Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 20, 2015

Digital Rebellion: the Birth of the Cyber Left

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Internet,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:49 pm
Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion”

Can the Net Drive Social Movements?

by LOUIS PROYECT

Largely through the writings and public addresses of David Graeber, Marina Sitrin, John Holloway and others, “horizontalism” became a buzzword to describe various movements over the past fifteen years or so that were inspired by the Seattle protests and marked by direct democracy, communications through the Internet, militant tactics, and a belief that occupations of public spaces could prefigure a future, more just world. Ideologically, anarchism and autonomist Marxism loomed large—understandably so since the “verticalism” of the old Left seemed to have run its course.

As is so often the case, movements and institutions that appear to contradict each other can often be resolved on a higher level. In this instance, given the exhaustion of “horizontalist” initiatives over the past couple of years, an analysis of the contested ideological terrain is more necessary than ever. As a major contribution to the debate, I cannot recommend Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left” highly enough. If you read an excerpt from the book’s introduction on last weekend’s CounterPunch, you will understand that the book is directed to the activist left and is not the typical academic work despite the author being a member of the Rutgers University faculty and the book being published by the University of Illinois Press.

Eminently readable, Digital Rebellion is a mixture of reporting and theory all designed to move beyond the horizontal-vertical duality and achieve a synthesis that draws from the best of both worlds. While the words Syriza and Podemos cannot be found in its pages (and of course Podemos was born after the book was published), their presence looms over its pages. As political parties, they were midwifed by the occupations of the horizontalist left–so much so that at least one well-known autonomist has broken ranks and come around to seeing the benefits of wielding state power, hitherto something seen as anathema. Jerome Roos of Roar Magazine, an autonomist stronghold, gave an interview to Syriza in which he said that “Syriza’s radical internationalism is uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the business class.” These are welcome words indeed.

read full article

February 19, 2015

What the zombies tell us

Filed under: Film,television — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Below you will see an excerpt from the February 8, 2015 episode of “Walking Dead” on the AMC cable channel. Titled “What Happened and What’s Going On”, it is about the latest futile attempt by the characters to find a safe haven against zombies, in this instance a middle-class gated community that was formerly the home of Noah, an African-American youth who joined the band recently.

Noah is accompanied by Tyreese, the older and powerfully built African-American who we see in the excerpt being attacked by Noah’s brother, who has been transformed into a zombie.

I want to direct your attention to the radios that are shown in Noah’s house as Tyreese lies bleeding on the floor and later on when he is being rushed away in a car driven by Rick, the band’s leader. In both instances Tyreese is hallucinating since radio and television, and all civilized life, has come to an end.

The radios play what sounds like BBC reporters commenting on Boko Haram or ISIS: “Four deadly attacks on the coastal district”. “The marauders continue their campaign of random violence”. “The country’s military forces in disarray”. And so on.

For me, the hallucinatory radio broadcasts came as an epiphany. I have made no effort to track down commentary on this episode but I interpret it as a sidelong glance at the barbaric nature of so-called Islamic radicals, even though they have very little to do with religion. More generally, the writer Scott Gimple is conveying the show’s major theme—that human beings are worse than the dreaded zombies and that civilization is entering a new Dark Age.

Over the past couple of years, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four they try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and Noah’s gated community. Their miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Zombie tales have only assumed social and political dimensions fairly recently. Before George Romero’s breakthrough “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, the typical zombie flick was something like Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked with a Zombie” that was set in the Caribbean and involved voodoo ceremonies that brought people back to life. Tourneur also directed “Cat People”, a film much admired by film scholars for its surrealist inflections.

Romero was not interested in making the typical voodoo film. His zombies were on the attack in rural Pennsylvania and their human prey took refuge in a farmhouse whose defense was organized by Ben, an African-American played by Duane Jones. Unlike “Walking Dead”, the zombies were routed by local law enforcement that regarded them not much more than a nuisance like bedbugs or rabid skunks, which is summed up by this priceless exchange in the denouement:

Field Reporter: Chief, if I were surrounded by eight or ten of these things, would I stand a chance with them?

Sheriff McClelland: Well, there’s no problem. If you have a gun, shoot ‘em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ‘em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ‘em or burn ‘em. They go up pretty easy.

Rob Kuhn’s documentary “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Netflix or Amazon, interviews George Romero and leaves no doubt about his determination to use zombies as a symbol of 1960s chaos and disintegration. In my review of the film, I noted:

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as the sheriff in “Walking Dead” but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre.

