Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 15, 2019

Ben is Back; Beautiful Boy

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 15, 2019

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

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March 12, 2019

The Boeing 737 Max 8: a case-study in uncreative destruction

Filed under: computers,disasters,economics,unemployment,workers — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Wreckage at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines crash near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Monday. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

On October 29, 2018, a Boeing 737 Max 8 belonging to Lion Air in Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after take-off. All 189 passengers and crew members were killed instantly. It is extremely unusual for planes to suffer such accidents in clear weather after having reached their cruising altitude. Flight experts concluded that the pilots were not adequately trained in the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a robotics technology that lowers the nose of a plane to prevent a stall. Although there is no definitive judgement on exactly what happened, it appears to be a combination of inadequate training for the pilots and a malfunctioning MCAS.

On Sunday, another 737 Max 8 owned by Ethiopian Airlines had the same kind of accident resulting in the death of 157 passengers and crew members. In the aftermath of the tragedy, this has led to Australia, China, Germany, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom grounding the planes.

Looking at these two horrible tragedies that will make me think twice about getting on a plane again, I keep thinking of the title of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s classic “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. In essence, the use of MCAS is akin to an experimental, driverless car owned by Uber killing a pedestrian who was jaywalking on a dark road in Tempe, Arizona on May 18, 2018. The back-up driver, who was supposed to keep a sharp eye on the road to prevent such an accident, was watching reruns of the reality TV show “The Voice” at the time.

Despite such incidents (there have been 4 fatalities already), the bourgeoisie is determined to push ahead since the savings in labor costs will make up for the collateral damage of dead pedestrians. While I am skeptical that completely driverless cars will ever become the norm for Uber or Lyft, I can see people with little driving experience being paid minimum wage just to be a back-up to the computer system—as long as they don’t watch TV on the job. (Fat chance with such a boring job.)

This morning Donald Trump tweeted about the airline crash. “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are….”

To begin with, the issue is not planes becoming too complex. It is rather that they are becoming too simple in terms of the amount of deskilling the airlines favor. As for the issue of replacing human labor with robots, he is all for it—reflecting the priorities of a ruling class bent on driving down wages.

In a US News and World Report article titled “The Race Is On After Feds Pave Way for Driverless Trucks”, we learn:

The most optimistic analysts project that trucks with empty cabs and a computer at the wheel will travel on U.S. highways in as little as two years with no escort or safety driver in sight now that the Trump administration has signaled its willingness to let tractor-trailers to become truly driverless.

The U.S. Department of Transportation this month announced that it will “no longer assume” that the driver of a commercial truck is human, and the agency will even “adapt the definitions of ‘driver’ and ‘operator’ to recognize that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may in fact include an automated system.”

Already, automated truck developers such as Embark and TuSimple have made freight deliveries where the computer takes control on the highway, overseen by a human “safety driver.” Companies have also successfully tested “platooning,” where a truck with a human driver leads a convoy of as many as five computer-driven trucks following at close distance to reduce drag and save fuel.

The technologies promise big savings, with driverless trucks potentially slashing 40 percent from the cost of long-haul freight – much of it in saved labor expenses – and platooning cutting 10 to 15 percent in fuel costs.

If it is good for cars and trucks, why not airplanes?

Two years before the Indonesian 737 crash, the Guardian published an article titled “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster” that it clearly anticipated. Interestingly enough, it was not even a Boeing plane that was discussed in the article. It was an Airbus 330 that had the same kind of systems as the Boeing NCAS. With pilots much more used to relying on automation than manual control of the plane, they failed to override the system that was forcing the plane to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009 at about 125 miles an hour. Everyone on board, 228 passengers and crew, died instantly.

While pilots flying to major airports will continue to be highly paid, the wages of those working for regional airlines has fallen drastically. In 2010, the Guardian reported on “A pilot’s life: exhausting hours for meagre wages”. They lead a decidedly unglamorous life:

Many are forced to fly half way around the country before they even begin work. Others sleep in trailers at the back of Los Angeles airport, in airline lounges across the country or even on the floors of their own planes. Some co-pilots, who typically take home about $20,000 (£12,500) a year, hold down second jobs to make ends meet.

All that will change when airplanes go the route of driverless cars as the NY Times reported last July in an article titled “Are You Ready to Fly Without a Human Pilot?” In the same fashion that Trump backed driverless trucks, the move toward pilotless planes seems inexorable:

Regulators are already taking steps toward downsizing the role of humans on the flight deck. The bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration included language to provide funding to study single-pilot operations for cargo planes, a move that the Air Line Pilots Association opposed. Captain Canoll said that a single-pilot aircraft must be safe to fly without anyone at the controls in case the pilot takes a bathroom break or becomes incapacitated.

At the recently concluded World Economic Forum, there was a big focus on artificial intelligence and robotics. On the website, you can find breathless articles about “Meet Stan: the robot valet that parks your car at the airport” and “US companies created a record number of robot workers in 2018”. In a Washington Post article on the WEF, the title betrayed a certain unease about the replacement of human beings by robots: The aristocrats are out of touch’: Davos elites believe the answer to inequality is ‘upskilling’. It cited Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman about how to keep the masses docile: “The lack of education in those areas in digital is absolutely shocking. That has to be changed. That will very much lessen the inequalities that people have in terms of job opportunities.”

What world are these people living in? Schwarzman has a 32-room penthouse in 740 Park Avenue and spent $5 million for his birthday party in 2017. He just made a gift of $1 billion to MIT to launch a new school for Artificial Intelligence. Is that supposed to create jobs? Maybe for someone with an MIT degree who will go to work writing software to replace the people working for Jeff Bezos’s slave labor-like warehouses with machines but what is someone out of a job at an Amazon warehouse then supposed to do? Apply to MIT?

