Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 11, 2018

Is China Socialist?

Filed under: China,economics — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

Donald Trump asking Xi Jinping for Karl Marx reading recommendations, especially anything on “spiritual pursuit”

Four days ago Michael Roberts posted an article titled “China workshop: challenging the misconceptions” that raised a number of interesting questions:

What are the reasons for China’s phenomenal growth in the last 40 years and can it last? What is the nature of the Chinese economy: is it capitalist or not? What explains under Xi the new emphasis on studying Marxism in China’s universities? Is China’s export and investment expansion abroad imperialist or not? How will the trade war between the US and China pan out?

The workshop invited Roberts and a number of Chinese economists to speak on these questions, all of whom—including Roberts—denied that China was capitalist. It was sponsored by the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, universally referred to nowadays as SOAS ostensibly because of the stigma attached to a word like Oriental. In the first session, Professor Dic Lo, an economist at SOAS who was the moving force behind this gathering, spoke alongside one Zhu Andong,  who is the Vice Dean at the School of Marxism at Tsinghua University. School of Marxism? Jeez, if I had kids, that’s where I’d want to them to study.

Or maybe not.

Dic Lo chastised people like Martin Hart-Landsberg, Paul Burkett, David Harvey, and Minqi Li for describing China as “neoliberal capitalist”, where growth is based on the “Foxconn” model—you know, the immense factory that turns out electronic parts and that is so oppressive that there was an epidemic of suicides.

For his part, the Vice Dean of the School of Marxism concurred with Dic Lo and offered supporting evidence for the country’s anticapitalist bona fides–the official support for the study of Marxism in Chinese universities like his. Well, only last month Xi Jinping stated that Marxism is “totally correct” for China so who are we to question that? He told all party members at a big gathering celebrating the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to study his writings as a “way of life” and “spiritual pursuit”.

Ironically, the Vice Dean of the School of Marxism had a different take on Minqi Li at one time. In 2005, they co-authored a paper titled “Neoliberalism, Global Imbalances, and Stages of Capitalist Development” that described the U.S. and China as the two main engines of neoliberal growth. Could it be possible that such a paper might have reflected youthful radicalism that has been tamed through the inevitable process of a career path in the Chinese academy, even if the top roosts are emblazoned with the image of Karl Marx?

Dic Lo got in the face of those ultra-leftists like Martin Hart-Landsberg, throwing down the gauntlet:

All the talk from the left, said Lo, was about political repression, labour exploitation, inequality or Chinese ‘imperialism’. But then how to explain China’s phenomenal growth and success in taking over 850m people out of poverty (as defined by the World Bank) and reaching national output second only to the US. China doubles real living standards every 13 years. It now takes the US and Europe 50 years and Japan even longer. Is this just fake or illusory and if not, how can this ‘capitalist’ and ‘imperialist’ economy have bucked the trend, when the record of all other capitalist economies (advanced or ‘emerging’) can show no such success? “How can it be possible, in our times, for a late-developing nation to move up the world political-economic hierarchy to become imperialist? Can anyone on the left answer this question?”

Probably without realizing it, Lo answered his own question by asking us to “explain China’s phenomenal growth and success in taking over 850m people out of poverty.” It should be obvious that this phenomenal growth comes from the massive capitalist development along the southeastern coast in cities like Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). By opening up such cities to foreign investment and drawing in people from the countryside through land privatization, the country became a showcase for capitalist modernization.

In fact, the country that was a counter-revolutionary dagger aimed at China enjoyed the same kind of “take-off”. I speak of Taiwan that was home to Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT that dreamt of overthrowing communism on the mainland. This chart should give you an idea of how dramatic the poverty reduction was.

It appeared in an article titled “Openness, Growth and Poverty: The Case of Taiwan” that appeared in the 2007 World Development journal. It makes one wonder whether, despite all the hostility between Taiwan and the mainland, that perhaps Deng Xiaoping consciously emulated its success. The article states:

Like many developing countries, poverty was widespread in Taiwan during the early postwar years. After the government decisively reoriented its development strategy from import substitution toward export promotion at the end of the 1950s, the exceptional economic growth has not only brought with it the well-known record of income distribution, but has also resulted in rapid poverty reduction. What Taiwan has experienced in the past four decades suggests that there is a close link between openness, economic growth and poverty reduction, and thus constitutes an ideal case for a country-specific study …

But does rapid capitalist growth, even when combined with generous social services as is the case in both China and Taiwan, serve as a benchmark for progress toward socialism? In China, there is lots of personal freedom. Unlike Iran, nobody gives a crap what clothes you wear or whether you walk down the street like a drunken sailor on shore leave. But like Iran, China will brook no challenge to the ruling party, which is closely tied to what Bernie Sanders calls the “billionaire class”. If workers want to press for higher wages and a relaxation of the killing pace at Foxconn, what happens? I recommend China Labor Bulletin to keep track of these encounters, especially the article titled “Swimming against the Tide: A short history of labour conflict in China and the government’s attempts to control it.” Among the findings:

Another report in 2009 by Hong Kong activist group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) showed that the 6,000 employees of the Tianyu Toy Company in Dongguan typically worked three hours overtime each day. During peak production times they worked four hours overtime a day and some workers complained they sometimes had to work through the night, with the longest continuous shift lasting 28 hours. Worse still, if the shift went past 9:30 pm, the company refused to pay overtime. And if employees refused to do overtime, they were fined 50 yuan. To prevent workers from walking out, the company held back a month and a half’s wages and, if workers resigned without their manager’s approval, they would lose one month’s wages.