As the seventies, eighties and nineties wore on, the zombie genre took on a bleaker character. If they were a minor inconvenience in Romero’s 1968 film, by 2002 they were a powerful force that had made civilized life impossible—anticipating in their way the message of “Walking Dead”. I speak here of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, a brilliant film that for the first time depicts human beings as much of a menace as the zombies they supposedly protect mankind from. In the thrilling conclusion to the film, a young British civilian fends off a military unit that is planning to rape his girlfriend.

Three years later George Romero made a new zombie film that is even more of a social commentary than his 1968 original. Titled “Land of the Dead”, it puts a zombie army that is advancing on a gated city that is as brutally class divided as Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai. In my review of this film that can be seen on Amazon streaming, I quoted Romero who was asked about why the film was set in a Pittsburgh of the dystopian future:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

Leaving aside the social and political implications of “Walking Dead”, I can recommend it as first-rate entertainment. Like other shows on AMC such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, the station has a way of putting together dramatic serials that are the equal or superior to anything on the premium channels such as HBO or Showtime. Frank Darabont, who was the screenwriter for a number of Stephen King adaptations, developed the show. It is not too hard to figure out that King’s darker than dark sensibility and supreme story-telling knack had a major influence on Darabont. There’s not much on Darabont in Wikipedia but this is worth citing:

Darabont was born in a refugee camp in 1959 in Montbéliard, Doubs, France. His parents fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. When he was still an infant, his family moved to the United States, settling in Chicago. When Darabont was five the family moved to Los Angeles. Darabont was inspired to pursue a career in film after seeing the George Lucas film THX 1138 in his youth. Darabont graduated from Hollywood High School in 1977 and did not attend college. His first jobs after finishing school included working as a forklift operator and as a busboy. He claims he got his writing skills from “endless hours” of writing at a desk on a typewriter in his free time.

Too bad so many screenwriters learned their craft in graduate school than in the way that Darabont did.

Finally, while on the topic of zombie movies or TV shows as entertainment, let me recommend two of my favorites: Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s “Dead Snow”, made in 2009 and the sequel “Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead”. Both films can be seen on Netflix streaming and are brilliant pulp fiction.

In the first film, a weekend skiing trip by Norwegian students turns into a desperate flight from Nazi soldiers who emerge as the walking dead from beneath the snow. It is a splatter film filled with cartoon-like effects of power tools being used as weapons, one of which is used to saw off the arm of Martin, who has been bitten and infected by a Nazi zombie. Yes, I know it sounds idiotic but it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. There are multiple beheadings but none that would give you the kind of feeling of dismay that ISIS gives. Your reaction is to laugh out loud in much the way that a safe being dropped on the coyote’s head in a roadrunner cartoon would.

In the sequel, there is even more merriment. I laughed so loud watching it that I was afraid my neighbors would complain to the doormen downstairs. Martin, who is the sole survivor of the first attack, gets the Nazi battalion commander’s arm that he has chopped off fleeing from the mountaintop reattached to his body in the hospital while he is unconscious. Meanwhile, the Nazi ends up with Martin’s arm. It all leads to inspired farce such as Martin not being able to control the reattached arm that seems to have a mind of its own. If you’ve seen Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, you’ll get the picture.

The film gets its subtitle from Martin’s raising a battalion of Red Army soldiers who have been buried in Norway since 1945, after a battle with the Nazis now on the rampage. Using the power of his reanimated right arm, he brings them back to life or more accurately allows them to walk among the living. The final scene is a truly inspired gore-fest with intestines being pulled out of the victim’s stomach like a garden hose and dozens of beheadings. If you prefer “The Imitation Game” or “Birdman”, the hell with you.

 

February 17, 2015

A dialectical approach to technology

Filed under: computers,Internet,technology — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

From Digital Rebellion:

This dialectical approach to technology avoids a techno-utopian outlook that imputes naturally given revolutionary character to the Internet. At the same time, this dynamic approach recognizes the critical and likely realist analysis of technology embodied in Dean’s work, while not seeing the capture of technology as complete or given. In this sense, as other research has shown, “if capital ‘interweaves technology and power, this weaving can be undone, and the threads can be used to make another pattern” (Dyer-Withford 1999).

This reweaving of technology is illustrated by Frantz Fanon in Studies of a Dying Colonialism (1965), when he famously described how the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) reappropriated the radio, changing it from a tool of French colonial domination to a fundamental weapon of resistance. As Fanon argues, “[T]he creation of a Voice of Fighting Algeria” (93) and the correspondent construction of an Algerian version of truth put the French truth, which for so long was unchallenged in Algeria, on the defensive. Thus, while in the hands of the French, the radio served to further French domination, obscuring social relations and isolating “natives” from one another, whereas the FLN’s reappropriation turned the radio into a tool of information, connection, and unification by creating a new language of Algerian resistance and nationhood. Thus, it was not radio alone that produced change; in fact, Algerians would not adopt the radio while it was a tool of French domination. It was the social use of radio by the FLN that made it a revolutionary tool in Algeria.

