Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 10, 2021

Report from Colombia #1

Filed under: Anthony from Colombia,Colombia — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

(Written on June 1 by Anthony, a long-time resident of Bogota)

On Sunday, the national strike committee decided that it would work to remove road blocks throughout the country as a measure of goodwill toward the government in an effort to get substantive negotiations started

On Saturday, the Colombian government had announced, and had begun carrying out, a major increase of military/police/paramilitary repression against the National Work Stoppage (Paro Naciónal). President Ivan Duque announced the militarization of eight departments: Valle de Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, Huila, and Caquetá in the southwestern corner of Colombia, Risaralda which is closer to the center of the country, and  Norte de Santander which is in the north of the country on the Venezuelan border. Key cities which have been epicenters of the struggle are located in this region. They include Cali – the country’s third largest city and a major transshipment and industrial center, Buenaventura – the most important port on the Pacific, Tumaco – another Pacific port, and provincial captials and cities of Pasto, Popayan, Huila and Perira plus other cities which have been important centers of protest such as Yumbo and Tulua.

A spokesperson for the strike committee characterized the government’s announcement as “an internal coup d’etat.” Lawyers say the government has no real legal basis for the measures, since the law they are based on is designed for natural disasters and emergencies.

At the same time as the government announced this escalation, it also announced that it had rejected the pre-agreement on negotiations with the strike committee that had been mediated by the Catholic Church and the United Nations. Instead it announced a set of conditions for negotiations which amount to a rejection of all negotiations: a complete end to all demonstrations and road blockades.

The government has focused on the road blockades as its most important target. Thousands of roads have been temporarily or intermittently blockaded all over the country. At first, they caused many local shortages and panic buying that were accompanied by widespread local price gouging. Since then, the strike committee has modified its policy to allow food, medical supplies, gasoline and other essential items to pass through humanitarian corridors, and blockades have become intermittent rather than continuous. Nevertheless, the strike committee does not have control over all blockades which often are local demonstrations by working class youth, are sometimes organized blockades by masses of truck drivers, and are sometimes imposed by masked groups of “encapuchados.”

The government’s announcements came in the middle of a major increase of police, military, and paramilitary repression, especially in the city of Cali and in the southwestern corner of the country. The internet is full of videos of police escorting armed men dressed in civilian clothes who are firing at demonstrators. In one case, a man in civilian clothes shoots two protestors and is subsequently, chased, caught and killed by other protestors. They pulled out his wallet and discovered his ID cards showing that he was an agent of the Fiscalia (equivalent to the office of the prosecuting attorney general). Subsequently, the Fiscalia confirmed his identity but disclaimed knowledge of, or responsibility for, his activity.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed so far, nor how many have been wounded, arrested or simply disappeared. Over the weekend a strike committee spokesman said that the government had killed 70 demonstrators. As of May 20, the government admitted that 26 people had been killed, including 25 demonstrators or bystanders and one police officer. Indepaz, an independent NGO said that as of May 18, there had been 2,387 cases of police violence and 51 killings, 43 of which were presumably at the hands of the police.

The protest movement shows no signs of abating despite the repression. Over more than one month of mobilizations it has evolved but not relented.

The major demonstrations and work stoppages happen every Wednesday, but the strike committee has called other major events on other days, including last Friday. In between, the protests continue on a smaller, local and decentralized basis. It is truly impossible to keep track of.

One day walking day the street, a group of young people march by chanting and blocking the right of way of the bus mass transit system. That night there are reports of a major confrontation in a small town fifty miles from Bogotá. The next day, a conflict erupts between the riot squad and youth blockading a main thoroughfare in a previously quiescent working class neighborhood.

Road blockades occur on a stretch of highway at an unannounced hour of the day. The police and army show up to push the demonstrators back and remove the obstacles. The next day a blockade appears a few miles down the road.

The movement is large, but not really cohesive or well organized. It has numerous sectors. There are the unions: FECODE the teachers union, the CUT and CGT – the main union federations, and the USO – the petroleum workers union, there are various truck drivers’ and truck company federations, and there are small farmers’ organizations, LGBT organizations, indigenous communities, student organizations, pensioners and others.

There are also the unnamed armed participants collectively called the “encapuchados”. They include various anarchist groupings and presumably the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army) and what are known as the dissident factions of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC dissidents are those parts of the FARC who rejected the peace agreements from the beginning, or who accepted them at first but later rejected them.

There are also armed groups of common criminal gangs that join in the protests, especially in the looting of stores and ATM machines.

In Cali, the “primera linea” – the first line of militant youth in the protests, close down road blockades at 8:00 PM, but after that time unidentified armed men – nobody knows whom – police provacateurs? Paramilitaries? The ELN?  FARC dissidents? move into occupy the contested streets. The nighttime gun battles that ensure have been falsely attributed to the protestors.

Together, the encapuchados and armed groups have been responsible for a lot of the massive destruction of property that has occurred. They target small community police stations, ATM machines, mass transit systems, and government buildings.

