Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 17, 2008

Letter to a Princeton professor

Filed under: Academia,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

Professor Gary J. Bass: a large-mouth propagandist

Dr. Bass,

I should send you a bill for a bottle of Maalox that I had to purchase after stumbling across your article “Humanitarian Impulses” in the NY Times Magazine section this morning as I wended my way toward the crossword puzzle–the saving grace of this atrocious neoconservative/neoliberal periodical. It was bad enough that Condoleezza Rice was droning on in the background on Bob Schieffer’s gabfest without being confronted by your exercise in imperialist propaganda.

In trying to put across the argument that the U.S. should police the world, you seem completely oblivious to counter-arguments. Even a skilled propagandist like Christopher Hitchens would acknowledge the opposing viewpoint. For example, you quote Madeleine Albright–infamous for her observation that the end of “liberating” Iraq might justify the means of killing 1/2 million of its children: “many of the world’s necessary interventions in the decade before the invasion [of Iraq] ­ in places like Haiti and the Balkans ­ would seem impossible in today’s climate.”

Excuse me, professor, I know that you are a disadvantage teaching at a place like Princeton, which like Columbia, Yale and Harvard are branch offices of the U.S. State Department, but it is particularly obscene for Albright to talk about humanitarian intervention in Haiti given the fact that the U.S. Marines occupied this sad country for 19 years and then backed its murderous dictator as a bulwark against Communism in the 1960s. With this on its record, the U.S. had no business ever sending troops to Haiti again.

You do admit of course that the U.S. “was rarely moved by humanitarianism alone”. That’s quite an admission from an imperialist mouthpiece like you, but it would be more accurate to state exactly why the U.S. sends troops abroad. It is to defend the profits and future profit possibilities of the capitalist class. You have the brass to begin your article crowing about the capture of Radovan Karadzic when just moments earlier, I read this item titled “License to Steal” from the Al Ahram Weekly Online August 7-13 issue, which began:

“Our country has been undergoing the longest, slowest economic transition in Eastern Europe,” remarked Djordje Petkovic, a Serbian rubber factory worker whose company, Rekord, recently shut down, leaving him jobless for the past 10 months. Frustrated with his country’s current economic state, he continued: “We have seen nothing of the grants and loans the West has given us. The new transition laws have brought popular misery and raised the cost of living for many. My company, which has existed for 100 years, has now ceased to exist, but nobody cares.”

That’s what these “humanitarian interventions” bring: popular misery. Haiti is worse off than ever as the U.S. conspired to topple its popular president who was too far to the left. Some day the lying propagandists who have made a career at prestigious Ivy League colleges will have to be accountable to a world that is sick of U.S. bullying and corporate plunder. The sooner the better.

Louis Proyect

August 16, 2008

Reign of terror in Houston

Filed under: repression,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

To help move along my comic book memoir, I have supplied the artist with a number of photos to base her drawings on. Some I found on the Internet and others I found in Columbia library books, like Joseph Greenstein, aka “The Mighty Atom”. The Mighty Atom was a vegetarian strong man who styled himself after Samson and who still was able to bend iron bars across his nose in his mid 70s, when I used to watch him perform at his bungalow colony in my home town in the Catskills.

One of the photos turned out to be highly elusive. Before I moved from Boston to Houston to work with the SWP branch down there in 1973, there was a Militant article from 1970 or 1971 that showed a Houston cop in a Klansman hood standing next to his patrol car. Both his badge number and the patrol car id were concealed. Since I am persona non grata with the SWP, I could not even call them up to get a copy of the photo. It is so bad that an old friend from my party days who never quarreled with them at all told me that he couldn’t call either. Apparently unless you are part of their tightly controlled ex-members network, you might as well be in the 9th circle of Hell with me.

I finally came across the photo this week in an interesting article on Klan terror in Texas.

Back then, the city was gripped by Klan terror. The local Pacifica station, KPFT, had its transmitter blown up twice by the KKK. Our headquarters had been bombed also. And one of the most frightening episodes involved Fred Brode, an SWP member who had fled Hitler’s Germany in his youth. Now he was a retired railroad worker and chairman of the Houston Committee to End the War in Vietnam. On November 2nd 1970, the N.Y. Times had an article titled “Liberals Accuse Houston Police” that covered a press conference in which we participated. The Times reported in its characteristically understated fashion that Fred Brode was a “frequent target” of the Klan, with “20 bullets being fired into his home within five months and a fire started underneath it.”

The real story was more dramatic. Late one night the Klan rode past Fred’s house in a working class neighborhood and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, leaving a trail of bullets across the kitchen wall. The next day SWP members went over to his house and put sandbags in front of his windows. This was reported in a Newsweek article on a “Reign of Terror in Houston”, which included the photo of the Klan Cop I was trying to track down. Unfortunately Newsweek’s online archives do not go that far back and my only alternative was to dig through the microfilm in the Columbia library.

When I arrived in Houston in mid-1973, the Klan was still a major threat to the left. When we ran for local office, our candidates used to focus heavily on the need for the city to rein in the Klan and to purge the police force. This was around the same time that the SWP had launched a 27 million dollar suit against the FBI for Cointelpro abuses. Being on the front lines of such civil liberties fights earned us the respect of many local liberals including John Henry Faulk, who had been blacklisted in the 1950s. I called him once to ask for a donation to our suit against the FBI, but he pled poverty. I was still charmed by the old man who kept calling me “Darlin'” and “Dear”.

About a year after I had settled into branch life, I came to the headquarters one Saturday afternoon to pick up some Militant newspapers to sell at a local grocery store. I parked my car in the lot behind the office building where our bookstore and office resided on the second floor. I noticed about 10 comrades in the parking lot close to the back door of the building with a look of consternation on their faces. One of them broke from the pack and came trotting toward me. He said, “Louis, come over now. It is too dangerous to be by yourself. The KKK is on the streets in front of the building.”

At that point, the group of us walked to the front and surveyed the situation. There were about 6 to 8 Klansmen wearing either white robes or dressed in military fatigues on the corners surrounding the building. All were wielding semi-automatic rifles. Stu Singer, the branch organizer who I knew from Boston, told us to stay there while he called the cops. Even though we knew the cops and the Klan were in cahoots, we had to make the record that we were demanding the same kind of protection that any citizen would receive. Sure enough, the cops showed up 5 minutes after the Klan disappeared. Clearly, they were in communication.

Even though the event took place 34 years ago, I still remember it like it happened last week. I sat on the steps on the front of the building frightened out of my wits. My knees were knocking like a character in an old Loony Tunes cartoon who had just seen a ghost. While I understood that the Klan would have never opened fire on a Saturday afternoon in a residential neighborhood, there was something about the sight of an M-16 that terrorized me, which of course was the intention.

After a couple of years, the city finally cracked down on the Klan. Louis Beam was arrested for orchestrating the bombing of the Pacifica transmitters and our headquarters but was never convicted. Despite this, the Klan was put on the defensive and the cops were pressured by the Mayor’s office to clean up its act. Houston aspired to be a major American city after the fashion of Atlanta and did not need this kind of bad publicity. Back in the 1970s and 80s, there was a lot of hype about northerners moving down to such cities to get away from congestion, high prices and crime. The local bourgeoisie was anxious to promote this migration and did not need a bunch of rightwing fanatics to mess things up.

It would have been tragic if the SWP had seen the fight with the Klan in terms of the armed struggle. Another group made this mistake a few years later and paid dearly. The wiki on the Communist Workers Party, a Maoist group that dissolved itself in 1985, reports:

Confrontations with the Klan were particularly acute in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the Klan attempted to disrupt the work of the CWP and vice versa. In July, 1979, the Klan held a rally and viewing of The Birth of a Nation in China Grove, near Greensboro, which was disrupted by CWP members who burned a Confederate flag and taunted members of the KKK. There were also challenges in the press. “The KKK is one of the most treacherous scum elements produced by the dying system of capitalism. We challenge you,” CWP leader Paul Bermanzohn taunted the Klan, “to attend our rally in Greensboro.” These apparent provocations provided the KKK a pretext for a coming violent showdown.

