Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2012

Obama’s former professor: don’t vote for him

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

June 15, 2012

Party-building for the 21st Century

Filed under: Greece,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

Party-Building for the 21st Century

by admin on June 14, 2012

in analysis, roundtable

By Louis Proyect (Unrepentant Marxist, Marxmail founder)

Revolutionary struggles in other countries often serve as useful lessons in strategy and tactics for us. While Greece is by no means at the point of a proletarian revolution, the success of SYRIZA naturally raises questions about its validity as a model for the American left.

In my view, there are two very important lessons we can draw as we work towards creating our own party that fights both in the streets and at the ballot box.

The first of these is the need to reconsider whether the “program” of a left party has to be defined on the basis of some kind of revolutionary “continuity” or “tradition” that establishes its pedigree going back to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Karl Marx before him. The basic confusion is over whether a group should be constituted on a program geared to the exigencies of the current class struggle or on a doctrine that defines the party on a series of historical controversies going back for over a century. When you form a party on the basis of doctrine, you are following the model of a religion that, for example, defines itself on a body of written work that upholds the correct stance on questions such as the status of the Virgin Mary or who was correct in the split between Rome and the Eastern Orthodoxy.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=897

June 14, 2012

The U.S. Left and the Audacity of SYRIZA: a Roundtable

Filed under: Greece,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 10:59 pm

A Symposium at North Star

The U.S. Left and the Audacity of SYRIZA: a Roundtable

by admin on June 13, 2012

in event

Greece’s May 6 election rattled international investors and European governments alike after the country’s voters abandoned the two parties of austerity PASOK (social democrats) and New Democracy (Greece’s GOP) and voted in droves for a radical left coalition called SYRIZA, which seems determined to halt the austerity measures if they can win enough votes and/or make parliamentary alliances to form a government in the June 17 elections.

The prospect of defeating the austerity drive in Greece is real and has generated excitement on the left internationally.

The North Star’s roundtable on SYRIZA aims to explore some of the following issues and questions:

-Is winning elections in a capitalist “democracy” a more effective means of resisting austerity than general strikes, creating prefigurative/direct democratic institutions, and massive street battles and direct actions, all of which have been done in Greece for the past three years?

-Is a repeat of Spain 1936 on the cards, when a fascist military coup was launched in response to the election of the leftist Popular Front, inaugurating a bloody civil war and anarchism’s high point in the 20th century?

-Does SYRIZA represent the “Second Coming” of social democracy?

-What implications do the Greek elections have on the issue of direct versus representative democracy?

-Most importantly, what lessons can be taken from the SYRIZA experience and applied here, if any? What would an American equivalent of SYRIZA look like and would Occupy be friendly, hostile, or indifferent to it?

Of course no one can answer all of the questions. The point is to not to come up with “correct” answers but generate some thoughtful dialogue and comradely debate among anti-capitalists and explore our common ground in a coherent, organized way. Hopefully this will provide the basis for future collaboration.

Participants include socialists Louis Proyect (Unrepentant Marxist, Marxmail founder), Chris Maisano (Democratic Socialists of America, Jacobin editorial board), anti-authoritarian Richard Estes (American Leftist), and Doug Enaa Greene (Boston Occupier newspaper). [List still in formation. Email thenorthstar.info@gmail.com if you are interested in participating in video or text format.]

1. “Party-Building in the 21st Century” by Louis Proyect

June 12, 2012

The Rebranding of Barack Obama

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

In 2008 Barack Obama won Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year award with 36.1 percent of the votes of the nation’s hucksters. Running against a tarnished brand B (McCain got 4.5 percent in the same competition), Obama was able to coast to victory with vaporous promises about change. Now, four years later, the advertising campaign for his re-election faces a number of obstacles, not the least of which is the depressed economy that is becoming harder to pin on the Bush administration.

On December 6th 2011, Obama gave a speech that many liberals hoped would serve as Brand Obama for 2012. Through its hailing of Teddy Roosevelt’s economic nationalism, it prompted Salon.com’s Steve Kornacki to write: “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.” That had a very short shelf-life, however, made even shorter by economic realities. After a brief period of relative optimism tied to the “green shoots” of recovery, the woes of the Great Recession continued into 2012 and forced the hucksters running Obama’s re-election campaign to hoist a new message up the flagpole and see if anyone would salute.

That new message amounted to undraping a 60 foot tall bronze statue of Obama as muscular Commander-in-Chief after the fashion of Reagan chopping wood or George W. Bush in a flight suit. If those precious swing voters, perceived as white and centrist, could not be assuaged by a non-existent recovery, then maybe they would vote for Obama since he was able to deliver on at least another element of Teddy Roosevelt’s record, namely his willingness to use the “big stick” against weaker nations.

The campaign kicked into high gear with a speech that the president gave on Memorial Day  a couple of weeks ago. It is filled with what the great Edmund Wilson called “patriotic gore”. This paragraph, in particular, sounds like it could have been lifted from the preview to a Rambo movie:

You persevered though some of the most brutal conditions ever faced by Americans in war. The suffocating heat. The drenching monsoon rains. An enemy that could come out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly. Some of the most intense urban combat in history, and battles for a single hill that could rage for weeks. Let it be said — in those hellholes like Briarpatch, and the Zoo and the Hanoi Hilton — our Vietnam POWs didn’t simply endure; you wrote one of the most extraordinary stories of bravery and integrity in the annals of military history.

Activist Jack A. Smith, an editor at the radical newsweekly The Guardian in the 1960s who soldiers on for the cause of peace in upstate N.Y., commented on Vietnam war revisionism in the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter:

The Pentagon has just launched a multi-year national public relations campaign to justify, glorify and honor Washington’s catastrophic, aggressive and losing war against Vietnam — America’s most controversial and unpopular military conflict.

President Barack Obama opened the militarist event, which was overwhelmingly approved by Congress four years ago, during a speech at the Vietnam Wall on Memorial Day, May 28. The entire campaign, which will consist of tens of thousands of events over the next 13 years, is ostensibly intended to “finally honor” the U.S. troops who fought in Vietnam. The last troops were evacuated nearly 40 years ago.

One of the more disgusting passages in this altogether disgusting speech had to do with the peace movement’s alleged abuse of returning GI’s:

You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised. You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.

