Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2008

The Fight in the SWP, part one (Neil Davidson)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

A public faction fight has broken out in the British SWP over the crisis that arose in the Respect Party led by George Galloway. (The SWP in Great Britain is to be distinguished from the bizarre sect-cult in the U.S. also called the SWP. Now that I have made this distinction, I will drop the reference to “British” henceforth.) Galloway and his supporters, including some SWP members who subsequently resigned, split with the SWP over what was seen as typical “democratic centralist” heavy-handedness.

This is the second instance of a public faction fight arising out of such problems. This year the Australian DSP split when gains from participation in the Socialist Alliance did not materialize, at least in the view of some long-time members, including John Percy, a founder of the group. Eventually Percy and his co-thinkers were expelled from the DSP and went on to form a new organization. As so often happens in such groups, irreconcilable differences lead to a split.

While the Socialist Alliance was more explicitly socialist than Respect, both parties were bold experiments to reach out to broader political forces. For groups like the Spartacist League, such problems never present themselves since they are so well insulated from “petty bourgeois” formations like Respect or the Socialist Alliance. They refuse to be tainted by the ordinary mass of humanity that has not mastered their cult leader’s profound understanding of the “Russian questions”.

Ironically, the problems of the DSP and the  SWP stem from the fact that they are so wedded to “old school” Leninist principles that making a clean break with their past is impossible even as they acknowledge that something different is needed. The very fact that they chose to work in the Socialist Alliance and Respect is proof of their willingness to think and act outside the box.

All of the relevant SWP documents appear on the Socialist Unity blog, a forum that is closer to my own ideas on how to build the revolutionary movement, except for what seems to be a certain susceptibility to Obama’s rather dubious charms. My guess is that the British comrades are putting too much confidence in the analysis of the CPUSA, an error in judgment to say the least. But as Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon in the final scene of “Some Like it Hot”: “nobody’s perfect.”

Although the first SWP article to appear on the Socialist Unity blog was written for public consumption by John Rees, I am going to take up Neil Davidson’s internal contribution to the debate since much of Rees’s article was in response to Davidson. Parenthetically, I should mention that both these men are smart as a whip. Rees’s “In Defence of October: A Debate on the Russian Revolution” has a nifty critique of Samuel Farber’s anti-Bolshevik scholarship. Sadly, however, Rees and the rest of the SWP fail to apply the same critique to Farber’s Cuba-bashing inspired by the same idealist methodology. Davidson’s scholarship on the origins of capitalism is also first-rate and I urge anybody interested in the question to check out his debate with Robert Brenner here.

Davidson, demonstrating that his tastes in film are as refined as his understanding of economic history, starts out with an analogy to Frank Capra’s “inspirational” movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” that an old girl friend insisted on watching once too often around this time of year. This and the fact that she was screwing an actor behind my back led to our break-up (thankfully) 27 years ago. Davidson writes:

In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) a trainee guardian angel gives suicidal small Savings and Loans owner George Bailey the opportunity to see what life would have been like in the town of Bedford Falls if he had never existed…

What would British society be like if the SWP had never existed? What would we see if the guardian angel of revolutionary parties could show us a United Kingdom where the ship bearing Ygael Gluckstein to these shores in 1946 had sunk with all on board? Would it be any different?

Of course, anybody who has been in one of the self-declared vanguard organizations has heard something like this before. Perhaps their founders heard it first from Leon Trotsky and it has been passed down from generation to generation. I got a version from Les Evans, an SWP leader who was just one among hundreds given the boot by Jack Barnes, when I was a raw recruit back in the 1960s on the occasion of a national committee plenum in New York City. During a break, Les told me that if the building caught fire and resulted in the death of the brilliant people inside (me excluded), humanity would be set back for decades.

After paying respect to the brilliance of his party’s leaders, Davidson identifies a problem that falls under the rubric of the glass ceiling:

The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”. According to Hallas, the party at that time consisted of between 3,000 and 4,000 members.

I have noticed the same phenomenon myself. Back in 2005, I tried rather unsuccessfully to explain to a DSP member on Marxmail why the “vanguard” methodology has built-in limitations:

You have to admit that a cadre formation organized on “Marxist-Leninist” principles can get a lot more done during a limited time-frame than something like Solidarity, for example. We used to call ourselves “The Big Red Machine” in the SWP when we were involved in the antiwar movement. The only problem is that such formations tend to have a limited shelf-life. Sometimes they implode like the American SWP or the British Healyites. In other cases, they just persist less dramatically on the left as a fairly stable tendency that never seems to break the glass ceiling in terms of influence or numbers. I put the British SWP in this category.

Not surprisingly, the DSP’er scoffed at my advice since they viewed themselves essentially as split-proof. When a split did take place two years later, they remained averse to thinking outside the box. Unfortunately for small, self-declared vanguard formations, Leninist orthodoxy is a kind of security blanket like the kind that 3 year olds clutch to. And did you ever try to convince a 3 year old to give up the blanket voluntarily?

After raising some possible explanations for the SWP’s failure to penetrate past the glass ceiling (unfavorable objective conditions, etc.), Davidson puts the blame squarely on the Respect experiment:

Respect was qualitatively different in that it drew on a membership outwith [sic] the existing organisations. We were also right, when the crisis of Respect broke, to take the action we did-including, in my opinion, the expulsions-to save what we could of the situation. The problem lies in what happened in between these two points. Respect’s failure was not simply down to a collision between George Galloway’s rampant egoism and his growing pessimism about working class resistance, but to a lack of clarity about what the organisation was for and how it related to our central revolutionary goals. These problems were highlighted by the misguided attempt to brand Respect as a “united front of a special type”, a category which was first applied to the SA by John Rees in 2001 and is still applied to Respect by Alex Callinicos in the most recent issue of International Socialism.

I have already discussed Callinicos’s odd ideas about Respect as a kind of united front here. While Davidson makes a number of useful points, I am afraid that he is still wedded to a kind of instrumentalist thinking in which a group like the SWP approaches all other formations as a means to an end, namely their own advancement. Until “Leninists” drop this small proprietor approach to politics, they will remain marginal.

In the next section of Davidson’s article, there is an attempt to get to the bottom of things where he addresses “One, two, three, many Leninisms”. He writes:

The SWP, to paraphrase the Labour Manifesto of 1945, is a Leninist Party and proud of it: but what kind of Leninist party? We are told that the SWP follows the Bolshevik party model as transmitted to the parties of the Communist International after 1920. In fact, there was no single model.

While might quibble with one or another of Davidson’s formulations, he does lean in the direction of a more “open” concept of democratic centralism:

In accordance with the Bolshevik principle of democratic centralism, the supreme body of the Party was its Congress, which met at least once a year. The delegates to it were elected on the basis of pre-Congress discussions. In these discussions, different tendencies could confront each other and present their programmes and candidates at the same time. They had very wide freedom to express their differences, including at meetings of local groups in which they had no supporters.

Unlike this rather free-wheeling practice, Davidson basically regards the SWP Central Committee as the exclusive decision-making body of the party whose decisions the membership is expected to carry out dutifully. In other words, the same kind of functioning that exists in virtually all “democratic centralist” formations today. Indeed, I was struck by how he described the rather insular character of the SWP’s leading body in terms that would be very familiar to American SWP members:

The comrades who undertake this task are hardly the basis of a privileged bureaucratic layer and they deserve our respect, but one has to ask whether they are the only members who are capable of performing this role-or indeed whether they do indeed perform it. The CC gives all the appearance of a two-tier body with one (superior) part consisting of the theoreticians and policy-makers, the other (inferior) part consisting of functionaries. This in itself constitutes a problem, since the former will effectively dominate the latter, thus narrowing the range of participants in decision-making still further.

The final section of Davidson’s article is titled “What Next” and has an interesting reference to the tendency of “internal discussions” to go public in the age of the Internet:

We need to extend our period of internal discussion beyond conference in order to allow for greater debate over both strategy and internal organisation, particularly since the CC has not yet recognised that we have problems in either area. (A conference motion containing a proposal along these lines follows this contribution.) One response to this proposal may be concern that our internal discussions may find their way into the websites and publications of the sectarian left, once rightly described by George Lichtheim as “tiny ferocious creatures devouring each other in a drop of water”. China Mieville and Richard Seymour have already dealt with this point in their timely call for a “culture of discussion” in IB2.

