Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 5, 2016

Lessons to be drawn from the ISIS suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Jihadists,Saudi Arabia — louisproyect @ 3:55 pm

Although ISIS has not taken credit for the suicide bombings in three Saudi cities yesterday, there is little doubt that it was responsible. The targeting of the Prophet’s Mosque in the city of Medina might undermine allegations of an ISIS connection since it is considered the second holiest site for Muslims but only if you have not been following Saudi history for the past several decades. In fact, one of the biggest assaults on the Saudi state prior to this took place in late 1979 when jihadists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the religion’s most holy site. Like ISIS, the heavily armed intruders considered the royal family to be apostates.

After the 1979 rebellion was drowned in blood, a new one began to take shape in the early 2000s around the same grievances, namely that the royal family was a tool of the West. In May 2003 bombs went off at three compounds in Riyadh frequented mostly by Westerners that resulted in 39 deaths and 160 wounded. Among the perpetrators identified by Saudi security forces was Khalid al-Juhani, a Saudi member of al-Qaeda who had promised retaliation for the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A year later jihadists mounted a suicide car bomb attack on the Saudi Interior Ministry and the Special Emergency Force training center. Although a draconian crackdown in 2005 tended to decrease the number of attacks, there has been a recent upsurge connected to the rise of ISIS as the NY Times reported on March 31 this year:

The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

Despite an abundance of evidence that both al-Qaeda and ISIS were mortal enemies of the Saudi Arabian theocracy and that the July 4th attacks were consistent with a pattern going back 35 years, there is little doubt that the Baathist left will continue to believe that such groups are proxy forces directed by the Saudi state like pawns on a chessboard.

If you Google “Saudi Arabia, proxy, ISIS” you will end up with 436,000 results. In first place is an article titled “Saudi Arabia Admits to John Kerry that it Created ISIS” that appeared on Zero Hedge, a conspiracist website with both feet planted in the Putin/Assad camp. A runner up in third place is Jennifer Lowenstein’s CounterPunch article that claims “Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. knowingly aided the rise of ISIS.” You can also find the ubiquitous Charles Glass telling Intercept readers that “To Stop ISIS, Outside Powers Must End Their Proxy Wars in Syria”. While I can go on forever, let me cite one more “expert”. Daniel Lazare, who is capable of trenchant analysis except when it comes to Syria, wrote a piece for the arch-Baathist Consortium News titled “The Saudi Connection to Terror”. Do you think he bothered to cite any of the hundreds of articles about how the Saudi state was on the jihadi shit-list for over three decades? Nah.

In “Khiyana”, a collection of articles that I contributed to, you can read Sam Charles Hamad’s “The Rise of Daesh in Syria—some Inconvenient Truths”, which effectively debunks the claim that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State.

As opposed to most on the left who sling around terms like Salafist or Wahhabist interchangeably, Hamad takes considerable trouble to root them in the region’s history with the sort of erudition that is necessary to separate fact from fiction. To start with, Wahhabism is a current within Salafi Islam, a revivalist movement that sought to ground worship in the beliefs and practices of first generation Muslims, the as-Salafiyyah (pious forefathers). Mohammad al-Wahhab was an 18th century cleric who allied with the Al-Saud clan that eventually created the forerunner of the modern Saudi state. Warlike from the beginning, it attacked the Shia and Sufi sects as kuffar (unbelievers). So far this sounds just like ISIS, right?

Only if you do not understand that for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Saudi royal family is kuffar as well. That should be obvious at the outset from his belief that he is the new Khalifa, or steward of the Caliphate. The goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic state that honors no national boundaries. As such all states in the Middle East have to be subsumed under its authority, including Saudi Arabia. Muslims will belong to the new Caliphate, not any particular state nor take orders from the government that rules it. In a word, it is anti-national.

In November 2014 al-Baghdadi recorded an audio message declaring his intention to liberate the Saudi people from the Saloul, a derogatory name for the ruling family. Daesh threatened to invade Saudi Arabia from its redoubt in Anbar province. The Saudis placed sufficient weight in this threat to construct a 600-mile wall of the sort that Donald Trump could only admire. Like Trump, the Saudi royal family was deathly afraid of Islamic extremists. Unlike Trump, the Saudi fear was rooted in reality.

