Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm


About a year or so after Hitchens began writing defenses of the war in Iraq, I stopped reading him. Bombarded as I am by wall-to-wall stupidity from network and cable television, op ed articles by Thomas Friedman, and all the rest, I just found no reason to add Hitchens to the menu.

But when I learned that he had cancer, I began reading everything he had to say about his illness including the final riveting piece in Vanity Fair that made it clear that the end was near:

I have come to know that feeling all right: the sensation and conviction that the pain will never go away and that the wait for the next fix is unjustly long. Then a sudden fit of breathlessness, followed by some pointless coughing and then—if it’s a lousy day—by more expectoration than I can handle. Pints of old saliva, occasional mucus, and what the hell do I need heartburn for at this exact moment? It’s not as if I have eaten anything: a tube delivers all my nourishment. All of this, and the childish resentment that goes with it, constitutes a weakening. So does the amazing weight loss that the tube seems unable to combat. I have now lost almost a third of my body mass since the cancer was diagnosed: it may not kill me, but the atrophy of muscle makes it harder to take even the simple exercises without which I’ll become more enfeebled still.

Ever since the time I spent working as a database administrator at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, arguably the most prestigious cancer hospital in the world, I have read first-hand accounts of those stricken with the disease with a mixture of curiosity and dread. Just a few days ago, I read an extremely powerful article by Earl Shorris in Harper’s (unfortunately not online) that described his latest hospitalization for lymphoma. Shorris is the author of many outstanding books, particularly “Jews without Mercy”. Titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic”, the article uses his illness as a metaphor for the current state of imperial America in defiance obviously of Susan Sontag’s refusal to see cancer as a metaphor for anything. Shorris writes:

The radiologist slides a disc into the machine to read the results of a PET scan; the radioisotopes in the glucose emit gamma rays in sufficient amounts to be absorbed by a scintillator, which will emit points of light in the general location of a part of a body using or collecting a large amount of glucose. This sugar-hungry place may be the bladder, where all the used sugars cleansed from the blood by the kidneys will be stored until they are excreted; or the brain, which converts sweets to thoughts at an astonishing rate; or malignant cells, the restless, immortal mistakes of nature. In the case of metastases, the body appears on a computer screen festively: lights in the evening of a life.

I was a Christmas tree.

Shorris’s lymphoma resonates with me since it is the same illness that took the life of Peter Camejo, whose insights I always found invaluable even during the time we had a falling out over money, and Harvey Pekar. When I used to talk to Harvey about Peter’s illness, he’d assure me that the disease was not a death sentence since he was cancer-free. Within a few months, Peter would be gone and Harvey would soon follow.

Years after leaving Sloan-Kettering I was haunted by images of the hospital. The sight of emaciated patients walking through the corridors with chemo bottles attached to their veins or children who had lost their hair lingered on a decade or more. That is not to speak of the terrible dreams I had, mostly of treatment rooms that I had never even entered. There would be a battery of frightening looking machines that really had no correspondence to any real ones, looking more like a Gahan Wilson cartoon in the New Yorker than anything else.

I can’t remember the name of the book, but at the time I read a kind of social history of the disease that mentioned Hubert Humphrey’s stay there. It pointed out that the treatment was worse than the disease, causing immense suffering with little prospects for recovery. It was understandable why the hospital was anxious to introduce a new computer system that would keep track of delinquent accounts. Typically, when a loved one entered the hospital and met the same fate as Humphrey, the aggrieved relatives of the deceased would refuse to pay their bills. My disgust with the hospital’s bottom line mentality led me to resign and go to Nicaragua in search of a volunteer job in Sandinista Nicaragua.

There’s not much I can add to what others have said about Hitchens’s political degeneration during his life and now after his death. I will conclude with a piece I wrote back in 1999 about the feud between Hitchens and Cockburn. While it is mostly about Cockburn, it anticipates Hitchens’s sharp turn to the right. The article argues that radical journalists often go astray because of a political downturn that leaves them disoriented. Perhaps if back in 1999 there was a powerful mass movement taking shape like the Occupy movement of today, Hitchens might not have gone off the rails. In any case, whatever his sins and peccadilloes over the past decade or so, I find myself touched by his death.

Feuding radical journalists

Yesterday Alexander Cockburn attacked Christopher Hitchens as a snitch and a drunk in his NY Press column. Hitchens was in the news because of his testimony in the Senate trial of Bill Clinton. He stated that long-time friend Sidney Blumenthal had told him that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker, after Blumenthal had denied this under oath. This means that Blumenthal can spend time in prison for perjury.

Cockburn tries to paint Hitchens as a latter-day version of Whittaker Chambers for snitching on a friend in the way that Chambers ratted out Alger Hiss, but the comparison seems a bit far-fetched. I agree basically with Frank Rich’s assessment on the op-ed page of today’s NY Times:

Christopher Hitchens and Sidney Blumenthal. Let me get this straight: Mr. Hitchens, a Clinton critic, signs an affidavit saying that his friend of 15 years, Mr. Blumenthal, a Clinton sycophant, aided Bill Clinton’s effort to defame Monica Lewinsky. Yet Mr. Hitchens also declares that he’d “rather be held in contempt” than actually testify against Mr. Blumenthal should the Senate put the Clinton aide on trial. The writer Christopher Buckley describes this dust-up as “a Chambers-versus-Hiss moment. . . . the kind of event in which one inevitably must take sides.”

Must we? If Mr. Hitchens won’t testify, there’s no case. Even if he were to testify, the case is still legally weak — given Mr. Blumenthal’s lawyerly testimony — and is at most a sideshow to the impeachment articles. Where are the huge principles to rally around? The fate of anti-Communism isn’t at stake — nor even the fate of the Clinton Presidency. What is on the line are the guest lists of certain Washington dinner parties, a lot of lawyers’ fees and Mr. Hitchens’s continued ability to command a spotlight on All Monica talk shows. This catfight isn’t Chambers-vs.-Hiss but Beaver-vs.-Eddie Haskell, less suitable for CNN than for Nick at Nite.

Cockburn, Hitchens and Blumenthal all started out the same way, as radical journalists in the 1960s. All three had loose ties to the organized radical movement. Cockburn worked with the Trotskyists at NLR, including Tariq Ali, Mike Davis and Robin Blackburn. Hitchens was a member of Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party, a British state-capitalist sect, while Blumenthal wrote for the New Leftist Boston Phoenix.

Cockburn and Hitchens have capitalized on their leftist connections and have become quite successful as “house radicals” at the Nation. Blumenthal shifted to the right in the 1980s, because he was never as anchored to the organized left as the two others. He went to work for Martin Peretz at the New Republic and dropped all his earlier radical pretensions. This made him a candidate for the White House staff of neoliberal Bill Clinton. The most interesting thing about the Hitchens-Cockburn spat is how much energy it has generated. Cockburn is totally consumed with hatred for Hitchens, while Hitchens spends much of his time trying to promote a career as a talking head on Sunday morning television shows, in a manner similar to Nation Magazine heavy hitter Eric Alterman.

It is difficult to regard Cockburn as a leftist stalwart nowadays in light of his own dubious trips down blind alleys over the past ten years. His championing of right-wing populism and Indian gambling casinos can only trouble erstwhile supporters like me. He has also cultivated an image of backwoods misanthropic crank that summons up poet Robinson Jeffers and other notable American nut cases.

What is the explanation for this sort of odd and repellent behavior? I think the answer lies in the Clinton administration’s hegemony. During the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush team rallied left liberals and radicals against a clearly defined enemy. After Clinton took office, the institutional ties between left liberals and radicals continued–mostly through writing assignments, jobs at foundations, etc.–but the political terrain shifted. The big name radicals were slowly losing touch with their radical base, so they tended to write more and more about their private obsessions rather than public concerns. In the old days, Cockburn would write 1 column about his vacation trips or restaurant meals or personal feuds to 10 columns about the mass movement. Now the ratio seems 50/50.

This a tough time for independent radical journalists. Without a vibrant mass movement, they tend to become disoriented. Their careers loom more importantly as approaching middle or old age reminds them about the need to feather their own nest. Quarrels with the IRS, the numbers of pages a column occupies, connections to powerful funding or job sources, etc. take over one’s thinking.

The other problem is that ideological confusion crops up more frequently. When volunteers returned from picking coffee beans in Nicaragua and spoke to audiences about how inspiring a revolution could be, this energy seeped its way into left-liberal institutions like the Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies. Without that energy, our radical journalists go off on tangents about what’s wrong with socialism, rather than what’s wrong with the capitalist system.

