Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2015

Facebook blocks posting of NYT article about American Psychological Association collaborating with the CIA

Filed under: CIA,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

Screen shot 2015-04-30 at 5.33.03 PM

Trying to post this on my FB timeline resulted in this:

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The article is here.

April 27, 2015

Capitalism, slavery and primitive accumulation

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

The inspiration for Political Marxism?

On Saturday morning I attended a panel discussion on Mike Zmolek’s newly published “Rethinking the Industrial Revolution” at the Historical Materialism conference held at NYU. This is a 1000-page work based on his dissertation that he began 20 years ago on the suggestion of his adviser George Comninel that the Brenner thesis should be extended forward historically to account for the industrial revolution. While I am sure that the book has a lot of interesting research based on a cursory glance at the dissertation in Proquest, my reaction is to wonder why the Political Marxism tendency, to which Comninel and Zmolek belong, has so little interest in another kind of extension, namely geographical. How in the world can you continue to ignore economic and social developments in the colonial world in the period of early modernity? In some ways it reminds me of that famous New Yorker cartoon where you see a map of the USA in which all the states recede in size increasingly as you move westward from Manhattan with California finally the size of a postage stamp. Substitute the British Isles for Manhattan and you get the Political Marxism perspective.

In the Q&A, Jim Creegan, a Marxmail subscriber and occasional contributor to Weekly Worker, raised a question about merchant capital. He thought that the role of state monopolies such as the East India Company was a major factor in the transition to capitalism in England and wondered why it was given short shrift in Political Marxism scholarship.

Charles Post, who is a Political Marxist and was a discussant in this panel, gave a reply to Creegan that I found quite startling. He informed him that this was an interpretation based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. It was only after Marx had become “clear”, to use the Scientology term, in his later years of the Grundrisse and Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other stuff got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

While I thought I was pretty familiar with Marx’s writings, I had no idea that he wrote about primitive accumulation in German Ideology or the Communist Manifesto, even errantly, so as soon as I got home from the conference I checked it out. Now the last thing on earth that I could possibly be accused of is reading Charles Post’s mind but I have a feeling that he might have been referring to Marx’s emphasis on the role of commerce and the town in the late middle ages. For example, he writes in the German Ideology: “The immediate consequence of the division of labour between the various towns was the rise of manufactures, branches of production which had outgrown the guild-system. Manufactures first flourished, in Italy and later in Flanders, under the historical premise of commerce with foreign nations.” But this, of course, has no connection to Creegan’s question.

Probably the definitive take on primitive accumulation comes from Ellen Meiksins Wood, a leading doyen of the Political Marxism tendency. She limits it strictly to changes in the British countryside and regards any loot wrested from Latin America, Africa or Asia simply as fuel to the fire that was burning in Merrie Olde England:

The essence of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labour for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. The specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production.

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx’s account, took place in the English countryside, with the expropriation of the direct producers. In the new agrarian relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and became wage labourers. Marx regards this rural transformation as the real “primitive accumulation” not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before.

“Origins of Capitalism”, pp. 36-37

Furthermore, if Wood had been in attendance at this panel, she would have sharply rebuked Creegan for giving any credence to the idea that merchant capital was an important precursor to the full development of capitalist property relations. In “Empire of Capital”, she described the East India Company as “non-capitalist” and an impediment to economic growth even though in its early stages it helped the British textile industry grow by suppressing India’s advantage.

Unfortunately, by reducing the East India Company’s role in this matter to a sentence or two, Wood succumbs to the New Yorker Magazine cartoon version of history. It would behoove her or any other Political Marxist to pay heed to what R. Palme Dutt wrote in “India Today” back in 1949:

Immediately after, the great series of inventions, such as spinning-jenny and the steam engine, began in Europe which initiated the Industrial Revolution. The development of the age of inventions depended, not simply on “some special and unaccountable burst of inventive genius,” as the leading authority on English industrial history, W. Cunningham, writes in his Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times, but on the accumulation of a sufficient body of capital as the indispensable condition to make possible the large-scale outlay for their utilisation. Previous inventions of Kay’s fly-shuttle in 1733 and Wyatt’s roller-spinning machine in 1738 came to naught because they couldn’t be used for lack of capital. It was the plunder of India that thus set into motion one of the greatest revolutions of history – the Industrial Revolution. In his Law of Civilization and Decay, the American writer, Brooke Adams describes how it happened:

The influx of the Indian treasure, by adding considerably to the nation’s cash capital, not only increased its stock of energy, but added much to its flexibility and the rapidity of its movement. Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all the authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution,’ the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 1760. Prior to 1760, according to Bains, the machinery used for spinning cotton in Lancashire was almost as simple as in India; while about 1750 the English iron industry was in full decline because of the destruction of forests for fuel. At that time four-fifths of the iron used in the kingdom came from Sweden.

Plassey was fought in 1757, and probably nothing has ever equalled in rapidity of the change which followed. In 1760 the flying shuttle appeared, and coal began to replace wood in smelting. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, in 1776 Crompton contrived the mule, in 1785 Cartwright patented the powerloom, and, chief of all, in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine, the most perfect of all vents of centralising energy. But though these machines served as outlets for the accelerating movement of the time, they did not cause that acceleration. In themselves inventions are passive, many of the most important having lain dormant for centuries, waiting for a sufficient store of force to have accumulated to set them working. That store must always take the shape of money, and money not hoarded, but in motion. Before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed; and had Watt lived fifty years earlier, he and his invention must have perished together. Possibly since the world began, no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder…

The spoliation of India was thus the hidden source of capital accumulation which played an all-important role in helping to make possible the industrial revolution in England. Once the industrial capital was established in England, it needed markets to sells its products to. It was again India which was forced, to absorb these goods to enable the industrial revolution in England to sustain itself. India had to be de-industrialized in order to achieve this. After the victory of English industrial capital over its mercantile capital, India’s textile industry was destroyed leading to the destruction of its urban economy and the subsequent overcrowding in the villages and pushing India hundreds of years behind in its economic development.