Naturally, this kind of super-exploitation produces investment capital that can continue to build new factories that act as a magnet for the rural poor. When a peasant who earns about $100 per year loses his land due to modern day primitive accumulation, he could get a job at Tianyu Toy Company making $100 per month. Is this dramatic increase in wealth a step on the road to socialism?

Dic Lo’s articles are mostly written in non-Marxist journals and are meant to refute his neoliberal adversaries, who—compared to him—would accelerate the economic practices so that they would be line with those that prevail in India or Russia today. Basically, he is arguing from the standpoint of what used to be called a “mixed economy”.

You have to go back to Historical Materialism in 2001 for the one article he submitted to a Marxist journal, in this instance a special issue on the Asian financial crisis that began in Thailand in 1997. You can find an article in the same issue by the notorious ultra-leftist Paul Burkett titled “Crisis and Recovery in East Asia: The Limits of Capitalist Development”.

Lo’s article is titled “China After East Asian Developmentalism” and is much less technical that those written by him for a-list economics journals. In contrast to the smoking rubble of Thailand, Indonesia et al, China was barely impacted in the early 2000s. While he acknowledges that China shared some of the same “marketization” features as the Asian Tigers, it was protected from the financial superstorm by policies unique to China. Neither, however, have much to do with socialism.

The first was plain vanilla Keynsianism:

The East Asian financial and economic crisis, in conjunction with the steadily slowing down of economic growth in the domestic front, prompted the Chinese state leadership to adopt four major categories of anti-crisis policies from early 1998. The first was a range of welfare-state policies, which included raising the benefits for the retired and the unemployed, raising the pay of public-sector employees, and lengthening the paid holidays of workers. All these were aimed at reversing the trend of stagnant consumption expansion. The second category encompassed several Keynesian-type fiscal packages for expanding investment demand. These packages were financed by debt issuing on unprecedented scales. The third category encompassed policy measures to revitalise the state sector.

The revitalized state sector was embodied in the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) that for Michael Roberts, Dic Lo and all the other speakers at the SOAS workshop see as constituting the all-important socialist sector.

Let’s take a look at one of these socialistic SOE’s, the Anbang Insurance Group that attracted a lot of publicity this year for its bid to invest millions of dollars in a building owned by Jared Kushner. The largest shareholders are state-owned car maker Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp and Sinopec, a state-owned oil company Sinopec.

Of course, trying to figure out who exactly “owns” Anbang is not easy. Like many huge Chinese firms, they make discovery difficult as an American trade union found out when pressing charges against it for unfair labor practices as the Times reported in September 2016.

The Anbang shareholders in the Pingyang County area hold their stakes through a byzantine collection of holding companies. But according to dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of Anbang filings by The New York Times, many of them have something in common: They are family members and acquaintances of Wu Xiaohui, Anbang’s chairman, a native of the county who married into the family of Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader in the 1980s and ’90s.

You remember who Deng Xiaoping was, right? He was Mao Zedong’s successor who took “the capitalist road” in the first place. I guess his friends and relatives were quite happy with the NEP-type reforms since it put them in the position of buying the Waldorf Astoria and coming close to bailing out Trump’s son-in-law who will hopefully be arrested this week.

As should be obvious at this point, “state ownership” is a convenient fiction in China, especially since anybody can buy shares in such companies, including Western investors. For example, Roberts is impressed with the fact that the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp has begun to incorporate Western technologies, However, it is traded publicly on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, as is the case with the largest Chinese SOE’s, and thus no different from any other capitalist firm. In the final analysis, it is the class character of those who own the means of production that determines their social role. While the number of shares available to outside investors has been relatively small, “reforms” enacted in 2015 to transform SOE’s into mixed enterprises will likely increase their numbers as indicated by the transformation of the second largest mobile carrier.

Unlike China today, Soviet Russia never had a stock exchange. The children of Soviet bureaucrats could never look forward to inheriting their daddy’s holdings like Donald Trump did from his father. That is true state ownership.

Although ownership data is difficult to come by, you can read an article co-authored by Curtis J. Milhaupt and Wentong Zheng titled “Beyond Ownership: State Capitalism and the Chinese Firm” on the Columbia University Law School website. It hones in on Ping An, another insurance company. The largest block of shares is owned by HSBC Ltd., a multinational bank that originated in Hong Kong even though most shares are owned by other SOE’s. In 2016, Mexican families sued the bank for money-laundering the drug proceeds of the Sinaloa Cartel that had killed members of their families, just the sort of outfit you’d want to help overcome the law of value, as Roberts put it.