Fanon’s dialectical analysis of radio in Algeria offers an entry point into this complex discussion of technology and social movements. Along these lines, the birth of the Internet serves as a useful example of the dialectical interplay of technological tools and social relations. By all accounts, the development of the Internet as a communications tool was financed, and at times led, by the U.S. Department of Defense, through the Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). DARPA created the predecessor to the Internet, ARPANET, in order to decentralize command and control in case of nuclear attack.9 Developed at the height of the Cold War in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, the technology had a singular military purpose. Scholars have shown, however, that in the research and development process, the tech laborers working on ARPANET appropriated the system to create a social-communications network. Correspondingly, much of the original intent was supplanted by the aim of creating a democratic, egalitarian communications network. In this respect, a technology that emerged out of the U.S. Department of Defense became the backbone for a worldwide-unrestricted medium for information and communication. As Hafner and Lyon explain: “The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used. By 1980 the Net was far more than a collection of computers and leased lines. It was a place to share work and build friendships and a more open method of communications” (1996, 218). In another account, speaking of social networking and successive layers of social usage that engulfed the new technology, Peter Childers and Paul Delany (1994) exclaimed, “The parasites took over the host” (62).

More recently, however, as the Internet has emerged as a central tool of social life, the forces of capitalism have successfully worked to co-opt it and create a technology that prioritizes profit over information sharing. In Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet against Democracy (2013), Robert W. McChesney details how, for the last two decades, in every major fight that determined the direction of this new communication technology, the forces of capital have won: “The tremendous promise of the digital revolution has been compromised by capitalist appropriation and development of the Internet. . . . In the great conflict between openness and the closed sys-tem of corporate profitability, the forces of capital have triumphed whenever an issue mattered to them” (97). This appropriation of the Internet for the interests of capital is not complete, of course, as there are a host of struggles that will determine the character of this new technology for decades, yet it does offer the central window through which to understand the Web in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In a broader sense, however, the conflict over the Internet yet again illustrates that a dialectical approach to technology offers a framework for studying technological practices as they are tied to social relations and the mode of production, while leaving open conditions of possibility for contravening interests.

 

Erwin Baur interview, part two

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 1:33 am

In this segment, Erwin discusses:

–How the Detroit branch of the SWP recruited over a hundred Black workers, mostly from auto.

–The fight for a cost of living clause in the UAW contracts over the objection of the CP during WWII and Walter Reuther after the war.

–Why the charge that the Cochranites represented a layer of privileged auto workers who had lost faith in the proletarian revolution was false.

February 15, 2015

Behind every great fortune there is a crime

Filed under: capitalist pig,crime,literature,Russia — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

The title of this article stems from Honoré de Balzac’s “Père Goriot”. Often seen erroneously (including by me) as the novel’s epigraph, it is actually words spoken by a scheming, malevolent character named Vautrin: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.”

Whatever the exact words, the Balzacian worldview came to mind after reading the NY Times series of articles on the filthy rich and mostly criminal owners of the city’s most expensive condos. They sank in further after watching an episode on “Sixty Minutes” about HSBC, a Swiss bank that facilitated tax evasion and worse.

I suppose that I should have long been inured to the criminality of the super-rich but for some reason I always stop dead in my tracks when I encounter it anew on such a grand scale. I end up feeling like Joe Buck, the Texas hustler who has come to NY to make it as a professional gigolo in “Midnight Cowboy”, standing over a man sprawled out unconscious on the sidewalk as people pass him by with barely a glance. Unlike the rest of humanity, Buck tells himself that something is wrong.

Karl Marx was a big fan of Balzac and even intended to write a study of “The Human Comedy”, a massive collection of novels, short stories and articles about the greed, corruption and power of the bourgeoisie but hardly a paean to the common man. Keep in mind that Balzac was a royalist and hardly a purveyor of “socialist realism”. Engels, another fan of Balzac, told London radical Margaret Harkness in 1888 that his politics were less important than his ability to tell the truth about bourgeois society:

The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may crop out even in spite of the author’s opinions. Let me refer to an example. Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et a venir [past, present and future], in “La Comédie humaine” gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French ‘Society’, especially of le monde parisien [the Parisian social world], describing, chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles, that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could, the standard of la viellie politesse française [French refinement]. He describes how the last remnants of this, to him, model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar monied upstart, or were corrupted by him; how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society from which, even in economic details (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.