The only solution is a radical shift in the objective conditions. Radical journalists don’t tend to be too strongly grounded in Marxism, so they need constant empirical reminders of how rotten the system is. Some of these radicals might even defect to the establishment if empirical reminders don’t come in the nick of time. We are living in a disorienting period, but there are signs of change on the horizon. The election of social democrats in Europe is the first real sign of a shift away from the capitalist consensus. More changes will come, because the capitalist system itself is forced to produce them. That part of the Communist Manifesto is as true as ever.

December 15, 2011

Hit the North

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Hit the north
My cat says wheeeee-ack
Hit the north
90% corn-pone and hayseed, guaranteed
Computers infest the hotels
Cops can’t catch criminals
What the hell, they’re not too bad
And we’re just sssss
Hit the north
Will ya!
Manacled to the city, manacled to the city
Hit the north
Those big big big wide streets
Those useless mps
Just savages, just savages
Hit the north
My cat says eeeee-ack
Hit the north
Manacled to the city
All estate agents alive yell down the night in hysterical breath
And from the back of the third eye psyche the inducement come forth
Hit the north

Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

Guest post by Pham Binh

Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists
By Pham Binh
December 14, 2011

Occupy is a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-merge the socialist and working class movements and create a viable broad-based party of radicals, two prospects that have not been on the cards in the United States since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The socialist left has not begun to think through these “big picture” implications of Occupy, nor has it fully adjusted to the new tasks that Occupy’s outbreak has created for socialists. In practice, the socialist left follows Occupy’s lead rather than Occupy follow the socialist left’s lead. As a result, we struggle to keep pace with Occupy’s rapid evolution.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire socialist left combined has in four decades. We would benefit by coming to grips with how and why other forces (namely anarchists) accomplished this historic feat.

The following is an attempt to understand Occupy, review the socialist response, and draw some practical conclusions aimed at helping the socialist left become central rather than remain marginal to Occupy’s overall direction.

Occupy’s Class Character and Leadership
Occupy is more than a movement and less than a revolution. It is an uprising, an elemental and unpredictable outpouring of both rage and hope from the depths of the 99%.

Occupy is radically different from the mass movements that rocked American politics in the last decade or so: the immigrants’ rights movement that culminated on May 1, 2006 in the first national political strike since 1886, the Iraq anti-war movement of 2002-2003, and the global justice movement that began with the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and ended on 9/11. All three were led by liberal non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They sponsored the marches, obtained the permits, and selected who could and could not speak from the front of the rallies. Militant, illegal direction action tended to be the purview of adventurist Black Bloc elements or handfuls of very committed activists.

Compared to these three movements, the following differences stand out: Occupy is broader in terms of active participants and public support and, most importantly, is far more militant and defiant. Tens of thousands of people are willing to brave arrest and police brutality. The uprising was deliberately designed by its anarchist initiators to be an open-ended and all-inclusive process, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the failed conventional single-issue protest model. The “people’s mic,” invented to circumvent the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) ban on amplified sound, means that anyone can be heard by large numbers of people at any time.

One of the most important elements that makes Occupy an uprising and not merely a mass movement is its alleged leaderlessness. Of course as Marxists we know that every struggle requires leadership in some form, and Occupy is no exception. The leaders of Occupy are those who put their bodies on the line at the encampments and get deeply involved in the complex, Byzantine decision-making process Occupy uses known as “modified consensus.” Occupy’s leaders are those who make the proposals at planning meetings, working groups, and General Assemblies (GAs) that attract enough support to determine the uprising’s course of action.

The people leading the uprising are those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifices for it.

Since Occupy is self-organizing and self-led by its most dedicated participants, attempts to make its decision-making process more accessible to those who are not willing or able to dedicate themselves to Occupy 24 hours a day, seven days a week will fall flat. “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” is not just a chant, it is a way of life for Occupy’s de facto leadership.

This reality has affected the class character of encampment participants, who tend to be either what Karl Marx called lumpenproletariat (long-term homeless, hustlers, drug addicts, and others who have fallen through the cracks of the capitalist edifice) or highly educated (white) students, ex-students, and graduate students. The former joined the encampments not just to eat and sleep in a relatively safe place but also because they hope the uprising will win real, meaningful change. The latter tend to dominate Occupy’s convoluted decision-making process and what motivates them is identical to what motivates the lumpenproletarian elements: hope that Occupy will win real, meaningful change. Many of these people are saddled with tremendous amounts of personal debt, have worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or were unable to find work in their field despite their expensive, extensive educations. They were destined to be secure petty bourgeois or well-paid white-collar workers before the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis claimed their futures and put their backs against the wall. This is the material reality underpinning the determination of Occupy participants to keep coming back despite repeated arrests, beatings, and setbacks. Their determination is the stuff revolutions are made of.

The advantage of Occupy’s structure and form is that the Democratic Party, liberal NGOs, and union leaders have been unable to co-opt the uprising before it exploded into over 1,000 American towns and cities and targeted President Obama. The disadvantage is that it limits Occupy geographically to places where authorities will tolerate encampments and sociologically to the least and most privileged sections of the population, to those who have no where else to go besides the encampments and to those who can afford to camp out for weeks at a time.

The undocumented immigrant who works 60 hours a week and the wage slave who works 40 hours a week will find it very difficult to shape Occupy’s decision-making process. Attempts to scrap Occupy’s existing structures and forms to make them more accessible to those other than full-time occupiers carry two inherent risks: 1) opening it up to forces that would love nothing more than to turn the uprising’s fighters into foot soldiers for Obama’s 2012 campaign and 2) diminishing the power wielded by Occupy’s most dedicated participants. In places where Occupy does not take the form of a permanent encampment its decision-making process can be even more diffuse and difficult to participate in.

OWS’s Birth and the Socialist Response
The socialist left did not cover OWS in its daily publications until after NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed cornered women on a sidewalk near Union Square on September 24. The Socialist Equality Party’s coverage on its World Socialist Web Site began on September 26, the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s (PSL) coverage in Liberation News began on September 27, the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) first article appeared in Socialist Worker on September 28, and Solidarity’s initial discussion began on October 3.

This tardiness reflected the socialist left’s deep-seated skepticism at a protest without demands, a rally without a permit, OWS’s talk of prefiguring a future non-capitalist society in an outdoor camp in the middle of Manhattan’s financial district, and a “leaderless” “horizontal” process. The preponderance of these anarchist elements, combined with the socialist left’s theoretical sophistication and political preconceptions, led to a “wait and see” approach that consigned us to the role of rearguard, not vanguard.

The uprising succeeded not only in spite of its alleged weaknesses but because of them. Repression from above and determination from below combined to win Occupy mass support in the weeks after September 24. The socialist left made OWS a priority and moved beyond sending its members to OWS organizing meetings in early October as the unions, MoveOn.org, and other left-liberal groups mobilized for the October 5 march of over 20,000 to protest the NYPD’s bait-and-arrest operation on the Brooklyn Bridge the previous Saturday.

Socialists on Anarchist Terrain
Occupy is undoubtedly related to the “occupy everything, demand nothing” trend that appeared in student mobilizations against budget cuts to higher education in 2009-2010. David Graeber, the anarchist OWS organizer who coined “we are the 99%”, pointed out how anarchism informs Occupy’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of state and corporate authorities and its insistence on direct action, direct democracy, non-hierarchical organizing, consensus, and prefigurative politics.

The task for the socialist left with respect to these issues is to understand 1) how and why these methods dominate the uprising and 2) what to do about it.

Anarchist practices have become widespread because success breeds imitation. Just as the 1917 Russian revolution a century ago spawned communist workers’ parties with tens of thousands of members hoping to imitate the Bolshevik example in their own countries, so today the thousands of people inspired to imitate OWS in their own towns and cities copied what proved in practice to be an effective means of bringing tens of thousands of workers and oppressed people into motion, the socialist left’s criticisms notwithstanding. In the weeks following September 17 OWS’s facilitation working group, which is tasked with running the New York City GA, trained organizers all over the country in the modified consensus process with dozens of video sessions broadcast over livestream.com in addition to face-to-face sessions with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of OWS participants. Many of these trainees then traveled to other cities or returned to their home cities to launch new occupations.

Occupy is the vanguard of the 99% and OWS is the “vanguard of the vanguard,” to borrow an expression of Leon Trotsky’s. OWS’s vanguard role explains why its methods prevail over those preferred by more traditional organizations such as unions, liberal NGOs, and socialist groups.

The socialist left must learn to navigate Occupy’s anarchist terrain if we hope to shape and lead the uprising instead of being shaped and led by it. Trying to overturn existing practices in favor of Roberts Rules of Order, majority voting, and formally electing leaders by making proposals along these lines at GAs will fail because Occupy participants have not been shown by example that these methods are superior.