The handwriting is on the wall. The USA is moving into a two-tiered system. In places like NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, you get people working in high-tech industries that in contrast to the Fordist model of the 1930s employ far fewer bodies. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Cleveland, and other places where Fordism once held sway, the jobs are there if you are willing to work at Walmarts, at local hospitals emptying bedpans or as guards in a jail or prison. Class divisions between those with advanced technology skills and those left out will only increase, leading to the kind of showdown taking place in France between the neoliberal state and the Yellow Vests.

You get a feel for the Two Americas reading a March 7th NY Times article titled “Thousands of New Millionaires Are About to Eat San Francisco Alive”:

In cities like Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco, millennials obsess over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter and attend Democratic Socialists of America meetings. But the socialist passion doesn’t seem to have impacted the city’s zeal for I.P.O. parties, which the party planning community says are going to surpass past booms.

Jay Siegan, a former live music club owner who now curates private entertainment and music, is gearing up. He has worked on events for many of the I.P.O. hopefuls, including Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Postmates and Lyft.

“We see multiple parties per I.P.O. for the company that is I.P.O.ing, as well as firms that are associated to them,” Mr. Siegan said. Budgets for start-up parties, he said, can easily go above $10 million. “They’re wanting to bring in A-list celebrities to perform at the dinner tables for the executives. They want ballet performers.”

The only comment I would add to this tale of two cities is that it would not be surprising if some of these high-flying technology workers might also plan to vote for Bernie Sanders. They probably don’t feel happy about living in a city where their wealth has driven up the cost of housing to the point that homelessness is an epidemic. Whether President Sanders can do much about these class divisions is open to debate.

The replacement of human labor by machinery has been described as “creative destruction”. The assumption is that the temporary pain is worth it since there will always be the growth of new jobs. As my seventh grade social studies put it, the invention of the automobile put the blacksmith out of work but it created far more jobs in a Ford plant.

On May 12, 2010, the New York Times ran an article by economics editor Catherine Rampell titled The New Poor: In Job Market Shift, Some Workers Are Left Behind that focused on the largely middle-aged unemployed who will probably never work again. For example, 52 year old administrative assistant Cynthia Norton has been working part-time at Walmart while sending resumes everywhere but nobody gets back to her. She is part of a much bigger picture:

Ms. Norton is one of 1.7 million Americans who were employed in clerical and administrative positions when the recession began, but were no longer working in that occupation by the end of last year. There have also been outsize job losses in other occupation categories that seem unlikely to be revived during the economic recovery. The number of printing machine operators, for example, was nearly halved from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009. The number of people employed as travel agents fell by 40 percent.

But Ms. Rampell finds the silver lining in this dark cloud:

This “creative destruction” in the job market can benefit the economy.

Pruning relatively less-efficient employees like clerks and travel agents, whose work can be done more cheaply by computers or workers abroad, makes American businesses more efficient. Year over year, productivity growth was at its highest level in over 50 years last quarter, pushing corporate profits to record highs and helping the economy grow.

The term “creative destruction” might ring a bell. It was coined by Werner Sombart in his 1913 book “War and Capitalism”. When he was young, Sombart considered himself a Marxist. His notion of creative destruction was obviously drawn from Karl Marx, who, according to some, saw capitalism in terms of the business cycle. With busts following booms, like night follows day, a new round of capital accumulation can begin. This interpretation is particularly associated with Volume Two of Capital that examines this process in great detail. Looking at this material, some Marxists like Eduard Bernstein drew the conclusion that capitalism is an infinitely self-sustaining system.

By 1913, Sombart had dumped the Marxist commitment to social revolution but still retained the idea that there was a basis in Karl Marx for upholding the need for “creative destruction”, a view buttressed by an overly positive interpretation of this passage in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

By the 1930s, Sombart had adapted himself fairly well to the Nazi system although he was not gung-ho like Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt. The wiki on Sombart notes:

In 1934 he published Deutscher Sozialismus where he claimed a “new spirit” was beginning to “rule mankind”. The age of capitalism and proletarian socialism was over and with “German socialism” (National-Socialism) taking over.

But despite this, he remained critical. In 1938 he wrote an anthropology text that found fault with the Nazi system and many of his Jewish students remained fond of him.

I suspect, however, that Rampell is familiar with Joseph Schumpeter’s use of the term rather than Sombart since Schumpeter was an economist, her chosen discipline. In 1942, he wrote a book titled Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that, like Sombart, retained much of Karl Marx’s methodology but without the political imperative to destroy the system that utilized “creative destruction”. He wrote:

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. . . .

The wiki on Schumpeter claims that this theory is wedded to Nikolai Kondratiev’s “long wave” hypothesis that rests on the idea that there are 50 year cycles in which capitalism grows, decays and enters a crisis until a new round of capital accumulation opens up. Not only was the idea attractive to Schumpeter, it was a key part of Ernest Mandel’s economic theories. Unlike Schumpeter, Mandel was on the lookout for social agencies that could break the cycle and put development on a new footing, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Returning to Rampell’s article, there is one dimension entirely missing. She assumes that “creative destruction” will operate once again in order to foster a new upswing in the capitalist business cycle. But how exactly will that manifest itself? All the signs point to a general decline in business activity unless there is some kind of technological breakthrough equivalent to the computer revolution that fueled growth for decades. Does anybody believe that “green manufacturing” will play the same role? I don’t myself.