Of course, Dutt was a leader of the Communist Party of India and as such might be susceptible to the sort of errant thinking that left the early Karl Marx beneath Charles Post’s exacting standards but surely we can accept the word of the Master himself in his mature phase. While the entire chapter 20 of V.3 of Capital (“Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”) would be edifying, it is essential to see how Marx viewed it in terms of the “transition” debate:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

In other words, James Creegan was saying exactly the same thing that Karl Marx was saying, something that the Political Marxists can’t get into their thick skulls. In fact, in the chapter on the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist in V. 1 of Capital, he doesn’t mention the enclosure acts at all. Instead he cites the East India Company, the slave trade, the extermination of the American Indian and all those other things that recede from the Anglocentric perspective of Post, Wood, Brenner, incorporated:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In a very real sense, the debate that the Political Marxists have begun is not so much with people like the late James Blaut, Henry Heller, or Neil Davidson. It is with Karl Marx himself. As long as people have access to Capital, the last word on these questions according to his gatekeeper Charles Post, they will consider these words and realize that they are at odds with those who speak in his name as paragons of orthodoxy. A little less “orthodoxy” and a bit more modesty is in order.

On Sunday morning I heard presentations by John Clegg and Robin Blackburn in a panel on “Slavery in the Age of Capital” that were also important contributions to the ongoing debate over the “transition” question.

For those of you who have been keeping up with this debate, you are probably aware that Charles Post tried to apply the Brenner thesis to the American Civil War viewing slavery as a “precapitalist” institution that the northern bourgeoisie sought to destroy in order to carry out a bourgeois revolution, even if that concept is strictly verboten in Political Marxism circles. Once again, Karl Marx had a completely different take on the relationship of slavery to capitalism:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

John Clegg not only would agree with this assessment. He goes even further and uses Karl Marx’s categories to defend the proposition that slaves produced surplus value. In other words, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor is being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

Clegg has co-authored an article with Duncan Foley, the chair of the economics department at the New School Graduate Faculty and a highly respected Marxist scholar, which has been submitted to the Cambridge Economic History Review and that his talk was drawn from. I will not try to recapitulate it since it is quite complex but will instead refer you to a presentation he has given on it in the past: http://wearemany.org/a/2013/04/slavery-and-capitalism

What I can offer as well is Duncan Foley’s views on slavery and capitalism as they appeared on Gerry Levy’s OPE-List back in 2000:

It always seemed to me that slaves in the New World were very closely tied to the commodity-producing system. Certainly in the U.S. the main motive for holding slaves was to produce export crops like tobacco and cotton. The labor of the slaves added value to the inputs, like wage labor, and presumably more value than the value equivalent of their subsistence. (I suspect quite a bit of the subsistence was produced on the plantations.) Thus there was a potential surplus value in the employment of slaves.

Full: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/archive/0004/0110.html

Blackburn’s talk was focused on a discussion of some of the new research on slavery and capitalism that is found in books by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson that he generally agreed with despite his concerns that they err on the side of drawing too much of an equation between wage labor and slavery.

Although I had tended to associate him largely with the Brenner thesis in the past, he made it clear that he was critical of Political Marxism and described Robert Brenner as having a long term problem with primitive accumulation, no doubt of the kind that involves the East India and company.

He was also very much in agreement with the basic thesis of Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”, namely that this commodity was instrumental to the growth of capitalism in Britain and, moreover, its colonial aspirations. When the British textile industry began to take off, it fueled the slave trade in the United States. As he put it, there can be different interpretations of whether slavery led to capitalism but no one could possibly disagree with the idea that the growth of capitalism led to the growth of slavery in the 19th century, a clear rebuttal of the idea that the two mode of production were inimical to each other. It may be the case that they would eventually come to blows but in the early stages, they were joined at the hip. Just as was the case in India, “extra-economic” coercion can often serve as a handmaiden to market relations even if some Marxists don’t get it.

April 24, 2015

The Political Economy of Fashion

Filed under: fashion,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm
The True Costs of an Aesthetic

The Political Economy of Fashion

by LOUIS PROYECT

Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in aChronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

read full article

April 23, 2015

Que maravillosa!

Filed under: cuba,dance,music — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

Filed under: Jewish question,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

boer

One of the oddest tendencies of Marxist intellectuals today is their admiration for Australian religion professor Roland Boer who received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for his book “In the Veil of Tears”. The jury is made up of people whose intelligence I truly respect (despite such lapses as awarding a prize to Francis Wheen for his cynical biography of Karl Marx in 1999.) Others have gotten on the bandwagon, including Paul Le Blanc. Scott McLemee is also something of a fan although it is hard to figure out whether he takes him as seriously as Le Blanc, giving the impression that he reads Boer more for amusement than edification.

Maybe the Deutscher jury and Le Blanc have never visited Boer’s blog “Stalin’s Moustache”, as McLemee has. If it is supposed to be a joke (as McLemee suggests), it is not a very good one, especially when you run into an article titled Stalin’s “Anti-Semitism. Who knows? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. Is writing a response to Boer like writing an angry letter to Onion.com along the lines of  “How dare you publish an article claiming that Karl Marx was a secret admirer of the Mormon Church?” (Come to think of it, that’s not so far from Boer’s particular shtick, comic or not.)

Boer starts off by dismissing those who charged Stalin with anti-Semitism as not worth being taken seriously because they are “not favourably disposed to Stalin”. Frankly, it would be quite an exercise in cognitive dissonance to find someone “favourably disposed to Stalin” who also found him anti-Semitic unless of course it was someone like the bizarre Sendero Luminoso publicist Luis Quispe who tried to score points on the original Marxism mailing list by referring to me as a Jew or a Zionist every chance he got. Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.

