Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 12, 2008

The End is Near?

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

I strongly believe in Marxist education. One of my main criticisms of the “Marxist-Leninist” left has been its tendency to reduce the ranks to passivity. You have a kind of division of labor with the top leadership of the party deliberating on theoretical and strategic questions and the lower ranks acting on their deliberations. This flies in the face of Marx’s description of the task that faced the movement in his day: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be. And, of course, in order to be able to criticize the existing order, you really need to understand it.

When I proposed an Introduction to Marxism class to the subscribers of Marxmail and the readers of this blog, I had an ulterior motive. While the class was primarily meant to explain some basic concepts such as imperialism, the national question, I wanted to educate myself on “crisis theory”, an area of Marxist economics that I was aware of for a number of years but had never really dug into. It seemed like a particularly good time to attack this subject since the bourgeois press is filled with articles now about whether we are facing “another 1929”.

I especially was looking forward to reading Henryk Grossman, the subject of a biography by Rick Kuhn that is the latest recipient of the Isaac Deutscher prize. Grossman, along with Paul Mattick, has the reputation of being associated with what some might regard as “millenarian” tendencies. They get lampooned in those cartoons with a guy in a long beard carrying a picket sign with the words: “The end is near” as in the example above.

If got the same kind of chuckle from reading “gloom and doom” predictions on the Internet for the past 20 years, even from my good friend the late Mark Jones, who bet left-liberal economist Max Sawicky a case of Lagavulin single-malt scotch in 1987 over whether the Dow-Jones industrial average would go below 3000. Mark died before he could make good on the debt, but here was one of his last words on the topic with his characteristic ability to poke fun at himself:

The sad fact is that is I who owe Max Sawicky a case of Lagavulin. I wrote to him a while ago apologising for my slowness in honouring a bet I lost. The bet was that the Dow would fall to below 3000 within a year; it didn’t. My reasoning was that at its height, the Nikkei, now down around 12k, reached over 40 000, and that the equivalent release of gas from a deflating Wall St bubble would bring the Dow down to 3k. We shall see, altho according to Julien [probably a reference to Jurriaan Bendien] I don’t know anything about the Nikkei anyway.

My secret plan is to send the Lagavulin to Max when the Dow DOES hit 3k, and then honour will have been satisfactorily served all round.

As I began to read Grossman, I wondered what kind of connection could be made with financial crises like the 1987 crash that spurred Mark to make his bet. If you read Grossman’s “Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System“, you will note that “overaccumulation” is the primary cause of breakdown. Put in the simplest terms, this means that the capitalist class runs into a brick wall eventually as it replaces workers with machines. Although machines can improve productivity, they eventually cut into the rate of profit since they are not capable of producing surplus value. Since most of the major economic crises of the past 35 years or so have involved financial institutions (Savings and Loans, LTCM and stock market bubbles of one sort or another), what is the relevance of Grossman’s theory? When I posed a question about this on Marxmail, it prompted a couple of perceptive replies from Andrew Pollack and John Imani:

Andrew Pollack wrote:

I haven’t read Grossman, or Kuhn on Grossman (and really want to thanks to Louis’ query and previous ones about him). But, unless I’m misconstruing the question, the organic composition/falling rate of profit has everything to do with crises based on fictitious capital — because capital flows into those nonmanufacturing sectors in the first place (including dot.com) for lack of profitable outlet elsewhere (by coincidence there’s a great quote in the Times yesterday expressing skepticism that the banks being bailed out would do anything with that money that would help the economy). Of course all of that just sets the stage for what happens afterward, and each financial crisis is unique, even if they all share their origins in the crisis in manufacturing. I’m sure I’m putting this way too crudely…

You can read John’s comments here.

As it turned out, Grossman had pretty much the same thing to say in chapter two of his book, titled “The Law of Capitalist Breakdown“. Considering the fact that his book was published in 1929, just before the stock market crash, he was pretty much on the money.