November 3, 1979 saw members of the KKK, including a police informant, and the American Nazi Party attack a “Death to the Klan!” rally organized by the CWP. Members of the Klan were armed, as were some members of the CWP. Two members of the CWP and three rally participants were killed in the assault by the KKK. This was the incident that became known as the “Greensboro Massacre”. In response to the acquittal of the accused killers, the CWP attempted to storm the 1980 Democratic National Convention and succeeded in setting off firecrackers in Madison Square Garden.

There is not much of value that I have retained from the SWP, but understanding how to deal with the ultraright was one such lesson. There is a tendency for young radicals to see such fights solely in terms of the physical relationship of forces, whereas the real challenge is forcing the bourgeois state to enforce its own laws against lawless elements. This is not to say that there won’t be a need to occasionally battle with fascist and semi-fascist elements in the streets but there is nothing worse for the left to come out of such battles on the losing end, as was the case with the CWP.

August 15, 2008

Separated at birth?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Unintentionally funny Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili

Intentionally funny Andy Kauffman (1949-1984)

Has Paul Krugman been reading Lenin?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm

Paul Krugman

V.I. Lenin

Having reread Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” as part of a Yahoo-based reading group on Marxism, the arguments are fresh in my mind. So much so that when I read Paul Krugman’s August 15, 2008 N.Y. Times op-ed piece “The Great Illusion“, I wondered if he had been dipping into Lenin himself :

So far, the international economic consequences of the war in the Caucasus have been fairly minor, despite Georgia’s role as a major corridor for oil shipments. But as I was reading the latest bad news, I found myself wondering whether this war is an omen – a sign that the second great age of globalization may share the fate of the first.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, here’s what you need to know: our grandfathers lived in a world of largely self-sufficient, inward-looking national economies – but our great-great grandfathers lived, as we do, in a world of large-scale international trade and investment, a world destroyed by nationalism.

Writing in 1919, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes described the world economy as it was on the eve of World War I. “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth … he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world.”

And Keynes’s Londoner “regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement … The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion … appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.”

But then came three decades of war, revolution, political instability, depression and more war. By the end of World War II, the world was fragmented economically as well as politically. And it took a couple of generations to put it back together.

So, can things fall apart again? Yes, they can.

I was especially struck by the Keynes quote: “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth … he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world.” The similarity with Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” ideology is striking:

In an interview with YaleGlobal, Friedman was asked how nationalism and a flat world intersect. He answered:

That’s a good question. I really tried to develop that idea beyond Lexus. You know in Lexus I wrote that no two countries would fight a war so long as they both had McDonald’s. And I was really trying to give an example of how when a country gets a middle class big enough to sustain a McDonald’s network, they generally want to focus on economic development. That is a sort of tipping point, rather than fighting wars.

In “Flat World,” I take that theory one step further into what I call the “Dell Theory” – you know, Dell Computers. The Dell Theory says that no two countries that are part of the same global supply chain will ever fight a war as long as they’re each still part of that supply chain. Now, the big test case is China and Taiwan. Both are suppliers of the main parts of computers. If they go to war, don’t try to order a computer this month because you’ll have a real problem.

In the early 20th century the notion that the growth of international trusts would reduce tensions between nations that even the left viewed this development as progressive. Karl Kautsky, the leader of the German social democracy, basically held the same view as Thomas Friedman. As long as big corporations were jointly owned by different national fractions of capital, they would tend to avoid war. As Kautsky put it in 1914, just as WWI was about to break out:

The subsiding of the Protectionist movement in Britain, the lowering of tariffs in America; the trend towards disarmament; the rapid decline in the export of capital from France and Germany in the years immediately preceding the war; finally, the growing international interweaving between the various cliques of finance capital-all this has caused me to consider whether the present imperialist policy cannot be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capital. Such a new phase of capitalism is at any rate conceivable. Can it be achieved? Sufficient premises are still lacking to enable us to answer this question…

In my introduction to Lenin’s “Imperialism”, I posed the question: “Whatever happened to World Wars? Did the seeming ability of capitalism to stave off both worldwide economic depression and world war reflect to some extent that Kautsky was on to something? Are we living in something like ‘ultra-imperialism’ today, a point that is made in Hardt-Negri’s Empire?”

Perhaps this question has been answered partially by growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia. The left has had a tendency to dismiss the idea of inter-imperialist wars since the end of WWII. With such a close affinity between the U.S., Western Europe and Japan, it is impossible to imagine a new world war. Of course, there was always the Cold War but that was focused more on conflicts between imperialism and non-imperialist 3rd world nations that lacked the firepower to recreate anything like WWI and WWII.

There is also the lack of a Hitler type figure in the post-WWII period who could have served as an antagonist to Anglo-American imperialism as was the case in the late 1930s. Of course, Hitler’s attempt to expand into Africa and Eastern Europe was driven by economic necessity. The Great Depression made it imperative for the German bourgeoisie to resolve its contradictions through foreign conquest. It was merely following Cecil Rhodes’s advice as recounted by Lenin:

I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for `bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

We should also recall that WWI was not preceded by a huge economic collapse. For all practical purposes, the pre-WWI period was marked by apparent economic vigor and limitless expansion just as his been the case since the end of WWII-of course until the recent shocks to the system over oil. Once again, Lenin’s Imperialism is most instructive on this matter:

The world oil market,” wrote Jeidels in 1905, “is even today still divided between two great financial groups-Rockefeller’s American Standard Oil Co., and Rothschild and Nobel, the controlling interests of the Russian oilfields in Baku. The two groups are closely connected. But for several years five enemies have been threatening their monopoly”: (1) the exhaustion of the American oilfields; (2) the competition of the firm of Mantashev of Baku; (3) the Austrian oilfields; (4) the Rumanian oilfields; (5) the overseas oilfields, particularly in the Dutch colonies (the extremely rich firms, Samuel, and Shell, also connected with British capital). The three last groups are connected with the big German banks, headed by the huge Deutsche Bank. These banks independently and systematically developed the oil industry in Rumania, for example, in order to have a foothold of their “own”. In 1907, the foreign capital invested in the Rumanian oil industry was estimated at 185 million francs, of which 74 million was German capital.

A struggle began for the “division of the world”, as, in fact, it is called in economic literature. On the one hand, the Rockefeller “oil trust” wanted to lay its hands on everything; it formed a “daughter company” right in Holland, and bought up oilfields in the Dutch Indies, in order to strike at its principal enemy, the Anglo-Dutch Shell trust. On the other hand, the Deutsche Bank and the other German banks aimed at “retaining” Rumania “for themselves” and at uniting her with Russia against Rockefeller. The latter possessed far more capital and an excellent system of oil transportation and distribution.

While the same alignment between oil companies and nations might not exist today as it did in 1914 (Germany would tend to align with Exxon), you still have the same explosive contradictions as the N.Y. Times reported on August 13:

When the main pipeline that carries oil through Georgia was completed in 2005, it was hailed as a major success in the U.S. policy to diversify its energy supply. Not only did the pipeline transport oil produced in Central Asia, helping move the West off its dependence on the Middle East, but it also accomplished another American goal: It bypassed Russia.

U.S. policy makers hoped that diverting oil around Russia would keep it from reasserting control over Central Asia and its enormous oil and natural gas reserves, and would provide a safer alternative to Moscow’s control over export routes that it had inherited from Soviet days. The tug-of-war with Moscow was the latest version of the Great Game, the 19th-century contest between Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia for dominance in the region.

A bumper sticker that U.S. diplomats distributed around Central Asia in the 1990s summed up Washington’s strategic thinking: ”Happiness is multiple pipelines.”

Now energy experts say that the hostilities between Russia and Georgia could threaten U.S. plans to gain access to more of Central Asia’s energy resources in a year when booming demand in Asia and tight supplies helped push the price of oil to records.