Citing an eccentric Dutch scholar named Erik Van Slee, Boer makes the case that Stalin objected to his flunkies using the original Jewish surnames of party members being targeted in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-1949. Furthermore, since Stalin told a Romanian Stalinist leader in 1949 that “racism leads to fascism”, how could he possibly be anti-Semitic? That’s some argument, isn’t it?

Decrying racism is pretty easy. When George Bush ’41 spoke at a celebration for signing the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday into law, he told the audience “We can learn about how a great vision and a great nation began to confront and nonviolently challenge institutional racism.” That’s the same George Bush who ran Willie Horton campaign ads that suggested a vote for Dukakis would unleash violent Black criminals on an innocent and god-fearing white America.

On the question of Stalin being opposed to using his adversary’s original Jewish surname, it is notable that Boer doesn’t even take the trouble to respond to the well-documented record of his doing exactly that. At the risk of losing my credibility by quoting someone who was not “favourably disposed” to Stalin, let me direct your attention to Leon Trotsky’s “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, written in 1937.

Trotsky notes that nobody ever referred to him as Bronstein before he became persona non grata in the USSR, nor—for that matter—did party members refer to Stalin as Dzhugashvili. By the same token, when Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a bloc with Stalin, that’s the names they were referred to in the party press. But after they were put on trial as members of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, they became Radomislyski and Rozenfeld.

Moving ahead to the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that Boer would have us believe is pure as the driven snow, it is of course difficult to establish that it was openly directed against Jews but only if you also believe that stop-and-frisk police tactics are not specifically directed against minorities.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Literaturnaya Gazeta took aim at an “evil and decadent story written by the homeless cosmopolitan Melnikov (Mehlman)” and the “cynical and impudent activities of B. Yakovlev (Holtzmann).” (The Jewish surnames were in the original.) Or maybe it was also a coincidence that some of the USSR’s best-known sports journalists were purged because they were Jewish. Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote:

It is not surprising therefore that the anti-patriotic cosmopolitans have laid their dirty hands on sporting literature … They are vagrants without passports, suspicious characters without any ancestry who work hard to put over the customs and tastes of the foreigners on Soviet athletes … It is high time to clean out all these enemies of the Socialist fatherland…

Not long after the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was launched, a “doctor’s plot” convinced many that anti-Semitism was a problem in the USSR but not Roland Boer apparently who wrote:

Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation, halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Does Boer think that his readers will not scrutinize his claim that “even more doctors were Russian”? To some extent this is true, because the people who read his idiotic blog would believe that Stalin walked on water. This was a typical comment from one of his fans (I hope it was not Paul Le Blanc or Scott McLemee using a fake name).

Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism in such strong terms as Stalin’s reply to the US-based Jewish News Agency? Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism as not only ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’, but as ‘the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism’?

I had no idea that cannibalism gave birth to anti-Semitism but let’s leave that aside for purposes of remaining tethered to the planet Earth.

What’s more important is to understand that of the nine doctors arrested, six were Jewish. In other words, it is irrelevant that maybe two-thirds of Soviet doctors were not Jewish. The reason anti-Semitism was detected in the “doctor’s plot” was the ethnic composition of those arrested. That Boer can pussyfoot around this reality shows that he has really absorbed the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.

The rest of Boer’s article is an attempt to prove that anti-Semitism could not exist in the USSR because the constitution banned it. There’s no argument that this is what it said. That was some great fucking constitution even if it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Finally, something should be said about one of Stalin’s boldest initiatives on behalf of Soviet Jews—at least nominally, the creation of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin gave the green light to in 1932. This was not a choice made by Russian Jews but one made by Stalin for them. It was consistent with his disregard for the rights of self-determination that Lenin decided to fight from his deathbed, dubbing Stalin a “vulgar Great-Russian bully”.

This was not Stalin’s last foray into Jewish nation building. In 1944 Stalin decided that the Jews had a case for building a state over the objections of the Arabs, the Palestinians foremost among them. In doing so, he became a “friend of the Jews” at least in the eyes of their Zionist leaders. You can read about this forgotten moment of history in a September 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled The Forgotten Alliance by historian Michael Réal:

The USSR supplied people willing to settle in Palestine. In 1946 the Soviets allowed more than 150,000 Polish Jews to go to the British and American occupied zones in Germany, where they entered camps for displaced people. There were few alternatives to Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, or those with neither home nor family at the end of the war. Moscow deliberately exacerbated this problem, putting Britain, under strong pressure from the Zionist movement and the US, in a difficult situation. The US was unwilling to take these refugees in, but feared the impact on US public opinion of newsreels showing boats of illegal immigrants en route to Palestine being turned back by British forces.

Before 1948, the USSR directly or indirectly supported secret immigration operations organised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, sending Jews from eastern Europe, especially Romania and Bulgaria (66% of the Jews who arrived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 came from there).

After 15 May 1948 and Israel’s declaration of independence, encouraging immigration became yet more urgent. Israel’s fledgling army needed recruits — so supplying the flow of migrants meant participating in the Israeli war effort. Between 1948 and 1951 more than 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe went to Israel — half of the total influx of migration during that period.

Moscow also supported Israel in another aspect of its demographic battle: the homogenisation of its population, which led to the departure — mainly through expulsion — of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. The USSR absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed the British. In 1948 the Soviet Union voted against UN resolution 194 on the possible return of Palestinian refugees.

Later on, the USSR would orient to the Arab states but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. 