Grossman begins by pretty much describing what has been happening to the American economy for the past 30 years or so. He begins:

As against Bauer I have shown that the very mechanism of accumulation leads to an overaccumulation of capital and thus to crisis. Even a cut in wages can only proceed within definite insuperable limits. Thus accumulation necessarily comes to a standstill or the system collapses. At the moment of crisis capital — in the form of the portions of surplus value previously destined for accumulation — are excluded from the process of production. Absolute overproduction begins as unsold stocks accumulate. Money capital in search of investment can no longer be applied profitably in production and turns to the stock exchange.

Grossman’s observation that “money capital in search of investment can no longer be applied profitably in production and turns to the stock exchange” sounds pretty much like what has been happening, doesn’t it?

And as John Imani pointed out, this was the same point made by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital:

At a certain high point this increasing concentration in its turn causes a new fall in the rate of profit. The mass of small dispersed capitals is thereby driven along the adventurous road of speculation, credit frauds, stock swindles, and crises.

Grossman continues:

The activity of the stock exchange is insuperably bound up with the movement of interest on the money-market `the price of these securities rises and falls inversely as the rate of interest’ (Marx, 1959, p. 467). As the rate of interest jerks upward at the start of every crisis the price of these securities registers a precipitous fall: `when the money market is tight these securities will fall in price for two reasons: first, because the rate of interest rises, and secondly, because they are thrown on the market in large quantities in order to convert them into cash’ (p. 467).

If this doesn’t sound like it was ripped out of the business pages in the recent period, I don’t know what does. Here’s what the National Post in Canada reported on March 19:

Stock markets in the United States rang up their biggest one-day gains in more than five years yesterday, after the Fed’s deep interest-rate cut and solid results from two top investment banks reassured investors shocked by Bear Stearns’ sudden downfall.

The Fed fulfilled expectations by cutting its benchmark rate to the lowest since February 2005. Stocks rallied, with the S&P and the Nasdaq closing up more than 4%.

As you might have expected, stock prices tumbled a few days later when investors figured out that this measure would not really solve the basic economic problem facing the nation, namely the failure of the underlying economy to expand at normal rates. In other words, Grossman’s focus on the “brick and mortar” aspects of the economy was well-placed, even if the malaise was reflected in the “fictitious capital” realm.

Grossman writes, “The depreciation of securities in times of crisis initiates a massive drive for speculation which is why the end of the crisis, or the phase of depression, goes together with feverish activity on the stock exchange”, an apt description of recent activity on Wall Street and concludes:

This completes the causal chain. Starting from the sphere of production I have shown that the very laws of capitalist accumulation impart to accumulation a cyclical form and this cyclical movement impinges on the sphere of circulation (money market and stock exchange). The former is the independent variable, the latter the dependent variable. Once counteracting tendencies begin to operate and valorisation of productive capital is again restored a further period of accumulation sets in. The rate of profit climbs upwards. As soon as it exceeds the income of fixed interest securities money is again channelled from the stock exchange back into the sphere of production. The rate of interest starts rising and with the gradual fall in the price of securities they are transferred to the `public’ which only looks for a long term investment. But this `long-term’ lasts only down to the next crisis or the next wave of speculative buying. Throughout all this there is a growing centralisation of money wealth which in turn accounts for the increasing power of finance capital.

While Grossman has been depicted–unfairly–as someone who believed that breakdown will automatically usher in socialist revolution, he was really convinced that political action was required more than anything else. His main goal was to drive a stake into the heart of a theory that had been around for more than 30 years on the left, namely that capitalism was a system that had resolved its basic contradictions.

Now in face of deepening economic contradictions that George Soros has described in his most recently published book as a looming “serious recession”, American society will find itself more receptive to radical analyses. Indeed, in an article that appeared in the NY Times on the same day that Soros’s new book was profiled, the newspaper of record admitted in the article’s title: “It’s a Crisis, and Ideas Are Scarce”. It begrudgingly made the point that “the solutions being pushed would not seem unreasonable to an old-fashioned socialist.” Those solutions did not involve expropriating the expropriators but returning to New Deal type regulations.