Monied upstarts pretty much describes the billionaires who bought Manhattan apartments through shell corporations that concealed their identities. The article that introduces the series describes the affinity between NY’s one percent and the human detritus that is artificially inflating an already out-of-reach real estate market:

The high-end real estate market has become less and less transparent — and more alluring for those abroad with assets they wish to keep anonymous — even as the United States pushes other nations to help stanch the flow of American money leaving the country to avoid taxes. Yet for all the concerns of law enforcement officials that shell companies can hide illicit gains, regulatory efforts to require more openness from these companies have failed.

“We like the money,” said Raymond Baker, the president of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington nonprofit that tracks the illicit flow of money. “It’s that simple. We like the money that comes into our accounts, and we are not nearly as judgmental about it as we should be.”

In some ways, officials are clamoring for the foreign wealthy. In New York, tax breaks for condominium developments benefit owners looking for a second, or third, residence in one of Manhattan’s premier buildings. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on his weekly radio program in 2013, shortly before leaving office: “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend.”

In fact the invasion of oligarchs and crooks has been the opposite of a godsend. These condominiums enjoy tax breaks originally intended to stimulate the construction of middle-class housing but real estate developers obviously find it more profitable to build high-rises like the Time-Warner Center that is profiled in the articles. Built shortly after September 11, 2001, the ultra-luxury building was advertised as a fortress for the super-rich that had more to fear from the workers and peasants they were screwing than Islamic radicals.

 

Here is an idea of the kind of scum that inhabits the Time-Warner Center:

Units 72B and 51E are owned by the Amantea Corporation, which The Times traced to a mining magnate named Anil Agarwal. His company was fined for polluting a major river near a copper mine in Zambia, which sickened nearby residents. And judicial committees in his native India determined that his company had violated the land rights of an indigenous tribe near a proposed mine.

Perhaps the most eye-opening example of how larceny and power politics commingle is found in part five in the series titled “At the Time Warner Center, an Enclave of Powerful Russians”. If you, like me, place little credence in the notion of the Kremlin and its retinue of connected oligarchs as some kind of anti-imperialist vanguard, this profile of Andrey Vavilov is a must read.

Vavilov was Boris Yeltsin’s deputy finance minister and like many of his top officials cultivated ties with American inside-the-beltway policy wonks and power brokers at places like the Brookings Institution. Vavilov was one of the key architects who advised Yeltsin on turning state-owned industry, particularly in the energy sphere, into get-rich-quick bonanzas for the managers benefiting from privatization including himself. Cashing in on a sale of a oil company being sold back to the state under Putin to the tune of $600 million, he was not put off by the price tag of $37.5 million for an 8,275 square foot penthouse in the Time Warner Center. In addition to this penthouse, Vavilov owns an Airbus jet, apartments in Monaco and Beverly Hills, and recently purchased two diamonds for his wife (55 and 59.5 carats) worth a cool $60 million.

He is also a visiting professor of economics at Penn State, where he must be educating a new generation of economists on how to game the system for Wall Street hedge funds and the like.

Like many on Wall Street, Vavilov has managed to avoid a prison cell despite the serious allegations made against him over the years, including the mishandling of nearly a quarter-billion dollars in proceeds from the sale of MIG’s to India. Just around the time the law was breathing down his neck in 2007, he was elected senator to the Russian parliament, which gave him immunity. The case was dropped a year later because the statue of limitations had expired.

Most interestingly, despite Vavilov’s close association to Yeltsin and Putin’s reputation for cleaning up Yeltsin’s privatization mess, he managed to endear himself to the fearless anti-imperialist leader:

Despite Mr. Vavilov’s close association with the Yeltsin administration, much of his wealth was acquired later, as Mr. Putin’s government was consolidating the nation’s oil industry in one state-affiliated super company, Rosneft.

In 2000, Mr. Vavilov had acquired a small oil company, Severnaya Neft, or Northern Oil, for $25 million. When Rosneft purchased Severnaya Neft in 2003 for $600 million, the deal was widely criticized as having been larded with kickbacks for Kremlin insiders.

In a now-legendary confrontation at the Kremlin, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, chairman of the oil giant Yukos, challenged Mr. Putin about the purchase. Many people believed that it was Mr. Putin’s anger over the very public encounter that sparked his campaign against Mr. Khodorkovsky, who would be stripped of his company, prosecuted and imprisoned.

For most of the left, particularly those people who remain impressed by NYU professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen who has the same relationship to Putin that Anna Louise Strong had to Mao Zedong, there’s very little understanding of how Putin continues Yeltsin’s policies rather than breaks with them. In fact, there is an analogy with how Cohen’s wife’s vanity publication, ie. The Nation Magazine, fails to appreciate how much Obama is a continuation of George W. Bush.