In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and if it is broke, show and prove what a better model looks like.

The reality of OWS is that the “horizontal” modified consensus method, the GA, and the spokescouncil are all highly dysfunctional but not fatally so (at least at this stage). Prior to the eviction, many OWS working groups began secretly hoarding street donations they received from the GA’s official finance working group (FWG) because they put lots of money into the general fund but faced serious hurdles in getting any money out of it for badly needed items due to OWS’s protracted, bureaucratic decision-making process. Also, because FWG administers over $500,000 in internet donations, many working groups saw no need to contribute to a fund flush with cash and resented what amounted to a one-way cashflow.

The money hoarding was part of a divide that emerged between full-time occupiers who felt disenfranchised and eventually boycotted the GA on the one hand and movement types (many of whom did not sleep in Liberty Park) who believed that the modified consensus process was the single most important element of the uprising on the other. This divide manifested itself geographically with the emergence of a “ghetto” and a “gentrified” area that was captured in a Daily Show segment.

The spokescouncil structure approved by the New York City GA, aimed at alleviating its frustrating and undemocratic logjams, simply transferred those problems to the spokescouncil while not significantly improving the GA’s process. All of these problems worsened after Mayor Michael Bloomberg evicted OWS from Liberty Park and OWS did not contest the eviction by returning there, a blow the uprising is still struggling to recover from (an improved encampment is planned for a new location).

Although the socialist left might see these problems as a vindication of its dim view of modified consensus and Occupy’s decision-making process generally, the task of socialists is not be vindicated but to aid the uprising in overcoming its stumbling blocks with practical solutions arising from the experiences of Occupy participants that utilize the uprising’s existing framework, infrastructure, and terminology.

Instead of proposing at a GA or a working group to scrap modified consensus from the outset, a more fruitful approach would be to raise process reform proposals only after building close relationships with fellow activists through joint work. If (or when) they become frustrated with the shortcomings of modified consensus, a suggestion to modify the 90% approval margin necessary to overcome a block to a two-thirds margin or 50% plus one might then become appealing.

The difficult, painful, and protracted process of trial and error cannot be skipped. We may be right about the shortcomings of modified consensus, but only peoples’ direct experience will prove it conclusively.

Socialists and Occupy Working Groups
Every local Occupy has working groups organized around a wide variety of tasks, a reflection of Arun Gupta’s observation that “all occupations are local.” The challenges facing OWS are not the same as Occupy Philadelphia, Portland, Mobile, or Nashville. OWS has over 40 working groups, some of which were forced to transform after the eviction (sanitation became focused on housing, for example) due to new circumstances. Local Occupys have adapted OWS’s model to their local needs and created a dozen or so working groups such as labor, demands, direct action, security, medical, food/kitchen, comfort, internet, media, and facilitation.

The socialist left has generally limited its participation in Occupy to a handful of working groups, usually those engaged in what Ross Wolfe of Platypus correctly described as mental labor — demands, labor outreach, direct action — and shied away from the physical labor or “grunt work” done by security, comfort, medical, and food/kitchen. This is problematic because it cedes the majority of working groups to the influence of other political forces (anarchists and liberals), inadvertently creating “Red ghettos.”

Prioritizing groups devoted to mental as opposed to manual labor is predicated on the false notion that running a kitchen or securing tents to sustain occupiers is less political or less important than talking about demands or ideological issues. When Genora Dollinger led the Flint sit-down strike in 1936, feeding strikers hot food was just as crucial to beating General Motors as picket lines were. Without one the other was impossible. The example of post-eviction OWS bears this out as well. At this stage of the uprising’s development, mass mobilizations and political discussions have no launching point or organizing center without a physical occupation, and the physical occupation of a space requires a lot of “grunt work.”

The socialist left must be involved with all of Occupy’s aspects and develop a reputation for being the most committed, most serious, most effective fighters. Only on that basis will we be able to effectively influence people and steer the uprising’s course.

Anarchists and the Black Bloc
One stark difference between Occupy and its great dress rehearsal, the global justice movement, is the role played by Black Bloc (BB) and the broader anarchist reaction to BB. BB (not an organized group but a tactic) came to the fore of Occupy for the first time during the November 2 Oakland general strike called in response to the police department’s crackdown that left Iraq veteran Scott Olsen in the hospital with a serious brain injury (he was hit in the face with a tear gas canister).

The first notable BB incident was the vandalism at Whole Foods and major banks during the November 2 day time marches. The second incident occurred when BB led a failed attempt to seize the Traveler’s Aid Society (TAS) later that evening after the general strike succeeded in shutting down Oakland’s port with a 10,000-strong throng. Although related, these two incidents should be examined separately because they involve different issues and had different dynamics.

The vandalism at Whole Foods seemed like a replay of BB’s infamous Starbucks window-smashings in 1999 that came to (unfairly) symbolize the global justice movement. Things turned out differently this time when BB’s actions touched off physical fights among demonstrators, with people shouting and eventually throwing objects at BB when they refused to stop damaging the property of Whole Foods and other corporate behemoths along the march route. BB acted with impunity in the global justice movement because the mantra of “diversity of tactics” prevailed, which, in practice, meant no one had the right to tell anyone else what they could or could not do even if their actions damaged the movement as a whole. This childish attitude has given way to a much more serious approach by Occupy participants who feel a strong sense of ownership over the uprising and will not allow adventurists to wreck it.

The Whole Foods incident led to thoughtful criticisms of BB’s actions in the context of Occupy from fellow anarchists. This marks a significant turning point in the maturation of American anarchism. The socialist left needs to incorporate this reality into its Occupy strategy.

Later that evening, 150 people led by BB occupied TAS, an empty building that became vacant as a result of recent budget cuts. After dropping a banner in celebration of the easy seizure of TAS, the crowd of occupiers swelled to 700 or so. They erected barricades at the two nearest intersections and set them on fire when hundreds of Oakland riot police appeared (the cops kept a low profile throughout the day). The fires and small barricades blocking the street did nothing to stop police from marching on TAS and arresting those who stayed to defend it (many BB fled to avoid arrest).

The reaction within the anarchist camp to the TAS debacle was even more visceral than to the Whole Foods incident. A local street medic blasted the BB members for fleeing the scene they helped create and a post on San Francisco Indymedia’s website presumably from those who led the seizure defending the action drew intensely critical comments slamming their political and tactical failures during the short-lived occupation. Kim Lehmkuhl even went so far as to describe the fire-starters as faux-anarchists, provocateurs, and used other profanity-laced pejoratives unfit for a political publication to describe their actions.

By contrast, the socialist left’s criticism of the TAS occupation focused on process rather than substance. Todd Chretien wrote in Socialist Worker that the action’s organizers failed to participate in much less win the approval of Oakland’s GA, that they underestimated the police, and “sought to replace the power of mass unity with the supposed heroism of an elite.”

These mistakes are irrelevant to why the TAS occupation failed. This line of argument is one of many indications that the socialist left may not fully understand how Occupy works.

The overwhelming majority of actions, especially direct actions, that Occupy engages in are not approved by GAs. Autonomous groups (sometimes working groups officially recognized by local GAs, sometimes not) call actions, and occupiers choose to get on board or not. If every group with an idea for an action had to get GA approval, said action would simply never happen because of the bureaucratic nature of the modified consensus process when used by large groups. Expecting anarchists, especially BB, to come to a GA for approval before taking action is not realistic, nor is it a viable strategy for dealing with the very real problem of adventurist trends within Occupy. Furthermore, the TAS occupation was not an attempt to hijack or disrupt an explicitly non-violent march by an ultra-left minority as the Whole Foods incident was.

OWS itself began with the “heroism of an elite,” the 100-200 people who risked arrest by sleeping in Liberty Park starting on September 17 to make their point. Without their heroic action, the “mass unity” of the Occupy uprising would never have been born.

The TAS occupation failed because:

1) They didn’t sneak into the building and begin quietly building fortifications inside to hold it. Instead they celebrated the seizure by blaring dance music, unfurling a large banner on the side of the building, and dropping hundreds of leaflets from above. This attracted the attention of the local media and alerted the Oakland police to the situation, which gave them time to muster their forces for an attack at the time of their choosing.

2) After celebrating their victory publicly, TAS occupiers set up ineffective, tiny barricades (not more than a two or three feet tall) strewn across the two nearest intersections. Neither of these barricades were manned with enough occupiers to hold those positions.