This is where I have to part company with Neil Davidson, despite his obvious desire to understand what Lenin was truly about as against the sectarian concepts that prevail today. In fact there were no such things as “internal discussions” in Lenin’s party. Debates were carried out in Iskra, not in internal party bulletins that had to be kept secret from the ideologically unclean or the “tiny ferocious creatures” referred to by Lichtheim. Admittedly, I am a bit sensitive on this matter being 5’6″ and most definitely ferocious.

Perhaps nobody has done more to set the record straight on the public character of Bolshevik debates than Marxmail subscriber Joaquin Bustelo. In an exchange that arose during the course of a discussion about the DSP’s public debate over the Socialist Alliance affair, he pointed out that they were simply reverting to the norm that existed in Lenin’s party. I will conclude with his words that I am in total agreement with:

If the DSP has positions or approaches that really are something that must not be said in front of others within the SA, or the left generally, I would urge comrades a) Never to put such a thing in an “internal” bulletin because those bulletins always get out and b) ask themselves very carefully whether there isn’t really a bigger political problem or issue revolving around the relationship between the DSP and the rest of the SA or the rest of the left that leads the DSP to treat them as fundamentally hostile forces.

I think inevitably there are some things that any grouping will keep private. Either because they could easily be misconstrued; because it violates the privacy rights and needs of militants in specific situations, opening them up to red-baiting and victimizations; because it is an action or initiative that by its nature requires that it become public only at the right time; or simply because it isn’t anyone else’s business.

Thus for example, Lenin’s big complaint against Zinoviev and Kamenev in October of 1917 is that they had “outed” a Central Committee decision that was private, unpublished, namely, the decision to set out on an insurrectionary path. Moreover by the very nature of the decision it wasn’t something that could be discussed publicly. So the Bolsheviks certainly understood the need to keep some things private, like a plan for a concerted action against the class enemy, which makes even more striking that they chose to have all their general political discussions, including their organizational fisticuffs inside the RSDLP and then later the RCP(B), in public.

The default mode of Bolshevik discussion was public, even though Lenin understood that some things should be private, at least for a time. But it is striking that in motivating his proposal to expel “Mr. Zinoviev” and “Mr. Kamenev,” Lenin did not appeal to a special discipline or need for privacy in a revolutionary party, on the contrary, he rested his entire case on an analogy with a union calling a surprise strike against the bosses and what would be done to a member of the union executive board that then went public criticizing this decision before the action. It wasn’t a specific, “Leninist Party” discipline that Lenin insisted was applicable, but rather the generic discipline of ANY working class or progressive organization preparing an initiative against the class enemy that involves the element of surprise.

It is also striking that so strong was the Bolshevik tradition of discussing party policy before God and everybody that Lenin could not get an echo for his proposal to expel the two “ex comrades” inside the Bolshevik leadership, and was forced to drop it and resume comradely collaboration with Zinoviev and Kamenev.

But the kinds of discussions that tend to happen in the “internal” bulletins of left groups are neither of those specific kinds, or things that properly viewed are simply the business of the group an nobody else, like an internal financial report, restructuring branches or the apparatus, etc. They are on general political, theoretical, programmatic questions, on an evaluation of the overall political situation, on relations with others on the left, things which in no sense are exclusively “internal” to the group.

Now, the suggestion is made that openness and transparency in such discussions is the enemy of democracy, that for there to be a free and open discussion on something like the character of the period this must be kept hidden, so comrades don’t feel “inhibited.” I can’t for the life of me understand this. If you’re willing to take the risk of appearing foolish or mistaken in front of all your closest comrades and collaborators, why should you feel inhibited because the ISO, or the Morenistas, or the CPGB will see it too?

It does, I admit, make more difficult this idea that all members of the group have to present the same position on, say, what happened in Spain in the 1930’s as if they agreed with it, even when they don’t. But I think that is a tremendously bad tradition. One effect of it is that you can never fully 100% take the individual probity of someone in such a group for granted. You have to assume you are always dealing with a representative of the collective, never an individual.

My group, Solidarity, has a different norm that is much better, I think. We ask members of the group to tell people what the group’s position is when that comes up. So if a Soli comrade had been asked in the October of 2004 what we were saying about the elections, I would have expected every last one to say that Solidarity was calling for a vote for Nader and Camejo. But I would not have expected comrades who didn’t agree with this to keep their disagreement some deep dark “internal” secret, especially since we had part of the debate about what to do openly in the pages of ATC, and in the framework of a broader collection of articles on the left and the elections. And, yes, we would have expected members who didn’t agree with the majority decision to abstain from campaigning for a different position, but not at all to take the lead as individuals in promoting the Nader campaign.

Another angle on the “internal democracy” argument is that by taking it public, OTHER groups will “intervene” in the discussion and that is undemocratic. First, if I am right that the Percy quotes were pulled from a members-only bulletin, the reality is that this happens anyways, as this case shows. Second, if it happens, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing from the point of view of a group that’s subject to such “interventions.” It tends to project you as an important group, one whose discussions and decisions merit the attention of the entire left — even halfway around the world! And, of course, we should remember what Ben Franklin said, which is that our critics are our friends, for they point out the weaknesses in our positions. We may well learn something from the “outside” interventions, even if only how to formulate arguments in a better way. And finally, it will help groups understand each other better, why they have the positions they do, what the internal political situation is in a group that a leadership has to deal with that constrains or shapes its actions or positions. But it will also show both that the discussions you have in your own group aren’t all that different from everyone else’s, and that there are additional arguments, positions or nuances on a subject that no one in your group may be raising.

In the end, what I hope is that it will lead towards discussions becoming more of a single common conversation among revolutionary socialists of a variety of different groups and no group, laying the basis for further progress in unifying those forces.

December 16, 2008


Filed under: Film,Ireland — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

He deserved better than “Hunger”

If you expect “Hunger”, Steve McQueen’s new movie about Bobby Sands and the hunger strike at Long Kesh prison in 1981, to be anything like Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, you will be bitterly disappointed. I had to restrain myself from bolting from my seat several times at last night’s press screening and only stuck around to the conclusion in order to gather sufficient material to put a nail in the coffin of this dreadful movie.

The most obvious antecedents to McQueen’s movie are Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Alan Clarke’s plague-on-both-your-houses “Elephant”. Like Gibson, McQueen has a sadomasochistic streak. The last 15 minutes or so of “Hunger” is devoted to a clinical study of the consequences of Bobby Sands’s hunger strike, with close-ups of bed sores and bloody bowel movements. Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands, lost 33 pounds in order to lend credibility to his character, inverting Robert De Niro’s bloating up for the roles of Jake LaMotta and Al Capone.

If McQueen was truly interested in conveying reality, he would have had his screenwriter put the right words in his main character’s mouth rather than having him lose weight. In the entire movie there is only one scene in which the characters actually discuss politics. That consists of Bobby Sands in a dialog with a Catholic priest who warns him that a hunger strike would be devastating to the families of the strikers. Suffice it to say that Sands defends the tactic as only a “hardened revolutionary” would.

For McQueen, the stubbornness of the IRA prisoners is detached from their politics and mainly serves as a device to move the plot forward in a series of scenes that pits the British cops against the prisoners in a test of will. He is not interested in conveying the thinking of the embattled prisoners but in dramatizing their largely futile resistance. In one scene, the naked prisoners run through a gauntlet of cops who beat them bloody. For me at least, these ever-increasingly violent set pieces have about as much interest as the average sadistic horror movie like “Saw” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

Although McQueen does not go as far as Alan Clarke in making the IRA guerrillas as demonic as their enemies, he does make sure to dramatize the toll that the struggle was taking on the cops. In the gauntlet scene, one cop is standing off to the side sobbing. This was of course calculated to demonstrate the film’s evenhandedness. Whether or not it corresponded to the reality of Long Kesh is another story entirely. My guess is that any cop working there had to be fairly sadistic to begin with.

There are signs that McQueen was influenced by Clarke’s film-making techniques as well. In one scene that lasts a good five minutes, we see a cop mopping up urine from the floor of a hallway between the prisoner’s cells. In Clarke’s “Elephant”, tension is also sustained by having long static shots leading up to the inevitable firing of a gun. In McQueen’s movie, such a scene functions more in my opinion as the “er” or the “um” in conversation.

In keeping with the prevailing ethos of the bourgeois-minded artist, McQueen pointedly regards himself as avoiding “simplistic” notions of ‘hero’, ‘martyr’ or ‘victim’, according to the press notes. McQueen, an artist before he started making films, was embedded with the British military in Basra in 2003 on assignment from the Imperial War Museum. He came up with the idea of turning the images of dead British soldiers into postage stamp-like paintings that were shown in an exhibition titled “Queen and Country” that he hopes to turn into real postage stamps some day. In an interview McQueen insisted that the stamps were neither pro-war nor anti-war. He said, “To be on stamps you have to be either royal or dead. These boys are dead in the service of queen and country”. Of course, no artist living in the hip 21st century would ever want to be confused with Picasso’s “Guernica” or other such preachy works.

