Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 25, 2010

George W. Bush reacts to Haitian handshake

Filed under: Haiti,racism — louisproyect @ 1:58 pm

March 24, 2010

Zizek embarrassments

Filed under: cuba,Film,popular culture — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm

I am not sure that Slavoj Zizek has the same cachet with Marxist graduate students he had about 10 years ago, but in case there are some readers of the unrepentant Marxist who fall into that category, let me draw your attention to two items—one about Cuba and the other about Avatar—that might give you pause for thought. Although I no longer have the kind of visceral dislike for his ideas and personality I once did, every once in a while he can really get my dander up.

A couple of weeks ago Derrick O’Keefe sent me a link to a Youtube clip  of Zizek speaking on “The Future of Europe” at a conference in Slovenia. Someone must have asked him about Cuba during the Q&A since his potshots  seem to have little to do with the topic at hand unless he was trying to warn the audience about the dangers of “stagnation” and “gulags” that might attend a Cuban-style revolution in Europe.

It appears that our Lacanian theorist took a trip to Cuba a while back and didn’t like what he saw very much, to put it mildly. He was struck by all the “poverty”, “stagnation” and “inefficiency” that he interpreted as the Cuban leadership’s attempt to prove its “authenticity”. No, I am not making this up. Just watch the Youtube clip and see for yourself. As a professional psychoanalyst, as Zizek described himself, the only explanation for this kind of “renunciation” was a kind of self-destructive mental illness. For Zizek, the effects of an American embargo and the need to spend a disproportionate amount of the national treasury on weaponry becomes a form of anorexia, as if Fidel Castro viewed consumer goods and creature comfort as “bourgeois”.

Zizek also urges those in his audience to see the “gulags” in Cuba. I am not sure whether the psychoanalyst, film critic and fan of Lenin has read much about Cuba, but the island has been invaded by an expeditionary force organized by the USA and suffered billions of dollars of war damages during Operation Mongoose. It has also had to put up with a domestic opposition financed by the USA ever since the revolutionaries took power. Any other country that had to face such mortal threats would have been far more repressive than Cuba, including the USA which put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during WWII simply for being Japanese.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on “Zizek and Cuba” in google/books and came up with a  reference that helped put his Youtube utterances into perspective. In “Welcome to the desert of the Real”, a group of essays meditating on 9/11, Zizek describes a “paradox” in which the main result of the revolution is “to bring social dynamics to a standstill”. If you’re a bit puzzled about what exactly this standstill involves, he would tell you that it is the “1950s American cars” you see everywhere. Someone with the barest curiosity about Cuba might know that the island places much more emphasis on other forms of “social dynamics” than automobiles, including a biotechnology industry second to none:

Cuba’s biotechnological capacity places it in group four of the World Health Organization’s five categories. To reach group five, which is formed only by the eight top industrial economies, Cuba must produce at least 20% of the 260 basic materials. It regularly produces 18% of these and certainly has the scientific ability to produce the others with biotech methods.

Cuba also has 160 distinct research and development units and over 10,000 researchers through out the country

According to Cuba’s own figures, as well as those provided by scientists and engineers, both from Cuba and other countries, the Cuban government has spent approximately $3,500 million dollars in this industry since 1986. The return of such investment has been approximately the sales of $200 million dollars in vaccines and medicines. The production for domestic use has been almost nothing, since the Cuban people lack the most basic medicines. [LP: An assertion that unlike those made previously is not backed by data. The fact is that Cuba’s infant mortality rate and average life expectancy match those of Canada. If it lacked “the most basic medicines”, this could not be possible. In any case, the hostility toward Cuba expressed by this assertion, if anything, would add weight to the previous comments about biotechnology.]

Unlike the Lacanian, Cuba seems to have its priorities straight.

Turning now to his review of Avatar, it must be said that his leftist attack on the movie that appeared in the New Statesman is familiar by now, coming rather late in the game, and with the by-now obligatory mention of Dances with Wolves:

The utopia imagined in Avatar follows the Hollywood formula for producing a couple – the long tradition of a resigned white hero who has to go among the savages to find a proper sexual partner (just recall Dances With Wolves)…

Avatar’s fidelity to the old formula of creating a couple, its full trust in fantasy, and its story of a white man marrying the aboriginal princess and becoming king, make it ideologically a rather conservative, old-fashioned film. Its technical brilliance serves to cover up this basic conservatism. It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the “military-industrial complex” of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy.

Oddly enough, this analysis was embraced by David Brooks of the NY Times, an op-ed columnist with a long history in the neoconservative movement:

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Zizek scolds Cameron for not having made a movie that the indigenous peoples of Orissa could relate to. These are the Indian poor who are being displaced by mining companies that Sanhati activist Siddhartha Mitra reported on at last week’s Left Forum.  Zizek writes:

So where is Cameron’s film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself – the film substituting for reality.

Despite Zizek’s animosity, there is evidence that the super-exploited do connect to the movie.

Ironically, the Chinese workers and peasants who are being robbed of the social gains of the Maoist revolution that these very Naxalites identify with do feel a connection as the Christian Science Monitor reported:

The plot of “Avatar,” on the other hand, could be seen to parallel all sorts of contemporary Chinese problems. The tale of a people threatened with eviction by outsiders in search of minerals could, for example, be thought to echo the plight of the Tibetans.

But the similarity that resonates with ordinary Chinese is between the invaders’ rapacious attack on the Na’vis in “Avatar” and greedy property developers’ routine evictions of householders and farmers in China to make way for new buildings.