3) The mini-barricades were set on fire but not physically defended from the slow, methodical police advance.
Hundreds of people outside BB got involved in an exciting action that was ill conceived, poorly executed, and an avoidable failure due more to the organizers’ inexperience (no doubt this was their first time trying to seize a building with hundreds of people) than any horribly elitist ultra-left politics. Setting up barricades was a necessity, but their placement on the outside of the building half a block away with a few dozen defenders (who set them ablaze) did nothing in terms of accomplishing the goal of holding TAS. If 150-700 people unobtrusively barricaded themselves inside of the building and held it until the next day, TAS could have been a big victory and opened a new chapter in the uprising which, thus far, has depended on seizing and holding outdoor locations for mass assemblies.

Our tasks with respect to the anarchists are twofold: 1) to work with them in neutralizing adventurists and ultra-lefts when their activities threaten Occupy as a whole and 2) to out-compete them in daring, audacity, creativity, improvisation, and revolutionary elan in the most friendly, collaborative, and comradely manner possible.

Only when we do both will we truly be contending for leadership of the Occupy uprising and fulfilling our duties as socialists.

Reds and Blue
One of the socialist left’s most consistent criticisms of Occupy has concerned the issue of the police. PSL’s Liberation News ran an article entitled, “Are the police forces part of the 99% or tools of the 1%?” The Internationalist Group attributed the predominance of whites at OWS to its “line” on the police: “A main reason why there are relatively few black and Latino participants in Occupy Wall Street is this positive attitude toward the police, who day-in and day-out persecute the oppressed.” Socialist Worker correspondent Danny Lucia concluded an article entitled “Officer not-at-all-friendly” this way:

I’ll ask the same question now to all those chanting and blogging about the police being part of the 99 percent. When you chant and blog support for the cops, when you publicly speculate that maybe deep down the cops really like you, how does that make you appear to your darker-skinned comrades in the movement who have no doubts about how the police feel about them?
The New York City ISO even held a public meeting on the topic: “Our Enemies in Blue: Why the Police Are Not Part of the 99%.”

Socialists are duty-bound to object to politics, strategy, tactics, and slogans we believe harm or impede movements of the oppressed and exploited. On this point there can be no debate.

However, the socialist left’s objections on this issue are not rooted in the needs of the uprising but in our desire to “teach” Occupy Marxist orthodoxy. According to the socialist left, OWS was and is too friendly to the police, when, in reality, OWS had the opposite problem: hostility to the NYPD was so strong that incidents of groping, sexual assaults, and rapes that began almost from day one of the occupation went unreported for weeks. This practice changed as the incidents escalated and occupiers realized it could not be handled “internally.” (When such reports were filed, the NYPD blamed the victims, creating an opportunity for OWS to link up with SlutWalk.)

None of the daily socialist publications acknowledged or seemed to be aware of this development within Occupy, nor did they offer any practical guidance on what to do about the sexual assaults that plagued occupations across the country.

The socialist left objects to the inclusion of the rank-and-file of the police force in what Occupy calls “the 99%” by which the uprising means everyone outside the wealthiest 1% who destroyed the economy, paid themselves, and rigged the political system. These objections have been framed in a problematic way; the issues have been mixed up and, as a result, Occupy’s “friendliness” towards the police in the face of repression appears to be stupidity, insanity, or both. For example, Lucia wrote in the article quoted previously:

Maybe the horrifying [police] attack on Iraq vet Scott Olsen and the rest of Occupy Oakland will finally settle the debate inside the movement about whether or not the police are on our side. Up until now, some protesters have been determined to maintain sympathy for the cops despite the near-constant harassment of many encampments.
No act of police violence will “finally settle the debate” about whether the police are part of the 99% because there is no debate, at least within Occupy. The police rank-and-file are part of the 99%. They are the part of the 99% that keep the rest of the 99% in line at the behest of the 1%. The police rank-and-file are professional class traitors. Shouting “you are the 99%!” at them drives that point home far better than calling them “pigs” or “our enemies in blue.” PSL’s juxtaposition, “are the police forces part of the 99% or tools of the 1%?” is false because they are both. It is not a case of either-or.

To argue that the police are “not part of the 99%” means to argue that they are somehow part of the 1%, a radically and demonstrably false notion. This explains why the socialist left’s argument on this issue has gained zero ground within Occupy despite all the beatings, arrests, abuse, and brutality.

Where the police rank-and-file fit into the 99%-1% dichotomy is separate from questions like whether Occupy should march in defense of police pensions or if shouting “you are the 99%!” or “join us” at the police is something Occupy should do. These are the live issues facing Occupy that the socialist left should be discussing and providing a political lead on instead of criticizing who occupiers maintain “sympathy” for.

Occupy is absolutely correct in its openness to including rank-and-file cops in a struggle against the 1%. This correctness has been proven in practice many times over. Police in Albany resisted pressure from Democratic Governor Anthony Cuomo to clear and arrest occupiers. Retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis joined OWS and was arrested in full uniform during the November 17 day of action; he carries a sign that reads, “NYPD: Don’t Be Wall Street Mercenaries.”

It is precisely because the uprising says, “you too, officer, are part of the 99%” that Christopher Rorey, a black officer with the DeKalb County Police Department, emailed Occupy Atlanta for help fighting the unjust foreclosure of his family’s home. Occupy Atlanta sent a dozen occupiers, delaying the foreclosure temporarily. Now the bank (government-owned Fannie Mae) is taking legal action to force Rorey to turn over all email correspondence between his family and Occupy Atlanta, as if evicting them was not enough.

If the socialist left’s “line” on the police prevailed in Occupy and the uprising treated rank-and-file cops as “the enemy,” none of these things would have happened. If officer Rorey is not part of the 99%, then Occupy Atlanta is guilty of betraying our cause and siding with “our enemies in blue.”

No single socialist publication has mentioned Rorey’s case in any of its articles on Occupy and the police because doing so would force them to answer the most basic of political questions: which side are you on?

Occupy Atlanta was not afraid to pick officer Rorey’s side and we should not be afraid to either.

As socialists we should be going out of our way to organize actions that might split the police along class lines or cause them disciplinary problems. Cases like Rorey’s are a golden opportunity. It offers us the exceedingly rare possibility of fanning the flames of discontent within the police force, between the rank-and-file cop and his bosses, between the police force and the 1% they work for.

The tension between the police and their political bosses became evident after the Oakland police union issued a scathing rebuke to Oakland’s Democratic Mayor Jean Quan who ordered them to clear Occupy Oakland and then tried to distance herself from the crackdown after they nearly killed Iraq veteran Scott Olsen and provoked a general strike. Imagine the difficulty that would have emerged within the Atlanta police department if they had been ordered to clear the house of a fellow officer, his family, and “pro cop” occupiers.

It is for these strategic reasons that Occupy the Hood founder Malik Rhaasan spoke positively about the prospect of marching on NYPD headquarters in defense of their pensions. Such an action would put the NYPD in the awkward position of possibly pepper-spraying and arresting a “pro cop” march. Rhaasan’s position should also serve as a warning to disproportionately white socialist groups not to use the suffering of oppressed peoples at the hands of the police to make bogus arguments about Occupy and the police.

The task of socialists is not to “teach” Occupy that the police are “our enemies in blue.” Our task is to overcome the police as a repressive force, to neutralize them, as U.S. Marine and Iraq veteran Shamar Thomas did when he stopped 30 cops from arresting peaceful Occupy protesters at a massive Times Square OWS demonstration. Thomas shamed them, implied they were cowards, and told them there was “no honor” in brutalizing the very people they are supposed to protect. He utilized the contradiction between the stated purpose of the police and their actual purpose to impede police repression on behalf of our real enemies, the ruling class.

The Danger of the Democratic Party
After the socialist left recognized the importance of Occupy and got on board, it began warning of the danger of being co-opted by the Democratic Party. A typical example was Dan La Botz’s article “Occupy the Democratic Party? No Way!” which used current and historical events to make a very strong case against the Democrats but did not offer any practical guidance on how to avoid being taken over (aside from just saying “no” to the drug known as the Democratic Party).

This type of negative “don’t do the following” or “it would be a mistake if” advice to Occupy is common for socialist publications. Danny Lucia’s “Co-opt-upy Wall Street?” in Socialist Worker had a detailed account of how the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) broke promises made in joint meetings with OWS organizers when it took over the November 17 march to ensure there would be no traffic disruption on the Brooklyn Bridge or grassroots people’s mic speakouts at the closing rally. (Given SEIU’s union-busting in the health care industry on the West Coast, this betrayal should come as no surprise.) Lucia argues SEIU’s actions were part and parcel of its strategy to maximize the vote for the Democrats and minimize Occupy’s militancy.