Despite his aversion to propaganda, there is evidence that McQueen made “Hunger” partly as a statement on current events. In the press notes, he states:

When Jan Younghusband at Channel 4 approached me at the beginning of 2003 there was no Iraq War, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib prison but as time’s gone by the parallels have become apparent. History repeats itself, lots of people have short memories, and we need to remember that these kinds of things have happened in Britain.

Now this might be an admirable ambition, but not at the expense of the Irish liberation struggle. In order to understand the motivation of the hunger strikers, you have to understand Irish politics something that is of little interest to the production company.

December 15, 2008

Why Third Way politics refuses to die

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 4:38 pm

(Swans – December 15, 2008) In 1997 Tony Blair became Prime Minister of Great Britain ending eighteen years of Tory rule. For left-leaning Britons, the 1979-1990 rule of Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major easily rivaled George W. Bush’s as an odious symbol of class injustice. When she was not embarking on foreign imperial adventures in the Malvinas, Thatcher was attacking the working class at home. Her most notable victory was in defeating the coal miner’s strike of 1984, an achievement that was as effective as Reagan’s assault on the airline controllers in preparing the way for a neoliberal economic regime.

When Blair was elected, the sense of relief evoked this “Wizard of Oz” ditty sung by the Munchkins:

Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!
Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.
Wake up – sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed.
Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead. She’s gone where the goblins go,
Below – below – below.
Yo-ho, let’s open up and sing and ring the bells out.
Ding Dong’ the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low.
Let them know The Wicked Witch is dead!

However, British voters did not get exactly what they voted for. As soon as the euphoria wore off, it became clear that Tony Blair was no friend of working people, as Thomas Friedman observed in an April 22, 2005, New York Times Op-Ed:

The other very real thing Mr. Blair has done is to get the Labor Party in Britain to firmly embrace the free market and globalization – sometimes kicking and screaming. He has reconfigured Labor politics around a set of policies designed to get the most out of globalization and privatization for British workers, while cushioning the harshest side effects, rather than trying to hold onto bankrupt Socialist ideas or wallowing in the knee-jerk antiglobalism of the reactionary left.

Blair demonstrated that he was no slouch when it came to sending British troops abroad, joining the U.S. in imperial aggressions against the Serbs and the Iraqis. Indeed, one would be hard put to really tell the difference between the Tories and New Labour other than the rhetoric.

Although the eight years of George W. Bush was a lot shorter in duration than Tory rule in Great Britain, it did manage to do as much violence to working people at home and abroad. Bush was notoriously lazy but he did have a kind of zeal for punishing those not fortunate enough to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

With the election of Barack Obama in November, the same pattern seems to be unfolding as it did with Tony Blair’s prime ministry. Both Blair and his American counterpart Bill Clinton sought to govern through the “Third Way,” a philosophy that permeates Obama’s “Audacity of Hope.” For those who have been surprised by Obama’s apparent determination to serve in the capacity of Bill Clinton’s third term, the evidence for such a proclivity was there all along for those with the patience to read through his gaseous prose. Obama wrote: “In his platform — if not always in his day-to-day politics — Clinton’s Third Way went beyond splitting the difference. It tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans.”

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/lproy51.html

December 13, 2008

Revolutionary Road

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

No other movie better captures the malaise of middle-class American suburban society in the 1950s than “Revolutionary Road” which is scheduled for release this month. Based on the 1962 novel by Richard Yates, it hurdles forward like a diesel locomotive from the very first scene. While there have not been many good movies coming out of Hollywood this year, “Revolutionary Road” is an instant classic. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are Frank and April Wheeler, the husband and wife locked in a cycle of abuse reminiscent of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Unlike Albee’s play, there is no final reconciliation in “Revolutionary Road”, just the ashes of a broken marriage.

While Yates was not identified with the beat generation, his characters stepped out of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits
on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse
& the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments
of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the
fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinis-
ter intelligent editors, or were run down by the
drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

“Revolutionary Road” refers ironically to the street in a Connecticut suburb where Frank Wheeler, his wife, and two children live. Each day he trudges off to his middle management job at a business machine company (computers are just about to hit the market) where he tries to get through the day fortified by lunchtime martinis and the occasional tryst with a secretary. At home, April is just as miserable living the life described by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique”. After listening to Frank’s complaint about his meaningless existence one time too many, April makes a daring proposal. They will sell the house and move to Paris, a city that he fell in love with as an American soldier during WWII. With all proportions guarded, this would be the equivalent for them of going on the road in Jack Kerouac fashion.

Unlike the beat generation or even his adventurous wife-a failed actress, Frank Wheeler is too committed to his comfortable middle-class existence to go off to Paris. Staying on Revolutionary Road might have been materially beneficial but at a terrible psychic cost as we see in the corrosive climax of this most powerful movie.

There is only one person in this bedroom community who seems to understand how sick everybody is, especially Frank and April who are stuck in their comfortable hell, and that is John Givings, the son of the real estate agent who sold them their house. The Wheelers, who have taken pity on John who has just been released from a mental hospital, allow the Givings to pay them social visits, painful exercises on a par with the final scenes of Albee’s play. John Givings has Frank Wheeler figured out completely and tells him in no uncertain terms that he is a coward for refusing to leave Revolutionary Road. He also accuses him of knocking up his wife so he’d have an excuse to stick with a job he hates. As Frank races toward John with raised fists, John’s mother (Kathy Bates) intercedes, saying “Don’t hit him. He is not well.” We understand that it is John who is well in the R.D. Laing sense and that everybody else is sick.

It is fairly obvious that John Givings is a vehicle for Richard Yates’s own strangled discontent with American society. As a young writer, he knew this scene from the inside having worked for Remington-Rand business products.

Despite his lack of connections to his contemporaries in the beat generation, let alone the practically non-existent radical movement of the 1950s, there is no question about Yates understanding what he was about. In a 1972 interview with Ploughshares, a literary magazine, Yates, who worked once as a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy, is asked whether the title of his novel suggested an attack on the System. He replied:

I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs – a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that – felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit – and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.

Of the three top mainstream movies I have seen this year, all three had British involvement to one degree or another. “Slumdog Millionaire” was directed by Danny Boyle, a Briton. “Frost-Nixon” had a screenplay written by Peter Morgan, also a Briton. And “Revolutionary Road” was directed by Sam Mendes, an English-Jewish film and stage director born in 1965. Mendes’s last movie was “American Beauty”, another indictment of suburban American society. What conclusions can one draw about this? I suppose it only demonstrates that Great Britain is not as badly steeped in the culture of television as the United States, where so many young directors and screenwriters seem overly influenced by “Saturday Night Live” if they are doing comedy, or “Boston Legal”, if they are doing serious drama.

The adaptation of Yates’s novel is by Justin Haythe, whose debut novel, “The Honeymoon”, was nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2004. Not having read Yates’s novel, I can not vouch for the faithfulness of the adaptation but I have no problems describing the screenplay as brilliantly executed. As is the case with many such movies based on a novel, my immediate reaction is to go out and read the novel-a sign that in a certain sense the movie has succeeded.

Look for “Revolutionary Road” in local theaters this month. It is one of the best movies you will see in any year.

Also, the Socialist Unity blog has a posting on the novel that is very much worth reading.

And even more suprisingly, there is this article on Yates’s novel by Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly.

December 12, 2008

The Deserted Village

Filed under: Africa,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Where then, ah! where, shall poverty reside,
To ‘scape the pressure of contiguous pride?
If to some common’s fenceless limits strayed,
He drives his flock to pick the scanty blade,
Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And even the bare-worn common is denied.
If to the city sped -what waits him there?
To see profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know
Extorted from his fellow creature’s woe.

From Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village

Mustapha serving Moshe a beer

This year’s African Disapora Film Festival featured two films that were related thematically. Both “A Night in Morocco: Where are you going Moshe?” and “Waalo Fendo: Where the Earth Freezes” take as their subject matter the abandonment of rural villages under duress. If Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century Irish village was being emptied by the forces of capitalism in its infancy, these two movies describe a similar process being driven by the same system now in its senility.