Speaking as an old-fashioned socialist, an Unrepentant Marxist actually, I would hope that our movement has the audacity to go much further than the New Deal. If this crisis has the effect of opening up the mind’s of working people to alternative ways of producing wealth, then let’s have the courage of our convictions and propose the only solution that makes sense: socialism.

April 11, 2008

A musical interlude–enjoy!

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 2:31 pm

A pure Turkish delight

April 8, 2008

Darfur, microcredit loan-sharks and Woody Allen’s creepy son

Filed under: China,Darfur,economics — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Darfur activist Jill Savitt and Mia Farrow of “Rosemary’s Baby” renown

A couple of years ago I used to scratch my head in wonder at those nearly weekly full-page “Save Darfur” ads that appeared in the NY Times. Even if they were discounted in moveon.org fashion, they still cost $65,000. (The full price is about $180,000). My guess is that there were probably at least 20 of them back in 2005 or so. That would add up to a tidy sum, even at a discount: $1,300,000. Where the hell does that kind of money come from?

I finally found out in an article that appeared in the March 30, 2008 NY Times Sunday Magazine. Titled “Changing the Rules of the Game”, it is a profile of some of the “activists” who are involved with the movement, including Mia Farrow and her son Ronan Seamus Farrow. (This is Woody’s offspring. After he was born, Woody named him Satchel Farrow in honor of Satchel Paige, the legendary African-American baseball player, but Mia renamed him after their famous split-up.) Much of their activity seems to revolve around strong-arming their Hollywood pals who lent their name to the Olympics, including Stephen Spielberg.

Pierre Omidyar: eBay billionaire and Darfur funder

But I doubt that they could have gotten very far without the big bucks that helps to keep Darfur on the front-burner, largely through very expensive public relations campaigns. The article explains:

Around the same time, Savitt and Reeves connected with Humanity United, an unusual grant-making organization in Redwood City, Calif., underwritten by Pam Omidyar, the wife of the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar. It focuses on financing efforts to stop contemporary slavery and mass atrocities around the world and is committed to spending $100 million over five years. The organization takes its cue from Silicon Valley’s famed tolerance for failure, according to Randy Newcomb, Humanity United’s executive director. He says his strategy is to make big bets on game-changing ideas, a philosophy that “at best annoys the elite policy community; at worst, it threatens them.” Newcomb was talking on the phone from Richard Branson’s Caribbean estate, where he was participating, along with Nelson Mandela and Peter Gabriel, in a conference on conflict resolution. Newcomb drew a long breath and changed his tone: “But frankly, where were they? Where has the traditional foreign-policy establishment been in pressuring China in relation to the Olympics about Sudan? A lot of people tell me that we’re wasting our money on this kind of long-shot campaign. But our ethos is the willingness and ability to take a greater risk for the ultimate yield that will come from that risk. We aren’t saying that we do things without rigor. But we’re willing to absorb greater risk.”

Last spring, Humanity United wrote Dream for Darfur a check for $500,000. The financing followed publication of Farrow’s “Genocide Olympics” article — Reeves and the actress were already closely collaborating. “Now we had a campaign, a phrase and a target,” Reeves says. As Ruth Messinger explained to me: “Maybe China’s vulnerability on the Olympics is starting to look obvious to people now. But the amazing thing about this campaign — and the genius of Jill and Eric and Mia — was in making the connection. They were the first and for a long time the only ones to make it.”

Pierre Omidyar (a French-Iranian by birth) is the 120th richest man in the United States. Like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, his ideology is a curious mixture of Mother Jones type liberalism and Cato Institute libertarianism. He has set something up called the Omidyar Network that makes investments in both non-profit and for-profit enterprises. The for-profit enterprises are almost exclusively microcredit affairs in keeping with the vision of Nobel Prize winner Mohammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank–sort of. The October 30 2006 New Yorker Magazine reported on the connection between the two men:

