Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 29, 2015

Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa

Filed under: Film,human rights,South Africa — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

On Sunday evening the Peabody Award will be presented to Abby Ginzberg for her documentary on Albie Sachs titled “Soft Vengeance”, a film based on his 2011 memoir of the same title. After having watched the film, I can recommend it without any hesitation despite the tendency to skirt over South Africa’s current troubles that some analysts on the left have described as economic apartheid.

Born into a Jewish and Communist family in 1935, Sachs became an activist at an early age. When he was seventeen he took part in an act of civil disobedience by sitting in the “Blacks only” section of a train station. Although prepared to be arrested and jailed, he was sent home because of his youth.

After getting trained as a constitutional lawyer, Sachs became one of the ANC’s chief legal representatives. The apartheid regime, as is the case with dictatorships everywhere, saw such lawyers as being as dangerous or even more dangerous than guerrilla fighters. In 1963 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 90 days, a punishment that broke his spirit to the extent that self-exile to Britain was the only way he could regain the spirit he needed to move forward again as an ANC activist.

Despite the prestigious academic career he was pursuing, he never felt at home in Britain and yearned to return home to Africa. On the suggestion of the ANC, he relocated to Mozambique shortly after its independence and plunged himself into drafting laws for the newly liberated state and continuing to provide legal advice to the ANC.

In 1988, as he opened the door of his car to take a trip to the beach, a bomb went off and cost him his right arm and the sight in his left eye. This was around the time that the South African government was embarked on a reign of terror that would cost the life of ANC leader Ruth Furst from a parcel bomb in Mozambique as well. Furst’s parents, like Sachs’s, were Jews and Communists.

The film is focused on Sachs’s life and career with a special emphasis on his efforts to foster a respect for constitutional rights in the new South Africa. He served as a Supreme Court justice in post-apartheid South Africa and helped to assemble the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that some critics fault for its overly generous concessions to the white war criminals and torturers. Sachs insists that South Africa would have been torn apart if vengeance had been sought. If the question is open to debate, it is very much hearing Sachs make the case since he is an eloquent defender of his views and obviously someone who knows from firsthand experience the costs of living in a lawless state.

When I receive word about the film’s screening to the general public, I will update you.


Acting for Your Life on LA’s Skid Row

Filed under: Counterpunch,poverty,real estate,theater — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm
Humanizing the Lower Depths

Acting for Your Life on LA’s Skid Row


James McEnteer’s “Acting Like it Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department”  is a complex study of an acting company made up mostly of L.A.’s Skid Row residents. With the company serving as the book’s hub, there are spokes radiating outwards to the political and social structures that put this remarkable story into context. If William Blake saw the World in a Grain of Sand, James McEnteer sees the broader problems of gentrification, police state harassment of the poor, CIA complicity with illegal drug trafficking, and the crisis of the health system as topics worthy of dramatizing by those who are its victims, the dwellers of one of the United States’ most infamous “left out” neighborhoods, but a place that despite its sorry appearance was a real estate investor’s dream.

As a New Yorker, I could not help but notice the resonances with my own city where the poor and the homeless confront the same daunting odds. McEnteer mentions in passing that Henrietta Brouwers, the companion and artistic partner of John Malpede, studied under Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director who founded the Theater of the Oppressed. As it turns out, Boal was a permanent fixture of the Brecht Forum in New York until his death. It was there that he operated “a rehearsal theater designed for people who want to learn ways of fighting back against oppression in their daily lives” in the same way that Malpede’s LAPD functioned in Los Angeles. Just six years after Boal’s passing, the Brecht Forum shut down because it could no longer afford to pay the exorbitant rents that the real estate market dictated.

read full article

May 28, 2015

A reply to the haters

Filed under: autobiographical — louisproyect @ 6:10 pm

Paul Heideman

Earlier this month when I was at the Left Elect Conference in Chicago, I made a point of stopping by to say hello to Joanna Misnik, who was one of the organizers and also my YSA organizer in New York some 46 years ago.

After a few minutes of pleasantries, she asked me if I could help her understand something. She put it this way: “Louie, what is going on with these people on the Historical Materialism Facebook Group? They are carrying on about you like you were Satan or something.”

I told her that it was probably some ISO grad students and Charlie Post who resent the fact that I disagree with them about the Brenner thesis. It was not the politics as much as my butting in on what is seen as their turf. It would probably be okay if I wrote something for an HM Symposium on the origins of capitalism, but I had no intention of going back to graduate school and getting a PhD in history so that I would have the proper credentials to have a submission taken seriously.

I pretty much had forgotten about the discussion until a week or so ago when someone sent me a link to Paul Heideman’s FB Page where there were 108 (!?!?) comments about the excerpt from my comic book memoir that Heideman had linked to with this preface:

Is Louie the most hilariously narcissistic person on the planet?

Shouldn’t you have actually done something in your life before you do an autobiographical graphic novel?

This struck a responsive chord with most of Heideman’s FB friends. Suzi Weissman, a long-time Marxist scholar who I have never had any contact with whatsoever, wrote: “The thing to know about Proyect is that he is a sniper and a wretched human being. My view is that he should be boycotted, he is impervious to social interaction and a poisonous person.” Well, I do admit that I am impervious to social interaction. The last time I got invited to a Verso cocktail party, it only took me two minutes to decide that I would prefer to watch an episode of “Californication” that aired in the same time slot.

Doug Enaa Greene, a bright young thing from Boston who is a serious Blanqui scholar, elevated the conversation with this perceptive observation: “Fun fact: Louis’ face resembles a butt.” I was crushed to hear this. I had always thought of myself as resembling an anteater but what do I know?

Charlie Post, the runner-up to last year’s Isaac Deutscher Prize, offered his expertise as a historian of the left to correct an apparent falsehood in my memoir:

Debbie Leonard was never a stripper— He is either making this up whole cloth (quite possible) or using “Debbie and Tom” to refer to other comrades.