Moroccan director Hassan Benjelloun describes how Jews were pressured by Zionists into emigrating to Israel in 1963, two years after the death of King Mohammed V left the country in an uncertain state. His film is set in the small village of Bejjad, where the Jews enjoy warm and cordial relations with their Muslim neighbors. The only threat to their well-being comes from an ascendant group of fundamentalists who are anxious to close down the only bar in town that is run by Mustapha, an easy-going Muslim who enjoys serving alcohol to his patrons while they enjoy musical performances by local talent, including Moshe, an elderly Jew who plays the oud and sings in his native language: Arabic.

After Mustapha is hauled before the local sharia, he defends himself by referring to a Moroccan law that allows the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims, which Bejjad has in ample number at least for the time being. However, as each busload of Jews departs for Israel, Mustapha’s anxiety increases. His only hope is to convince Moshe to remain in Bejjad, a feasible project given the oud player’s affection for his Muslim friends and neighbors.

While Moshe spends each night hanging out at Mustapha’s bar having a good time, the Bejjadi émigrés are not having such an easy time in Israel. They have trouble finding jobs since there is discrimination against Sephardic Jews. They also insist on preserving their Moroccan customs. In one of the movie’s many shrewdly observed comic moments, the Bejjadis are sitting around a bonfire late at night learning Israeli folk songs after having spent a day in a classroom learning Hebrew. After their Zionist group leader launches into “Hava Nagila”, a Zionist anthem, they stand up and begin to do native Moroccan dances and singing their own songs in Arabic.

Leaving aside the greatest tragedy of Zionism-what it inflicted on Palestinians-there is also the terrible damage it did to Sephardic Jews who had lived in peace with Muslims for hundreds of years, especially in North Africa. On the occasion of a performance by the great Moroccan Jewish singer Emil Zrihan, who was spirited off to Israel at the age of 12 just like the characters in Benjelloun’s movie, I wrote an article titled “Nights in Andalusia” that concluded with the following paragraphs from Eliyahu Ashtor’s “The Jews of Moslem Spain” (despite the Arabic sounding name, Ibn Khalfon was a Jew):

At last the host gestured to the poet to declaim his verse, and Ibn Khalfon recited a florid poem in which he proclaimed all the qualities of the new officeholder, his deeds in behalf of his coreligionists, the alms he gave to the poor, and the merits of his forefathers, who were nobles in Israel. Not all those present understood the beautiful biblical Hebrew, but all listened intently; not a sound was heard. When the poet had finished he bowed to the host, who drew forth from the folds of his coat a purse full of gold pieces and handed them to Ibn Khalfon. All his friends voiced cries of enthusiasm over the beauty of the poem and the generosity of the noble lord. A few arose from their places to stroll in the corners of the courtyard, where tall trees stood; others remained seated and engaged in spiritual but friendly conversation.

It was a warm and pleasant night, the skies were strewn with innumerable stars, and the moon shone with a brilliant light. From a distance could be heard a monotonous voice, yet pleasant to the ear: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Life to those who pray to Him, life to those who serve Him.” Again and again the voice repeated its cry saturated with yearnings. This was the muezzin calling the Moslem to prayer, for this was the month of Ramadan, when the call to prayer is sounded before dawn. East and West had met under Andalusian skies.

Mohammed Soudani is a 59 year old Algerian who emigrated to Ticino, Switzerland in 1978, where he embarked on career as a television and film director. As an African immigrant, he was uniquely positioned to tell the story of two brothers-Demba and Yaro-who are forced to leave their impoverished farming village in Senegal and find work as street peddlers in Italy.

The film is structured as a series of reminiscences told as flashbacks by Demba about his older brother Yaro, who has been killed in a robbery of the kind that many street vendors have to confront. In order to send money back to their families, these men not only have to put up with such crimes but the fear of deportation as well. All of the scenes in Soudani’s movie take place on the streets where the vendors ply their trade, the hostels they live in, or on the subways that they take going to and fro. Their ability to sustain themselves in a hostile world, especially in an increasingly xenophobic Italy, is a testimony to their courage and dedication. They yearn to be productive back in Africa, but know that poverty has cut that possibility off for the foreseeable future.

I regret not having had the time to write about the 16th annual African Diaspora Film Festival earlier, but strongly urge you to consider attending one or another film between now and Sunday, the final day. The schedule is available at www.nyadff.org.

December 10, 2008

Marc Cooper: a true Annenbergian

Filed under: cuba,press,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 9:16 pm

Walter Annenberg: after Rupert Murdoch bought the TV Guide from him, it became more liberal

When the ultraright was pursuing a guilt by association attack on Obama for serving on the same board of directors as “terrorist” Bill Ayers, his supporters pointed out that it was the late Walter Annenberg who launched the nonprofit dedicated to improving public schools upon whose board they served. Since Annenberg was Richard Nixon’s Ambassador to Great Britain as well as a close friend of Ronald Reagan, how could anybody accuse Ayers or Obama of being some kind of dangerous radical? Considering the assault on public education that the Republican Party right has led since the early 1970s, it might seem a bit of contradiction for Annenberg to be lavishing his millions on such a project. Of course, if your goal is to eliminate state funding of public schools and replace them with a “thousand points of light” type charities, then Annenberg’s largesse begins to make sense.

Annenberg became one of America’s top philanthropists in the 1980s, using the profits of an ill-gotten media empire to finance a host of “do gooder” projects. There is obviously a long tradition of unsavory capitalists trying to burnish their reputation through such deeds, the most famous example being Andrew Carnegie. If the board of directors of Carnegie-Mellon Institute or Carnegie Hall ever thought much about their institutions being financed by the blood money drained from the dead bodies of steelworkers, they probably would have never ended up on such a board to begin with. Nominations to such boards are carefully vetted to make sure that the candidates are carefully trained in the core values of the capitalist system, evidence of which is most manifest in the inclusion of solid citizens like Bill Ayers and Barack Obama.

Like many other members of the American ruling class, Walter Annenberg was born rich. His father Moses “Moe” Annenberg published the Daily Racing Form, just what one might expect from a career criminal who worked as a circulation manager for William Randolph Hearst. In the circulation wars of the early 20th century, Moe and his henchmen used “robber baron” type tactics. Newsboys were beaten, newsstands torched, and delivery vans overturned if they were identified as working for Hearst’s competition. Moe Annenberg was convicted of tax evasion in 1939 and his son, now a company VP, was indicted on charges of “aiding and abetting.” In a deal struck with prosecutors, Walter’s charges were dropped in exchange for his father’s guilty plea.

Moe Annenberg died a few weeks after being released from prison and Walter Annenberg took over the family business, which now included two Philadelphia dailies, the Inquirer and the Daily News. The Philadelphia Daily News distinguished itself by boosting the career of Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, an out and out racist who eventually became mayor. Rizzo’s cops carried out a raid on the Black Panther Party on August 31, 1970 that included a strip search of the arrested men, a picture of which ran on the Philadelphia Daily News front page the next day and that was then circulated around the world.

The Philadelphia Inquirer was not much better. In 1966, Annenberg used the paper as a cudgel against Democrat Milton Shapp, who was running for governor. Shapp made the mistake of opposing a merger of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad, a corporation that counted Walter Annenberg as the largest individual stockholder. Annenberg had one of his reporters ask Shapp at a press conference if he had ever been a patient in a mental hospital. Since he had not, he simply replied “no”. A day later, a front page Inquirer headline screamed: “Shapp Denies Mental Institution Stay.” Shapp lost the election largely because of this smear.

While TV Guide, a property that Annenberg acquired in 1952, might seem to be last place to serve as a rightwing outlet, he used it to rail against the liberal media culture. This led Jack Shafer, author of a 2002 Slate obit titled “Citizen Annenberg: So long, you rotten bastard” to opine that “TV Guide may be the only publication to become more liberal after Rupert Murdoch purchased it.”

Shafer describes Annenberg’s retirement years as follows:

President Richard Nixon rewarded Annenberg for his anti-communism and pro-Vietnam-War views by appointing him ambassador to Great Britain, where he attacked U.S. student radicals in his first speech. Ambassador Annenberg, as he thereafter preferred to be called, returned to the States and expanded both his media properties and burgeoning art collection. He also entertained the flow of human sewage that visited him at his own Xanadu, a mansion set on 250 acres (complete with its own golf course) in Palm Springs. There at “Sunnylands,” he hosted the disgraced Nixon (“Life is 99 rounds,” he told Dick), the detestable Frank Sinatra, and offered refuge for his political soul mate, the shah of Iran. Talk about guilt by association.

Among the institutions that have been the benefactors of Annenberg’s deep wallet is the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, reflecting its founder’s ostensible commitment to the mass media.

