Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2011

Three films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Opening at the IFC Center on Friday, Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre” is a powerful protest against the treatment of undocumented immigrants dramatized through the bonds forged between the citizens of a seaside neighborhood and a young West African boy eluding the cops. Departing from Kaurismaki’s bleak vision of society, this is a film that celebrates the persistence of fraternité in a country where liberté and égalité are rapidly eroding.

When a night watchman on the docks discovers a group of West Africans locked inside a massive container ordinarily used to haul cargo, he calls the cops who treat them as al Qaeda operatives. Despite having machine guns pointed at them, one member of the group, a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel, a non-professional discovered by Kaurismaki in a Paris suburb), bolts toward freedom—not understanding that he is in Le Havre rather than London, the destination sought by the immigrants.

When strolling by the docks, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a sixtyish shoeshine man, discovers Idrissa underneath a wharf up to his chest in the water. Are you hungry, Marcel asks? The boy nods yes. That is the beginning of a relationship that puts Marcel at great risk. He and his closest friends, who operate small shops in the neighborhoods, or workers who enjoy drinking at the local pub with him, are “old school” French of the sort that would likely vote for the CP and might have fought in the Resistance if old enough.

Marcel is happily married to Arletty, who the day before Marcel decides to shelter Idrissa is admitted to the hospital to undergo an arduous treatment for a cancerous tumor in her stomach. Arletty is played by Kati Outinen, a member of Kaurismaki’s long-time ensemble who starred in his 1990 “The Match Factory Girl”, a dark tale seemingly inspired by Theodore Dreiser about a female worker lashing out at sexism and class oppression.

Although of French origin, André Wilms is also part of Kaurismaki’s ensemble who starred as Rodolfo the penniless poet in “La Vie de Bohème”, his brilliant adaptation of the Henri Murger novel also used as a libretto for Puccini’s opera. One wonders if Kaurismaki was alluding to Rodolfo in “Le Havre” since Marcel mentions to Idrissa at one point that he led a bohemian existence when young. Indeed, there is an element of that lifestyle that he has retained based on the evidence of a record collection that includes Blind Willie McTell. After returning home from shining shoes, Marcel catches Idrissa in the act of listening to “Statesboro Blues” on his record player. There is no dialog at this point, only a knowing and sympathetic meeting of the eyes between the two in typically Kaurismaki minimalist fashion.

Described as a “political fairy tale” in the press notes, “Le Havre” is a throwback to classic French cinema. Perhaps as a result of operating far from the frigid terrain of his native Finland, Kaurismaki has allowed himself to warm up to both the city and citizens of a France yielding a story one part reality and one part imagination. It is a Le Havre that is both beautiful and a bit idealized. With a soundtrack studded by French cabaret songs from the 1930s, its proximity to the docks, and its lovable and somewhat dotty characters, you cannot help but think of L’Atalante.

You will also be reminded of another classic that involved a paperless refugee seeking freedom. Despite being made in Hollywood, “Casablanca” is as quintessentially French (and idealized) as “Le Havre”. It also includes a cop determined to nab the undocumented alien who will remind you of Claude Rains.

Although I might be biased in considering Aki Kaurismaki the most gifted film-maker in the world today, I offer my strongest recommendations for “Le Havre”. This is a film that Kaurismaki described in the press notes:

The European cinema has not much addressed the continuously worsening financial, political, and above all, moral crisis that has lead to the ever-unsolved question of refugees; refugees trying to find their way into the EU from abroad, and their irregular, often substandard treatment.

I have no answer to this problem, but I still wanted to deal with this matter in this anyhow unrealistic film.

‘Nuff said.

After seeing films like “Catfish” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” that were highly touted as pushing the envelope of the documentary genre but failed to deliver, I am thrilled to announce that director Eric Leiser has made a film that not only succeeds as an artistic experiment but one that has a poignant social message for an age of diminished expectations. The timing of the opening of “Glitch in the Grid” tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York could not be more appropriate since its main characters have been grappling with the same economic crisis that their peers are calling attention to in Zuccotti Park. Eric Leiser tells us in the press notes:

Glitch in the Grid is my third feature film and second live action and stopmotion narrative feature. The film was created by working almost non-stop, at times collaborating joyfully with others, but mostly alone for two years. I worked and lived between the US and UK during the worst of the economic recession of 2008/2009 and the feelings, financial limitations and oppressions of this period put a heavy stamp on the film, while also liberating it from certain preconceptions that often stifle the creative spirit. This is a personal, magical realist film between documentary and fiction with a vision of expanded cinema that I feel is rich with spiritual surrealism.