Well, in fact it was another Debbie and Tom that I was writing about. When I want to make things up, I am quite capable of doing so. Maybe the fact that I was in Houston permits me to write about the things I saw and did, without having to identify people by their last name. Blame me for trying to protect their privacy, I guess.

Someone named Benjamin Fogel takes me to task for supporting the expulsion of my ex-girlfriend when 1) I said no such thing and 2) I had been out of the SWP for 5 years at least when the expulsion took place.

But the thing I keep coming back to is the charge of “narcissism”. If these people had the slightest insight into my psyche, they would realize that the last thing I had on my mind was to write the typical left memoir that celebrates my great accomplishments since in fact there were none. I never edited the Militant like Barry Shepherd or represented the SWP in the FI leading bodies in Europe like Peter Camejo. I was a rank-and-filer with a decidedly “outsider” personality that ruled out the possibility of going on full-time for the party. The short time I spent in party headquarters in the 1970s working on a project to automate the Militant made me wonder what I was doing in such a group to begin with.

The only person in this thread who got it right was Richard Seymour: “To be fair, Pekar does have a particular empathy for the humdrum, the mundane, and the flawed. Louis would presumably have known that when he agreed to be interviewed, and thus that he was going to appear decidedly antiheroic. Which he does.” (In fact, I was not interviewed. The text of the memoir was written entirely by me. All Harvey did was line up an artist and match my words to her pictures.)

Just to put things into perspective, Harvey Pekar contacted me about doing a memoir, not the other way around. It took an hour of wrangling with him over the phone to persuade me that it was worth my while. I told him that I had nothing but tsuris from publishers and was leery of wasting my time. He said, don’t worry. He had a contract with Random House and it was up to him what got published. Unfortunately for me, he died just after the memoir was completed and his widow decided to torpedo it.

I wonder if people like Paul Heideman have ever read Harvey Pekar. Or whether the other people going on about me as if it were a two minutes of hate session in Orwell’s “1984” had done so. In all the time I spent on the phone with Harvey going over the material, I found a great affinity. Both of us had Jewish shopkeeper fathers. Both were “losers” in high school. And both of us were suspicious of the celebrity culture that defined American society. I loved his writings because he celebrated exactly the kinds of people who would never be written up in People Magazine. He, along with Charles Bukowski and R. Crumb, were very strong influences on my memoir. When Harvey told me to put the emphasis on jokes, that was very easy for me having come from a Borscht Belt childhood that exposed me to stand-up comedians like Jack Roy—the stage name that Jacob Cohen used before he became Rodney Dangerfield.

I can understand why people like Paul Heideman, Charlie Post and Jonah Birch would dislike me. How dare I write about the Brenner thesis without having the proper professional qualifications? It is like a medical school dropout doing appendectomies. I guess on the Internet you get to play a doctor (or a historian) without being one.

For people cocooned within the world circumscribed by the NYU Sociology department, York University in Canada, HM Conferences and Left Forum, it must be the ultimate insult to have an upstart blogging about matters that properly should be left to those with suitable credentials. If you have spent $200,000 of your parents’ money to get a PhD from NYU or Columbia University, doesn’t that entitle you to define who gets taken seriously or not? And imagine the indignities that you have to put up with getting tenure, after finishing the degree. The groveling before department chairs. The long and lonely nights writing articles for a journal that nobody reads. And all this to have to put up with some asshole that doesn’t recognize a credentialed authority when he meets one.

Fortunately for me, this is a milieu I am not trying to reach. I am more interested in communicating with people who get up at 7am, trudge down to the subway on their way to work in an office cubicle or a factory. These are the sorts of people who have for the most part never heard of HM or Robert Brenner for that matter. Sometimes I wonder why I ever took the trouble to write about something as obscure as 17th century British history. If Jim Blaut had never subbed to Marxmail, I am sure I wouldn’t have. Given the mess the world is in and given the need for left unity, the last thing we need to be fighting over is ancient history, as if we were Sunnis and Shias killing each other over who was the true heir of Mohammad–or for that matter, debating Trotsky versus Stalin..

May 26, 2015

McKenzie Wark, Bogdanov, Zizek and gold-plated bullshit

Filed under: Ecology,Zizek — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Žižek muses on a new Verso title

Today my eyebrows rose to their maximum height when I ran into a Verso blog post on Twitter. Titled “Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red”, I fully expected another helping of the anti-Abbeyist ideology that permeated Christian Parenti’s Truthout interview. Of course, there is an obvious provocation here. Since ecology and “mother nature” are not terms normally thought of in contradiction with each other, you have to ask what Žižek has in mind. As a past master of the outrageous, you can expect him to fuck with your mind—at least if you are the sort of person who takes the Elvis Superstar of Marxism seriously.

Žižek’s commentary targets a new Verso book titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene” by McKenzie Wark. The Verso blurb states that it “creates philosophical tools for the Anthropocene, our new planetary epoch, in which human and natural forces are so entwined that the future of one determines that of the other.” Without knowing anything about the book in advance, I was reminded of Parenti’s dismissal of John Bellamy Foster’s “nature/society” dualism with the reference to “human and natural forces” being entwined. Of course, if you don’t go beyond the anti-Cartesian abstractions (that ultimately put you in Leibniz’s camp, for what that’s worth), you don’t have a clue about what the fuss is over.

It turns out that despite being represented as an anti-Cartesian, Wark has much more in common with Foster than William Cronon. Žižek describes him as concerned with the metabolic rift that Marx identified as the root cause of a soil fertility crisis (ie., animal excrement flowed into the Thames rather than fertilized the crops)—the very same point that Foster has made in numerous articles. However, Žižek dismisses the possibility of a rift but at the same time praises Wark for rejecting the notion that nature was ever in balance:

Notions like “rift” and perturbed “cycle” seem to rely on their opposite: on a vision of a “normal” state of things where the cycle is closed and the balance reestablished, as if the Anthropocene should be overcome by simply re-installing the human species into this balance. Wark’s key achievement is to reject this path: there never was such a balance, nature in itself is already unbalanced, the idea of Nature as a big Mother is just another image of the divine big Other.