Over the Labor Day weekend of 1995, a ponytailed, bearded young software engineer named Pierre Omidyar wrote a code that enabled people to buy and sell items on the Internet. In the first few weeks after the program was introduced, items ranging from a Maxx comic book to a 1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn changed hands. That program eventually became eBay. Not long after the company went public, in 1998, Omidyar’s share of the stock offering was roughly ten billion dollars, and he became the richest thirty-two-year-old in the world. He found the experience slightly unsettling—he told friends that he had never planned to get rich—and he continued driving his Volkswagen Golf. With his wife, Pam, he started a foundation to give away large sums of money, but he was frustrated by the constraints and inefficiencies of the nonprofit world. Omidyar was searching for a way to change things on a grand scale, and, like many other highly successful young West Coast entrepreneurs, he became interested in a field called microfinance, or microcredit. In November, 2004, he and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the co-founders of Google, and other leaders of the high-tech community gathered at the San Francisco home of the venture capitalist John Doerr for a weekend session with Muhammad Yunus, who is considered the godfather of microcredit.

The article explains how Omidyar viewed eBay as a confirmation of the wisdom of free markets and a model for doing business through microcredit:

A few years ago, Pierre Omidyar left Silicon Valley and moved his family to Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. A slight, unprepossessing figure with hints of gray in his wavy black hair, he tends to think aloud, following desultory paths, looking for theoretical solutions to problems. If anything, his approach has become more abstract over the years. As a young software engineer, he solved problems as they arose, but now he likes to reflect on the nature of the eBay phenomenon and how it supports his philosophy. He often cites Adam Smith’s doctrine that unrestrained market forces and self-interest drive the most efficient—and socially beneficial—use of resources. Omidyar sees Smith’s principles at work in eBay; he believes that eBay’s commercial success was linked to a profound social good. “I did an early investors’ road show in the fall of 1997, and I went to New York and talked to some Wall Street folks, and I said, O.K., this is strangers from all over the country, sometimes internationally, and they’re doing business together over the Internet. And people were shaking their heads. ‘That’ll never work! It’s impossible! You can’t trust anybody—you’re going to get ripped off!’ ” Now, he says, eBay has taught “more than two hundred million people that they can trust a complete stranger.”

At a gathering for Yunus out in Silicon Valley, a bunch of billionaires decided to advance funds to the Grameen Bank. Omidyar was not one of them. He felt that Yunus lacked the entrepreneurial spirit that was necessary for transforming the Third World.

As much as he admired Yunus’s belief that anyone, provided the means, can become self-sufficient—even successful—he has a different idea about the future of microfinance. Yunus is now seen by Omidyar and many others as the archetypal founder, too wedded to his original vision. In recent years, younger and nimbler players have been taking microfinance—their preferred term—toward the idea of building a fully commercial, profit-making sector.

Through the Omidyar Network, the eBay magnate has invested in a host of small enterprises with the full expectation that he will make a profit. I guess the idea that you can do well by doing good. This profit-making do-goodism seems to have captured the imagination of Dell Computer’s Michael Dell, who according to the New Yorker, “has begun making grants to microfinance institutions in India, a country of 1.1 billion people, most of whom have no access to financial services.” How generous of him, this long-time financial backer of George W. Bush.

Despite the gushing over Mohammad Yunus’s microcredit model—not to speak of Pierre Omidyar and Michael Dell’s profit-making appropriation of it—there are signs that it is not all that it was cracked up to be:

MONEYLENDERS bad; microcredit good. That has been the common view about financial services in much of the Indian countryside. Traditional moneylenders charge extortionate interest rates to those in desperate need. Microcredit-providers, which are charities that lend tiny amounts to the poor without necessarily expecting to make a profit in return, are globally trendy and socially responsible. So it came as a shock earlier this year when the government of Andhra Pradesh, the Indian state where microcredit has spread fastest, accused some leading microfinance institutions (MFIs) of behaving no better than old-style usurers. The lenders say they are being defamed, in a row that raises questions about their future in the state.

The dispute centres on one poor rural district, Krishna. Some women were reported to have killed themselves because they could not repay the MFIs. In March a top government official in Krishna temporarily shut 50 branch offices of four MFIs, seized and destroyed their records and told their borrowers not to repay their loans. He accused the microfinance groups of charging exorbitant rates.