Despite Saudi efforts to thwart Daesh, the group has launched guerrilla attacks along the border with Iraq near the city of Arar that involved suicide bombers. But the more serious threat comes from Saudi citizens who have joined Daesh. The attacks are directed against Shia worshippers with the hope of sparking a sectarian war such as the kind that has been tearing apart Iraq and Syria.

Even more contrary to the dominant “anti-imperialist” narrative on Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have supported groups in Syria that have no connection to either ISIS or al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. Specifically, when Daesh and the FSA had a pitched battle in Deraa province, the FSA used weaponry supplied by the Saudis.

Now these hard facts will have no influence whatsoever on the people writing for Salon, LRB, ZNet, CounterPunch, Consortium News, and dozens of other lesser-known blogs and zines. We have reached the point where the truth hardly matters. In Orwell’s “1984”, the world was divided into three superstates which demanded total fealty. We are living in a world today in which there is a wrinkle on Orwell’s narrative. For some, the fealty is not to the motherland but to the one your superstate opposes. You have the same kind of fierce devotion to the “axis of resistance” that Rush Limbaugh listeners once gave to George W. Bush. It is the classic case of putting a plus where the State Department puts a minus. As Trotsky put it in “Learn to Think”:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.


July 4, 2016

New York Asian Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Although the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival began on June 22nd, competing demands on my time prevented me from seeing the five screeners reviewed below until now. All are being shown starting tomorrow until July 9th, the final day of the festival. Averse as I am to film reviewing hyperbole, I can state that they are among the best narrative films I have seen this year and would be of the utmost interest to New Yorkers who tend to have confidence in my recommendations.

Inside Men; A Violent Prosecutor

These two Korean films share almost identical plots and political concerns. If you have been following my reviews of Korean films over the years, you will probably be aware that I consider the Korean film industry as a source of some of the best work being done in the world today. While made largely as pop culture influenced by Hong Kong cinema of the 70s and 80s, they have often penetrated the Deep State that rests on the four legs of anti-Communism, out-of-control Chaebols, corrupt politicians and organized crime. In other words, Korean films are one of the main sources of a badly needed critique of the country’s rotten capitalist “success” story. Koreans who see such fictional films certainly understand that they are ultimately pointing to the grim reality of a system in which 304 people died on April 16, 2014 because a ferry was allowed to operate in a deregulated system. They were victims of a conspiracy to gamble with the lives of high school students on a field trip for the sake of a fast buck.

Inside Men”, which shows tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:30PM is the highest-grossing R-Rated film in South Korean history. It certainly earned the R rating from the orgies that appear throughout the film involving Chaebol executives, politicians, media moguls that make Rupert Murdoch look angelic by comparison and top officials of the country’s prosecutor’s department—their Department of Justice.

Like Elliot Ness, the incorruptible prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon (Jo Seung-woo) is determined to prove that the men who gather regularly at a power broker’s mansion to compare dick sizes around a banquet table in the company of prostitutes are deeply implicated in a bribery scheme that has corrupted his colleagues and funneled money to a political campaign whose program favors the interests of the chaebol class rather than the country’s 99 percent.

The title refers to Woo’s partnership with a gangster named An Sang-gu (Byung-hun Lee) who worked for the cabal to cover up evidence of the cash flow between the corporate crooks and the state apparatus, including the prosecutor’s department. When he absconds with a copy of bank records that would prove the connection, mostly as way of playing one side against the other if the need ever arose, the chaebol’s hired thugs abduct him, take him to a warehouse and chop off his right hand. As an inside man with intimate knowledge of their criminal activities, An Sang-gu is just the person who could testify in court against them and bring their empire crashing down. But he has no interest in justice, only revenge. The loss of his hand has made him hunger for getting even, a theme pervasive in Korean film for a number of years now, including Park Chan-wook’s Revenge trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.)