However, the practical conclusion Lucia draws about how OWS should deal with this is to, “not to turn away from organized labor, whose participation in OWS in New York City has been one of the movement’s biggest strengths.” He continued:

OWS has breathed new life into a labor movement that has been in retreat for decades. At the rank-and-file level, the Occupy movement was a lightning rod for many people who have been looking for a way to take action. … Continuing that engagement with labor will be important for the future of the Occupy movement. And within unions, it will serve as a counter-weight against officials who want labor to go back to mobilizing only for the polls—rather than for the protests that have galvanized people around the country in a long overdue struggle against the One Percent.
These arguments are correct so far as they go, but they do not go far enough. These are not concrete, practical conclusions. Of course Occupy should not abandon its work with unions (no one in OWS is in favor of doing so), but refusing to shun unions in general does nothing specific to prevent SEIU from hijacking future marches. Should OWS organize any future actions in conjunction with SEIU since they have proven they cannot be trusted, especially as the 2012 elections approach? Should SEIU representatives be allowed to attend OWS logistics meetings? If SEIU tries to hijack another action, what should OWS do? March somewhere else? Hold an ad hoc GA to discuss a potential course of action?

The article says not a word on these burning questions.

The task of the socialist left is not simply to warn and advise Occupy about the danger of being co-opted by the Democratic Party (a danger that is keenly felt by a large number of participants, including liberals) but to propose, organize, and lead Occupy actions against individual Democratic politicians and the party as a whole, thereby creating facts on the ground that will make co-optation difficult or impossible.

For example, after Congressman Charlie Wrangel visited OWS to “show support,” OWS marched on his office because he voted in favor of a free-trade agreement with South Korea. In New Hampshire (a blue state), Obama was “mic checked” for his silence on the police brutality directed at Occupy and his refusal to do anything about the banksters’ ongoing destruction of the American economy. Jesse La Greca, who famously destroyed a Fox News reporter in an unaired interview that went viral, called for occupying the offices of “worthless Blue Dog” Democrats like Senators Ben Nelson and Max Baucus. OWS has also gone after an Obama fundraiser and the 2012 Democratic National Convention will also be a likely Occupy target (the host city has already tried to ban Occupy actions).

These actions are a reflection of the fact that Occupy is a rebellion against policies the Democratic and Republican parties have implemented for four decades, that most of the mayors who ordered crackdowns on encampments are Democrats, and that the uprising exploded under a Democratic president that millions of Occupy participants voted for in the hopes that he would govern differently than his predecessors had. For these reasons the uprising does not see sharp distinctions between the two parties, unlike the 2002-2003 anti-war movement.

This is not to suggest that the danger of co-optation is nonexistent but to point out that Occupy’s self-led self-organized nature does not lend itself to Wisconsin-style derailment (where the socialist left did not create popular bodies like GAs that could have served as authoritative counterweights to the union leaders and provided the basis for an Oakland-style general strike). Just as Occupy created new and unexpected forms, so too will the Democratic Party’s intervention into Occupy come in a form that is new and unexpected.

We must do everything possible to hinder that eventuality. Deeds, not words, agitation, not propaganda, are decisive now.

Given Occupy’s fluidity, the socialist left should be careful about ruling any course of action out. An attempt to “Occupy the Democratic Party” is not necessarily a road for activists out of militant struggle and into the voting both. For example, Occupy activists might decide to copy the example of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which held an integrated primary and then tried to claim the official segregated delegation’s seat at the party’s 1964 convention. This was an effort to bring the fight for civil rights into the Democratic Party, not an attempt to trap the civil rights fight in a dead end. We may see Occupy efforts to hold “99% primaries” that ban contributions by corporations and lobbyists and select delegates to the 2012 convention that challenge the legitimacy of the party’s official delegates. Such an action would probably be a road out of the Democratic Party since it would prove to thousands of people in practice that the party is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the 1%.

This is hypothetical but Occupy thus far has pulled off many creative and original actions that the socialist left did not foresee but then wholeheartedly supported once they emerged. Failure to be open-minded is what caused us to lag behind Occupy’s rise in the first place.

Some Conclusions
The most basic and fundamental task facing socialists is to merge with Occupy and lead it from within. Socialist groups that insist on “intervening” in the uprising will be viewed as outsiders with little to contribute in practice to solving Occupy’s actual problems because they will be focused on winning arguments and ideological points rather than actively listening to, joining hands with, and fighting alongside the vanguard of the 99% in overcoming common practical and political.

One difficulty the socialist left faces in accomplishing this basic and fundamental task is the divisions in our ranks that serve in practice to weaken the overall socialist influence within Occupy, thereby strengthening that of the anarchists. They have their Black Bloc, but where is our Red Bloc? Where are the socialist slogans to shape and guide the uprising’s political development?

Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines, and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.

Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters. Initiatives like Socialist Viewpoint’s call for a joint revolutionary socialist organizing committee in the Bay Area is a step in the right direction. We need to take more of those steps, sooner rather than later. The opportunity we have now to make the socialist movement a force to be reckoned with again in this country depends on it.

Anyone who agrees with this conclusion, whether they are in a socialist group or not, and wants to take these steps should email me so we can find ways to work together.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, The Indypendent, Asia Times Online, Znet, and Counterpunch. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net

December 13, 2011

Hurrah! Jairus Banaji wins 2011 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize

Filed under: Education,Islam,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Jairus Banaji

In mid-October word leaked out that Charlie Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism” was on the short list for this year’s Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, competing with Jairus Banaji’s “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. Perhaps it is a sign that the ideological hegemony of the Brenner thesis is finally breaking down that Banaji was declared the winner. Maybe the jury had a chance to read Henry Heller’s recently published “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book that offers the most devastating critique of Brenner’s Eurocentrism since Jim Blaut’s.

“Theory as History” is a collection of essays written by Banaji over thirty years dealing with the “transition” problem although none of them mention Brenner by name. Unlike Heller or Blaut, who consciously sought to knock him off his pedestal (I am sure that Henry would object to this characterization but my old friend and comrade Jim Blaut, may he rest in peace, would have accepted it gladly), Banaji’s chief goal is to interrogate some of the “stagist” preconceptions of a dogmatic Marxism that have allowed scholars to succumb to Eurocentric tendencies.  I strongly urge people to purchase the paperback edition from Haymarket books.  (I would be remiss if I did not mention that the book can also be read at Scribd.com for free.)

Among the collection is Banaji’s best-known article, the 44 page “Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History” that was published in the autumn 1977 Capital and Class and can also be read at www.anti-politics.net/discussion/Jairus_Banaji.pdf. That was the same year that Robert Brenner published “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” in the New Left Review. Ironically, despite Brenner’s connections at that time with a state capitalist variety of Trotskyism, his scholarship owed much more to the British Historian’s group whose leading lights—Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill—were committed to a “stagist” conception of history very much influenced by the Stalintern’s cruder version of Engels’s historical materialism. For the British CP historians, history is marked by discrete phases based on distinct modes of production such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc. Once one phase is finished, another starts sort of like what happens in natural history. First you have the apes, then the Neanderthal, then homo sapiens, etc.

Banaji rejects this model entirely, describing it as Vulgar Marxism:

The tradition of Vulgar Marxism which drew its earliest sources of energy from the Marxism of the Second International, crystallised only under the domination of Stalin. Stalinism uprooted not only the proletarian orientations of Marxism, but its scientific foundations as well. For the dialectic as the principle of rigorous scientific investigation of historical processes – it was, after all, this rational dialectic that was “a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Afterword to Second German Edition) – Stalinism substituted the “dialectic” as a cosmological principle prior to, and independent of, science. For the materialist conception of history it substituted a theory of history “in general”, “converting historical epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories” (Trotsky, 1932, Appendix I). Finally, this rubber-stamp conception of history it represented as a history deja constituee, open therefore only to the procedures of verification. This lifeless bureaucratic conception, steeped in the methods of formalism, produced a history emptied of any specifically historical content, reduced by the forced march of simple formal abstractions to the meagre ration of a few volatile categories. Within five decades of Marx’s death, the history written by the Stalinists became as opaque and dreamlike, and hardly as exciting, as the fantasies of surrealism.

As should be clear from the reference to Leon Trotsky above, Banaji’s conception of history is much closer to the combined and uneven development model found in Trotsky’s writings on the Russian revolution. For Trotsky, Russia was a clear example that feudalism and capitalism can co-exist in a given society. Moreover, one of the earliest implicit challenges to the “stagist” conceptions of the CP historians was Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, a book making the case for the interrelationship between Caribbean slavery and British capitalism that was strongly influenced by CLR James’s “Black Jacobins”.

