Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 18, 2011

The Raid on Zuccotti Park

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

November 15, 2011

Shining a light on the black bloc, part 1: Italian autonomism

Filed under: black bloc idiots — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

The young Toni Negri

Starting with Seattle in 1999, there has been controversy over the role of black bloc tactics in major mobilizations. Although I have had plenty to say about it in the past, I never really got to the bottom of where it came from. This is the first in a series of posts that will try to answer that question as well as review the impact it has had on various mass actions, starting with Seattle and ending with recent events in Oakland. While these articles will probably not change the minds of anybody who advocated vandalism or other forms of the “propaganda of the deed”, I do hope that they will give Marxists a better handle on the challenge they face in the mass movement and strengthen their resolve not to adapt to it in the spirit of a weak-kneed “diversity of tactics” liberalism. The stakes are very high indeed in a period of deepening class polarization when the heavy battalions of labor will begin to act in their own interest. Anything that stands in the way of their participation has to be challenged mercilessly.

In today’s post on Italian autonomia and the one that follows on German autonomen movements that invented the black bloc tactic, I will be drawing from Georgy Katsiaficas’s “The Subversion of Politics: European Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life“. This book, along with Steve Wright’s “Storming heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian autonomist Marxism“, are essential reading despite their frequently self-serving character, a function obviously of the authors’ autonomist affinities. Wright and Franco Barchiesi, a South African professor, started a mailing list titled aut-op-sy (Autonomia, Operaismo, and Class Composition) sometime in the 1990s that was shut down in 2004. It was restarted in 2008 and its archives can be read here.

Katsiaficas is virtually rapturous about autonomism although he is at somewhat of a loss on how to define it. To some extent, that is a function of its refusal to define itself:

Indeed, actions speak for most Authonomen, not words, and the sheer volume of decentralized happenings generated by small groups acting on their own initiative prohibits systematic understanding of the totality of the movement, a first step in the dismantling of any system. No single organization can control the direction of actions undertaken from the grass roots.

Unfortunately, Katsiaficas does not bother to address the question of what to do when actions go against the wishes of the broader movement.

I am not sure whether American activists were inspired by what was happening in Europe in this period, but they pretty much followed the same norms when they created “affinity groups”. It is entirely possible that the affinity group model predated autonomism, a research project for some graduate seminar on radical politics it would seem. Starhawk, a website committed to leftist activism of an anarchist/autonomist bent, has a write-up  on affinity groups that would lead one to believe that this form of organization—so to speak—is still going strong:

Organize in clusters! Form a group with your friends! Be loud! Look exciting! Have fun! What is an affinity group?

An affinity group is a group of people who have an affinity for each other, know each others strengths and weaknesses, support each other, and do (or intend to do ) political/campaign work together. Most of us will have had some childhood/formative experience of being part of a group whether informally, as in a group of kids that are the same age and live in the same street, suburb or town, or formally, as in being involved in a sports team. However, affinity groups differ from these for numerous reasons, as explained below, (hierarchy, trust, responsibility to each other etc).

The concept of ‘affinity groups has a long history. They developed as an organising structure during the Spanish Civil war and have been used with amazing success over the last thirty years of feminist, anti-nuclear, environmental and social justice movements around the world. They were first used as a structure for a large scale nonviolent blockade during the 30,000 strong occupation of the Ruhr nuclear power station in Germany in 1969, and then in the United States occupations / blockades of the Seabrook nuclear power station in ’71 when 10,000 were arrested and again many times in the highly successful US anti-nuclear movement during the ’70’s and ’80’s. Their use in sustaining activists through high levels of police repression has been borne out time and again. More recently, they have been used constructively in the mass protest actions in Seattle and Washington.

I hate to sound like an old stick-in-the-mud, but urgings to “be loud”, “look exciting” and “have fun” are lost on me. Now it is true that being 66 has a lot to do with this, but I wasn’t much different when I was 26. I have no objections to others wanting to have fun, just as long as it doesn’t involve vandalism or any other provocation that leads to a police riot.

The term “autonomous” can of course be used in a variety of ways. It can mean autonomy from bourgeois society, including its repressive family institutions, dress codes, and 9-5 drudgery. To become part of the autonomist movement implies cutting yourself off from the mainstream and living a kind of left-bohemian existence—of course with its own particular social pressures.

You really have to wonder how someone over 40 will fit into the autonomist milieu since everything about it suggests that is exclusively the domain of young people without any family or job responsibilities. In my visit to ANC headquarters in exile in Lusaka, Zambia back in early 1990 I was taken by how well integrated men and women in their 70s and 80s were. I strongly believe that this is the kind of revolutionary movement that we need. I of course am not endorsing the ANC’s politics but its willingness to create a big tent for everybody willing to fight on its issues, whatever their age.

Autonomists were affected by the “tune in, turn on, drop out” zeitgeist of the 1970s, no surprise given the mood of the time. A group in Hamburg issued a proclamation in 1982 that said:

The aspiration for autonomy is above all the struggle against political and moral alienation from life and work – against the functionalization of outside interests, against the internalization of the morals of our foes … This aspiration is concretized when houses are squatted to live humanely or not to have to pay high rents, when workers call in sick in order to party because they can’t take the alienation at work, when unemployed people plunder supermarkets … because they don’t agree with absurd demands of unions for more jobs that only integrate people into oppression and exploitation. Everywhere that people begin to sabotage, to change the political, moral and technical structures of domination is a step toward a self-determined life.