”It is hard to see through the fog of this war another pipeline through Georgia,” said Cliff Kupchan, a political risk analyst at Eurasia Group, who was an official at the U.S. State Department during the administration of President Bill Clinton. ”Multinationals and Central Asian and Caspian governments may think twice about building new lines through this corridor. It may even call into question the reliability of moving existing volumes through that corridor.”

Long ago I learned that Marxists are not in the business of predicting the future, especially when it comes to the question of global economic crises and inter-imperialist war. I was especially inoculated against predicting Armageddon when I saw the foolish predictions made by Jack Barnes, the leader of the SWP-a group that I had the misfortune to spend 11 years in.

That being said, we should remain vigilant. Clearly, we are entering a new stage of world politics that even a liberal economist like Paul Krugman can recognize.

August 13, 2008

More Mariátegui

I have posted 3 more chapters from José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list. This makes 5 out of 7 from arguably his most important work that is both out of print and not represented on the Internet until now. Thank god for the scanner. Let’s hope that the University of Texas Press has no objection to their intellectual property rights being violated. They, after all, allowed this seminal Marxist text to languish.

Chapter 2 is titled “The Problem of the Indian” and serves as a kind of introduction to the much longer chapter 3 on “The Problem of Land”. Suffice it to say that for Mariátegui the 2 “problems” are interrelated as demonstrated by the very first sentence: “Any treatment of the problem of the Indian–written or verbal–that fails or refuses to recognize it as a socio-economic problem is but a sterile, theoretical exercise destined to be completely discredited.” He goes further and identifies describes the “socio-economic problem” as revolving around land: “A fresh approach to the problem of the Indian, therefore, ought to be much more concerned with the consequences of the land tenure system than with drawing up protective legislation.” To understand how the oppression of the Indian is related to land tenure, I direct your attention to chapter 3.

Chapter 5 deals with “The Religious Factor” and deserves to be required reading for anybody who is trying to understand the issues being posed by political Islam, “liberation theology” in Latin America, etc. Using the Incan religion as a point of departure, Mariátegui has some very interesting things to say about Catholicism, Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.

For Mariátegui, Catholicism was the handmaiden to the Spanish sword, which in comparison to Protestantism was inimical to capitalist growth. Clearly, the influence of Max Weber is at work in his thinking:

In general, the experience of the West furnishes concrete evidence of the close association of capitalism and Protestantism. Protestantism appears in history as the spiritual yeast of the capitalist process. The Protestant Reformation contained the essence, the seed, of the liberal state. Protestantism as a religious movement and liberalism as a political trend were related to the development of the factors of a capitalist economy. Facts support this argument. Capitalism and industrialism have flourished nowhere else as they have in the Protestant countries. The capitalist economy has reached its peak in England, the United States, and Germany. Within these countries, people of Catholic faith have instinctively clung to their rustic tastes and habits. (Catholic Bavaria is also rural.) No Catholic country has reached a high level of industrialization.

I don’t agree with this. In my view, the “backwardness” of Catholic nations in Europe is only relative. Mexico City, for example, was about as industrialized as Boston in 1776. I cover this in depth here.

That being said, it must be acknowledged that Mariátegui—as always—is capable of seeing both sides of an argument:

Neoscholastics insist on disputing or minimizing the influence of the Reformation on capitalist development, claiming that Thomism already had laid down the principles of bourgeois economics.18 Sorel has acknowledged the services rendered to Western civilization by Saint Thomas in his realistic approach to the dogma in science. He has especially stressed the Thomist concept that “human law cannot change the legal nature of things, which is derived from their economic content.”19 But if Saint Thomas brought Catholicism to this level of understanding economics, the Reformation forged the moral weapons of the bourgeois revolution, opening the way to capitalism. The neoscholastic concept can be easily explained. Neothomism is bourgeois but not capitalist. Just as socialism is not the same thing as the proletariat, capitalism is not the same thing as the bourgeoisie. Capitalism is the order, the civilization, the spirit born of the bourgeoisie, which existed long before and only later gave its name to an entire historical era.

Finally, on the question of religion, Mariátegui neatly dissects the liberal anti-clericalism of his day, which anticipated the bleatings of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens today:

But capitalism has lost its revolutionary spirit and so this thesis has been overtaken by events.32 Socialism, according to the conclusions of historical materialism, not to be confused with philosophical materialism, considers that ecclesiastical forms and religious doctrines are produced and sustained by the socio-economic structure. Therefore, it is concerned with changing the latter and not the former. Socialism regards mere anti-clerical activity as a liberal bourgeois pastime. In Europe, anti-clericalism is characteristic of countries where the Protestant Reformation has not unified civil and religious conscience and where political nationalism and Roman universalism live in either open or latent conflict, which compromise can moderate but not halt or resolve.

Finally, chapter 6 on “Regionalism and Centralism”, although written about Peru, applies equally to Bolivia today. In the 1920s, Peru faced the same geographical-political divide facing Evo Morales today. Lima, the capital, was home to wealthy white descendants of Spanish colonizers just as is the 4 secessionist regions in Bolivia and was situated on the lowlands facing the Pacific. In both Peru and Bolivia, the indigenous peoples lived in the highlands. And in both instances, class politics tended to be reflected in debates over regionalism versus centralism. In the passage below, Mariátegui refers to gamonalismo,. a term that he uses interchangeably with feudalism. As I have said elsewhere, I don’t find the term feudalism that useful in describing the upper classes in Latin America but on everything else I am in accord with Mariátegui:

Assuming that “the problem of the Indian” and the “agrarian question” take priority over any problem relative to the mechanism of the regime if not to the structure of the state, it is absolutely impossible to consider the question of regionalism or, more precisely, of administrative decentralization from standpoints not subordinate to the need to solve in a radical and organic way the first two problems. A decentralization that is not directed toward this goal is not even worth discussion.

And decentralization in itself, simply as a political and administrative reform, would not signify any progress toward solution of the “problem of the Indian” and the “problem of land,” which fundamentally are one and the same. On the contrary, decentralization carried out for no other reason than to authorize a degree of autonomy to the regions or departments would increase the power of gamonalismo against any solution in the interest of the Indian masses. To become convinced of this, it is enough to ask oneself what caste, what class, what category opposes the redemption of the Indian. There is only one, categorical, answer: gamonalismo, feudalism, bossism. Therefore, is there any doubt that the more autonomous a regional administration of gamonales and caciques, the more they would sabotage and resist any effective attempt to redress the wrongs done to the Indian?

There can be no illusions. The decent groups in the cities will never prevail against gamonalismo in regional administration. The experience of more than a century has taught us what to expect of the possibility that in the near future a democratic system will function in Peru that will fulfill, at least on paper, the Jacobin principle of “popular sovereignty.” The rural masses, or the Indian communities in any case, would remain outside suffrage and its results. Therefore, even if only because the absent are never right—les absents ont toujours tort—the organisms and authorities that would be created “through election,” but without their vote, would have neither the ability nor the knowledge to do them justice. Who would be so naive as to imagine that, within the present economic and political situation, the regions would be governed by “universal suffrage”?

Read chapters 2, 5 and 6 in their entirety here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/

August 10, 2008

E. Coli and capitalism

Filed under: Ecology,farming — louisproyect @ 5:32 pm

E. Coli

About 3 years ago I began buying meat or fish from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods in New York. The first is an Internet-based retailer. You order online and deliveries are made to your apartment from warehouses in the outer boroughs. The advantage supposedly to Fresh Direct was that the food was under tighter control than in supermarkets where meat and fish are sold long after their expiration date. Their website brags:

Our food comes directly from farms, dairies and fisheries (not middlemen), so it’s several days fresher and a lot less expensive when it gets to your table. Our fully refrigerated, state-of-the-art facility (minutes from Manhattan in Long Island City) lets us meet standards no retail store in the country can match. We follow USDA guidelines and the HACCP food safety system in all our fresh storage and production rooms. Since customers don’t shop in our facility, we can maintain different environments for each type of food we sell. For example, we have seven different climates for handling produce, ensuring that the bananas are as happy as the potatoes.

