Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 18, 2016

Richard Seymour justifies voting for a Democrat

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Richard Seymour

Today on Facebook Richard Seymour continued writing on behalf of the Sanders campaign. It is clearly in line with the recent Salvage Magazine editorial that gave it very qualified support in an article mostly about how Donald Trump can conceivably lead a fascist takeover in the USA:

And if the choice for president were Sanders versus Trump? Then notwithstanding our remorseless suspicion of the Democratic Party, against which we remain implacably opposed and for which we would never campaign, if this UK quarterly could vote, Salvage would seriously consider doing so for Sanders.

Does urging a vote for Sanders in this fashion sound like something you might have heard from Gus Hall in 1964? You be the judge.

The Facebook post took aim at a Danny Katch article in the ISO newspaper opposing a vote for Sanders on the basis of principle that Seymour quoted. His answer to Katch follows. My response follows after that.

I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow. … I don’t vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle. … many leftists are throwing themselves into the Sanders campaign, often with the claim that this is the only time they’re ever going to vote for a Democrat…

There are a few distinct issues being incautiously elided here by Danny Katch. First of all, in principle, there are two potential chances to vote for Sanders. One is by joining the Democratic Party primary process. The other is by voting for him in a general election if and when he is the DP presidential candidate. Secondly, there is a crucial distinction between ‘campaigning for’ (phonebanking, leafleting, etc) and ‘voting for’ in terms of the level of involvement in the DP and in terms of the publicity of that involvement. So, let me put it like this:

  1. Let’s say that you don’t want to participate in the primary process, even if it’s an open primary. Let’s say that you definitely don’t want to campaign for a Democratic candidate, and get sucked into that machinery. But let’s say Sanders does in fact win the primary process (it’s against the odds, but who would be confident enough to rule it out on those grounds right now?). You’re faced with a choice, in November, of voting for either Sanders or Jill Stein. What are the prospects in each case? What difference would it make if Sanders won the election, as opposed to the difference it would make if Stein won 3% of the vote? How would each outcome affect the terrain on which socialists work? How would it affect the combativity and confidence of the working class? What sort of gains might the working class and oppressed make in each case? What sorts of losses? And how do we weigh those immediate gains/losses against (or in relation to, since they may not be mutually incompatible) the longer-term objectives of, say, achieving a political realignment? Or shall we gainsay these questions on the grounds of ‘principle’?
  2. Let’s say that you could cast a vote in the primary process, without doing any campaigning or otherwise compromising yourself. What would be the prospects for the left if Sanders won the nomination, as opposed to if Clinton won the nomination? What kinds of problems might the Democratic Party establishment face in each case? Would a win for Sanders exacerbate the crisis created for its establishment, its relative cohesion, its ideological framework, etc. already rendered acute by the campaign itself, or would that be more the case if Clinton won? And how to weigh this against the danger that participating in the process by voting would constitute a form of incipient cooptation, giving ground to the machine which will absorb and neutralise the movements (as and when the movements arise)? Or are these questions also foreclosed by ‘principle’?
  3. Since *when* was voting a ‘principle’ rather than a tactic? What is the point of elevating a good strategic insight (the fact that the DP is a capitalist party from which workers need to gain political independence) to an inflexible ‘principle’ (never voting Democrat) if it prevents one – as it must, of necessity, do, if you think about what turning voting into a ‘principle’ entails – from engaging with the concrete prospects?

Taking up these points one by one, it is difficult to answer rhetorical questions such as “What sort of gains might the working class and oppressed make in each case” or “Would a win for Sanders exacerbate the crisis created for its establishment, its relative cohesion, its ideological framework, etc. already rendered acute by the campaign itself, or would that be more the case if Clinton won?”

They are interesting questions but the more important matter is principle versus tactic with respect to voting for the Democrats. It is obvious that Seymour views it as a tactic. He asks when voting became a “principle”. Assuming that he meant to ask whether not voting for the Democrats became a principle, this is the important question rather than whether voting in itself is to be shunned. We can assume that Seymour understands that the ISO is not an anarchist group with a hardened belief in the superiority of direct action over voting.

It is also important to explore the question of whether a “good strategic insight” is different from having a principle about something. For example, we can all agree that not crossing a picket line is a principle (even though it was sorely tested when Albert Shanker’s teacher’s union organized a racist strike in 1968.)

What exactly is a principle, after all? If you look into Lenin’s writings before 1917, it is rife with references to principle in a context not that far from our own. The Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) were Russia’s version of the Democratic Party. Although some people like Mike Ely of the apparently moribund Kasama Project tried to make the case that Lenin did urge a vote for Cadets in exceptional circumstances (unsuccessfully in my view), the brunt of his articles was to draw clear class lines between parties of the democratic left (like the SR’s) and the bourgeois parties.

In fact, up until the Comintern’s Popular Front turn in 1934, the left never voted for bourgeois parties. Upton Sinclair ran as a Democrat for the office of governor of California that year, breaking with the Socialist Party. His son was so upset with him that the two nearly broke relations. Sinclair’s candidacy was not inspired by the CP, however. He simply had come to the conclusion that FDR represented something new just the way that some people regard Sanders’s campaign today.

If the same criteria that Seymour is applying to the Sanders campaign today were applied to the New Deal, logic would dictate that the CP and Upton Sinclair were correct to work within the Democratic Party. After all, if our goal is to vote for candidates who can provide “gains” for the working class and oppressed, there are tons of candidates in addition to FDR who can deliver the goods. This includes Chokwe Lumumba who was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi or some remarkable liberal Democrats from New York like Bella Abzug or Ted Weiss. You can also throw Jerry Brown into the mix whose Presidential campaign announcement speech from 1992 was just as much an assault on the status quo as any made by Sanders:

The calamity which our forefathers feared most has, in our time, come to pass–an unholy alliance of private greed and corrupt politics. Our deteriorating economy, our collapsing political process, and our eroding system of common values, are the direct consequences of a few allowed to satisfy their appetites for greed and privilege.

While the net worth of the average American family declined, the Forbes 400 richest families in America saw their collective wealth increase by 300%! Did any other American families see their net worth triple? Even double?

However, the stunning gains by the very rich did not result from the success of hard work or as a reward earned by expanding the nation’s prosperity to the benefit of all.

The triumph of the forces of special privilege with its devastating consequences to the entire nation, was engineered with the complicity of Washington’s entrenched politicians, Democrat and Republican alike.

That is the whole point of politicians like Jerry Brown, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, Bella Abzug, Chokwe Lumumba et al. It is to hold out hope that the Democratic Party can be transformed. Understanding it in dialectical terms, these are politicians who by their very idealism tend to undercut the ideals they enunciate. There is no conspiracy to “sheepdog” the gullible. Rather we are dealing with a party that has always had a populist component. After all, the first Democratic Party president Andrew Jackson was a friend of the “common man” (even if the Cherokees were regarded as less than human.)

Let’s say for argument’s sake that “principles” are not involved, only what Seymour calls “good strategic advice”. From a strategic standpoint, the most urgent task facing the American left historically is to create a party of the left. Some people think that the Sanders campaign can serve as a launching pad for the left. However, this is certainly a vain hope. When Hillary Clinton gets the nomination, Sanders will endorse her just as most people now accept even if they are ardent Sanders supporters.