Such evictions are the most common cause of violent disturbances in China, according to official statistics.

“Avatar is a successful model in … fighting against violent demolition and we can learn from it in both the strategies and tactics,” wrote one blogger.

Some protesters have already used the movie to draw attention to their plight. One blog carried a photo of a building under construction in the southern province of Guangdong draped with banners proclaiming, “We are innocent Na’vis on the planet Pandora” and “The Avatar reality show is on.”

Meanwhile Evo Morales, a leader of indigenous peoples in Bolivia who became president on a leftwing program, relates to Cameron’s “racist” movie as well:

“LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s first indigenous president is praising “Avatar” for what he calls its message of saving the environment from exploitation.

A self-proclaimed socialist, Evo Morales says he identifies with the film’s “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defence of nature.”

Finally, the Palestinians have found the movie’s message and imagery relevant enough to appropriate for a novel demonstration:

March 23, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Sunday sessions

10am-11:50am: Where’s the Outrage?

I wasn’t exactly sure what this would be about, but wondered if it would address the seeming mystery of why American workers remain so passive in the face of repeated assaults from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Owing to a late start downtown and sluggish subway service, I missed the introduction and walked into a Greg Palast documentary that was in progress. It shows him doing a kind of Michael Moore/Sixty Minutes shtick trying to get some answers from what he calls vultures–financiers who buy up the debt of poor countries at reduced prices and then sue them to get inflated repayments. You can see the impact of the vultures on Liberia and Zambia online.

After the screening, Palast honed in on the Obama administration that he sees as a continuation of the Bush presidency, including the lenient treatment of “vultures”—pointing out how hypocritical it was for Obama to complain about corruption in Africa during a one-day stop in Kenya while giving vultures the right to continue their criminal activities.

During the q&a, a “truther” asked about 9/11, using just the flimsiest connection to Palast’s presentation. His reply was brilliant, pointing out that he was being asked to comment on things he had no knowledge about. It was the perfect retort to a truther, since it put him on the defensive. Investigative reporters and Marxists have to operate on the basis of what is known. Anything else amounts to sterile speculation.

Joel Kovel spoke next. I have known Joel for about 25 years and really admire him. It was a talk he gave on ecology at the Brecht Forum back then that got me interested in the topic. He made an interesting point about the title of the 2010 Left Forum—“the center cannot hold”—that presumably referred to the class polarization taking place today. He reminded us that it came from William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem The Second Coming that seemed to anticipate our situation today:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

He thought that the words “The best lack all conviction” applied to people like us, the attendees of the Left Forum who cannot achieve the kind of impact that the tea-party movement has made. Of course, if we had somebody like Dick Armey funneling millions of dollars into the antiwar movement, we might be having more of an impact.

The real problem is that Joel came to the discussion with a completely different idea about where the outrage matters. I don’t think it makes much difference if Joel Kovel or I am outraged about Obama or Bush or whoever. (And we are.) Politics will not change in this country until the working class begins to wake up to the reality that the ruling class wants to drive down their wages and working conditions until they are little better off than the average Walmart worker.

I should add that Joel concluded his remarks by strongly identifying with the millenarian theme of Yeats’s poem (the Second Coming is at hand) but not so much in the kind of apocalyptic Marxism of the small sects that pass out their flyers at the doorways of the Left Forum. Rather it was a statement that unless the left became religious, ie., began to act on the basis of faith, it would remain irrelevant. This is the kind of thing that Chris Hedges is into, but does not try to convert others into believing. Joel said that the liberation theology in Latin America is what he had in mind, but somehow I doubt that his words would have much effect in getting the average radical into adopting a different mindset—especially people like me and Doug Henwood who, unlike Joel Kovel I’ll bet, were forced to go to Hebrew school and Catholic school respectively. That’s enough to get any thinking young person to give up on religion for the rest of their lives.

Later that evening when I was chatting with my wife about the discussion, I brought up what Malcolm X once said about Black people thinking like their white overlords:

There was two kind of slaves. There was the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, they lived in the house, with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good, cause they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master, and they loved their master, more than their master loved himself. They would give their life to save their masters house quicker than their master would. The house negro, if the master said “we got a good house here” the house negro say “yeah, we got a good house here”. Whenever the master would said we, he’d say we. That’s how you can tell a house negro. If the master’s house caught on fire, the house negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house negro would say “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself.

I couldn’t help but think that this is basically what afflicted the working class-both white and Black. After decades of an expanding economy, it became easy for workers to think like the boss. Until that began to change, there would be no outrage. With the hammer blows of the capitalist crisis, this will eventually take place and the end result will be a cataclysm that makes the riots of the 1960s look like a garden party.

12pm-1:50pm: New Radical Parties and Experiments in Party Building

This is a topic I am greatly interested in since it relates to one of my major preoccupations ever since I hooked up with Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, namely how to wean the “vanguard” left away from sectarianism. All across Europe there are new initiatives that incorporate ideas about how to make this happen and I try to keep track of different developments, both in terms of failure (RESPECT in Britain) or relative success as might be exemplified by Der Linke in Germany and the NPA in France. The panel had members of both parties and I was anxious to hear what they had to say.