As much as I enjoyed the convenience of ordering from Fresh Direct, I cut them out last October when I discovered that the initial capital investment came from Peter Ackerman, a George Soros type investor who funds NGO’s around the world dedicated to overthrowing the latest designated enemy of the U.S. State Department–including the Albert Einstein Institute that Stephen Zunes is haplessly trying to defend against the charge of meddling in Venezuela’s internal politics.

Whole Foods, on the other hand, is a nationwide chain that first established a foothold in New York a few years ago. Whatever I wasn’t buying from Fresh Direct, I’d pick up at Whole Foods. As its name implies, it puts a heavy emphasis on organic meat and produce. Their website, competing with Fresh Direct as to who is best positioned to Save the Planet, informs us:

This is where it all began. Whole Foods Market is all about organics, and organics is all about respect for the earth and the natural processes that have nourished us for millennia. Organic agriculture works in harmony with Nature to produce food that is free of man-made toxins, promoting the health of consumers, farmers and the earth, with an eye to maintaining that health far into the future.

Organic farming is a hopeful enterprise, practiced with compassion and empathy for the land and the creatures upon it.

Somehow, the “health of consumers” went by the wayside this week when Whole Food was implicated in a major E. Coli outbreak, as today’s Washington Post reports:

Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation’s largest meatpackers. It’s the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.

The meat Whole Foods recalled came from Coleman Natural Foods, which unbeknownst to Whole Foods had processed it at Nebraska Beef, an Omaha meatpacker with a history of food-safety and other violations. Nebraska Beef last month recalled more than 5 million pounds of beef produced in May and June after its meat was blamed for another E. coli outbreak in seven states. On Friday it recalled an additional 1.2 million pounds of beef produced on June 17, June 24 and July 8, which included products eventually sold to Whole Foods. The recall is not related to the recent spate of E. coli illnesses among Boy Scouts at a gathering in Goshen, Va.

Whole Foods officials are investigating why they were not aware that Coleman was using Nebraska Beef as a processor, spokeswoman Libba Letton said.

Also of some interest in light of the Democratic Party’s “change” mantra is the role of a Democratic Governor in doing favors for Nebraska Beef:

The force behind Nebraska Beef is Nebraska businessman William Hughes. Hughes was a top executive at the now-defunct BeefAmerica. In 1997, the USDA yanked its inspectors from BeefAmerica’s Norfolk, Neb., plant because of repeated sanitation violations, including contamination of meat with fecal matter. The company had to recall more than 600,000 pounds of beef after the USDA traced E. coli O157:H7-tainted meat from a Virginia retailer to the Omaha packer. It filed for bankruptcy the following year.

By then, Hughes was already part of a group of Nebraska Beef investors. The state gave the company additional financial support in the form of $7.5 million in tax credits under its Quality Jobs Act. Then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D), now a U.S. senator, sat on the three-member jobs board that approved the tax credits. Nelson’s former law firm, Lamson, Dugan and Murray, represents Nebraska Beef.

While state leaders welcomed Nebraska Beef and the jobs that came with it, residents who lived near the plant did not, and for more than a decade, they battled the company over manure strewn in the street and workers walking off the kill floor and into the local grocery store covered in cow splatter, said South Omaha resident Janet Bonet.

Labor unions have also criticized Nebraska Beef over its labor practices. Since 1998, the company has had 47 workplace safety violations and paid more than $100,000 in fines, Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show. Lamson said most were not serious.

I have never bought beef at Whole Food, but now wonder about the chicken and fish that I have. For that matter, the food could be just as unsavory as John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, another businessman with political ambitions as grandiose as Peter Ackerman’s. Starting off as a leftist undergraduate at the U. of Texas, Mackey evolved into a libertarian as soon as he started a food business as he explained in a salon.com interview:

When I was in my very early 20’s I believed that democratic socialism was a more “just” economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift…

I didn’t think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left.

A couple of years ago Mackey made the news for using a pseudonym on the Yahoo stock market forum in an attempt to drive down the price of a company he sought to take over, as Smartmoney.com reports:

In January 2005, someone using the name “Rahodeb” went online to a Yahoo stock-market forum and posted this opinion: No company would want to buy Wild Oats Markets Inc., a natural-foods grocer, at its price then of about $8 a share.

“Would Whole Foods buy OATS?” Rahodeb asked, using Wild Oats’ stock symbol. “Almost surely not at current prices. What would they gain? OATS locations are too small.” Rahodeb speculated that Wild Oats eventually would be sold after sliding into bankruptcy or when its stock fell below $5. A month later, Rahodeb wrote that Wild Oats management “clearly doesn’t know what it is doing. . . . OATS has no value and no future.”

The comments were typical of banter on Internet message boards for stocks, but the writer’s identity was anything but. Rahodeb was an online pseudonym of John Mackey, co-founder and chief executive of Whole Foods Market Inc. Earlier this year, his company agreed to buy Wild Oats for $565 million, or $18.50 a share.

Obviously, despite the lip-service paid to transparency in the marketplace, Mackey is not above tipping the scale in his favor.

This is not the first time that an “organic” food producer has been implicated in an E. Coli outbreak. Only 2 years ago, Earthbound Farms spinach was contaminated with the deadly bacteria. Earthbound Farms, like Coleman, Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, is another “green” producer whose website states:

More than 24 years ago, Earthbound Farm started in a backyard garden, where we grew food we felt good about serving to our friends and family. And that meant farming organically.

Today, our commitment to the health of those who enjoy our harvest is stronger than ever. Earthbound Farm certified organic produce is grown by about 150 dedicated farmers, who use the same organic farming methods on the smallest farm (about 5 acres) as on the largest (about 680 acres). Together, we’re working to bring healthy and delicious organic food to people wherever they live and shop, and to protect the environment.

Since E. Coli is associated with animal waste, it seemed odd at first that spinach could become tainted. It turned out that animal waste was involved, as radical food journalist Michael Pollan explained in an October 15, 2006 N.Y. Times piece titled “The Vegetable-Industrial Complex“:

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution – the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops – and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem – chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and Haccp plans and overcooking your burgers and, now, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.

But if industrial farming gave us this bug, it is industrial eating that has spread it far and wide. We don’t yet know exactly what happened in the case of the spinach washed and packed by Natural Selection Foods, whether it was contaminated in the field or in the processing plant or if perhaps the sealed bags made a trivial contamination worse. But we do know that a great deal of spinach from a great many fields gets mixed together in the water at that plant, giving microbes from a single field an opportunity to contaminate a vast amount of food. The plant in question washes 26 million servings of salad every week. In effect, we’re washing the whole nation’s salad in one big sink.

My father, who died in 1970, was the owner of a fruit and vegetable store in the Catskill Mountains. He also sold fish in the wintertime. After an A&P moved into town in the mid 1960s, his business started to go downhill–a trend that had begun with the decline of the tourist industry a few years earlier.

To this day, I have never tasted fruit and vegetables like those that he sold. Compared to the garbage you buy in supermarkets today, they were like a Platonic ideal. Biting into a tomato in the mid 1950s was like partaking in the Eternal Essence of Tomato. The same thing was true of the fish that he sold which came from fresh water lakes and the ocean, never from fish farms. Some fish that he sold–like Pike or Yellow Perch–are simply unavailable today, even in boutique stores in the richest neighborhoods.

Nearly everything he sold was seasonal and native to a particular section of the U.S. This was long before the days when grapes came from Chile and tomatoes from Mexico. You bought grapes in the summertime because that is when they were available. In December you ate apples from the Pacific Northwest and oranges from Florida and that was that. Whatever you sacrificed in terms of choice was more than adequately compensated by taste. Since much of the fruit and produce was still being produced by relatively small farms, there was less susceptibility to the kinds of bacterial infection described by Michael Pollan.