One thing does occur to me. Sombart’s book was written in 1913, one year before WWI and was even titled eerily enough “War and Capitalism”. One wonders if the Great War would be seen as part and parcel of “creative destruction”. War, after all, does have a knack for clearing the playing field with even more finality than layoffs. Schumpeter wrote his book in 1942, one year into WWII. My guess is that he did not theorize war as the ultimate (and necessary?) instrument of creative destruction but history will record that WWII did introduce a whole rafter of new technology, including aluminum, radar, nuclear power, etc., while bombing old modes of production into oblivion. What a great opportunity it was for capitalism to rebuild Japan, especially after firebombing and atomic bombs did their lovely work.

In my view, there’s something disgusting about this “creative destruction” business especially when it is articulated by a young, pro-capitalist Princeton graduate like Catherine Rampell who wrote for Slate, the Village Voice and other such b-list publications before crawling her way up into an editorial job at the NYT. She clearly has learned how to cater her reporting to the ideological needs of the newspaper of record, growing more and more reactionary as the crisis of capitalism deepens.

March 10, 2019

The Primitive Accumulation debate

Filed under: Political Marxism,primitive accumulation,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

I want to alert my readers, especially those living in Europe, to a conference being held on May 9-11, 2019 at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam on the topic of “Toward a Global History of Primitive Accumulation”. Among the speakers are people I have a strong affinity with, including Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Edward Baptist, and Dale Tomich. They are scholars who tend to identify with the definition of primitive accumulation in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist):

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.

While I doubt that any of the sessions there will directly address the Political Marxists, they implicitly challenge its premise that primitive accumulation refers exclusively to the emergence of agrarian capitalism in late 15th century England, the linchpin of Robert Brenner’s scholarship. For Brenner and his acolytes, slavery and all that colonialism stuff do not enter the picture. It is only when land was enclosed in England as part of the rise of tenant farming that the “social-property relations” unique to capitalism kicked in. When a tenant farmer began to hire wage labor to milk cows, shear wool, and harvest wheat with a sickle, it set into motion the competitive drive that allowed England to rule the world. Cotton being picked by slaves was “pre-capitalist” and if it hadn’t been fed into the maw of emerging English capitalism, it would have gone to waste in Spain or Portugal whose rulers were only interested in using the gold and silver extracted from Bolivia, Peru and Mexico to buy silk pantaloons from India, powdered wigs from Bulgaria, and tea from China. England was the proverbial ant and the Iberian empires were the proverbial grasshoppers.

Speaking of Aesop’s fable, it should be understood that Marx developed the theory of primitive accumulation to rebut Adam Smith who was trying to account for the emergence of a capitalist class. In Smith’s world, the capitalist was someone who was thrifty like the ant and put aside the capital that was necessary to hire wage labor in the nascent manufacturing sphere of 18th century England. In Smith’s language, the term was “previous accumulation” rather than primitive. Perhaps, the best term would be “primary accumulation” since it only denotes the gathering of capital used a priori to capitalism.

In chapter 26 of V. 1 of Capital, the allusion to Aesop is palpable:

This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.

Robert Brenner first presented this version of primitive accumulation in the 1977 NLR article that attacked Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank as “neo-Smithian” ideologues. He argues that prior to capitalist “social-property” relations, there was no surplus value since there was no wage labor. Thus, all the gold in Peru and all the silver and Mexico was outside the sphere of capitalism, strictly speaking. This analysis, of course, rests on the premise that slave labor was “pre-capitalist”.

With “social-property relations”, you get a kind of Procrustean Bed. Unless there is a capitalist paying wage labor, you are outside of the capitalist world. In Greek mythology, Procrustes took people captive and then either stretched out or cut flesh and bone from their legs so they would fit in his iron beds. At least the people being excluded from “social-property relations” in Brenner’s writings only suffer from historical mutilation.

In V. 2 of Capital, Marx had a more inclusive view of the sphere of capitalist property relations:

No matter whether commodities are the output of production based on slavery, of peasants (Chinese, Indian ryots). of communes (Dutch East Indies), of state enterprise (such as existed in former epochs of Russian history on the basis of serfdom) or of half-savage hunting tribes, etc. — as commodities and money they come face to face with the money and commodities in which the industrial capital presents itself and enter as much into its circuit as into that of the surplus-value borne in the commodity-capital, provided the surplus-value is spent as revenue; hence they enter in both branches of circulation of commodity-capital. The character of the process of production from which they originate is immaterial. They function as commodities in the market, and as commodities they enter into the circuit of industrial capital as well as into the circulation of the surplus-value incorporated in it.

For some Marxists, this was always an aspect of primitive accumulation that was either explicitly presented in chapter 31 referred to above or in need of amplification. In Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital”, you get a clear statement about the intersection of capitalist and non-capitalist sectors in the accumulation of capital. In chapter 26, she writes:

[C]apitalism in its full maturity also depends in all respects on non-capitalist strata and social organizations existing side by side with it. It is not merely a question of a market for the additional product, as Sismondi and the later critics and doubters of capitalist accumulation would have it. The interrelations of accumulating capital and non-capitalist forms of production extend over values as well as over material conditions, for constant capital, variable capital and surplus value alike.

Hence the contradictory phenomena that the old capitalist countries provide ever larger markets for, and become increasingly dependent upon, one another, yet on the other hand compete ever more ruthlessly for trade relations with non-capitalist countries.