Sebastian Budgen, who works with both Historical Materialism and Verso Press, is a member of the NPA and gave a fascinating talk on the difficulties facing the party that had hitherto been unknown to me. They range from strategic to organizational, a function of weaknesses that were inherited from the LCR as I would learn during the q&a. One strategic problem related to the NPA’s decision to not join the CP-led electoral coalition since its partner was a split from the SP. The NPA refused to coalesce with the CP front unless there was an agreement in advance that it would refuse to support the SP. (It should be stressed that the SP in France is mostly a middle-class party unlike the German SP which is based on the trade unions.) The NPA was attacked on the Socialist Unity blog for taking this tack, something that convinced me that they were probably right since the Socialist Unity blog has become (or always was) the voice of Labour Party reformism.

On the organizational (and political, I guess) front, the NPA has had trouble developing and educating its membership. By disavowing the traditional approach of defending a Marxist program within the historical context of the Russian questions, and by eschewing the democratic centralist norms associated with this trend, it means that NPA members are all over the map ideologically and are not exactly ready to move collectively with the rest of the membership when the need arises. The former LCR members tend to be more disciplined than the newer members who more or less function as independent radicals whose activity rises or falls depending on what is going on in France at any given moment.

During the q&a, I asked Sebastian whether the lax norms of the NPA had something to do with the traditionally laid-back norms of the LCR, which operated in a completely different culture than the English-speaking Trotskyists who tended to take their James P. Cannon to heart. He answered that this was the case and that the LCR was always appalled by the efficiency and cleanliness of the American SWP offices. It would seem that they bent the stick too far in the opposite direction since the NPA has only four full-timers to carry out administrative tasks for an organization of 10,000 members! I wondered to myself if there was still a need to develop the kind of professionalism Lenin wrote about in “What is to be done” while dropping all the “democratic centralist” mumbo-jumbo. I wish the NPA luck in their attempt to do something different from what has failed in the past, but nothing is guaranteed in politics—especially revolutionary politics.

Speaking on Der Linke was Luigi Wolf, a leader of their youth group and a member of the Cliffite IST I suspect since he has written for their magazine and comes across as quite an astute thinker. Despite my disagreement with state capitalist theory and their continued adherence to “democratic centralist” dogma, the IST has an impressive cadre.

Wolf gave a very informative talk on the origins of Der Linke which was basically a coming together of a leftwing split from the West German SP and the CP of East Germany. Despite it being a relatively massive organization, it is not capable of the kind of disciplined and energetic activism of the revolutionary left. This is a function of the trade union and social democratic background of the Western membership and the aging and ex-functionary make-up of the East. Despite this, Der Linke has stood up to the neoliberal drift of German politics and has even raised the possibility of a political general strike to defend the working class gains of the Social Democratic era which, like everywhere else in Europe, is eroding rapidly.

3pm-4:50pm: Of Drones, Warlords and the Taliban: Ending the U.S./NATO Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

There were two speakers, Adaner Usmani, a member of the Labor Party of Pakistan, and my friend Derrick O’Keefe who is co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance and author of a book on the courageous Malalai Joya. I don’t want to say too much since I plan to upload their talks to Youtube. But I admit feeling genuine relish when Derrick raised the question about the failure of the American antiwar movement to do anything about the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Leslie Cagan, the chair of the feckless UfPJ, was in the audience. She shook her head no and mouthed the words “not true” in the same manner as Samuel Alito reacting to Obama’s State of the Union potshots directed at the Supreme Court. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to this scurrilous observer.

March 22, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Saturday sessions

Filed under: Academia,China,financial crisis,india,socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

For those who are not familiar with the Left Forum, this is a yearly gathering in NYC that began as the Socialist Scholars Conference in 1982. In 2005 there was a split between the more rightwing social democrats on the steering committee, such as Bogdan Denitch, and those more inclined to agree with the perspective of Monthly Review, Socialist Register, etc. The leftists launched Left Forum and the rightists pretty much faded from the scene.

I regard the Left Forum as an important event for the left and have seen it become more and more relevant to the class struggle. While it is nominally an academic conference (the original orientation to “socialist scholars” set the agenda pretty much on a permanent basis), it is not as rarefied as the Rethinking Marxism conferences in Massachusetts.

So here goes.

10am-11:50am: Developmental Terrorism in India Today

This is the second year in row that I have attended panel discussions organized by Sanhati, a network of scholars and activists focused on the struggles of the poor and the peasantry in West Bengal. As Marxmail subscribers know, we receive fairly regular communications from Sanhati whose website http://sanhati.com/ is must reading for those with an interest in Indian politics.

The first speaker was Sirisha Naidu, an economics professor at Wright State University in Ohio, who spoke about the conflict between indigenous forest dwellers, who rely on collective use of the “commons”, and private industry bent on exploiting the forest for commodity production. Years of struggle by the forest dwellers finally resulted in the Forest Rights legislation of 2006 that protected their rights within the usual pro-business loopholes you’d expect in any bourgeois laws. Despite the loopholes, the legislation has been a real aid to advancing the mass movement. You can read her paper The Individual Versus the Common in the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 on the Sanhati website.

Next was Svati Shah, who teaches Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the U. of Mass., where a number of Sanhati activists are based. She spoke about the economic forces driving rural people to Bombay (she used this word rather than Mumbai—why I am not sure), forced to migrate because of landlessness and meager resources—especially water that is being squandered by sugar plantations. Water shortages are also a big problem in the city where a new suburban neighborhood only gets water one out of five days from public sources. This has led to the sale of water as a commodity, a form of exploitation that will surely increase under the impact of climate change.