There has been a tendency among some on the left to think uncritically about the “benefits” of industrial farming, as if input-output ratios based on minimal expenditures is the sole criterion. In many ways, the crisis of agriculture today is no different than it was in Marx’s day. By substituting industrial farming techniques for the “backward” methods of the past, the door is open to the kind of problems Marx described in V.3 of Capital:

If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.

Marx and Engels’s solution in the Communist Manifesto appears as timely as ever, even if through its implementation we will once again suffer the hardship of only being able to eat grapes in the summertime:

Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.

August 8, 2008

Mariátegui on “The Problem of Land”

Filed under: indigenous,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality”

Chapter 3: The Problem of Land

The Agrarian Problem and the Indian Problem

Those of us who approach and define the Indian problem from a Socialist point of view must start out by declaring the complete obsolescence of the humanitarian and philanthropic points of view which, like a prolongation of the apostolic battle of Las Casas, continued to motivate the old pro-Indian campaign. We shall try to establish the basically economic character of the problem. First, we protest against the instinctive attempt of the criollo or mestizo to reduce it to an exclusively administrative, pedagogical, ethnic, or moral problem in order to avoid at all cost recognizing its economic aspect. Therefore, it would be absurd to accuse us of being romantic or literary. By identifying it as primarily a socio-economic problem, we are taking the least romantic and literary position possible. We are not satisfied to assert the Indian’s right to education, culture, progress, love, and heaven. We begin by categorically asserting his right to land. This thoroughly materialistic claim should suffice to distinguish us from the heirs or imitators of the evangelical fervor of the great Spanish friar, whom, on the other hand, our materialism does not prevent us from admiring and esteeming.

The problem of land is obviously too bound up with the Indian problem to be conveniently mitigated or diminished. Quite the contrary. As for myself, I shall try to present it in unmistakable and clearcut terms.

The agrarian problem is first and foremost the problem of eliminating feudalism in Peru, which should have been done by the democratic-bourgeois regime that followed the War of Independence. But in its one hundred years as a republic, Peru has not had a genuine bourgeois class, a true capitalist class. The old feudal class—camouflaged or disguised as a republican bourgeoisie—has kept its position. The policy of disentailment, initiated by the War of Independence as a logical consequence of its ideology, did not lead to the development of small property. The old landholding class had not lost its supremacy. The survival of the latifundistas, in practice, preserved the latifundium. Disentailment struck at the Indian community. During a century of Republican rule, great agricultural property actually has grown stronger and expanded, despite the theoretical liberalism of our constitution and the practical necessities of the development of our capitalist economy.

There are two expressions of feudalism that survive: the latifundium and servitude. Inseparable and of the same substance, their analysis leads us to the conclusion that the servitude oppressing the indigenous race cannot be abolished unless the latifundium is abolished.

When the agrarian problem is presented in these terms, it cannot be easily distorted. It appears in all its magnitude as a socio-economic, and therefore a political, problem, to be dealt with by men who move in this sphere of acts and ideas. And it is useless to try to convert it, for example, into a technical-agricultural problem for agronomists.

Everyone must know that according to individualist ideology, the liberal solution to this problem would be the breaking up of the latifundium to create small property. But there is so much ignorance of the elementary principles of socialism that it is worthwhile repeating that this formula—the breaking up of the latifundium in favor of small property—is neither Utopian, nor heretical, nor revolutionary, nor Bolshevik, nor avant-garde, but orthodox, constitutional, democratic, capitalist, and bourgeois. It is based on the same liberal body of ideas that produced the constitutional laws of all democratic-bourgeois states. In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe—Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Poland, Bulgaria, et cetera—agrarian laws have been passed limiting land ownership, in principle, to a maximum of five hundred hectares. Here, the Great War razed the last ramparts of feudalism with the sanction of the capitalist West, which since then has used precisely this bloc of anti-Bolshevik countries as a bulwark against Russia.

In keeping with my ideological position, I believe that the moment for attempting the liberal, individualist method in Peru has already passed. Aside from reasons of doctrine, I consider-that our agrarian problem has a special character due to an indisputable and concrete factor: the survival of the Indian “community” and of elements of practical socialism in indigenous agriculture and life.

If those who hold a democratic-liberal doctrine are truly seeking a solution to the problem of the Indian that, above all, will free him from servitude, they can turn to the Czechoslovakian or Rumanian experience rather than the Mexican example, which they may find dangerous given its inspiration and process. For them it is still time to advocate a liberal formula. They would at least ensure that discussion of the agrarian problem by the new generation would not altogether lack the liberal philosophy that, according to written history, has governed the life of Peru since the foundation of the republic.

read in full

August 6, 2008

How the University Works; Reclaiming the Ivory Tower

Filed under: Academia,workers — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

A couple of months ago I reviewed Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors“, a study of the disappearance of full-time tenure positions in higher education. This is a follow-up with two equally valuable books on the same topic. One is “How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation” by Marc Bousquet that is distinguished by its grasp of the overall political economy that has encouraged an attack on teachers. The other is Joe Berry’s “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower“, a handbook for adjuncts who are trying to organize against the university power structure.

I feel a particular obligation in calling attention to these three books because there are hundreds of students on the Marxism mailing list or who read my blog that might be planning to become college teachers themselves one day. They should be aware that the profession is not what it once was. Considering the fact that most of them are probably humanities majors, they are particularly vulnerable to the attacks taking place there–much more so than in business or the science departments. With the dissertation process amounting to a kind of ordeal, it is shocking to think that after 5 to 10 years of a very frustrating and isolated exercise of brainpower (as well as a major cash expenditure) that you will end up as contingent labor with no health benefits, no pension, no office and no guarantee of employment from semester to semester.

In his introduction, Bousquet compares the growth of contingent labor in academia to that of HMO’s. In many ways, his outrage will remind you of Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. As chroniclers of the decay of American society during the epoch of downsizing, privatization and growing class differentiation, such social critics have their hands full. It is a boom time for both hedge fund managers and latter-day muckrakers.

In many ways, it is not surprising that a two tier system is developing in American colleges, with mostly older, white males in tenure positions and women in adjunct positions. This mirrors what has happened in a number of the old-line basic industries organized by the AFL-CIO that used to be a source of good pay and job security, even if under dangerous working conditions. The UAW, the Teamsters et al are glad to cut deals with the boss that preserve traditional wage and benefit structures for the older worker while allowing the younger ones to drift toward the bottom. The same thing is true in high technology with Microsoft relying heavily on contingent labor, thus prompting the same kind of outrage and activism now being manifested in the academy.

Being a drone in an administrative department of a major research university (Columbia) for over 17 years makes me less susceptible than other people to accept the myth of a benign nonprofit dedicated only to its students and the community. But I never dreamed that things could have reached such a stage before reading Bousquet. In chapter two, he discusses William Massy’s “Virtual U”, a “computer simulation of university management in game form” that was designed by a former Stanford vice president with a $1 million grant from the Sloan foundation.

Trevor Chan, who designed “Virtual U”, also designed “Capitalism,” another game that the Virtual U website described as “the best business simulation game ever created.” According to PC Gamer magazine, “Capitalism” is “good enough to make a convert out of Karl Marx himself.” Bousquet points out:

Massy’s game is a budgeting simulation. It draws upon two prominent strains of thought in contemporary university management, the “cybernetic systems” model of university leadership developed by Robert Birnbaum and resource allocation theory, specifically the principles of Revenue Center Management (RCM), of which Massy is a leading proponent.

The players of this game treat faculty, students and staff (like me) as inputs into the maw of management. If you play the game right, you can get maximum results from minimum input. In keeping with the mindset of the game’s creator, there are no unions in the simulation.

In the next chapter, Bousquet uncovers more evidence of how the university has become a guinea pig for all sorts of “management revolution” theories like RCM-all calculated to enhance the power of the administration over everybody beneath them as it cuts costs ruthlessly, especially teachers’ salaries.