More recently, David Harvey adopted Luxemburg’s analysis in order to describe the same kind of ongoing process of capital accumulation in terms of “accumulation by dispossession”. In the 2004 Socialist Register, Harvey wrote:

A closer look at Marx’s description of primitive accumulation reveals a wide range of processes. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; conversion of various forms of property rights – common, collective, state, etc. – into exclusive private property rights; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative, indigenous, forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets, including natural resources; monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; slave trade; and usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes and there is considerable evidence, which Marx suggests and Braudel confirms, that the transition to capitalist development was vitally contingent upon the stance of the state – broadly supportive in Britain, weakly so in France and highly negative, until very recently, in China. The invocation of the recent shift towards primitive accumulation in the case of China indicates that this is an on-going issue and the evidence is strong, particularly throughout East and South East Asia, that state policies and politics (consider the case of Singapore) have played a critical role in defining both the intensity and the paths of new forms of capital accumulation. The role of the ‘developmental state’ in recent phases of capital accumulation has therefore been the subject of intense scrutiny. One only has to look back at Bismarck’s Germany or Meiji Japan to recognize that this has long been the case.

Returning to chapter 31, with its emphasis on slavery and colonialism, it is important to read the fine print. Since the chapter is concerned with the genesis of the industrial capitalist, it begins with his forerunner during feudalism who were small guild-masters, independent small artisans, or even wage laborers.

Eventually, as feudalism began to collapse, seaports arose beyond the reach of the feudal guilds in order to take advantage of increased global trade. Within these “free trade zones” of the 17th century captured so vividly in Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean, you get the growth of manufacturing, mostly in textiles, woolen at first and then cotton.

Marx writes that “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.” Even though commerce belongs to an earlier type of capital, it dovetailed with the new industrial capital as Marx points out: “In the period of manufacture properly so called, it is, on the other hand, the commercial supremacy that gives industrial predominance. Hence the preponderant role that the colonial system plays at that time.”

The next to last paragraph of chapter 31 could not be clearer about what tends to be overlooked in Political Marxism:

Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.

 

March 8, 2019

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 8, 2019

Beginning next Friday on March 15th and lasting until March 21st, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York will be offering a welcome respite from the violent, comic-book, escapist, and misogynist films appearing in your local cineplex. I have been covering the festival each year since it began in 2015 and am happy to report that this year’s offerings remain at the high level founder Nora Armani has maintained over the past four years.

SR’s mission statement states that it “focuses on socially relevant film content, and human interest stories that raise awareness to social problems and offer positive solutions through the powerful medium of cinema. SR believes that through raised awareness, expanded knowledge about diverse cultures, and the human condition as a whole, it is possible to create a better world free of violence, hate, and crime.”

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Separated at Birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 1:15 pm

Available on Netflix, Amazon and other VOD mediums is the Bulgarian TV series “Undercover” that is absolutely brilliant. It is as well-written and acted as “The Sopranos”, an obvious influence on the show. One of the main characters is nicknamed Hook, who is a lieutenant of Jaro, the mafia don that an undercover agent named Martin is trying to bring down. It is probably a coincidence that he looks so much like Steve Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s consigliere.

Rosen Gatzov “The Hook” (Marian Valev)

Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt)

March 7, 2019

3 Faces

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

For those who appreciate the kinds of films that get recommended here, there is very good news. Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York. I consider Panahi to be the greatest living filmmaker and this his greatest film. He is not only a master filmmaker, he is also the main voice of the Iranian democratic movement working in the arts. For his outspoken defense of the Green Movement and the democratic rights in general of Iranians, he was arrested for making propaganda against the Islamic Republic in 2010 and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Additionally, he was banned from making films for 20 years and from giving interviews to foreign media.

In a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, he continued to make films under very difficult circumstances including the 2011 This Is Not a Film that was shot on a digital camera in his home during his house arrest. With “3 Faces”, he has returned to the form that made him famous. Like his 1995 premiere film “White Balloon”, it is an affectionate look at traditional society in Iran but like his 2003 “Crimson Gold” and the much sharper 2006 “Offside”, it contains his ongoing critique of Iranian society. If in the past he targeted the Islamic morality state apparatus, in this new film his focus is on the age-old patriarchal norms of the countryside that help to keep the clerics in power just as is the case in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. What gives “3 Faces” its power is the ambivalence Panahi feels toward traditional society. It inspires his art at the same time it underpins a social and political system that tried to ban his films.

The film begins with Jafar Panahi in the driver’s seat of a car playing himself, while in the front seat next to him sits a well-known actress named Behnaz Jafari who is also playing herself. As they head down a highway at night, Jafari is watching a video that was sent to Panahi but really intended for her eyes. A young woman in a remote village in the Azeri region of Iran has decided that her family’s refusal to allow her to go to a conservatory in Tehran makes life not worth living. We watch her advance toward a noose hanging from a branch in a cave, placing it around her neck, and finally jumping to her death or so it would seem.

Panahi and Jafari are driving toward the village of Saran in the East Azerbaijan Province to discover whether the aspiring actress named Marziyeh Rezaei (also played by herself) is really dead or whether she has faked a suicide to get the attention of the two powerful celebrities.

Most of the dialog in the film, except that between the three principals identified above, is in the Azeri dialect of the Turkish language that only Panahi and Marziyeh understand. Much of the film consists of Panahi chatting with elderly residents of Saran who are obviously nonprofessionals and likely played by the actual men and women living there.

When Panahi and Jafari stroll through the local cemetery to see if they can find a fresh grave for Marziyeh, they are startled to see an octogenarian woman lying in an open grave with a candle in her hands. She explains that she is rehearsing for her funeral but gives no indication that her death is imminent. The candle is meant to keep snakes away at night, a scourge that God visits on the wicked. Are you wicked, Panahi asks, you seem to be without sin. She replies that god only knows.