Milhaupt and Zheng refer to the “blurred boundaries” between private and state-owned firms in China, as I have tried to establish. To get an idea of how tangled things can get, this is how they describe ZTE, China’s second-largest telecom:

According to the website of ZTE Holdings, it is one of the “national key SOEs” designated by the State Council. The third shareholder of ZTE Holdings, Zhongxing WXT (also known as Zhongxingweixiantong), is a private firm owned by a group of individuals, of whom the founder, Hou Weigui, holds the largest percentage (18%). According to the website of ZTE Holdings, it was the first firm in China to adopt a “state owned, privately managed” model in 1993. Under this so-called “ZTE model,” the majority state shareholders contractually authorize the minority private shareholders to assume sole responsibility for managing the firm, subject only to the requirement that the state shareholders be guaranteed a minimum rate of return. Under the ZTE model, therefore, a firm is an SOE from the standpoint of ownership, but a POE [privately owned] from the standpoint of management.

ZTE? Doesn’t that ring a bell?

Trump hammered it with sanctions Trump after it was discovered that they were selling their smartphones to Iran and North Korea. But lately Trump seems to be in a forgiving mood. First it was Jack Johnson, now it is ZTE.

All ZTE had to do was pay a $1 billion fine and let bygones be bygones. Those of good faith might think there was a quid pro quo since the Chinese government approved Ivanka Trump’s application for five trademark applications related to her fashion and homeware business just days before forgiving ZTE.

At the same time, according to Vanity Fair, the theme park developer MNC Lido City has partnered with the Trump Organization to land $500 million in Chinese government loans, with another $500 million from government banks. The Trump Organization will take in almost $3.7 million in licensing and consulting payments from Lido, along with another project in Bali. The company will also earn management fees, and be “eligible for additional unspecified incentives.” You see, this is not graft since Donald Trump turned over the reins of managing the Trump Organization Donny Jr. and Eric, but chose not to divest himself financially from the company.

This is how the capitalist state operates in China and the USA. Even Donald Trump understands that Xi Jinping’s Marxism is a con. After Xi tightened his control of the state in the same fashion as Modi, Erdogan, Assad and all these other scumbags, Trump mused: “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”


June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018): an appreciation

Filed under: food,obituary — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

My wife and I had a special affinity with Anthony Bourdain. He lived just 4 blocks from our building on 91st and 3rd and we used to walk past him on the sidewalk on occasion. As all smart Manhattanites are accustomed to, we never would have dreamed of asking for an autograph, nor even telling him as we were passing by how much we loved his show. Too gauche. Too bridge and tunnel. This article is my way of doing that posthumously.

We watched “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel and then kept up with him when he moved to CNN. Two shows resonated with us deeply. The first was his visit to Istanbul, my wife’s birthplace, and the other was to Cleveland, where he hung out with my friend Harvey Pekar. These two shows epitomized his sensibility. Istanbul is a city with both the kinds of street fare he always sought out as well as one of the world’s great but under-appreciated cuisines. He also had a great time hanging out with Harvey even though Harvey put out a comic strip claiming that he never heard of Bourdain beforehand. Cleveland, like a lot of down-and-out places in the USA he visited (West Virginia, Provincetown), had some really offbeat dining spots that he and Harvey revealed to viewers. That was the basic charm of the show. It was like visiting a city that you’d never get to in your life, identifying with Bourdain’s bemused but affectionate reactions to its peculiarities.

Before sitting down to write this article, I was thinking about ways that you could put him into context. Although I never read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, the book that helped him catapult into a TV career, it sounded like it was inspired by George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”, a book I had read and loved. As I suspected, I found out in the course of doing some research that this was exactly the case. The book grew out of a long essay in the April, 1999 New Yorker titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that made the connection:

A good deal has changed since Orwell’s memoir of the months he spent as a dishwasher in “Down and Out in Paris and London.” Gas ranges and exhaust fans have gone a long way toward increasing the life span of the working culinarian. Nowadays, most aspiring cooks come into the business because they want to: they have chosen this life, studied for it. Today’s top chefs are like star athletes. They bounce from kitchen to kitchen—free agents in search of more money, more acclaim.

In a NY Times “By the Book” interview last year, he was asked what books he was currently reading. One of them was Thomas Ricks’s “Churchill and Orwell.” When asked which three people he would invite to a dinner party, living or dead, he replied William S. Burroughs, Joan Didion and George Orwell. Not that he was someone who was uncritical about a primary influence. When asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?”, he replied (probably referencing Ricks’s book): “Orwell’s fastidiousness about smell is of interest. And to read of his anti-Semitism was dismaying.”

It should be obvious from the above that Bourdain was not the typical chef. I doubt that Mario Batali has read a single book in the last 20 years except something related to his job—or maybe some porn novel that made rape sound worthwile.

His father was part of Columbia Records classical division and his mother was a copy editor at the NY Times. Growing up in such a household would likely expose you to a lot of cultural and intellectual stimuli. He was accepted into Vassar College in 1973 but dropped out after two years. From there he went to the Culinary Institute of America (mischievously referred to as the CIA), where he learned to be a chef.

It occurs to me that a lot of Orwell rubbed off on Bourdain. Yesterday I noticed that Louis Allday, a member of Tim Hayward’s discredited Assadist propaganda machine in England, badmouthed Bourdain for his trip to Libya, where he spent all his time with people who hated and even fought against the dictator. Watch the show and judge for yourself.