Given today’s realities, this sneering at the demand for “more jobs” is about as passé as a Nehru jacket. You can find elements of it in Hardt and Negri’s “Empire”, a book that was capable of being written only in a time of economic expansion. From my review of this best-seller:

What they call “antagonism and autonomy” resides not in trade union struggles, but in a phenomenon they call “refusal to work.” For those of us old enough to have danced to Janis Joplin, this phenomenon would be as familiar as an old pair of bell-bottom jeans. Just to make sure that everybody gets the message, this section includes an epigraph by Jerry Rubin: “The New Left sprang from … Elvis’s gyrating pelvis.”

So what was this “mass refusal of the disciplinary regime, which took a variety of forms” and which “was not only a negative expression but a moment of creation” but “what Nietzsche calls a transvaluation of values”? This mouthful of ungainly academic prose amounts to praise of the following:

  • Going to live in Haight-Ashbury.
  • College students experimenting with LSD instead of looking for a job.
  • “Shiftless” African-American workers moving on “CP” (colored people’s time).

In 1969 Italy went through what was called the “Hot Autumn”, a mass movement that had a lot in common with the revolutionary upsurge in France of May-June 1968. As is the case with the unfolding Occupy movement of today, you saw workers and students joining together in militant protests against capitalist misrule.

Like France, the powerful Communist Party of Italy did everything it could to put the break on the movement, many of whose most determined activists were either hostile to Stalinism at the outset or grew hostile after seeing it in action.

Although Italy, like France, was plagued by warring Trotskyist and Maoist sects, a majority of activists on the far left could be described as “new leftists” who were trying to develop their own approach. One trend was called Operaismo (“workerism” in English) that would eventually morph into the autonomist current proper. Italian “Workerism” did not have the same meaning it had in the American left at the time, where it was applied pejoratively to obscure Marxist-Leninist groups or factions within such groups that viewed all movements outside the point of production as “petty-bourgeois”. In Italy the term had more to do with a particular interpretation of Marx’s writings about class even though in practical politics it did mean focusing on working class struggles. It also meant trying to organize workers outside of the framework of Stalinism, avoiding or even confronting most of the traditional trade union organizations where the CP enjoyed hegemony.

Potere Operaio (Worker’s Power), one of the most important workerist groups, was launched in 1968 by Antonio Negri and others. PO then evolved into Autonomia Operaia (Worker’s Autonomy) in 1973, one of the first autonomist groups in Italy. There is a lot of overlap between the ideologies of both movements, but autonomism broadened the scope beyond the point of production and soon became closely identified with the squats occupied by young radicals throughout Western Europe.

While Autonomia Operaia retained much of Potere Operaio’s orientation to working-class struggles, other campus-based groups in the autonomist camp had much more of a counter-cultural character, especially the Metropolitan Indians, a group that dressed up and put on war-paint like indigenous people in the U.S., a sign of their “autonomy” from bourgeois society. Among their demands were free pot and LSD for anybody who wanted to use them and occupying empty buildings as sites for alternatives to the nuclear family. It was the “sixties”, after all.

In 1973 they stormed a jazz festival in Umbria and harangued the audience with the message that the “weapon of music cannot replace the music of weapons”. Apparently, they had a big fetish over the P38, a pistol made by Walther. (James Bond used the Walther PPK.) Obviously we are dealing with some very humorless people despite their feeble attempts to the contrary.

As was the case in the USA and Japan, European radical politics grew increasingly ultraleft in the 1970s, a function of frustration with the movement’s inability to make a serious dent on class society. Increasingly adventurist tactics, including robberies and bombings, led to stepped up repression by the state. By 1977, things were coming to a head in Italy. A nation-wide student occupation protesting an education “reform” bill prompted the CP to intervene on behalf of the government. On February 17 a two thousand strong detachment of CP trade unionists accompanied CP leader Luciano Lama to the campus of the University of Rome where he intended to deliver a speech against the occupation. Not long after Lama’s talk began, the Metropolitan Indians donned masks and led an assault on Lama and his supporters.  At least fifty people were seriously injured in the fracas. This violent attack gave the government the pretext it needed to launch an assault on the university. Two thousand cops raided the campus and used tear gas and clubbed everybody in sight. Sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it?

In my view it was a serious mistake to prevent Lama from speaking, no matter how repugnant his message. Radical politics has to proceed on the basis of vigorous debate, not fisticuffs. Furthermore, no matter how integrated the CP was in the Italian state, it was necessary to find ways to win the rank and file away from bureaucrats like Lama. This cannot be done by beating him up.

Lenin wrote “Ultraleft Communism: an infantile disorder” to help orient impatient young revolutionaries on how to orient to the SP and Labour Parties, the CP’s of his day. As difficult as it is to maneuver around such a hidebound party, you create more difficulties for yourself by trying to confront it physically. As a sign of the possibilities that existed in this period, a large crowd of CP members chanted for unity in Bologna in 1977 against government repression, something that was only met by contempt by the autonomists as Katsiaficas reports with relish. One doubts that such unity could ever have been possible given the fact that at a conference of the far left that year, some 8000 people “divided and clashed among themselves, smashing chairs over one another’s heads and failing to arrive at any solution,” according to Katsiaficas. If the far left couldn’t unite, how could it ever unite with the CP?

Some activists drew the conclusion that it was time to launch an armed struggle. The Revolutionary Brigades became the best known urban guerrilla group, becoming the counterpart of the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) in Germany and the group of the same name in Japan.

In a landmark legal case, Antonio Negri was found guilty of abetting the Revolutionary Brigades, who had kidnapped and murdered parliamentarian Aldo Moro, and spent four years in prison until his exoneration.