Most, or all, of these groups have been infiltrated by the police to one degree or another. For the last century, the Colombian police and military have built up a clandestine machine to infiltrate the left, the guerrilla movements, and opposition political parties. The budget for these operations is large, but secret. Infiltration is backed up by electronic surveillance which was vastly increased under Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia.

In between the mass peaceful protest movement and the armed groups there is a growing layer of angry, militant urban youth who have manned the road blockades, control the urban street blockades, and who have engaged in confrontations with the police.

These groups have established “resistance points” at mass transit bus depots, major intersections, and parks in many of the main cities including Bogotá, Medellin and Cali.

In Bogotá, where I live, there are two main focal points: the Portal Resistencia (officially the Portal de las Americas), and the Los Heroes monument. These are twenty-four hour demonstrations with loose-knit organizations of thousands of young people who come and go and take turns. The Portal is one of the major mass transit bus depots serving the whole city of Bogotá. The youth there have not only renamed it Portal Resistencia, they have changed all the signage, too. They control whether the buses can enter or leave.

At the Los Heroes monument, there is a major traffic interchange and a major mass transit bus interchange, both of which can be opened or closed by the demonstrators at will.

The police attack these youth, especially at night, using rubber bullets and tear gas. The youth respond with rocks, sling shots, and improvised defensive gear including makeshift shields and bicycle helmets. The Red Cross and other NGOs have set up first aid stations for those injured in the exchanges.

Other points of resistance have formed throughout this city and u in other cities,  especially in working class neighborhoods. Some are momentary and ephemeral, some have taken on a semi-permanent existence.

There is a lot more to say, and I hope to write about some of it in future updates. Here are some of the topics I hope to write about:

–La Minga (the indigenous resistance)

–Neighborhood assemblies

–The “Reconciliation” march in Cali

–The May 2022 elections

–Political pressures and factions within the government

–Political parties and their positions

–The roles of the IMF, World Bank, Standard and Poor´s

–ANDI and Colombian business

–Drug dealers/Paramilitaries/trucking

–The media

–Human rights Inter American commission

–Appointment of retired Colonel in Cali by Green Mayor

–Duque’s loan program

–The hang over of guerillerismo

–The notion that this is an insurrection floated by Forrest Hylton (It isn’t)

–A discussion of the tactic of road blockades

Anthony

June 6, 2021

Edge of the World

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

“Edge of the World” is a biopic about James Brooke, the British ex-officer who became the Rajah of Sarawak in 1842. The film allows you to have a look at an obscure figure who was something of an outlier in the emerging British Empire even if it is through a funhouse mirror. He is portrayed as a benign figure who only agreed to become a Rajah to put an end to the slavery and beheading in a region in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo.

When he read a reference to Brooke in a footnote in a George MacDonald Fraser novel back in 2009, screenwriter Rob Allyn became consumed by the idea of making a film about a “good” colonist. When the film begins, Brooke and several other British army veterans arrive on the beach in Sarawak with the sole intention of collecting rare plants and animals, not extending the rule of Queen Victoria. If you’ve seen “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, you’ll be struck by his similarities with Russell Crowe’s ship surgeon who was far more interested in discovering new species than in seizing territory on behalf of the Crown. Not only that, Allyn’s Brooke repeatedly referred to his disillusionment with the role the British played in India—like Daniel Ellsberg breaking with imperialism after seeing the reality of Vietnam as a Marine.

Despite being an obscure figure, Brooke excited the imagination of writers far more important than Allyn. He was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, a 1888 story about two British soldiers who become “kings” of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. A very good John Huston movie based on the Kipling story starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine came out in 1975. Ironically, despite Allyn’s Brooke denouncing the idea of a “white man’s burden”, his character has far more in common with colonialism than Kipling’s grifters.

Brooke also became the model for Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”, even if only in the second half of the novel. Despite any reference to Conrad having prior knowledge about Brooke, the similarities between his plot and the White Rajah are so pronounced that scholars will always be looking for hard evidence. Unlike Brooke, Jim is a common sailor like Kipling’s characters, endears himself to Malaysian villagers by fending off a bandit that has been terrorizing them after who the fashion of “Seven Samurai”. For his efforts, they begin to refer to him as “tuan” Jim, or Lord Jim. Postcolonial scholars don’t see the novel as advanced politically as “Heart of Darkness”, but they do see Jim as an example of Kipling’s “civilizing mission”.

Allyn not only portrays Brooke as renouncing imperial ambitions but as someone who “goes native” after the fashion of “Dances with Wolves” or the disabled lead character in “Avatar” who chooses to leave his human shell to become a big blue avatar. A key feature of the film is Brooke’s bromance with a Sarawak prince who clearly has a homosexual desire for the British Rajah that is never requited. However, most Brooke scholars surmise that he too was a homosexual who enjoyed sex with his subjects.