At the age of 74, it is highly unlikely that Sanders will embark on the rather daunting task of spearheading the creation of a new third party (one that I would certainly support if he did.) Sanders is not the politician he once was when he worked closely with radicals in Vermont to get elected Mayor of Burlington. For the past 10 years Sanders has functioned as a Democrat. In 2006, he ran for his first term as Senator from Vermont in the primary on the Democratic Party line, backed by Democratic Party leaders from inside and outside the state, including Charles Schumer who clearly opposed everything Sanders supposedly stood for. He must have seen something in Sanders that was not obvious to Richard Seymour. Once he won the primary, he declined the nomination, thus leaving no Democratic nominee on the ballot. This meant that no Democrat would appear on the general election ballot to split the vote.

There is something coy about how Sanders deals with political identification. His Senate website and press materials continue to label him as an “independent” while his presidential campaign website lists him as a “Democratic candidate.”

If you think that a new party can be spawned out of the DP by Sanders and his supporters like Tulsi Gabbard (his most prominent ally is dubious at best, having been a keynote speaker at a Christians for Israel conference), you might be tempted to look at such a process as having analogies with the birth of the Republican Party in 1854 when members of the Whig Party divided over the extension of slavery into new territory. As it happens, the Whig Party was being torn apart in a way that has little resemblance to the Democratic Party of today.

The Republican Party was the culmination of a long and arduous struggle against slavery that was prefigured by earlier and somewhat premature formations like the Free Soil Party. There was a constant assault on chattel slavery that became the new party’s “principle” so to speak. In 2016, if we were serious about the possibilities of a new left party emerging out of the DP, we have to consider the complete lack of evidence for opposition to wage slavery, the evil of our epoch that Bernie Sanders has never said word one about.

Although it is painful for some to consider, Sanders sees his role as decrying the abuses of capitalism, not abolishing the system. After his campaign is over, he will take a few weeks off and then return to what he does best–voting the right way in the Senate and making appearances on the Rachel Maddow show. Starting a radical party in the USA that we so badly need will involve a separate set of principles and a willingness to see the fight through to final victory that will have enemies from the get-go. When Nader ran in 2004, Democratic Party lawyers fought to rob him of ballot status everywhere. In conditions of extreme polarization, a burgeoning radical party will face serious repression. That is the reality of radical politics in a nation where capitalism has had its most successful reign since the 1600s. The Sanders campaign is a far cry from the battles we face down the road.

April 17, 2016

All you need to know about the Russia Insider scandal–and more

Filed under: humor,journalism,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 2.14.25 PM

Like the better known Worker’s Spatula, Russia In Your Face (RIYF) is a parody website. While Worker’s Spatula tends to dish out RT.com type talking points, you can tell by the other site’s name that it is just the opposite. What they have in common is that their references can be obscure, which leads to a certain in joke tendency.

In the latest RIYF parody, there is a riff on an online magazine called Russia Insider that I have only the slightest familiarity with. It is a pro-Kremlin outlet that might be likened to Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly with RIYF playing Stephen Colbert’s old show on Comedy Central off of it. Here’s a snippet from the piece:

For years, a Western-funded, Russophobic parody site has mocked Russia and our dear leader. Thankfully their tomfoolery is soon coming to an end.

Russia Insider, or more accurately Russophobia Inside Her, was a site clearly designed to embarrass pro-Russian journalism by using ridiculous hyperbole. They try to embarrass people like our fine staff by making all pro-Russia journalists seem like Putin (Glory to his name) worshipers and conspiracy theorists. Well now this site has been exposed for what we all knew it was- a CIA psyop.

This is a somewhat subtle joke. Actually, Russia Insider was not Russophobic at all. It was just like RT.com, Sputnik News, and a host of Western fellow travelers like Moon of Alabama, Information Clearing House, et al—a totally slavish conveyer of Kremlin talking points.

I could glean from RIYF that Russia Insider had become compromised but there was nothing in the parody that revealed exactly what had happened. For that I had to do a bit of research. What it says about the Putinite “left” is quite damning.

It seems that Russia Insider had pissed off Peter Lavelle, a journalist who has a long career on RT and is very committed to the Kremlin’s cause in the geopolitical chess game. “Putin and the Mythical Empire” is a fairly typical article. In a very real sense, Lavelle is one of the real leaders of the Putinite movement worldwide with a lot of credibility. Given his spotless reputation in such circles, it was a shock to discover that he had denounced Russia Insider as a scam.

The story appeared on Fort Russ, a blog with RT type politics that features a book on its home page titled “Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach to Regime Change”. As you can probably surmise, it describes Euromaidan and the Syrian revolution as plots orchestrated by the CIA. So if you get on Fort Russ’s wrong side, you must have really screwed up royally.

Titled “Bausman and fraud at Russia Insider? Lavelle blows the whistle”, the article starts off with Lavelle’s FB post:

It has come to my attention that all is not well at the website -Russia Insider.” A number of key people have left with acrimony and it said there are numerous corporate governance issues contested and disputed. I too question the transparency and openness of the site’s management and the entire operation. There appears to be no accountability on how investor funds and crowd funding revenues are spent. Before you invest in any endeavor do your due diligence. Things do not always appear what they seem…

Backing up Lavelle, Fort Russ characterizes them as a rip-off:

Readers are asked to donate money for this content which is already readily available elsewhere for free, with the unremunerated costs of creating original content shifted onto other sites’ writers. It is a very interesting business model which other popular alternative journalists have regularly criticized.

It was set up as a nonprofit but none of the income went to journalists. This not only pissed off Lavelle, who was lured into the scam by founder Charles Bausman, but Robert Parry—another Putinite stooge. You can get a feel for the sordid world of Kremlin apologists who come across as hustlers out for a fast buck from another Lavelle FB post:

The smoking gun: Charles Bausman and fraud at Russia Insider

When I agreed to help Bausman start-up Russia Insider he suggested a shareholding arrangement — 75% for Bausman and 25% for me. I accepted. For that I supported the project and Bausman in every way I could when the site was launched. My FB page is evidence of this. Little did I know Bausman habitually lied about my share and involvement in Russia Insider Even up to a few weeks and days ago he claimed (behind my back and without my knowledge) I had a 5% share. In the last few hours. I learned from an ex-Russia Insider worker that Bausman later ordered a legal document claiming 100% ownership — cutting out those who may have believed they were investing in the site for an equity position. A noble cause is being destroyed because of one person’s greed and complete disregard of basic principles of honesty and transparency.

Right. Noble cause. Writing articles defending barrel bombs in Syria and throwing Pussy Riot in prison for blasphemy.

The remainder of Fort Russ’s article is a fairly tedious but necessary dismantling of a website that has been a source of talking points for many in the “anti-imperialist” left. Mike Whitney has cited it as has the feckless Roger Annis.

Bausman is a shadowy figure. Before he launched Russia Insider in 2014, he worked for AVG Capital Partners, a Russian private capital firm specializing in agribusiness. In addition to his own seed money and funds he ripped off from people like Lavelle, he relied early on from contributions from one Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch who has quite a track record. Like most Putinites, he is committed to strong family values and serves as the chairman of the Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation that seeks to strengthen the Russian Orthodox Church. He is also on the board of trustees of the Safe Internet League that created the original draft of Internet censorship law in Russia. And to top it all off, he hosted a secret anti-gay conference in Austria that drew upon the support of the country’s ultraright as Searchlight magazine reported.