Esthetically, “Glitch in the Grid” is an amazing accomplishment. Mixing claymation type effects, time-lapse photography and collages of still photos and motion picture, the net effect is unlike anything I have seen in recent film. The closest analogy would be a mixture of Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”, and Richard Lester’s “Hard Day’s Night”. Switching seamlessly between the main characters hanging around a run-down apartment in Los Angeles discussing their job prospects in quasi-mumblecore fashion and dazzling animation techniques, “Glitch in the Grid” suggests that the challenge facing the characters and humanity at large is to bridge the gap between the mundane and the transcendent—admittedly a daunting task in a protracted economic downturn.

Of crucial importance to the film’s success is Jeff Leiser’s film score (Jeff is the director’s brother). Influenced by Philip Glass/Steve Reich minimalism, it is the perfect accompaniment to the visual feast on the screen.

I should mention that I chose the word “quasi-mumblecore” deliberately. While Eric Leiser chose to describe the quotidian problems of its main characters, which were exactly what they faced in real life, the film is absent the narcissism that runs rampant throughout this genre. I have always viewed mumblecore as a kind of denial of social problems and wonder if it is viable any longer in a period that demands that young film-makers take an unstinting view of the world around them. As such, Eric Leiser blazes a trail for others to follow.

Finally, a brief note on “You are All Captains” that opens today at Anthology Film Archive in NY. This is a post-colonialist type film that will remind you of “Even the Rain”, a film about the arrogance of Spanish film-makers trying to make a movie about Columbus in Bolivia, ignoring the present-day problems of its all indigenous cast who are swept up in protests over water privatization.

“You are All Captains” is much more modest. It is about a young film-maker played by Oliver Laxe, the director, who goes to Tangiers, Morocco to get young boys from an orphanage to take part in a low to no-budget movie. His goal is to “improve” their lives after the fashion of “Born into Brothels”.

Laxe’s communication skills are poor and the boys have trouble understanding his goal, especially since he has no clear idea of what kind of film he wants to make. Mostly he comes across like the hapless Thierry Guetta of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” who uses his video camera obsessively and to no clear artistic end. Not only is Laxe resented by the children he wants to “lift up”, the denizens of Tangiers don’t appreciate being filmed.

While this is an interesting concept, there is not enough there to sustain the film. It only becomes interesting when Laxe is “fired” by the boys who then make their own film about an outing in the countryside that has the advantage of a point of view even if it is not exactly connected to the rest of the film.

Recommended for those intrigued by post-colonial and post-modernist tropes.

Occupy the Hood–Boston

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 5:24 pm

Smedley Butler speaks to the Bonus Army

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,Soldiers/Veterans — louisproyect @ 12:16 am

(The transcript below of a Smedley Butler speech to the Bonus Army appears to be different from than the one seen in the Youtube clip above but given around the same time. My heartfelt thanks to the Veterans of Foreign War national office for sending me a copy of the article that appeared in their magazine Foreign Service in 1933.)

Foreign Service, December 1933

You’ve Got to Get Mad
Too Many Veterans Still Believe In Santa Claus
By Major General Smedley D. Butler

On the Firing Line for the V. F W.

America’s most colorful military figure, Major General Smedley Butler, is “off to war” again! He is responding to the V. F. W. “call to arms” by going on a speaking tour under the auspices of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U. S. Starting in Cincinnati on December 1st, he will visit ten different cities in as many states prepared to tell the truth about the vicious anti-veteran effects of the Economy Act. He will tell the public—in his own inimitable way—just what he thinks of those who would make the veteran bear the brunt of the depression. And he will preach the gospel of the V. F. W. to those overseas veterans who have not yet become members.

I HAVE been asked to give the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States some good advice. Boys, there is no use giving you any advice. You always do the right thing anyhow. This outfit always does. The V. F. W. isn’t a knitting society; it is a real outfit and it always pleases me very much to be invited to meet with you because I just love to go every place soldiers ask me to go. I have noticed that you are getting a little old, but you are the same lovable class of Americans as ever—dumb though you are. Anybody can put anything over on you but you are lovable just the same.

