between a Chimpanzee and a Stork, which in fact constituted a political pamphlet of rare violence. Taken prisoner by a tribe of storks, the chimpanzee was at first self-preoccupied, his thoughts fur away. One morning, summoning up his courage, he demanded to see the eldest of the storks. Immediately brought before the bird, he raised his arms dramatically to the sky before pronouncing this despairing discourse:

Of all economic and social systems, capitalism is unquestionably the most natural. This already suffices to show that it is bound to be the worst. Once this conclusion is drawn it only remains to develop a workable and consistent set of concepts, that is, one whose mechanical functioning will permit, proceeding from facts introduced by chalice, the generation of multiple proofs which reinforce the predetermined judgment, the way that bars of graphite can reinforce the structure of a nuclear reactor. That in a simple task, worthy of a very young monkey; however I would like to disregard it.

During the migration of the spermatic flood towards the neck of the uterus, an imposing phenomenon, completely respectable and absolutely essential for the reproduction of species, one sometimes observes the aberrant comportment of certain spermatozoa. They look ahead, they look behind, they sometimes even swim against the current for a few brief seconds, and the accelerated wriggling of their tail now seems to translate as the revising of an ontological decision. If they do not compensate for this surprising indecision by a given velocity they generally arrive too late, and consequently rarely participate at the grand festival of genetic recombination. And so it was in August 1793 that Maximilien Robespierre was carried along by the movement of history like a crystal of chalcedony caught in a distant avalanche, or better still like a young stork with still too feeble wings, born by unhappy chance just before the approach of winter, and which suffers considerable difficulty — the thing is understandable — in maintaining a correct course during the crossing of jet-streams. Now jet streams are, as we know, particularly violent on the approaches of Africa. Rut I shall refine my thinking once more.

On the day of his execution Maximilien Robespierre had a broken jaw. It was held together by a bandage. Just before placing his head under the blade the executioner wrenched off his bandage; Robespierre let out a scream of pain, torrents of blood spurted from his wound, his broken teeth spilled forth on the ground. Then the executioner blandished the bandage at the end of his arm like a trophy, showing it to the crowd massed mound the scaffold. People were laughing, jeering. At this point the chroniclers generally add: “The Revolution was over.” This is rigorously exact. ‘At the very moment the executioner brandished his disgusting blood soaked bandage to the acclaim of the crowd, I like to think that in the mind of Robespierre there was something other than suffering. Something apart from the feeling of failure. A hope? Or doubtless the feeling that he’d done what he had to do, Maximilien Robespierre, I love you.

The eldest stork replied simply, in a slow and terrible voice: Tat twam asi. [LP: this is Sanskrit for “That thou art”, words found in the Rig Veda to indicate one’s connection to the Infinite] Shortly afterwards the chimpanzee was executed by the tribe of storks; he died in atrocious pain, transpierced and emasculated by their pointed beaks. For having questioned the order of the world the chimpanzee had to perish; in fact one could understand it; really, that’s how it was.

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