While Brenner is not specifically targeted in Banaji’s article, it does have plenty to say about Maurice Dobb who clearly paved the way for Brenner. In his debate with Paul Sweezy, Dobb was probably closer to the spirit of Karl Marx’s writings than Sweezy but unfortunately bent the stick too far in the direction of defining “free wage labor” as a sine qua non for the capitalist mode of production—thus leading to many of the dogmatic errors of the Brenner school of historiography. Banaji writes:

Again, in Capital Volume 3, Marx referred to the evolution of merchant capital in the ancient world transforming “a patriarchal slave system devoted to the production of immediate means of subsistence into one devoted to the production of surplus value”. According to an edict of 1721, Peter the Great had allowed the Russian factory-owners to utilise serf-labour. “But if the factory-owner could now carry on his business with the labour of serfs”, wrote Pokrovsky, “who prevented the serf-holder from establishing a factory?” To Pokrovsky the edict was one of the forerunners of “bondage or landlord capitalism”. Analysing the land question in Peru, Mariategui wrote about the technically advanced capitalist latifundia on the coast, owned by US and British business, in which “exploitation still rests on feudal practices and principles”. In its theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress, the colonial commission of the Comintern spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies “on feudal foundations” and developing “in distorted and incomplete transitional forms which give commercial capital predominance. Finally, outside the Marxist tradition, Hobson could refer to industrial profits which “represented the surplus-value of slave or forced labour” and Barrington Moore to “labour-repressive forms of capitalist agriculture”. In all these varied instances – the subordination of the potters of Moscow province to merchant capital, the production of cotton in the slave South, the expansion of landlord capitalism in Rumanian agriculture or Petrine industry, the sugar latifundia of coastal Peru – there was no question of identifying the “mode of production” according to the character of the given forms or relations of exploitation. Nor did any of these instances involve a “coexistence” of modes of production.

Another essay worth singling out is “Islam, the Mediterranean, and the Rise of Capitalism” that appeared originally in the 2007 Historical Materialism. The article makes the case for understanding commercial or merchant capitalism as a much more powerful link in the chain of the system’s history than ever recognized in Marx’s writings. For Banaji, the Dutch and English East India Companies are not simply involved in exchange external to production, a point made as well by Henry Heller. And even before the Dutch and English were involved in capitalist trade, the Portuguese and the Venetians were in the thick of things. Banaji states that by the fourteenth century, Venice was an economy dominated by capital, with the same families controlling trade, transport, finance, and industry.

Of even greater interest is Banaji’s discussion of the Arab trade empire. He states that concepts of profit, capital, and the accumulation of capital are all found in the Arabic sources of the ninth to fourteenth centuries.

Even more startlingly, he uncovers what amounts to a labor theory of value in the writings of Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian scholar who wrote a history of the world that posited the notion that all great civilizations have a kind of life cycle with an inevitable death. Khaldun wrote that “labor is the cause of profit” and that it is “necessary for every profit and capital accumulation”. Gold and silver are the only socially acceptable measures of value “for all capital accumulations” while profit is defined as the “extent by which capital increases” and commerce as the “striving for profit by means of the accumulation of capital”.

The Arab world is not some backwater for Banaji. He asserts that by the seventh century it was a cosmopolitan civilization whose economic resources were unrivaled except by China. The Muslims created a vigorous monetary economy based on the dinar and drew regional areas into their commercial nexus. In Banaji’s words, that economy “was not just some loose ensemble of feudal regimes”. A late 10th century Persian geographer described Cairo as “the wealthiest city in the world, extremely prosperous.” By the second half of the 10th century, Alexandria was exporting well over 5000 to 6000 tons of flax to European countries.

He concludes:

Thus Islam made a powerful contribution to the growth of capitalism in the Mediterranean, in part because it preserved and expanded the monetary economy of late antiquity and innovated business techniques that became the staple of Mediterranean commerce (in particular, partnerships and commenda agreements), and also because the seaports of the Muslim world became a rich source of the plundered money-capital which largely financed the growth of maritime capitalism in Europe. Indeed, [Ernest] Mandel stated this with unabashed bluntness when he wrote: ‘The accumulation of money capital by the Italian merchants who dominated European economic life from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries originated directly from the Crusades, an enormous plundering enterprise if ever there was one’

All of this is a useful corrective not only to the Brenner school but to another brand of Eurocentrism that is far more insidious in that it has received big play in the bourgeois media over the last year or so. Published by the prestigious Princeton University Press, Turkish economist Timur Kuran’s “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle  East” won the admiration of pundits everywhere anxious to blame the people of the Middle East for their own problems, as if British and American ships and warplanes had less impact than verses in the Koran.

In an op-ed piece that appeared in the May 29, 2011 NY Times, Kuran offered his explanation of why Arab states were so backward and repressive:

But the handicaps of Arab civil society also have historical causes that transcend the policies of modern rulers. Until the establishment of colonial regimes in the late 19th century, Arab societies were ruled under Shariah law, which essentially precludes autonomous and self-governing private organizations. Thus, while Western Europe was making its tortuous transition from arbitrary rule by monarchs to democratic rule of law, the Middle East retained authoritarian political structures. Such a political environment prevented democratic institutions from taking root and ultimately facilitated the rise of modern Arab dictatorships.

Strikingly, Shariah lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services. Islam’s alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.

One wonders how much Kuran knows about Arab history if he can make such a claim in the face of Banaji’s research. This is not to speak of Kuran’s obvious inability to appreciate the dynamism of the Anatolian “tigers” who currently rule his native country and who certainly not only have the “concept of the corporation” but a willingness to dump the European Union, the true “sick men”, in favor of trade alliances with a revitalized East.

Jim Blaut died before he had to complete his trilogy on Eurocentrist history. The third volume was to present an alternative way of seeing China, India, the Arab world et al. While this certainly leaves a gap in a crucial area of Marxist scholarship, we can be grateful to Jairus Banaji in his ongoing effort to effectively fulfill Jim’s dream.

The inspiration for “The Artist”?

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:47 am

December 12, 2011

New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) 2011 awards

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

We voted on these yesterday. Among the choices I concurred with are Streep and Shannon for best actress and actor, Bridesmaids for ensemble cast, Melissa McCarthy for supporting actress, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams for documentary. In the top pictures group at the bottom, my only choice was “Take Shelter”.

Release Dec. 11, 2011 Contact harveycritic@gmail.com
At their twelfth annual awards meeting, held Sunday, December 11, 2011 at L.G.B.T. headquarters in New York’s Greenwich Village, members of New York Film Critics Online voted awards in 15 categories.
“The Artist”
Michael Hazanavicius for “The Artist”
Michael Shannon for “Take Shelter”
Meryl Streep for “The Iron Lady”
Albert Brooks for “Drive”
Melissa McCarthy for “Bridesmaids”
“The Tree of Life” – Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Descendants” – Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
“A Separation”
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”
“The Adventures of Tintin”
“The Artist” – Ludovic Bource
Jessica Chastain for “The Tree of Life, “The Help,”The Debt,” “Take Shelter”
Joe Cornish for “Attack the Block”
TOP PICTURES OF 2011 (alphabetical)
“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company)
“The Descendants” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
“Drive” (Film District)
“The Help” (Dreamworks Pictures)
“Hugo” (Paramount Pictures)
“Melancholia” (Magnolia Pictures)
“Midnight in Paris” (Sony Pictures Classics)
“Take Shelter” (Sony Pictures Classics)
“The Tree of Life” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
“War Horse” (Dreamworks Pictures)

Conversation with a Sikh

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 1:21 am

December 10, 2011

Gordon Gekko, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

Filed under: capitalist pig,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

NY Times Op-Ed December 8, 2011
All the G.O.P.’s Gekkos

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the release of the movie “Wall Street,” and the film seems more relevant than ever. The self-righteous screeds of financial tycoons denouncing President Obama all read like variations on Gordon Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech, while the complaints of Occupy Wall Street sound just like what Gekko says in private: “I create nothing. I own,” he declares at one point; at another, he asks his protégé, “Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy?”

The Los Angeles Times recently surveyed the record of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Mr. Romney ran from 1984 to 1999. As the report notes, Mr. Romney made a lot of money over those years, both for himself and for his investors. But he did so in ways that often hurt ordinary workers.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/opinion/krugman-all-the-gops-gekkos.html

From the latest Harper’s Magazine Index:

Amount employees of private-equity firm Bain Capital have donated to the campaign of its co-founder Mitt Romney: $69,500

To the Obama campaign: $119,900

December 9, 2011

There will always be an England

Filed under: Britain,Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Notwithstanding the fact that two of the films under review here are directed by an Algerian who grew up in France and a Swede, and the third stars an American actress as Margaret Thatcher, all three are explorations of the post-hegemonic sensibilities of both the rulers and the ruled in England but succeeding in only two of the three cases.