This clip will give you an idea of what’s in store:

In fact, in clear contradistinction to Allday, support for Palestinians and for Syrian rebels go hand in hand together. It was likely that, given his admiration for Orwell, Bourdain found occasion to read “Homage to Catalonia”, a book that defended socialism against both Franco and the Stalinists. Essentially, this is the same fight we are involved with today, with people like Allday lying through their teeth to defend Syria’s Franco. At least you could give the CP credit for opposing Franco in 1938. That “the left” can end up supporting people like Assad and Putin today cries out for someone with Orwell’s integrity. Fortunately, there are signs that the Assadist left’s credibility is rapidly sinking today.

Orwell was not the only influence on Bourdain. His love of street food and “local cuisine”, as opposed to fancy French restaurants in places other than France, suggested that he had also read Calvin Trillin. I have no proof of that but would recommend a June 11, 1984 article by Trillin in the New Yorker titled “A Report for Mr. Bryant” (behind a paywall unfortunately) that hails a funky, Black-owned barbecue restaurant in Kansas City as “the best restaurant in the world”. When I was in Kansas City in my final days in the SWP, I was taking lathe and milling machine classes at night in a vocational high school. When we graduated, the teachers took us to Bryant’s and treated us to barbecue. You know something, Trillin was right.

These were just the kinds of places that Bourdain sought out. He was not a snob and even liked to eat at The Shake Shack, a kind of upscale McDonald’s one block from his building that opened in 2011. At the time, he said “I dropped to my knees and wept with gratitude.” His favorite order, according to Eater? “I’m having a double cheeseburger naked, please. No lettuce. No tomato. No nothing. Just cheese and two burgers on a potato bun. I’ll have two of those and I’m happy. I’m singing America, fuck yeah!”

If you wanted to get a vicarious taste of exotic cuisine, you could have watched Bourdain’s TV shows, many of which can be seen on DailyMotion as those above. (Just Google “Anthony Bourdain” and “DailyMotion”). Or, if you are fortunate enough to live in New York, you can enjoy them first-hand since the city, in clear defiance of the sort of nativism that exists elsewhere, is a magnet to immigrants.

Yesterday, I had lunch with an old cyberpal that I met in person for the first time. I told him that we were going to Oda’s, a Georgian restaurant on Avenue B, to honor Anthony Bourdain. I am no food critic but I can tell you that the food is fantastic there. Over lunch, the subject of Bourdain’s show on Cuba came up. I told him that this was the only episode that put me off somewhat since the clear implication was that Cuba should abandon what he called “Communism”.

I doubt that Cuba would fare very well in a system that has worked so poorly in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands but I told my friend that someone so engaged with small businesses like Bourdain probably only meant that he was for privately owned restaurants, B&B’s, farms, and other small-scale enterprises. It would probably reflect current thinking in the Cuban government as well.

I mentioned to him that when I joined the SWP in 1967, I got a defense of the Cuban Revolution that was prevalent in our ranks. The comrade who recruited me said that after Castro took power, they nationalized everything, down to the last nail in the last bodega. At the time, this sounded very radical. Today, I understand that a revolution should only target the “heights of industry” as Lenin actually pointed out in 1917.

This is something I understand a lot better today, especially when it comes to Georgia. In March, I reviewed a film titled “Our Blood is Wine” that documented the revival of kvevri wine in Georgia that we had with our lunch. The film can be rented for $3.99 on Youtube:

The tie-in to Bourdain and the need to preserve local culture against bureaucratic interference should be obvious from my review:

Quinn [the director] functions pretty much the same way that Anthony Bourdain does in his visits to various parts of the world to simultaneously try the local cuisine and give his take on socio-political matters. The film consists of him visiting various vineyards that all employ the same technique that existed 8,000 years ago, namely the use of kvevris (spelled qvevris in the film). A kvevri is a clay vessel usually over six feet tall that is buried in the ground in order to allow fermentation to take place. After Georgia became part of the USSR in 1917, Stalin decided that more revenue could be generated by industrializing the winemaking process using stainless steel vessels even if it turned out an inferior product and undermined Georgia’s national identity. As Quinn visits various practitioners of an ancient art undergoing a renaissance, he often ends up like Bourdain sitting around a dinner table sampling wines and the Georgian cuisine with men and women breaking into the polyphonic style that distinguishes the country’s music. It is an altogether joyous pastime that makes me want to spend time there the next time I am in Turkey, the country immediately to its south.


June 8, 2018

Human Rights Film Festival 2018

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 8, 2018

In advance of the 2018 Human Rights Film Festival that opens on June 14th, I was able to preview three scheduled documentaries that would be of great interest to CounterPunch readers both for the subject matter and for their artistic merit. Given Hollywood’s indifference to character development as it pursues blockbuster ticket sales based on special effects and car chases, your only recourse is to watch films like “The Distant Barking of Dogs”, “Naila and the Uprising” and “The Silence of Others” that are deeply humanistic treatments of people living through the real dramas of our epoch, namely the struggle to live in a free and just society.