David Sirota, one of the nation’s more principled liberals and hence a trenchant critic of Obama, told Salon.com readers:

It’s undeniable that chronic underfunding of the Veterans Administration unduly harmed Vietnam-era soldiers. However, that lamentable failure was not what Obama was referring to. As the president who escalated the Vietnam-esque war in Afghanistan, he was making a larger argument. Deliberately parroting Rambo’s claim about “a quiet war against all the soldiers returning,” he was asserting that America, as a whole, spat on soldiers when they came home — even though there’s no proof that this happened on any mass scale.

In his exhaustive book titled “The Spitting Image,” Vietnam vet and Holy Cross professor Jerry Lembcke documents veterans who claim they were spat on by antiwar protestors, but he found no physical evidence (photographs, news reports, etc.) that these transgressions actually occurred. His findings are supported by surveys of his fellow Vietnam veterans as they came home.

Keep in mind that Obama’s speech sounds exactly like the kind of thing that John McCain would have written–a product of his captivity in Vietnam and his yahoo Republican Party politics. That this Ivy League “liberal” could spew out the same kind of rightwing bullshit, while in all likelihood knowing that it is bullshit, epitomizes the political impasse facing voters. You vote for someone enlightened and you end up with a Chuck Norris wannabe. It really doesn’t matter what you voted for, after all. The people who run the country have their own agenda and it doesn’t include you.

The day before Obama’s speech, Chris Hayes—a contributor to the Nation Magazine and one of the magazine’s more intelligent writers—mused about the word hero on his Saturday morning MSNBC show:

I feel… uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

Despite the tentative and unguarded quality of his remarks, Hayes became the target of an orchestrated rightwing campaign that treated him as if he were Bill Maher telling his ABC television audience shortly after 9/11 that the men who flew jets into the WTC and Pentagon were not cowardly at all. The real cowards were in fact men who dispatched cruise missiles from the safety of their command posts thousands of miles away. Hayes did a Maoist style self-criticism and unlike Bill Maher, who preferred to gut it out, still has his job. You can be sure that if he intends to keep it, he will have to watch what he says. That is how our free country operates.

Just one day after this rancid speech, the N.Y. Times reported that Obama sends drones to against alleged enemies of America on the basis of a secret “kill list”. Written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, it was widely perceived as part and parcel of the “big stick” rebranding. They wrote:

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”

Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve.

In the immediate aftermath of the publication of the article, the White House has been clamoring for the arrest for espionage of those responsible for the leak about the “kill list”. Republicans imply that perhaps it is President himself who should be behind bars since it was fairly obvious that the article was meant, like the Memorial Day speech, to burnish his reputation as cold-blooded killer—something supposedly that endears him to swing voters. In Human Events, a rightwing magazine, long-time rightwing activist Gary Bauer called on his co-thinkers for their take on all this:

Many legislators see politics in the leaks. Rep. Peter King said, “It has to be for [Obama’s] reelection. They can deny it all they want. But it would require a suspension of disbelief to believe it’s not being done for political purposes.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “I don’t think you have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what is going on here. You’ve had three leaks of intelligence that paint the president as a strong leader.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CBS, “This is the most highly classified information and it’s now been leaked by the administration at the highest levels at the White House and that’s not acceptable.”

As part of the rebranding exercise, “Sixty Minutes” ran a profile on Leon Panetta, Obama’s Secretary of Defense and former CIA director last Sunday night. Although I didn’t watch it, I can thank Glenn Greenwald for having taken a good dose of anti-nausea medicine and writing up a commentary  on “13 uninterrupted minutes of drooling propaganda: Leon Panetta, the tough-minded, patriotic renaissance man who kills Evil Men to protect us all, and does it all with a heart of gold.”

Scott Pelley, a bland and unctuous figure well suited to this kind of interview, was nailed to the wall alongside Panetta:

Much of the interview consisted of Pelley waxing admiringly over all the James-Bond-looking gadgets on Panetta’s plane, or what he called Panetta’s “flying command post” (just as Brian Williams, with boyish excitement, pointed out that the White House Situation Room even has a clock that always shows the time of whatever time zone in which the President is found!). Because Panetta’s plane is the venue from which the U.S. would launch a nuclear attack, it is called the “Doomsday Plane.” As the CBS camera surveyed all of the machinery on the Doomsday Plane with close-ups of the crisply uniformed soldiers operating it, Pelley unleashed my favorite lines:

The Doomsday Plane is laden with secret gear. We can’t show you most of it. It’s so heavy the Air Force re-fueled it twice in the night’s sky over the Atlantic.

It turned out the lightest thing on board: the heart of the man with a world of worry. Leon Panetta is rarely far from an eyelid-collapsing, eye-shaking belly laugh.

And to people around him, it’s reassuring: with lives at stake, he stays in touch with his humanity.

And where he came from.

Now, admittedly, this kind of garbage has been part of the Obama administration from the very beginning, but it has been escalated recently in order to increase his reelection odds. In an April poll conducted by the Washington Post, 47 percent of those polled viewed Obama as best for stopping terrorism, while only 40 percent gave the nod to Romney. By the same token, the opinion on “creating jobs” is not quite as favorable, with a 46 to 43 percent split. That being said, independents think Romney is better on economic issues, a problem for the reelection team. Maybe we can expect war on Iran to help swing them in the other direction.

In fact, that is pretty much what is happening now according to a June 1 N.Y. Times article titled “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran” by David Sanger. Sanger is the author of a new book titled “Comfort and Conceal” on Obama’s foreign policy that this article gives you a flavor for. Sanger, like Pelley, is intent on flattering the war-makers, so much so that even Thomas Rick’s NY Times book review took exception to:

The virtue of this book — its foundation of White House sources who give the author insiders’ material like a transcript of Mr. Obama’s last telephone call with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak — is also its weakness. That is, Mr. Sanger shows us the world through the eyes of Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon and those around him. But he also tends to depict Washington and the world as they see it.

Sanger writes:

From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program.

Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet. Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name: Stuxnet.

At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s “escape,” Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised.

Inquiring minds, of course, would also ask whether the U.S. was also involved with assassinations against Iran’s scientists as well. For those who believe that Israel is behind all of these attacks and dragging the U.S. behind it, it might be good that they get reminded that the U.S. is the dog and Israel merely the tail.

This is the same Obama who said that “the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would any other threat to our country”, namely through “military force”. In other words, might makes right, the guiding principle of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. This is the opening paragraph of Roosevelt’s “Winning of the West”:

During the past three centuries the spread of the English-speaking peoples in the world’s waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others most far reaching in its effects and its importance.