The final speaker was Siddhartha Mitra, a web developer in NYC who spoke about the Naxalite insurgency in the state of Chhattisgarh, an area where mining companies have clashed with indigenous populations. As is the case with all areas in which the Maoist guerrillas have gained a foothold, the objective conditions are rotten-ripe for revolution. Mitra stated that in the rural areas, largely unreachable through roads or any other modern forms of transportation, 1 out of 2 households lack water and 10 out 16 villages have no hospitals. Once the insurgency broke out, the local bourgeoisie launched something called “Salwa Judum” (purification hunt) that involved the distribution of guns and cash to the local population to be used against the Naxalites. You can read an account of his visit to Chhattisgarh at the Sanhati website: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/1921/

During the q&a, I asked whether Indian Marxists have theorized about the problematic of indigenous or tribal peoples in India living in precapitalist social conditions as an obstacle to the development of a proletariat. As someone who has studied this problematic in Latin America, where “stagist” conceptions have pitted revolutionaries such as the FSLN against their own indigenous populations like the Miskitos, I wondered if the Communist Party—a promoter of “modernization” in Bengal—had cast their role in such terms. My question did not seem to register with the panelists but I might follow-up on this on my own.

12pm-1:50pm: Lessons from Venezuela: Achievements and Failures

This featured three very well-known commentators—Steve Ellner, Greg Wilpert and Eva Gollinger—as well as two that were new to me: Carlos Martinez, the author of “Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots”, and Dario Azzellini, the co-director of a documentary “Venezuela from Below”.

All the talks were a mixture of interesting observations about the current situation in Venezuela with what I am afraid were muddled theories about “21st century socialism” which amounts to statements that the revolution is impossible to categorize, but different from statist, 20th century models, and filled with contradictions, etc. There was a certain amount of defensiveness from Steve Ellner who stated that the revolution would never satisfy “the Trotskyists”, both inside the country and out.

Azzellini went furthest out on a limb by trying to describe Venezuela as an example of “council communism” since so many councils were being formed with the encouragement of the government. Apparently, these councils would eventually change from quantity to quality and result in a full-fledged socialist state or something like that. He said that Venezuela was very much like the Paris Commune, perhaps in a bid to assuage the “Trotskyists” in the audience who needed reassurance that the experiment in Venezuela was in conformity with the Marxist classics.

In the q&a, feeling a bit testy from all the foggy rhetoric, I said that it might make sense to stop worrying about whether Venezuela conformed to some classical definition of socialism and perhaps be satisfied with the analysis put forward by Marxmail’s Nestor Gorojovsky, namely that Chavez was a radical nationalist not much different from Peron or a dozen other anti-imperialist heads of state. It is much better to leave it like that rather than to offer up definitions utterly lacking in theoretical rigor. I don’t think that the panelists were happy with my intervention, even though it was offered by somebody totally in sympathy with Hugo Chavez’s presidency.

3pm-4:50pm: The ‘PIIGS’, Baltics, and Hungary: Economic Crisis on the EU’s Internal Periphery

This was a look at the failed economies of the European periphery.

Jeff Sommers, who teaches at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Latvia, gave an excellent talk on the origins of the worst economic crisis in Europe today—perhaps greater than Iceland’s. Since I recorded his talk and plan to upload it to Youtube, I won’t say anything about it now except to recommend it highly. Jeff, as it turns out, is somebody I used to have email exchanges with long ago when he was on PEN-L. He has also collaborated a bit with two of my favorite people on Marxmail, the late and lamented Mark Jones and Jim Blaut. I will announce Jeff’s talk just as soon as I have worked out the kinks with IMovie and Youtube.

Mark Weisbrot, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an ubiquitous figure on the leftwing of the Internet, spoke about the financial policies of Wall Street banks that led to the disaster in the countries under discussion. I suspect that Mark’s talk was drawn from a paper on the CEPR website titled Latvia’s Recession: The Cost of Adjustment With An “Internal Devaluation”. Based on what I heard from Mark, this paper should be required reading for radicals.

Mark was followed by Salvatore DiMauro, a Geography professor at SUNY New Paltz who spoke about the situation in Hungary, an area that he specializes in. Apparently, the shock therapy that was administered there in the early stages of the crisis is intended to be a model for the other basket cases in Europe.

5pm-6:50pm: Debunking the Myth of the “China Model”: Is a Radical Alternative Possible?

This started off with a talk by Ben Mah, a Chinese private investor based in Canada in his 60s or 70s (shades of Henry Liu) who has no use for capitalism in China! However, the fire was mostly directed at Western banks rather than the Chinese elite, a tendency that I also associate with Henry Liu.

He was followed by two young academics studying/teaching in the USA: Tong Xiaoxi and Xu Zhun. They are part of an increasing participation by Marxist academics from China at the Left Forum, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, I have found nearly all of their contributions to be a bit academic—a function perhaps of the tight leash that the government keeps on the intelligentsia. It is one thing to invoke a Marxist analysis; it is another to tie that analysis to a program of political action. Tong Xiaoxi spoke about the forms of political protest in China, using conventional sociological discourse that at least had the merit of viewing protests as a good thing. Xu Zhun gave a disarmingly modest talk on the impact of changing agrarian relations in China which has had two stages. First, there was the conversion of collective farms into individual households which had the merit from the ruling party’s standpoint of undermining class solidarity. This was an advance over the old system, but insufficient for the needs of a “modernizing” economy. The next phase, currently in progress, involves converting the land for use by large commercial farms. In other words, China is undergoing the changes that took place in Britain or the USA but telescoped in time.