Evidently, “Toyotism” has descended upon the university in a bid to emulate the “success” of the Japanese auto giant:

In addition to its cultural dimension, Toyotism represents a genuinely radical transformation of the work process, which most workers have experienced as profoundly dystopian. The core concept is of continuous reinvention of the work process-often called, following Deming, “continuous quality improvement,” where “quality” means efficiency, so that managers are continuously being asked to improve efficiency, that is, to continuously produce more with lower labor costs…

In its academic version, the Toyotist work regime is supported by a triumphalist administrative literature-e.g., Quality Quest in the Academic Process, On Q: Causing Quality in Higher Education, Continuous Quality Improvement in Higher Education, the Total Quality Management in Postsecondary Education newsletter, etc-as well as by a series of active financial and philosophical partnerships with legislators and corporate leadership, such as the multi-company 1988 TQM Forum, IBM’s 1991 TQM competition and its successor TQM University challenge, funded by Motorola, Milliken, Proctor and Gamble and Xerox, all of which provided major grants to universities adopting “Quality” initiatives, including prominent public research institutions such as Penn State and UW-Madison.

In order for these management initiatives to succeed, it is necessary to keep drumming into the heads of tenured faculty members that they are part of management. In this respect, it is essential for them to conduct classroom evaluations of adjunct professors on a regular basis. This device and others was crucial to a landmark Supreme Court decision that resulted in college professors being regarded as management, a key blow to trade union consciousness and organizing. In Appendix A of “How the University Works,” you can read the dissenting opinions by Brennan (supported by White, Marshall and Blackmun), which includes the following thoroughly uncontroversial observation:

The university administration has certain economic and fiduciary responsibilities that are not shared by the faculty, whose primary concerns are academic and relate solely to its own professional reputation. The record evinces numerous instances in which the faculty’s recommendations have been rejected by the administration on account of fiscal constraints or other managerial policies. Disputes have arisen between Yeshiva’s faculty and administration on such fundamental issues as the hiring, tenure, promotion, retirement, and dismissal of faculty members, academic standards and credits, departmental budgets, and even the faculty’s choice of its own departmental representative. The very fact that Yeshiva’s faculty has voted for the Union to serve as its representative in future negotiations with the administration indicates that the faculty does not perceive its interests to be aligned with those of management. Indeed, on the precise topics which are specified as mandatory subjects of collective bargaining — wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment-the interests of teacher and administrator are often diametrically opposed.

While I am no expert on trade union politics, it does strike me that this Supreme Court decision has had as much of an impact on the relationship of class forces in the U.S. as Reagan busting the airline controller’s strike. It strengthened already gestating anti-working class tendencies that have radically altered the academic workplace.

Those changes are most virulently evident in Louisville, Kentucky where a partnership between local colleges, including Bousquet’s U. of Louisville, and major corporations have created a virtual contingent labor nightmare.

Described in bloodcurdling detail in chapter 4 (available on Bousquet’s website), we discover how an outfit called Metropolitan College functions more or less like day labor hiring halls such as Office Temp or Handy-Andy. In exchange for tuition in a kind of earn-and-learn fashion, local students get to work in a UPS warehouse. Metropolitan College is a college in name only as their website admits: “Despite its name, Metropolitan College is not a college. It was established as a Louisville, Kentucky based partnership among Jefferson Community and Technical College, the University of Louisville and charter business partner UPS. This nationally recognized partnership provides eligible Kentucky residents access to a tuition-free post-secondary education and outstanding employment opportunities.”

I bused tables briefly as an undergraduate, but my experience was nothing like this:

Rather than relieving economic pressure, Metropolitan College appears to have increased the economic distress of the majority of participants. According to the company’s own fact sheet, those student workers who give up five nights’ sleep are typically paid for just fifteen to twenty hours a week. Since the wage ranges from just $8.50 at the start to no more than $9.50 for the majority of the most experienced, this can mean net pay below $100 in a week, and averaging out to a little over $120. The rate of pay bears emphasizing: because the students must report five nights a week and are commonly let go after just three hours each night, their take-home pay for sleep deprivation and physically hazardous toil will commonly be less than $25 per shift.

The contingent laborers at UPS do not get the wages and benefits of other workers covered by the Teamster’s contract. Despite a lot of hoopla about the UPS strike being conducted on behalf of all workers, the same pattern held as it did elsewhere in the traditional AFL-CIO bastions of heavy industry-a two-tiered system with older, privileged workers doing well at the expense of the younger ones. This is not the fault of the rank-and-filer workers, but the treacherous leadership so anxious to cut deals with the boss.

Although UPS and Metropolitan College have refused to release statistics, Bousquet is convinced that most students cannot keep up with the killing pace at UPS and quit their jobs before graduating, thus leaving them without the tuition benefit agreed upon initially. UPS gets low-cost labor as a consequence without having to pay the benefit, a perfect arrangement for a labor-hating company and the Toyotist college administrators.

The professors, who are barely a leg up from their students economically, have to go out to the UPS warehouse to meet with their students. One of them is Susan Erdmann, an assistant professor at Jefferson Community College. She and her husband belie the image of pampered academics:

With their combined income of around $60,000 and substantial education debt, they have a thirty-year mortgage on a tiny home of about 1,000 square feet: galley kitchen, dining alcove, one bedroom for them and another for their two sons to share. The front door opens onto a “living room” of a hundred square feet; entering or leaving the house means passing in between the couch and television.

No matter how modest their living standard, they would be the envy of the adjunct professors below them on the food chain. Described as a “lumpen professorate” by Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, they now teach up to 75 percent of all college-level courses. Bousquet insists that this is the goal of the graduate education industry, to turn out contingent labor. Despite expectations that a PhD will lead to a tenure-track job, the real purpose is to supply labor that will hopefully exhaust itself after 10 years and disappear-to be replaced by fresh blood from graduate school. In this respect, the adjunct professors are not that different than the student-workers being super-exploited by UPS and their cohorts on Louisville campuses. Bousquet describes it this way:

The academic labor system produces degree holders largely in the sense that a car’s engine produces heat-a tiny fraction of which is recycled into the car’s interior by the cabin heater, but the vast majority of which figures as waste energy that the system urgently requires to be radiated away. The system of academic labor creates degree holders only out of a tiny fraction of the employees it takes in by way of graduate education: leaving aside the use of M.A. students as instructional staff, doctoral programs in the humanities typically award the Ph.D. to between 20 and 40 percent of their entrants. And the system employs only perhaps a third of the degree holders it makes. Like a car’s engine idling in the takeout food line, the system’s greatest urgency is to dispel most of the degree-holding waste product.

While “How the University Works” is focused on the exploitative practices taking place on the college campus, Bousquet is by no means set on accepting this status quo. He is a tireless spokesman for the adjunct professors, graduate teaching assistants and students victimized by an ever-increasingly coporatized system. His website is at tremendous asset for everybody interested in these problems, including those of you who are currently working on a PhD or are planning to do so. I especially recommend his youtube video interviews with people involved in the struggle who through their willingness to stick with their profession are real testaments to the values of the university rather than the sharks who run it.

Joe Berry’s “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower” has a first chapter that overlaps with the material found in Bousquet and Donoghue’s much longer books and as such is a good introduction to the problem of contingent labor.

However, the main purpose is to offer practical organizing tips to non-tenured professors trying to build a union or enlist community support. Although I strongly urge everybody to purchase the Monthly Review book, I do want to point out that it seems to be based on Joe Berry’s dissertation “Contingent Faculty in Higher Education: An Organizing Strategy and Chicago Area Proposal” that can be read at the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor.

This description of a “physical center” will give you a flavor for Berry’s “roll up the sleeves” approach:

Yet another aspect for the center would be as a social center, using “social” in the broadest possible term, meaning a physically safe place where contingent faculty can come together and talk without fear. Very little of the literature on contingent faculty seems to fully acknowledge this aspect of their lives and needs, with the exception of the memoir horror story genre written by contingent faculty themselves. This would be a place where refreshments would routinely be kept and an open door to socializing would be maintained along with a facility for more organized and formal social events.