For the first third of the film, the plot has a somewhat byzantine character as the criminal enterprise is shown in sordid detail even as it becomes somewhat difficult to keep track of the players. When the chaebol tops realize that An Sang-gu is plotting against them, they send a crew out to kill him. Even with his useless right hand, he skillfully fends them off until he is finally lying semiconscious on the ground with the head hitman advancing upon him with a brick. As the brick is about to come smashing down on his skull, prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon comes to the rescue by smashing a bottle over the hitman’s head in the nick of time. For those fond of Asian combat choreography, this is a scene that will leave you breathless. It is also a scene that brings the two protagonists together for the first time—one searching for justice, the other revenge—and makes for a partnership that begins in acrimony and ends on a triumphant note. It is a brilliant film from beginning to end and worth putting on your calendar even if I bring news to you about it late in the game.

In “A Violent Prosecutor”, you get the same constellation of forces except in this film the prosecutor has ended up in prison when he gets too close to proving the same kind of sordid connections between the corporate bosses and the Deep State.

The film begins with environmentalists protesting against the Trump-styled construction of a hotel in the middle of a bird sanctuary. The developers send several van loads of common criminals who wear the same distinctive yellow vests as the protestors but are instructed to attack the cops at the construction site with steel rods. Like the agent provocateurs adopting the guise of anarchists in a number protests in the USA, the goal was to make the environmentalists look like out-of-control criminals.

When prosecutor Jeong-min Hwang (Byun Jae-wook) interrogates one of the agent provocateurs who has been arrested for assaulting a cop, he realizes immediately that the man knows about as much about wildlife preservation as he does about microbiology. After ordering him to strip to the waist, he derides him for pretending he is something other than a common criminal. His massive Yakuza-style tattoos are proof positive. When the man continues to deny that he is working for the developers, Jeong-min Hwang begins slapping him around in the fashion alluded to in the film’s title. Later that night when he steps out for a break, a prosecutor in cahoots with the developers comes into the interrogation room and kills the man. The next day Jeong-min Hwang is framed for the murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

As fate would have it, a con man who was part of the fake environmentalist assault on the cops ends up in the same prison. As the proverbial jailhouse lawyer, Jeong-min Hwang sees an opportunity. He will provide legal advice that will get Han Chi-won (Dong-won Kang) out of prison early in exchange for the con man becoming his inside man gathering evidence on the prosecutors who betrayed him and the corporate thugs who are destroying the country.

Like the partnership between the two lead actors in “Inside Men”, the violent prosecutor and the con man make for stirring dramatic interaction and make this film memorable. It can be seen at the School of Visual Arts movie theater at 6:15 on July 8, Friday night.


Mr. Six

The eponymous hero of this Chinese film is an aging reformed ex-mobster who is a mayor ex officio in a poor neighborhood in Beijing. While retaining both the glowering visage of his mobster youth and resorting occasionally to violence only when absolutely necessary, Mr. Six is mostly content to hang out on the street chatting with his neighbors and keeping an eye out for wrong-doers.

His relative serenity is interrupted when learns that his twenty-year old son Bobby is being held captive in the luxury car garage owned and operated by a platinum-haired punk named Kris whose Ferrari has been scratched intentionally by Mr. Six’s son in retaliation for a beating he received from Kris’s henchmen after being falsely accused of sleeping with his girlfriend.

Mr. Six is told by Kris that unless he comes up with a small fortune to pay for a new paint job in three days, his son will be killed. Forced to rely on his limited financial resources, he approaches old friends from his mobster youth who have become respectable businessmen and as a hedge will contact the same people to join him in a gang war with his son’s much younger captors.

Despite expectations that the film will be strictly a genre affair with flashing fists and lunging swords in abundance, it is much more about a father and son relationship with Mr. Six being forced to emerge out his mobster shell that he has been carrying around for much too long to finally bond with a son who has always felt abandoned—up until now. Mr. Six is played by veteran actor, screenwriter and director Feng Xiaogang who is one of China’s major talents. Born in 1958, he is a powerful presence in every scene and fully believable as the film’s key character. “Mr. Six” shows Thursday, 8:30PM at the School of Visual Arts.