Usually soldiers don’t know what it is all about. Somebody beats a drum, somebody yells “Patriotism” and the soldiers go out, carry the guns, get shot, and, when there is no war, do all the suffering at home. Peace times they suffer and in war times they bleed.

When you got ready to go to war to lick the Hun, what did you do? You first learned how to fight, and a whole lot of brass-hats wrote a lot of instructions on how to shoot, how to march, how to do everything; so that you all marched together, keeping step. You all spoke the same language. You all had the same objective and when anybody asked you your general orders, you all said the same thing.

Now what happens? There aren’t any ten veterans in a hundred who will say the same thing to a man who asks them about a veterans’ question. No positive information. My advice to every Post is to go to school.

We are divided, in America, into two classes: The Tories on one side, a class of citizens who were raised to believe that the whole of this country was created for their sole benefit, and on the other side, the other 99 per cent of us, the soldier class, the class from which all of you soldiers came. That class hasn’t any privileges except to die when the Tories tell them. Every war that we have ever had was gotten, up by that class. They do all the beating of the drums. Away the rest of us go. When we leave, you know what happens. We march down the street with all the Sears-Roebuck soldiers standing on the sidewalk, all the dollar-a-year men with spurs, all the patriots who call themselves patriots, square-legged women in uniforms making Liberty Loan speeches. They promise you. You go down the street and they ring all the church bells. Promise you the sun,  the moon,  the stars and the earth,—anything to save them. Off you go. Then the looting commences while you are doing the fighting. This last war made over 6,000 millionaires. Today those fellows won’t help pay the bill.

All of these things you must be told so that you can present your case. Remember, we can’t win this alone. We have got to have the sympathy of all of our class of people. Go out and make friends with the farmers; they are a scrapping outfit. Be able to argue intelligently; know what you are talking about. Get all these people to join and then go after the enemy in the way that is provided for in your constitution. That is, go to the polls. Before you go to the polls, make every public office seeker state where he stands. Don’t take any alibi. A man who is not for the soldiers is against them. There isn’t any middle course. If he hasn’t got the courage to say yes for you, then lick hell out of him.

You can only lick him by every Post and every man going to school on your meeting nights, learning what it is all about with your instructions from your headquarters just as when you went to war. There is no difference between this battle and a sanguinary battle with guns. Learn what you want, learn to be able to express yourselves. If I were the Commander of a Post, I would have a speaking class so that everybody would learn to get up and shoot off his mouth. Bring into line all his family, all his friends, because the American people are absolutely fair. It is only this damned Tory class that doesn’t want this thing, doesn’t want the veteran class cared for. Don’t you realize that when this country started out, it wasn’t worth more than 2.5 cents, and that every damned bit of land we have we took at the point of a gun? The soldiers took it. All except a bare 60 millions that we paid France and Spain after we took their land from them. And now this nation is worth 320 billions by the work of the soldiers. So don’t let anyone bluff you. Stand by your own kind. That is what your conventions are for, to get together and learn to love each other all over again. Some of you have got falling chests and don’t look exactly right but you rub shoulders and it all comes back. There is a bond among soldiers who have slept in the mud together that nothing can supplant. Just get over your petty jealousies. Because one fellow may get ahead a little faster, the rest turn on him. You have been used to discipline and now you haven’t got it.

When you came home from the World War, you marched along Fifth Avenue, great heavy masses of men, all your feet moving together, one objective, one cause, all swaying back and forth as you went along. You were a unit. All the people of America applauded. But on the second day they disbanded you and they said, “To hell with you,” because you were then individuals and politically the soldiers never amounted to anything.

A whole lot of things face the veterans continually. Right now we are all called upon to support the administration. I know the soldiers; no matter what you tell them they are always going to support any president up to a certain point, but you must remember that you have two duties. One is to your own flesh and blood, yourself and your family; and the next is your public duty. Combined is another duty, equally important, and that is the duty to the people, the buddies who served with you, who have been hurt. Go along, do the right thing. We can’t afford to bust up this country. Nobody knows where these schemes are going to lead us nowadays. But they won’t work if the soldiers don’t make them work. You know that. Because we are the class that wins all the wars. Hell, this is a war, but at the same time you give some advice. In other words, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours to this capitalistic bunch. You have a difficult role to play because you can’t afford to have public opinion against you. At the same time, we must not desert the fellows among us who deserve help.