Negri’s defense was that he was merely a theorist working with an autonomist group that had no connection to urban guerrilla warfare or terrorism. While this was true, a close examination of Autonomia Operaia will reveal Metropolitan Indian styled “violence within the movement”. As was the case with the Stalinist movement it so despised, the autonomists frequently relied on physical intimidation against their opponents.

In the 2002 edition of “What Next”, a British journal with Trotskyist leanings, you can find an article by Tobias Abse titled “The Professor in the Balaclava: Toni Negri and Autonomist Politics”  that was written on the occasion of the publication of Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”.

Abse’s portrait of Negri is not very flattering:

[Giorgio] Bocca, an expert on terrorism who interviewed many BR members, many of whom he saw as misguided idealists, had no liking for Negri, whom he subsequently described as “that little university Lucifer” and “a narcissus with a subtle brain”, one of those who use “a powerful memory purely to assist their tricks”, remarking that Negri “knew how to copy well from books that had not yet been translated in Italy”. Bocca has no doubt that Negri, whom he sees as far more influenced by Nietzsche’s and D’Annunzio’s ideas about “the superman” than by Marx, lived out his fantasies, albeit by proxy.

The two concrete instances he gives of Negri inciting others to commit criminal acts on his behalf have a definite ring of truth; they are precisely the sorts of crime one can imagine amoral academics engaging in. Firstly, when Negri lived in Milan, he used to send the young autonomi he regularly received in his house out to the nearest bookshop to steal all the books that interested him. Secondly, and rather more seriously, he asserted his power in Padua University by getting his “reactionary” colleagues kneecapped, and then used to theorise in his usual jargon-ridden style that “the levels of the use of force of counter-power have been exemplified by the punishment of teachers who are particularly zealous in anti-proletarian initiatives: Galante, Santo, etc”.

In a review of Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” in the New York Review of Books, journalist Alexander Stille provides some detail on the kneecapping charge:

Professors and former students at the University of Padua, where Negri taught, describe a reign of terror in which, for about three years, the autonomi, who recognized Negri as their principal leader, took over buildings, disrupted classes, shouted down opposing speakers, set off bombs, humiliated and beat up professors, and intimidated dissenting students. During their so-called Nights of Fire, Autonomia set off bombs in several different places in or around Padua.

The gestures of what Negri called “proletarian self-affirmation” assumed truly grotesque forms: under threat of violence an elderly professor was forced by the autonomi to give an oral examination to a dog. Guido Petter, a psychology professor who had supported the student demonstrations of 1968, was so badly beaten with iron bars that he was taken to a hospital. Oddone Longo, a professor of ancient Greek literature and the dean of the literature department, was also savagely beaten by three autonomi wearing ski masks and wielding metal wrenches.

This attack was particularly cowardly: Longo already suffered from a congenital limp and walked with great difficulty so that he could neither defend himself nor run away. He was able to get his hand over his head so that when they tried to smash his skull, they ended up breaking the bones in his hand instead. Along with his effort to maintain the ordinary meeting of classes in his department, Longo’s principal offense was being a member of the Italian Communist Party—the bête noire of Negri and Autonomia. When I asked Negri about the beatings of professors at his old university, he dismissed them as the work of “a few stupid students,” for which he had no responsibility, and he became annoyed at my bringing them up. But if Negri disagreed with what was going on around him in Padua, he did not object to it at the time.

Just in case anybody is harboring suspicions that the Unrepentant Marxist is stacking the deck against Italian autonomia, I would advise you to read the chapter in Wright’s “Storming the Heavens” titled “The Collapse of Workerism”, and the section titled “The Movement Loses Direction” in particular. He states that by 1977, almost weekly confrontations between activists and cops undermined the movement’s ability to consolidate and extend itself, especially given its determination to define itself as a “youth” movement that had turned its back on the “older generation”.

Autonomist theorist Marco Belotti complained about the: “[t]he perverse spiral of raising the stakes in the direct clash with the repressive apparatuses of the state IN PRACTICE conceded hegemony to the deliriums of the armed struggle ideology [combattentismo].”

Considering Katsiaficas’s embrace of “anti-politics”, Wright’s observations, including another citation from Belotti, are particularly germane:

In this context, the refusal of politics became ‘the exclusive privileging of the “military'” dimension, while ”’revolutionary radicalism” became measurable only in terms of the hardness of the clash with the adversary, whether this be the state or the “deviationist comrade'”. At the same time, in many parts of the movement,

the unconscious/thoughtless [incosapevole] introjection of the thematic of ‘two societies’ turned snobbish, the total exclusion of any relation with the city’s working-class and proletarian fabric. (ibid.)

And finally, this rather devastating charge by Wright against a movement he is known to have championed over the years:

That the majority of autonomist groupings, by their arrogance, had recently squandered enormous opportunities was now also apparent to Scalzone. The ‘micro-factions’ of the Area, he noted in December 1978, had begun to reveal their fundamentally conservative nature earlier that month, when they had chosen to isolate themselves from the demonstrating metalworkers, ‘not all of whom, certainly, were union functionaries’. Amongst other things, this demonstrated that the attempt to apply ‘the classic model of democratic centralism’ within the various segments of the ‘organised’ Area had only generated ‘monsters’.

The combination of autonomist thuggery and Red Brigade terror had a lot to do with the implosion of the Italian left. While the Italian bourgeoisie was ready to carry out a repression even if the left had been far more intelligently organized, this was no excuse for carrying out tactics calculated to drive the average working class person into the arms of the government in the name of “security”.