Saving Mr. Wu

Based on the real-life abduction of celebrated Chinese TV actor Wu Ruofu, this is a taut policier that pits the cops against a gang of kidnappers led by the vicious Zhang (Qianyuan Wang). In a perfect casting touch, the actor Wu is played by Andy Lau, who has appeared in 160 films since 1982. Lau, like Feng Xiaogang, is one of the Chinese film industry’s treasures and perfectly suited for a role in which he plays an Andy Lau type character.

Tightly plotted as most films in this genre are, you see a race against time as cops try to track down the kidnapper’s hideout to rescue Mr. Wu and a hapless young man who is being held for ransom there as well. Chained together the two men manage to turn in powerful performances despite being immobile for nearly the entire length of the film. In another casting coup, Wu Ruofu plays the top cop trying to save the actor whose experience was based on his own.

Although Chinese (and more specifically Hong Kong) policiers have shown the signs of exhaustion in recent years, “Saving Mr. Wu” is a reminder that when the genre is done right, it can be bracing entertainment beyond the capability of a Hollywood that practically invented gangster movies. It can be seen on Saturday, July 9th, 4PM at the School of Visual Arts. Highly, highly recommended.

The Boys Who Cried Wolf

This very Hitchcockian Korean film was the dissertation project of Kim Jin-hwang at the Korean Academy of Film Arts and also the co-recipient of a Directors Guild Award at the 2015 Busan Film Festival.

The youthful failed actor Wan-ju has been forced to make a living as an escort for women and a kind of sidekick to socially awkward men who need help in breaking the ice with the opposite sex. It is only a way to pay the rent and to chip in for his ailing mother’s hospital expenses.

One day he is approached by a middle-aged woman on a free-lance basis to pretend that he is an eyewitness to a murder that took place in his neighborhood. At first put off by the suggestion that he will be paid to provide false witness, he finally relents out of economic desperation—a condition facing many Koreans.

Not long afterwards, he discovers that he has helped to put the wrong man behind bars and becomes committed to tracking down and identifying the real killer no matter how much the risk he faces to life and limb. At 33, director Kim Jin-hwang shows considerable talent in this psychological thriller more intent on exploring conflicted motivations rather than conforming to detective tale conventions. It has the gloomy atmosphere of “Vertigo” but without the sleuthing. It works on its own terms and joins all the other films discussed above as an experience that no American film currently being show in NYC can match. It can be seen Saturday, July 9, 2:15 PM at the School of Visual Arts.


July 2, 2016

What the Tesla autopilot casualty tells us about our ruling class

Filed under: capitalist pig,computers,technology — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

On May 7th a man named Joshua Brown died when his Tesla smacked into a trailer truck that the autopilot system mistook for the sky. Brown was a Navy Seal veteran who had worked in the Special Warfare Development Group, the elite unit that killed Osama Bin-Laden. His specialty was dismantling bombs in Iraq. Little did he realize that he was killed by a bomb that was set to go off the first time its onboard computer system malfunctioned.

Apparently Brown was obsessed with his car and its supposedly miraculous ability to forestall highway accidents. He made many Youtube videos about his passion, including the most recent one that illustrated its uncanny ability to avoid accidents.

The Guardian reported that Brown was watching a Harry Potter video when his Tesla careened into the trailer-truck so we can conclude that magic did not come to his rescue. It described the circumstances of the collision:

According to Tesla’s account of the crash, the car’s sensor system, against a bright spring sky, failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway. In a blogpost, Tesla said the self-driving car attempted to drive full speed under the trailer “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”.

One imagines that Brown must have invested so much in the car and his invincibility because he ran a technology consulting company called Nexu Innovations that was for “Making a Difference in Our Flattening World”. Of course, the concept of a “flattening” world is straight out of the Thomas Friedman playbook. Friedman has been churning out columns on how outsourced tech support help desks in Ghana, etc. would be the answer to the world’s woes and wherever it failed, the Navy Seals could step in and straighten things out.