After all is said and done, the soldiers are one class of people and we deserve some-thing as a class. Never mind what we have done. Every other class is getting something but the soldiers. This organization, every other soldier organization, will    disappear from the earth if you don’t do something for your less fortunate comrades, the fellows who have done all the bleeding. So just think it over. You have a whole lot to decide. You have got to decide whether to put up NRA signs. I am going to put an NRA sign in my window but I am going to say, “Here, come across for the soldiers, too.”

It will come, don’t worry. You have been spanked two or three times. This is going to be a tough battle all the way through and you will have to be spanked and spanked and. spanked until you get mad enough to do something. There is no class of people in the world which has been as abominably treated as the soldiers in the United States, and it is all your own fault because you haven’t stood together. Two big veteran organizations fighting each other and the Spanish American War fellows get in between. Nobody joins hands, nobody joins together to fight a common battle for the class of people who do the dying.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States is a gorgeous scrapping outfit. There are no fakers in it. For that reason, it is a joy to be with you and it is our business as soldiers to stick together.

Let me tell you again. Just get together, learn your lessons, be able to say them in your sleep. Get together, follow your leaders. You have never had a leader in this outfit that sold you out and I don’t believe you ever will. I never knew a commander of another veterans’ organization who didn’t sell out every year. When you go down to Washington, you’ve got to growl and bite. When you soldiers agree to lay aside your petty jealousies and personal ambitions and fight as you fought in wars, you’ll get somewhere. Not until then will you get what you want.

You’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to hate. You’ve got to turn on these fellows who call you names such as “treasury raiders.”

The only trouble with you veterans is that you still believe in Santa Claus. It’s time you woke up—it’s time you realized there’s another war on. It’s your war this time. Now get in there and fight.

October 18, 2011

“Inside Job” is now online

Filed under: Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

Toscanini conducts the Internationale

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Marine veteran dresses down cops

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 2:18 pm

(Hat tip to Binh)

October 17, 2011

MLK Jr.’s spirit rises to the occasion

Filed under: african-american,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

October 16, 2011

Thoughts on Zizek’s “The Idea of Communism” conference

Filed under: Academia,Lenin,liberalism,postmodernism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

In a striking inability to gauge the mood of a good portion of its targeted audience, Verso Press distributed an announcement for this weekend’s “The Idea of Communism” conference with a couple of blurbs referencing its éminence grise and majordomo Slavoj Zizek as follows:

“Superstar messiah of the new left.” – OBSERVER

“Slavoj Zizek is a superstar of Elvis-like magnitude–a bogglingly dynamic whirlwind of brainpower.” – DAZED AND CONFUSED

Superstar… Elvis-like… Messiah…

No wonder so many people bought into the hoax that Zizek and Lady Ga Ga were intellectual soul mates.

To some extent this obsession with celebrity is understandable because the powers that be at Verso Press and New Left Review must see themselves in the same terms. Whether this has anything to do with the proletarian orientation of the movement that Marx founded is of course another story altogether. How odd that the goal of some “revolutionaries” today is a guest appearance on the Charlie Rose show or a profile in Vanity Fair.

While I was put off by the publicity, I felt I owed it to myself and my readers to take advantage of Verso’s live streaming of the event. I have become more and more aware of a kind of trend emerging around Zizek, Jodi Dean and Alan Badiou that is distinguished by its insistence on using the term communism as well as its admiration for Lenin. It is a barometer of opinion in the academy that “communism” and Lenin can be placed in the center of a professor’s escutcheon (likely after attaining the safety of tenure.)

While Zizek refers to himself frequently as a “die-hard” Leninist, there is some question whether he understands the fundamental basis of Lenin’s politics, namely class independence. In a October 29, 2009 interview with Jonathan Derbyshire in the New Statesman Zizek said:

I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama. I think the battle he is fighting now over healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The core of the campaign against Obama is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is that freedom of choice is certainly something beautiful, but that it only works against a background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. My position isn’t that we should sit down and wait for some big revolution to come. We have to engage wherever we can. If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of blow can be struck against the ideology of freedom of choice, it will have been a victory worth fighting for.

While many are the charlatans who spoke in the name of Karl Marx, starting with Eduard Bernstein, Zizek has the distinction of saying the most anti-Leninist things in the name of Lenin, it would appear.