For the best analysis of the Yeltsin-Putin continuity, I recommend a Tony Wood review of three recent books on Putin that is unfortunately behind a paywall (contact me if you’d like a copy) but this is the takeaway:

New Year’s Eve 1999 – when Yeltsin appeared on Russian TV screens to announce his resignation as president in favour of Putin – is often taken to mark a major turning point, from the ‘fevered 1990s’ to the stability of the ‘Zero Years’, as the 2000s are known, the moment when Yeltsin’s erratic improvisation gave way to the cold calculation personified in Putin. Economically, the prolonged post-Soviet collapse was followed by recovery after the 1998 ruble crash and then an oil-fuelled boom, while in the media a boisterous incoherent pluralism was replaced by deadening consensus. But there were deeper continuities in the system both men commanded.

Politically, the ‘managed democracy’ of the 2000s was not a perversion of Yeltsinism but its maturation. Faced with a fractious legislature – the Congress of People’s Deputies elected in 1990 – Yeltsin bombed it into submission in October 1993 and then rewrote the constitution along hyper-presidential lines, getting it approved by a rigged referendum that December. Even before that, he had sidestepped democratic accountability by implementing much of the key legislation that shaped the post-Soviet economy through a series of decrees – some of them, notably on privatisation, drafted by Western advisers. Thanks to the notorious ‘loans for shares’ deals of 1995-96, a handful of oligarchs obtained vast holdings in oil and metals companies in exchange for flooding the media outlets they owned with anti-Communist propaganda – a vital contribution to prolonging Yeltsin’s grip on power, though generous financial assistance from the West and electoral violations also played their part. In Chechnya, Yeltsin moved to crush local aspirations to sovereignty, unleashing total war against the civilian population in 1994, though the Russian army had been fought to a standstill by 1996.

On each of these fronts, Putin continued what Yeltsin began, starting in the North Caucasus in September 1999, when he launched a vicious counterinsurgency – officially labelled an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ – to destroy any idea of Chechen independence, eventually imposing a tyrant of his own choosing. Once installed as president, he made use of the autocratic set-up he inherited to reassert central authority, reining in regional elites by appointing plenipotentiaries to head seven new federal superdistricts, okruga; five of the first levy were former military men, underlining their disciplinary function (his first envoy to the Southern Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, had commanded Russian forces in the North Caucasus). Fiscal reforms increased the federal centre’s tax take at the expense of the regions, with Moscow’s share rising from 50 per cent in 2001 to 70 per cent in 2008. In 2004 Putin further restricted their autonomy, abolishing elections for governors and mayors (though these were partially reintroduced in 2012). The national legislature had been put in its place by Yeltsin, though it showed signs of rebellion in 1998, in the wake of the ruble crisis; Putin brought it firmly to heel, streamlining the party system so that by 2007 there were only four to manage, two of them, United Russia and A Just Russia, the Kremlin’s own creations, while the Communist Party and LDPR (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) hardly constituted an opposition. In December 2003, Boris Gryzlov, the Duma chairman, summed up its negligible role by declaring that ‘parliament is no place for political battles.’

I suppose there is very little expectation that Swiss Banks are up to anything except abetting criminals but the segment on Sixty Minutes last Sunday about HSBC was enough to bring out the Joe Buck in me. You can watch the entire thing here.

Bill Whitaker interviews attorney Jack Blum, who was graduating the year I entered Bard College. Blum is a capable investigator whose best-known efforts on behalf of the public interest was an aide to John Kerry in his investigation of the Nicaraguan contra-cocaine connection back in 1986 when he still had a shred of integrity. I never had any contact with Blum but he was a fairly typical young Democrat type of student who at least had the good sense to stay clear of electoral politics.

Jack Blum

Here’s the beginning of the transcript from the “Sixty Minutes” piece:

HIGHLIGHT: The largest and most damaging Swiss bank heist in history doesn`t involve stolen money but stolen computer files with more than one hundred thousand names tied to Swiss bank accounts at HSBC, the second largest commercial bank in the world. A thirty-seven-year-old computer security specialist named Herve Falciani stole the huge cache of data in 2007 and gave it to the French government.

BILL WHITAKER: The largest and most damaging Swiss bank heist in history doesn`t involve stolen money but stolen computer files with more than one hundred thousand names tied to Swiss bank accounts at HSBC, the second largest commercial bank in the world. A thirty-seven-year-old computer security specialist named Herve Falciani stole the huge cache of data in 2007 and gave it to the French government. It`s now being used to go after tax cheats all over the world. 60 MINUTES, working with a group called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, obtained the leaked files. They show the bank did business with a collection of international outlaws: Tax dodgers, arms dealers and drug smugglers–offering a rare glimpse into the highly secretive world of Swiss banking.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): This is the stolen data that`s shaking the Swiss banking world to its core. It contains names, nationalities, account information, deposit amounts–but most remarkable are these detailed notes revealing the private dealings between HSBC and its clients.