Another use of this center would be as a physical location for the information and resources accumulated by the research function mentioned above. This would then dovetail into another function of the center which would be as a site for labor education. It is one thing to go to on campus professional development workshops based on subject matter areas, the requirements of curriculum or the particular administrative needs of a particular institution… Included could be not just unionizing information, but also information about activity in and by professional and disciplinary organizations. Likewise, information here could serve to connect contingent faculty to the broader labor movement through literature and the use of local labor education programs, contributing to broader solidarity and consciousness.

Finally, this site would be a physical location that would be a node of solidarity, for meetings and as a meeting place for planning actions by the organization but also as a physical location that others in the community, in the labor movement, on campuses and the press would come to know as the place where the new majority college teachers, as a whole metropolitan group, could be contacted for information, for assistance, or for any other purpose.

When I read this, I was reminded of another such physical center from about 70 years ago. Sol Dollinger’s “Not Automatic,” a chronicle of the Flint sit-down strikes in which his wife Genora Dollinger played a leading role through the woman’s auxiliary, describes an organizing center in downtown Flint that had exactly the same combination of socializing and solidarity. Given the attempts by the ruling class to turn back the clock to the 1930s, it is not surprising that the labor movement will begin to hearken back to its own best traditions.


A collection of reviews of “How the University Works” on Marc Bousquet’s website has just appeared.

August 4, 2008

The DSP versus the archfiends

Filed under: Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Where was James Bond when we needed him?

While some elements of the left such as Counterpunch, Monthly Review and ZNet have not succumbed to the enormous pressures of the bourgeois press and well-funded NGO’s and think-tanks to demonize the Serbs, others have. Workers Liberty in Great Britain, a state capitalist sect and one such group, has politics that can be described as rightist social democratic across the board with an affinity for the Shachtmanite journal New Politics in the U.S.A. New Politics is co-edited by Joanne Landy who is perpetually circulating petitions calling attention to the alleged crimes of the Cubans, Iranians or the Serbs. Alan Johnson, a former leader of Workers Liberty, was on the editorial board of New Politics but eventually broke with the left entirely. Nowadays he writes for Democratiya, an online publication of the Eustonite “left”.

In what can only be described as a kind of cognitive dissonance, the Democratic Socialist Perspective group in Australia argues from the same angle as Workers Liberty even though its politics are much more akin to Counterpunch et al on just about every other question. This has led to some rather schizoid outbursts. Michael Karadjis, their rather febrile “expert” on Yugoslavia, has denounced the Counterpunchers of the world for genocide denial even though John Pilger-one of their most cited leftist personalities-signed an open letter defending Diana Johnstone from exactly the charges that Karadjis levels against her.

I have no idea what most DSP’ers think about Yugoslavia since Karadjis is their designated batter on the topic. My guess is that early on during the conflict in the Balkans, after they formed close ties with a left-nationalist Croatian group in Australia, they developed a line on Yugoslavia which bought into Serbophobia. Things being what they are in “Marxist-Leninism”, they essentially painted themselves into a corner. It is impossible for them to renounce this shitty analysis in the same way that it was impossible for the American SWP to admit that the “turn” was not working. Fortunately for the DSP, the impact of having a stupid position on Yugoslavia is not as grievous.

In the latest issue of Links, Karadjis holds forth on the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Serb warlord who is held to be qualitatively worse than all the other warlords in Yugoslavia, including the Muslim Naser Oric whose anti-Serb pogroms near Srebrenica unleashed Karadzic’s bloodlust revenge. Oric was just freed of all charges by the ICTY in The Hague in keeping with its tendency to judge Serb killers as more unequal than other killers.

While acknowledging the hypocrisy of the imperialist powers that have done nothing about war crimes in Iraq, Palestine or Afghanistan, Karadjis advises that it would be a mistake to come to Karadzic’s “defence”. It is a bit difficult to understand what he means by defending Karadzic. Does it mean calling attention to the clearly illegal basis of the ICTY, including the use of naked bribery (opening up the door to European Union membership specifically)? This matter appears to be of zero interest to our intrepid radical journalist.

Karadjis buys in completely to the Susan Sontag/Christopher Hitchens/Paul Berman version of the Bosnian war in which a multicultural socialist country is despoiled by the Chetnik Karadzic who was the proverbial turd in the punch bowl:

From the outset, Karadzic planned to destroy Bosnia, so rudely based on coexistence between peoples rather than ethnic purity, root and branch and had agreement from his Bosnian Croat chauvinist counterparts.

What was needed, of course, to deal with such naked evil was somebody like James Bond who could have penetrated deep into the stronghold of the archfiend and dispatched him straight to hell with a Walther P99.

In this version of history, the Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic is as pure as the driven snow. In 1970, Izetbegovic wrote an Islamic Declaration that stated: “Pakistan constitutes the rehearsal for introduction of Islamic order in contemporary conditions and at the present level of development.” Now maybe I am missing something, but I had always considered Pakistan to be a reactionary, pro-imperialist bastion but perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Taking inspiration from the breakaway republics of Croatia and Slovenia, Izetbegovic pushed for a secessionist referendum in 1992 that the Serbs boycotted. With the Croatian ethnic cleansing of Serbs having already begun, one can understand why the Serbs would be on edge, especially since the Croats in Bosnia backed secession.

All of the three nationalities in Bosnia were involved with ethnic cleansing. The Counterpunch left has never tried to prettify Karadzic. Why the DSP would want to lie about Izetbegovic and destroy their credibility on the left is something of a mystery, although I understand how difficult it is for such propaganda groups to admit that they are wrong.

Trying desperately to maintain the DSP’s sorely tested anti-imperialist credibility, Karadjis insists that the West backed Karadzic:

But imperialism helped destroy Bosnia, because its heartland cities and industrial centres represented a multi-ethnic working class containing the last embers of socialist Yugoslavia.

Even before the war began, European powers put together plans drawn up by the Serb and Croat chauvinists for the ethnic partition of Bosnia into three states, despite the intermingling of populations – directly encouraging ethnic cleansing.

The one thing that Karadjis is unable to explain is this. If the West was so hostile to the socialist and multicultural government of Bosnia, why did the bourgeois media not reflect this? Anybody who read the Washington Post, N.Y. Times, Guardian et al during the 1990s would be hard-pressed to find evidence of support for the Serb militias, even in a backhanded way. Maybe DSP members do not read the bourgeois press, but others of us do. Here’s a reminder:

By taking United Nations peacekeepers hostage and using them as human shields, Dr. Radovan Karadzic and the other Bosnian Serb leaders have defined themselves as outside law and civilization. But then that should not have been a surprise to anyone who knew their works.

Dr. Karadzic and his colleagues, after all, presided over the first attempted genocide in Europe since Hitler: the systematic murder, torture and rape that constituted ethnic cleansing. Their idea of reprisal showed up recently when Bosnian Serbs responded to Serbian defeat in neighboring Croatia by blowing up Catholic churches in the town of Banja Luka, killing a priest and a nun.

–Anthony Lewis, N.Y. Times, May 29, 1995

All in all, the bizarre affinity between the DSP and the forces of Serbophobia beating within the heart of Western imperialism, its media and kangaroo courts should not be held against the comrades. As I have tried to point out, they have painted themselves into a corner. Given a choice between admitting that you are wrong and lining up with the Paul Berman’s and Michael Ignatieff’s of the world, it is apparent that the latter choice is a lesser evil for them. Some day, if the left can break its grip on the “democratic centralist” nonsense that forces small propaganda groups or mass parties to defend indefensible positions, we will all be better off. The sooner, the better.

August 3, 2008

Mick Armstrong’s little things

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 10:24 pm

Thanks to a review by Ben Courtice in Links, the online journal of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia–a post-Trotskyist group with a number of subscribers on Marxmail–I got wind of a rather peculiar book on socialist strategy by Mick Armstrong, a leader of Socialist Alternative which is in a neck-and-neck race with DSP to see who can get to the finish line first building a vanguard party in Australia.