The last speaker was Michael Hudson, who is a lively speaker and interesting personality. He began by defining neoliberalism basically as a form of exploitation in which Western banks impose a dollar regime on a weaker country, strip its industrial assets and dictate terms favorable to imperialism. Supposedly, according to Hudson, China has rejected neoliberalism and is some kind of success story. To give you an idea of where he is coming from, Hudson referred to a book he wrote some years ago that has been translated into Chinese and is being discussed by the country’s nationalistic-minded economists, to his great pleasure. I can’t recall the title but it makes the case that protectionist policies guaranteed the success of American corporations. Somehow, this had little to do with “radical alternatives” to the China model and I made that point during the q&a. I asked Hudson what differentiated him from Paul Craig Roberts who makes similar points on Counterpunch. I also asked him what good China’s “success” did while it was at the expense of other East Asian economies that—according to Marty Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett—were the losers in the competitive export marketplace. He had no answer.

Tomorrow I report on the Sunday sessions.

March 21, 2010

A reply to Avishai Margalit

Filed under: Academia,Fascism,philosophy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:34 pm

Avishai Margalit

Princeton Professor Avishai Margalit’s new book was reviewed by John Gray in the latest NY Review under the title “Communists and Nazis: Just as Evil?” (Contact me for a copy since it is behind a subscriber’s wall.) When I read it, I dashed off a note to the professor calling him stupid and hypocritical. To my surprise, he wrote back saying that it was unfair to say such things without reading the book. Here was my follow-up:

Dr. Margalit, I want to take the trouble to explain why I found the ideas of your new book “On Compromise and Rotten Compromises” so objectionable even though I am relying solely on John Gray’s review in the NY Review. Ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to books on moral philosophy but Gray’s title “Communists and Nazis: Just as Evil?” was enough to make me read the review and follow up with an angry note to you. Frankly, I was surprised that you took the trouble to reply to me since I was only blowing off steam. My cranky emails to authority figures like President Obama or to you, the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, are more in line with Saul Bellow’s Herzog who as you might know devoted much of his time writing to public figures not expecting a reply. I guess that in the age of email, it is easier to connect in a way that was once considered more of a form of poetic apostrophe—as in “Twinkle, twinkle, Princeton Professor, how I wonder what you are?”

Now that I am 65 years old, you’d think that I would have gotten used to anti-Communist screeds, especially in a publication like the NY Review whose editors still appear to be making amends for publishing an article by Tom Hayden in the 1960s with a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the cover. They cannot let a month go by without publishing one of these boilerplate articles explaining to the world how Evil Communism was. You’d think that the USA was the next Nepal from these frequent warnings.

Anyhow, turning to Gray’s review, he takes up your analysis of two treaties, one between Britain and Nazi Germany; the other between Britain and Stalin’s Russia after the Nazi invasion. According to Gray, you find the first agreement a “rotten compromise” because it was a pact with radical evil. But the one with Stalin was okay: “Churchill was right, not because Stalin’s worst was not up to Hitler’s worse-than-worst, but because Hitler’s evil was radical evil, undermining morality itself.”

Not that Stalin was any angel. Gray quotes a passage from your book that strikes me as being in sympathy with some of the recent “revisionist” historiography in Germany that finds Hitler to be a mere piker compared to the Soviet tyrant:

….The politically caused famine of 1932–1933 alone brought about the death of some six million people…. Even if we compare the “purges” that Stalin launched in the Communist party to Hitler’s in the National Socialist Party, Hitler by then [1939] had very little to show in comparison to Stalin’s liquidation of 700,000 people in the Great Purge of 1937–1938.

….the GPU, better known by its later acronym of NKVD, was an instrument of oppression far more ubiquitous than the Gestapo. Until the war, there were about 8,000 Gestapo torturers, as compared to 350,000 in the GPU.

Leaving aside such a-b comparisons, someone like myself—an unrepentant Marxist—has to wonder how Churchill comes off as a kind of vestal virgin  trying to decide which suitor would be less likely to rob him of his innocence. Gray writes: “These facts may not have been known to Churchill in detail; but he was fully aware of the nature of Stalin’s tyranny. ”

Well, I doubt that Churchill cared much about “tyranny” in any case since the deal he cut with Hitler was fully intended to unleash the Nazi dogs of war on a country that was hostile to foreign investment. This ultimately was how the British government approached all foreign policy questions—from the standpoint of the Sterling note, not Platonic ideals of Good and Evil. Chamberlain was not “appeasing” Hitler. He was giving him the green light to destroy Bolshevism in the same manner that 21 invading armies had in 1919—including the British Empire.

All this was documented in Clement Lebowitz’s book on the Chamberlain-Hitler deal, which had a preface by Tony Benn that described the policy of the western governments “not [as] appeasement but of active sympathy and support for Germany.” Additionally, “there was a great deal of sympathy among the British establishment for what Hitler and Mussolini were doing. Indeed the essence of the appeasement policy was to persuade Hitler to abandon any plans he might have for an attack on the Western Front and to give him a very broad hint–if not an outright assurance–that if he turned East he could have a free hand.”