April 19, 2015

Israel, Armenians and genocide denial

Filed under: Armenians,genocide,Roma,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

People like me who continue to read the NY Times print edition could not help but notice a full-page ad that appeared this week:

This is now the second ad that attacks the Obama administration for what amounts to genocide denial. In February, it was Susan Rice’s “refusal” to refer to a Rwandan genocide that was the subject of another NYT ad, once again sponsored by “Shmuley Boteach: America’s Rabbi” and “The World: Values Network” that amount to the same thing. The purpose of such ads is to smear the White House as being in league with Iran, which according to Zionist ideologues like Boteach is committed to murdering every last Israeli and—who knows—maybe every Jew in the world.

These ads cost $104,000 and Boteach has run plenty of them. You might ask yourself how a rabbi can come up with the dough. Here’s the answer. They are being paid for by Sheldon Adelson, the 8th richest man in the world who is worth $36.4 billion according to Fortune Magazine. Adelson has become rather infamous for lavishing huge sums of money on the most reactionary Republican Party politicians, including the bellicose miscreant Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton who wrote an open letter to the Iranian leaders telling them that a treaty with the USA would be nullified after Obama left the White House. He has followed up with a statement that a bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a cakewalk.

The most recent ad is notable because it tries to position the Zionist establishment as arch-defenders of Armenians trying to make Turkey pay for the genocide that occurred exactly 100 years ago. Like Obama, the current president of Turkey is willing to admit that there were massacres of Armenians in 1915 but balks at calling it genocide.

The Pope made news recently for calling it exactly that. Not one to back way from challenges, President Erdogan counter-attacked by reminding the Holy Father that his church backed the Crusades and the Inquisition. (He didn’t mention it but I would have also referred to Pope Pius XII’s refusal to condemn Hitler’s murder of six million Jews.)

One might think based on the most recent ad that Israelis would have been staunch defenders of Armenian claims given their shared victimization. As it turns out, this was not the case at all. In 2007, Mark Arax, a LA Times reporter of Armenian descent (LA has a very large Armenian population) wrote an article that exposed Israel’s tilt toward Turkey over the 1915 genocide and that riled up the Israel lobby for simply quoting them. David Twersky of the American Jewish Congress admitted to him: “As Jews, we have a tremendous reverence for the moral imperatives of history. But then there is the aspect that no Muslim country is closer to Israel than Turkey. So we feel paralyzed by a set of conflicting emotions.” Others were not so conflicted:

Other Jewish leaders, believing the security needs of the U.S. and Israel trump distant history, are siding with Turkey.

“I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue. The resolution takes a position. It comes to a judgment,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history,” he said. “And I don’t think the U.S. Congress should be the arbiter either.”

So egregious was Israel’s indifference to the Armenian genocide that one Israeli historian was moved to write the aptly titled “The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide” in 2000, a work that states:

But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

Leaving aside Israel’s realpolitik ties to Turkey, there’s another factor that weighed heavily in genocide denial, namely the refusal to accept the possibility that any other people except the Jews were so victimized in the 20th century. On a state visit to Turkey in 2001, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres put it this way: “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenia’s went through but not a genocide.”

It was not just the Armenians who got short shrift. Elie Wiesel, one of the worst apologists for Zionist brutality, was adamant that the Roma were not as elevated as the Jews. Serving as gatekeeper for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Wiesel said that the Roma were not allowed. Writing for RADOC, a Roma website, Ian Hancock—one of the world’s foremost Roma scholars—described Wiesel’s intransigence:

In July, 1988, I was invited to present a paper entitled “Uniqueness of the victims” at the Remembering for the Future: Responses to the Holocaust conference at Oxford University. I was accompanied by a gentleman named Leland Robison who recently reminded me of a startling confrontation I had with Professor Wiesel at that event—though I’d scarcely forgotten it. It remains very clear in my mind to this day. Professor Wiesel, surrounded by cameras and journalists, was being interviewed on the university grounds. During a break between questioning, I approached him and said “Professor Wiesel, please don’t forget the Gypsies!” He turned aggressively towards me, glared, and barked “Mister Hancock! I have read what you have written! And I don’t like it! I don’t like it at all!!” and turned away.

It is probably not too hard to figure out why Israel has changed its mind about the Armenians. It has everything to do with the feud with Turkey’s AKP over its condemnations of the worst features of the occupation of the West Bank and its solidarity with Gaza, no matter how limited. Once Erdogan began to be seen as Israel’s enemy, the Armenians became Israel’s friends in a maneuver whose cynicism was obvious to all. Writing for Huffington Post in 2011, Harut Sassounian, the Armenian publisher of the California Courier, reported on how “Israel May Retaliate Against Turkey by Recognizing the Armenian Genocide”:

Finally, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Majalli Whbee angrily lashed back at the Prime Minister of Turkey. Several Turkish media outlets quoted Whbee as stating: “Erdogan says that genocide is taking place in Gaza. We [Israel] will then recognize the Armenian related events as genocide.” Whbee, a member of the Israeli Knesset and a close confidante of Prime Minister Olmert, issued the following warning to Turkey: “We, as Israel, hope that Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements will not damage our relations. But, if Turkey does not behave fairly, this will have its consequences.”

In a sense, it is baffling why Israel would not consider Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians as anything but a nation-building necessity that countries such as Turkey, the U.S. and Israel were forced to adopt in their infancy. Israeli historian Benny Morris defended the Nabka this way: “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.”

Morris has a point even if it is malevolent. When the Turkish army forced the Armenians to take a “long march” into Syria, was that any different than Andrew Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokees in the “trail of tears”? Was it really the responsibility of the Turks or the Americans to feed and provide water for a nationality that was inimical to its own economic well-being? After all, some Armenians had allied themselves with Russia, Turkey’s long-time enemy. Was this any different from FDR herding Japanese-Americans into concentration camps? Mind you, I don’t believe any of this bullshit myself; I am just trying to give you a sense of how sleazy bastards like Benny Morris think.