This is the true legacy of Roosevelt’s presidency that Barack Obama is helping to keep alive.

June 10, 2012

Tahrir: Liberation Square

Filed under: Egypt,Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

“Tahrir: Liberation Square” is a breathtaking and politically engaged documentary that opens tomorrow at The Maysles Theater in Harlem for a one week run. Anybody with more than a passing interest in the movements challenging the status quo over the past two years, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, will find it spellbinding but for my regular readers in the New York region, in other words the kind of people who marched against the banksters, it is a must.

The film is directed by Stefano Savona, who was an archaeologist by profession but who began making documentaries in 1999, including “Notes from a Kurdish Rebel” about the PKK in Turkey. The press notes allow Savona to explain what drew him to Tahrir Square:

Over the past twenty years, I have gone to Cairo almost every year and like everybody who knows and visits Egypt, I never expected the events of late January, early February 2011. On January 29, after hours in front of the al-Jazeera website, glued to the fragmentary and low-resolution online chronicle of the Egyptian Revolution, I decided to go there and see from close up who was on Tahrir Square, who were the thousands of people challenging the regime’s state of emergency laws. I wanted to understand what exactly they wanted, what their political orientation and their symbolic points of reference were, how they imagined their future. Tahrir Square offered a unique opportunity to film the full scope of Egyptian society, people from all backgrounds and social classes, together for the first time, united in the sole cause of bringing down dictatorship, barricaded on this huge square where police and the thugs of the regime could not enter.

Although Savona’s film is nominally cinéma vérité, it is not the typical fly-on-the-wall affair done by Frederick Wiseman imitators. Instead, it is a skillfully edited condensation of some of the most compelling scenes that most of us know only through second-hand reports or Youtube clips uploaded from a cell phone, etc. The director seems to be everywhere at once and has managed to pull together some of the most hair-raising footage one can imagine.

Very early in the film, we see about a hundred men and women circled around a man who has been lifted on another man’s shoulders and who is leading them in chants:

Mubarak, we hate you

You belong in a sarcophagus with the pharaohs

The people want the regime to fall

What’s the difference between us and them?

We are the people who work. We are the people who are hungry.

They dress like princes while we sleep 10 to a room.

Savona is there when the furious fight between protestors and Mubarak’s goons take place. We see a woman wearing traditional religious garbs, including a headdress, carrying paving stones to the front lines to be used against the thugs. When one of them is captured by the freedom fighters, we see him confessing how he got there. He was in prison the day before he was recruited to break up the protests, receiving 5000 pounds for his services.

Throughout the film we see small groups of Egyptians in the square having intense political discussions about the country’s future. What role will the Muslim Brotherhood play? How will the army function if it takes Mubarak’s place? Nearly everybody agrees that neither the army nor the Islamists can be trusted, but as it turns out that is the choice Egyptians are now given, between a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and Mubarak’s last prime minister, the choice of the military.

The film ends on a triumphant note but one can easily imagine a follow-up to the documentary in which Stefano Savona returns to interview some of the key subjects. Is this what they risked life and limb for? To put up with the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious repression? Or even worse, to endure Mubarakism without Mubarak?

While there are obvious reasons for concern about Egypt’s future, I for one remain optimistic based on the evidence of the people vividly captured in “Tahrir: Liberation Square”. Over and over again, they express their willingness to die for their freedom and for social justice.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7937830744211502479

When watching this stirring film, I could not help but think of another work by a politically committed film-maker of which a sizable excerpt can now be seen online, namely Peter Watkin’s “La Commune” that I reviewed back in 2006. At that time, I wrote:

Perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it makes this 135 year old struggle relevant to more recent ones, which was clearly the intention of its director Peter Watkins. As I sat watching it at the edge of my seat, practically breaking out in a cold sweat, I could not stop thinking about my visits to Nicaragua in the late 1980s when the country was like somebody hanging on to the edge of a cliff by their fingers. “La Commune” demonstrates that this is both the blessing and the curse of all revolutions. They are simultaneously great strides forward toward freedom and huge risks almost tantamount to Russian roulette.

I can only add that now it is Tahrir Square that I think of when I reflect back on Watkins’s dramatization of the first workers state in history.

June 9, 2012

Debating SYRIZA

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 10:15 pm

Although I have been very critical of Slavoj Zizek in the past, I can only say Bravo to his London Review of Books article “Save us from the saviours”, especially this:

Only a new ‘heresy’ – represented at this moment by Syriza – can save what is worth saving of the European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity etc. The Europe we will end up with if Syriza is outmanoeuvred is a ‘Europe with Asian values’ – which, of course, has nothing to do with Asia, but everything to do with the tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy.

This was a most welcome shift from the proselytizing for “communism” that has marked his contributions in the recent past. Backing SYRIZA is not necessarily the same thing as a communist revolution, but it certainly is a break with the IMF and Wall Street backed austerity that is literally costing the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Greeks:

Dimitris Christoulas, a divorced and retired pharmacist, took his life on Wednesday in Syntagma Square, a focal point for frequent public demonstrations and protests, as hundreds of commuters passed nearby at a metro station and as lawmakers in Parliament debated last-minute budget amendments before elections, expected on May 6.

In a handwritten note found near the scene, the pensioner said he could not face the prospect “of scavenging through garbage bins for food and becoming a burden to my child,” blaming the government’s austerity policies for his decision.

–NY Times, April 6 2012

While nobody—well, at least me and my readers—can argue against the need for abolishing capitalism in Greece, there is still a basis for voting for SYRIZA that rests on a number of points in its program, including these:

  • Free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries.
  • Subvention up to 30% of mortgage payments for poor families who cannot meet payments.
  • Increase of subsidies for the unemployed. Increase social protection for one-parent families, the aged, disabled, and families with no income.
  • Fiscal reductions for goods of primary necessity.
  • Nationalization of banks.

Some are not happy with Zizek’s support for SYRIZA. Despite my admiration for the contributors to Roar Magazine, an online publication that identifies strongly with the Occupy movement, editor Jerome Roos’s “Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s rising star, is a radical in name only”,  leaves something to be desired:

In truth, a SYRIZA victory will do little to revolutionize Greek society and much less to free Greece from the neoliberal shackles of the eurozone. While Tspiras’ heart undoubtedly beats on the left side of his chest, SYRIZA’s policies will do more to stabilize than to overthrow the discredited and dysfunctional system he despises so much. Indeed, for all his eloquence and good intentions, Tsipras promises little more than radical social democracy. The only reason SYRIZA is considered far-Left is because the center has moved light years to the right.