Of course, it is a bit difficult to figure out where Wark stands solely on the basis of Žižek’s précis. Short of reading his book, the best source would be a long article on E-Flux titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (On Alexander Bogdanov and Kim Stanley Robinson)” where he speaks in the name of the Carbon Liberation Front, a group with just one member—McKenzie Wark.

The Carbon Liberation Front has a number of enemies with those advocating markets as a solution in first place. He also warns against “a romantic turn away from the modern, from technology, as if the rift is made whole when a privileged few shop at the farmer’s market for artisanal cheese.” Uh-oh, I’d better fill the fridge with Kraft’s to stay on Wark’s good side.

Expecting an alternative to these dead-end approaches, you might reasonably expect something in the way of strategy, alliance-building, slogans, etc. But Wark is far more ambitious. His advice is to read Alexander Bogdanov’s “Red Star”, a science-fiction novel that posits the Martians as having advanced scientific knowledge. (Did Posadas read this, I wonder.) He also recommends his “The Philosophy of Living Experience”, a book that helped him formulate answers to the environmental crisis:

Bogdanov takes his distance even from materialist philosophy before Marx, for it still posits an abstract causation: matter determines thought, but in an abstract way. Whether as “matter” or “void,” a basic metaphor is raised to a universal principle by mere contemplation, rather than thought through social labor’s encounters with it. The revival in the twenty-first century of philosophies of speculative objects or vitalist matter is not a particularly progressive moment in Bogdanovite terms.

The labor point of view has to reject ontologies of abstract exchange with nature. Labor finds itself in and against nature. Labor is always firstly in nature, subsumed within a totality greater than itself. Labor is secondly against nature. It comes into being through an effort to bend resisting nature to its purposes. Its intuitive understanding of causality comes not from exchange value but from use value. Labor experiments with nature, finding new uses for it. Its understanding of nature is historical, always evolving, reticent about erecting an abstract causality over the unknown. The labor point of view is a monism, yet one of plural, active processes.

I think the one thing that rings truest in this excerpt is that Bogdanov took his distance from “materialist” philosophy. In trying to rescue Bogdanov from obscurity and turning him into a prophet of ecosocialism, he seems to have missed the main point, namely that Bogdanov had abandoned Marxism when he was developing his main ideas. This was Lenin’s take:

Why has it become impossible to have A. Bogdanov as a contributor to workers’ newspapers and journals that adhere to a stand of consistent Marxism? Because A. Bogdanov is not a Marxist.

Basically Bogdanov was a neo-Kantian, which in the early 1900s meant a follower of Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist with a distinguished career but not someone very useful for explaining society or history since according to Lenin scholar Neil Harding he denied the existence of a material world except as mediated by the conscious mind. You can understand why Lenin’s knickers would get twisted in a knot over this even though the main problem Bogdanov posed was his politics rather than his metaphysics.

In adopting Bogdanov as a prophet, Wark creates a certain difficulty for those of us trying to make an independent assessment since there is not a single English-language version of his work except for “Red Star”, the sci-fi novel that I have heard is unreadable. Some of it can be read on Google Books but the rewards seem vanishingly thin:

“This is an ordinary glass phial,” Menni explained, “but it contains a liquid which is repelled by the bodies of the solar system. Just enough liquid has been poured m to counterbalance the weight of the bottle, so that they are weightless together. We construe all our flying machines on the same principle. They are made of ordinary materials, but they have a reservoir filled with the appropriate quantity of this minus-matter. All that remains is to give this entire weightless system the proper speed. The flying machines intended for use in Earth’s atmosphere have simple electric motors and wings. Such craft are of course unsuited for interplanetary travel, where we employ an entirely different system, with which I shall familiarize you in more detail later.”

There was no longer any room for doubt.

I don’t know if there is much more to say about McKenzie Wark so let me conclude with a few more words on Žižek who if he was in a poker game would be said to see Wark’s hand and raised him several cards of abstractions. Can you make any sense of this?

My only critical point is that Wark’s unsurpassable horizon remains what he calls “shared life,” and every autonomization of any of its moments amounts to a fetishizing alienation: “Our species-being is lost from shared life when we make a fetish of a particular idea, a particular love, or a particular labor”. Here, however, we should raise a double question. Firstly, is such an interruption of the flow of shared life, such a focus on an idea, a beloved, or a task, not precisely what Badiou calls the Event? So, far from dismissing such cuts as cases of alienation, should we not celebrate them as the highest expression of the power of negativity? Furthermore, does our access to the nonhuman molecular level of, say, the quantum universe, not presuppose precisely such a cut from our shared daily life? We are dealing here with a properly Hegelian paradox. Hegel praises the “molar” act of abstraction—the reduction of the complexity of a situation to the “essential”, to its key feature—as the infinite power of Understanding. The truly hard thing is not to bear in mind the complexity of a situation, but to brutally simplify it so that we see its essential form, not its details. The difficult thing is to see classes, not micro-groups fighting each other; to see the subject, not the Humean flow of mental states. We are not talking here just of ideal forms or patterns, but of the Real. The void of subjectivity is the Real which is obfuscated by the wealth of “inner life”; class antagonism is the Real which is obfuscated by the multiplicity of social conflicts.

I would call this gold-plated bullshit.

For a better idea of why Žižek would find the notion of any kind of rift as outside the bounds of his own peculiar notions about ecology, I would refer you to his 2010 New Statesman article titled “Joe Public v the volcano” where he offers this fatuous take on global warming:

When it comes to the risk of ecological catastrophe, we are dealing with “unknown unknowns”, to use the terms of the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld set out this theory in a bit of amateur philosophising in February 2002, when he was still George W Bush’s defence secretary. He said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”, as Lacan put it. To the assertion that the main dangers in the Iraq war were the “unknown unknowns” – the threats that we did not even suspect existed – we should reply that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere.