A secret meeting discussing ways to rid Europe of the ‘satanic gay lobby’ was hosted by a Russian oligarch and attended by a host of far-right MPs and ultra-conservative Eurasian ideologists in Vienna at the weekend – just across the road from where the Life Ball was taking place the very same night.

The meeting was hosted by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeew and his Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation and was attended by nationalists and Christian fundamentalists from Russia and the West. These were thought to include the chief Russian ideologist of the Eurasian movement Alexander Dugin, the nationalist painter Ilja Glasunow, and MPs from far right parties including the Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

Years from now historians will try—perhaps in vain—to explain what led nominally leftist people like Mike Whitney and Roger Annis to develop ideological ties with scum like Charles Bausman. Perhaps psychiatrists well-versed in Kraft-Ebbing will come to their assistance.

On being Trumped

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 12:43 am

(A guest post by Gary MacLennan, a retired communications professor, socialist activist, Marxism list veteran going back 20 years, and a very dear friend and comrade.)

Yesterday, piqued by my increasing (from a low base, mind you) interest in the US presidential elections, I decided to break a deep sworn vow and went on YouTube in search of Trump in his reality TV mode. I loathe reality tv and have sworn to go to my grave with the boast that I have never watched a Big Brother show, Master Chef, Australia’s Got Talent or a 60 Minutes episode.

But I yielded to temptation and searched for Trump and “you’re fired”. I came across a 7 minute compilation of the “best” of Donald Trump. Alas, words fail me here like they did when I tried so hard as a young man to become a poet and a novelist.

I had always imagined that Narcissus would be a pretty boy like in those old classical paintings, kneeling by the water side and languidly contemplating his own beauty. But no, here he was – ugly, red faced, bug eyed and it all topped with that hair-do.

This Narcissus was not drunk on beauty but on the the grossest and most arbitrary displays of his own power. “You’re fired” he would snarl and almost without exception they would whimper, apologize and slink out of the throne room. There were two exceptions. One of the contestants glared in deep hatred but said nothing. A young woman defied the Emperor and tried to defend her leader who was about to be fired. Trump’s wrath was almost incandescent.

Icarus plunged to earth when he got too near the sun, but these poor souls had gone down into Hades to become victims of the wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.

I tried to work out what viewing the tape meant to me other than fill me with despair at the sad search for 13 minutes of fame that has so many in thrall. This post is, I suppose, part of that working out. As a teenager I remember being deeply puzzled and depressed by the Marabar Caves episode in Foster’s Passage to India. Mrs Moore goes into the caves and experiences some kind of nervous breakdown when the echo in the cave seems to say to her, ‘Everything exists, nothing has value’. Mrs Moore leaves India, decides not to write to her children and she then proceeds to die. Thank you Mr Foster! Watching the youtube tape I wondered if this would become my Marabar Caves moment?

I have, though, since read Vasant A. Shahane’s Zen Buddhist reading of the Marabar Caves incident. For him, Mrs Moore encounters the Void and comes to understand the essential meaningless of life. BTW I am not absolutely convinced by Shahane’s insistence that his reading is an optimistic one.

I can accept the proposition that all that Trump stands for – his wealth and power and vulgarity contain nothing of value. I can understand that for him to be strutting the airways is a sign of the almost absolute decay and decomposition of late capitalism. But I feel that what Trump represents must be actively resisted. It is necessary to be horrified at the spectacle of him doing dirt on life, but it is not sufficient. Instead of quietism and acceptance, we must stoke the fires of revolutionary resistance. it is necessary to say once more *encore un effort.*




April 15, 2016

Green Room

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” opened at theaters everywhere today and will surely be on my best five films of 2016 when NYFCO’s awards meeting convenes in December. Saulnier was the director of “Blue Ruin”, a 2014 film that led me to nominate Saulnier as best new director that year. Like “Blue Ruin”, “Green Room” is an ultraviolent art film that puts Quentin Tarantino to shame. Like his feckless “The Hateful Eight”, Saulnier’s film takes place in a confined space, even more constricted than Tarantino’s blizzard-besieged cabin. It is the proverbial green room, a place you have probably heard mentioned on late night talk shows where a guest hangs out until it is time for them to go sit on the sofa next to Johnny or Dave or whoever.

The green room in Saulnier’s film is in the basement of a music club in rural Oregon owned by a neo-Nazi named Darcy Banker played by Patrick Stewart in an obviously outrageous bid at casting against type. I can’t say that it is entirely successful since Stewart is just a bit too familiar from Star Trek and the X-Men films. If you had never seen him before, that’s not a problem but the role would have been ideal for someone like Dennis Hopper or Michael Shannon quite frankly.

In between sets, the film’s good guys hang out waiting to be called on stage. They are members of a punk rock band called the Ain’t Rights that has seen better days. They travel around in a beat up van and often resort to siphoning gas from cars they stake out in strip mall parking lots. When the mohawked promoter who signed them up for their last gig is remorseful over the paltry proceeds, barely enough money to buy a tankful of gas and lunch at Burger King, he tries to make amends by lining them up another gig at the neo-Nazi hangout. The pay is good ($350), but he advises them not to talk politics.

Upon arrival, they are escorted to the green room by a guy who looks like a member of the type of groups Morris Dees exposes for a living. Once they settle in, they figure out that they are in enemy territory. There is a big confederate flag on the wall and Nazi regalia all around the room. Since they are punks, they are not the type to rein in their beliefs. The first number they perform once they get on stage is the Dead Kennedys anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”:

Nazi punks
Nazi punks
Nazi punks fuck off

You still think Swastikas look cool
The real Nazis run your schools
Theyre coaches, businessmen and cops
In a real fourth Reich you’ll be the first to go

The audience does not quite storm the stage but probably would if such songs continued. Showing a willingness to play to the crowd, our musicians continue with less provocative material.

After the set is over, they return to the room and are shocked to see a dead woman sprawled on the floor with a knife sticking out of her skull. Standing over the dead woman is her friend and the man who likely killed her. Expecting the cops to come and sort things out, the band members stick around for the time being, a decision firmed up by a hulking member of Darcy Banker’s entourage who trains a nasty looking pistol on them, ordering them to stay put. Eventually they learn that Banker and his henchman have plans to kill them as well since they are witnesses to a crime of passion carried out by one of his gang members.

As the band members begin to figure out that they are dead meat, they lock the door and barricade it from the neo-Nazis assembling in the hallway. The rest of the film consists of action inside the green room and the club involving guns, knives, iron bars, fluorescent light fixtures, fire extinguishers, killer dogs, mike stands, and just about everything else up to the kitchen sink. As such the film is less about the clash between anarchists and reactionaries than it is about survival against overwhelming odds. Ultimately “Green Room” is much more like an episode of “The Walking Dead” but directed by Akira Kurosawa or Sam Peckinpah than a didactic bid to save the world.

Pure escapism and not to be missed.

April 14, 2016

“The Measure of a Man”; “Class Divide”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:09 pm

Two films are playing in New York theaters that go straight for the jugular vein of capitalism. One is a French narrative film titled “The Measure of a Man” that opens tomorrow at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Metrograph (a new downtown theater committed to noncommercial film). The other is “Class Divide”, a documentary about gentrification in Chelsea that opened yesterday at the IFC Center. In addition to packing a powerful anti-capitalist message, they are fine art directed by directors with outstanding track records. So they come with the highest recommendation.