JACK BLUM: Well, the amount of information here that has come public is extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Few people know more about money laundering and tax evasion by banks than Jack Blum.

JACK BLUM: You have a very serious problem.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): He`s a former U.S. Senate staff investigator. We asked him to analyze the files for us.

JACK BLUM: If you read these notes, what you understand is the bank is trying to accommodate the secrecy needs of the client. And that`s the first concern.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Take the case of British citizen Emmanuel Shallop. He was convicted for selling blood diamonds, those illegal gems used to finance conflicts in Africa. The documents show in 2005 HSBC knew Shallop was under investigation, yet helped hide his assets. “We have opened a company account for him based in Dubai…” one entry read, “The client is very cautious currently, because he is under pressure from Belgian tax authorities, who are investigating his activities in the area of diamond tax fraud.”

JACK BLUM: You get into the notes and you find that they offer various products: shell corporations, trusts, various ways of concealing the ownership of the account. They offer products that they`re going to give to the customer that will help with a concealment.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Concealment is what Irish businessman John Cashell got from HSBC. His file contained these notes by a bank employee: Cashell`s “…pre-occupation is with the risk of disclosure to the Irish authorities.” The employee went on, “…I endeavored to reassure him that there is no risk of that happening.” Cashell was later convicted of tax evasion.

The bank files we examined contained more than four thousand names of people with connections to the U.S., holding more than thirteen billion in HSBC accounts. One was a New Jersey realtor. The notes in her file reveal that she and her family wanted assurance that her assets would be well hidden from U.S. tax collectors.

JACK BLUM: And she expresses concerns to the bank, which in turn reassure her that they will find ways to keep her name out of the sights of IRS.

BILL WHITAKER: There seems to be evidence of the bank actively helping clients evade, if not cheat.

JACK BLUM: Of course.

It has been at least 35 years since I read “Père Goriot”. I barely have time nowadays to read the political stuff that is my daily bread but I would like to find the time to read it again before I die since it was a book that gave me deep pleasure. Balzac was a master of rendering character, particularly in the depths of their depravity. His introduction to the novel’s main character will give you an idea of the moral rot that underpins bourgeois society. From the sound of this, Père Goriot would have found the road to riches in Yeltsin and Putin’s Russia or a job with HSBC:

In the days before the Revolution, Jean-Joachim Goriot was simply a workman in the employ of a vermicelli maker. He was a skilful, thrifty workman, sufficiently enterprising to buy his master’s business when the latter fell a chance victim to the disturbances of 1789. Goriot established himself in the Rue de la Jussienne, close to the Corn Exchange. His plain good sense led him to accept the position of President of the Section, so as to secure for his business the protection of those in power at that dangerous epoch. This prudent step had led to success; the foundations of his fortune were laid in the time of the Scarcity (real or artificial), when the price of grain of all kinds rose enormously in Paris. People used to fight for bread at the bakers’ doors; while other persons went to the grocers’ shops and bought Italian paste foods without brawling over it. It was during this year that Goriot made the money, which, at a later time, was to give him all the advantage of the great capitalist over the small buyer; he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him. He excited no one’s envy, it was not even suspected that he was rich till the peril of being rich was over, and all his intelligence was concentrated, not on political, but on commercial speculations. Goriot was an authority second to none on all questions relating to corn, flour, and “middlings”; and the production, storage, and quality of grain. He could estimate the yield of the harvest, and foresee market prices; he bought his cereals in Sicily, and imported Russian wheat. Any one who had heard him hold forth on the regulations that control the importation and exportation of grain, who had seen his grasp of the subject, his clear insight into the principles involved, his appreciation of weak points in the way that the system worked, would have thought that here was the stuff of which a minister is made. Patient, active, and persevering, energetic and prompt in action, he surveyed his business horizon with an eagle eye. Nothing there took him by surprise; he foresaw all things, knew all that was happening, and kept his own counsel; he was a diplomatist in his quick comprehension of a situation; and in the routine of business he was as patient and plodding as a soldier on the march. But beyond this business horizon he could not see. He used to spend his hours of leisure on the threshold of his shop, leaning against the framework of the door. Take him from his dark little counting-house, and he became once more the rough, slow-witted workman, a man who cannot understand a piece of reasoning, who is indifferent to all intellectual pleasures, and falls asleep at the play, a Parisian Dolibom in short, against whose stupidity other minds are powerless.