Continue reading

June 6, 2018

Horizontalism and the Nicaraguan crisis

Filed under: nicaragua — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

After spending most of yesterday combing through the radical press and Nexis, I have a better handle on the current crisis. At the risk of sounding like a “tankie”, what you will read here departs from the narrative of most of the left press so let me start off with a brief review of some of the more typical coverage.

Ortega on Trial was written for Jacobin by Courtney Morris, an assistant professor of African Studies at Penn State. Although not using the buzzword “horizontalism”, there is no doubt that she views the university-based April 19th Movement as part of this trend that has endeared itself to anarchists and autonomists:

The 19th of April Movement shares many characteristics with similar popular democratic movements that have emerged in recent years. Like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Zapatista movement, this mobilization is defined by its diffuse, collective leadership model, strategic use of social media as a tool for collective protest, and the reclamation of public space as a site for direct political action.

However, these activists are not averse to drawing upon the authority of one of the most verticalist institutions in Latin America, the OAS: “The administration has refused, however, to allow representatives from the Organization of American States to lead the truth commission investigation as activists have demanded.” Perhaps Ortega has been influenced by other Jacobin authors, who have less confidence in an organization considered “U.S.-dominated”.

Dan La Botz poses the question in New Politics whether we are on the eve of another revolution in Nicaragua. Unlike most on the left who accuse Ortega of betraying the revolution in Stalin-like fashion, he thinks it was rotten from the start: “the central problem is that the Sandinistas have never held democracy as a core value, neither in their revolutionary past nor in their post-revolutionary and quite reactionary present.”

To show how the degenerate the FSLN was straight out of the womb, he alludes to the earliest sign: “While there was briefly an ostensibly coalition government, in fact the Sandinistas dominated the country from day one of the revolution, their coalition partners gradually resigning. The revolution was founded on deception.”

It is not exactly clear what sort of “coalition” La Botz is referring to but a five-person Council of National Reconstruction was formed in 1979 consisting of 3 FSLN members alongside Alfonso Robelo and Violeta Chamorro representing the bourgeoisie. Before the year was up, they resigned and became two top leaders of the Reagan-backed counter-revolution. Robelo joined UNO, the armed movement made up mostly of former Somoza’s National Guardsmen while Chamorro used La Prensa as an ideological battering ram against the government, resorting to lies that make Fox News look respectable. Deception? I don’t think so. I think it was more likely naivete on the part of the FSLN thinking that such figures could ever be trusted.

Writing for the ISO’s newspaper, my old friend Mike Friedman did think that the revolution was betrayed as the title “Nicaragua’s Tyrant and How He Switched Sides” indicates. You see, the regime “switched sides” by abandoning its early revolutionary goals and adopting “neoliberal and pro-business economic policies, selective repression and widespread patronage, the latter based on Venezuelan oil largesse.”

Anybody who questions whether Daniel Ortega is a “tyrant” is—ipso facto—some kind of “tankie”:

FRANKLY, I find the stance of U.S. leftists who continue to defend the Ortega/Murillo regime in Nicaragua–either because it is in Washington’s gunsights or because it somehow represents the legacy of the 1979 Sandinista revolution–utterly antithetical to anything remotely resembling a principled position.

Rather, this Manichaean perspective reflects a “campist” view hearkening back to the old supporters of the Stalinist Soviet Union (and China), who divided the world into opposing camps and thereby provided uncritical support to the USSR, its gulags and executions, and its repression of popular upsurges in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries.

Such voices have transferred their fixation on Papa Joe to any leader that has earned the ire of the U.S. and spouts anti-(Western) imperialist rhetoric. They conveniently ignore or forget the fact that we no longer live in a bipolar world, but rather one in which China and Russia have become aspiring imperialist powers themselves.

I got a big chuckle out of this. Not long after the Arab Spring began, Friedman began complaining about “regime change” supporters on Marxmail who did not understand the need to defend Gaddafi and Assad. When he posed the question of whether he belonged on such a pro-imperialist mailing list, I did him the favor of unsubbing him.

Like most people infatuated with the student movement, Friedman will have nothing to do with “verticalism”:

During my years in Nicaragua, I saw the revolution make strides toward mass participation, social justice and human well-being, and then recede and finally suffer defeat, primarily as a result of Washington’s shooting war and war of attrition, but also as a result of growing “verticalism” and popular disempowerment by the revolutionary government.

Maybe it is time for people like Friedman and La Botz to reread what happened in the Soviet Union during “War Communism”. By comparison, Nicaragua in the late 80s was a much more “horizontalist” society—not even using the death penalty that had become necessary in the Soviet Union as Trotsky explained in “Their Morals and Ours”.

Finally, we come to horizontalism incarnate. The anarchists at “It’s Going Down” conducted a long interview with one of their co-thinkers who was in the April 19th Movement that led the protests against Ortega. He (or she) describes himself (or herself) as the son (or daughter) of an ex-military poet. My eyes lingered over that term since I wondered what other country in the world would make a place for military poets.

Reading through the interview, I searched in vain for some sort of program or strategy. Alas, there was nothing but this:

Q: What are the sources of the horizontal values and structures within the movement?