The man referred to in the title of Stéphane Brizé’s narrative film is Thierry Taugourdeau, a 51-year old machine operator who has not worked in 20 months after his boss moved his factory to a third world country where labor was cheaper. In essence, Thierry is an Everyman for the world we have been living in for the past 25 years or so. He is played by veteran French actor Vincent Lindon who is the only professional in the cast. Everybody he interacts with are nonprofessionals who have the same kind of job their characters have in the film. A young and attractive female banker who advises him to sell his apartment so he can pay off debts is a real banker. A job counselor at the unemployment office who is more sympathetic to his plight but is incapable of matching him to a job that his skills qualify him for since all the manufacturing plants seem to have grown wings and flown to south Asia, Mexico or Eastern Europe is a real unemployment counselor.

The film is structured as a series of encounters between Thierry and those who enforce the rules of bourgeois society. In one scene that rips away at your guts, he has a Skype interview with the boss of a company that needs someone to work on a machine that he has had experience with but not the latest version. When asked why he hasn’t studied the procedures for the latest machine, Thierry explains that he couldn’t afford the instruction manuals. Since the boss is a millionaire, this excuse hardly matters. Why can’t everybody take the same kind of initiatives he did in becoming rich? He can’t help resist telling Thierry that his resume needs work. It doesn’t really make clear who he was—as if someone desperate to begin working again on a factory floor needs to prepare a CV geared to a management job. The interview ends with Thierry being told that there is only a slim chance of getting the job.

Like most people without income, Thierry is behind the eight ball on anything involving money. His family always looked forward to weekends at a mobile home they own in a park near the ocean but now they are forced to sell it. In another gut-wrenching scene, he and his wife show it to potential customers who try to pressure them into selling it significantly beneath the market price. For all we know, they could be real estate vultures looking to resell it at a higher price. After being told by the prospective customers one time too many that he will breathe a sigh of relief once it is off his hands, he keeps a shred of dignity intact and refuses to sell.

Stéphane Brizé has never made a political film before. His last film was a family drama about a truckdriver and his mother who have a strained relationship, one that I did not see. Nor have I ever seen any of his other films. While not being known as a writer or director of political films, he has made one for the ages. The screenplay was co-written with Olivier Gorce, whose past body of work was also relatively apolitical. Apparently, the social and economic changes taking place in France in line with those that have precipitated the Sanders campaign in the USA have reached an intensity that men like Brizé and Gorce cannot ignore.

In an interview contained in the press notes, Brizé describes his goal in making such a film:

Q: Would you call this a political film?

A: Yes. “Political” in the sense of “organization of the polis,” or city. I looked at the life of a man who gave his body, his time, and his energy, to a company for 25 years before being left on the sidelines because his bosses decide to make the same product in another country with cheaper labor. This man is not kicked out because he didn’t do his job well. He’s kicked out because some people want to make more money. Thierry is the mechanical consequence of a few invisible shareholders whose bank accounts needed a boost. He is the face of the unemployment statistics we hear about everyday in the news. They might take up two lines in the paper, but behind them are human tragedies. On the other hand, there was never any question of using tear-jerking clichés either. Thierry is a normal man – even though the idea of a normal man has taken a beating these past years – in a brutal situation: he has been unemployed for 20 months since his factory shut down, and is now obliged to accept just about any job he can get. And when this job places the individual in a morally unacceptable situation, what can he do? Stay and be an accomplice of an unfair system, or leave and return to a precarious and unstable life? That is the heart of the film. A man’s place in a system.

A while back I had a beer with a member of Socialist Alternative in which I asked some questions about how they were organized (I was interested to see how it compared to Leninist groups I was more familiar with.) One of the questions was where they had headquarters. To my astonishment they had none in Manhattan. After seeing Marc Levin’s “Class Divide”, I understand why. Chelsea, which is basically the west 20s in Manhattan, was once a home to the Brecht Forum and CISPES. Such groups would not be able to afford a closet in an office building there now. It is amazing that Monthly Review is still there on West 29th street, not far from the action in “Class Divide”. Paul Sweezy must have signed a 200-year lease. If he were still alive, I wonder what he would make of the neighborhood that in the span of about ten years has become the most expensive in the city in what can only be called hypergentrification.

The neighborhood began to change when the High Line was finished. This was an elevated railroad track that wended its way through the industrial core of the neighborhood in the days when manufacturing rather than FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) dominated the NY economy. Abandoned for decades, it was turned into a park along tenth avenue in 2009. Clustered around the High Line are ultramodern high rises that are occupied by the superrich, 40 percent of whom are oligarchs from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and all the other usual venues. The film reveals that the latest and most luxurious apartments have their own swimming pools and attached garages that allow the residents to transport their Lamborghinis up and down in elevators to and from street level. It is as if the architects had been inspired by a Scrooge McDuck comic book from the 1950s.

Nestled within this one percent of the one percent neighborhood are the residents of a housing project called the Chelsea-Elliot Houses whose residents are interviewed throughout the film on what they make of their new neighbors, particularly the Avenues private high school that cost $45,000 per year and many of whose students live in the new Chelsea luxury buildings. Ironically, the students are acutely aware of the class contradictions including a 17-year old Turkish girl named Yasemin Smallens who was inspired to create a project called 115 Steps that attempted to bridge the gap between the students and the residents of the housing project who live right across the street from the school.

The principal of the school was Chris Whittle, who is interviewed throughout the film. He was partners with Benno Schmidt Jr. in setting up something called the Edison Schools that now serves 450,000 students around the world in schools like Avenues. When he was President of Yale University, Schmidt embarked on a program to reduce the size of the faculty. In a 2002 article for CounterPunch, Carol Norris reported on Edison’s modus operandi:

Take for example the 20 poorest schools in Philadelphia that were privatized–handed over to Edison Schools Inc., because the city had no clue what else to do with them. Then the stock market fell and Edison’s shares plummeted. So big trucks came and took the kids’ textbooks, lab supplies, computers and musical instruments. Edison was hard up for cash. Rotten break for the kids. But at least, as Edison’s founder Chris Whittle so cleverly and very seriously suggested, they weren’t forced to work in the school’s offices as free child labor. (In a school of 600, he cooed, this free child labor would be equal 75 adults on salary.) So, the kids, with no school equipment, might as well go home and watch a lot of TV and dream of the day when their Social Security gets privatized.

As you might have guessed, Whittle is a walking encyclopedia of progressive sounding platitudes. With his ever-present bowtie and unctuous self-regard, he reminds me of Bard College’s Leon Botstein.

The most attractive people in “Class Divide” are the residents of Elliot House who are acutely aware of the class divide indicated in the film’s title. The most captivating of them is an 8-year old girl named Rosa who has more personality than any human being should be entitled to. In one interview, she talks about how thrilled she would be to meet Beyonce. When she asks Marc Levin which singer he’d love to meet in person, he answers (reasonably) Billie Holliday. Rosa says, “Oh, I’ve never heard of him.”


April 13, 2016

Nicaragua’s industrialists? Say what?