My immediate reaction to the news of his death was to tell my wife that we should be grateful that Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars, was never implemented. Back in 1983 when I was getting re-politicized around the Central America guerrilla struggles, I also decided to join Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a group that made blocking the implementation of SDI a high priority.

The technology of SDI and the Tesla autopilot system are both based on artificial intelligence, in effect to give computer systems the same capability of a human eye matched to a functioning brain that follows certain pre-established rules. With Tesla, the goal is to avoid collisions. With SDI, the goal was to make them—specifically to smack into and blow to smithereens Soviet missiles that encroached upon American airspace. Reagan’s goal was to provide a nuclear shield that would give the USA a big advantage in a Cold War that might turn hot. Many people, including someone like me who used to take part in “duck and cover” drills in elementary school in the 1950s, were terrified by the notions being put forward by Reagan and his cohorts.

Reagan believed that missiles could be “recalled” as if they were like remote controlled model airplanes. Even more ghastly was the reassurances of Thomas K. Jones, Reagan’s Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, that the USA could recover from a nuclear war with Russia in 2 to 4 years. Jones once said, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”  We were supposed to use the shovels to dig a hole in the ground (can you imagine New Yorkers running to Central Park with the H-Bomb on the way?) that would be covered with a couple of doors and three feet of dirt on top of them. Jones said, “It’s the dirt that does it.”

As it happens, there is a morbid connection between this doomsday scenario and the capitalist who started Tesla. Elon Musk is not the only the manufacturer who is pioneering such cars but he is the only one who pushes the idea that an autopilot system capable of changing lanes now exists in his automobile. For others working in the field such as Volvo, Mercedes and Toyota, they never saw it more than only a technology good for parking assistance.

Mary “Missy” Cummings, a Duke University robotics professor and former military pilot, told the Guardian that Tesla should disable its autopilot system for navigating multilane expressways. “Either fix it or turn it off … The car was in a place where the computer was blind. The computer couldn’t see the environment for what it was.”

In addition to Tesla, Musk is investing in space travel. He is interviewed by Werner Herzog in “Lo and Behold”, a documentary on computers, the Internet and robotics that opens on August 19th. Herzog, who is much more interested in the “gee whiz” personalities of the men he interviews than their political or social ambitions (a point that A.O. Scott made to me that I had not even gathered), was goggle-eyed as Musk spelled out the need for colonizing Mars if “something goes wrong” on Earth.

The company is called SpaceX and it hopes to have its first launch in 2022. In a 2013 interview with the Guardian, the man who made his billions from Paypal stated that he was inspired to shoot for colonizing Mars after reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series whose main character Hari Seldon anticipates the collapse of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way. To save humanity, he creates a think-tank that develops the technology to launch a new galactic empire.

Musk told the Guardian, “It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?”

The answer for Musk is technology.

“The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We’re obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”

In James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, Stephen Dedalus says “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

This is our nightmare, comrades. We have a capitalist class that is planning to colonize Mars in order to escape from the disaster it is now creating on Earth. Musk says he expects his business to be profitable since there will certainly be 80,000 people willing to pay the big bucks to flee a planet that has been consumed by nuclear war, catastrophic Noah’s Ark type flooding because of climate change, epidemics caused by viruses unleashed by the penetration of rain forests, or some other unforeseen disaster.

Musk is not the only capitalist who has “escape” plans. Jeff Bezos, the filthy predator who runs Amazon, is investing in Blue Origin, a space travel company that will not aim at colonizing Mars—a place that Bezos writes off as inhabitable—but instead hopes to launch huge satellites that will orbit around a post-apocalyptic planet Earth. In an interview with the Miami Herald conducted shortly after his high school graduation (he was class valedictorian), he said he wanted to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit. We have no idea what Bezos’s plans are today but one suspected that they are much more in line with Musk’s, to create a sanctuary for 80,000 or so people who share his bourgeois values.

One thing we can be certain about: if people like Bezos inhabited a space station, they’d probably kill each other before the year is up given what they are doing to the planet today.

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