Unlike Zizek, whose “Leninism” is of recent vintage, Badiou is a soixante-huit Maoist. While Badiou’s fellow Maoists (André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy et al) became turncoats, he remains true to his youthful beliefs. That, plus the fact that the Kasama Project speaks highly of him, gives him a certain legitimacy. That being said, Badiou seems to share the prevalent philosophical idealism of his fellow conferees (illness prevented Badiou from making an appearance).

Zizek, Dean, Badiou are clearly in the tradition of what Perry Anderson diagnosed in his 1976 “Considerations of Western Marxism”. Back in 1992 or so, when I was first exposed to the academic left on the Internet, I was so perplexed by all of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I found myself searching for an explanation of where it came from. I had given up my pursuit of a philosophy PhD in 1967 to join the Trotskyist movement and could not fathom why so many Marxist intellectuals were touting exactly the thinkers who I had abandoned 25 years earlier: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger et al. As Marx had put it, the point was to change it. Right?

Anderson, no matter his confusion over so many things nowadays, had a pretty good explanation:

Western Marxism as a whole thus paradoxically inverted the trajectory of Marx’s own development itself. Where the founder of historical materialism moved progressively from philosophy to politics and then economics, as the central terrain of his thought, the successors of the tradition that emerged after 1920 increasingly turned back from economics and politics to philosophy – abandoning direct engagement with what had been the great concerns of the mature Marx, nearly as completely as he had abandoned direct pursuit of the discursive issues of his youth. The wheel, in this sense, appeared to have turned full circle. In fact, of course, no simple reversion occurred, or could occur. Marx’s own philosophical enterprise had been primarily to settle accounts with Hegel and his major heirs and critics in Germany, especially Feuerbach. The theoretical object of his thought was essentially the Hegelian system. For Western Marxism by contrast – despite a prominent revival of Hegelian studies within it – the main theoretical object became Marx’s own thought itself. Discussion of this did not, of course, ever confine itself to the early philosophical writings alone. The massive presence of Marx’s economic and political works precluded this. But the whole range of Marx’s oeuvre was typically treated as the source material from which philosophical analysis would extract the epistemological principles for a systematic use of Marxism to interpret (and transform) the world – principles never explicitly or fully set out by Marx himself. No philosopher within the Western Marxist tradition ever claimed that the main or ultimate aim of historical materialism was a theory of knowledge. But the common assumption of virtually all was that the preliminary task of theoretical research within Marxism was to disengage the rules of social enquiry discovered by Marx, yet buried within the topical particularity of his work, and if necessary to complete them. The result was that a remarkable amount of the output of Western Marxism became a pro­longed and intricate Discourse on Method. The primacy accorded to this endeavour was foreign to Marx, in any phase of his development.

For Anderson, the key to understanding the “philosophical” turn was the series of defeats in the 1920s and 30s that left many intellectuals in despair. If Stalinist and imperialist hegemony militated against the revolutionary project, then the next best thing might be an academic career where a kind of watered-down Marxism might be tapped for interesting lectures on Alfred Hitchcock movies and the like for audiences at conferences in places like London or Paris, with travel and hotel paid by one’s employer. That would be much more profitable than writing analyses of the capitalist economy in order to help develop strategy and tactics for the workers movement. That might have been how Lenin became a celebrity of sorts in Czarist Russia but that route was excluded for the modern and chastened left academy. Plus, Alfred Hitchcock movies were a lot more fun than pouring over land tenure or labor demographics.

Household chores and other research projects prevented me from watching the entire conference, but I did manage to check out the Saturday morning talks by Bruno Bosteels and Susan Buck-Morss, and Sunday’s with Jodi Dean and Zizek. The brunt of my comments will be directed at Dean and Zizek, but I do want to say a few brief words about Bosteels and Buck-Morss.

Bosteels’s talk was a mild polemic directed against Zizek’s attempt to reconcile Marxism and Christianity, the subject of his 2001 “The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?” Bosteel’s talk first appeared as an article titled “Are There Any Saints Left? León Rozitchner as a Reader of Saint Augustine” in the 2008 Polygraph (19/20). It is essentially an indictment of St. Augustine as a precursor to modern day imperialism, a rather uncontroversial thesis given the fact that his “City of God” was essentially a defense of the Holy Roman Empire. As my senior thesis at Bard College was a study of this book, I confess to having no inkling of its sinister motives at the time. I was a big fan of St. Augustine’s Confessions that resonated with my own adolescent angst and assumed that “The City of God” would be more of the same.