Revolutionary politics is really a project that is designed to win people to a cause. This involves patient explanation. Once someone develops a revolutionary consciousness, there is little that the state can do to vanquish it. A broken window can easily be replaced, but a revolutionary mind is permanent.

November 13, 2011

Barbershop Punk; A People Uncounted

Filed under: Film,media,Roma,technology — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

As a grandfather, self-described libertarian, registered Republican and ex-cop, Robb Topolski would appear to be the least likely opponent of corporate malfeasance one can imagine. But when this barbershop singer and aficionado suspected that Comcast was preventing him from sharing files of historic recordings with other aficionados, he decided to get to the bottom of things. As a professional network engineer, he had the know-how to examine TCP-IP logs and discover a pattern, in this particular case one that revealed Comcast’s disregard for what would become known as “net neutrality”.

The documentary “Barbershop Punk”, now playing at the ReRun Gastropub Theater (!) in Brooklyn, a theater seemingly created for such offbeat fare, is must seeing for anybody who needs to be informed about the threat posed to the Internet by corporations with a political agenda. (Plus, the $7 admission includes free popcorn and a cocktail.) Unless an informed citizenry acts, they can turn the Internet into a commercial and politically sanitized medium just as they have done already to radio and television. This is especially true in light of how both the Egyptian and American governments have pressured ISP’s and companies like Facebook to squelch leftist ideas. Perhaps pressured is not the operative term when we are dealing with knocking down an open door.

The punk part of the film’s title derives from the participation of two seminal figures from this world, Henry Rollins and the less well-known Ian McKaye of Washington’s legendary punk band Fugazi (I owned one of their records back in the day.) Rollins and McKaye are both men of the left and could be expected to denounce Comcast’s attempts to regulate free speech but Topolski’s crusade against the corporate giant would appear at first blush to defy conventional expectations.

However, this does not account for the deeply engrained beliefs in free speech in the United States, a nation where such liberties were not won by appeals to Platonic ideals but by blood in the street. Topolski’s immediate reaction to discovering that his mp3’s were being blocked was outrage, just as my regular readers would react to learning that an email containing references to the words socialism or Marxism had been blocked.

First-time co-directors Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield draw upon a wide range of interviewees, both pro and con net neutrality. On the pro side, we hear from John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier and a Grateful Dead lyricist (admittedly not a punk band). On the con side there’s Scott Cleland, a particularly oily character. At first blush, Cleland comes across as a giant-killer inasmuch as he has campaigned against Google’s monopolistic tendencies. But a review of the members of his netcompetition.board should leave no doubt about his intentions: AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, Time Warner, Qwest, et al.

Last Thursday the Senate voted to block Republican attempts to overturn net neutrality. President Obama is on record as stating that if any such bill came his way, he would have vetoed it—a rare example of him standing up for the rights of the 99 percent versus the one percent.

But it would be a huge mistake to rely on the Democrats considering the role of Mike McCurry, one of the “cons” interviewed in the documentary. In a valuable article by Counterpunch regular Joshua Frank, we learn:

There is quite an underhanded campaign going on by Net Neutrality opponents called “Hands off the Internet” who claim to want to protect the internet from regulators and Big Government. In the past year they have even run deceptive ads on blogs and other websites in hopes of pulling internet readers in to their camp. Some of the big names behind these cunning ploys include AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon.

Co-chair of this group is the ex-spokesman for President Bill Clinton and other Democrats, Mike McCurry who writes an occasional column at the Huffington Post. McCurry claims Net Neutrality will kill the internet.

Fact is Net Neutrality is what has gotten us this far. Yet McCurry writes, “The Internet is not a free public good. It is a bunch of wires and switches and connections and pipes and it is creaky. You all worship at Vince Cerf who has a clear financial interest in the outcome of this debate but you immediately castigate all of us who disagree and impugn our motives. I get paid a reasonable but small sum to argue what I believe.”

So how much does this guy get paid? Well, not sure how much the big telecom giants are dolling out, but McCurry charges $10,000 and up per speaking gig, so it’s likely he’s bankrolled by the telecommunications industry. Hands off the Internet wants to destroy the web just like the radio goliaths have killed the airwaves.

Stay vigilant!

Not long after I accepted an invitation from the publicist for “Barbershop Punk” to review a screener, she asked me if I would also be willing to review “A People Uncounted.” While the film has not yet been scheduled for theatrical release and is currently only showing in film festivals geared to independent works, I strongly urge everybody to keep track of the film on its official website to see if it is being shown in your area. As the definitive documentary on the oppression of the Roma people, this is a film that must be seen by progressives and revolutionaries everywhere.

Until now, every film on the Roma has pretty much been the exclusive creation of the very gifted Roma director Tony Gatlif. Even in the case of “Korkoro” (the Roma word for freedom), a fictional tale about a Roma band exterminated by the Nazis, Gatlif’s emphasis has been on personal stories rather than the social and political context in which Roma have become scapegoats.

All of the principals behind “A People Uncounted” are Jewish, including the children of concentration camp survivors—the producers Tom Rasky and Marc Swenker. In acting as tribunes for the Roma people, they represent Yiddishkeit at its best.

The film is divided into two parts. The first is an examination of stereotypes about the Roma people and the threats they currently face in an economically stressed Europe. The second, drawing from the information gathered in the first part, is very much in the vein of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and consists of extremely moving interviews with Roma survivors of the Nazi death camps.