The main conflict in the film is between Brooke and Mahkota, a Sarawak warlord who coveted the title of Rajah and routinely beheaded the pirates that preyed on the island’s villagers. Law and order hardly meant very much in a place that was marked by a very loose interpretation of Islam and animistic beliefs. In the concluding scenes of “Edge of the World”, Brooke learns that he has to abandon his semi-pacifist ideals and destroy Mahkota to save “his” Sarawak. He ends up beheading the warlord and making Sarawak an idyllic place both for the natives and British investors exploiting its resources. Brooke and his descendants ruled Sarawak until WWII when the Japanese occupied Borneo.

Suffice it to say that most of “Edge of the World” is pure hokum. Brooke wrote a letter in 1846 in which he revealed his true goals. “Sarawak is very flourishing, and I look forward to a fair revenue from it in a few years without distress to its inhabitants”. In the film, the White Rajah’s mansion Astana is anything but. It sits on stilts and is about the size of a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, but windowless and sans indoor plumbing. In reality, Brooke’s mansion looks like this:

As for Allyn’s fixation on Brooke after reading a reference to him in a George MacDonald Fraser novel, I wonder if it is the one below since his character is obviously consistent with Fraser’s shrewd assessment:

 Brooke was one of the Victorians who gave empire-building a good name, whose worse faults, perhaps, were that he loved adventure for its own sake, had an unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race, and enjoyed fighting pirates. His philosophy, being typical of his class and time, may not commend itself universally today, but an honest examination of what he actually did will discover more to praise than to blame.

Of course, Allyn chose to ignore the business about Brooke’s “unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race” when writing his screenplay. That would only undermine his hagiographic film.

However, even his superiors in Queen Victoria’s court found him taking advantage of his power, even charging him with using what amounted to war crimes against the indigenous pirates who were far less lethal than the ships the Europeans sent around the world. After all, Brooke arrives on the shores of Sarawak with a sloop appropriately named “Royalist” with its six cannons used to subdue both pirates and warlords.

“Edge of the World” is available as VOD on June 21. Only recommended for those like me with a morbid curiosity.

June 4, 2021

Thinking like an Octopus

Filed under: Counterpunch,Octopus — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 4, 2021

Just over five years ago, Inky the octopus became a folk hero because of his escape from a New Zealand aquarium. After squeezing through a narrow chink in his tank, he crawled across the floor and found an opening to a 164-foot-long drainpipe that led to the ocean. As much as I enjoyed the film based on Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, which climaxes in Tim Robbin’s daring prison break, I only wish that a gifted animation team like the one that made “How to Train Your Dragon” could tell Inky’s story.

At the time, I made a mental note to myself to learn about octopuses. From the time that I read about Inky, interest in the creatures has increased dramatically with this year’s Oscar for documentary going to “My Octopus Teacher.” Nearly everybody who spends time looking at octopus YouTube videos, or going further and reading books about them, will be struck by both their intelligence and inscrutability.

This article will discuss Sy Montgomery’s best-selling “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.” It will also review “My Octopus Teacher.” Despite the inclusion of the word “consciousness” in both titles, there are vast differences between the two. Montgomery’s focus is on the interplay between humans and the octopus taking place in aquariums just like the kind that Inky fled, while Godfrey-Smith applies neuroscience and Darwinism to a creature that seemingly defies what these disciplines hold as sacrosanct. In either book, you’ll discover that both authors have the kind of love for the octopus that other authors had for the chimpanzee or the wolf. I, of course, am referring to Jane Goodall and Farley Mowat respectively.

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June 1, 2021

The Socialist Equality Party Member who rejected sectarianism

Filed under: sectarianism,Socialist Equality Party,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:21 pm

On March 8th, I received an email from Shuvu Batta, a former member of the NY branch of the Socialist Equality Party that publishes World Socialist Website. He had recently been expelled on the typical bureaucratic basis that Trotskyists seem to have purloined from 1930s Stalinism. He wrote:

I came across your site and while I may not agree 100% with what you’ve written, I think your critique on the SEP is correct. I was a former SEP member who after 2 and half years around the organization, have been forced to admit that the party line on the trade unions is absolutely incorrect and more-over an anti-worker stance. A former member wrote a scathing critique of the trade union line and our party politics which I was able to read. After sharing the critique to other comrades, I was put up for disciplinary action and eventually expelled.

He included a number of attachments written by him and replied to by David North’s cohorts. I believe he has made an important contribution to Marxism by taking on the SEP’s grotesque misinterpretation of Trotsky’s ideas and demonstrates a keen awareness of Marxism that persuades me that a new generation of revolutionary socialists is being born. In the memorial meeting for Ernie Tate, Tariq Ali struck a rueful note about Marxism being at a low ebb. Unless you are preoccupied with the academic left that uses NLR or Historical Materialism to carry out its debates, you will miss the reality that thousands of people in their 20s to 40s are embracing Marxism at a higher level than I ever saw in the 1960s and 70s. When you read two of his contributions to the debate within the SEP, you’ll agree with me that Comrade Batta is part of the cream of the crop.