Marc Cooper: on the side of American interests in Cuba and Venezuela

Among the faculty is Marc Cooper, who, like Bill Ayers, can be described as a chastened 1960s radical. One has no idea how Cooper comports himself in the classroom, but his public utterances on Latin America can certainly be described as Annenbergian. For quite some time now, Cooper has carried out a campaign against Cuba and Venezuela in print and electronic publications that can scarcely be distinguished from what you would read in the mainstream media. When actor Sean Penn had the temerity to write about his trip to Cuba in the pages of the Nation Magazine, Cooper fulminated on his blog: “But now Penn pops up giving his own tongue bath to Raul — complete with poems and everything.”

Considering the fact that Cooper suffered a massive heart attack in 2007, he might be well-advised to shun articles that have the capacity to make him so upset. Since I am forced to read 100 anti-Cuba articles (including an interminable piece by Roger Cohen in the Sunday NY Times Magazine section) in American newspapers for every one praising Cuba, I should be under much more stress than him. Of course, I make sure to stay away from 3rd dessert helpings.

Using his credentials as a veteran journalist, Cooper focuses his attack on media censorship in Cuba and Venezuela. It does not matter to him that much if poor people have access to education, health care and a home for the first time in their lives if the freedom of Venezuelan TV stations that participated in a coup attempt against the elected president is threatened. After all, the rights of the Venezuelan Annenbergs are much more important than those of the slum dwellers.

Cooper’s latest rant against his radical neighbors to the south can be found on the Mother Jones website, where he takes up the cause of a blogger who has run afoul of the Cuban authorities.

It seems that the Cubans are always curtailing the rights of writers who feel compelled in some way to cooperate with the country that has tried on and off for nearly a half-century to violently overthrow its government. Try and put yourself in the shoes of a Cuban leader. You have just seen the United States allow Luis Posada Carriles, a man convicted of blowing up a civilian airliner filled with your countryman, to go free. As a mental exercise, let us imagine that a Cuban national who blew up a TWA airliner in 1976 (a real stretch since the Cubans are opposed to terrorism) is allowed to go free once he is back in Cuba.

As another stretch of the imagination, let’s say that the Cubans are allowed to continue operating a quasi-embassy in the U.S. where American writers hostile to capitalism go for weekly visits to get political directions and buckets of money. How long would it take for the U.S. to crack down? In the real world, such comparisons do not obtain because the U.S.’s GDP is a thousand times larger than that of Cuba’s. When there is such a mismatch in military and economic power, naturally the bigger country can bully the smaller country. Apparently Marc Cooper enjoys making the case for bullies, just as another one-time Nation Magazine (to their credit, the Nation has found little motivation in publishing Cooper lately) contributor Christopher Hitchens does.

For Cooper, Cuba and Venezuela serve as some kind of evil twin example of socialism that is always compared unfavorably to its good twin brother-Salvador Allende’s Chile. The fact that Allende was very friendly with Fidel Castro has never bothered Cooper who is as adept at cherry-picking facts as Judith Miller.

Another fact that Cooper cannot be bothered with is Allende’s crackdown on the imperialist-backed media that in its day was exploited by enemies of the Chilean experiment just as Cooper is doing today. According to Ralph McGehee, former CIA agent, the CIA literally purchased Chile’s largest newspaper, El Mercurio, and turned a paper once considered the “New York Times” of Latin America into a screaming scandal sheet in the Philadelphia Daily News mold. El Mercurio’s radio stations also attacked Allende daily.

Instead of tolerating these attacks in the meretricious spirit of “free speech” and “democracy” that Cooper wants to foist on Cuba and Venezuela, Allende–to his credit–took action. When he did, Juan de Onis, who played the same role with respect to Chile that people like Juan Forero and Marc Cooper play today with respect to Venezuela, raised a stink in the N.Y. Times. In an article titled “Chile Suspends a Radio Station” that took up the cause of the poor, repressed Christian Democratic Party, de Onis helped the CIA make its case. As a defender of freedom of the press and democracy just as vigilant as Marc Cooper today, de Onis called attention to Radio Balmaceda being shut down and how the legal powers of Allende to act against hostile newspapers and radio stations were being expanded. De Onis pointed to the harassment of El Mercurio, whose offices were being visited on almost a daily basis by tax inspectors. El Mercurio and other anti-government newspapers were on a campaign against Allende, who had declared his intentions to nationalize the major private manufacturer of newsprint, a sure sign that the country was on the road to a totalitarian dictatorship of the kind that the Castro brothers were running in Cuba.

If Allende is to be faulted for anything, it is not being repressive enough. When your country is being subverted by the CIA, Henry Kissinger, ITT and the Chilean bourgeoisie, it is in the interests of democracy and human rights to stamp out counter-revolutionary newspapers. Indeed, the sad and inescapable conclusion one must draw from Cooper’s incessant attacks on Cuba and Venezuela is that he hopes that they will suffer the same fate as Allende’s Chile. When Cooper was younger and less established in his profession, he would have understood what a tragedy that would be. Now that he is older and a faculty member at a prestigious California university, he could care less-an example once again of the primacy of class.

December 6, 2008

Wendy and Lucy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

Put simply, Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” is a “Grapes of Wrath” for the contemporary era. In place of the Joads, we encounter a young woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy who are trying to make their way to Alaska, a symbol of economic opportunity in the way that California was for the Joads. Although “Wendy and Lucy” is far less ambitious than John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece, I regard as a better film in some ways since it operates in the neorealist tradition, a genre that corresponds to the lives of working people much more than Ford/Steinbeck’s melodrama.

Like so many neorealist movies, “Wendy and Lucy” revolves around a seemingly mundane subject matter, in this case the young woman’s attempt to track down her dog, the only source of companionship in a very lonely and economically deprived existence. If the bicycle in “The Bicycle Thief” was a means to economic survival, the tawny mixed Labrador breed serves to keep Wendy going emotionally in a heartless world.

In the opening scene, we find Wendy chatting with a group of homeless men warming themselves around a bonfire next to the railroad tracks in a small Oregon town. When they learn that she is headed off to Alaska, they give her encouraging words about the good jobs to be found in the canneries, a reminder of another John Steinbeck Depression era novel: “Cannery Row”.

Like the Okies in “Grapes of Wrath”, Wendy and the men are the hapless victims of a stagnant American economy. Since “Wendy and Lucy” was made before the subprime mortgage collapse, it is more topical than ever. We can surely expect the growing ranks of the homeless and the unemployed to now take to the road in search of their own Alaska. There of course is added irony in Wendy heading off to Alaska in light of Sarah Palin’s election campaign. With a country in the economic doldrums, a candidate hailing from a supposedly prosperous state gave the voter the impression that ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were in the offing, to use the empty rhetoric of her rival.

The next morning Wendy is roused from a deep sleep in the back seat of her beat-up old Honda Accord by an elderly security guard who informs her that she is not allowed to park in the lot he monitors. This bit of law enforcement is just the first in a series of confrontations in which Wendy is reminded of how the propertied classes keep the riff-raff in order. Since the car will not start, she is forced to push it from the parking lot with the help of the security guard who gradually becomes something of a guardian angel in the course of the film. We learn that he has become a security guard because there are no other jobs in a town that has seen its mill shut down. We also gather that Wendy has left Muncie, Indiana for about the same reasons. When she calls her sister from a phone booth to get some help in paying for the repair of her car, she is stopped in her tracks by her sister’s advice that “we are strapped here”.

An hour or two later Wendy is caught shoplifting two cans of dog food for Lucy in a nearby supermarket. The police haul her off to jail where she is ordered to pay a fifty dollar fine. When she returns to the supermarket, she discovers that Lucy has disappeared from the post to which she was leashed. The remainder of the film consists of her desperate search for Lucy, made all the more difficult by her poverty. Each morning she washes up in the restroom of a convenience store and tries to get through the day on a donut and a cup of coffee. Taking pity on her, the security guard offers her some cash, which amounts to all of seven dollars. They both occupy a world where life is lived on the margin.

In keeping with the minimalist style of this neorealist breakthrough film, there is no film score. Director Kelly Reichardt, however, has made sure to use sounds dramatically in the film even though no music is involved. From beginning to end, we hear train whistles, the rustling of the leaves in the trees, car traffic–noises that underline Wendy’s aloneness and vulnerability. With the exception of the security guard, there is no community of economic victims to provide aid and solidarity. This, of course, is the main difference between Steinbeck’s era and our own. Today, working people are atomized and tend to seek individual solutions to problems like homelessness and unemployment. As the suffering increases, as virtually everybody from Henry Paulson down to the minimum wage worker believe it will, the only ‘hope’ is that the Wendy’s of the world will unite.