April 17, 2015

NESTLÉ, the Military and Colombia

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

(This morning I received this article from Franklin Frederick, a water researcher from Brazil now living in Switzerland who had read my article on “Water, Capitalism, and Catastrophism” and told me that he shared my interest in such matters. The article appeared originally in German in the  Swiss magazine “Correo de las Américas”.)

NESTLÉ, the Military and Colombia

Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. George Orwell

Not everything that is faced, can be changed, but nothing can be changed, until it is faced. James Baldwin

Last June the Global Policy Forum, Bread for the World and MISEREOR published a very important working paper: “Corporate Influence on the Business and Human Rights Agenda of the United Nations“ (1). This document pay special attention to Nestlé: „Nestlé for example hired public relations (PR) practitioners to develop strategies of `issues management’ to undermine efforts of international regulation. (…) One telling example is the case of Rafael Pagan Jr., PR executive and President of the Nestlé Center for Nutrition in the early 1980s. Pagan developed a comprehensive PR strategy for TNCs to fight for corporate ‘survival’ and to deal `constructively and effectively` with the international regulatory mood“. Rafael Pagan, however, was no ordinary PR executive but actually an Army Intelligence Officer at the US Department of Defence. Pagan advised US Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on the Soviet bloc’s economic and military capabilities and Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush on Third World Policies. Nixon was the US President who supported Pinochet’s putsch against the Chilean elected President Salvador Allende in 1973, throwing Chile in a murderous military dictatorship for years. Rafael Pagan received a Life Achievement Award from President Reagan, the US President waging war against the Nicaraguan Sandinista Government, killing and terrorizing thousands of people in Central America. I do not think that Rafael Pagan advised either Nixon or Reagan against what they were doing. Rafael Pagan also received a Silver Anvil Award for resolving an international boycott against Nestlé – the “Nestlé kills babies “ campaign that at the time was a powerful movement bringing much damage to Nestlé’s image.

As part of the“ Pagan strategy“ the document mentions:

– „separating” the “fanatic” activist leaders from those who are “decent concerned” people, and „stripping the activists from the moral authority they receive from their alliance with religious organisations“.

In Switzerland the Pagan strategy is very successfully applied, including among the Church institutions. An example of the Pagan strategy working in Switzerland is Alliance Sud’s (AS) reactions to the Nestlé Colombian Case involving the trade union Sinaltrainal and the Nestlé spying case involving ATTAC. Four out of the six development agencies that form AS are linked to the Churches. Concerning the Colombian case, AS went on a „dialogue“ with Nestlé in Colombia and as correctly pointed by an article in the Tages Anzeiger (2) helped to improve Nestlé’s image by showing the company as “tolerant” and “open to criticisms” while at the same time portraying Sinaltrainal as “fanatic”. There was no public discussion or support from AS concerning the spying case. The „fanatic“ activists – ATTAC, myself – were separated from the „decent concerned“ institutions – and being „decent“ is to remain silent about embarrassing issues. For AS the Colombian case would be closed and forgotten if it were not for the European Center for Constitutional and Humans Rights – ECCHR – coming to Switzerland with the support of MISEREOR to file a law court case against Nestlé regarding the murder of the Colombian trade unionist Luciano Romero in 2005. According to another article in the Tages Anzeiger (3), AS was not very enthusiastic about ECCHR’s initiative. An important documentary from the Swiss French TV RTS from 2013 – Contre Nestlé jusqu’ à la mort – revealed that exactly at the same time that SECURITAS was spying on behalf of Nestlé, the Colombian Secret Service DAS was also spying on Swiss citizens in Switzerland who were helping Sinaltrainal. The documentary leaves open the question of whether there was any exchange of information between DAS and SECURITAS since ATTAC was supporting Sinaltrainal or if DAS was also spying on behalf of Nestlé. The information made public by RTS is disturbing enough in any case and needed further investigation, but again there was none.

Rafael Pagan was not the only military advisor whom Nestlé hired when confronting civil society criticisms. John Hedley was Corporate Security Coordinator of Nestlé SA from 2003 to 2008 and one of the four high ranking Nestlé employees linked to the spying operation. According to the ATTAC lawyers, John Hedley met several times the spy who infiltrated the ATTAC group and in an article from L’ HEBDO from 17th July 2008 the spying is mentioned as just part of a vast system of operations and information control established by John Hedley, an ex-agent of MI6– the British Military Intelligence.

From one of Nestlé’s websites in the US (4) we are informed that:

„Nestlé is proud to offer numerous opportunities to veterans of the U.S. military, helping them use their unique training and skills within our organization’s various operating companies.“

We already know how Nestlé put to use the skills of both Rafael Pagan and John Hedley. But Nestlé is looking for more. From another website of Nestlé also in the US (5) we are informed that:

„Military men and women around the globe have enjoyed Nestlé Professional Beverages. Our juices, isotonic drinks, teas, smoothie mixes and other specialty drinks can be found on Navy ships, Army bases, Air Force training centers and in other military operations.“

Nestlé’s Creating Shared Value Forum in 2011 was organized in partnership with The Atlantic Council – a business group around NATO. The US Department of Defence, US Department of the Army and the US Department of the Air Force are among the sponsors of The Atlantic Council. Some people could argue that the military for Nestlé are just a market like any other and that the Atlantic Council is just a business association. But with such business partnerships come deeper contacts, information exchange and a closeness that may be always useful for both partners in many different ways. A business association built around a military institution like NATO clearly indicates that at least part of the business sector considers it important to engage in such an alliance, but for what purposes? Above all, such closeness with the US Military may have serious implications for Latin America with its tragic history of US military interventions and US supported military dictatorships.

Nestlé’s many layered relationships with the military are not mentioned by AS or any other Swiss NGO as far as I know – thanks again to the success of the Pagan strategy, „decent concerned“ people do not raise such embarrassing topics for public discussion.