1. From a document titled “My Defense of Democratic Centralism and a Critique of Sectarian Politics”:

Are we sectarians?

The founding document of the Communist movement, of which we are a fragment, is the Communist Manifesto.

Near the end of this document it is written that:

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of  the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.

Communists fight for the immediately achievable goals of the working class while preparing the ground for its ultimate aim of seizing political power on a worldwide scale. By denying the internal contradiction within the trade unions between the bureaucracy and the working class and furthermore by labeling virtually all left-wing movements as “psuedo-left” we have followed a clear sectarian line which has divorced us from the mass movements of the working class and revolutionary segments of the petty bourgeoise and youth, thereby divorcing us from the momentary interests of the working class. This has been increasingly apparent in our reaction to the gains won by Chicago Teachers in the CTU, our slander against Amazon workers fighting for unionization and our “intervention” in the George Floyd Protests.

Our participation in the George Floyd protests which involved tens of millions of workers and youth around the world was concentrated almost exclusively through our WSWS writing and social media activity. Furthermore the line advanced by our party failed to address the momentary needs of the masses in protest, calling for an end to racism and police brutality. Rather than employing the dialectical method, connecting the immediate needs of the masses with the ultimate goal, as so powerfully outlined by Trotsky in the Transitional Program, we offered no such demand to workers and youth. Rather our writing focused on simply laying out the case for socialism and calling on the working class to join our movement, a movement which had no significant role in the organization and in the on-the-ground agitation for this “world-historic” event.

Our denial of the trade unions as organizations in which cadre should have physical participation has placed us in a similarly sterile situation in regards to Chicago teachers. In our “Lessons of the Betrayal by the Chicago Teachers Union” we downplay and avoid the fact that immediate and real gains were won by Chicago teachers in their strike, namely that almost all grade school classes won’t open until March, teachers have been put on a priority list for vaccinations, and they can opt out of returning if they feel unsafe, though it’ll be unpaid leave.

These gains are by no means enough in granting the security and well being of teachers, but 68% of the membership voted FOR the deal. Had we had forces in the union, actually fighting with the teachers and explaining to them why they must reject the deal, and in its stead advance more radical, aka transitional demands, we would have been able to win further gains for workers and develop real ties to them. It is only in this dialectical process of struggling alongside the working class and against bourgeois consciousness that we will be able to win immediate and practical gains for the working class, and further aid them in the process of developing socialist consciousness.

Instead our policy on this issue has been to advance the demands for workers to join our rank and file committees while breaking from their union activity, thereby we are advancing a sectarian demand calling for the split between workers in our rank and file committees and the workers in the unions. As analyzed by C’s document, the correct, ie. the Trotskyist practice that we should adopt is to utilize both our rank and file committees as centers of organization and education for the advanced workers while developing consistent work within the trade unions to popularize increasingly radical demands and develop socialist consciousnesses with the workers where the workers are.

Our incorrect and sectarian line of the trade unions has now pitted us against militant sections of Amazon workers, who recognize the desperate need for organization and are reacting with enthusiasm to the unionization drive in the BHM1 plant in Bessemer, Alabama. In an article which I have written but now denounce titled “The unionization vote at Alabama Amazon facility”, we are calling on workers to vote NO to unionization despite the fact that it would provide a platform of organization for thousands of atomized workers while initiating a mass union drive in Amazon around the country. Furthermore it would provide a platform for cadre to radicalize workers within the union and build a strong nucleus. In effect by calling on workers to vote NO we are supporting the line of companies like Amazon and Walmart, which recognize that unionization would indeed bring immediate gains to workers and pose a threat to their profits, hence their ramping up of anti-union tactics and propaganda.

The line that we are following runs counter to our document “The Globalization of Capitalist Production and the International Tasks of the Working Class” written in 1993 in which we declared “The party must strive to create new forms of struggle among these workers [i.e. those already in unions], including factory committees and even trade unions, organized independently and in opposition to the AFL-CIO.”

The demands for factory committees within existing trade unions has been completely abandoned, and in pursuit of our “independent rank and file committees” we have abandoned the fight to create new trade unions among unorganized workers, instead advocating for workers to from what are essentially Soviets under the leadership of the party; we are demanding workers to immediately form revolutionary organs ignoring the transitional steps necessary to make this demand effective.

A thorough critique of our trade union line can be found in both C’s critique and the critique of Alex Steiner, in his article “The trade union form and the butchery of dialectics”. We have not responded to Steiner’s criticisms even though they reveal severe weaknesses in our practice that has on the whole been ignored. This is why it is essential for us to seriously discuss our party line and critically analyze the results of our sectarian politics over the past few decades.

2. Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Joseph Kishore spreads lies about an Amazon worker and former party member: The worker responds:

Comrade Batta advised me that this article that appeared on the Permanent Revolution website “is more current and gives a deeper exposure of the SEP.” So, the two together will give you a sense of how a grain of sand can create a pearl of political wisdom although sand hardly conveys the level of irritation the SEP can produce.