Maybe there is something I am not getting, but calling for the nationalization of banks doesn’t sound like a promise to “stabilize the system”. And at the risk of lowering the bar to toe level, the prospects of having a party committed to “radical social democracy” sounds pretty good to me.

In many ways, Zizek’s understanding of the importance of SYRIZA resonates with the recent Hardt-Negri declaration that sometimes it is good to have progressive governments in power:

From the 1990s to the first decade of this century, governments in some of the largest countries in Latin America won elections and came to power on the backs of powerful social movements against neoliberalism and for the democratic self-management of the common. These elected, progressive governments have in many cases made great social advances, helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty, transforming entrenched racial hierarchies regarding indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, opening avenues for democratic participation, and breaking long-standing external relations of dependency, in both economic and political terms, in relation to global economic powers, the world market, and US imperialism.

Of course, despite their acknowledgement that countries like Venezuela are “helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty”, their main interest is in seeing the “struggle continue” against Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales et al. This argument actually has merit, as long as it is understood that the social movements have a vested interest in seeing a Hugo Chavez running the state rather than a Felipe Calderón as it was in the past for an Alexander Kerensky rather than a General Kornilov.

Hardt and Negri’s flight from lofty “communist” abstractions, like Zizek’s, has sparked criticism. John Holloway, the author of the nonsensical “How to Change the World Without Taking Power”, does not like his comrades’ new direction at all. He reproves Michael Hardt for allowing the “abolition of capitalism” to take a back seat in “Commonwealth”, their latest book. (One can assume that the ideas expressed in the declaration were introduced there.) But even more tellingly, Holloway worries that they have almost come up with a “programme of transitional demands”. In such circles, you can be assured that this amounts to apostasy.

Hardt recognizes exactly what it is troubling Holloway:

Our differences are probably most pronounced with regard to the so-called progressive governments in power today, especially those in Latin America. As you know, Toni and I, like you, are critical of all of these Leftist parties and governments, from Argentina and Brazil to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. And like for you too our hopes and inspirations are linked primarily not to the governments but the powerful social movements that created the possibility of their electoral victories. But we do not regard these governments solely as antagonists.

It is not far-fetched to make the linkage between Latin America and Greece, as a May 13 NY Times article pointed out:

According to Gikas Hardouvelis, a senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Lucas Papademos and a participant in the talks over the most recent bailout, the I.M.F. supports a more relaxed view about the cuts in light of Greece’s economic hardship.

“For whatever reason, the hard-liners in Europe are saying that we deserve it,” Mr. Hardouvelis said. “They have destroyed the political center here, and the possibility of creating another Hugo Chavez is not zero.”

Notwithstanding the invocation of the Venezuelan leader as bogeyman, the more imminent likelihood is that SYRIZA’s leaders will embrace a form of Kirchnerism, to coin a term that describes Argentina’s recovery from a Greek-type abyss not too long ago. While the policies pursued by left-Peronists in Argentina seem all too easy to dismiss by the dreamers of the absolute, they would certainly be embraced by a working class in Greece that is being nailed to the IMF’s cross.

But more to the point, it is unlikely that Greece will be allowed to pursue such a neo-Keynesian program. Powerful imperialist institutions will do everything in their power to derail even a modest reformist agenda. If and when a struggle emerges between SYRIZA and the Wall Street/Washington/Bonn axis, the left will need to mobilize to defend the bolder measures such as nationalizing the banks while protecting the government against fascist attacks and CIA subversion. In an escalating series of confrontations, it cannot be ruled out that popular power will dictate the outcome and usher in a new type of society that hearkens back to the original Marxist vision of a classless society. But to stand on the sidelines now, because SYRIZA is not “revolutionary”, is a big mistake.

The British SWP has had the most remarkable reaction to SYRIZA. As an international organization, they have a member group in Greece that belongs to ANTARSYA, a coalition of small propaganda groups to the left of SYRIZA including Maoists and ortho-Trotskyists. In an interview with Socialist Review, the party’s monthly magazine, their co-thinker Giorgos Pittas laid out ANTASYRA’s perspective:

Syriza is rising further in the polls. So we start by saying we have to fight hard against the pro-austerity parties who are terrified and attacking the left. We say victory to the left, but we also say that we want the anti-capitalist left to be part of it, so we will take part in the elections and we call on people to vote for Antarsya.

Perhaps one of the best known SWP members internationally is Richard Seymour, who blogs at Lenin’s Tomb and has been on tour recently promoting his new book American Insurgents: A Short History of American Anti-Imperialism. He also takes a position at odds with Pittas, but put forward in a most comradely fashion. In the article titled “The Challenge of SYRIZA”, he argues:

Now, judging from online conversations and opinion pieces, a large section of the far left is waiting for the other shoe to drop.  The narratives of betrayal are already being readied, the old verities being ‘proved’ repeatedly.  There are many variations, but the core of it is that: 1) Syriza are straightforwardly reformists, notwithstanding the substantial revolutionary fringe – the tail does not wag the dog; 2) reformists are apt to compromise with the forces of capitalism, and as such a sell-out of the working class cannot be long following Syriza’s election.  In its latest instantiation, this is expressed in the tutting, sighing, and fanning of armpits over Tsipras chatting up the G20.  There it is: the betrayal is already afoot, the reformists already making deals with the bosses.  Perhaps so, but thus far Syriza have not withdrawn from their fundamental commitments, which are: abrogate the Memorandum, and stop austerity measures.  They did not do so when there was pressure to do so after the last election, and are not doing so now.

I would advise caution on this line of critique, therefore: it is very well to criticise what Syriza has actually said and done, but it isn’t necessary to second guess what Syriza will do.  The point will be to support the mass movements capable of pressuring a Syriza-led government from the left.  No, they are not a revolutionary formation; no, they won’t overthrow capitalism; no, their manifesto is not a communist manifesto.  Yet it is just possible that Syriza won’t betray workers in the interests of European capital, and that all the stern augury will have been displacement activity.