Another old-timer, a man in his 70s by the looks of his grizzled face, has a chit-chat with Jafari late at night in the village. He has come back from his new son’s circumcision with the boy’s foreskin in a small cloth sack. A wide-eyed Jafari asks what he will do with it. He explains that if you bury a boy’s foreskin near a penitentiary, he will grow up to be a criminal but if you bury it near a university, he will grow up to be a doctor or an engineer. Like Panahi and the old woman in the open grave, she takes it all in without scoffing. Later she presents the foreskin and an accompanying letter to Panahi from the old man that he should present to an actor from the golden age of Iranian film. When Jafari tells him that the actor is out of the country, he asks if Panahi can present it to him the next time he is traveling abroad. She explains that the Panahi is not permitted to leave Iran and the actor is not permitted to enter the country. This is about as close as the film comes to commenting on the repressive norms of the Islamic Republic.

The film wrestles with the dichotomy between traditional values and the urgent need for modernization. An elder tells the famous director and actress that Marziyeh was “empty-headed” and that acting was not going to be of much use in a village that is desperately in need of doctors. Look around, he tells them. There is a satellite dish on every house that allows them to see Jafari’s TV shows but no place to go if you become ill.

In a way, the real star of the film is the village of Saran itself that is nestled on a mountaintop and whose homes and streets look pretty much like they looked a century ago. If Iran ever becomes a thoroughly modern republic based on the right of women to live fulfilled lives, there has to be a way for the solidarity of village life to continue. As someone who grew up in a village of 500 people nestled in the Catskill Mountains, Saran resonates with me. My village has been savaged by the collapse of the tourist industry but perhaps Iran can mediate between tradition and modernity in the future. What it certainly doesn’t need is a bullying imperialist power like the USA to foist its own warped ideas about “modernity” on a people who have one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.

 

March 5, 2019

Democratic Socialism: a hot commodity

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

New York magazine has been around since 1968 and can generally be found in the reception area of doctors and dentists next to the more genteel and patrician New Yorker magazine. In contrast to the New Yorker, New York is focused on trends such as identifying which low-rent neighborhoods are on the verge of becoming “hip” through gentrification or life-style advice in articles such as The Best Automatic Pet Feeders and Water Fountains, According to Experts. I usually spend about a minute or two looking over the New York and New Yorker magazine websites on Monday when the new issues come out before going on to more substantive matters.

So, when I looked at New York yesterday and noticed that it was virtually a special issue on the DSA/Jacobin phenomenon, it drove home to me the degree to which it is the perfect place for such articles. They were the latest installment of puff-pieces that began in the January 20, 2013 NY Times with “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. Ever since I have been reading the NY Times on a daily basis, I have never seen anything but the most hostile and distorted reporting on socialism and Marxism but for obvious reasons, this “democratic socialism” stuff really goes over big with the publisher. The first two paragraphs of the Times article has a tone that never would have been used if the subject was Hugo Chavez or Che Guevara:

When Bhaskar Sunkara was growing up in Westchester County, he likes to say, he dreamed of being a professional basketball player.

But the height gods, among others, didn’t smile in his favor. So in 2009, during a medical leave from his sophomore year at George Washington University, Mr. Sunkara turned to Plan B: creating a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses.

Other trend-sniffing magazines followed suit with their articles about another “democratic socialist” superstar. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been profiled seven times in Vogue magazine, including an item about her multistep skin care routine. They quote her Instagram post: “I’m a science nerd and I truly enjoy the science of it, reading about compounds and studies. It’s like that.” She has also made it into Vanity Fair eleven times, including the cover photo shown above.

Let Bhaskar Sunkara and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bask in the limelight with their celebrity status. I’ll stick with socialists and radicals who are seen as notorious rather than celebrated. This includes Malcom X, Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. When you are understood to be an enemy of the capitalist system, the gloves come off in the bourgeois press. These three, who had a big influence on me as a young radical, were notorious—so much so that they were killed for their efforts.

In a New York article titled “Okay, But What’s Wrong With Liberalism? A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara”, we get a “one-on-one” exchange moderated by Eric Levitz, a staff writer like the centrist Chait but closer to Sunkara politically. That doesn’t prevent Levitz from asking the question I’ve been asked a thousand times myself: “Didn’t the 20th century prove that socialism is even worse? After all, socialists are supposed to be radical (small-d) democrats — yet, in country after country, didn’t they transform into authoritarians upon their first taste of power?”

Sunkara answers this in a crafty manner. He acknowledges that Sweden was a capitalist country but “in the 1970s was the best society we’ve ever seen” and “governed by a socialist party that fought for democracy through the 1920s and ruled virtually uninterrupted for a half-century through democratic elections.” As for those shitty dictatorships like the USSR and Cuba, Sunkara leaves it like this: “We know the tragic legacy of the latter tradition.” What’s missing from this analysis is a recognition that there was a counter-revolution in the USSR. All of the major leaders of the October 1917 revolution were executed, assassinated or died in a Gulag. So what “latter tradition” is Sunkara talking about? The Communist Party that did everything in its power to prevent Spain from consummating a socialist revolution in 1938 or that used its control over the trade union movement in France to derail the May/June 1968 revolt? No, that legacy had little to do with socialism, even if Jacobin has repeatedly held up Italy’s Stalinist leader Togliatti as someone that today’s left can learn from.