May 22, 2021

Statement by Emily Wilder, the AP reporter fired for her pro-Palestinian tweets.

Filed under: journalism,Palestine — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

May 21, 2021

Film reflections on the opioid crisis

Filed under: Columbia University,Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

When a publicist sent me a press release and screener for Nicholas Jarecki’s “Crisis”, I looked forward to covering a film by a director who I acclaimed as making one of the best films of 2012: “9. Arbitrage – Don’t tell Oliver Stone that I said so, but this is much better than his “Wall Street” sequel.”

One of his personal quotes on IMDB will give you a sense of what motivated him to take aim at a fictionalized version of the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma infamy in “Crisis” as well as a billionaire arbitrageur who kept his role in the death of his mistress a secret a la Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick in the earlier work. “I think that people need to become more educated about money. We need to stop creating systems that benefit only the most-cutthroat sharks.”

“Crisis” is the first narrative film to tell the story of how both criminal gangs and prestigious philanthropist families worked to extract blood money from American families in recent years through the sale of opioids like Oxycodone. Set in Detroit and Montreal, it begins with the arrest of a man in a white camouflage suit dragging a sled full of pain-killers across the Canadian border.

Continue reading

May 19, 2021

There is No Evil

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

Currently available as VOD from Kino-Lorber, “There is No Evil” is an Iranian film by Mohammad Rasoulof about the political and existential toll capital punishment takes on his country. Made without the permission of censors, this film and earlier ones by Rasoulof in the same vein led to a five year prison term. While the sentence is being appealed, just as had been the case with his fellow director Jafar Panahi, Rousolof remains under house arrest. Panahi and Rasoulof represent the most uncompromising wing of the Iranian film industry and thus forced to operate secretly. Panahi is the most well-known of these rebels, with a body of work that also marks him as a great filmmaker. “There is No Evil”, the first film by Rasoulof I have seen, now distinguishes him also a key member of the film industry’s resistance to censorship and the clerical dictatorship that imposes it.

One might assume that a film decrying capital punishment would be focused on the plight of someone on death row—similar to Sean Penn in “Dead Man Walking”. Instead, Rasoulof is interested in the men who carry out the executions who in many cases are forced to carry them out by dint of their service in the military. The one exception to this is a “professional” executioner whose devotion to his family is in marked contrast to the grizzly, impersonal manner in which he pulls a lever to hang six men at once.

The 150-minute film is broken down into four different short stories with in one case a soldier being driven to desperation after he is slated to carry out his first. In the barracks, he tries to find a substitute but none want to replace him, even for a small fortune. They argue back and forth about their “duty” as soldiers but one would understand why they would be so averse. Being an executioner in these circumstances amounts to pulling a stool from beneath the prisoner’s feet.

The structure for “There is No Evil” was dictated by the need to evade the police state’s interference as Rasoulof explained to the Hollywood Reporter:

To make There Is No Evil despite the government-imposed ban, Rasoulof had friends submit the applications for shooting permits on his behalf. “My name didn’t appear anywhere on the paperwork,” he says. “And I set up the movie as four short films, each with its own director, its own production unit, just like four separate movies. Because the government doesn’t pay as much attention to shorts. It’s easier to get things through.”

Although the film is ostensibly about the Islamic Republic’s widespread capital punishment system, it is just as much about the manner in which state-sponsored killing becomes acceptable. The soldiers, except for the one referred to above, would as soon refuse to pull the stool as they would refuse peeling potatoes as part of KP or mopping up the latrine. One of its characters is a soldier who enjoys the three-day leaves he gets for volunteering to be a stool-puller.

In the press notes, the director explains the motivation for making “There is No Evil”:

Last year, I spotted one of my interrogators coming out of the bank as I was crossing a street in Tehran. Suddenly, I experienced an indescribable feeling. Without his knowledge, I followed him for a while. After ten years, he had aged a bit. I wanted to take a picture of him on my cellphone, I wanted to run towards him, reveal myself to him, and angrily scream at him all of my questions. But when I looked at him closely, and observed his mannerisms with my own eyes, I could not see an evil monster.

How do autocratic rulers metamorphose people into becoming mere components of their autocratic machines? In authoritarian states, the sole purpose of the law is the preservation of the state, and not the facilitation and regulation of people’s relations. I come from such a state.

In Iran, kidnapping may be punishable by death but so is “waging war against God” and “spreading corruption on Earth.” Iran is fifth in the world per capita, just 3 places behind its fellow theocracy Saudi Arabia. In taking direct aim at one of Iran’s most repressive institutions, the director broke with the allegorical tendencies that prevailed among its sharpest critics of the system, even in his own work. He told the Hollywood Reporter, “This allegorical style has its roots in our culture, which goes back centuries, in our poetry, our art, which tends not to say things directly. But I want to break with that, because I think this allegorical aesthetic has become a form of submission, a way of accepting the oppression of the regime.”