In a fascinating exchange of views underneath the article, Richard makes clear that ANTASYRA might want to rethink its approach:

They [ANTASYRA] can do whatever they want, but what is this about ‘silencing’ themselves?  The only way they can express a voice is by subjecting themselves to an electoral wipe-out?  That’s their main area of strength here?  I mean, seriously, what is the argument for standing?  Is it to gain as big a voice as possible?  If so, then it’s not going to happen – and if it did, it might have an impact on the outcome of the elections that Antarsya would not want to be responsible for.  So, what else?  To keep their presence on the ballot?  Why?  In *every* election, this is essential?  To get over a message?  Their best way of reaching people is through an electoral process in which they will get a fraction of one percent, and at that a fraction of the vote they previously got in the parliamentary elections, which was smaller than the previous high in the regional elections, and no seats anywhere?  I see absolutely no argument for their *having* to stand.  So, by all means, they will do whatever they think best – they certainly won’t listen to me.  But perhaps we should reflect on what this means for us.  If we end up rationalising a position that makes no sense, and internalising its presuppositions, there’s a risk we can make worse mistakes.

(It should be added that a lively exchange of views on the Egyptian elections is also taking place in these circles, a topic for another article.)

For those familiar with my critique of “democratic centralism”, it will come as no surprise that I view the discussion taking place on Richard’s blog as essential for the evolution of the British SWP and its international organization. When a deep-going debate such as this begins to take place on the left, it will naturally be reflected in the ranks of every organization. It benefits the left to air out our differences in public since they help to clarify our thinking—especially when the participants are well versed in Marxist politics. Keep in mind that Lenin and Bukharin had public debates during WWI on the national question. This was the Bolshevik norm and if it was good enough for them, it is good enough for us.

Finally, I want to suggest that SYRIZA has much more in common with traditional Marxist concepts of a “revolutionary program” than many on the left realize. (I will be elaborating on this at some length in a pending article.) Our tendency is to mistake doctrine with program. For example, not long after I joined the SWP of the United States in 1967, I asked an old-timer up in party headquarters what our program was. (A Maoist friend had challenged me about our bona fides.) He waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, “It’s all there.” This meant having positions on everything from WWII to Kronstadt. Becoming a “cadre” meant learning the positions embodied in over a hundred pamphlets and books and defending them in public. Of course, this had much more in common with church doctrine than what Karl Marx had in mind when his Communist program sought, for example:

  • Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  • Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

When you stop and think about it, this is sort of the thing you can find in SYRIZA’s program. Maybe it is time for the left to rethink the question of how we demarcate parties? Instead of demanding that new members learn the catechism on controversial questions going back to the 1920s, they instead would be required to defend a class orientation in their respective arenas, like the trade union movement or the student movement, etc. That would make us a lot stronger than we are today. We need millions united in struggle, especially since the death rattle coming out of capitalism’s throat grows louder day by day.

June 8, 2012

Tony Buba retrospective; Patagonia Rising

Filed under: Ecology,Film,workers — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Tonight is opening night for a retrospective of the films of Tony Buba at the Anthology Film Archives in NY that ends on June 12th. Put this on your calendar since the “Bard of Braddock” is more tuned in to the American class system than any director I’ve run across in over 15 years of film reviewing.

As Michael Moore is to Flint, and Harvey Pekar was to Cleveland, that’s what Tony Buba is to Braddock, a town that was once home to steel mills, a prosperous working class, cultural attractions including 5 movie theaters, and all the other features that have largely disappeared from such rust belt towns and cities.

Buba actually combines the best of Michael Moore and Harvey Pekar in his most celebrated film, “Lightning Over Braddock” that will be shown this evening. Like Moore in “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the film is a tribute to an America that has almost disappeared, a blue-collar semi-paradise that enabled working class kids like Buba and Michael Moore to go to college and catch lightning in a bottle. (I am not exactly sure why the film has lightning in the title, but this would make about as much sense as any other explanation I can think of.)

Made in 1988, the film is a genre-bending affair that combines the kind of guerrilla film-making that Buba’s reputation rests on as well as farcical elements of a Sylvester Stallone comes to Braddock type film that represents the temptation of “selling out”. As a lapsed (or perhaps good) Catholic, Buba knows what it means to be tempted by the devil. In one scene, he confesses to a priest in an effort perhaps to put his Hollywood dreams behind him.

While he affects a humble son of the working class persona (or maybe pretends to affect), the scenario underlying “Lightning Over Braddock” is quite sophisticated in the way that it grapples with the perpetual dilemma facing film-makers: how do you keep art and mammon separated? I would say that “Lightning Over Braddock” does about as good a job of addressing this hoary issue as anything I have seen since Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece “Contempt”, a film whose producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine hoped would appeal to a broad audience, while exploiting their “edgy” young director’s notoriety. They were interested in a “product” that would sell in art-houses and shopping malls. Godard resisted them every step of the way and turned the film itself into a brilliant satire on Hollywood stupidity and greed, subverting the intentions of his producers.

Like Harvey Pekar, Buba has a great affection for the “characters” that he grew up with and who serve as a kind of repertory company in the same manner as Max Von Sydow and company once did for Ingmar Bergman. Instead of trained actors, Buba relies on the likes of Sal Carollo, a local street hustler who sticks out like a sore thumb in much of “Lightning Over Braddock”, a film whose preoccupations with art and politics Carollo mocks. His main concern is “getting paid” for his part in Buba’s films, either through cash on the barrel or press notices. Carollo is a rail-thin, scabrous-looking character who brags about being a mafia hit man at one point in his life. We must conclude that Buba’s attraction to Carollo defies an easy explanation, just as Harvey Pekar’s friendship with Toby, the attention-seeking “nerd” in “American Splendor”, does. The inclusion of the unlikely Sol Carollo, despite his often-grating interventions, is what in fact makes this film so compelling. It is Buba’s way of telling the audience to leave their conventional expectations of radical documentary in the theater lobby.

As I told Buba in a phone conversation last night, this was the first time I had interviewed a director in 15 years of reviewing films on Rotten Tomatoes as a member of New York Film Critics Online. It is standard practice for publicists to invite me to interview someone in town for a publicity tour, but I have never taken them up on it. Buba, on the other hand, was somebody I really wanted to talk to. Like Harvey Pekar, and like Michael Moore before he became a macher, this was an American original worth knowing.

The first question I had for him was how he reacted to a story in the NY Post yesterday about trade unionists voting for Scott Walker in Wisconsin, that despite the paper’s Murdoch ownership, does ring true:

Tom Fabitz, 66, a retired machinist and member of the United Steel Workers Union, said he voted for Walker because he brought taxes and spending under control. “Walker is saving the state money. You have to trim the fat someplace,” said Fabitz, a Marine vet and football fanatic.