Colombia is a major recipient of US Military Aid and the only country in Latin America still much under influence of the US. It is not surprising that the 2013 Nestlé Creating Shared Value Global Forum took place in Cartagena, Colombia. The aim is clear: promote Colombia as the „business friendly“ country in Latin America, in opposition to Venezuela and the ALBA countries. Colombia is the „model“ to be followed. The Government of Switzerland seems to be joining Nestlé in this effort. In March 2014 Swiss Development and Cooperation (SDC) magazine “Eine Welt” published an article praising Colombia. In 2013 Switzerland organized a ministerial event at the margin of the 68th Session of the General Assembly of the UN in New York about water with several institutional partners but in cooperation with only two other countries – Netherlands and Colombia. In Latin America the country that has done more internationally for water issues, the one responsible for bringing the human rights perspective to water to be voted at the UN General Assembly is Bolivia, an ALBA country. Ecuador, another ALBA country, is also very much engaged in water issues, as is Uruguay. Cooperation between Switzerland and those countries on water issues would make more sense than with Colombia. But SDC is a partner and sponsor of the Water Resources Group (WRG) – an initiative from Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi to “transform the water sector”, meaning privatizing it. What Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay have in common in their engagement for water issues is their commitment to keep water as a public good under democratic control and therefore in opposition to Nestlé’s and WRG policy.

The Bolivarian process in Venezuela and in the other ALBA countries has been built by an active, informed and participant civil society to the despair of those who always profited from the political isolation, ignorance and vulnerability of such people. And for the first time in its history, Latin America is asserting itself and taking its destiny into its own hands. For Nestlé and its friends Rafael Pagan, John Hedley, The Atlantic Council and the US Military, the enemy is an organized and politically active civil society, therefore they are fighting it, in Switzerland and in Latin America. Our task is to expose them.

Franklin Frederick

(1) http://www.misereor.org/fileadmin/redaktion/Corporate_Influence_on_the_Business_a nd_Human_Rights_Agenda.pdf

(2) Nestlé arbeitet an Imagekorrektur – Tages Anzeiger 05-03-2013

(3) Hilfswerk-Allianz unterstützt Anzeige gegen Nestlé nur halbherzig – Tages Anzeiger 15-03-2012

(4) https://recruitmilitary.com/Nestle

(5) https://www.nestleprofessional.com/united­states/en/BeverageExpertise/Beverage_Expertise/Pages/BeverageSyst ems.aspx

Water, capitalism and catastrophism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Living Under the Shadow of a Sixth Extinction

Water, Capitalism and Catastrophism

by LOUIS PROYECT

Two films concerned with water and environmental activism arrive in New York this week. “Groundswell Rising”, which premieres at the Maysles Theater in Harlem today, is about the struggle to safeguard lakes and rivers from fracking while “Revolution”, which opens at the Cinema Village next Wednesday, documents the impact of global warming on the oceans. Taking the holistic view, one can understand how some of the most basic conditions of life are threatened by a basic contradiction. Civilization, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment values that relies on ever-expanding energy, threatens to reduce humanity to barbarism if not extinction through exactly such energy production.

This challenge not only faces those of us now living under capitalism but our descendants who will be living under a more rational system. No matter the way in which goods and services are produced, for profit or on the basis of human need, humanity is faced with ecological constraints that must be overcome otherwise we will be subject to a Sixth Extinction. Under capitalism, Sixth Extinction is guaranteed. Under socialism, survival is possible but only as a result of a radical transformation of how society is organized, something that Marx alluded to in the Communist Manifesto when he called for a “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

read full article

April 15, 2015

Adalen 31

Filed under: Film,Sweden,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

After a number of false starts, I was finally able to upload Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31” to Youtube, a film that I saw when it came out in 1969 and that has lingered in my memory all these years. The title is a reference to a general strike in the Adalen district by paper mill workers in 1931 that led to the first in a series of Social Democratic governments that for many people defined the word socialism. What I took away from the film, besides its stunning artistic power, was the idea that there was a dialectical relationship between revolutionary struggle and reform. If not for the four men and one young girl who were shot down in the village of Lunde on May 14, 1931, it is altogether possible that the modern Scandinavian welfare state never would have been born.

Yesterday I watched the film for the first time in 46 years and realize now why it has stuck with me. Despite the languid and pastoral quality of the first two-thirds of the film, which typified Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” made two years earlier, the final third is a powerful recreation of the armed attack on a demonstration that resonated with the struggles taking place around the world in 1969. And it will resonate now with people watching it for the first time who have the Marikana massacre fresh in their mind, or any other military attack on protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.

The film opens in the house of Harald Andersson, a man who has been out on strike for a number of months. He has three sons, the eldest of whom is named Kjell and is in his late teens. Kjell plays trumpet in the trade union marching band but probably prefers playing jazz.

The primary drama in the film revolves around Kjell’s romance with the daughter of one of the paper mill owners, a blonde girl named Hedvig who is troubled by the bitter strike but not to the extent of breaking with her father.

Widerberg is obviously interested in tensions between the personal and political since another story line involves Harald giving first aid to a wounded scab worker in his home. When he is confronted by his fellow trade unionists, he makes the case that violence undermines their cause and insists that negotiation was the only way forward.

When the army is brought in to defend the scabs’ barracks, the union organizes a march on their stronghold with the marching band in the front ranks playing the Internationale. In an interview with the NY Times’s Mel Gussow in October 1969, Widerberg revealed that 3,000 extras were used in the scene and that he developed the action just two hours before shooting began.