–The Economist, August 19, 2006

There is a certain logic to all this, of course. Apparently, Michael Dell set up help desks in India for the same reason he got involved in microcredit: to make a fast buck.

So behind all this high-minded philanthropy is the same old “what’s in it for me” attitude that motivated Andrew Carnegie and other tycoons to set up foundations in the first place. It is simply another way to control their wealth.

With financial backing like this, it is easy to understand why the “Save Darfur” movement has so little impact as a real movement. Back in September 2006, as I was jogging in Central Park, I ran smack dab into a rally. As far as I know, no other mass action has been organized by this movement since then. Mostly, it is all about expensive newspaper ads and public relations campaigns formulated by outfits such as Malkin and Ross.

Unlike most activism in the U.S., the “Save Darfur” movement is not directed against the policies of the American government. Such movements generally do not get funded by the likes of a Pierre Omidyar and are generally one step away from bankruptcy. On any campus, getting involved with protesting the war in Iraq is a generally thankless proposition but Darfur advocacy will most certainly open doors to a good NGO job after graduation.

Jill Savitt, the executive director of Dream for Darfur, the outfit that is spearheading these absolutely disgusting assaults on the Olympic torchlight ceremonies lately, clearly knew what side her bread would be buttered on when she discovered “genocide” as a hot button issue. She has had one job after another in this cottage industry since it got started practically. In addition to her job with Dream for Darfur, she is an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s School for International Affairs. The title of the course tells it all: U6020 — Public Sector Marketing.

Woody’s offspring and WSJ editorialist

Just a final word on Ronan Farrow, whose photo practically oozes sanctimony. The kid is some kind of genius apparently, having graduated from my alma mater Bard College 5 years ago at the age of 15, the youngest ever. (I thought I was something special when I became a freshman back in 1961 at the age of 16!) He was accepted at Yale Law School at the age of 16, but decided to defer admission until 2006 since he wanted to take a job with Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Cruise Missile scourge of Yugoslavia. It is not surprising that he would find such a job attractive since the “Save Darfur” movement is riddled with State Department type liberals like Samantha Power.

Young Mr. Farrow seems to prefer the Wall Street Journal editorial page to other mainstream media venues, having appeared there no less than 4 times in the past 3 years. Only last January 29th, Woody’s offspring used the WSJ to lash out at the United Nations “Human-Rights” sham. He found it unconscionable that the U.N. Human Rights Council has passed 13 condemnations, 12 of them against Israel, since its inception 17 months earlier. And the obvious reason for this Jew hatred must be the miscreants who sit on the committee:

The problems begin with the council’s composition. Only 25 of its 47 members are classified as “free democracies,” according to Freedom House’s ranking of civil liberties. Nine are classified as “not free.” Four — China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia — are ranked as the “worst of the worst.” These nations are responsible for repeated violations of the U.N.’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it is they who dominate the council, leading a powerful bloc of predominantly Arab and African nations that consistently vote as a unit.

Now this might ring a bell, especially if you follow right-wing talk radio, Fox Cable News, the Murdoch press, or for that matter, the WSJ editorial pages. There has been an ongoing campaign against the U.N. Human Rights Council because it has the temerity to point out the obvious, namely that Israel is a thuggish and racist state. Too bad Woody Allen’s kid lacks his dad’s humor (well, at least the sense of humor he had 30 years ago) or otherwise he’d understand immediately what a rightwing joke he is.

April 4, 2008

Young and Restless in China

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Opening at the Cinema Village in NYC on April 11th (by coincidence, the very fine “The Dhamma Brothers” reviewed below opens there the same day), “Young and Restless in China” is an eye-opening documentary about social change in China today. As the title implies, the subjects are all under 40 and generally dissatisfied with their life, despite enjoying lavish wealth in some cases. For those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, it might be a step up from the hard-scrabble existence on a rural farm into a factory, but at the expense of the community they once knew. In nearly every case, there is a feeling of loneliness even when they are in a marriage or relationship.