A: The main source has been the realization that we don’t want to replicate the authoritarian and vertical model represented by the government. As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models. Some sectors only spoke briefly of these models, but it was the right time to implement them and they were beautiful to see. These models are now part of our collective vocabulary. For the first time, thousands of people are listening to groups speak, how they talk, learning how the pass around the microphone, how to speak as a “we.”

“As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models.” Maybe it isn’t a great idea to be spending too much time experimenting with models unless you’ve been reading Michael Albert. He’s been recommending his cookbook for 40 years at least and it hasn’t gotten us very far.

It isn’t as if this kind of activism hasn’t been tried before. Anybody remember the Piqueteros in Argentina? Starting in 1996, they organized blockades to protest the right-Peronist government of Carlos Menem as well as forming co-ops and building ties with the “recovered factories” movement. In a breathless article for TomDispatch, Jim Straub could have been describing Nicaragua today:

As a result, many of these groups broke with traditional leftist practices, turning instead to a number of strikingly participatory, directly democratic ways of acting and mobilizing. The emphasis was on broad participation and internal equality in decision-making, which came to be called “horizontalism.” They also rejected the “clientelism” which political parties in Argentina have long used to co-opt popular organizations (in which an organized community’s votes are simply traded for favors, money, or bags of groceries); and they staked out a fierce independence from all existing Argentine politicians (a strategy of political independence that they call “autonomy”). Horizontalism and autonomy can be seen as the conceptual heart of the Piquetero movement — fundamentally new political strategies used by the poorest of Argentina in their fight to create a new economy.

So whatever happened to the Piqueteros? The same thing that happened to the Zapatistas. They withered on the vine. When you consciously avoid politics, as is the custom of anarchism going back to Bakunin’s day, you surrender to class forces that do use the state on their own behalf—including Ortega’s caudillo regime.

But if you are talking about real “verticalism” as opposed to a government that dropped the Social Security “reform” like a hot potato and whose chief of police resigned under pressure on April 28th, you must consider the man most likely to replace him, one Eduardo Montealegre who was Minister of Finance in the government led by President Enrique Bolaños that preceded Ortega’s first re-election in 2007. He ran against Ortega that year and was the choice of both George W. Bush and the Sandinista Renovation Movement that consisted of people supposedly committed to the original goals of the revolution. He was ruled off the ballot in 2016 due to a technicality but will likely be cleared for the new elections the April 19th Movement is demanding.

An article written by Toni Solo in 2003 is a useful reminder of what Nicaragua’s economy was like under the economic program administered by Harvard Business School graduate Eduardo Montealegre:

Nicaragua has already privatized its telephone utility, creating a monopoly of landline phones. It did the same with electricity distribution, sold to a Spanish multinational, Union Fenosa. Consequently, stories of over-charging abound, such as the woman tortilla maker living in a shack with just a small television and a couple of light bulbs, earning around US$28 a month. Accustomed to bills of US$3 or 4 a month, she suddenly received one for US$200. Forced to pay these exorbitant demands or go without, many Nicaraguan families sink deeper into debt.

Get it? All of a sudden, you had to pay 50 times more for electricity. Meanwhile, the anarchists in Nicaragua were ready to take these measures when Daniel Ortega initially called for a 5 percent reduction in pension benefits, caring little that the net result will be a return to power by the truly “verticalist” regimes of the past.


June 4, 2018

Left Forum 2018

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

Ever since 2005, I have kept a journal for the yearly Left Forum except for 2007 (can’t remember why it was skipped) and 2016 when I decided not to shell out good money for a conference that was riddled with workshops on 9/11 and why we have to support Assad. (You can read my complaints here: https://louisproyect.org/2016/05/06/left-forum-2016-the-truth-is-out-there/. As it happens, I returned to the Left Forum last year because they banned 911 workshops and because putting up with Assadist bullshit was worth it especially when there was still a lot of good stuff going on (https://louisproyect.org/2017/06/06/left-forum-2017/).

It is easy to bad-mouth the Left Forum because unless you are far less contentious than the average leftist, especially me, you will find much of it objectionable. That’s bound to happen because the Left Forum is really nothing more than a snapshot of the left, with warts and all. Maybe there will be 100 percent contentment about the program on the eve of the American revolution, notwithstanding the complaints from the Spartacist League who pass out strident calls for revolution on the doorsteps of Left Forum host John Jay College of Criminal Justice each year. Oh, did I mention that this school geared to training people to be detectives has the most radical economics department in the city, thanks to professor emeritus Michael Meeropol?

Saturday sessions:

As a rule of thumb, I try to attend workshops that promise to increase my knowledge. So that means staying away from anything titled “A Winning Strategy for the Left” or “Time to Shut Down the CIA”. With that in mind, I went to a 10am session on Saturday titled “The Far Right in Government: Hungary, Poland, and Turkey”, featuring leftist academics speaking very knowledgably about their countries. I came in midway during the Hungary talk but took in the other two in their entirety. (You can get a short version of the talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNVc23sj5hA) Both speakers emphasized the near-hegemonic grip that the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (AKP) have on society. In Poland, the ruling party emerged out of Solidarity and thus has a program much more generous to the working class than previous neoliberal regimes, even as it ratchets up the hatred and bans on immigrants. (I referred to this tendency in my review of a new film on Katyn: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/01/the-secrets-of-katyn/.) In Turkey, Erdogan has basically taken advantage of the exhaustion of the Kemalist project, drawing upon support from the country’s Islamist-minded majority. By using a combination of repression and social welfare similar to that being delivered in Poland, the AKP has few obstacles in his path, especially after the bloody purge of the Gulenists. Probably the only stumbling block will be the economic crisis that is taking shape with the Turkish lira in free fall. If Rosa Luxemburg Siftung, the organizer of the event, puts a link to the video recording of the event, I’ll post a notification.