The DSP is moving almost glacially away from “Leninist” orthodoxy, while the Socialist Alternative is distinguished by an “old school” Marxism-Leninism that is at odds with the general tendency of the left internationally to rethink “democratic centralism” and all the old shibboleths. Mick Armstrong’s party-building ideas are contained in “From Little Things Big Things Grow: Strategies for building revolutionary socialist organizations“. Get it, tiny propaganda acorns turn into mighty vanguard oaks? This is certainly a fresh analogy in comparison to the nucleus analogy so often used.

I have no idea whether Armstrong ever spent time in the academy, but he has the same susceptibility for schematic categories that you see in social science departments everywhere. He distinguishes between 3 types of socialist groups after the fashion of a political scientist describing types of governments or some such thing:

In the Marxist tradition there are three main types of organisation: discussion circles, propaganda groups and parties. These categories are not arbitrary, but are used to describe qualitatively different types of organisation. Discussion circles are tiny groups attempting to establish a Marxist tradition. Their main orientation is theoretical clarification. Political activity such as selling a magazine or intervening in strikes is a low priority… Propaganda groups are involved in a broader range of activity, but because they are small and lack influence in the working class, they recruit on the basis of ideas. Socialists make a distinction between two kinds of propaganda: general (sometimes called abstract) and concrete.

Looming over the discussion circle and the propaganda group is the mass party, which is the final destination of any self-avowed revolutionary organization just as the World Cup is in soccer or being selected American Idol. To get to that goal, you have to play your cards right:

By recruiting people to a propaganda group today, Socialist Alternative is laying the basis for a mass revolutionary party that can lead future workers’ struggles. But recruitment by itself is useless if the people recruited aren’t educated in Marxism, if they aren’t trained in revolutionary activity, and if they aren’t politically integrated into the organisation. What’s more, to build from a small revolutionary group into a mass party is no simple linear process, whereby the group grows by 20 per cent each year until it has tens of thousands of members.

The key to success is building “cadre”, a term that Bruce Landau (now known as the Civil War historian and tenured professor Bruce Levine) once told a gathering of the SWP in the 1970s comes out of the military. A cadre is like an officer who can lead the masses when the time is ripe. SWP leader Tom Kerry used to pronounce this word as “codder” which only enhanced its in-group mystique for a rank-and-filer like me. Here’s Armstrong describing the cadre-building process:

This cadre, this “solid core”, is just as important in times of retreat, when workers suffer setbacks. In order to hold a revolutionary organisation together in times of defeat theory is even more paramount. When the going is tough a much higher level of theoretical agreement is necessary to hold a propaganda group together because a small group without roots in the working class is inherently more unstable than a mass party. You can’t survive on the basis of a few slogans, you need a more sophisticated analysis. The cadre has to be steeled.

I just love the way that Armstrong uses the term “steeled”. It is just so evocative, like one of those New Yorker cartoons of a bunch of Bolsheviks or anarchists gathered around a candle in the sewers. Only those who are truly “steeled” have the ability to lead the masses to socialism unlike the flaccid, unsteeled elements who will turn into Karl Kautsky the first chance they get.

As it turns out, Marx and Engels were steely elements just like Mick Armstrong. Never for a minute did they lose track of the goal to move from a propaganda group to the next step up on the ladder–a mass party.

There followed a prolonged lull in the class struggle from 1851-1864. The Communist League was wound up following a split, and Marx and Engels concentrated on research. This is the period that is used as evidence of Marx’s abandonment of active party politics. But it is not true. The prime focus of Marx’s “swotting”, as he termed it, was to strengthen the Communist forces – “the Marx party”. Throughout this period Marx and Engels maintained a nucleus of experienced comrades so they would be able to take advantage of any revival of the movement. This is why “the Marx party” was able to quickly win the leadership of the next phase of struggle. They had clarified a program around which they cohered a group of supporters.

Poor Karl Marx. If he knew that people were writing about “the Marx party” in 2008, he would begin spinning in his grave at such a rapid rate that a generator attached to his toe would supply all the electricity needs of New York City for a decade.

The final chapter of Armstrong’s book is the most interesting since it engages with some of the more recent efforts to break from the sectarian party-building model that he is so desperate to retain. Right off the bat he writes:

The argument that small groups of socialists need to start by first building a socialist propaganda group if they are to have any hope of laying secure foundations for a mass revolutionary party is by no means widely accepted by socialists today. Socialist Alternative’s approach is condemned as narrow, rigid and sectarian or is dismissed as at best utopian.

I personally don’t have any objection to building socialist propaganda groups. When you think of all the ways that a young person can waste their lives (selling real estate, working for Goldman-Sachs, etc.), who can denigrate somebody selling a socialist newspaper on a college campus or in front of a grocery store? After all, this is one of the only ways that the average person can read an explanation of how capitalism operates. I personally first came across socialist ideas in 1959 when I read the letters of a Socialist Labor Party member in a local newspaper. Such propagandists are good citizens even though the chances that their party will ever lead a revolution are less than zero.

Taking aim at Murray Smith, the Mandelista theoretician who has been making many of the same points about “democratic centralism” as me over the past 10 years or so, Armstrong warns that mushy, broad left initiatives like the Scottish Socialist Party will cause millions to die in a new world war:

The idea of building “broad” socialist parties which combine revolutionaries and reformists is simply a reversion to the approach of the Second Socialist International. It ended in disaster. Under the test of war the reformists abandoned any commitment to the defence of the most basic democratic rights and sent workers off to die in their millions in the trenches of World War I. When the revolutionaries objected, their reformist “comrades” combined with the extreme right to arrest or murder them.

Let me say now publicly that I will do everything in my power to prevent groups like the Socialist Alliance in Australia from doing to Mick Armstrong what Friedrich Ebert did to Rosa Luxemburg, not that the DSP’ers are that much of a threat to begin with. They strike me as a generally affable crew, with the exception of Michael Karadjis who has been known to throw rocks at baby ducks in the park on occasion.

Armstrong next takes aim at Hal Draper’s “Toward a new beginning – on another road the alternative to the micro-sect“, an essay that I have lauded on numerous occasions. I should add that Armstrong is not the only radical vexed by Draper’s essay. Workers Liberty, the crypto-Eustonian sect in Great Britain, has also taken up the cudgel.

Along with Bert Cochran, another veteran of the Trotskyist movement, Draper figured out that the “vanguardist” approach was unviable. Since Armstrong does not cite Draper, I will do it for him.

What characterizes the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves. The approach pointed by Marx was different: without giving up or concealing one’s own programmatic politics in the slightest degree, the real Marxist looks to the lines of struggle calculated to move decisive sectors of the class into action – into movement against the established powers of the system (state and bourgeoisie and their agents, including their labor lieutenants inside the workers’ movement). And for Marx, it is this reality of social (class) collision which will work to elevate the class’s consciousness to the level of the socialist movement’s program.

Now who in the right mind would argue against such sage advice?

In answering Draper (or really evading Draper, to be more exact), Armstrong goes through all sorts of gyrations to prove that Lenin started off with a propaganda group and had the goal of transforming it into a steely mass revolutionary party unlike the flaccid, broad parties that any true revolutionary would spit on. Ptooey!

Unfortunately for Armstrong, all of the most reputable scholars on Lenin, from Lars Lih to Neil Harding (as well as disreputable types like me), demonstrate that Lenin’s goal was to build a party in Russia modeled on Kautsky’s Social Democracy. If you don’t believe me, just read what Lenin wrote in “What is to be done?”:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

At any rate, I don’t want to discourage Mick Armstrong and the Socialist Alternative comrades from pursuing the path that they are on. As I have already stated, it is a much better way to live your life than as a disgusting yuppie. Most of the people joining his group are apparently from college campuses in Australia. God bless them, I say. And put another shrimp on the barbie.

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