Filed under: nicaragua — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 5.59.41 PM

Louis Proyect in Managua, November 1984

When I noticed that Bhaskar Sunkara had tweeted a link to a Jacobin article titled “Ortega’s Betrayal” written by Jonah Walters, I concluded immediately even before reading it that the author was a member of the International Socialists Organization (ISO). As Jason E. Smith had noted in a Brooklyn Rail article titled “Let Us Be Terrible: Considerations on the Jacobin Club”, the magazine had begun to feature articles by members of the group: “While it has always toyed with the disaffected liberals on the fringes of the Democratic Party, more recent contributors have included writers and cadre with primary allegiance to Trotskyist organizations, like the ISO…”

I don’t have any big problems with ISO members writing for Jacobin. Most are very bright graduate students and junior professors with a lot on the ball. Unfortunately, Jonah Walter’s article on Nicaragua was the ISO at its worst. As is customary for groups coming out of the Trotskyist movement, they see their role as the political and moral conscience of the left. If you are looking for take-downs of Alexis Tsipras, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro for failing to lead successful revolutions from below, the ISO press is the place to go. As Peter Camejo once told me in the early 80s, groups like the SWP and the ISO are always beyond reproach because they have never been put in a position of power that would test their ability to live up to their own lofty ideals.

Walters, who is not identified as an ISO member on Jacobin (it is entirely possible that he is no longer a member of the group whose revolving door probably spins no more rapidly than any other Leninist group), is not entirely clear whether Ortega was a Judas goat from the beginning or only after he was reelected in 2007 as a remodeled neoliberal. Consistent with the ISO analysis of Venezuela, Walters pins his hope on dissidents to the left of Ortega including Mónica Baltodano who is a leader of the “explicitly socialist” Movement to Rescue Sandinismo. She would seem to play the same role as trade union militant Orlando Chirino played in a number of articles in the ISO press as a leftist foil to Hugo Chavez. Perhaps I am nothing but a sinful opportunist but I lost the appetite for writing these sorts of articles long ago.

Rather than trying to defend the post-2007 Ortega (an impossible task), I want to turn my attention to the first part of the article in which he seems to be located in limbo rather than inferno. Walters believes that the FSLN of the 1980s was “an inspiration for a generation of leftists” and that “Whatever their shortcomings, they became a shining example of successful revolutionary politics.” I guess I am one of the generation of leftists Walters is referring to since I was the president of the board of Tecnica, an organization that recruited engineers, programmers and other skilled people to work with Nicaraguan government agencies.

In that capacity, I got frequent reports on the Nicaraguan economy from Michael Urmann, Tecnica’s founder and executive director, who met regularly with Paul Oquist who was Ortega’s chief economic adviser. In addition to that, I paid very close attention to the left press at the time, including NACLA Reports and other print publications (the Internet was still in its early stages as an alternative media source.)

Daniel Ortega’s original sin appears to be adopting the economic program for Nicaragua associated with the Tercerista tendency in the FSLN, one that conceived of socialism being built on the basis of a class alliance between peasants, workers and the anti-dictatorship bourgeoisie. I don’t want to dwell on this but there is strong evidence that the three tendencies in the FSLN had overcome their differences by the time they had entered the final stage of the battle with Somoza. For more information on this, I recommend George Black’s “Triumph of the People: The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua”. The only fighters in Nicaragua who were determined to “go all the way” against the bourgeoisie were a detachment of Nahuel Moreno’s Fourth International and utterly devoid of a broad social base.

What really got my attention was Jonah Walter’s claim that “Once in power, the FSLN established a mixed economy — without the capacity to organize production on a national scale, the government depended on industrialists with deep pockets to invest in domestic production.”

Depended on industrialists with deep pockets? What the fuck is he talking about? I understand that Walters was probably born after Daniel Ortega was voted out of office in 1990 but this is no excuse for getting the Nicaraguan economy so wrong. Anybody who visited Managua in the 1980s would realize almost immediately that there was no industry to speak of.

Nicaragua was primarily an agroexport country (could Walters possibly be thinking that a cattle ranch was an industry?) but there was some industrial growth in the 1960s, largely in processed foods, chemicals, and metal manufacturing according to Wikipedia but the 1972 earthquake that was centered in Managua utterly destroyed it. About 2,500 small shops engaged in manufacturing and commercial activities were wiped off the face of the earth and about 90% of the buildings in Managua were left unstable.

Anybody who visited Managua could not help but notice this. Cattle and goats roamed the streets of Managua and people squatted in the ruins of buildings in the downtown area. The largest “industries” as far as I know were the locally brewed beer and rum that were always something to look forward to in the evening after a long day spent in a government agency training people.

Nicaragua gained most of its foreign revenue through the export of sugar, cotton, coffee, beef and lumber but hardly enough to keep the country afloat during Reagan’s war on the country. The GDP of Nicaragua in the late 80s was about the same as the annual sale of American blue jeans. As far as “industrialists with deep pockets” is concerned, I have no idea what this could possibly mean in a country like Nicaragua that was the poorest in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. Couldn’t Jonah Walters have taken the trouble to do a little research before he wrote such an ill-informed article? After all, he is identified as a Jacobin researcher.

Back in 2004, I wrote an article for Revolution Magazine in New Zealand that was a reply to ISO leader Lee Sustar on Nicaragua. Since it was written before I began blogging, it is worth reposting here:

Nicaragua 25 years later: a reply to Lee Sustar

Twenty-five years ago, the FSLN seized power in Nicaragua. Although it is difficult to see this abjectly miserable country in these terms today, back then it fueled the hopes of radicals worldwide that a new upsurge in world revolution was imminent. Along with Grenada, El Salvador and Guatemala, where rebel movements had already seized power or seemed on the verge of taking power, Nicaragua had the kind of allure that Moscow had in the 1920s.

So what happened?

While nobody would gainsay the political collapse of the FSLN after its ouster and troubling signs just before that point, it is worth looking a bit deeper into its rise and fall. There are strong grounds to seeing its defeat not so much in terms of its lacking revolutionary fiber, but being outgunned by far superior forces. With all proportions guarded, a case might be made that Sandinista Nicaragua had more in common with the Paris Commune than the Spanish Popular Front, which was doomed to failure by the class collaborationist policies of the ruling parties.

You can get a succinct presentation of this analysis from Lee Sustar, an ISO leader who contributed an article to Counterpunch titled “25 Years on: Revolution in Nicaragua.” He states:

While the U.S. and its contra butchers are to blame for the destruction of the Nicaraguan economy, the contradiction at the heart of the FSLN’s politics was instrumental in its downfall. FSLN leaders couldn’t escape the centrality of class divisions in the ‘revolutionary alliance’–the fact that workers and ‘nationalist’ employers had contradictory interests.

The conditions of workers had deteriorated throughout the 1980s as runaway inflation wiped out wage gains. Workers participated in Sandinista unions and mass organizations–but they didn’t hold political power, and their right to strike was suspended for a year as early as 1981. This allowed the opportunistic Nicaraguan Socialist Party–a longtime rival of the FSLN–to give a left-wing cover to Chamorro’s coalition, which in turn functioned as the respectable face of the contras.

With respect to the failure of the FSLN to align itself with workers (and peasants, a significant omission in Sustar’s indictment), Washington seemed worried all along that bourgeois class interests were being neglected and that Nicaragua was in danger of becoming “another Cuba.” Of course, since Cuba never really overthrew capitalism according to the ISO’s ideological schema, this might seem like a moot point. In any case, it is often more useful to pay attention to the class analysis of the State Department and the NY Times than it does to small Marxist groups. If the ruling class is worried that capitalism is being threatened in a place like Nicaragua, they generally know what they are talking about.