Next on the agenda was “The Fight to Stay—Eviction Defense as a Right”, a 12pm workshop that featured lawyers and activists reporting on a victory for tenants—the right to a lawyer when you are served an eviction notice. This discussion was of great interest to me since I have been blogging about the Real Estate and Housing Crisis in New York. I recommend that you check the website of the people who organized the event: http://www.righttocounselnyc.org, especially a brief video providing background on their victory. I should add that our “progressive” mayor opposed the right to a lawyer at first but succumbed to pressure once he decided to run for a second term.

After lunch with my friend Tony DiMaggio, a regular contributor to CounterPunch, I joined him at a 4pm workshop on “First As Farce Then As Tragedy: It’s Time to Fire the Apprentice”, where he would be a discussant. I couldn’t tell from the title what the hell this was about but was anxious to hear what Tony had to say.

The panel was organized by Critical Sociology, a journal that was originally called The Insurgent Sociologist when it was founded in 1969 as a voice of the New Left on campus. Like me, the three speakers were all 60s radicals, including Lauren Langman who I remember from the days when he was the moderator of the now defunct Progressive Sociologists Network mailing list.

So, the goal of the three sociology professors was to try to explain why people voted for Trump. Langman, a professor emeritus, and Pace University professor Roger Salerno placed heavy emphasis on psychoanalytic theory with copious references to Freud. Ultimately, it boils down to understanding Trump as the projection of deep pathologies in white society that remind me of what Joel Kovel wrote in “White Racism: a psychohistory”. You can get an idea of Langman’s approach in his article “Psychoanalysis and American Sociology” (http://futureswewant.net/lauren-langman-psychoanalysis/). For both Langman and Salerno, explanations based on “economic” factors are of less interest than those based on psychic maladjustments. Naturally, I found all this unconvincing even though their presentations were lively.

David Smith, a U. of Kansas professor, made a useful point. If you look at extensive polling done with Trump and Clinton voters, you’ll discover that their views on economics, health care, etc. are almost identical. But when it comes to three issues: immigrants, minorities and feminism, the Trump voters depart from the consensus. You can read Smith’s explanation of this in a Critical Sociologist article that is fortunately not behind a paywall: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0896920517740615

During the Q&A, I cracked a joke about the Trotsky t-shirt that Langman was wearing and reminded the panelists that fascism was victorious because the social democracy tried to preserve capitalist property relations when they were driving the middle-class and much of the working-class nuts. I am no psychologist but that diagnosis seems sound especially when the DSA and much of the left hopes to recreate the governments that existed in the Weimar Republic and during Leon Blum’s troubled regime. I was pleasantly surprised that Smith was pretty familiar with Trotsky’s writings on fascism that I alluded to. Who knows? Maybe he was an ex-SWPer like me. There are thousands of us, the largest group on the left in fact.

While I am far apart from Langman on how to view Trump, he did seem to grasp the nature of the period we are in through his reference to a Gramsci quote that speaks very much to Roseanne Barr, Scott Pruitt and every other horror we are living through now: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Prison Notebooks)

Sunday sessions:

Getting to John Jay a bit too late to make the 10am session, I started off the day at a standing room only workshop organized by Paul Street. Along with Bruce Dixon and Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, and Chris Hedges, they all spoke on “Imagining an Authentic 21st Century U.S. Left”. While this is generally the sort of topic I tend to avoid since it might lend itself to empty rhetoric, I decided to go since I was curious to hear what some well-known leftists have to say on our “interregnum”. I understand that the talks will be online soon so I will be brief.

Paul made the case for taking a hard line against all forms of capitalist oppression, whether it is the hard cop Trump or the soft cop Pelosi dishing it out. Glen Ford spoke about the need to nationalize the banks, something he describes as feasible since everybody, including lots of rich people, hate them. Hedges called attention to Google adjusting its algorithms since it has cost traffic for leftist websites, including Truthdig, where his articles appear on a regular basis. I can understand why he (and WSWS) are upset about this but in my view, the bigger threat is outright bans of the sort that take place in Russia or Egypt. In a period of deepening radicalization, people will tell other people about Truthdig even if Google adjusts its algorithms to exclude it from search results totally. I doubt that in a prerevolutionary situation that’s the kind of website that will be attracting much attention anyhow.