The biggest success is “London River”, despite its modest ambitions and budget. Director Rachid Bouchareb’s debut film was “Days of Glory” , a stirring celebration of the heroism of North African soldiers fighting for the French during WWII who had to fend off both Nazi bullets and their commanding officers’ racism. Less successful, at least from my viewpoint, was his next film “Outside the Law“, a revisionist take on the Algerian war of independence that adopted “a plague on both your houses” pacifism reminiscent of Camus’s.

“London River” is essentially a two character drama that brings together a sixtyish British widow who lost her naval officer husband in the war over the Malvinas and an even older French-speaking African man (whose country is never identified) working as a forest ranger in France. A few days after the July 2005 bombings in London, neither her daughter nor his son can be reached by phone so they travel there to track them down, hoping for the best but being prepared for the worst.

Eventually their paths cross since it turns out that their college-age children were lovers, something that Elisabeth, the widow, has trouble accepting. When she discovers that the daughter was studying Arabic at a local Islamic center, her first reaction is disbelief—as if learning that she was studying witchcraft. This is understandable but not really forgiveable given the widespread Islamophobia in Britain at the time. You begin to wonder—as do the parents—whether the children were suicide bombers.

The boy’s father is Ousmane, played by Sotigui Kouyaté, born in Mali but who grew up in Burkina Faso. He died at the age of 74 shortly after the film was finished. A one-time player on the Burkina Faso national football team, he launched an acting career in 1966 and eventually hooked up with the legendary Peter Brook on film and theater projects. His Ousmane is a quiet and pensive character. Tall, lanky and with chiseled features, he looks like a cross between African tribal art and a Giacometti sculpture.

As I watched Elisabeth interact with Ousmane in her tentative and guarded manner, working hard to overcome her initial distrust, I had a sense of déjà vu. She reminded me very much of the kind of plucky female character found in Mike Leigh movies who when confronted with a terrible situation put on a brave face or a stiff upper lip in keeping with British traditions admittedly under assault from all fronts in recent years.

It turns out that she is played by Brenda Blethyn, who starred in Leigh’s masterpiece “Secrets and Lies” as the working class mother whose brief affair with a Black Briton resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. When their child, who had been put up for adoption, grows up she contacts her mother out of the blue in the hopes of binding with her, but is rebuffed  for more or less the same reasons that Elisabeth holds Ousmane at arm’s length. As is the case with Mike Leigh’s drama, director Rachid Bouchareb finds a way to reconcile his lead characters. If you like Mike Leigh films—and who doesn’t—you will like “London River”.

Scheduled for general theatrical release sometime in December (I reviewed a screener submitted by a publicist for the 2011 NYFCO awards meeting), “The Iron Lady” has all the trappings of your typical fawning biopic of the rich and the powerful in line with “The King’s Speech”. Indeed, in one scene her consultants advise her in her first run for Prime Minister that she has to work on her voice–it is not authoritative enough. She then goes to speech lessons in a scene definitely evoking “The King’s Speech”. With Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, I had additional trepidations since I expected a performance in line with her stilted portrayal of Julia Child.

What a pleasant surprise it was to discover that the film is a venomous attack on the “iron lady”. Admittedly, the politics are a bit unfocused—this after all is not a documentary—but the general impression you are left with is that the financial disaster of today is very much related to the policies that she and her fellow monster Ronald Reagan pushed through.

In one key scene, Thatcher is meeting with her cabinet to discuss a new tax that will be seen as favoring the rich. When her Tory advisers warn her that it will undermine her legitimacy, she scolds them as lacking backbone. The film is replete with archival footage of Britons fighting the cops during the period, leaving no question as to her legacy.

The film also has an almost sadistic streak as it shows Thatcher as entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with symptoms fairly obvious during the last year or so when she was in office, just as was the case with Reagan.

From foreign policy, especially the war for control of the Malvinas, to domestic policy with her determination to destroy trade unions and the social legislation won by their party, Thatcher is seen in the light of the “one percenters” of today. In some ways, the film is vaguely reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” with Thatcher becoming more and more malevolent and deranged the more power she attains.

Finally, Streep is terrific. As indicated above, I am not one of her biggest fans but her characterization of Thatcher is not just based on imitating her speaking voice and hairdo. She really got inside her head and figured out what made her tick. It is not very pretty.

Finally, despite my admiration for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s last film “Let the Right One In”, I don’t think he did justice to John Le Carre’s novel. The screenplay for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was written by Peter Straughan who also wrote “The Debt”, another film about spies—in that case Mossad agents who fabricated the killing of a Mengele type war criminal who had escaped custody in order to avoid being shamed. He also wrote the screenplay for “Men who Stare at Goats”, a genial satire based on the experiments conducted by military intelligence to apply ESP to warfare. So apparently he is the man to go to when you want to make an spy movie with anti-heroes rather than James Bond types.

The NY Times is positively rapturous over the film, stating about John Hurt’s performance as Control, the MI5 chief determined to root out a Soviet mole (Le Carre’s novel is based on the Kim Philby incident):

That face, a crevassed landscape that suggests sorrow and history, has the granitic grandeur of W. H. Auden in his later life. In tandem with Mr. Hurt’s sonorously melancholic voice (and its useful undertones of hysteria), it is a face that, when used by a filmmaker like Mr. Alfredson, speaks volumes about a character who would otherwise take reams of written dialogue to discover.

Well, that’s not true at all. All of Straughan’s characters are decidedly opaque, lacking the revelatory character that only Le Carre’s prose, that in many ways is about as close to Dickens as we have in our epoch, can endow. For example, this exchange is from the novel. George Smiley, a senior spy who lost his job when a kidnapping attempt in Budapest runs afoul, is talking to Rickie Tarr, a field agent who was the first to discover that there was a mole who alerted the Soviets to the kidnapping plot and other MI5 initiatives over the decades.

“I didn’t know you spoke Russian,” said Smiley—a comment lost to everyone but Tarr, who at once grinned.

“Ah, now, a man needs a qualification in this profession, Mr. Smiley,” he explained as he separated the pages. “I may not have been too great at law but a further language can be decisive. You know what the papers say, I expect?” He looked up from his labours and his grin widened. “‘To possess another language is to possess another soul.’ A great king wrong that, sir, Charles the Fifth. My father never forgot a quotation, I’ll say that for him, though the funny thing is he couldn’t speak a damn thing but English. I’ll read the diary aloud to you, if you don’t mind.”

By comparison, the Tarr character in the film is a one-dimensional figure of interest only for his being at the right time and the right place to discover that there was a mole. Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I care less about his derring-do as a spy than I do for his musings on language.

It is understandable why Alfredson was selected to direct this film. His teen vampire movie “Let the Right One In” was brilliantly filmed, taking advantage of Sweden’s gloomy winter scenes and the downbeat look of the nondescript and slightly seedy look of the suburb it was filmed in. It was much more like Paramus, New Jersey than Transylvania. So he does get that part of Le Carre’s novel right. He evokes the downscale look of the declining British Empire–apartments filled with dusty furniture and MI5 offices that look more like the Bureau of Internal Revenue than anything James Bond ever visited.

What is missing in the film, however, is the slightly off-kilter character of Le Carre’s prose that is revealed through Tarr’s witty observation above and in numerous other places. You can get a much more faithful version of the novel in the British television movie from the 70s that starred Alec Guinness as Smiley (Gary Oldman is mainly content to do a Guinness impersonation). This opening scene borders on Monty Python, for which there is no equivalent in the terminally gloomy Alfredson version:

Finally, a word must be said about a certain failing in the source material itself. Missing entirely in the novel is any insight into the Kim Philby character’s motivation, who in Le Carre’s view became a serious agent only after the Suez Crisis, when he decided that Britain was no longer a world power and only a tool of American foreign policy.

In the introduction to the latest edition of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, Le Carre writes:

I never knew [George] Blake [another Soviet spy] or Philby, but I always had a quite particular dislike for Philby, and an unnatural sympathy for Blake. The reasons, I fear, have much to do with the inverted snobbery of my class and generation. I disliked Philby because he had so many of my attributes. He was public-school educated, the son of a wayward and dictatorial father—the explorer and adventurer, St. John Philby—he drew people easily to him and he was adept at holding his feelings, in particular, his seething distaste for the bigotries and prejudices of the English ruling classes.