I was deeply affected by “Wendy and Lucy” and found myself caring about the main character as if she was a real person. This is about the most one can expect from any movie and missing routinely from the Hollywood blockbuster of the week. Kelly Reichardt is one of the major talents in independent film-making today. Her “Old Joy”, which I neglected to review, is a character study of two middle-aged men who go for a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest, the same setting for her latest movie. Although I found “Old Joy” deeply moving, I could not have anticipated that the director/writer would be capable of such profound social commentary as “Wendy and Lucy”.

Although Deborah Solomon’s interviews, a weekly feature in the Sunday N.Y. Times Magazine, are designed to mock the interviewees, her most recent exchange with Kelly Reichardt is revealing despite itself. Ultimately, Solomon comes across as a lightweight which of course is what got her the job at the Times to begin with.

N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine, November 30, 2008
Questions for Kelly Reichardt
Social Realist


Solomon: Is it fair to call your new film, “Wendy and Lucy” – which tracks a young woman’s dissolution after her beloved mutt goes missing from a supermarket parking lot in suburban Oregon – the anti-“Lassie”?

Reichardt: Well, Lucy doesn’t rescue anyone from a fire or keep a kid from drowning.

Solomon: The film is oddly timely, reminding us of how people on the lower rungs of society are the first to fall off when times get tough. Are you trying to bring a jolt of social realism into American film?

Reichardt: Jon Raymond and I came up with the story post-Katrina, and we did start with this idea: Say you have the gumption to set out and make your life better, but you don’t have the benefit of an education, a nest egg or a family net. Can you really improve your situation?

Solomon: That point is driven home when Wendy calls her sister from a phone booth and the sister excuses herself from the long-distance call after five seconds.

Reichardt: The sister herself is so strapped she can’t be generous. She doesn’t have anything left to give financially or emotionally. She herself is tapped out.

Solomon: We should mention that Wendy is on her way to Ketchikan, Alaska, where she hopes to find work in the fishing canneries.

Reichardt: It was before Sarah Palin.

Solomon: Do you think Palin has ruined Alaska as a symbol of the untrammeled frontier for future filmmakers and novelists?

Reichardt: No. Hopefully, she fades from memory quickly.

Full interview

“Wendy and Lucy” is scheduled to open in New York City on December 17th. Complete nationwide scheduling information can be found in the movie website.

December 5, 2008

Doug Henwood, Anwar Shaikh, and financial crisis

Filed under: economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

Doug Henwood

Anwar Shaikh

(Audio of Henwood/Shaikh talks is now available)

My first inclination was to approach last night’s talks by Doug Henwood and Anwar Shaikh as a kind of debate between a Marxist bull and bear. But after Doug began to speak, I was reminded of how serious the situation was. In just about every downturn in the American economy since the early 1990s, Doug has quite rightly identified them as temporary dislocations. With recent events, however, there was little to distinguish him from Anwar Shaikh, a New School economist who has virtually made the falling rate of profit and similarly gloomy topics his own.

Referring to his studies of past Wall Street past, Doug likened the capitalist economy to the Timex wristwatch advertising slogan of the 1960s-“It takes a licking and keeps on ticking”-that was typically spoken after watching a Timex working just fine after being sat upon by an elephant. In the world of capitalist economics, the 1987 stock market crash was one such elephant. After a huge drop, the market picked itself up, dusted itself off, and began to scale new heights.

Doug focused on the role of the collapse of the housing bubble in today’s financial crisis, citing Robert Schiller’s findings that housing prices have been quite stable historically. Until 1995, they remained about the same as they had been in the 1890s using adjusted prices. But from that point on, they began to skyrocket in the range of 100-200 percent. You can look at a graph of Schiller’s housing prices here. Clearly they were not sustainable.

Exacerbating the bubble were exotic instruments crafted by hedge funds and other financial institutions that packaged together and hawked shaky home mortgage not worth the paper upon which the securities were written.

Although I am obviously not in Doug’s league when it comes to explaining the capitalist economy, he made a point that I tried to make myself in a blog article about UAW concessions and Trotsky’s transitional program. Doug was at a loss to identify new engines of economic growth in the U.S. After the smokestack industries died out in the 1970s, they were replaced by high technology which no longer has the dynamic it once had. The lack of profitable areas of investment reminded him of what someone once said about growth areas in Great Britain in the 1980s and 90s: real estate and finance. That obviously is not a very good sign.

Here, by the way, is what I wrote along the same lines:

In distinction to the period of the sit-down strikes that rocked Detroit, Flint and other auto manufacturing centers, today’s domestic automobile industry is basically moribund. Smokestack industries, from steel to rubber and auto, were at the core of the American economy in the 1930s but that is no longer the case. When workers sat in at GM in Flint in 1938, the bosses organized armed attacks since automobile manufacturing was still a core component of the capitalist economy. Despite the interest that the auto executives have today in keeping their operations afloat, there are signs that many capitalist politicians would be happy to see them go down drain-most surprisingly from the ranks of the Republican Party, a party that supposedly stands for unbridled free enterprise…

Ironically, despite the fact that the current economic crisis will probably not generate the kind of mass suffering experienced in the 1930s when unemployment reached 25 percent, it is actually more intractable than that of FDR’s epoch in some ways. To start with, there are few prospects on the horizon that will deliver the kind of dynamism that smokestack industries provided during earlier stages of capitalist development. The last such jolt of energy occurred with the computer revolution which began in the 1950s and has already reached maturity. With Dell Computers selling for around $300, you are clearly dealing with an economic wave in its final stages.

Doug also alluded to the differences he had with some leftists who opposed bailouts for AIG et al. He felt that there was no alternative. If the credit markets could not function properly, the economy would grind to a halt and cause immense suffering to those who could least afford it. Clearly, he has been thinking through these issues since he now formulates the task facing the left in terms of transforming financial institutions into a kind of public utility. Speaking only for myself, I feel that this kind of public utility must be distinguished from anything like Con Edison, with its long record of greed and indifference to the public interest.

This was the first chance I have had to hear Anwar Shaikh in person. I know him mostly through his very fine website that I referenced when I was preparing some comments on crisis theory for the Introduction to Marxism reading group.

Anwar started out by saying that the term Great Depression does not apply solely to the one that began in 1929. In his view, there were other Great Depressions in American history, including the 1840s, the 1870s, the 1930s and even the 1970s. He defines such events as having either a relatively short and very painful character or extending over a longer period with a bit less misery. In his view the “lost decade” of Japan in the 1990s falls into the latter category. When the government is committed to full employment and a social safety net, as was the case in Japan, you don’t have people selling apples on the street but it takes much longer for capitalism to enter a new expansionary period. In the U.S., since there is much less concern for workers, economic collapses tend to go about the task of “creative destruction” much more intensively and throw caution to the wind. With the goal being survival of the fittest firms, the American approach seems to make more sense from the standpoint of capitalist rationality using the term rational quite liberally given the specter of 10 percent or more unemployment that we are facing.

Although Anwar initially referred to the 1970s as an example of a Great Depression, he subsequently clarified that the period in question began in 1965 and lasted until 1982. Using equalized prices, the stock market took a 65 percent hit-comparable to the 1930s. Japan’s depression was also devastating. At its peak, their stock market was at 39,000. For the longest time it failed to go over 9,000 and is hovering around 16,000 of late. If the American stock markets are destined to suffer the same fate, the prospects for capitalist recovery are guarded at best.

Anwar identified the 1965 to 1982 period as one in which corporate profits suffered dramatically lower growth rates. It was only after an all out assault on American labor symbolized (in my view) by the airline controller’s strike that profit rates began to increase somewhat. But even more critical for the expansion up until the most recent period has been the availability of low interest rates. For corporations, this has meant increased profits because the price of capital has decreased. For workers, who were still in the neoliberal straightjacket placed on them in the 1970s, the only way to participate in the faux boom was through home equity loans on inflated house prices (although Anwar did not mention it, it is likely that he would have included cheap commodities from China and elsewhere for sale at Walmart, et al.)