This brings me to Bruce Dixon’s talk that was about as perceptive as any I have heard in years. He laid down some principles that the left should unite around that make eminent good sense to me, starting with the need for independence from the two capitalist parties. He acknowledged that the Green Party keeps screwing up but when you are trying to build something new, it is not an easy task especially when there is no blueprint. He urged the need for teaching people how to organize in the same way that the CP taught people in the 1930s. Even if William Z. Foster had some messed up ideas about strategy, he knew how to organize people as should be clear from his handbook for CIO organizers. Compare that to the Green Party that allows any 6 or so people to form a state chapter even though they may have no idea how to build the party.

But the most powerful part of his talk had to do with his observations about divisions on the left, referring to the whole ritual of unfriending people on FB when you agree with 90 percent of what they believe. Unless we learn to unite people on the basis of that 90 percent of agreement, we can not build a strong movement. That’s what I tried to explain to my pro-Syrian revolution FB friends when I stated my intentions to vote for Jill Stein—with mixed results, I have to admit.

Finally, at 4pm there was a panel discussion with veterans of the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. There was a slide show by Basir Mchawi about the East Cultural Center in Brooklyn from that time, which combined experimental jazz with poetry readings, dances and other cultural/political gatherings relevant to the black nationalist movement of the time. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it. That same semester I heard LeRoi Jones (as he was known at the time) read from his “The System of Dante’s Hell” that was an angry attack on racism of the sort I had never heard before. The combination of Sanders’s saxophone and Jones’s reading persuaded me that black nationalism was a flame that could help illuminate the path leading away from what Allen Ginsberg called Moloch.


June 1, 2018

Vogue Magazine in hot water again for puff piece on Mideast tyrants

Filed under: journalism,Kevin Coogan,Saudi Arabia,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:43 pm

NY Times, May 31, 2018
Vogue Arabia Hails Saudi Reform, Ignoring Jailed Activists
By Megan Specia

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is putting women in the driving seat — and so are we.”

That’s how Vogue Arabia described its June cover, which features a glamorous woman behind the wheel of a classic car, parked in the desert.

But the problem for some has been which woman the magazine decided to put in the driver’s seat in an issue that “celebrates the women of the kingdom and their wide-reaching achievements,” but makes no mention of the country’s most recent crackdown on women’s rights activists.

Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah al-Saud — one of the late King Abdullah’s 20 daughters — sits behind the wheel, even as some prominent female activists who fought for the right for Saudi women to drive remain locked behind bars.

In mid-May, at least 11 activists were arrested and labeled “traitors” by the Saudi government, a move that surprised many as the country is just weeks away from allowing women to drive. Some of the activists have been released, but others remain detained.

On June 24, Saudi women will legally be able to drive for the first time. But critics say the Vogue coverage fails to highlight some Saudi women whose activism helped draw international attention to the issue, and who now face persecution.

The issue does feature Manal al-Sharif, one of the Saudi activists who took part in the 2011 protests against the restrictions and was later arrested for the action, but does not mention the latest arrests.

Twitter users were swift in their reaction, calling out Vogue Arabia for what some saw as an oversight.

Continue reading

In March 2011, Vogue magazine published, for the benefit of its 11.7 million readers, an article titled “A Rose in the Desert” about the first lady of Syria. Asma al-Assad has British roots, wears designer fashion, worked for years in banking, and is married to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed over 5,000 civilians and hundreds of children this year. The glowing article praised the Assads as a “wildly democratic” family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the “safest country in the Middle East,” and want to give Syria a “brand essence.”

Vogue’s editors defended the controversial article as “a way of opening a window into this world a little bit,” conceding only that Assad’s Syria is “not as secular as we might like.” A senior editor responsible for the story told me the magazine stood by it. A few weeks later, the article and all references to it were removed from Vogue’s website without explanation. In August, The Hill reported that U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James had been paid $5,000 per month by the Syrian government to arrange for and manage the Vogue article.

For all the controversy, the article’s author, former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck, did manage to spend some one-on-one time with both Asma and Bashar al-Assad, an exclusive many journalists might have killed for. Today, as the world watches for cracks in the Assad regime and in the Assad family, Buck’s interviews are an increasingly important tool for understanding the man at the top of Syria and the woman next to him.

Sadly, Vogue’s piece of the Syrian puzzle has been almost entirely scrubbed from the internet. But, somehow, the text can still be found at a website called PresidentAssad.net, a gif-filled but meticulously updated fan page to the Syrian dictator. The site is registered to a Syrian man living in Rome named Mohamed Abdo al-Ibrahim. A personal site for Ibrahim lists him as an employee of the Syrian state-run news agency.

Continue reading

The Last Witness

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 1, 2018

Now rentable on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD platforms for $5.99, “The Last Witness” is a narrative film about the Katyn massacre of 1940. This joint Polish-British production is well worth seeing both for its dramatic power and for its probing examination of how England served Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism by covering up the massacre that left 22,000 elite members of the military, academy, church and legal professions secretly buried in the forest near Smolensk, even after the Cold War had begun.

This is now the second film about Katyn I have reviewed for CounterPunch, the first being Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn”. Like Wajda, the director and screenwriters of “The Last Witness”—Piotr Szkopiak and Paul Szambowski—are Polish nationalists. For the Poles, the 1940 occupation and mass murder of the country’s elite has cast a shadow over their history just as the 1932-33 famine does for Ukrainians.

Continue reading

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.