At the time (1965), I never once considered that a book might serve reactionary aims. My only problem with Bosteels’s approach to this classic is that it can easily be interpreted as idealistic. In other words, St. Augustine’s bad ideas explain the horrors of the Crusades, etc. At the risk of sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, I would look at the Crusades as driven more by a need to challenge Muslim commercial interests and to open up trade routes, but that’s just me and my moldy fig Marxism.

The first half of Susan Buck-Morss’s talk on communism and ethics was largely incomprehensible, dwelling on ontology and other matters related more to philosophy than political economy. The second half was what Teresa Ebert once called a “postal” attack on Marxism, including the usual complaints that it prioritizes a working class that no longer exists, instructs women and Blacks to wait until capitalism is overthrown for its problems to be solved—in other words, a mindless caricature.

Buck-Morss is an Adorno expert and as such found herself in the good graces of the Platypus Society that is striving after a synthesis of the Spartacist League and the Frankfurt School. In an April 2011 interview with the group, Buck-Morss told the boys what was wrong with people like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh:

The whole discourse of “the enemy” or “the class enemy” in the Old Left was about putting people against the wall and shooting. I do not consider it progressive anymore, if it ever was, to justify violent insurrection on the basis that the state was not going to fall on its own.

Her grasp of economics is as sure-footed as her grasp of the nature of the state. The next morning she took the mike after Jodi Dean’s talk and relayed her concerns about the OWS 1/99 percent distinction that did not address the fact that many people in the United States were “capitalistic” because of their mortgages and their 401-k’s. When I used to sell the Militant newspaper door-to-door in the Columbia University dormitories in 1969, I used to hear the same argument. Little did I expect to hear it from a relatively famous almost-Marxist professor.

Google “Jodi Dean” and “Communist Desire” and you’ll be able to read the talk she gave this morning. It is a kind of psychoanalysis of the left:

If this left is rightly described as melancholic, and I agree with Brown that it is, then its melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history, its accommodations with reality, whether of nationalist war, capitalist encirclement , or so-called market demands. Lacan teaches that, like Kant’s categorical imperative, super-ego refuses to accept reality as an explanation for failure. Impossible is no excuse—desire is always impossible to satisfy.

My take on this is somewhat different than Professor Dean’s. My RX for combatting melancholia is victories, no matter how minor, against the bourgeoisie. To achieve such victories, it will require strategy and tactics that Malcolm X once described as  “designed to get meaningful immediate results”. Such actions are surely aided by a solid analysis of the relationship of class forces that can only be derived by a study of bourgeois society such as the kind found in classical Marxism and not Frankfurt-inspired philosophizing, I am afraid.

Zizek’s talk was a bad boy exercise in epater la bourgeoisie that he is famous for. He scoffed at the priority that the left had put on winning democracy and urged the need for violence, calling attention to how demonstrators in London had broken windows earlier in the year. Without breaking the windows, nobody would have noticed. Fortunately, the mass movement no longer pays attention to such provocative suggestions.

Dean unfortunately has bought into Zizek’s bad boy routine and even defended it against his critics. Google “Jodi Dean” and “Zizek Against Democracy” and you will be able to read a document that states:

Some theorists construe Zizek as an intellectual bad boy trying to out-radicalize those he dismisses as deconstructionists, multiculturalists, Spinozans, and Leftist scoundrels and dwarves.  Ernesto Laclau, in the dialogue with Zizek and Judith Butler, refers scornfully to the “naïve self-complacence” of one of Zizek’s “r-r-revolutionary” passages:  “Zizek had told us that he wanted to overthrow capitalism; now we are served notice that he also wants to do away with liberal democratic regimes.”   Although Laclau implies that Zizek’s anti-democratic stance is something new, a skepticism toward democracy has actually long been a crucial component of Zizek’s project.  It is not, therefore, simply a radical gesture.

Indeed, part of Zizek’s talk this morning dealt with exactly this question, scoffing at those leftists who care about which judge will be elected. He reminded the audience that Marx believed that it was only through seizing state power and abolishing capitalist property relations that true freedom could be achieved. That of course would be news to Marx scholars like August Nimtz, whose “Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough” revealed their commitment to what Zizek writes off. The book includes this epigraph that obviously Zizek would regard as liberal mush:

The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists — for in this country Democracy and Communism are, as far as the working classes are concerned, quite synonymous.