This led to an exchange that confirmed for me that Buba was one of the sharper analysts of the class that he emerged from. He attributed Fabitz’s lack of solidarity to the biggest vulnerability of the working-class in the U.S., namely the rampant individualism that enables the rulers to divide and conquer. Unlike Michael Moore, and many of his co-thinkers at MSNBC like Ed Schultz, Buba does not romanticize the working class. He understands its failings, but at the same time puts the onus on the class that dominates it, the capitalists.

Also, unlike Moore, Buba does not hold out hope that some savior will come along any time soon to “rescue” the poor and the downtrodden. He says that the last time he voted for a Democrat was when LBJ ran in 1964, an experience identical to my own.

In many ways, Buba’s tough love for the working class is akin to Michael Yates’s. Yates is also a son of the Pittsburgh region working class who has seen first-hand how workers can defy rosy-hued “socialist realism” images and act as self-destructively as many oppressed groups have throughout history. For a literary counterpart to Buba’s documentaries, I can’t recommend Yates’s collection of stories “In and Out of the Working Class” highly enough. When I crossposted a NY Times article on the Buba retrospective to the Marxism mailing list, Yates had this to say:

Karen [Michael’s better half] and I have met Tony Buba and seen some of his films. He is an exceptional filmmaker and a truly nice guy. It is great to see him get this kind of recognition. He told us that Michael Moore asked him to work on Roger and Me, but Tony was busy at the time with another project. He was his typical self-deprecating self about the irony of this. We went to a screening in Pittsburgh of a film he made. Many of his friends and family were there, and (no doubt) the women made good ethnic food for everyone.

The Tony Buba retrospective, be there or be square.

Also opening tonight at the Cinema Village in New York is the outstanding documentary on mega-dams versus the people titled “Patagonia Rising”. Directed by Brian Lilla, the film takes you into the windswept, rugged and isolated region of Chile (shared by Argentina) that serves as the corporate logo of a clothing company that sought to dramatize the sturdiness of its gear. This is not the most outrageous case of branding I can think of, considering the real human beings who exist beneath the label.

The film opens with a gaucho on horseback on his ranch in Patagonia that is surrounded by majestic mountains. Lilla has a real feel for the raw beauty of the region that makes the film appealing on a visual basis alone, even though the real aim is to educate viewers about the threat to the people who live there.

The villain of “Patagonia Rising” is HydroAysen, a Spanish energy company, with minority Chilean ownership, that seeks to build five huge hydroelectric dams. To his credit, and to the usefulness of the film as a true investigation of the issues, Lilla allows a corporate spokesman to make the company’s case throughout the film. (Of course, he follows up with rebuttals from experts, particularly Chilean scientists who are mobilizing to stop HydroAysen in its tracks.) He also interviews a farmer from Patagonia who candidly admits that he supports the corporation because it will benefit him. He hopes to sell his land at a premium and move to a better location.

Sitting through this masterful documentary, I could not help but think of the uses of “Greenmail” throughout the world, including my home county growing up in upstate N.Y. There the issue is “fracking”, an unwise method of drilling for natural gas that has awful consequences, including the spread of carcinogens in the water supply as well as making water the coming out of your tap ignitable by a cigarette lighter as was dramatically illustrated in the documentary “Gasland“. No matter how baleful the consequences, you will always find land-owners—particularly those who are economically distressed—ready to sell out.

Just as is the case with the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the consequences of mega-dams in Patagonia will not be confined to the people living in the affected area. You will learn from Patrick McCully, one of the film’s most expert witnesses, that when a river is dammed, the ocean loses a source of fresh water and nutrients. The impact of a loss of such rejuvenation cannot be gauged completely at this point, but the risks to future sustainability are obviously immense. The ocean is rapidly becoming depleted of marine life, all because some big corporations seek profits in the same way that vampires seek blood. Something is deeply wrong.

On June sixth an article titled “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere”  appeared in Nature Magazine. It stated “Humans now dominate Earth, changing it in ways that threaten its ability to sustain us and other species”. While articles such as this have a way of changing attitudes, there is nothing like a good film to drive the point home since in the 21st century, as was the case in much of the 20th, that, TV, and radio is where ordinary citizens get their ideas about the world.

Mark Lilla deserves a lot of credit for making a valuable work such as this and I urge my readers in New York to see “Patagonia Rising” and spread the word.

June 5, 2012

Thoughts on the passing of Earl Shorris

Filed under: conservatism,Jewish question,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:23 am

Earl Shorris

The NY Times obituary on Earl Shorris is an admiring tribute to an exceptional human being:

Earl Shorris, a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy, died on May 27 in New York. He was 75.

The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Anthony said.

Mr. Shorris, who wrote a dozen books during the first 35 years of his career, many sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Established in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the East Village of Manhattan, the program offers the disadvantaged a 10-month curriculum of philosophy, history, art, literature and logic. It earned Mr. Shorris the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Read full obit

I held Shorris in the highest esteem as both a principled left-liberal and a master essayist. As a literary genre, the personal essay’s first and greatest exponent was Michel Montaigne who always proceeded from the personal to the universal. Another master of the form is Philip Lopate whose essay on taking his incontinent aging father to a Chinese restaurant evolves into a transcendent meditation on fatherhood and death.

Earl Shorris’s last essay before his death appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that he has had a long association with. It is the quintessential personal essay titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic” that begins with his latest hospitalization for the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would shortly kill him and ending with commentary on another cancer, the military-industrial complex that is killing America.

In the middle of the night, when the hospital is in its deepest dusk, a confusing loneliness sets in. If there is no motion in the room, no sound, no sense of life in the pallid darkness, the little tremblings stop: in the perfect stillness, hope subsides; death presents itself in the guise of an analgesic. As if she knew this about the night, Sasha Stanton appeared carrying a small cup of lemon ice. It was the first food I had eaten in some days, and I took it not for hunger but for company.

Death was growing inside me. It defies the mind, like magic, for it was only death because of what had been described as the immortality metastasizing within. I was overcome by a kind of attraction to it. Nothing else had ever beckoned so! Not even the love of my wife or the faces of my sons.