“There is No Evil” has a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is the best narrative film I have seen this year and likely to surpass any of the crap Hollywood churns out.

May 16, 2021

Report from Colombia #2

Filed under: Anthony from Colombia,Colombia — louisproyect @ 10:05 pm

(Written on June 7 by Anthony, a long-time resident of Bogota)

Colombia Upsurge at a turning point

As of this moment, the national strike has continued for nine days since it began on April 28th. It has opened the floodgates of pent-up social and political tension that had been stuffed into a bottle by the pandemic.

At the end of 2019, and the beginning of 2020, a massive protest movement of the students, unions, and indigenous people had pushed the government back and looked like it would win very important concessions. Then the pandemic hit, the streets emptied, and instead of improvements, things got worse economically, especially for the poorest third of society. Assassinations of local indigenous leaders and activists in rural areas continued during the pandemic.

When the unions and the students called the national strike on April 28th, they took the cork out of the bottle. The first day of protest was massive, and it occurred all over the country, even in small cities where nothing ever happens.

Although it is difficult to estimate how many people participated, there were very large demonstrations in all of the major cities that included 10,000s of thousands of people in each. In the capital, Bogotá, estimates range from 100,000 up to several hundred thousand. My own guess is that about 2,000,000 people demonstrated nationwide out of a population of a little less than 50,000,000.

The catalyst for this massive outpouring of protest were two major legislative packages proposed by the government of President Ivan Duque: a regressive reform of the tax code, and an even more regressive reform of the healthcare system.

Initially, the strike committee focused on the tax reform, but from the beginning the movement went beyond the demands of the strike committee. The truck drivers and the taxi drivers have their own demands: no gasoline tax, reduce or eliminate highway tolls, end photo traffic tickets. The teachers union has its own demands: vaccinate all teachers and make schools safe for physical reopening, eliminate tuition in public schools, and more. The list is much longer.

The mass demonstrations were peaceful, and even joyous. People sang, played music, and danced. There was street theater everywhere. The symphony and philharmonic orchestras played as part of the demonstrations. Marches were well organized and mostly without incident.

However, every time there is a large protest in Colombia, the “encapachudos” show up. They are hooded and masked. They throw rocks and potato bombs, they commit acts of vandalism like wrecking Transmilenio stations (the mass transit system) and ripping ATM machines out of walls. Organizers of demonstrations try to stop them, often successfully, but they go somewhere else and continue their activities.

Who are they? Some of them are anarchists who think that this is a useful form of protest, some of them may be parts of the urban arms of the ELN and dissident FARC organizations, and some of them may simply be street gangs taking advantage of the situation to commit robberies. One thing that is certain is that they have been infiltrated by the police and army who encourage vandalism in order to justify repression of the mass movement.

The press focuses on the actions of the “encapuchados” thus aiding the right wing politicians who want to repress the movement. Former President and Senator Alvaro Uribe, the evil puppeteer behind President Duque’s policies, has publicly called for the military and police to use deadly force against the demonstrators. His tweet was removed by Twitter, and he had a meltdown on a CNN en español interview. Duque has called out the army, but it is not clear what, if anything, they have done or are doing.

In Cali, there was an armed incursion into a poor neighborhood that may have been carried out by the army, although the press says it was done by the local police. Videos online show buildings burning and a tank, but the police have their own tankettes so it is not clear who was responsible. In Bogotá helicopters have been buzzing working class neighborhoods, but Claudia Lopez, the mayor and a leader of the Green Party, says that they are police helicopters, not military helicopters.

The press and NGOs have reported somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty killed, and hundreds injured, but the real numbers are higher.

The hospitals were already full because of the current wave of Covid-19. Before the protests started, ICU occupancy rates throughout the country were above 90%. Now they have waiting lists. At least Colombia still has oxygen. I could tell you a lot of horrible Covid stories, but right now I will stick to the protests.

Since the protests started, emergency rooms have filled with young people with eye and head injuries.

Duque, who is a comic president who looks a little like Porky Pig and speaks Spanish a little like George W. Bush speaks English, has withdrawn the proposed tax changes for a rewrite but has not clearly backed down on most of their provisions. He has made some clear concessions: his Minister of Finance has resigned, he has said that income tax will not be extended to lower income brackets currently exempt, and the military has decided not to buy a bunch of new jets that had been in the budget.

Rather than appeasing the protests, the concessions have shown the weakness of Duque’s position and  encouraged the movement to press forward. There now seems to be contention in the movement, as Gustavo Petro, the most visible and important political leader of the left, and the left’s most likely candidate in next year’s presidential elections, has criticized the strike committee for not suspending the strike in response to Duque’s concessions.