His answer to global warming is a helluva known known:

Humankind should get ready to live in a more nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may demand unprecedented large-scale social transformations. Let’s say that a huge volcanic eruption makes the whole of Iceland uninhabitable: where will the people of Iceland move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land, or just dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of population be organised? When similar things happened in the past, the social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in a world in which many nations have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Although I doubt that this would ever enter the mind of the Elvis Superstar of Marxism, when places like the Maldives or Bangladesh become uninhabitable, the poor people will become casualties of floods, starvation, disease and chaos-induced violence. That should be obvious and not require familiarity with Lacan or Bogdanov for that matter.

May 24, 2015

The Swedish model (part 1)

Filed under: socialism,Sweden — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

Otto von Bismarck: a forerunner to Swedish socialism

Bob Schieffer: Let me just start out by asking you, what is a socialist these days? I mean, I remember when a socialist was somebody who wanted to nationalize the railroads and things like that.

Bernie Sanders: When we talk about Democratic socialism, I think it’s important to realize that there are countries around the world like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, who’ve had social democratic governments on and off for many, many years. And we can learn a whole lot from some of those countries.

Face the Nation interview, May 10, 2015

Sweden is a funny country to call socialist. In France or Austria the government owns a much larger share of industry, and I would expect that in a socialist country personal income taxes would be low and company taxes high, whereas in Sweden it is the opposite. It has the world’s highest personal income taxes and it’s a tax haven for companies!

–A statement made in 1976 by Rune Hagelund, a member of the board of the Swedish Employers’ Federation (SAF), a former professor of economics, and president and chairman of the board of two of Sweden’s major corporations.

In my freshman year at Bard I was a 16-year-old wet-behind-the-ears libertarian who got schooled by upperclassmen why Sweden’s welfare state was a good thing (from my unpublished memoir):

bard sweden 1

bard sweden 2

After being converted to a Camus-styled liberal, I naturally became predisposed to the welfare state and voted for LBJ in 1964 in the expectation that he would govern as a New Deal reformer, which he did for the most part.

When the war in Vietnam began, I radicalized and joined the Trotskyist movement out of a belief in part that the New Deal was a fraud, just something to help keep American capitalism afloat, which was after all FDR’s hope. I never thought much about Sweden in this period except to welcome its socialist Prime Minister Olof Palme as an ally of the antiwar movement. I was also happy to see Swedish material aid to Nicaragua when I was working with Tecnica. So, all in all, Sweden had a much more benign image for me even if I understood it operated on the basis of capitalist property relations.

In 2014, after having read a couple of Stieg Larsson novels and watching Swedish TV adaptation of Marxist detective novels by other writers, I began thinking more deeply about the Swedish model. It was these writers focus on the corporate/fascist presence that motivated me primarily but I always wondered in the back of my mind how Sweden became such a success story, at least enough of one to allow Bernie Sanders to embrace it unabashedly.

In writing about the ultraright, I discovered that Sweden had a chummy relationship with Nazi Germany during WWII. I didn’t realize at the time I was exposing this relationship in a CounterPunch article that it was the Social Democrats who were in power, not some rightwing party. Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson advocated a national front that included all the parties except for the CP.

While the image we have of Sweden is one of resistance to Nazism, based on the country providing a haven for Jews and Raul Wallenberg’s efforts on behalf of Hungarian Jews, it is worth noting that the Wallenbergs—arguably the most powerful capitalist family in Sweden—were capable of cutting deals with the Nazis after the fashion of the socialist Prime Minister as an article in a Bay Area Jewish newspaper reported:

The Wallenberg documents shed light on “Sweden’s involvement with and collaboration with the Nazis during the war,” Steinberg said.

“Sweden is clearly emerging as one of the places where the Nazis moved assets.”

According to the documents, The Enskilda Bank, owned by Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, Raoul’s uncles, dealt in large black-market operations, money laundering and concealing German investments in the United States.

The documents also contain evidence disproving the belief in some circles that Marcus Wallenberg was on the side of the Allies. He traveled to the United States in 1940 on behalf of German interests to buy back a block of German securities being held by America, according to the documents.

The disclosed information about the collaboration between the Nazi regime and Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg suggests a reason for the feeble attempt to find their nephew.

“It’s long been out there that the Wallenberg family in Stockholm apparently did very little to locate Raoul after his disappearance into the Soviet gulag in January 1945,” Steinberg said.

Perhaps the main reason Sweden has such an elevated status is its ostensible commitment to the welfare state. In a period of deepening austerity, the fact that there was a nation like Sweden that apparently departed from the neoliberal model for well over a half-century had a tendency to mesmerize Bernie Sanders and allow the more Marxist-minded members of the left to cut it some slack.

In this, the first in a series of articles on Sweden, I hope to convince the left to think more critically about the Swedish model if for no other reason than to put Bernie Sanders socialism into some kind of context.

The first place to start is with some discussion about the real origins of the welfare state, which was not in 20th century Sweden (or the USA for that matter) but under Bismarck’s Germany.

For the best appraisal of Bismarck’s “state-socialism”, the term that the Lassalleans would apply to his regime, I recommend the chapter in volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution” titled “Of State-Socialism”: Bismarckian Model”. Draper writes:

Bismarck was too shrewd to depend only on the policeman’s club. The stick to the donkey’s rear had to be supplemented by the carrot dangled in front.5 In the course of the 1880s Bismarck brought out a whole bunch of carrots. Familiar to us now, they then looked revolutionary to many: a series of social-welfare measures providing for accidents, illness, old age, and other workers’ disabilities.

Bismarck’s first proposal, for insurance against industrial accident. came in 1881 and was defeated in the Reichstag by the bourgeois parties. After all, Bismarck’s aim was not only to isolate the working class from the socialists but also to mobilize a “bodyguard proletariat” of its own i order to dish the liberal bourgeoisie and its demands for constitutional liberties, its aspirations for bourgeois dominance in the government and the weakening of absolutism. The new measures being proposed by the Bismarck government were going to be paid for by the class that was the government’s main target. The proletariat was not only supposed to come all over grateful to the state but also to turn antagonistic to the state’s main political opposition, the Liberals or “Progressive party.” But the bourgeois liberal deputies could not resist very long, in this as in anything else.