Like a sonata in one movement, the piece shifts gradually toward a look at the “body politic”, with cancer a perfect metaphor for the state of things in 2012. I first heard such a metaphor from Joel Kovel, who in a talk on ecology at the Brecht Forum about 20 years ago described unregulated capitalist growth as a metastasizing tumor. Shorris writes:

Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways. With no ethical component to national politics, President Obama could deliver his 2011 State of the Union speech without ever mentioning the word “poverty,” although one in every five American children lived in poverty. Without a commitment to Hutcheson’s idea of the greatest good, which is at the core of the original American philosophy in Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this may no longer be the brilliant experiment. If happiness is for the few and it produces unemployment approaching that of the Great Depression, then the shadow of evening is here.

Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.

I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.

No nation is forever.

The NY Times obit neglected to mention perhaps Shorris’s best-known and most controversial books, “Jews Without Mercy”. Written in 1971, it was the first open challenge to Jewish neoconservatives written by somebody not connected to the hard left.

Today I took the book out of the Columbia University library and scanned in the first chapter titled “Apology to Mr. Singer, Slayer of Chickens, May He Rest in Peace.” Like all of his other essays, it starts with the personal:

You were decorated with blood and feathers, praying and killing in the back room of a store on an empty block in a failed section of the town. The butcher pointed to you as if you were an advertisement. He asked if the boy wanted to watch Mr. Singer do his work. I declined to step behind the counter and through the unpainted wooden gate that led to your slaughterhouse. My grandmother laughed. She knew chickens, she knew children.

She prepared chickens in the tiny kitchen of her apartment, reaching into the hollow cavity to remove the liver, heart, and kidneys; tearing the fat from the flesh; and depositing the yellow clumps in a saucepan. She burned the feet in the fire of the stove, blackening the ends of the truncated toes. While the chicken soaked in salt water she spoke of you: You dassn’t be afraid of Mr. Singer. He’s a very learned man. When the Rabbi has a question, you know where he goes? To Mr. Singer!

This has a special meaning for me since I used to watch a Mr. Singer at work when I was a young boy. There was a ritual kosher chicken slaughterhouse in the back yard below my apartment in upstate NY and I used to watch the shochit in awe and wonder—this was before my parents bought their first TV. From my memoir scheduled to be released in August 2065:

Before long Shorris transforms himself into a kind of shochet, slicing the throats of the neocons:

Many of the converts have told of the journey across the political spectrum, although not with the detail or the honesty of Norman Podhoretz. Most of the others have begun with rationalization rather than confession, attempting to hide their newfound preference for vulgarity. Almost all of them have said that it is because they are Jewish that they have become neoconservatives. They speak for each other; they help each other with grants, consulting fees, and introductions to money and power. It is a close camaraderie for all but Daniel Bell, who resigned as coeditor of The Public Interest after he and Irving Kristol founded the magazine, and who was given into the hands of Michael Novak in the July 1981 issue of Commentary to be drummed out of the corps as one whose “imagination still operates within a Marxian horizon.” Novak, a Polish Catholic and the publicist of “ethnic interests,” the new euphemism for racism, delivered the coup de grace earlier in the same paragraph: “Bell is said to have quipped that he is a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture. The single most systematic strength in his thinking—and simultaneously, the single most glaring weakness—is that the socialist in him frequently overwhelms both the liberal and the conservative.” The club is warm and supportive, but it is restricted. Daniel Bell, the best mind among the neoconservatives, cannot be considered a neoconservative: He simply could not bring himself to trade ethics for vulgarity.

Returning to the NY Times obit, I was appreciative of Earl Shorris’s efforts on behalf of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities while feeling queasy about its funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, like so many of Bard’s philanthropic efforts. The Clemente center benefits poor Latinos, a program with the same good intentions as Bard’s Prison Initiative that allows prisoners to earn a BA while incarcerated.

If I ever had gotten to know Shorris, I would have like to ask him about Soros’s impact on the poor people of Hungary whose homes were foreclosed in the tens of thousands after the Central Bank suffered huge losses because of Soros’s insider trading. After watching the documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.”, I am more skeptical of deep-pocketed foundations than ever, I’m afraid.

There’s something about these programs that reminds me of George Bush ‘41’s “thousand points of light”. With American higher education going down the tubes, what real value is there in setting up Potemkin Villages that show off George Soros’s good will?

Ultimately, the worldview of the left-liberal, including the best of them like Gore Vidal or Earl Shorris, is moralistic and does not consider the possibility that “mercy” is not the solution to the nation’s problems but a radical restructuring of the economy so that everybody comes into the world on an equal footing.

June 2, 2012

Pink Ribbons Inc.; Living Downstream; The Education of Dee Dee Ricks

Filed under: Ecology,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 10:50 pm

Yesterday the must-see documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.” opened at the IFC Center in NY. The film was released well before the news broke that the Susan G. Komen Foundation had stopped funding Planned Parenthood because it provided abortion services. If you think the Komen’s main offense was fetus fetishism, as radical feminists used to put it in the 1970s, you haven’t see the worst of it. This powerful mixture of investigative journalism and cultural analysis lies bare the truly sinister partnership of “cause marketing” and the rotten corporations seeking to exploit women’s suffering from an epidemic largely spawned by corporate America.

The film is based on Samantha King’s “Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy”. King, one of the primary interviewees, is joined by a number of other experts on the subject, including women who have survived breast cancer. As a way of showing what the radical critique of corporate philanthropy is up against, the film also interviews Nancy G. Brinker, the CEO and founder of Komen, as well as a number of the corporate chieftains who have teamed up with her.

The most riveting figure among all the interviewees is Barbara Ehrenreich, the long-time socialist journalist and educator who wrote about her own encounter with the disease in an article titled “Welcome to Cancerland” that appeared in the November 2001 Harper’s Magazine.

My official induction into breast cancer comes about ten days later with the biopsy, which, for reasons I cannot ferret out of the surgeon, has to be a surgical one, performed on an outpatient basis but under general anesthesia, from which I awake to find him standing perpendicular to me, at the far end of the gurney, down near my feet, stating gravely, “Unfortunately, there is a cancer.” It takes me all the rest of that drug-addled day to decide that the most heinous thing about that sentence is not the presence of cancer but the absence of me — for I, Barbara, do not enter into it even as a location, a geographical reference point. Where I once was — not a commanding presence perhaps but nonetheless a standard assemblage of flesh and words and gesture — “there is a cancer.” I have been replaced by it, is the surgeon’s implication. This is what I am now, medically speaking.