February 13, 2015

Two Documentaries on Vietnam

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

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Two Documentaries: One Great, the Other Abysmal

The Mirror of Vietnam

by LOUIS PROYECT

On the Kickstarter page for the remarkable documentary “Same Same but Different”, the film takes note of the ignominious end of the war in Vietnam—at least if you view that ending from the point of view of the White House and the Pentagon: “Long after that last helicopter lifted off from the American Embassy in Saigon, Veterans of that War have quietly returned to their former battlegrounds to clear unexploded ordnance, work with victims of Agent Orange, and build schools and orphanages. Same Same But Different is their story.”

Ignominious is certainly the word that comes to mind when you watch Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” that has been nominated for best documentary for the upcoming Academy Awards. Like “American Sniper”, this is a film that turns history on its head. By portraying the liberation of Vietnam that was captured in memorable photos of the last helicopters lifting off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon as a disaster for the Vietnamese people, Ms. Kennedy keeps alive the myth of the American military as a force for good. By contrast and in Walt Kelly’s memorable way of putting it, “Same Same but Different” tells the truth, namely that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

read full article

February 12, 2015

Salvation; Blue Ruin

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

Back in 1980, just after I had left the Trotskyist movement and thought that I would write the Great (or nearly great) American Novel, I took a writer’s workshop class at NYU’s School of Continuing Education that was almost totally worthless. The only thing that came out of it that stuck with me over the years was the teacher’s point that there are only about 10 plots in all of literature, with variants accounting for the tens of thousands of novels and screenplays. Probably the most familiar is the Road Story that can be found in both “Huckleberry Finn” and “On the Road”.

As I sat watching “Salvation”, the Strudel Western from Denmark that incorporates many of the Spaghetti Western genre elements from the 1970s, it occurred to me that Revenge plots are almost as ubiquitous as those involving the Road, maybe even more so. After discussing this film that was burdened with a number of problems but still worth seeing when it opens in NYC on February 27, I’ll say something about “Blue Ruin”, another Revenge movie that was made on a shoestring budget and was my pick for NYFCO’s best new director award for 2014.

The best reason to watch “Salvation” is its star Mads Mikkelsen, my favorite actor who plays Jon, a Danish soldier who has immigrated to America and become a farmer somewhere in the arid and windswept high plains—perhaps the Dakotas.

In the opening scene, Jon greets his wife and young son who have just gotten off the train to join him on the farm. After the three board a stagecoach to take them home, they discover that the two men sitting opposite them are up to no good. After taking repeated swigs out of a whiskey bottle, they make advances on Jon’s wife and pull a gun on him. A melee on the stage leads to him being thrown off and his wife and son being left to the two men’s malignant devices. When he catches up with the stage later on, he discovers the dead bodies of his wife and son and spots one of the two men with his pants down. It is obvious that he raped his wife before killing her. The two have also killed the two stagecoach drivers. He takes revenge on the two men using a rifle he finds nearby the coach and returns home to bury his wife and son.

It turns out that the rapist, who has just been released from prison, is the brother of a local businessman/gangster (somewhat after the fashion of the oligarchs being profiled in the series about condominiums in the NY Times) who has been buying up land in the area to sell to developers seeking to drill for oil, a resource more profitable than farmland. When the local sheriff, a man tainted by the corruption that is running rampant, arrests Jon and turns him over to the gangster bent on avenging his evil brother’s death, the plot machinery is set for an ever-escalating series of violent showdowns that will remind you of any number of Sergio Leone movies with overtones of “High Noon”, “Shane” and “Unforgiven” except with Danish subtitles.

What redeems this film from the ordinary is Mikkelsen’s performance as the wronged man whose hunger for revenge assumes biblical proportions, a role that he has reprised a number of times including “Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas”. There is not much for him to do in representing a rather one-dimensional character but there’s nobody better equipped for such a role.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the gang leader Delarue, a character that screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen must have fashioned after the cattle boss in “Shane”, a bad guy you just love to hate. Jensen also wrote the screenplay for “In a Better World”, a 2010 film that was a thoughtful and effective critique of revenge. Go figure.

“Salvation” opens at the IFC in NY on February 27th and is definitely worth watching, especially for those with the good sense to be Mads Mikkelsen fans.

I have to thank Jeff St. Clair for turning me on to “Blue Ruin”, a film that can be seen on Netflix streaming. It is one of the few films with a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes that deserves the accolades.

The film begins with an apparently homeless man pouring through garbage cans in a a beach resort town looking for his dinner. With his shaggy beard and hair, he looks like the last person imaginable to set out on a course of revenge that takes more nerve and more fighting skills than three Mads Mikkelsens put together.

Macon Blair plays the man who is living in a rusted out blue Pontiac that gives the film its title, a title that also suggests the existential peril that awaits his character, a lost soul named Dwight who is suffering a kind of posttraumatic stress following the murder of his parents.