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these mea- sures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie. (However, unemployment insurance was never passed; it took a revolution to achieve this reform under the Weimar Republic.) There was a connection between this beneficent program and the coming world war, for Bismarck’s social strategy had still another side: it was intended to ensure internal unity and class peace while the state intensified an aggressive foreign policy of colonialism and foreign-market penetration, thereby compensating the bourgeoisie (at least its upper reaches) for its social-welfare expenses. This foreign policy was also going to drive a wedge between the right wing and left wing of the Social-Democratic Party, but we will see only the beginning of this process before this chapter ends. In part to finance the technological substructure for war, Bismarck introduced another installment of “socialism”: a state tobacco monopoly in 1882 (a big source of revenue) and the nationalization of the railways. Here was something that began to really look like socialism to many people; at any rate, it was a definite intervention by the state into the economy, even if on a small scale.

As I will point out in my next post, the Swedish bourgeoisie and its partners in the social democracy had pretty much the same agenda.

May 23, 2015

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:35 pm

 Christian Parenti

As I stated in my article on Edward Abbey in last weekend’s CounterPunch, there are tensions between Marxism and ecological thought over the role of capitalist development. In the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to regard the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class. The Communist Manifesto, includes “the subjection of nature’s forces to man” as part of capitalism’s forced march toward civilization. So when both FDR and Stalin viewed massive hydroelectric dams as necessary for social progress, it was logical for Communists to celebrate their creation even though they came at huge costs to the environment.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”
Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,
And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Woody Guthrie, “Grand Coulee Dam”

Not long after I wrote the article, the issues resurfaced in a Christian Parenti interview in Truthout on “The State, Humanity as Part of Nature and the Malleability of Capitalism” in which he offered his thoughts on a number of scholars who are trying to integrate political economy with ecology such as John Bellamy Foster, Jason W. Moore, and William Cronon. I am very familiar with Foster and Moore’s work—less so with Cronon’s. However, what I have read of Cronon makes me question Parenti’s praise of his work.

The key part of the interview is a reply to the question “What are the limitations to using Marx’s work when thinking about ecology?” Parenti claims that Moore’s approach is superior to John Bellamy Foster’s because it avoids a Cartesian duality between nature and society by placing humanity within nature. Although these distinctions might sound abstract, the political consequences are dramatic according to Parenti.

It’s very, very dangerous to see human beings as outside of something called nature. If that’s the basis from which one begins, then the conclusion is almost automatically Malthusian. If nature is this pristine Other being victimized by Man, then the solution is for humans to leave. Sadly, that notion is at the heart of most American environmentalism. Just look at the misanthropic politics of deep ecology.

As someone who confessed to “Abbeyism” in my last article, I felt a bit defensive reading this. Reading it carefully, however, I cannot help but wonder what Parenti meant by stating that “most” environmentalists want “humans to leave”. Maybe I haven’t been reading articles by John Bellamy Foster critically enough but I have never found anything resembling those space colonization schemes put forward by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and company. (Granted, MRZine sometimes reads like it has been written by Martians.)

If Parenti is not quite in favor of ”man’s subjection of nature”, there are hints of coming too close for comfort. He states that when Native Americans burned the landscape, they increased biological diversity. This is the lesson he drew from William Cronon’s “Changes in the Landscape”, a book that reviewed native peoples in early New England history.

Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place. Native Americans didn’t necessarily tread lightly in the region. No, in fact, indigenous people throughout North America had a robust and quite aggressive role in shaping the ecosystem. Some communities would burn the landscape twice a year. This created edge habitat meadows amidst forests, the ideal environment for deer.

Now if this were all that there was to Cronon’s theories, it would be hard to mount any great objection even though it has a bit of a straw man character. As someone who has studied Blackfoot and Comanche history in some depth, I have never heard them described as living in “some sort of pristine, natural space”. They hunted bison and even created quasi-statal institutions that marked out their control of such resources. What distinguishes such precapitalist societies from “civilization”, however, is that they lived in balance with nature rather than seeking to dominate it. This was not a function of their spiritual beliefs but one dictated by the need for survival. If you hunt bison to extinction, you will die just like the beasts. It is only under capitalist “civilization” that we face such threats.

Indeed, as Cronon turns his attention to that very capitalist civilization that his theories begin to spin off the tracks. His 1992 “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” explored “ecological changes” in the Midwest that helped to create America’s most dynamic city as the Amazon blurb puts it. Undoubtedly the work was a major contribution to understanding the transformation of the American west but my reading made me wonder what it had to do with ecology. Was the creation of stockyards and the rail system that delivered steers “ecological”? If there is a place for a book that documents how capitalism transformed nature in a major American city, one can understand the acclaim for “Nature’s Metropolis”. However, nobody could ever mistake what Cronon was writing with Mike Davis’s on Los Angeles that were filled with a moral imperative to resist man’s subjection of nature.

It is only when Cronon decided to write “The Trouble with Wilderness” that the issues became more sharply posed. Like Moore, Cronon is a critic of Cartesian dualism: “This, then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall.”

Once he gets past such abstractions, Cronon strays uncomfortably into a kind of contrarianism that suggests a detachment from the more practical matters of wildlife preservation:

The terms of the Endangered Species Act in the United States have often meant that those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species like the spotted owl to gain legal standing for their case—thereby making the full power of the sacred land inhere in a single numinous organism whose habitat then becomes the object of intense debate about appropriate management and use. The ease with which antienvironmental forces like the wise-use movement have attacked such single species preservation efforts suggests the vulnerability of strategies like these.