During the discussion period I asked Anwar what accounts for the falling rate of profit. I have read Henryk Grossman on the subject but found his treatment at a very high level of abstraction. Have there been any attempts to bridge the gap between such abstract treatments and the actual case studies of American corporations? He referred me to his critique of Robert Brenner that appeared in Historical Materialism, Number 5.  Here is an excerpt I got a real chuckle out of, wondering if the comparison to Adam Smith was a subtle dig prompted by Brenner’s famous 1977 polemic against Paul Sweezy in which the Monthly Review editor was also likened to Adam Smith:

Classical and Marxian theories are premised on the notion that aggregate industrial profit originates in production, through the creation of a surplus product and surplus-value, so that price changes merely transfer it from one venue to another. But it is important to note that circulation can also give rise to profit in its own right, provided it involves a fundamentally unequal exchange between two poles. This was the secret of merchant capitalism, which lived off ‘buying cheap’ at one pole and ‘selling dear’ at another. And in such circumstances, competition can indeed erode the gap between the purchase and selling prices, thereby reducing not only individual profit rates but also the total. The irony is that, in his particular explanation of falling profitability, Brenner not only abandons Marx for Smith, but also industrial capitalism for merchant capitalism.

December 4, 2008

UAW Concessions and the Transitional Program

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Back in 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, one of the first classics I read was Leon Trotsky’s (who else) Transitional Program.  It was explained to me as a kind of innovation from our movement that bridged the gap between the minimal and maximal programs of the socialist movement. As Trotsky put it:

Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed. And indeed Social Democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying. The Comintern has set out to follow the path of Social Democracy in an epoch of decaying capitalism: when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of he masses’ living standards; when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.

Trotsky’s transitional demands largely revolved around struggles between the workers and the bosses in an economy that was dominated by industrial firms, as opposed to today’s service-oriented sector. As such, much of the focus was on struggles arising at the point of production:

During a transitional epoch, the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced, but a feverish and explosive character. Slogans as well as organizational forms should be subordinated to the indices of the movement. On guard against routine handling of a situation as against a plague, the leadership should respond sensitively to the initiative of the masses.

Sit-down strikes, the latest expression of this kind of initiative, go beyond the limits of “normal” capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?

If the sit-down strike raises this question episodically, the factory committee gives it organized expression. Elected by all the factory employees, the factory committee immediately creates a counterweight to the will of the administration.

It was just such a section of the Transitional Program that came to mind this morning when I read about the latest assault on the UAW prompted by the financial crisis in the N.Y. Times:

The United Automobile Workers union said Wednesday that it would make major concessions in its contracts with the three Detroit auto companies to help them lobby Congress for $34 billion in federal aid.

The surprising move by the U.A.W. could be a critical factor in the automakers’ bid not only to get government assistance, but also to become competitive with the cost structure of nonunion plants operated by foreign automakers in the United States.

At a news conference in Detroit, the U.A.W.’s president, Ron Gettelfinger, said that his members were willing to sacrifice job security provisions and financing for retiree health care to keep the two most troubled car companies of the Big Three, General Motors and Chrysler, out of bankruptcy.

“Concessions, I used to cringe at that word,” Mr. Gettelfinger said. “But now, why hide it? That’s what we did.”

While I certainly understand why somebody like Gettlefinger, who has been a long-time practitioner of class collaborationism, would buckle under ruling class pressure, there is another aspect to UAW weakness that can’t be totally attributed to misleadership. In distinction to the period of the sit-down strikes that rocked Detroit, Flint and other auto manufacturing centers, today’s domestic automobile industry is basically moribund. Smokestack industries, from steel to rubber and auto, were at the core of the American economy in the 1930s but that is no longer the case. When workers sat in at GM in Flint in 1938, the bosses organized armed attacks since automobile manufacturing was still a core component of the capitalist economy. Despite the interest that the auto executives have today in keeping their operations afloat, there are signs that many capitalist politicians would be happy to see them go down drain-most surprisingly from the ranks of the Republican Party, a party that supposedly stands for unbridled free enterprise.

There is a tendency for the left to look at today’s economic crisis through the prism of past experiences, particularly the 1930s. While the reformist left tends to harp on the possibility that Obama might be struck by lightning and decide to embark on a new New Deal, revolutionaries hold out for the possibility of blue collar resistance. Unfortunately, the objective circumstances militate against the kind of struggles mounted by the CIO and the Marxist left 70 years ago or so.

Ironically, despite the fact that the current economic crisis will probably not generate the kind of mass suffering experienced in the 1930s when unemployment reached 25 percent, it is actually more intractable than that of FDR’s epoch in some ways. To start with, there are few prospects on the horizon that will deliver the kind of dynamism that smokestack industries provided during earlier stages of capitalist development. The last such jolt of energy occurred with the computer revolution which began in the 1950s and has already reached maturity. With Dell Computers selling for around $300, you are clearly dealing with an economic wave in its final stages.

It is also important to keep in mind that it was only war production that finally broke the back of the Great Depression. With nuclear weapons virtually assuring the end of this type of conflict (thank god), the bourgeoisie can no longer rely on what Randolph Bourne once summed up as “War Is the Health of the State“.

So instead the system just limps along, looking for the next speculative bubble to keep the patient alive. Meanwhile, the dubious benefits of Thomas Friedman’s flat world seem to escape most people living in Africa, Asia and Latin America who exist in what amounts to a permanent Great Depression.

I still think that the idea of a Transitional Program is a good one. Like many of Trotsky’s other theoretical breakthroughs including Permanent Revolution, it has been reduced to a dogma. Right now all I can say is that a new transitional program has to grow out of the experiences of the mass movement, just as the original one did with its emphasis on sit-down strikes, etc. As gloomy as the political prospects seem today, there is no doubt that capitalism itself will create conditions for the growth of the revolutionary movement. Ironically, it is capitalist stagnation that will finally bring an end to the stagnation that has gripped the revolutionary movement for the past 30 years or so.

December 3, 2008

Technological Inheritance

Filed under: economics,technology — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Back in 1994, I came across an article by Gar Alperovitz titled “Distributing Our Technological Inheritance” in the October issue of Technology Review that I found very useful as a rebuttal of the kind of libertarianism that was thriving in Silicon Valley. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“Many times a day,” wrote Albert Einstein, “I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow-men, both living and dead.” The genius of an earlier era saw clearly how contemporary knowledge and technological advance depend to an extraordinary degree on the efforts of many contributors, not to mention a continuing cultural investment in science and numerous other areas of human endeavor. In fact, very little of what we as a society produce today can be said to derive from the work, risk, and imagination of citizens now living. Achievements from earlier eras, including fundamental ideas such as literacy, movable type, simple arithmetic, and algebra, have become so integrated into our daily lives that we take them for granted. What we accomplish today stands atop a Gibraltar of technological inheritance. Seemingly contemporary transformations inevitably build on knowledge accumulated over generations.

For example, Richard DuBoff, an economic historian at Bryn Mawr College, observes that “synthesizing organic chemicals…could not have been done without an understanding of chemical transformations and the arrangement of atoms in a molecule. After 1880, this led to the production of coal tar and its derivatives for pharmaceuticals, dyestuffs, explosives, solvents, fuels, and fertilizers, and later petrochemicals…By the early 1900’s the new chemicals were already becoming an essential input for metallurgy, petroleum, and paper.”

Present-day entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest individuals with a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and hailed as a technological genius for inventing software for the personal computer, should therefore be seen as beneficiaries of this long and fruitful history as well as of significant public investment.

The personal computer itself–without which Gates’s software would not be possible–owes its development to sustained federal spending during World War II and the Cold War. “Most of [the] ‘great ideas in computer design’ were first explored with considerable government support,” according to historian Kenneth Flamm in a Brookings Institution study. Now a specialist in technology policy in the Department of Defense, Flamm estimates that 18 of the 25 most significant advances in computer technology between 1950 and 1962 were funded by the federal government, and that in most of these cases the government was the first buyer of new technology. For example, Remington Rand Corp. delivered UNIVAC, the original full-fledged U.S. computer, under contract to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.

The government’s shouldering of huge development costs and risks paved the way for the growth of Digital Equipment Corp., which created its powerful PDP line of 1960s computers. In turn, Gate’s colleague [and now fellow billionaire] Paul Allen created a simulated PDP-10 chip that allowed Gates to apply the programming abilities of a mainframe to a small, homemade computer. Gates used this power to make his most important technical contribution: rewriting the BASIC language, itself funded by the National Science Foundation, to run Altair, the first consumer-scaled computer. And indeed, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, Altair’s developer, could never have placed a microcomputer of any variety on the market without the long preceding period of technological incubation.

Thousands of links in a chain of development–our shared inheritance- -were in fact required before Bill Gates could add his contribution. But if this is so, why do we not reflect more full on why Gates, or any other wealthy entrepreneur, should personally benefit to such a degree? If we admit that what any one person, group, generation, or even nation contributes in one moment of time is minuscule compared with all that the past bequeaths like a gift from a rich uncle, we are forced to question the basic principles by which we distribute our technological inheritance.