Perhaps no other people in European history have been the victims of vicious stereotyping than the Jews and the Roma. In one of the more powerful moments of the film, we see a sorry procession of pop singers like Cher singing songs with lyrics like this:

Gypsies, tramps and thieves
We’d hear it from the people of the town
They’d call us gypsies, tramps and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

Like the Jews, the Roma were very much circumscribed by the economic conditions laid down by the majority nationality of each country they found themselves in. In countries where they were prevented from owning land or businesses, they would travel from town to town in search of day laborer or where they could ply their trades as musicians or metal workers. This explains the “love of the road” attributed to them. When laws were passed to give them the same rights as other nationalities, they bought houses and settled into a stationary existence.

The film benefits from the expert testimony of some of the world’s leading Roma scholars, including Ian Hancock (née Yanko le Redžosko), the dean of Roma studies. About forty years ago, I read his history of the Roma people and can’t recommend it highly enough.

The European left has a big responsibility to help defend the Roma against increasingly deadly attacks by ultranationalists who want to make scapegoats of this community in the same fashion as the Nazis. The film has footage of the Jobbik Party in Hungary, modeled on fascist movements of the past. Harping on “gypsy crime”, the party openly calls for ethnic cleansing along the lines of “Hungary for the Hungarians”. It has organized a paramilitary called the Hungarian Guard that parades in uniforms that resemble the Hungarian fascist movement of the 1930s.

Things are not that much better in “civilized” and prosperous France where Sarkozy, of Hungarian descent, has declared open warfare on the Roma, expelling “illegals” by the hundreds.

“A People Uncounted” is a major contribution to civil rights movement that is unfolding throughout Europe. In our day, the famous words of Martin Niemöller would require some changes to reflect new realities:

First they came for the Roma, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Roma.

Then they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

November 11, 2011

Black bloc: we were inspired by Weathermen Days of Rage

Filed under: black bloc idiots,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

This is a clip from the documentary “The Weather Underground” that can be viewed in its entirety at https://vimeo.com/33006390. The two old guys–at least as old as me–featured in the clip are Bill Ayers, who starts off, and Mark Rudd.

From The Black Bloc Papers

An Anthology of Primary Texts
From The North American Anarchist Black Bloc
The Battle of Seattle Through The Anti-War Movement
Edited and compiled by David Van Deusen and Xaviar Massot of The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective

The Black Bloc can trace its historical roots all the way back to when- and wherever people comprising an oppressed class or group militantly rose up against their oppressors. Elements of the particular tactics of the Bloc were previously utilized by the Weather faction of Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS) in North America during the “Days of Rage” in 1969.

Another function of the Black Bloc is to push the protest at hand towards a more militant and socially comprehensive direction. Largely this was achieved by the Bloc positioning itself at the forefront of the demonstration and subsequently forcing an escalation between the State forces and the protesters. Simply by resisting arrest, refusing to remain on sanctioned parade routes, challenging police barricades and by actively directing its anger at corporate targets, the Bloc ensured that such an escalation would ensue.

The purpose of such escalation in part lies in the belief that such conflict necessarily results in the unmasking of the brutal nature of the State. The subsequent brutality of the opposing police/military force is revealed. The idea is that by showing the larger population the violent means by which the status quo is maintained, a significant number of people will become further radicalized by this physical and visual demonstration of the nature of the State.

November 10, 2011

Menhaden to be protected

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:58 pm

NY Times November 9, 2011
Panel Votes to Reduce a Forage Fish Catch

BOSTON — A fishing oversight group voted Wednesday to sharply reduce the allowable East Coast catch of menhaden, an oily forage fish that does not show up on dinner plates but is vital, scientists say, to the ocean ecosystem.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which includes representatives from 15 Eastern states and the federal government, voted to reduce the menhaden harvest by as much as 37 percent compared with 2010 levels after a review found the species had been overfished and needed to rebuild.

Millions of pounds of menhaden are caught along the Atlantic Seaboard each year, most by Omega Protein, a company that grinds it and reduces it to fish meal and oil that goes into fertilizer, feed for  livestock and farmed fish, pet food and even dietary supplements. But menhaden — which is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and is also known as bunker or pogy, depending where you live — is also an ecological building block, serving as a crucial food for larger fish like tuna, striped bass and bluefish, as well as birds and marine mammals.

“There’s really not much in the ocean that is as healthy to eat, pound for pound, as menhaden,” said Peter Baker, director of Northeast fisheries at the Pew Environment Group, which supported the catch reduction. “If these other species don’t have menhaden in their diet it becomes less nutritious and they’re more susceptible to disease.”

Mr. Baker said the menhaden fishery was the largest on the East Coast by weight and that the population had fallen to less than 10 percent of historic levels.

The bait industry also harvests the fish for use in lobster and crab traps, Mr. Baker said, though it is estimated to catch 20 percent of the harvest, compared with about 80 percent for Omega Protein.

“We’ve been pushing this fish into the red zone over and over again,” he said, “and we’re now at the critical point where it’s going to stop being able to reproduce itself and perhaps go into freefall and collapse if action isn’t taken immediately.”

In two separate votes, the commission members called for a minimum catch reduction of 23 percent and a target reduction of 37 percent until menhaden stocks rebound. It has yet to figure out exactly how to reduce the catch.

The only states whose representatives on the commission voted against the target 37 percent catch reduction were Virginia, where Omega Protein’s fleet is based, and New Jersey.

Jack Travelstead, a representative from Virginia, questioned whether the measure would really increase menhaden stocks, suggesting that environmental factors played more of a role.

“There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty,” he said.