Ehrenreich is a compelling personality. Her saturnine observations on the medical profession, the pink ribbon industry, her personal drama, and the class dimensions of the epidemic, are worth the price of the admission. But there are some other eye-opening interviews that should be singled out.

Like Ehrenreich, Barbara A. Brenner is a sharp critic of American society and a breast cancer survivor. As Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, she mobilizes women and men against the type of incestuous relationship that the Komen foundation cultivates with corporate behemoths that produce carcinogenic commodities. When Brenner learned that Kentucky Fried Chicken had hooked up with Komen to give 50 cents to the foundation for every pink bucket of fried chicken that was sold, she launched a campaign directed against KFC and Komen named “What the Cluck?” that effectively put the kibosh on one of the more grotesque examples of “cause marketing”.

One of the more poignant moments in the film that amply demonstrates its class loyalties involves the handful of women organized as The Plastics Focus Group. These are women who worked in factories molding plastic car parts. As part of a research study on the ties between chemicals in the workplace to breast cancer, they described a battery of never-ending chemical assaults that left them feeling ill much of the time. While nosebleeds are bad enough on a daily basis, nothing prepared them for the cancer that would eventually destroy their lives.

One of the main points made in “Pink Ribbons Inc.” is that the Komen Foundation devotes very little resources to prevention, especially through the much needed campaigns against corporate polluters like Ford Motors that victimized the women working on plastic molding at the very time it was exploiting its ties to Komen. That, of course, would be tantamount to biting the hand that feeds it.

Ironically, the pink ribbon itself was thought up by someone very cognizant of the role of carcinogens unleashed by capitalist production. The documentary interviews Charlotte Haley, whose daughter, sister and grandmother all had breast cancer. She began handing out salmon-colored ribbons at grocery stores with cards stating, “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” For as long as she has been involved with breast cancer issues, Haley has always emphasized the likely environmental causes of a disease that has become an epidemic after WWII when American industry began to pump out enormous quantities of carcinogens, the carbon based materials that while cheap are deadly.

Anticipating that “Pink Ribbons Inc.” would deal with the question of the corporate role in making women sick, I read Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream: an ecologist looks at cancer in the environment”, a book that I purchased in 1997 when it first came out. To give you a sense of its provenance, you can read this blurb by Richard Levins on the back cover: “Sandra Steingraber’s ‘upstream’ approach to cancer is imperative. It is about time someone wrote this book.” Levins, as you might know, is one of America’s most respected Marxist biologists.

Born in 1959, Steingraber grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by corn and soybean fields that were drenched by chemical pesticides and herbicides. In her 20s, when studying biology, she developed bladder cancer, a disease that is not usually found among the young but is endemic to the kind of workplaces that The Plastic Focus Group endured. The book is written as a kind of memoir and investigative journalism that revolves around her return to her hometown and the various places that might have led to her disease.

Put simply, “Living Downstream” is a latter-day “The Silent Spring”, with frequent nods to Rachel Carson who died of breast cancer, likely from the sort of chemical causes that impacted Steingraber as well. Steingraber is not only a highly accomplished researcher; she is also a deeply gifted writer, as this excerpt should illustrate:

Bean fields are humble; they start out that way and stay that way. For reasons I can’t explain, they are also a little bit sad. Walking through a soybean field, I feel like myself, only sadder. A soybean is a delicate plant. Like all other legumes—clover, peas, alfalfa—the soybean plant has a softness in its leaves. Fully grown, it is mostly shaped like a little bush that never extends much above the thighs, but, late in the season, an inconspicuous twining reveals its origin as an Asian vine. In spite of their modesty, the high-yielding varieties of soybeans are given brawny names—Jack, Burlison, Pharoah—that sound like brands of condoms.

As it turns out, 99 percent of corn and soybeans in Illinois were sprayed with herbicides by 1993. Although they have been shown to produce chromosome damage in lab animals, it is difficult to establish a direct connection between the chemicals and breast or ovarian cancer, their likely cause in rural Illinois. That, of course, is the loophole that corporate America exploits. Their “experts” demand proof that dioxins or PCB’s cause cancer, when the exact moment when a cell mutates is impossible to pinpoint. For that matter, the exact cause of cancer is still not known, nor may never be known since cancer is not exactly caused in the same way as, for example, malaria is caused by a mosquito’s bite.

Cancer has been around for as long as homo sapiens, but it is only in the more recent past, as industry has become more and more carcinogenic, that it has become the widespread menace that confronts humanity. If there is any stronger motivation for abolishing the capitalist system than eliminating a profit motive that makes pollution the threat it is to life and limb, I certainly can’t name it.

Let me conclude with a few words about a documentary that was aired recently on HBO and that can be seen on-demand if you are a subscriber. Titled “The Education of Dee Dee Ricks”, it is the story of a woman best described as out of the cast of Bravo’s “Housewives of New York”. (I watch such shows with my wife from time to time, I confess, because they are a lot funnier than most of the situation comedies on network TV.) If you don’t think that unrepentant Marxists have any business watching such garbage, let me advise you that the top-drawer Bookforum has a pretty positive review of Bravo executive Andy Cohen’s memoir. On second thought, I’ll watch garbage if I feel like it, so there.

Anyhow, Ricks has it all. She lives in a 14 million dollar apartment, is a young-looking 39, endowed with natural blond hair and a statuesque body. In other words, she has all the privileges and much of the seeming shallowness of the Bravo housewives.

Like the petty-minded bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”, she learns out of the blue one day that she has cancer. Her illness, like that character’s, gives her a new and more uplifted perspective on life. From observing the exclusively white and privileged nature of the women receiving treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital (a place I worked in the 1980s), she decides to become a fundraiser for a clinic in Harlem that caters to Black women in the community who die from breast cancer at a rate 5 to 8 times that of whites.

The film is very graphic in its depiction of Ricks’s surgery and aftermath—she undergoes a double mastectomy and 8 rounds of chemotherapy. Throughout it all, she continues to raise money for the clinic and becomes close friends, almost like a sister, with Cynthia Dodson, a Black woman who has stage-4 breast cancer.

This is a poignant study of the solidarity that emerges between women enduring a dreaded disease and a partial explanation for the appeal that the Komen foundation has for many women. Indeed, Ricks is seen giving a testimonial to Dodson at a Komen fundraising dinner.

If you do not have HBO, keep an eye out for this documentary if it ever makes other venues since it is a very inspiring film about women dealing with their number one health threat in this epoch.

June 1, 2012

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Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 11:57 pm

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