Apparently, Alperovitz has turned this article into a book, based on this review in the current issue of the Nation Magazine. I plan to read and review it myself first chance I get, despite the rather lukewarm Nation Magazine review, which characterizes it as “Fabian”, a charge that strikes me as the pot calling the kettle black:

Spreading the Wealth: Knowledge as Social Inheritance

By Mark Engler

In crediting luck, Buffett not only points to the birth lottery, in which some people are born into more privileged circumstances than others, but also recognizes that to a great extent he owes the accomplishments of his professional life to the manifold contributions of other people, known and unknown, past and present. They have collectively done Buffett enormous favors, affording him security and education, providing modern infrastructure, science and communications systems and creating a sophisticated market in which he could do business. Because of this, Buffett claims, “society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”

“But if this is true,” ask Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly in Unjust Deserts, “doesn’t society deserve a very significant share of what [Buffett] has received?” This question clearly indicates how thoroughly Alperovitz and Daly want their new book to upend commonplace notions about the relationships between economic growth, productivity and wealth. The duo cite “extraordinary developments” in the study of knowledge and economic growth as the foundation of their contentions. But they are actually returning the economic discussion to where it started, with Smith, Ricardo, Mill and Marx–to moral philosophy and debates about the values that should inform public policy. Their foremost ethical question is, given that we owe most of our productivity to a common social inheritance, to what extent can we say that we have “earned” our personal wealth? If we see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants, the argument goes. Therefore, a large portion of what we claim as payment for our productivity should actually go to the Goliaths who are doing the heavy work of holding us up. Even if your eyesight is much better than average, your individual claim is limited.

Most of us with regular work lives get up in the morning, expend our energy and intelligence to meet the day’s challenges and retire, depleted, in the evening. In this respect, Alperovitz and Daly claim, we toil away our workdays just as, for example, subsistence farmers did for thousands of years. What makes us more “productive” than these forebears–in the sense that they often struggled to ward off starvation, while we, relatively speaking, are surrounded by abundance–is not our individual strength, initiative or daring. Rather, it is our inheritance of thousands of years of cultural knowledge, innovation and discovery. Owing to this legacy, a person in the United States working the same number of hours as an American from as recently as 1870 will produce, on average, some fifteen times more economic output.

As early as the 1950s, economists began establishing a greater role for socially accumulated knowledge in mainstream understandings of economic growth. Alperovitz and Daly note that Robert Solow “calculated that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the twentieth century (from 1909 to 1949) could only be attributed to ‘technological change in the broadest sense.'” This suggestion was a radical shift away from accounts that stressed the more specific agency of capitalists and entrepreneurs–or of laborers, for that matter–in expanding our economy.

But would progress in the realm of science and technology truly have happened without the grit and determination of hard-working innovators? Because Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a creation of tremendous social value, doesn’t he deserve to be exalted as a genius and richly rewarded for his patent? Not necessarily. The telephone, as it turns out, was simultaneously invented by another innovator, Elisha Gray, who visited the patent office the same day as Bell with a superior design for transmitting vocal sounds but who lagged behind Bell in completing the patent process. Five years earlier, an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci had declared the invention of a “voice telegraphy device”; he merely lacked the $10 required to register his work. With or without Bell, the telephone would have arrived.

This example is not an isolated incident. As Alperovitz and Daly write, the pattern of simultaneous invention “is so obvious to modern scholars that it is no longer considered controversial.” New innovations rely upon thousands of previous advances in understanding and technical capability: “What is called an ‘invention,’ is always a combination of diverse constituent elements, mostly drawn from existing technology.” Yet even as mainstream economists cite the increasing role of this socially accumulated legacy in driving our “knowledge economy,” inequality grows ever more severe. In 2004, the top 1 percent of American households held almost half of all “non-retirement account stocks, mutual funds, and trusts” and Bill Gates’s net worth alone “was more than twice the direct stock holdings of the entire bottom half of the U.S. population.”

Avoiding the Marxist tradition, Alperovitz and Daly tap a long stream of philosophical thought, running through Locke, Ricardo and Mill, that distinguishes between “earned” and “unearned” gains. “Nothing is more deeply held among ordinary people than the idea that a person is entitled to what he creates or his efforts produce,” they note. But if a person reaps gains through no effort of his own, society has a quite different view of his deservingness, or what philosophers know as “desert.”

One complication of using the “standing on the shoulders” metaphor to explain the notion of desert is that the “giants” in question are not discrete living beings. Past greats like Einstein and Newton are not around to claim their cut of your paycheck. What’s left, then, is the state. Ultimately, what Alperovitz and Daly dub the “knowledge inheritance theory of distributive justice” offers a much deeper justification for government-imposed taxation than what Americans are normally challenged to consider. The closest we have come to hearing these arguments in contemporary political debate was in the recent fight over the estate tax, a levy dubbed by conservatives as the “death tax” and by some defenders as the “Paris Hilton tax.” “Responsible wealth” advocate Chuck Collins, who wrote a book with Bill Gates in defense of the estate tax, has argued that the justice of such a tax is rooted in an appreciation of social contributions to prosperity, an idea that has previously been recognized in American political life. In 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Hate Taxes, Collins quotes Andrew Carnegie, one of the key figures of our country’s first Gilded Age, who approved of taxing accumulated wealth: “Of all forms of taxation this seems the wisest,” Carnegie held. “Men who continue hoarding great sums all of their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community from which it chiefly came, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the State, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share.”

In various articles and in a book published in 2005, America Beyond Capitalism, Alperovitz has rejected the statism of former Communist bloc economies, and he has expressed a desire to craft a progressive vision that “takes us beyond both traditional systems” of socialism and capitalism. Yet this type of “neither right nor left, but forward” rhetoric represents a fairly weak dodge. The actual political tradition Alperovitz and Daly seek to revive has deep roots in classical economics and represents a long-established strand of non-Marxist socialism. The authors show sympathy for nineteenth-century American reformer Henry George, who drew an international following with his belief that land should be the common property of humanity. George promoted free trade and productive business, but he wanted state control of monopolies and argued in his bestselling Progress and Poverty for a steep tax on parasitic rent-seeking landlords. Alperovitz and Daly also align themselves with many of the leading lights of the Fabian Society, a group of British intellectuals who were influential in shaping the early Labour Party around 1900.

Just as unionists who believed in the productive power of labor were critical of George’s sole focus on land, the leftward ranks of today’s political economists may be skeptical of the overwhelming weight of “knowledge” in Alperovitz and Daly’s formulations. But most would probably agree that the authors strike upon a vital topic when they highlight the need for the benefits from productivity gains to be shared throughout society.

As recently as the 1970s, there were discussions on college campuses of how people would while away all their spare hours after modern timesaving technology improved efficiency and inevitably shortened their working days. Since then, productivity has indeed increased dramatically, but working people have experienced a bitter twist: owing largely to the waning power of organized labor, real wages have been stagnant and hours at the office have only lengthened.

The Marxists of old criticized the gradualist tactics of Fabianism, accusing the British reformers of being naïve utopians who wanted socialist ends without the class struggle. Whatever the moral validity of Alperovitz and Daly’s argument about wealth, following through on its public policy implications will require a long and hard fight. And it’s not clear from their book that Alperovitz and Daly are up for a rumble. When it comes to how we might “take back our common inheritance,” their concluding call to arms tepidly invokes a “renewed moral and political understanding of [our] responsibilities.”

The best Alperovitz has suggested in his recent writings is that policy-makers concern themselves more with taxing wealth than income, and that they focus on going after the top 2 percent of households, leaving those few elites vastly outnumbered by the remaining 98 percent of the population. This is a sound position, but it is hardly a silver bullet. At the same time, the nation now seems uniquely prepared for a new debate about value and desert. Few moments could be riper for revisiting the connection between our economy and our social ethics. As housing values–the bedrock asset of the American middle class–fall, stocks plunge and retirement investment accounts are wiped out, there is an acute awareness that things do not find their worth just in the market’s valuation on a given day. And even without unusually candid voices like Warren Buffett’s fanning their doubts, Americans have begun to conclude that CEOs are not so worthy as their bloated compensation packages suggest.

There is a growing consensus, too, in favor of a more robust public compact to regulate the conditions under which we are together able to live, save and retire. Recent scholarly notions about “the developing trajectory of the knowledge economy” likely have less power than Alperovitz and Daly imagine to bring about a shift toward the social. But amid the ruins of our new Gilded Age, a devalued and depressed American public may nevertheless be ready to demand more.

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