Ben Landry, a spokesman for Omega Protein, said the company was disappointed and felt the commission was responding to pressure from environmentalists and recreational fishermen.

“One thing is certain,” Mr. Landry said. “The industry is going to have to face some significant harvest cuts that will lead to a lot of hard employment questions, and a lot of tough questions as to how they’re going conduct their operation.”

Several recreational fishermen at the meeting said they were deeply encouraged by the vote, which came after the commission received more than 90,000 public comments, mostly in favor of steep catch reductions.

“I think it’s great that so many states recognize how vital this fish is,” said Paul Eidman, a fishing guide based in Sandy Hook, N.J. “It’s just a start, but it’s an important one.”

Mr. Eidman, who founded an advocacy group called Menhaden Defenders, said that smaller schools of menhaden off the New Jersey coast had meant a drop in business for him in recent years.

“The general feeling in New Jersey is if we don’t have bunker the fishing’s terrible,” he said. “And in this economy, people just aren’t going to take a day off from work to fish unless they know the fishing’s going to be really good.”

But H. Bruce Franklin, who wrote “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America,” said a better step would have been to get rid of the so-called reduction fishing industry — harvesting menhaden for the manufacture of meal and oil — altogether.

“There’s no rational reason for this industry to exist,” he said. “If the maximum measures were taken right now, it might still be a little bit too late. But we’re hoping it’s not.”

* * * *

With its putrid smell, bony flesh and rancid oily taste, the menhaden would seem the least likely candidate for “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” the title of H. Bruce Franklin’s brilliant new environmentalist study. But Franklin is not being ironic. The menhaden is the most important fish in the sea if you understand its ecological purpose.

While it is understandable that groups like Greenpeace would take up the cause of sea creatures at the top of the food chain, like the great whales or the bluefin tuna, Franklin understands that without the easily dismissed menhaden, those above it on the food chain do not stand a chance. This includes the human race as well, since the menhaden is particularly suited to cleaning up plankton-ridden waters. As one of the few marine specimens that thrive on microscopic plant life or phyloplanton, it is uniquely positioned to purify waters that have become virtual swamps as a result of the massive influx of nitrogen-based fertilizers from farms, lawns and golf courses. With much of the Gulf of Mexico having been turned into a vast dead zone by fertilizer run-off from the Mississippi River, there is a drastic need for the humble menhaden.

The villain in “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” is industrial fishing in general and a particularly odious company called Omega Protein, whose website informs us that they “market a variety of products derived from menhaden, an inedible fish found in abundant quantities in coastal waters off the U.S. mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.” It might be inedible to human beings, but fish love to eat them. Franklin explains that what makes them unappealing to human beings has an irresistible appeal to prized food fish, including the striped bass and the bluefish. Once the menhaden eat phytoplankton, they convert it into omega-3 fatty acids that all living creatures require but are available from only limited sources, such as flaxseed, soybeans and walnuts. Unfortunately, the striped bass and the bluefish cannot stroll into the local grocery store to pick up a bag of walnuts.

full: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/05/28/the-most-important-fish-in-the-sea/

November 9, 2011

Preliminary notes on the New Deal

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

One of the most common complaints from professional liberals about Obama is that he has failed to deliver on the hopes they had for a new New Deal. After reading Alan Brinkley’s slim (116 pages) but informed biography of FDR, I can assure them that there’s not really that much difference between the two Democratic Party presidents. While not quite in the same category as the chapter on the New Deal in Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the USA, it certainly borders on damning with faint praise.

Even before he was elected, FDR was displaying some rather reactionary tendencies, although it should be added completely in line with the standards of the time (no doubt the same flaw demonstrated by Obama in spades.) Appointed by Woodrow Wilson to the post of assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR initiated a crack-down on gays in the area around the large naval base at Newport, Rhode Island. Enlisted men were assigned to entrap sailors and others (including a prominent Protestant clergyman). A scandal erupted over the excesses of the action and a Senate investigation led by Republicans rebuked FDR in 1921. Ah, the good old days…

As I have already mentioned in my article on the Bonus Army, one of FDR’s first major pieces of legislation in 1932 was a deficit-hawk Economy Act that cut benefits for veterans and government employees, ignoring the advice of the left.

The next piece of legislation in the First Hundred Days favored rich farmers over the poor ones. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was supposedly designed to aid all farmers but in the hands of the Farm Bureau Administration, it tilted in favor of the agribusinesses of the day. Farm income for them grew by 50 percent over the next three years, but the dispossession of small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers continued and even accelerated. Especially hard-hit were Black farmers in the South who were targeted by the Dixiecrats. If you think of all this in terms of David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession, it all made perfect sense. If Ford, GM, US Steel et al needed wage slaves, where else to get them except from the Deep South—either Black or white poor farmers.

In terms of Ford, GM and company, help arrived in the form of the National Industrial Recovery Act that created the National Recovery Administration. The goal of the NRA was to create trusts of the largest corporations that would establish price floors and check deflation. While there were some progressive aspects (elimination of child labor, maximum workweek hours of 35-40, and creation of Section 7(a) that would enable industrial trade unions), the main result was economic stagnation since the NRA was based on the assumption that overproduction of manufactured goods was at the root of the Great Depression. Here’s Clarence Darrow denouncing the NRA:

Not surprisingly, as Brinkley admits, FDR “faced growing disillusionment from the vast pool of the unemployed, and even from members of his own administration, who felt he was ineffectually improvising and was in danger of failing.”