Virtually all the self-proclaimed “Marxist-Leninist” formations, from the Spartacist League to more influential groups like the ISO, believe that the revolution collapsed because it was not radical enough. If the big farms had been expropriated, it is assumed that the revolution would have been strengthened. While individual peasant families might have benefited from a land award in such instances, the nation as a whole would have suffered from diminished foreign revenues. After all, it was cotton, cattle and coffee that was being produced on such farms, not corn and beans. When you export cotton on the world market, you receive payments that can be used to purchase manufactured goods, medicine and arms. There is not such a market for corn and beans unfortunately. Even if the big farms had continued to produce for the agro-export market under state ownership, they would have been hampered by the flight of skilled personnel who would have fled to Miami with the owners. Such skills cannot be replicated overnight, especially in a country that had suffered from generations of inadequate schooling.

While all leftwing groups that operate on the premise that they are continuing with the legacy of Lenin, virtually none of them seem comfortable with the implications of Lenin’s writings on the NEP, which are crucial for countries like Nicaragua in the 1980s or Cuba today, for that matter. In his speech to the Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party in 1922, Lenin made the following observations:

The capitalist was able to supply things. He did it inefficiently, charged exorbitant prices, insulted and robbed us. The ordinary workers and peasants, who do not argue about communism because they do not know what it is, are well aware of this.

But the capitalists were, after all, able to supply things—are you? You are not able to do it.’ That is what we heard last spring; though not always clearly audible, it was the undertone of the whole of last spring’s crisis. “As people you are splendid, but you cannot cope with the economic task you have undertaken.” This is the simple and withering criticism which the peasantry—and through the peasantry, some sections of workers—levelled at the Communist Party last year. That is why in the NEP question, this old point acquires such significance.

We need a real test. The capitalists are operating along side us. They are operating like robbers; they make profit; but they know how to do things. But you—you are trying to do it in a new way: you make no profit, your principles are communist, your ideals are splendid; they are written out so beautifully that you seem to be saints, that you should go to heaven while you are still alive. But can you get things done?

If the Bolsheviks required a return to some elements of capitalism in 1922 in order to “help get things done,” why would anybody expect the FSLN to do otherwise? In 1922, the Bolsheviks ruled over a country that had wiped out their own contras decisively and secured its borders. By comparison, Nicaragua was like a sieve with armed terrorists backed by the USA infiltrating freely from North and South. The Soviet Union was also a major economic power, despite being ravaged by war. With an immense population and an abundance of coal and iron ore, it had the ability to produce its own heavy capital goods. Nicaragua, by comparison, had a population about the size of the borough of Brooklyn and no industry to speak of.

Despite all these relative advantages, the Bolshevik leaders feared for the survival of the Soviet Union unless it received help from victorious socialist revolutions in the more advanced European countries. In “Results and Prospects,” Trotsky wrote:

But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.

With a GDP equal to the size of what US citizens spend on blue jeans each year, how would Nicaragua have managed to forestall the fate that Trotsky predicted for the USSR? Indeed, whatever the faults of Stalinist Russia, it could always be relied on after a fashion to provide material aid for postcapitalist countries like Cuba or Vietnam that were under siege. It was Nicaragua’s misfortune to have come into existence at the very time that such protections could no longer be guaranteed, even when doled out like from an eyedropper.

In October 1988, Soviet Foreign Ministry official Andrei Kozyrev wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared.

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua.

This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become know as the “Reagan Doctrine”. More recently, Kagan has gained attention as part of the gaggle of neoconservatives pushing for war against Iraq last year. His “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order” basically provided an ideological justification for US unilateralism since the Europeans were seen as epicene appeasers of Evil. Since the reversals in Iraq over the past year or so, Kagan has maintained a lower profile.

Despite the expectations of the ordinary Nicaraguan who voted for the removal of Daniel Ortega, the country was not the beneficiary of US largesse. With the removal of the Soviet Union as a countervailing hegemon, it was no longer necessary to bribe restive populations. Instead of a Marshall Plan, the best that could be hoped for were a few maquiladoras.

In a newly established free trade zone, a textile factory owned by Chentex set up shop. In 2000, a delegation from the United States discovered women who were working 60 hours a week. One woman who was married to another maquiladora employee suffered from conditions that were far worse than those endured under FSLN rule. The December 3, 2000 NY Times quoted one delegation member: “The couple had a 3-year-old daughter with discolored tips of her hair, probably from a protein deficiency. These are people who work 60, 70 hours a week, and their standard of living is just abysmal.” When these workers tried to organize themselves into a union, the bosses attempted to fire them all. Contrary to Lee Sustar, you can be assured that these working people knew the difference between the FSLN’s attitude toward working people and the neoliberal gang in charge right now. The FSLN acted as it did because it had no alternative; the US backed government and its maquila bourgeoisie act as it does because it is sees workers as mules to generate superprofits.

Despite the best efforts of the FSLN to make itself acceptable to US imperialism, its hallowed past still condemns it. When Daniel Ortega ran for president of Nicaragua in 2001 on a tepid social democratic program, Jeb Bush wrote an attack in the Miami Herald. Ortega supposedly “neither understands nor embraces the basic concepts of freedom, democracy and free enterprise”. He added: “Daniel Ortega is an enemy of everything the United States represents. Further, he is a friend of our enemies. Ortega has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism.” The article was immediately reprinted in La Prensa under the headline “The brother of the president of the United States supports Enrique Bolanos” by Ortega’s rivals in the Liberal party. Both the Liberal Party and La Prensa enjoyed CIA funding in the 1980s. One presumes that this is still the case.

If the nightmare of maquiladoras and declining economic expectations is to be reversed, it will come as a result of more favorable objective circumstances in Latin America and Central America generally. With the rise of Hugo Chavez and the continuing resilience of the Colombian guerrillas, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.


Burning Country

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

On February 27th of this year, an article by scholar and journalist Idrees Ahmad titled “Aleppo is our Guernica — and some are cheering on the Luftwaffe,” a timely analogy with the Spanish Civil War. Continuing with that analogy, we can say that we now have the counterpart of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s Burning Country, a work that gives a voice to the Syrian revolutionaries who are the political and moral descendants of the brigades that took up arms against Franco in the name of democracy and social justice. Unfortunately, the type of solidarity that the left offered to Spain’s freedom fighters 80 years ago is sorely missing today, a result of much of the left seeing revolutionary Syrians as jihadist stereotypes refracted through an Orientalist lens rather than as flesh-and-blood human beings.

full: http://newpol.org/content/lefts-failure-syria

April 12, 2016


Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Below is an excerpt from the first article collected by editors Jules Alford and Andrew Wilson in the newly published “Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution”. Titled “Socialism and the Democratic Wager”, this 41 page article by Assad an-Nar deserves to be published separately as a pamphlet since it takes head on (and most eloquently so) the issues that have divided the left for the past five years.

In addition to that article, there are others by people who have been writing in support of the Syrian revolution for the past five years, including me. The table of contents and excerpts from the book can be read here: http://ammarxists.org/khiyana/

I should mention that the word Khiyana is Arabic for treason, a word that resonates with the title of my article “Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria” that begins with a reference to Julian Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs, or “Treason of the Intellectuals”.

The book cost $15 and can be ordered from Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Khiyana-Daesh-Unmaking-Syrian-Revolution/dp/0992650968) but I also invite you to buy a copy from me. Not only won’t I charge sales tax but the proceeds will go to Syrian Solidarity groups rather than a scumbag like Jeff Bezos. Drop me a line with your particulars at lnp3@panix.com and I will give you the Paypal information.