–Frederick Engels, “The Late Butchery at Leipzig.-The German Working Men’s Movement

And as far as the “ruthless” Lenin, scourge of democratic half-measures, was concerned, this was his assessment in “What is to be Done” of what the Russian socialists (he used this term much more frequently than communist) had to do to live up to the standards of the German social democracy, a party he was seeking to emulate:

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

That’s the Lenin we must learn from, not Zizek’s cartoon-like figure who comes out of a 1950s Red Scare B-movie.

October 14, 2011

Me, my mom, and Lazlo Toth

Filed under: antiwar,humor,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

About ten years before my mother’s death at the age of 87, a friend of hers told me on a visit to mom in upstate NY, while she was out of the room, that she was “slipping”. When I asked her to give me some examples, she said that her driving had deteriorated—a function largely of cataracts. She had also begun to lose her temper more and more easily. And the biggest problem apparently was her obsession with Israel, writing letters to the local newspapers on practically a daily basis with the latest hasbara talking points she discovered on the Internet using the Macintosh computer I bought her. The bad driving and the hair-trigger temper I could discount but the Zionism surely was a sign that she was losing it.

As I march inexorably toward my own “slipping” moments, I wonder when people will begin to take notice of me. My eyes are considerably worse than hers were when she was my age. I just got my driver’s license renewed—a stroke of luck—but I will not drive after dark. On losing one’s temper, I am probably even crazier than her considering my inability to tolerate a lot of the bullshit I read on the Internet or hear on television or radio. With the age of email upon us, I can’t resist giving some jerk a piece of my mind. Mostly the recipient is smart enough to ignore me, since I am obviously a bit “off”. Frankly, if someone like me wrote me a hostile email, I’d ignore it. I guess I often get a reply because I don’t write the conventional “you are such an asshole” thing but tend to be more sarcastic than anything else. I also use my Columbia email address to get attention. For some reason, big muck-a-mucks take my email address seriously even though there are lots of idiots at the university, starting with President Lee Bollinger and the dean of the business school Glenn Hubbard.

Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci

About ten years ago I reported on some exchange I had with some politician or academic “expert” who got on my wrong side to the PEN-L mailing list which prompted economist Max Sawicky to compare me to Lazlo Toth, a persona adopted by Don Novello, to goad big shots into replying to his goofy letters. Novello was better known for his Father Guido Sarducci character on Saturday Night Live back when it—like Woody Allen movies–was funny. A typical Toth exchange looks like this:

Air Canada

From: Lazlo Toth …… November 19, 1977

To: Commanding Officer, AIR CANADA

Dear Sir: I recently flew on your airline and I must say I was more than somewhat disappointed! First of all, the stewardess asked me if I wanted to see the movie. I said, “No, thank you.” Later, when I asked for some earphones, she said, “I thought you didn’t want the movie?” She thought right, I didn’t want the movie, I just wanted to listen to some music, I told her. She said the music was only for people who paid for the movie! “Otherwise, how would we know you weren’t listening to the movie,” she said. How about the honor system? In my country they don’t go around accusing paying customers of cheating! I could afford to fly to Canada, do you think I couldn’t afford $2.50 for a lousy movie? Besides, that’s $2.50 in Canadian dollars — cheaper still! I saw a lot of people watching the movie who didn’t pay for it! Why don’t you charge to watch the movie instead of to listen to it? Why can you watch a movie for nothing but have to pay to listen to some records? It’s just not fair! Next thing you know, you’ll probably be charging people to look at record albums! Also, my tomato soup was ice cold! I thought it was because I was the only one polite enough to wait until everybody got served before I started eating, but when I told the stewardess my soup was cold, she said it wasn’t tomato soup, that it was tomato juice! How was I suppose to know it was tomato juice? What was the soup spoon there for then? I wasted two or three minutes eating it like that! Why don’t you label those things? If you can label “salad dressing,” why not juice and soup? I knew the salad dressing was salad dressing — what else could it have been — jello? Come on! Why do you label something that doesn’t need a label and not label the thing I mistook for something else? I think that by labeling the soup and the juice and starting free music you can make a giant step towards better understandings between both of our countries. Things are unstable enough without these things getting in the way, too. Your neighbor,