Despite the absence of the word Communist throughout the film, there is little doubt as to the affiliations of the leadership of the strike and many of the rank-and-file workers. Axel Nordström, who served 2 ½ years of hard labor for his role as a strike organizer, was a Communist member of Parliament from 1937 to 1940. In an article on the Adalen general strike that appeared in the Swedish section of Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (http://www.marxist.se/artikel/adalen-31-det-vi-aldrig-far-glomma), there’s a report on the killings that day from Harry Nordlander, a member of the Communist youth group in Adalen:

As we approached the ferry pier near the meadow, where we said that we would turn, a soldier on horseback charged us. The rider shouted something and then fired his gun over his shoulder, probably frightened by a banner that fluttered. Some of the marchers saw bullet holes in the banner. Then we heard clearly a loud command: Fire! The bullets began to whistle through the air. They did not come from the front, but from the side a few yards from the lead.

Then we saw how one of the musicians rushed forward in the hail of bullets and blew “cease fire” [recreated by Kjell in the scene]. The guns fell silent. It was the young Communist Vera who showed courage and presence of mind to stop the killing. But there were already five comrades dead or dying and several more wounded. One of those killed was a young girl who stood in the garden at the side of the road. Her name was Eira Söderberg and was a member of our youth club in Svanö.

 The best account of the Adalen struggles can be found on the Global Nonviolent Action Database located at Swarthmore University. Interestingly enough, Axel Nordström is cited in this article as being opposed to violence against scabs—this despite the fact that the CP’s were aligned with the Kremlin’s ultraleft turn at the time:

In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.

The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.

Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.

On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.

The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.

Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde.

Bo Widerberg is pretty much a forgotten figure today with very poor representation on the usual sources. None of his films are available on Netflix or Amazon, and in the well-stocked Columbia film library you can only locate “Elvira Madigan”. Despite the fact that his films are now in the public domain, the only one that could be seen previously on Youtube was “Joe Hill”, a 1971 film about the martyred IWW member who was born Joel Emanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden.

Widerberg died on May Day 1997, a symbolic date for the radical filmmaker who was born into a working-class family in Malmo sixty-six years earlier. He started off as a film critic professionally, creating controversy with his 1962 book “The Vision of Swedish Cinema” that took aim at Ingmar Bergman and his followers for being “preoccupied with problems that didn’t interest me and my generation of comrades.” He found that the Sweden Bergman represented was “not contemporary at all”.

Clearly Widerberg was tuned into the Marxist detective novel authors that I wrote about for CounterPunch back in September 2014. Fortunately his 1976 “Man on the Roof” that was based on the Martin Beck novel co-authored by Marxist husband and wife writing team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall can be seen with English subtitles at Daily Motion, something that I hope to see along with “Joe Hill” the first chance I get.

April 13, 2015

Patrick Cockburn’s alarming support for American air power

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

patrick_cockburn_1
Patrick Cockburn

Like most people on the left I relied heavily on Robert Fisk, Robert Parry, Seymour Hersh and Patrick Cockburn’s journalism during George W. Bush’s war in Iraq but became critical as they began covering the war in Syria.

To a large extant, their reporting suffered from a kind of mechanical application of Bush’s war to Syria as if every threat brandished by the Obama White House was on a par with what took place in 2003. This was especially true when Obama warned that a “red line” was being crossed in August 2013 when a sarin gas attack cost the lives of hundreds of people living in East Ghouta. Among such journalists, this became equivalent to Colin Powell or Dick Cheney’s apocalyptic warnings about WMD’s. Most of these journalists gave credence to the idea that the sarin gas was used by the Syrian rebels as a way of drawing the USA into the war in order to accomplish “regime change” even as talks were in progress at that very moment between Iran and the White House to move toward the rapprochement now in full blossom.

This is not to speak of the problems of drawing analogies between Iraq and Syria when the very purpose of Bush’s intervention was to destroy Sunni hegemony and install a sectarian Shiite regime that would obviously have close ties with Iran. As many analysts have correctly pointed out, the top ranks of ISIS are filled with former military commanders in Saddam Hussein’s army, men whose secular nationalist ideology did not get in the way of a partnership with Salafist zealots such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

At its best, the position put forward by some of these journalists amounted to opposition to American intervention even if it stopped short of endorsing Bashar al-Assad. I include Patrick Cockburn in this category—at least up until yesterday when he wrote an article that made the case for American air power against “Al Qaeda” in terms that are disturbingly evocative of Christopher Hitchens.

There were already signs that Cockburn had relaxed his normally high standards in order to promote stepped up American intervention in the region in his recently published Verso book “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the new Sunni Revolution”. In the chapter on Syria, he states on page 84 that the opposition had become “dominated by ISIS”.

Now, one might expect him to at least acknowledge what had been widely reported elsewhere, namely that a de facto non-aggression pact existed between the Baathists and ISIS but none was forthcoming. A senior ISIS operative told the Guardian on June 28, 2014 that the Syrian air force is not “going to bomb our key sites. Their main enemy is the so-called moderates”, the sort of thing that Cockburn overlooked in his efforts to make an amalgam between ISIS and everybody else opposed to the Baathist dictatorship.

One might have hoped that Patrick Cockburn would be far more direct in his support for American intervention instead of adopting circumlocutions that could conceivably be used in a hedging strategy along the lines of “I didn’t actually call for American bombing” but nevertheless that’s the only conclusion you can draw from “In the Middle East, our enemy’s enemy must be our friend”.

In calling attention to “America’s failure to develop an effective policy for destroying al-Qaeda in the years since 9/11”, he bemoans its advances in Yemen and in the Idlib province in Syria where apparently the al-Nusra Front had led 4,000 fighters in seizing the capital city. Unnamed Saudi sources supposedly revealed that Saudi Arabia and Turkey had been behind al-Nusra and other “extreme jihadis” in seizing Idlib.