The other thing that gets up my nose is this business about Stalin’s cruelty toward the Ukrainians. Those schooled in history rather than the ethereal sphere of moral philosophy would surely understand that Stalin’s privations were simply just another example of the “primitive accumulation” described by Karl Marx in volume one of Capital (I understand that your MA thesis was on Marx’s theory of value, an undertaking seemingly in vain.) Compared to the British Empire, the USSR in the 1930s was a tea party. Just ask the Irish. Or all the Africans lost in the slave trade. Or the Indian victims of the British penetration of the textile industry. Or the Chinese victims of the Opium trade. It is my knowledge of this history by the “civilized” British that makes me realize how shrewd Gandhi was when he was asked what he thought of Western Civilization. He replied it was a good idea.

Things go from bad to worse when you pontificate on the Yalta agreement, which “accepted the systematically cruel and humiliating rule of Stalin over Eastern Europe…. It thereby rendered the Yalta agreement rotten.” I first heard these kinds of yelps about Yalta and Potsdam when I was a mere stripling in the 1950s and am puzzled to hear them now in 2010 when most educated people, at least those with a smattering of Marxist erudition, know that the West got much more than it gave up in these deals. Just ask yourself if it was worth giving up poor, peripheral Eastern Europe for a Western Europe that had the French Communist partisans agreeing to respect private property when they were effectively in power after WWII. I must say that it does not surprise me that you miss this angle since clearly you have a Manichean tendency to see the West as pure as the driven snow, despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the bombing of Dresden. Despite everything. I guess it is easy to adopt this sense of moral superiority when you work for a place at Princeton. After all, if you were capable of critical thought, you never would have been the recipient of a chair endowed in George Kennan’s name. The same George Kennan who once wrote:

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

March 19, 2010

The truth about health care “reform”

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

(I usually don’t crosspost from other blogs, but this is essential reading.)

Fact Sheet: The Truth About the Health Care Bill

By: Jane Hamsher Friday March 19, 2010 8:58 am

I’ll be on the new CNN show with Jon King that premieres at noon ET, available for live stream here — jh

The Firedoglake health care team has been covering the debate in congress since it began last year. The health care bill will come up for a vote in the House on Sunday, and as Nancy Pelosi works to wrangle votes, we’ve been running a detailed whip count on where every member of Congress stands, updated throughout the day.

We’ve also taken a detailed look at the bill, and have come up with 18 often stated myths about this health care reform bill.

Real health care reform is the thing we’ve fought for from the start.  It is desperately needed. But this bill falls short on many levels, and hurts many people more than it helps.

A middle class family of four making $66,370 will be forced to pay $5,243 per year for insurance. After basic necessities, this leaves them with $8,307 in discretionary income — out of which they would have to cover clothing, credit card and other debt, child care and education costs, in addition to $5,882 in annual out-of-pocket medical expenses for which families will be responsible.  Many families who are already struggling to get by would be better off saving the $5,243 in insurance costs and paying their medical expenses directly, rather than being forced to by coverage they can’t afford the co-pays on.


Protest against Obama at school that fired everybody

Filed under: Education,Obama — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

Former student Ashley Delgado, left, stands with a sign next to Joe Clavin outside Central Falls High School in Central Falls, R.I. on March 9. Instructors and staff will be fired after the end of the school year in a desperate move to improve student performance at the school.

Full story at Huffington Post

March 17, 2010

Left Forum meetup

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:54 pm

Readers of the unrepentant Marxist attending the 2010 Left Forum gathering in NY are invited to hook up after the Saturday 5:00 PM – 6:50 PM panels and go out for drinks, food and conversation at a nearby pub with Marxmail subscribers. We did this last year and had a really nice time. Meet me at the Monthly Review book table, the same place we met last year.


Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Last night I caught the initial episode of Justified, a new series on the FX cable network based on the writings of Elmore Leonard, who is an executive producer of the show. The 84 year old Leonard, who is one of my favorite writers, has written 48 novels mostly about low-life criminals and the lawmen that pursue them. They are written in a dry comic style that emphasizes dialog and straight-ahead exposition rather than interior monologue and all the other accouterments associated with High Art. That being said, he has been praised by writers such as Saul Bellow and is also one of James O’Connor’s favorites, as he confided to me a long time ago.

Within his body of work, you will find some works that transcend his usual cops-and-robbers focus and that obviously explain his appeal to both O’Connor and me. The 1987 Bandits is one of them, described on Leonard’s website as follows:

Bandits assembles an unlikely crew: an ex-nun, an ex-cop, and an ex-con. They’ve got their eyes on several million dollars that they’ve decided should not be sent to aid the Contras in Nicaragua. Of course, a lot of other people have their eyes on the money, too – including the CIA. But Lacy, Jack, and Roy have a plan. Their motives may differ, but one thing is certain: Together they’re going to make out like bandits.

One I have not read but that appears to be in the same vein as Bandits is Cuba Libre, a historical novel set during the Spanish-American war that is described this way in an allreaders.com review:

On his arrival in Havana just three days after the American battleship Maine is blown up in Havana harbor, Ben meets a collection of characters worthy of Elmore Leonard’s rich imagination. There’s the planter, Roland Boudreaux, his lovely girl friend Amelia Brown and his second in command Victor Fuentes, who is to take delivery of the horses. There’s also a vicious member of the Guardia Civil, Lionel Travalera and a hotheaded Spanish officer, Teo Barbon. Tyler kills Barbon in a gunfight and ends up in Havana’s notorious Morro Castle, along with one of the few survivors of the Maine’s destruction, Virgil Webster.