This seems dubious at best. Arguments that I am familiar with over the spotted owl or the snail darter are presented in terms of the creature’s integration with the ecosphere. That which threatens the spotted owl or the snail darter threatens others in the food chain, including homo sapiens ultimately.

Cronon directs most of his polemical heavy artillery against Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First!, a group that was inspired by Edward Abbey’s writings as I explained in my last article, especially Foreman’s view that our troubles began with farming:

In this view the farm becomes the first and most important battlefield in the long war against wild nature, and all else follows in its wake. From such a starting place, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us.

Given Cronon’s breathless take on the explosive growth of Chicago as a nature-transforming supplier of grain and beef to the rest of the country, there is something to be said about the problems of “civilization” and its handmaiden agriculture. While no doubt responsible for the emergence of urban life and modernity, agriculture has obvious costs as the midwife of class society. Without an agricultural surplus, there is no ruling class. Cronon belittles Foreman’s belief in the democratic norms of hunting-and-gathering societies but there is every reason to believe that Marx and Engels would find more to agree with in Earth First! than Cronon, if you are familiar with their writings on the American Indian, especially Engels’s take on the Iroquois constitution:

And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization.

Finally, I was rather amused to read Cronon’s dismissive remarks on Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system, something he regards as elitist and reactionary:

The mythic frontier individualist was almost always masculine in gender: here, in the wilderness, a man could be a real man, the rugged individual he was meant to be before civilization sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity. [Owen] Wister’s contemptuous remarks about Wall Street and Newport suggest what he and many others of his generation believed—that the comforts and seductions of civilized life were especially insidious for men, who all too easily became emasculated by the feminizing tendencies of civilization. More often than not, men who felt this way came, like Wister and [Theodore] Roosevelt, from elite class backgrounds.

Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.

As it turns out, Theodore Roosevelt’s wilderness preservation program found eager backers in a place that was arguably much more important for the legacy of Marxism than anything that William Cronon ever wrote—I speak of the Soviet Union in its early years before Stalin’s forced industrialization took shape as an exercise of the “subjection of nature” gone mad.

The Communist Party issued a decree “On Land” in 1918. It declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal “Forests of the Republic” complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree “On Forests” at a meeting chaired by Lenin in May of 1918. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the “preservation of monuments of nature.” This last stipulation is very interesting when you compare it to the damage that took place in China as a result of the Yangtze dam. The beautiful landscapes which inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia disappeared, all in the name of heightened “productiveness.”

What’s surprising is that the Soviet government was just as protective of game animals as the forests, this despite the revenue-earning possibilities of fur. The decree “On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons” was approved by Lenin in May 1919. It banned the hunting of moose and wild goats and brought the open seasons in spring and summer to an end. These were some of the main demands of the conservationists prior to the revolution and the Communists satisfied them completely. The rules over hunting were considered so important to Lenin that he took time out from deliberations over how to stop the White Armies in order to meet with the agronomist Podiapolski.

Podialpolski urged the creation of zapovedniki, roughly translatable as “nature preserves.” Russian conservationists had pressed this long before the revolution. In such places, there would be no shooting, clearing, harvesting, mowing, sowing or even the gathering of fruit. The argument was that nature must be left alone. These were not even intended to be tourist meccas. They were intended as ecological havens where all species, flora and fauna would maintain the natural equilibrium that is a crucial factor in the life of nature.

Podiapolski recalls the outcome of the meeting with Lenin:

Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan’ region, Vladimir Ilich expressed his approval for all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Astrakhan krai, but for the whole republic as well.

And where did the inspirations for such measures come from? Chris Williams supplies the answer in “Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis”:

In 1924, the All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) was created through the Conservation Department of the Commissariat of Education to help build a mass social base for conservation and to incorporate conservation and the study of nature into school curricula. VOOP published its own journal, Okhrana prirody (Conservation), which carried vigorous debates inside its pages on critical academic issues in ecology, the history of ecological research in Russia, news from national parks in other countries, including translations of Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on Yellowstone, articles for and about children, special profiles on various endangered species, and articles for biological pest control and against monocultures. The journal even discussed the positive role shamans had historically played in ensuring sustainable yields of game in Siberian culture. Ecology as a separate field of academic study began to appear in Russian university curricula by 1924.

If it is William Cronon versus the shamans, Abbeyism and V.I. Lenin, I’ll go with the latter group—thank you very much.

North Star workshop at Left Forum

Filed under: Left Forum,North Star — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 11.06.52 AM

Those of you attending the Left Forum at John Jay College next weekend might want to check out a workshop titled “Toward a Mass Left Party” that was organized by Matt Hoke, a member of the North Star editorial board. It meets at 12pm on Sunday in room 1.124

The abstract for the workshop is as follows:

Since the economic crisis of 2008, nor since the contraction of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, no mass pole of attraction has arisen to address the suffering of working people in the USA. Meanwhile, new mass parties have spawned in Europe in quick and stormy expansions, while also facing contradictions and difficulties. In the US, a new attraction towards intertendency politics and electoral action has emerged as expressed by the Electoral Action Conference in Chicago, and certain groups are experimenting new tactics to directly engage people’s needs, whether the $15 movement, serve the people projects, or solidarity networks.

The chairperson for the session is Loren Anderson of the Philly Socialists who has provided technical support for North Star and other related projects

Participants include:

Louis Proyect

Affiliation: North Star founder & editor

Bio: Louis Proyect was a member of the North Star Network launched by Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, an experiment in regroupment around a nonsectarian outlook that inspired the current website. Louis also identifies with efforts by the Socialist Union of the 1950s that was led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman.

Abstract: Louis will be focusing on international developments in Syriza and Podemos.


Jim Brash

Affiliation: North Star & Green Party

Bio: Jim Brash has been a member of UFCW Local 1262 for 15 years, and is a green council member of the Green Party of New Jersey. He is also the green party candidate for New Jersey’s 26th Legislative District. Interests include studying American history, political theory, economics, religious philosphy, & miltary strategy.