It might be useful if Cockburn could show even the most glancing familiarity with what is taking in place in Idlib today, which bears little resemblance to the ghoulish “emirate” created by ISIS in Mosul or Raqqa. In an interview with Abu al-Yazid Taftenaz, one of these “extreme jihadis”, Syria Direct discovered that they had plans far removed from Cockburn’s dark forebodings. Speaking of the Christian minority, Taftenaz stated that “if they want to live among us that’s their right. We can’t impose the jizya (non-Muslim tax) on them. Subsequently, the Christian will live like any other civilian in Idlib city.” When asked about their ties to ISIS, he said, “They won’t have any luck in Idlib. Their presence is far away from the city, keeping in mind that they have some areas of control in the eastern Idlib countryside. The areas of Idlib, God willing, will not witness any IS presence.”

I certainly have no power over Patrick Cockburn and what he decides to report or not report but if you are going to reduce everything happening in Syria to a battle between Bashar al-Assad and “extreme jihadis”, you are seriously compromising your journalistic standards.

The article frets over ISIS and the al-Nusra front taking control of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that is supposedly going to turn into a living hell now at the hands of such “extreme jihadis”. In the past, the two groups opposed each other but now there are “worrying signs of cooperation”, the consequences of which would include beheading Palestinians for smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, adultery and the like. With such an awful future in store, who would not support the Syrian army stepping in like the US Marines did to save Haitians from the Ton-Ton Macoute?

A Palestinian who fled Yarmouk some time ago had a different take on the incursion of ISIS. Writing for Foreign Policy, Qusai Zakarya saw a connection with the Baathists that had been obvious in other places as was noted above.

The Islamic State tried to recruit in Yarmouk, but local residents did not take the bait. That is why the Islamic State used areas where it was already established to conquer Yarmouk by force. Assad’s siege of civilians helped the Islamic State even in Yarmouk because — after two and a half years of starvation and bombardment — the local battalions in the camp were too weak to push the group out.

But that is not the whole story. Local residents of Yarmouk were surprised to see a raid of hundreds of Islamic State fighters from southern Damascus successfully enter their area. When al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda were controlled by the Free Syrian Army, there were many attempts to break the siege on the camp with similar raids. Each one was a disaster; Assad’s forces have the area tightly monitored and controlled. Simply put, there is no way the attack by the Islamic State could have happened unless Assad wanted it to.

Then there is another question: How did the Islamic State get such large quantities of resources into besieged areas? The Free Syrian Army in besieged Yarmouk had only handmade light weapons, while the Islamic State in besieged al-Hajar al-Aswad had advanced missiles and high-tech rifles. Believe me, infants would not be starving in my hometown if regime sieges could be evaded through tunnels or bribes. Those resources got in because the regime allowed them to enter.

After several more paragraphs of gloomy warnings about the threat of al-Qaeda type movements (whatever that means) spreading to Britain, France and Germany like metastasizing tumors, we arrive at the article’s conclusion which has the takeaway point on the need for a united front with the Syrian army:

In Syria, similarly, “the enemy of our enemy” and the strongest military force is the Syrian army, though it shows signs of weakening after four years of war. But if we have decided that US air power is not to be used against Isis or Jabhat al-Nusra when they are fighting the Syrian army because we want to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad, then this is a decision that benefits Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and extreme jihadis. In Iraq the situation is less dire because, although there is a pretence of not cooperating with the Shia militias, in practice the US had been launching air strikes on the same Isis positions these militia are attacking on the ground. The reality is that it is only by supporting “the enemy of my enemy” that the expansion of al-Qaeda and its lookalikes can be beaten back and the movement defeated.

To start with, it is a bit alarming to see him refer to “we have decided that US air power is not to be used”. This is the “we” of Sunday morning TV talk shows, NPR broadcasts, the NY Times op-ed page et al. For me, “we” means the working class, the poor, the colonized, the disenfranchised and especially those who have suffered from Syrian military scorched earth tactics for the past 4 years.

Furthermore, if you read this paragraph carefully, especially in light of earlier references to Idlib, you must conclude that Cockburn would have cheered American jets stepping in to protect the Christian minority in Idlib that apparently didn’t need any protecting.

Finally and most distressingly, we are told that the situation in Iraq is “less dire” because the A-10 Warthogs had bombed ISIS positions in collaboration with the Shiite militias. Is this what we have come to? What exactly is the difference between this and what the USA was doing in Iraq a decade ago?

If the war against “extreme jihadis” requires American imperialism to join forces with groups capable of the behavior described below, then those who defend such a policy must have surely lost their principles if not their minds. This is from a report from Human Rights Watch on the Shiite militias’ attack on Amerli. Although I have had problems with their coverage of Venezuela and Cuba, this strikes me as quite plausible, especially since they got testimony from Peshmerga officers who had fought alongside them against ISIS:

On the basis of field visits, interviews with more than 30 witnesses, and analysis of photographs and satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch found that an area that included 35 villages and towns showed extensive destruction caused by fire, explosives and heavy earth moving equipment. The evidence showed that most of the damage occurred between early September and mid-November 2014. Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified over 3,800 destroyed buildings in 30 towns and villages, including 2,600 buildings likely destroyed by fire and a further 1,200 buildings likely demolished with heavy machinery and the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. This destruction was distinct from damages resulting from air strikes and heavy artillery and mortar fire prior to ISIS’s retreat from Amerli, which Human Rights Watch separately identified using the satellite imagery. Human Rights Watch’s field research together with the satellite imagery analysis indicates that militias engaged in deliberate and wanton destruction of civilian property after the retreat of ISIS and the end of fighting in the area.

Twenty-four witnesses, including Peshmerga officers and local tribal sheikhs, told Human Rights Watch they saw militias looting towns and villages around Amerli after the offensive against ISIS ended and immediately preceding militia destruction of homes in the town. They said they saw militiamen taking items of value—such as refrigerators, televisions, clothing and even electrical wiring—out of homes before setting the houses on fire.

Read full report: http://features.hrw.org/features/HRW_2015_reports/Iraq_Amerli/index.html

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