Slipping in and out of the story is Chicago Tribune reporter, Neely Tucker, a source of much of the background information about the coming war between America and Spain – and how it will affect Tyler.

Amelia and Tyler fall in love at first sight, and get together after a wild gunfight between Cuban revolutionaries and the guards at a nearly abandoned prison to which Tyler and Webster have been transferred. Amelia – fed up with the life of the idle rich and disgusted at the treatment of the poor sugar workers – and the revolutionaries develop a bizarre scheme to raise money for the revolution. They will tell Boudreaux that she has been kidnapped and demand $40,000 in ransom.

One of Leonard’s novels—Comfort to the Enemy—can be read online at his website. It appeared originally as a serialized novel in the NY Times, perhaps as a way of fulfilling the role once assigned to him as “Detroit’s Charles Dickens”. These are related tales about a character named Carl Webster, whose crime-fighting career began in the 1920s. The final section has him tracking down Nazi war criminals. This is how the novel begins:

A German prisoner of war at the camp called Deep Fork had taken his own life, hanged himself two nights ago in the compound’s washroom. Carl Webster was getting ready to look into it. Carl’s boss Bob McMahon, 17 years the United States marshal at Tulsa, said there was a question of whether the man did it on his own or was helped. McMahon shook his head over it.

“I doubt you’ll learn what happened. He’s a grenadier, the dead guy, Willi Martz. You ask about it, they look down their nose at you, deciding if they want to tell you anything.”

“I know what you mean,” Carl said. “Some of ‘em ever talk to you, it’s like they’re doing you a favor. But then they march off to work like the Seven Dwarfs singing the panzer song, Heiß uber Afrikas boden. Or the one about Horst Wessel, that pimp they call a Nazi saint. I never saw a bunch of guys liked to sing so much. And they’re serious about it. You imagine GIs singing like that?”

There’s little indication in the biographical material I have seen on Leonard that would explain his sympathy for leftists in Nicaragua or Cuba. Perhaps this is just a function of living during the Great Depression or else just one more indication that he is simply carrying out the essential function of the novelist which is to describe the human condition. While you can be a reactionary novelist (V.S. Naipul and Martin Amis—a fan of Leonard I should add—come to mind), most tend to reflect the contradictions of the society that they live in.

In a February 15, 1996 interview with the New York Times, Leonard stated “My heros are John O’Hara and Steinbeck and Hemingway. I studied Hemingway. I loved the white space on the pages. It meant there was plenty of dialogue to move the story along.”

My recommendation, of course, is to read Elmore Leonard but if you want a good introduction to his work based on a film adaptation, I’d recommend the Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight that featured George Clooney as a bank robber who has an affair with a US Marshal on his trail, played by Jennifer Lopez. Soderbergh really has an affinity for Leonard’s style and Scott Frank’s screenplay retains the witty dialog of the original novel for the most part. (Frank also wrote the screenplay for Get Shorty, another adaptation of a Leonard novel.)

The FX show is not without its charms but is simply not in the same league as Soderbergh’s movie. The main character is Raylan Givens, a US Marshal who has been exiled to his home town in Harlan County, Kentucky—home of the militant labor struggles recorded in Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary—after gunning down a gangster in a busy Miami restaurant. Givens, who might be described as a hair-trigger type personality, is played by Timothy Olyphant, a young actor who bears a striking resemblance to Bill Paxton and even sounds like him.

In the premier episode, Givens investigates the murder of a neo-Nazi carried out by an old friend named Boyd whose father, like Givens’s, worked in the coal mines. Boyd fought in the first Gulf War and became a white supremacist somewhere along the line. There is not much care taken in the development of his character, especially politically. He is prone to mix rants about mountaintop removal, a pet peeve of the environmentalist movement in Kentucky, with denunciations of the Jews, Blacks and immigrants. The character will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen “Law and Order”, a convenient villain that plays to an audience’s liberal sensibility.

That being said, the show is still worth watching if only for some of the dry Elmore Leonard humor that shines through all the otherwise conventional storytelling. The NY Times review makes this observation:

The dialogue sometimes has a snap that’s rare, or let’s just say nonexistent, in prime time. After Givens shoots a man in that Florida hotel and then, upon being transferred to his home state of Kentucky, promptly shoots another, his new boss warns him that he might be getting a reputation. “Put it like this: If you was in the first grade, and you bit somebody every week, they’d start to think of you as a biter.”

At any rate, a second-rate adaptation of pop culture icon Elmore Leonard, like his fellow icon Stephen King, is better than first-rate CSI or Law and Order episodes—at least that’s my opinion. Check it out on Tuesday at 10pm for yourself.

March 16, 2010

Life in Houston

Filed under: Texas — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

The city of the damned

The media is all abuzz over the truly outrageous proposals of the ultrarightist-dominated Texas Board of Education. The NY Times reported on March 12:

In economics, the revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. They also replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”

“Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation,” said one conservative member, Teri Leo. “You know, ‘capitalist pig!’ ”

In reporting on this development, the outstanding Harper’s Magazine linked to a collection of items about Texas that had appeared on their monthly Index, a roundup of startling factoids—always backed up by a citation. Here’s a few that should give you an idea of the kind of swamp from which these toxic weeds sprang:

  1. Number of Texas high schools that offered Bible courses as electives last year: 25
  2. Number of these courses that broke the law by being primarily devotional and sectarian, according to a September study: 22
  3. Amount appropriated by the governor of Texas in June to set up border-watching webcams: $5,000,000
  4. Number of U.S. counties where more than a fifth of “residents” are prison inmates that are in Texas: 10
  5. Rank of Texas among states in which the largest percentage of citizens lack health insurance : 1

All this brings me back to the time I spent in Texas in the early 70s as a Trotskyist on assignment. I reported on the confrontation between the party and the KKK here. I think that it would be worth it to give you a flavor of daily life in Houston that was less dramatic than that but related to it nevertheless. These are some random reminiscences about what it was like to live in Houston in 1973 and 1974.