Two days ago, the second national day of protest focused on defeating Duque’s healthcare system. The current system in Colombia is a mishmash of private and public health care held together by bubble gum and string. It was the first great achievement of Alvaro Uribe and is in many ways the model of Obamacare. Now, Duque wants to completely privatize health care in ways that will open the door wider to multinational companies, limit covered procedures and drugs, and make healthcare more expensive. And he has made this proposal in the middle of the pandemic!

It is impossible to predict where things are going to go from here. The truck drivers have effectively blockaded the country’s highways, and shortages are beginning to appear everywhere. In some small towns where people normally cook with propane, they are cooking with wood. Supermarket shelves in Cali are empty, and there has been panic buying at supermarkets and stores in Bogotá despite the fact that there have still been no major shortages here.

Yesterday, the Senate invited the strike committee to present its case to them, and now there is speculation that Duque will meet with the committee. The committee presented seven primary demands to the Senate:

Withdrawal of the health care reform combined with a mass vaccination programGuaranteed basic income of one minimum monthly salary

Defend national agricultural, industrial and artisanal production

Defend sovereignty and food security

Eliminate tuitions and alternative education

End gender discrimination and support sexual and ethnic diversity

No privatizations and end crop eradication with glyphosate

Up until now Duque has talked about finding consensus, but has only met with the leaders of the major capitalist political parties, the military, and the Supreme Court, but now he says he is willing to meet the strike committee.

The massive revival of the protest movement was unexpected, even by its leaders. Its revival is a good thing, and marks a major step forward in the rebirth of the Colombian left after decades of being dominated by the debilitating guerrilla wars.

Government repression is a constant factor in this country, but it had been mostly absent from the cities for a long time. It’s return is a bad thing, but it has not returned on the level demanded by Alvaro Uribe. City governments are mostly in the hands of opponents of the central government, especially in the hands of the Green Party which has been trying to mediate the conflict.

In Bogotá, Claudia Lopez tried to remain firmly in the middle, but has inched closer to supporting the protests. During Wednesday’s protests, Lopez set up monitors along the 22 lines of march to monitor police behavior, and she encouraged all citizens to film the police with their cell phones. Last Monday, Jorge Iván Ospina, the Green Party mayor of Cali declared a “civic day” and joined the protestors.

The strike and protests are not just occurring at the height of the most recent Covid-19 wave, they are occurring just as a new presidential election race has begun. Elections will be in May 2022.

The Colombian election system has undergone several major changes in the last few decades. First, the Constitution of 1991 introduced a proportional representation system that led to the dissolution of the old two party system and the creation of a multiparty system. The old Liberal and conservative Parties still exist, but they have spun off three other major capitalist parties: the Partido de la U, Cambio Radical, and the Centro Democratico.

Most importantly, a new party on the left, the Polo Democratico Alternativo, and a new center left party, the Green Party, emerged in the process. Both have suffered major internal crises, faction fights, splits, and reorganizations.

Currently, descendants of the three major elements that had formed the Polo (M-19, the Communist Party, and MOIR) again have separate organizations and coalitions but exist in a kind of fluid situation of temporary coalitions that sometimes include the Green Party.

In the run-up to the last presidential election in 2018, the Polo and two factions of the Greens formed Coalición Colombia while Colombia Humana (descendant of M-19 led by Gustavo Petro), El Movimiento Alternativo Indígena y Social, and Fuerza Ciudadana formed Inclusión social para la paz. Each held primary elections to choose presidential candidates leaving Sergio Fajardo of the Greens as the candidate of “Coalición Colombia” and Gustavo Petro as the candidate of Inclusión social para la paz.

Similar temporary coalitions were formed among the right and center capitalist parties. In the end, there were six candidates in the first round of the 2018 presidential election. Ivan Duque, the acolyte of Alvaro Uribe and candidate of something called the Grand Alliance for Colombia, came in first, and Gustavo Petro heading the “List of Decency” came in second. Duque, with 54% of the vote, won the second round against Petro who had 42% of the vote.

Similarly dizzying realignments are now underway in the run-up to next year’s elections.

The second major change in Colombia’s electoral system occurred with the 2015 Constitutional amendment which established that a president can only serve one term in office. This means that Ivan Duque cannot be a candidate in the upcoming election, so the field is wide open for a major dust-up among the five major bourgeois parties.

Uribismo, the child of Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, seems to be on the ropes, but whether or not Colombia’s complex and divided left can take advantage of this opportunity remains to be seen.

Underlying the current political and social crisis is the pandemic and its economic consequences. Duque’s reforms aimed to shore up government finances which have been undermined by his own 2019 tax reform which cut taxes for major corporations and the rich combined with a disastrous drop in tax revenue due to the Covid-19 induced recession.

According to DANE, the country’s statistical agency, the percentage of people officially classified as poor rose from 34.7% in 2018 to 42.5% in 2020 while the percentage of those classified as middle class fell from 30.5% to 25.4%.

Duque would like to please the country’s banks and the world bond market by maintaining the country’s bond rating, Petro on the other hand has tweeted that poor countries have the right to stop paying the foreign debt, especially owing to the pandemic.