Toward the end of this panel discussion, Sunkara acknowledges that in the long run the Swedish model will be unsustainable even if Bernie Sanders was elected and went about turning the USA into another Sweden. Why? “The history of social democracy is that capital will withhold investment if it doesn’t like the prevailing political mood or constraints on its freedom. In the modern, internationalized economy, this means that social democracy is harder to achieve than it was in the 20th century.”

So, what can we look forward to from the DSA/Jacobin left? Maybe thirty or forty years of election campaigns that will finally create a “democratic socialist” majority in both houses of Congress, a president like Sanders (maybe Ocasio-Cortez herself), and a Supreme Court filled with people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the DSA backed District Attorney who is against Mumia getting a new trial . Even if this long and arduous struggle is successful, it will have been a Sisyphean effort since the capitalists will do everything in their power to subvert it. Maybe the idea is to start building a revolutionary party opposed to the Republicans and Democrats alike, one that will challenge capital politically by running candidates that raise the consciousness of the masses by exposing the contradictions of the capitalist system, such as its inability to eradicate the racism that has been at its core for the past 300 years or so. Most importantly, this will be a party that fosters the growth of working class committees that have the power to defend themselves against counter-revolutionary violence. This is the way that socialist revolutions happen and the USA won’t be an exception.

Then there is “Pinkos Have More Fun Socialism is AOC’s calling card, Trump’s latest rhetorical bludgeon, and a new way to date in Brooklyn”, a piece that makes the DSA scene look positively happening:

It’s the Friday after Valentine’s Day. The radical publishing house Verso Books is throwing its annual Red Party, an anti-romance-themed banger. Like a lot of the best lefty parties, it takes place in Verso’s book-lined Jay Street loft, ten stories above cobblestoned Dumbo. The view of the East River is splendid, the DJ is good, and the beers cost three bucks.

Before long, you get the idea that this a subculture much more than a political movement. The people appear to be very young, very educated and very white. What is the chance that a striking Spectrum worker will feel at home where this is happening?

An hour into the party, Isser and Brostoff stage a version of The Dating Game — one bachelorette, four suitors — to promote Red Yenta. Friend-of-the-app Natasha Lennard, a columnist at the Intercept, yells for quiet. “There is a service — a communal service — that is better than a Tinder, or the last hurrahs of an OKCupid,” she announces. Who wants to slog through a few bad dates only “to find out that someone is a liberal?” Brostoff takes the mic. Pins and posters are available for purchase, she says, and donations are of course welcome. “That’s how we became capitalists,” she jokes. “And that’s what you call irony. Or dialectics.”

Funny to see Natasha Lennard in this setting. A decade ago, she was a high profile anarchist who would not have found much in common with “democratic socialists”. I guess this just reflects the counter-cultural, if not the political, ebb of anarchism. She felt at home at a party that was greeted by the NYC-DSA host: “Everybody looks fuckin’ sexy as hell. This is amazing to have everybody here looking beautiful in the same room, spreading the message of socialism. Give yourselves a round of applause.” I’m glad I wasn’t invited. My days of looking beautiful are long over, plus I get sleepy around 10pm.

The most illuminating paragraph in this life-style article is this one:

Until very recently, it wasn’t that socialism was toxic in a red-scare way. It was irrelevant, in a dustbin-of-history way. But then came Bernie Sanders’s 2016 candidacy, then the membership boom of DSA, then the proliferation of socialist cultural products like Chapo, and then, finally, the spectacular rise of Ocasio-Cortez.

The politics of the socialism that they helped revive isn’t always clear. Stripped of its Soviet context and cynically repurposed by conservative partisans, the word had lost its meaning by the time it got hot again. For some DSA grandees, like NYC chapter co-chair Bianca Cunningham, socialism means a planned economy that replaces market capitalism. “It means we own the means of production. It means we get to run our workplaces and our own government,” she says. But that is unusual. For Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and most of their devotees, it’s closer to a robust version of New Deal liberalism — or, perhaps, Northern European social democracy.

No, the word has not lost its meaning, at least for people not taken in by Sunkara’s con-game. It is a system that will exist globally or else it will not exist at all. Furthermore, it will be characterized by the collective ownership of the means of production, scientific planning, and a reintegration of the city and the countryside in order to overcome the metabolic rife. It will not be launched from Verso offices in Brooklyn but in dingy meeting halls in working-class neighborhoods in Queens and their counterpart in other cities in the USA and the rest of the world. The people at its core will be garment workers, meat-cutters, bus drivers, and miners who have no idea who Slavoj Zizek or Vivek Chibber are. They will also be largely people of color, very few of whom who will have an advanced degree. Trying to find a way to reach such people was very much on the minds of people from my generation but ironically they can be reached now by a left that largely seems committed to living in a life-style cocoon.

Toward the end of the article, the author has a conversation with Michael Kinnucan, a Facebook essayist. Kinnucan provides a quasi-Marxist analysis of the explosive growth of the DSA:

Over beers in Crown Heights, we’re tracing the origins of the movement. The most straightforward explanation for the socialism boom is, fittingly, a material one: Saddled with student debt and thrust into a shit post-2008 economy, millennials were overeducated, downwardly mobile, and financially insecure. On top of everything, the internet was making them feel bad and the planet was melting. The precariat, they called themselves.

In between frequent cigarette breaks, Kinnucan sketched his version of this progression. Graduate from the University of Chicago in 2009; get bogged down in the post-crash economy; drift to Occupy Wall Street in 2011; get radicalized. “There was a Twitter hashtag and internet meme, #SIFUAB: Shit is fucked up and bullshit,” he recalled fondly. “There was a large element of collectivizing depression. The genre of meme where you write on a piece of paper and hold up the amount of student loans you have.”