Since this was before the SWP launched its “turn toward industry”, I still could work as a programmer without having people look dagger eyes at me. So within a month after arriving I had a job at Texas Commerce Bank (TCB) reporting to Billy Penrod, a 50ish Gary Cooper look-alike who had been a football player at Texas A&M until a knee injury forced him off the team. Billy once told me that he came from Gonzalez, Texas, a town he described openly as a “Sundown” town although he didn’t use that word. He put it this way: “Louis, if you were a nigger and found yourself in Gonzalez, you’d better not be seen on the street after dark.” Here’s how the preface to James Loewen’s recent book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” put it:

Anna is a town of about 7,000 people, including adjoining Jonesboro. The twin towns lie about 35 miles north of Cairo, in southern Illinois. In 1909, in the aftermath of a horrific nearby “spectacle lynching,” Anna and Jonesboro expelled their African Americans. Both cities have been all-white ever since. Nearly a century later, “Anna” is still considered by its residents and by citizens of nearby towns to mean “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed,” the acronym the convenience store clerk confirmed in 2001.

Unlike my native New York City, Houston took its jaywalking laws seriously. I was warned by comrades not to ever try to cross the street when the light was red. I got an idea of what frightened them one morning as I approached the front door of TCB and heard the traffic cop telling some guy in a business suit who had gotten on his wrong side: “Mr., I got a bullet in this here gun with your name on it so you better not give me no lip.”

My first year or so at TCB involved a fair amount of hazing until people got used to me. I might have been a Yankee and a red but I knew well enough to keep my politics to myself. I worried especially about the guy who sat in a cubicle opposite mine who used to read the bible everyday at lunch. I now understood why people had coined the term “Bible Belt”.

Whenever I got restless and went to a nearby shopping mall to find a book to read, the pickings were really slim. On the tables at my neighborhood Barnes and Noble, you’d might find some vaguely interesting postmodernist novel or a quasi-Marxist analysis of the pirate trade, etc. but down in Houston it was wall-to-wall “inspirational” texts with titles like “How Jesus can make you rich”. The obsession with getting rich in Houston was widespread. If Jesus couldn’t help you, you’d be able to pick from a thousand different books on how to make a million dollars in real estate or franchise businesses that everybody referred to as bidness.

I lived in the Montrose neighborhood, not far from downtown. Montrose was home to Houston’s bohemia, what there was of it, and the gay community. On the main drags, Montrose and West Alabama Boulevards, you’d see lots of adult (pronounced Ay-dult, emphasis on Ay) bookstores, topless dancing clubs, Burger Kings and Liquor Stores. My girlfriend Debby had been working as a topless dancer until the SWP organizer told her to cut it out. Yes, our branch had a rather heterodox membership.

One of the more interesting branch members native to Houston was a guy named Gene Lantz who was living in a commune in Houston as a kind of benign Charles Manson who slept with various female members of the household. They struck me less as flower children than as Desperate Housewives. All had become separated from their husbands and suburban lifestyles and were eager to blend in with the motley crew of Trotskyists that had colonized their city.

One day Gene brought me by to visit an old friend of his who was famous for keeping a 700 pound gorilla in his living room. Not quite in his living room, but in a cage that abutted it. The animal’s pen was at the end of a twenty foot tunnel that led toward the living room and was in the habit of running down the tunnel gathering speed until he careened against the bars. The owner got a big kick out of this since it tended to scare the bejeesus out of first-time visitors like me. I fantasized occasionally about the gorilla getting his hands on his captor and ripping his face off.

One of my best friends outside the party was a young woman who had graduated from the University of Texas and had taken a job at TCB. Her boyfriend, like my boss, had been a football player whose college career had been cut short by a knee injury. She was the first person at work I felt free to discuss my politics with but she was more amused than shocked by my beliefs. It was close enough in time to the big SDS goings on at the U. of Texas for her to understand where I was coming from. I used to spend lots of time hanging out with the two of them at their rented house in Montrose drinking gin and tonics and shooting the breeze. They tried to hook me up with a friend of theirs named Dana something who was a reporter for the local television network. We never really hit it off but I was glad to spend time with her occasionally, a welcome break from the increasingly cult-like feel of the SWP branch.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I got from living in Houston for close to three years was how out-of-touch the Trotskyist leadership was with conditions on the ground in the USA. The city was swept up by a mad appetite for getting rich and the unionized workers, mostly in the oil refineries we first considered colonizing long before the turn, were totally into the cowboy life-style of the Lone Star state whether they were Black or white. Everybody dreamed to have a pickup truck, a four-bedroom house and a weekend ranch if they ever got that promotion that would afford it. I found my socialist ideals increasingly out of whack with the reality and sooner or later the contradiction would be too great to bear. Within three years the SWP would discover the industrial working class and make “petty bourgeois” elements like me so unwelcome that resignation would be the only acceptable course of action. More about that on another day.

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