Directed by Sue Williams, the award-winning producer-director of “China: A Century in Revolution”, the documentary is very much influenced by Michael Apted’s series of films that track a group of British people from different social classes from the age of 21 into middle age. As is the case with Apted, there is a sense of melancholy about lives that don’t meet expectations.

Although the film includes no voice-over narration that would betray the intention of the director, it is clear that Williams was motivated to make the film from the standpoint of a social critic. It is to her distinction that she allows her subjects to make this point for themselves even when in some cases they thought that the point that were making was that they never had it so good.

In the final moments of the film, one of the more successful interviewees tries to describe the malaise facing China today. He says that China is like a poor child that never had money for candy, but one day wakes up to find $100 in his pocket. The child will go to the candy store and spend every penny on candy, stuffing his mouth until he is sick. Meanwhile, a rich kid who has been able to afford candy all his life will not overdo it. That’s the difference.

Here are capsule descriptions of 3 of the interviewees from the movie press notes:

Wang Xiaolei – Rapper

Xiaolei’s parents divorced when he was very young leaving him to live with his poverty stricken grandfather. As a young teenager, he spent his days hanging out on the street until he discovered hip-hop, a culture he immediately identified with. But while he is inspired by American artists, his lyrics reflect the world he knows best, the world he sees around him, his relationships and ancient Chinese myth. As he works on his rapping, he gets a job as a club DJ to earn enough money to eat. He falls in love with a girl on-line, sends her all his money to come meet him and is shattered when she doesn’t show up. Tired of being looked down upon because of his poverty, Wang decides to focus on being a successful rap artist and record label owner.

Zhang Jingjing – Public Interest Lawyer

By 2005, preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing are accelerating. As entire neighborhoods are mowed down and over 1.5 million residents displaced, Jingjing is representing over 1000 families in a suit against two city agencies over a massive electromagnetic power line built for the games. The families represent an increasingly vocal middle class, less afraid than previous generations to stand up for what they believe. Jingjing was in college during the student protests of 1989 in Tiananmen Square and, like many others, was forever marked by the tragedy. These demonstrations in which more than 100,000 protested against the Chinese Communist Party demanding freedom and democracy, ended in disaster as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army used force to suppress the students, resulting in thousands of injuries and, by various accounts, hundreds of deaths. These events inspired her to become a lawyer and devote her life to advocating on behalf of ordinary people.

Xu Weimin – Hotel Owner

Weimin was also in college during Tiananmen but he drew different conclusions, deciding that politics was dangerous and scary and to avoid it at all costs. Now in his late 30’s, he is starting to build a hotel from scratch – a business which he has no experience in. Like the other businessmen in the film, he struggles with the realities of starting a business in China – the difficulties of dealing with local officials and endemic corruption. His personal life is messy. With a wife and baby in Beijing, his two daughters and ex-wife in Shanghai and his hotel and parents in Shenzhen, Weimin tries to split his time between all three. On top of that, his mother’s health is failing and along with his sister, he must take care of her and pay all her medical bills.

For those who want to get a flavor of Sue Williams’ previous work, you can watch her PBS Frontline documentary “China in the Red” here.

Official Website

Youtube clips from movie

April 1, 2008

The Dhamma Brothers

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

Meditating prisoners

My interest in the documentary “The Dhamma Brothers” was heightened by the conflict in Tibet, where Buddhist monks have been charged by some leftists as functioning as CIA agents. In some ways, I feel torn between sympathy for the Tibetans and suspicion that they are being manipulated by Washington. Long before I became a socialist, I was sympathetic to Buddhist ideas even though I never practiced meditation or any other exercises associated with the religion. In the early 1960s, Buddhist ideas pervaded the “new poetry” movement in all its aspects, from Jack Kerouac’s novels to the poetry of Gary Snyder. Indeed, Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” (dhamma is the Pali language equivalent of the Sanskrit dharma) is all about Gary Snyder, who is called Japhy Ryder in the novel. The dramatic tension in this novel—Kerouac’s finest after “On the Road”—is maintained by Kerouac’s (named Ray Smith) failure to get past his ego, no matter how hard he tries through meditation, reading scripture, etc.