Abstract: Jim will be mainly be talking about the nuts and bolts of his own electoral efforts.


Stephanie Altimari

Affiliation: Philly Socialists

Bio: Stephanie was an early member of Philly Socialists who has coordinated a wing of its serve the people project based around tutoring for English as a Second Language.

Abstract: Stephanie will be talking about the service model, solidarity networks, and the social network theory of building an organization.


May 22, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

I went to see “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 3D with no other intention except to kick back and enjoy some mindless entertainment. Mindless it was—entertaining, not so much.

Fifteen minutes into the film, it began to dawn on me that nearly the entire film would consist of Mad Max behind the wheel of a truck fending off the bad guys to the accompaniment of a film score with the same percussive phrases being repeated over and over again like a needle stuck in a record groove. The combination of the roar of the automobiles, the gunfire and the bursting bombs, and the insistent music that was meant to remind you of how exciting the whole thing was made it impossible to hear the dialog—such as it was. In an interview with the NY Times, director George Miller was asked about the near absence of dialog. His reply:

I was very influenced by a book written by the critic Kevin Brownlow called “The Parade’s Gone By.” He said the main part of the parade has gone by the advent of sound in cinema. This new language that we called cinema had mostly evolved in the silent era. What differentiated it from theater were the action pieces, the chase pieces. And I really got interested in that. Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: “I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.” And that was what I tried to do in “Mad Max 1,” and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with “Fury Road.”

With all due respect to George Miller, I don’t think that Alfred Hitchcock should be taken too seriously on this. While nobody can gainsay the visceral pleasure of watching Cary Grant fighting with James Mason in Abe Lincoln’s nostril, that scene from “North by Northwest” hardly stands on its own. It was the dialog between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint that gave the film its panache:

Eve Kendall: How do I know you aren’t a murderer?

Roger Thornhill: You don’t.

Eve Kendall: Maybe you’re planning to murder me right here, tonight.

Roger Thornhill: Shall I?

Eve Kendall: Please do.

Violent clashes such as those that take place in this film and others of this ilk made by J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay and just about any other based on Marvel comic books are exciting but only in small doses, functioning in a way like sex scenes. But who would want to have watched Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider fucking for 90 percent of “Last Tango in Paris”? That’s the problem with “Mad Max: Fury Road”; there’s too much of a good thing.

George Miller’s first installment in the Mad Max series was made in 1979. Despite his reputation for making post-apocalyptic films with some kind of message about gas and now water disappearing, his main motivation for using a future world as a backdrop was his worries that an audience would find all the road kill unbelievable. As it turns out, Miller—who was a doctor in an emergency ward in Sydney at the time tending to exactly the kinds of accidents depicted in the film—decided to set it in a dystopian future in order to make the story more plausible. Like the most recent film, the first one was pretty much unrelieved highway mayhem with very little character development (none actually) and dialog.

It was with the 1981 “Road Warrior” that Miller began to hit his stride. Mad Max becomes a kind of mercenary fighting on behalf of the good people defending a small-scale oil refinery against marauders after the fashion of “Seven Samurai” that his talents as a screenwriter and director begin to emerge. What I remember most about the film was Mel Gibson’s interaction with the feral youth and his deadly boomerang. Watching his joyous reaction to the music box that Mad Max gives him was worth the price of admission.

The masterpiece, of course, was “Beyond Thunderdome”, which once again had Mad Max interacting with children and was justifiably celebrated for the casting of Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, the chief of the bad guys.

In doing some research on Miller, who is just about my age, I was startled to discover that he is not limited to the Mad Max series. He directed “The Witches of Eastwick”, a witty tale based on a John Updike novel about the devil—played to a tee by Jack Nicholson—seducing three women. He was also screenwriter and director for “Happy Feet”, one of the finest children’s movies I have ever seen.

Just a final word on the politics of the film. The Internet has been abuzz over a controversy about the film’s “man hatred”. Apparently some idiots from the “men’s rights” movement are upset with the supposed feminist message of the film. Since Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues”, served as a consultant on the film, we are led to believe that it was a statement about gender equality. Since Charlize Therzon’s character fights side by side with Mad Max with about as much effectiveness and has antagonized the bad guys’ chief by attempting to rescue a group of women forced to bear his children after the fashion of ISIS, we are led to conclude that this is a film with a message.

I do think that Miller is capable of making a film with a message. “Happy Feet” was sort of a penguin’s version of “Billy Elliot”, making the case that there’s nothing wrong with a boy wanting to dance. The only message I got out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that a fool and his money are soon parted.

May 21, 2015

I said goodbye to Letterman long before he said goodbye to his viewers

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

When “Late Night with David Letterman” came on the air at 12:30am in 1982, I became such a fan that I was willing to put up with the early morning grogginess that came with staying up so late. The show came on after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”, something that I had little use for at the time since it was so predictable. I ha no idea at the time that Letterman’s deepest desire was to become the next Johnny Carson and host the same kind of show.

In 1982 I was three years out of the SWP, working for a consulting company called Automated Concepts that was run by an EST devotee named Fred Harris, and working with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network. I watched almost no television at all except for the Letterman show and football games. Most of the time I listened to WBAI, which was probably at one of its high points artistically and politically. Although it is hard to believe, the Letterman show was just as edgy in its own terms as a few clips from the early period should illustrate. They reflect a distinctly “downtown” vibe that was in its way the TV counterpart of the thriving punk rock, performance art, and underground Super-8 movie scene.

Brother Theodore (his last name was Gottlieb) was not just a comic genius; he was a genius period who led an extraordinary life as this Wiki entry should indicate. Can you imagine someone like that being featured on Jimmy Kimmel (not that I have ever watched that show.)

Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.

He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles’s 1946 movie The Stranger.

Chris Elliot was the son of Bob Elliot of the radio show “Bob and Ray” fame who certainly inherited his dad’s sense of absurdist comedy. He was a regular on the Letterman show for a number of years and always pushed the envelope. To give you an idea of the affinity that Letterman had with WBAI, long-time early morning show host Larry Josephson curated the Bob and Ray shows for an acclaimed CD reissue.