Like Obama, FDR was rather loath to raise taxes on the rich despite rhetoric to the contrary. The Revenue Act of 1935 raised taxes on income over $50,000 but the bill had little impact on increasing government revenues or on “soaking the rich”. The bill was largely symbolic and helped to craft his image as some kind of leftist. In a campaign speech in October 1936, FDR spoke about welcoming the hatred of the rich but really did little to deserve it. His faux progressivism did help him beat Alf Landon, however, by a landslide.

Although his victory gave him a progressive mandate, FDR decided to move in exactly the opposite direction. Goaded by Henry Morgenthau, his secretary of the treasury and the Tim Geithner of his age, Roosevelt decided to balance the federal budget. The consequences were disastrous. Unemployment went from a low of 14.3 percent in 1937 (!) to a 19 percent in 1938 while the GNP declined by 5 percent.

He reversed himself in 1938 but by that time the New Deal was virtually finished. Brinkley states, “It did not end the Great Depression and the massive unemployment that accompanied it; only the enormous public and private spending for WWII finally did that.” In other words, he concurred with Harry Magdoff.

Needless to say, Alan Brinkley’s book—despite its overall integrity from a liberal standpoint—is totally insufficient. I read it to get oriented to a research project that might culminate in a book if I can ever discipline myself to stick to a single topic for more than a week.

Basically there has never been a book-length Marxist critique of New Deal liberalism to the best of my knowledge. The best things out there, besides Zinn, is an essay by Ronald Radosh titled “The Myth of the New Deal” that was a chapter in a book he co-edited with libertarian Murray Rothbard titled A New History of Leviathan. There’s also an article by Barton Bernstein in a book titled “Towards a New Past”–a collection of radical articles on American history that I plan to read before long.

About the best thing out there is Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step” that is focused on the creation of the CIO and that exposes FDR’s “plague on both your houses” politics that implicitly favored big business. Preis was a leader of the SWP and a first-rate journalist and working-class scholar.

I have all this material at home, as well as some other useful items on the WPA, etc.

I believe that it is absolutely necessary for the left to take on New Deal mythology and smash it once and for all. As is the case with Kemalism in Turkey and the PRI in Mexico, FDR’s liberalism is a kind of foundational myth for our own powerful bourgeois party crafted in progressive terms.

Even if this does not turn into a book, I will be filing reports on what I find out in the months to come.

November 6, 2011


Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm



For the general reader as well as for someone like me who grew up in what amounted to an American shtetl, the late Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s “Yiddishkeit” is a pure delight. Written in the “graphic novel” style that Pekar virtually invented (in his plebian style he preferred to call such works comic books), it draws together the repertory company of artists that the two writers drew upon so successfully in books on SDS and the beat generation and is a loving tribute to what Irving Howe once called “the world of our fathers”. Pekar’s work on this project was a kind of swan song since he died before it was published.

Although the book is a joy from cover to cover, the best part for me was the shrewd assessment of Yiddish authors by Harvey Pekar who finds Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most preeminent of them all, somewhat lacking.

Throughout his career, Pekar has always sought to shed light on artists who deserved wider recognition, whether they were local Cleveland jazz musicians or writers from the 1920s and 30s never taught in Freshmen literature courses. He rescues the aptly named Moshe Nadir from obscurity, describing him as the “major Jewish avant-garde literary figure”. Nadir wrote for a Communist paper and visited the Soviet Union in 1926, claiming that Communism would wipe out human misery. The Stalin-Hitler pact disillusioned him, however, just as it did so many writers from this period.

Beyond the writers covered by Pekar, the book serves as an introduction to Yiddish culture in general with sections on Yiddish theater and film, as well as profiles of famous Yiddish-speaking personalities from the past, including Abe Polonsky, the subject of a Buhle biography.

In the book’s prologue, Pekar explains his own engagement with a language that has virtually died off except for the Hasidic sects based mostly in Brooklyn. His parents both spoke Yiddish, as did he when he was young. He says, “The colorfulness of Yiddish and the rhythm of Yiddish made it fun to listen to, even though I was losing touch with it.”

This was almost my experience as well. Although I never really learned to speak Yiddish, I learned hundreds of words working in my father’s fruit and vegetable store when young. In the 1950s, most of my father’s customers in their 60s and 70s who came up to the Catskills during the summer were immigrants who preferred to speak Yiddish. I would ask them, “Vus vilsta” (that’s the way I remember it) which meant: “what would you like”. My biggest regret is not studying the language when young instead of wasting my time going to Hebrew school. Hebrew was the language necessary to recite one’s haftarah, or bar mitzvah recitation. You never knew the meaning of the words you were reciting, only how to pronounce them. Such empty rituals goes far to explain why Judaism is a dying religion in the U.S.

For his part, Paul Buhle had it over both Pekar and me, having mastered Yiddish as part of his oral history project interviewing veterans of the left who were in their 80s and older. Since most of them could only express themselves in Yiddish, he studied the language as both a scholarly and political obligation. This experience gave him an affinity for Yiddish culture that has stuck with him over the years as expressed through earlier works like “Jews and American Comics” and the three-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture”. The irony of course is that Buhle is not Jewish himself, although at this point our tribe should admit him as an honorary member. In a section of “Yiddishkeit” titled Guide to Celebrities, we discover that he is in good company. Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, and James Cagney all learned to speak Yiddish as well.