To: Lazlo Toth …… December 29, 1977

From: A.R. Godbold, Manager, Customer Relations, Air Canada

Dear Mr. Toth: We were very sorry to learn of your disappointment in some aspects of our service during your travel with us in November, but appreciate your giving us your observations. Recorded music is available on some of our flights at no charge; however, on flights where music is provided in conjunction with a movie, it is felt that, in fairness to all passengers, the charge for the movie must be levied on all passengers making use of the earphones. Soup is very seldom served by the airlines, because of the difficulties inherent in its provision, and it is regretted that this was not clarified with you. Thank you for your interest in writing. Yours very truly,

When I got up yesterday morning I spent my customary 30 minutes or so listening to AM radio. If WBAI was half as good as it was in the 1980s, that’s what I would listen to. No such luck, I’m afraid. So I listen to a few minutes of Boomer and Carton, a sports talk show, until I get tired of discussion about Alex Rodriguez’s contract. Then I’ll give the aging, crapulent shock jock Don Imus a few minutes until the right-wing guest he is schmoozing with becomes too much to bear. After Imus got fired by WFAN (he was replaced by Boomer and Carton), he moved over to WABC and became oriented to the reactionary pigs there. Ornery as ever, Imus will call Rush Limbaugh a fat, drug-taking idiot but will bend over backwards to be courteous to Sean Hannity.

Last stop on the AM express is the Mark Riley show on WWRL a black-owned and black-oriented station that used to be devoted to Air America programming until that liberal garbage dump went under. Riley is an African-American and in Obama’s back pocket just like Al Sharpton who has a show on the same station at 9pm. Mostly I listen to the show for the men and women calling in from the Black community, about half of whom are disgusted with Obama.

Barry Blechman

That day I turned to Riley’s show when he was in the middle of an interview with Barry Blechman, the director of the Stimson Center. Blechman was making the case that Iran was guilty of conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador. Feeling some pressure to maintain a progressive veneer, Riley asked Blechman to explain some of the obvious inconsistencies—like why Iran would want to deal with a used car salesman who was in no position to line up Mexican drug cartel gunmen, let alone his next month’s rent.

Blechman assured him that there was hard proof of Iran’s involvement, starting with the wire transfer of money to said used car salesman. That was enough to set my hair on fire.

When I got to work an hour or so later, I dashed off this email to Blechman:

You said that the wire transfer of money proved that Iran was behind the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador. Aren’t you aware that wire transfers from Iran to American banks are prohibited? How in the world did you get into the position of speaking as an expert? Or is your role the same as Judith Miller’s?

I had a feeling that this would get under his skin, as would later be borne out:

Dear Mr. Proyest, [sic]

        Thanks for your comment; it’s nice to know that someone was listening.   According to the sworn affidavit of the FBI official submitted in support of the indictment, two transfers of $49,960 each were made from Iran to an unnamed US bank.  Now you may believe that FBI officials will swear to information they know is false in legal proceedings, but I don’t.  One explanation might be that knowing of the plot, the government permitted the transfers to be made, even though they are prohibited by sanctions legislation.

The actual 21-page indictment can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/11/us/Iran-Plot-Indictment-Doc-Viewer.html?ref=us. It may answer some of your questions of fact.    Barry Blechman

My reply will surely irritate him further, hopefully enough to prompt another email:

“Now you may believe that FBI officials will swear to information they know is false in legal proceedings”

Well, I for one am not shocked that gambling is going on at Rick’s place either.

As far as the wire transfer is concerned, this is absurd on the face of it—leaving aside the question of the sanctions legislation. Haven’t you ever seen a good spy movie? Payments are not made by wire transfers. They are made in cash transported around in a good, solid aluminum briefcase by a character named Abu Hassan. You know the kind of dirty Arab or Iranian I am talking about—they get killed by Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the bloody finale.

Btw, have to chuckle about your credentials as a nuclear disarmament expert running something called the Stimson Center. That’s like an environmentalist running the James G. Watt Center.

“…in [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.

“During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…”

– Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate For Change, pg. 380

In a Newsweek interview, Eisenhower again recalled the meeting with Stimson:

“…the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

– Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63

Look to this space for updates to the great Lazlo Toth/Unrepentant Marxist-Barry Blechman debate.

One percenter

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

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