This sounds about right but susceptible to the glass ceiling that has so often stopped left groups in their tracks. For “Leninist” groups like the SWP and the ISO, that glass ceiling was about two to three thousand. Such groups grew rapidly but were constrained by their insistence on a program that required ideological conformity that many leftists disdained as a kind of intellectual straight-jacket.

For the young, University of Chicago-educated, Verso Party attending, and Caucasian precariat, the glass ceiling is much higher. Who knows? The DSA might even become as large as SDS was in its heyday. Whether it will be able to attract the people who have the social and economic power to change society is doubtful at best. Maybe that doesn’t matter much since they are having lots of fun in the meantime.

Finally, we get to Levitz’s interview with Michael Kazin titled “What Does the Radical Left’s Future Look Like?” Kazin is the co-editor of Dissent, the social democratic journal that might be described as Jacobin stripped down to its pro-Democratic Party propaganda but without the Kautskyite frosting.

Kazin, who wrote a hatchet job on Howard Zinn in 2010, is a DSA fan, especially since it focuses on economic issues unlike the left of my youth that was in effect single-issue movements against the Vietnam War, for abortion rights, etc.

Kazin is not so nearly as coy as people like Sunkara and Eric Blanc when it comes to work in the Democratic Party that they regard as merely a tactic that will be discarded maybe in 2060 or so when the country is ready to vote for a third party demanding an end to the capitalist system:

If Bernie hadn’t run as a Democrat in 2016, most Americans would never have heard of him and he wouldn’t be in a position to mount the kind of campaign he’s going to run. I think the left cannot just be a movement outside the party structure, looking askance at the party and thinking that somehow it can win real reforms and transform American society without engaging with the party. You’ve got to be both radical and Democratic with a capital D.

Levitz next asks a question that really gets to the heart of what makes the DSA so different from the anarchist-dominated anti-globalization and Occupy movements that were not shy about their hostility to capitalism: “What do you think is responsible for this pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions?” So, for all the horse-shit about transcending Scandinavian social democracy and the need to establish true socialism in the far-off future, Levitz sees the DSA as a “pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions.” Put more succinctly, Levitz nails the DSA and the intellectuals who promote it in Jacobin as pragmatists working inside the Democratic Party.

Bingo.

March 4, 2019

The Comintern, the Stalintern, and the Jacobin left

Filed under: Comintern,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

When I was the age of most people writing for Jacobin today, support for Democratic Party candidates was mostly on the basis of a pragmatic, “lesser evil” philosophy that was disseminated by two key institutions, the Communist Party and Dissent Magazine. There was no illusion that voting for Hubert Humphrey had anything to do with socialism. Instead, the argument was that we had to prevent “fascism”. Despite the huge ideological differences between the CP’s Jarvis Tyner and former SDS leader and Dissent editorial board member Todd Gitlin, their orientation to the Democratic Party was based on the same arguments for “being practical”. Voting for Humphrey would prevent concentration camps, etc.

This is a far cry from the steady stream of Jacobin articles promoting work in the Democratic Party that are ostensibly grounded in Marxist theory, especially Kautsky’s writings. When Vox Magazine asked Bhaskar Sunkara to pick between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg in order to get a handle on his politics, he chose Karl Kautsky over the other two. You also get pretty much the same thing from Eric Blanc who I tend to regard as Lars Lih Jr. Lih, the elder, never made any pretensions about being a revolutionary but Blanc adapted Lih’s questionable historical research for the purposes of reviving Kautskyism for a new generation. Whatever Kautsky’s foibles, and they are many, he understood the need for class independence when it came to elections. Workers were urged to vote for Social Democratic candidates as a matter of principle. For Sunkara and Blanc, the Sandernista movement is an acceptable substitute. Unlike Hubert Humphrey, after all, Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. So what’s not to like? The understanding is that by electing Sanders president, even if his socialism is synonymous with the Swedish welfare state, it lays the groundwork for a future truly socialist society where “the boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day on the birds, the bees, and the cigarette trees.”

The latest example of Jacobin neo-Kautskyism is Loren Balhorn’s article titled “The World Revolution That Wasn’t” that makes the case for backing Sanders, A. O-C, et al within the context of a questionable history of the Comintern. One supposes that if you are lining up votes for the Democrats, you might as well try to come across as someone up to speed on the revolutionary movement. Knowing the ins and outs of the Comintern is a prerequisite for making the case for the Democratic Party, it would seem.

Balhorn  is a contributing editor at Jacobin who co-edited Jacobin: Die Anthologie with Sunkara. Steeped in Kautskyist lore, he penned an article for Jacobin in 2016 titled “A Very Kautsky Christmas” that begins: “Reading Karl Kautsky today is a peculiar undertaking. For starters, there is the burning question of ‘who actually reads Kautsky?’”. Well, I think the answer is obvious. Anybody interested in getting published in Jacobin.

Characteristically, Balhorn invokes Eric Blanc’s expertise with respect to the expectations Lenin and company had just after the Bolsheviks took power by linking to an article Blanc wrote for Historical Materialism titled “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?”. For Blanc, “neither Lenin nor the Bolshevik current in 1917 equated Soviet power as such with workers’ power.” I guess if the goal is to persuade young people to ring doorbells for Bernie Sanders, step one is coming up with a revisionist history of the Russia Revolution that will have the biggest impact on those who have never read “State and Revolution”.