No commentary is necessary

Sandra Bernhard was a lesbian standup comedian who was by the far the best at making Letterman squirm even though he knew that this was essential for the show’s success.

What can I say? Harvey was my favorite guest on the Letterman show if for no other reason that he expressed exactly what I would have said if I had been on the show myself. Years later when I hooked up with Harvey to do a comic book about my life, I was more excited to be working with him than to be a guest on the Letterman show.

When Letterman moved to the 11:30 slot in 1992, I was happy to be able to watch my favorite show and still get a good night’s sleep. But within a year or so, I realized that it was a different show. It did not happen all at once but it no longer became a place for Brother Theodore but more for some idiot actor or actress to talk about their next film. On top of that, the shtick that remained like the “Top Ten List” grew stale.

What had happened?

I got the answer in Bill Carter’s 1994 book “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night”. Carter explained in convincing detail that Letterman harbored a desire from an early age to be the next Johnny Carson instead of David Letterman. The 11:30 slot allowed him to drop the edgy guests who would have either bored or annoyed the people who expected the standard late night fare.

In August 2001 I posted some comments about Letterman to Marxmail that never made it to my Columbia University website (this was long before I began blogging or when blogs existed for that matter). This is the appropriate time to post them again.

Early in February, top CBS television president Les Moonves and six other top entertainment executives spent several days in Cuba with the approval of the U.S. government. The visit was capped by lunch with Fidel Castro. When news of the trip became public, Late Night host David Letterman began making fun of his boss relentlessly. Among the many rightwing jokes revolved around the “differences” between Moonves and Castro: “On one hand, you have a ruthless dictator surrounded by ‘yes’ men. And on the other, you have Castro.”

Another Late Night show pushed the envelope even further with a sketch titled “Lunch With Fidel.” And one of the entries on a recent Top 10 List was, “Last week, at Castro’s Grammy party, he let me beat a political prisoner.”

This follows a controversy surrounding the guest appearance of radical folk singer Ani DiFranco. Producers canceled her scheduled appearance tonight after the folk singer refused to substitute a more “upbeat” song for one about racism. DiFranco’s manager, Scot Fisher, told The Washington Post that the singer planned to perform “Subdivision” in the show’s final segment. The song begins, “White people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country.”

One can understand why Letterman would object to such a performance. Mostly what his shtick is about nowadays is projecting an out-of-towner’s fear and loathing of non-white New Yorkers to his dwindling audience. To preserve market share, Letterman makes sure to include at least one racist jibe each night about smelly foreign cab drivers or other aspects of its polyglot culture. The aging Letterman, who lives in Connecticut, is reverting more and more to his nativist Indiana roots. The state was home to the most powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter in the north throughout the 1920s. As the camera pans out to his sycophantic audience each night, you are hard-pressed to find anybody who is neither white, nor overweight for that matter. In his shift to the bland (and now racist) tastes of heartland America, he has attracted the audience he deserves: Corn-fed out-of-towners wearing fanny-packs, knuckle-head frat boys and visiting servicemen.

Letterman is a truly sad story. In the 1980s he was the inventive host of an NBC show that came on after Johnny Carson. Since this time-slot was traditionally (and still is) geared to a more adventurous programming, his bad boy creativity could find full expression. When he wasn’t interviewing quirky writers such as Hunter Thompson, he was skewering the pretensions of show business phonies like Cher. The rest of the show consisted of “found humor” like throwing watermelons off a 12 story building or “stupid pet tricks”.

When he made a bid for Carson’s time-slot after his retirement, NBC executives opted for Jay Leno instead whose conventional humor would satisfy the least common denominator and sell more beer and laxatives in the process. The jilted Letterman took a job with CBS in the same time-slot as Leno and vied for the same audience.

This meant changing his format. Instead of a Hunter Thompson, you would end up with some vapid B-movie actor promoting his or her next film. The conversation would inevitably revolve around how married life was treating them or what they did on their vacation. In other words, the same idle chatter that his audience has over dinner in their split-level homes in East Jesus, Nebraska. Nothing like making overweight white people feel at home. Meanwhile the “found humor” became ever more formulaic, following the same tendency found on Saturday Night Live. If an audience laughs at a sight gag, this becomes an invitation to repeat it every week until it becomes as irritating as a garden rake being dragged across a blackboard.

I suppose that Letterman’s turn to the right was inevitable. If you pander to middle-class fears and loathing about the NYC Casbah, you will naturally find yourself catering to the hysterical tics that define US foreign policy. Poor Letterman, he aspired to be the next Johnny Carson. Instead he has become the next Bob Hope.

May 20, 2015

Call for Papers: Toward a Mass Party, Bernie Sanders

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm


How will we achieve a mass socialist party, or mass left party, in the USA?  If we have a special opportunity to do so in this specific era, how will we manifest those possibilities?

Electoralism is a particular theme here at North Star.  However, we are happy to entertain alternative routes to a mass party, especially in response to this call.  But instead of just rejecting or critiquing the electoral path, we would prefer pieces that outline your path, your model, articulated in detail!

This is also an opportunity to discuss the 2016 elections broadly — how should we interact with the recent Electoral Action Conference’s network?  Could we get some report-backs on that?  Should we contend the 2016 elections?  Local, Congressional, Presidential, both/any?  Jill Stein?  Vermin Supreme?  What kind of politics?  Let it rip.

And that guy Bernie Sanders.  He talks about class war, he’s running for President.  He has a huge following, he openly identifies as socialist, he is all but a veritable Ron Paul of socialism, and then he has to kick us in the groin by running as a Democrat.  Not that this is a surprise, but as the meme goes, It’s Happening.

Support/oppose?  Join the campaign?  Condemn it?  Engage the conversation without giving support?  Why/why not?

Send submissions to: submissions.northstar@gmail.com

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.