Speaking of Robeson, there’s a powerful tale told in “Yiddishkeit” about the great singer and activist’s divided loyalties between the Jews he felt such affection toward and the Soviet Union. In 1949 when Robeson went to Moscow to perform in concert, he asked to see his old friend Itzik Feffer, a Yiddish poet. He was told that Feffer had been killed in an automobile accident, an obvious lie. He later met Feffer quite by accident who informed Robeson that Yiddish artists were being purged, including poet Shloyme Mikhoels who had been executed. That evening, Robeson dedicated a Yiddish song to Mikhoels in defiance of the authorities. The audience wept at this and gave him a standing ovation. Unfortunately Robeson went no further in criticizing repression in the USSR out of a fear that this would increase anti-Communist passions in the U.S., a fatal flaw for both the C.P. and other groups on the left over the years.

I feel a special affinity for this marvelous book since Paul Buhle is a very good friend. But this is not a case of doing him a favor by lavishing praise since the respect he has earned in the course of writing over 40 books geared to the left and to lovers of Yiddish culture speaks for itself.

It was through Paul that I met Harvey Pekar who I had the good fortune to work with on a comic book about my life that will likely remain unpublished for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Back in 2008 I got a call from Paul asking me if I could put Harvey up for the night. Since I had been a huge fan of his work over the years, I was more than happy to extend some hospitality.

As someone who had become to think of himself as a kind of Studs Terkel figure, eliciting other people’s stories rather than recycling his own that he had likely grown tired of telling, he was curious to find out where I was coming from.

I spun out a tale of growing up in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s where people like Molly Picon, Moishe Oysher and Menashe Skolnik had performed in local hotels and at the Kentucky Club, a cabaret that our family lived directly above in our tiny village (shtetl). I told him about spending time with Barney Ross, the former boxer, WWII veteran, and drug addict whose life was dramatized in the 1957 film “Monkey on my Back”. Barney was the greeter at the Kentucky Club and would stand outside the club in his white tuxedo smoking a cigarette, lost in his thoughts. I was around 10 at the time and enjoyed chatting with him and taking occasional lessons about how to deliver a left jab.

I also told him about the “Mighty Atom”, née Joseph Greenstein, a self-styled Jewish strong man who was a vegetarian, wore his hair long like Samson, and performed stunts like bending an iron bar across his forehead even into his 80s at his bungalow colony in my village. Like Ross and the Mighty Atom, there was another strong man who came up to my village in the summertime. The powerfully built and mercurial Sid Caesar used to stay at the Avon Lodge, a hotel just a mile or so outside of town. He spent hours on end at the firing range near the hotel, working out his “spielkus” energy (another Yiddish word; it means “nervous”—at least that’s the way I remember it.) In partnership with the husband of my high school librarian, who turned me on to James Joyce’s “Dubliners” in 1959, the owner of the Avon Lodge built a bungalow colony called “Grine Felder”, in honor of the great Yiddish film of the 1930s that is translated into a comic book version in “Yiddishkeit”.

The Grine Felder was built in order to cater to Jewish Communist and Socialist vacationers who had become dissatisfied with a bungalow colony and gathering place that they considered second-rate. The bungalows were named after important Jewish figures, from Isaac Bashevis Singer (notwithstanding Harvey Pekar) to Emma Goldman.

None of this wonderful culture exists today. The Yiddish-speaking generation of my grandparent’s generation has died off. The only people who speak Yiddish today are the Hasidim, the insular and backward sect that all of the Yiddish writers reviewed by Pekar had an ambivalent relationship to. They hated the superstitions and the subservience to the Grand Rabbis but felt compelled to write about the experience of being a Jew in Eastern Europe or Czarist Russia, which included being part of this world.

With Jews being so thoroughly assimilated in the U.S. today, there is obviously a question as to the cultural relevance of Yiddishkeit today. As Paul Buhle pointed out in a memorable lecture I attended some years ago, being Jewish today does not mean speaking Yiddish or going to synagogue on Saturday. It means being committed to social justice and tolerance, values that are shared by young progressive Jews standing up for Palestinian rights. It also means having a sense of humor, especially about one’s one foibles. Anybody who has seen an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will immediately understand that Yiddishkeit is alive and well on those terms.

But more strikingly, there is evidence of a Yiddish renaissance today. The book has a chapter on Aaron Lansky, who spoke on a panel discussion with Paul Buhle a couple of months ago in conjunction with the publication of “Yiddishkeit”. Lansky is the founder and executive director of the Yiddish Book Center, a library with thousands of books rescued from the garbage bins. At the center’s website, he describes his passion for Yiddish as follows:

I was 19 when I began studying Yiddish. Suddenly an entire universe opened up to me. It was like discovering Atlantis, a lost continent, a treasure-trove of Jewish tradition and culture, sensibility, wisdom and passion, all locked up in this amazing modern literature.

This passion is obviously shared by many young people who have been downloading electronic books in Yiddish by the hundreds of thousands. Where this is all going is hard to say. One might conjecture that enthusiasm for Yiddish has something to do with rediscovering a Jewish identity that resists assimilation as well as the litmus test imposed by the state of Israel that has done everything in its power to make Yiddish a dead language. As the language of a people who have used their sense of humor and their rejection of the kind of crass ambition associated with the Bernie Madoff’s and Lloyd Blankfein’s of the world, the Yiddish language is a step in the right direction as is Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s magnificent “Yiddishkeit”.

OPD’s mousetrap

Filed under: cops/agent provocateurs — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Berlusconi’s mousetrap

Filed under: anarchism,anti-capitalism,Occupy Wall Street,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

November 5, 2011

Pham Binh radio interview

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

I think most people are aware that Binh has been writing some of the most profound analyses of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Listen to this interview with him conducted by another sharp guy Richard Estes.


Plus, an article on occupations past and present.



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