      * * * *

The anti-Stalinist left should be used to the fact that large sections of the left are susceptible to Stalinist illusions. A crucial issue is how a lack of confidence among people in their own ability to unite in struggle has intersected with Stalinism’s alarming ability to reinvent itself since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Though the Soviet Union disappeared, the ideological illusions it created have clung on. Marx long ago observed that if you wished to abolish religion you would also have to abolish the material conditions that gave rise to religious illusions. The material conditions that generate the need for people to look for substitutes for their agency—distress and oppression on the one hand, married to feeling relatively powerless, on the other—all of that continues to exist in late capitalism both because of, and despite the miscarriage of concrete utopia.

Instead of genuine internationalism we have the dominance reverse ersatz internationalism, where swathes of the left dream of a new edition of the Congress of Vienna, but with Vladimir Putin leading proceedings along with who else one may ask? Perhaps Marie Le Pen? General Sisi? Those who rule in Tehran and currently lock up and kill trade unionists? Or someone who knows how to deal with troublesome Muslims as Putin did he second Chechen war, over a decade before lending Assad his aid and experience in laying waste to whole towns and cities? To pose the question is to reveal how reactionary the answer is.

The dangers of campism are ever-present, and so the temptations or dangers of reverse-campism, can unwittingly lead sections of the left into their own specific campist positions. This problem reflects the complexity of contemporary late capitalism. There is no immunity to a dilemma arising from real contradictions, and which demands of the left respect for the complexity of the world as the prerequisite of analysis. For example it is understandable that supporters of the Syrian revolution will support any robber or bandit who is willing to help protect them from genocide. We understand that the interests of the robber or the bandit do not coincide with the revolution. If they did there would be absolutely no risk or price to be paid for accepting their aid. As the situation is, the problems of the revolution dictate that you would probably be a fool not to accept the aid offered despite the risks: we are discussing a real revolution no matter what the charlatans on the left say. Nevertheless we also see supporters of the Kurds appeal to the same logic—a logic that has partly led to, and reinforced the fragmentation of the left today. It is a difficulty that admits of no easy answers but again suggests scrupulous analysis of the geopolitical situation without succumbing to the merely geopolitical is a bare minimum for left politics. For example the support of any news source that challenges Russia or Iran but may perhaps be inflected by seemingly modest anti-Shia sectarianism can affect those who lose their critical faculties and hatch into something darker, say, uncritical support for Saudi foreign policy in the region.

In the case of the Syrian revolution, campism’s logical development is the complete denial of the agency of the revolutionary sections of Syrian society. The dominance of the ‘proxy war’ narrative and the idea that ‘the Saudi’s’ (or ‘Qatari’s’ or whoever) are behind everything, has flourished on the left like a stubborn Syria prejudice. But leftists and socialists should be very careful using the term ‘proxy war’. To begin with it is a term used by those who favour stability over revolution. It is the ‘view from the top’, originating in policy circles, right wing or liberal think tanks, elite universities and so on before migrating to the pages of the ‘serious° bourgeois broadsheets and employed to obscure the domestic social and political struggles of the region and opponents of the revolution outside the region. It is associated with the reduction of revolutions across the MENA to the interests of lesser and greater powers, the competing hierarchy of nation states, as well as bolstering the conspiracy theories of existing states like; for example, the absurd charge that Morsi’s ascendancy was part of a Qatari plot against the Egyptian nation. Have various powers tried to intervene in the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary war in Syria? Yes. Does this mean the struggle in Syria can be reduced to a ‘proxy war’? Emphatically not. Very simply to believe the struggle in Syria is reducible: to a ‘proxy war’ is to view the events of the last five years upside down. The wider jostling of states like Iran and Saudi Arabia is real enough but the Syrian struggle cannot be reduced to this deadly sub-imperialist conflict.

The idea that revolutions in this situation cease to exist and become instead ‘proxy wars’ reflects the same ‘view from the top’ that regards the masses as more or less useful pawns mobilised in the cause of someone else’s struggle. As a fundamentally elitist idea it obscures analysis in an expedient, conservative fashion and turns aside from the real complexity and tragedy embodied by real struggles. Geopolitics should be understood in terms of revolutions and social conflict, not the other way around. The fact that Marxists have largely not had a coherent analysis of these vast and tragic social upheavals does not justify turning away from these events in the hope that something better than reality will turn up to vindicate our theories. Such a ‘guide’ to life, such theory deserves to die horribly. Revolutions do not cease to be social upheavals simply because they do not subscribe to theoretical schemes concocted a century ago. Theory that does not illuminate beyond the bewitched circle is not worth a candle. The absorption of the language of Realism and the view from Mount Olympus is not a sign of the sophistication of today’s socialists but a symptom of their decrepitude.


How the LA Times reported on UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson in 1939

Filed under: racism,sports — louisproyect @ 1:29 am

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.25.16 PM

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.25.38 PM

(Hat tip to Ken Burns documentary that started this evening on PBS.)

April 10, 2016

The films of Steven Soderbergh

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Steven Soderbergh

Perhaps no other director epitomizes the tension between art and commerce than Steven Soderbergh who retired recently after twenty-four years of filmmaking. In a widely discussed farewell address to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in April, Soderbergh identified some of the tendencies that had finally convinced him to retire, mostly focused on the difference between “movies” (commerce-driven) and “cinema” (art-driven). Apparently, the possibilities of making “cinema” (think in terms of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa et al) are constrained now more than ever. When Soderbergh refers to baseball below, there is a certain irony since his geeky image belies his proficiency as a baseball player when young, good enough to consider becoming a pro until he learned that he was not that good. When he took an alternative professional route, cinema was the beneficiary.

When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience I thought was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball – but with another thrown baseball. That’s why I’m spending so much time talking to you about the business and the money, because this is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies. I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird, and I can feel the thing. I can tell: It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, “Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?” But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.

Those “scary” and “weird” ideas that put off audiences accustomed to the usual juvenilia can be found in “Side Effects”, his last film targeted for theatrical release (his Liberace biopic for HBO came after it.) Like most Netflix subscribers, I am always on the lookout for new releases that merit more than three stars. When I noticed that “Side Effects” garnered 4.3 stars, my interested piqued. And when I discovered that Soderbergh directed it, the deal was closed. The Soderbergh brand was a guarantee that the film was worth watching, whether or not it died at the box office.

Soderbergh told the San Francisco gathering that the marketing might have been wrong: “There was a very active decision early on to sell the movie as kind of a pure thriller and kind of disconnect it from this larger social issue of everybody taking pills.” In fact it was both a Hitchcockian thriller with overtones of “Vertigo” as well as a commentary on the widespread use of antidepressants, with each intertwined strand dramatized powerfully. One can easily imagine the late Alexander Cockburn finding much to admire in the film given his take on such substances in the April 2nd 2005 CounterPunch:

As Prozac came off Lilly’s research bench and headed for the mass production line psychiatrists labored to formulate a multitude of bogus pathologies to be installed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, whose chief editor in the 1980s was Robert Spitzer MD, an orgone box veteran and adept copywriter skilled at minting new ailments for late twentieth-century America and sanctioning treatment, medication, state funding for the requisite pills (no expensive consultative therapy) and reimbursement by insurance companies.

Rooney Mara plays a chronically depressed female patient who begins using a new medication prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law). The drugs have a side effect—some patients experience sleepwalking. When her husband arrives home at three in the morning, he spots her dicing carrots in the kitchen as if in a trance. When he tries to gently wake her from an obvious sleepwalking bout, she plunges the knife into his midsection repeatedly until he is dead.