If Duque in fact withdraws his tax reform, it will merely postpone the inevitable economic consequences of rising foreign debt which now stands at 56% of annual GDP.

Where is all of this going? While no precise predictions are possible, it is a certainty that the crisis is going to deepen during the next year. Any deal the strike committee makes with Duque will at best be a stopgap measure and almost certainly will not be able to meet all seven of the committee’s programmatic points.

Addendum to “Colombian upsurge at a turning point?”

Upon rereading what I just sent you, I realize that I have omitted a major factor in the situation that could determine tomorrow’s outcome: Covid 19.

The country’s hospitals and ICUs are overflowing. This is the worst moment of the pandemic here so far, despite a significant increase in the rate vaccinations. Colombia is approaching a health care crisis similar to those experienced already by Brazil and India.

When the national strike was announced in response to the government’s tax reform at the end of April, a lot of people on the left were hesitant or even opposed because of the increasingly desperate health care situation. Nevertheless, when the protests began, the left united behind them.

The Covid-19 crisis is clearly the cumulative result of the government’s slow and indecisive reaction to the pandemic combined with the predictable development of new and more contagious and/or deadly variants. The Duque government followed what might be called the European Union model rather than that Trump or Bolsanaro model. It relied on government restrictions on movement and socialization combined with masking and a cost-conscious vaccination program.

The policy seemed to work, more or less. It prevented the country’s hospitals from becoming overwhelmed for more than a year, but by the end of April that was beginning to change as new more contagious variants (including a Colombian variant) began to appear and become predominate here. While the older population of the country has been vaccinated, the hospitals have filled up with younger and younger Covid patients, and many of these younger patients have required ICU care or have died.

Miami hotels are full of upper class and upper middle class Colombian vaccine tourists.

Colombia’s frontline doctors and nurses are sick and exhausted. While many of them have supported the paro, their sentiments are divided because of fears that the massive crowds, some without masks, have added to the contagion.

The government and the right-wing media have increasingly used Covid 19 as a cudgel against the mass movement, falsely blaming it for the current spike in the pandemic.

This may have been part of the reason for last week’s low turnout at demonstrations, and it could affect the turnout tomorrow.

Anthony

May 14, 2021

Hard Crackers: the Revolutionary Legacy of Noel Ignatiev

Filed under: Counterpunch,workers — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 14, 2021

Back in 1996, while browsing through the Marxism section at Labyrinth Books near Columbia University, where I was working as a programmer at the time, I spotted a book that stopped me dead in my tracks. Titled “How the Irish Became White” and written by Noel Ignatiev, it did not just promise to be about a particular ethnic group’s embrace of white supremacy but how all whites enjoy privileges that help to keep the working class divided. I purchased the book, took it home and read it over the next couple of days. It remains one of the most important studies of class and race I have ever read.

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May 11, 2021

Paris Calligrammes

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:06 pm

Now showing as virtual cinema at the Film Forum in New York, “Paris Calligrammes” is a self-portrait of Ulrike Ottinger, a 78-year old German filmmaker who adopted Paris as her artistic, cultural, political and psychological home. Arriving there at the age of 20, she became a Boswell to her chosen Samuel Johnsons, namely the admixture of Marxist intellectuals, Dadaists, Surrealists, bibliophiles, and outsized personalities that made Paris so irresistible to young, aspiring artists and bohemians. Indeed, replace London with Paris and Johnson’s observation captures her feelings as well: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

The entire film consists of footage Ottinger shot over the years, most of which is in stunning black-and-white and reminiscent of the golden age of La Nouvelle Vague. Much of it depicts the street life of the Left Bank as young Parisians flock to nightclubs featuring African-American émigré jazz musicians or to other nightspots that are counterpart to Greenwich Village in the early 60s.

In 1962, she had access to some of the giants of 20th century radical thinking and art, such as Max Ernst, Marcel Marceau, Paul Célan, Walter Mehring, Hans Arp, Jean Genet, Albert  Camus, and Juliet Greco. If you’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast,” a wondrous posthumous memoir by Ernest Hemingway that recounts his bohemian youth in Paris in the 1920s, you’ll see Ottinger’s film as a kindred spirit.

It will come as no surprise that Ottinger is a life-long radical. There are eye-opening scenes of Vietnam antiwar demonstrations, the May-June 1968 events as well as penetrating critiques of France’s imperial legacy. It is astonishing to see Moroccans and other colonized peoples marching in parades celebrating their French identity.

Interspersed throughout the film are excerpts from Ottinger’s earlier films that at least to my eyes seem like the counterpart to the underground film movement in the USA with a particular resonance with a work like Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”, especially the earliest signs of a “camp” sensibility. Like Smith, Ottinger is gay. After seeing the brief examples of her work in the film, I am motivated to track them down especially in light of how Wikipedia described her artistic mission as having “constituted a one-woman avant-garde opposition to the sulky male melodramas of Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog.”

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