When Dwight learns that their killer has just been released from prison, he undergoes a transformation both psychologically and physically. He shaves his beard, cuts his hair, and dons new clothes that give him the appearance of an aging preppie. With his doughy body, bland facial features and generally understated manner, he seems like the last person in the world to take on a cold-blooded killer whose family members appear as much of a desperado as him, including the women.

When Dwight catches up with family, who are celebrating his release at a roadside café, he hides out in the men’s room until the killer comes in to take a piss. When Dwight slits the throat of the much larger and tougher-looking man with a kitchen knife, you know that you are dealing with a man who has nothing to lose. After the family discovers that the paterfamilias is dead, the stage is set for an ever-escalating series of violent match-ups just like “Salvation” but done much more after the fashion of an indie made for Sundance than a Sergio Leone western.

The film was directed and written by Jeremy Saulnier, whose only credit before this was the 2007 horror-comedy “Murder Party” a sort of straight-to-video mess by most accounts. It is astounding that Saulnier could have risen to the heights of “Blue Ruin”, a film whose modest costs were covered by a Kickstarter campaign.

Saulnier’s most brilliant stroke was casting high-school buddy Macon Blair as the unlikely revenge-seeker Dwight. An April 18, 2014 NY Times article profiles the two men:

“For me, Macon was the whole movie, because I wanted to thrust a miscast character into a hard-core, brutal revenge movie,” Mr. Saulnier said. “What if this character wasn’t good at it? What if he lucked into fulfilling his revenge fantasy 18 minutes into the film and the rest of the film explored what happened after that?”

Though the script is ingeniously constructed, the two soon discovered that Mr. Blair’s concerns were reasonable. Nobody was jumping at the opportunity to finance a thriller that starred a relative unknown as a schlubby, traumatized beach bum who lives in the titular blue ruin of an old rusted car.

“We both had kids due in February 2013, which became a deadline that lit a fire under our butts,” said Mr. Saulnier, who felt that he would never take such a risk once his third child was born. “We had to make another last-ditch effort.”

He and his wife emptied their savings and retirement accounts. “My wife and I went into negative net worth,” he said. “Our AmEx was on standby, but we needed Kickstarter cash to bridge the gap. ‘Blue Ruin’ became everything we had, and all we could give, because it was likely the last film we’d ever make.”

If you see “Blue Ruin” on Netflix, you’ll likely agree with me that it being the last film they make is the least they have to worry about. I imagine that well-funded production companies will be beating on Saulnier’s door from now on flush with offers. Let’s hope that he maintains his indie cred.

February 11, 2015

Erwin Baur interview, part one

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 12:53 am

This is the third in a series of interviews Nelson Blackstock and I conducted with veterans of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union in the late 1990s. Now 95 years old, Erwin Baur is one of the few remaining revolutionaries who had first-hand experience in the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s.

In this first part of the interview, Erwin Baur talks about becoming a socialist in high school after coming into contact with a Russian immigrant who admired Leon Trotsky.

He then discusses the Little Steel Strike of 1937 and how he disagrees with Gus Hall’s assessment of its outcome.

After losing his job at Youngstown Steel and Tube as a result of his role in the strike, he moves to Salem, Ohio and gets a new job where he meets Laverne Halsey, the plant “Bolshevik” who was victimized for his role in a 1933 auto workers strike and who got firsthand experience with Stalinism in the USSR.

Finally, he discusses Bert Cochran’s entry into the trade union movement.

For more on Erwin and his wife Estar, who was also a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Union, I recommend Charles Williams’s “Introduction to When the UAW Was Young” that appeared in the November/December 2007 Against the Current (http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/1176).

February 9, 2015

Stand with the people of Greece

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 5:14 am

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Wednesday, February 11 at 6 p.m.
DELEGATION OF THE EUROPEAN UNION TO THE UNITED NATIONS
666 Third Avenue (between 42nd and 43rd St.)

Popular Mobilization in Cities Across Greece and Europe as European Union Ministers Meet in Brussels on Greek Debt Question

On February 11th, hundreds of thousands will gather in cities across Greece and Europe to demand an end to the EU austerity policy that for years has subjected millions of people to a humanitarian crisis. Following the election of the radical left in January, the new Greek government is set to challenge EU policy at the finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels. A strong popular mobilization can make a difference!

Demand an End to Austerity Policies!

We call on our friends in New York to show solidarity with the people of Greece and Europe. We invite all allies and all media in all languages.

Greece Solidarity ad hoc committee (list of endorsers in formation includes: AKNY-Greece Solidarity Movement, SYRIZA NY, ANTARSYA NY, Campaign for Peace and Democracy, Socialist Alternative NY)

February 8, 2015

How I stack up against my old comrades

Filed under: cults — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

From www.alexa.com:

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