Now my admiration for John Le Carre is unbound but my reaction to this is to really wonder whether he should have bothered to write a novel with a Philby-like villain (of course in his novels, the heroes and villains are pretty much reflections of each other) with such a built-in bias. Frankly, I would have found the story far more riveting if Le Carre had made the mole a key character and a sympathetic one at that. But then again, that’s what you might expect from the unrepentant Marxist.

December 7, 2011

Bull Moose and bullshit

Filed under: liberalism,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

In keeping with his cynical bid to restyle himself as some kind of leftist, Barack Obama made a speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas that invoked the legacy of Roosevelt. No, comrades and friends, it was not that Roosevelt—the New Dealer that the soft left hoped he would become—but his fifth cousin Theodore. It didn’t matter that much. That was all people like Salon.com’s Steve Kornacki needed to hear:

His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama’s rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

The Nation Magazine’s Ari Berman wrote:

You’re likely to hear elements of this speech over and over as the campaign heats up, as the Obama campaign attempts to stand with the 99 percent and paint Gingrich or Romney as core defenders of the 1 percent. None other than Chuck Schumer, one of the senators who represents Wall Street, told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that Democrats would focus on income inequality “like a laser” in 2012.

This is the same Chuck Schumer that the NY Times described as embracing the financial industry’s “free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.” The December 13, 2008 article added:

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

None of this matters to liberals who tend to have a short memory. As long as you toss them a bone, stroke them on the chin, all is forgiven.

Going slightly against the grain, Duke Law Professor Jedediah Purdy (love that name, like a character from an old Bonanza show) urged a note of caution. Compared to the original, the current occupant of the White House is a cheap imitation—more of a mouse than a moose.

Roosevelt’s speech was also much more unapologetically radical than Obama’s. He quoted Abraham Lincoln to say that labor is superior to capital, and praised active “struggle” against unfair inequality: “to take from some … class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth … which has not been earned by service to … their fellows.” He told his listeners that progress arose from the contest between those who possessed more than they had earned, and others who earned more than they possessed — plainly implying that most of Osawatomie was in the second group, the 99 percent of their day. Where Obama’s speech was basically conciliatory, Roosevelt’s was filled with images of what today would be called class warfare.

I want to return to the question of Roosevelt’s deeds as opposed to his words momentarily. After all, anybody who is familiar with Obama’s campaign speeches in 2008 knows that words are cheap. That being said, if you read between the lines you will realize that we are dealing with the same-old, same-old.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.

At the outset, it should be noted that anybody who uses the buzzwords “grow the economy” at this point is a shameless tool of the ruling class. This cliché smacks of boardroom pep rallies, WSJ editorial page cant, business school lectures and all the rest. I first began to hear them working for Goldman-Sachs in 1987 and wondered what the hell top managers were talking about when they used those words. You grow a geranium, not an economy or a corporation. It invokes the image of somebody in a navy-blue business suit and a power yellow tie standing over a thing called the economy with a watering can. This mystifies the whole concept of how capitalism works. It is not organic like a garden flower, but something that involves exploitation. The proper tool is not a watering can but a blackjack.

With respect to the titans of industry creating jobs, Obama seems to have forgotten what Balzac observed in the epigraph to “Le Père Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. Oil, steel and rail—three of the biggest capitalized sectors of the American economy during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency—were the end-result of a scorched earth attack on workers, the land, and native peoples. For Roosevelt, their excesses consisted of monopoly pricing, not Pinkerton attacks on strikers.

Obama’s speech contained a couple of paragraphs that could have been written by Robert Reich or Paul Krugman:

Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1% has gone up by more than 25% to $1.2m per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1%, the average income is now $27m per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6%.

Now, this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

When it comes down to concrete proposals, Obama offers up the same tired formulas that Democratic Party “new economy” hacks like Lester Thurow and Michael Dukakis have been offering for decades now:

In today’s innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing. Our factories and our workers shouldn’t be idle. We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.

Actually, the real answer is not training but a guarantee of a job. If you think of jobs as a human right rather than a cog in the competitive machinery to ensure that the USA is Number One, then the dividing line between the ruled and the rulers becomes obvious. Nobody who is attending those white-tie fund-raising dinners for Obama has the slightest interest in guaranteeing that all Americans who want a job can have a job.

Obama probably knows that getting “new skills” does not work, but that did not prevent him from raising false hopes. A July 18, 2010 NY Times article reports exactly how false they are:

In what was beginning to feel like a previous life, Israel Valle had earned $18 an hour as an executive assistant to a designer at a prominent fashion label. Now, he was jobless and struggling to find work. He decided to invest in upgrading his skills.

It was February 2009, and the city work force center in Downtown Brooklyn was jammed with hundreds of people hungry for paychecks. His caseworker urged him to take advantage of classes financed by the federal government, which had increased money for job training. Upgrade your skills, she counseled. Then she could arrange job interviews.

For six weeks, Mr. Valle, 49, absorbed instruction in spreadsheets and word processing. He tinkered with his résumé. But the interviews his caseworker eventually arranged were for low-wage jobs, and they were mobbed by desperate applicants. More than a year later, Mr. Valle remains among the record 6.8 million Americans who have been officially jobless for six months or longer. He recently applied for welfare benefits.

“Training was fruitless,” he said. “I’m not seeing the benefits. Training for what? No one’s hiring.”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have enrolled in federally financed training programs in recent years, only to remain out of work. That has intensified skepticism about training as a cure for unemployment.

And now for some concluding remarks on Teddy Roosevelt—mostly channeling the spirit of the sorely missed Howard Zinn who debunked him in “People’s History of the United States” just as he did with FDR.

In 1906 after Big Bill Haywood and two other officers of the Western Federation of Miners were imprisoned on trumped up murder charges, Eugene V. Debs wrote an article in “Appeal to Reason” denouncing the decision. This led to Roosevelt sending a copy of the article to his Attorney General, W. II. Moody, with a note: “is it possible to proceed against Debs and the proprietor of this paper criminally?”

Overall, Zinn’s analysis of Teddy Roosevelt is not much different than the one of FDR. The first Roosevelt presidency pushed through some reforms that were intended to preserve the system. Just as FDR worried about the Bolshevik threat, so did Teddy worry about Debs’s socialist party that was far more radical in some ways than the CPUSA. Zinn writes:

The panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, Wobblies, and trade unions, speeded the process of reform. According to Wiebe: “Around 1908 a qualitative shift in outlook occurred among large numbers of these men of authority.. . .” The emphasis was now on “enticements and compromises.” It continued with Wilson, and “a great many reform-minded citizens indulged the illusion of a progressive fulfillment.”

What radical critics now say of those reforms was said at the time (1901) by the Bankers’ Magazine: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes. . , .”

There was much to stabilize, much to protect. By 1904, 318 trusts, with capital of more than seven billion dollars, controlled 40% of the U.S. manufacturing.

In 1909, a manifesto of the new Progressivism appeared-a book called The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic and an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt. He saw the need for discipline and regulation if the American system were to continue. Government should do more, he said, and he hoped to see the “sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints”- by whom he may have meant Theodore Roosevelt.

Richard Hofstadter, in his biting chapter on the man the public saw as the great lover of nature and physical fitness, the war hero, the Boy Scout in the White House, says: “The advisers to whom Roosevelt listened were almost exclusively representatives of industrial and finance capital-men like Hanna, Robert Bacon, and George W. Perkins of the House of Morgan, Elihu Root, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich … and James Stillman of the Rockefeller interests.” Responding to his worried brother-in-law writing from Wall Street, Roosevelt replied: “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country.”

Roosevelt supported the regulatory Hepburn Act because he feared something worse. He wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge that the railroad lobbyists who opposed the bill were wrong: “I think they are very shortsighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads.” His action against the trusts was to induce them to accept government regulation, in order to prevent destruction. He prosecuted the Morgan railroad monopoly in the Northern Securities Case, considering it an antitrust victory, but it hardly changed anything, and, although the Sherman Act provided for criminal penalties, there was no prosecution of the men who had planned the monopoly-Morgan, Harriman, Hill.

While most of us would be happy to see Obama push through even such half-measures, either on a Bull Moose or a New Deal basis, there is no possibility that they will materialize for the simple reason that the American economy is no longer based on the smokestack industries that marked the period of the first half-century of the 1900s. Obama speaks for a ruling class that is either based on fictitious capital or that is all too happy to see manufacturing continue its sorry decline. After all, their purpose in life is not to create jobs but to create profits.

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