If Kerouac had problems, can you imagine the hurdles that would have to be overcome by “The Dhamma Brothers”? These were hardened criminals, including some death row inmates, who were incarcerated in the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama. They live behind high security towers and a double row of barbed and electrical wire fences, the last place in the world where Buddhism might take root. But take root it did through the efforts of Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley, two trainers from the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. They were invited to lead a 10 day meditation seminar by Jenny Phillips, a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist who believed that prison life could be more bearable after mastering Buddhist meditation techniques.

The movie spends little time showing the men meditating, a wise choice given the fact that it is done in silence and involves sitting for long stretches with one’s eyes closed. This turned out to be highly positive for the men even if it didn’t lend itself to thrilling cinema.

What makes the film interesting is the conversion of the men as recounted in interviews. They come across as genuinely enlightened by their experience. No matter how degraded they were before they entered prison, they now seem at peace with themselves and unburdened from the psychic woes of prison life.

Considering the lengths to which Christian fundamentalism will go to impose its views on the American electorate, it should come as no surprise that pressure was applied on the prison to suspend all Buddhist meditation seminars since they were drawing men away from Christian services in prison. Ironically, one of the first questions posed to the Vipassana trainers by a prisoner was whether they would have to give up their Christian beliefs. They were assured that they would not have to, but were urged to forgo prayers until the training had come to an end.

I confess to having some doubts about the motives of the prison officials who gave their blessing to the Vipassana-led training. One supposes that they would approve anything that led to a calmer environment behind bars. However, given the fact that Donaldson prison is an oppressive institution, one wonders whether prisoner-inspired reforms are possible if the prisoners are reconciled to their status there.

This ultimately is the question that I had to grapple with when I became a socialist in 1967. As partial as I was to Buddhist ideas, I wondered whether their wide acceptance in the counter-culture might have had the effect of tempering the mood on campus or in rural retreats in places like Vermont and Northern California.

After seeing “The Dhamma Brothers,” I go back and forth on these questions. It is impossible not to give credit to a philosophy or religion that will allow suffering to be reduced under circumstances that are beyond our control. Life behind bars is a fact on the ground that these men had to contend with, while for the rest of humanity old age, illness and death are just as intransigent.

As I continued to wrestle with these contradictions, I thought it useful to return to a classic that led many undergraduates to consider Buddhism back in the early 1970s. This paragraph from the final chapter of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” remains compelling to me after all these years, while the reference to “this criminal in bondage” resonates strongly with “The Dhamma Brothers”:

He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha, instead he saw other faces, many, a long sequence, a flowing river of faces, of hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all seemed to be there simultaneously, which all constantly changed and renewed themselves, and which were still all Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, a carp, with an infinitely painfully opened mouth, the face of a dying fish, with fading eyes–he saw the face of a new-born child, red and full of wrinkles, distorted from crying–he saw the face of a murderer, he saw him plunging a knife into the body of another person–he saw, in the same second, this criminal in bondage, kneeling and his head being chopped off by the executioner with one blow of his sword–he saw the bodies of men and women, naked in positions and cramps of frenzied love–he saw corpses stretched out, motionless, cold, void– he saw the heads of animals, of boars, of crocodiles, of elephants, of bulls, of birds–he saw gods, saw Krishna, saw Agni–he saw all of these figures and faces in a thousand relationships with one another, each one helping the other, loving it, hating it, destroying it, giving re-birth to it, each one was a will to die, a passionately painful confession of transitoriness, and yet none of then died, each one only transformed, was always re-born, received evermore a new face, without any time having passed between the one and the other face–and all of these figures and faces rested, flowed, generated themselves, floated along and merged with each other, and they were all constantly covered by something thin, without individuality of its own, but yet existing, like a thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, a shell or mold or mask of water, and this mask was smiling, and this mask was Siddhartha’s smiling face, which he, Govinda, in this very same moment touched with his lips.

“The Dhamma Brothers” opens at the Cinema Village in New York City on April 11. For screening information elsewhere, go to the movie’s website at http://www.dhammabrothers.com

 

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