When the media blames her psychiatrist for prescribing an insufficiently tested drug, a scandal deep enough to jeopardize his career, he launches an investigation that will remind you of Jimmy Stewart trying to get to the bottom of Kim Novak’s mysterious suicide. It is top-flight cinema from beginning to end.

With an amazing variety of genres directed by Soderbergh over the years, ranging from low budget and almost experimental films like “Bubble” to the expensive and mindlessly entertaining Danny Oceans movies designed to make money, it is a challenge to define the typical Soderbergh work. In preparing this article, I watched Soderbergh’s very first film “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” upon which his early success rested. Despite the fact that there were no mysterious homicides in the film, it shared with his latest the theme of couples failing to communicate. There are more dysfunctional couples in the Soderbergh library than any other filmmaker I can think of, excepting Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. A writing instructor at NYU once told me that there are only ten plots in all of literature (including screenplays) with, for example, the same road story found in “Huckleberry Finn” as well as “On the Road”. Soderbergh, who experienced a brutal divorce in 1994, obviously feels an affinity with the “bad marriage” story that can be found in its initial incarnation in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve as well his last film made for TV, the Liberace/Scott Thorson saga.

After “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, Soderbergh made a series of indie type films that died at the box office and left him questioning their artistic merit as well. This led to a personal and artistic crisis that focused his mind on the movie/cinema dichotomy. In his indispensable “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”, Peter Biskind reports that when Soderbergh decided to make “Out of Sight”, a film based on an Elmore Leonard novel reminiscent of Tarantino (of course, Tarantino will just as easily remind you of Elmore Leonard), it was after concluding that his indie films were too “cold” and “cerebral”. He told Biskind: “My apprenticeship is over, and if I’m going to become something other than an art house director, it’s time to step up.”

While “Out of Sight” was a box office success, it was merely a prelude to “Erin Brokovich” and “Traffic”, smash hits that catapulted Soderbergh into the Hollywood elite; he became a bankable director who was the counterpart of the actors who became part of Soderbergh’s repertory company, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Matt Damon.

This is probably not where Soderbergh expected to end up when he was a teenager in love with art film. In a revealing interview titled “Toward a Universal Cinema” that appeared in the September 2010 World Policy Journal, the director described his original inspirations:

I was attending this laboratory school on the Louisiana State University campus and had access to a lot of films that under ordinary circumstances I never would have been exposed to. I was hanging out with these college film students and seeing movies from all over the world, in addition to classic American films. Watching “8 1/2,” or “Blowup,” or “High and Low” at 14 and 15 is a really extraordinary experience. They imprint you in a way that’s unique, you’re such a sponge at that age.

This would explain his affinity for cinema as opposed to movies, but he was never a film snob. He explained:

I think it resulted in my work having this funny combination of both aesthetics—there’s a very American desire to entertain and to tell a story, but there’s also a very European approach to style and character that is obviously influenced by those early experiences.

One cannot be sure that story-telling is uniquely “American” when considering a film like “High and Low”, but at least we can agree that Soderbergh has successfully balanced a career in movies as well as cinema, sometimes combining the two in a work like “Traffic”, sometimes going for the uncompromising independent cinematic vision of a film like “Che”, and sometimes cooking up a fun-filled money-maker like “Oceans 11”. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Soderbergh never appeared to be competing for auteur status. For most of his career, he has simply sought to make well crafted, entertaining films of the sort that Hollywood once cranked out with regularity. With his self-effacing personality and his general aversion to venues like David Letterman’s sofa, Soderbergh is the consummate professional putting all his energy into filmmaking rather than cultivating entourages or inspiring articles in People magazine.

Biskind surmises that Soderbergh identifies with Sidney Pollack based on a remark made on a panel at the 1997 Hamptons Film Festival: “I want to know who’s gonna be the next Sidney Pollack”. Rather than reading Soderbergh’s mind, it might make sense to connect him with Richard Lester since he wrote a book titled “Getting Away With It” in 1999 that is made up primarily of interviews with the director of “A Hard Day’s Night” and many other mainstream films, such as “Superman II”.

Lester is a very witty interviewee but the book is also a must-read based on Soderbergh’s own off-kilter remarks. His introduction is both brief and hilarious:

Brief desultory discussion of forthcoming manuscript’s inception, purpose and potential audience. Self-deprecating remark. Amusing anecdote with slightly serious undertone. Awesome display of ego disguised as humility; joke about same. Transparently hollow thanks to contributors and collaborators.

There are also some priceless entries from the director’s diary:

Monday, 25 March 1996. Baton Rouge/Paris

On the plane. Hard to believe it was almost a year ago to the day we began shooting Schizopolis. Across from me is a couple that I’m assuming must be Famous, because they look the they must be Famous, I’m not sure how to explain that – it’s just an energy or something. The woman very tall and striking, and the man is taller still and sporting a short bleached-blond haircut. They are dressed in really great clothes and appear to be very much in love and I’ve decided that I hate them.

One of the benefits of making box office smashes like the Danny Ocean films is that they allow you to recycle the big bucks into cinema rather than movies. Soderbergh and Clooney formed Section Eight productions in order to fund films that the studio establishment ignored and to avoid the bullheaded cuts often required by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. They saw Section Eight as a compromise between cinema and movies. From Biskind we learn that Clooney saw it this way: “Why can’t we do the aesthetic that came from [the ‘70s]? We just try to push an indie sensibility within the Hollywood mainstream.”

One of the projects they took on was Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven”, a profound examination of race and class that was inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s films”. It starred Julianne Moore as the wife of a closeted gay executive who begins spending too much time with the handsome African-American son of their former gardener. The only problem was that Haynes had already spoken to Harvey Weinstein who assumed that he had a lock on the film.

When Weinstein learned that another studio was making the film with Soderbergh as executive producer, he phoned Haynes to bawl him out: “WHAT? YOU FUCKIN’ MADE YOUR DECISION? You fuck, you didn’t fuckin’ give me a chance to fuckin’ talk to you?”

Although Miramax was responsible for distributing “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, the Weinsteins began to view Soderbergh as a lost cause after it was followed by a string of commercial and critical flops, from “Kafka” to “Schizopolis”. When he showed up at the Miramax party after the 1997 Academy Awards on the invitation of Anthony Minghella, the director of “The English Patient” that had garnered a fistful of Oscars, he was denied entrance to the VIP section, where he spotted Minghella through a glass partition. Inside a big-screen TV played excerpts from Miramax’s biggest hits, including “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes”.

The only mystery is why Steven Soderbergh stuck around Hollywood for as long as he did. Perhaps this excerpt from his farewell speech says it best:

But before we talk about movies we should talk about art in general, if that’s possible. Given all the incredible suffering in the world I wonder, what is art for, really? If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide then really, what is it for? Shouldn’t we be spending the time and resources alleviating suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and plays and art installations? When we did Ocean’s Thirteen the casino set used $60,000 of electricity every week. How do you justify that? Do you justify that by saying, the people who could’ve had that electricity are going to watch the movie for two hours and be entertained – except they probably can’t, because they don’t have any electricity, because we used it. Then I think, what about all the resources spent on all the pieces of entertainment? What about the carbon footprint of getting me here? Then I think, why are you even thinking that way and worrying about how many miles per gallon my car gets, when we have NASCAR, and monster truck pulls on TV? So what I finally decided was, art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.