Balhorn’s account of the failed 1923 revolution in Germany places most of the blame on the German CP:

Things could not have played out in a more German way. Opponents of the insurrection moved that the resolution be delegated to a subcommittee, which in turn agonized and delayed until the Communists, outmaneuvered and unlikely to win a majority, revoked their plan.

Actually, the 1923 fiasco was predetermined by another fiasco that occurred in 1921 when Bela Kuhn, the Comintern’s emissary in Germany, combined with ultraleft elements in the German party to launch what amounted to a putsch. Paul Levi was so appalled by the results that he urged a new strategy based on a united front of the Socialists and Communists that fell on deaf ears from the ultralefts. Going over their heads, he wrote a public criticism of Kun and company that led to an expulsion blessed by Lenin. His departure left the party in the hands of mediocrities who were all too willing to be led around by the nose two years later. Trotsky, who should have known better, cajoled party leader Heinrich Brandler into picking a date for an insurrection timed with the date the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. In a nutshell, the German CP would have been better off if the Comintern had simply allowed it to make its own decisions.

Balhorn skims over the evolution of the Comintern in subsequent years, as Stalin consolidated his control over the Russian CP and its satellites worldwide: “As time wore on and Stalin eventually removed all of his opponents real and imagined, the Comintern was reduced to a tool of Soviet foreign policy, subject to Moscow’s central political direction.”

What’s swept under the rug is Comintern policy during the 1930s, which for all practical purposes is the same as the Jacobin left today. With Stalin in the driver’s seat, the Comintern became the Stalintern, an instrument of class-collaborationism that was consummated in the Popular Front. For the first time in socialist history, it became acceptable for Communists to vote for bourgeois politicians like FDR or become part of a coalition government alongside capitalist parties, as was the case in both Spain and France with disastrous results.

For Communists in the USA, the Popular Front was a chance to bask in glory. Unlike the 1920s, the CP was almost as “in” as the DSA today. It had tens of thousands of members who were doing all sorts of good things, just like the DSA today. Voting for the New Deal was seen as a necessary stage in the long struggle for socialism, just as voting for Bernie Sanders is today even if the Marxist authority to justify crossing class lines was Dimitrov rather than Kautsky.

For the Jacobin left, 1930s Stalinism is just as necessary for justifying their orientation to the Democratic Party, even if Stalin is still a bête noire in their circles. Instead, their go-to guy is Palmiro Togliatti, the long-time leader of the Italian CP. In a telling article by David Broder (a historian and translator just like Loren Balhorn) titled “Assessing Togliatti”,  there is an attempt to put the best possible face on the Italian Popular Front. Besides Broder, you also get praise of Togliatti from Stathis Kouvelakis and Peter D. Thomas that I discuss here. Thomas was particularly effusive: “In addition to his own theoretical writings — of much greater value than is often supposed today — Togliatti was also a theoretician of politics engaged in creating a hegemonic apparatus that encouraged a profound and real dialectic and real critique of the politics of his period.”

My take on Togliatti is based on my experience seeing the Italian CP in action (or inaction) in the 1960s when it denounced the student movement as “adventuristic” and reading Paul Ginsborg’s history of modern Italy that is exceptionally sharp on the CP:

As well as elevating Stalin into a father-figure of superhuman proportions, the party portrayed the Soviet Union as a society where the problems of democracy and social justice had been definitively resolved. In L’ Unitet of 2 February 1952 Mario Alicata wrote from Russia that “this is the first country in the history of the world in which all men are finally free”. As late as March 1956 we find Luigi Longo insisting that unemployment had been completely abolished in all the socialist countries, that wages and living conditions were constantly improving and that the ordinary working day was being reduced to seven or even six hours.

However, the most insidious elements of Stalinism were not the aberrant judgements on Stalin himself or the Soviet Union, but the attitudes that permeated the life and activity of the party at home. The tradition of uncritical adulation of leaders was only too easily transferred to Italy, where Togliatti seemed happy to allow absurd tributes to be paid to him by lesser comrades and exaggerated stories of his role in the early history of the PCI to be published in the party press. The habit developed, and even the finest brains in the PCI like Amendola and Ingrao indulged in it, of citing the writings of the historic leaders of the party, Gramsci and Togliatti, as if they were biblical texts to serve as sermons of the day.

After his spurious account of the Comintern draws to a conclusion, Balhorn gets to the real point of his article, which is to drum up support for the leftwing of the Democratic Party:

Today the distinction between revolution and reform appears less immediately relevant. With overall levels of class struggle and organization still at historic lows, and insurgent politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn popularizing socialism in a way not seen in decades, it seems obvious where the action is. Some socialists argue we should refrain from involving ourselves in these developments but rather “pull them to the Left” by “engaging in real struggles” outside the institutional sphere.

This argument might sound nice, and certainly more radical. But in fact, it represents a hangover from the Comintern days when reformist and revolutionary socialism both represented real mass movements and the choice between the two actually meant something. The problem is that no revolutionary left of any significance exists. To abstain from the breathtaking developments in electoral politics will ensure only that nobody notices that socialists are trying to pull them to the left at all.

Reading over these two paragraphs, you are struck by one obfuscation after another. For example, what is “outside the institutional sphere”? Why can’t Balhorn simply say “outside of the Democratic Party” since that is really what he means? Furthermore, in making an amalgam between Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn, he blurs the difference between voting for Labour and voting for Democrats. Whatever failings Labour has,  this is a party that has roots in the Second International and the labor movement. If it is ruled out that Corbyn can put an end to capitalism in England, even to the point of his disavowing that as an aim, at least it can be said that there is a real social movement with heavy and active working-class support behind him. The Sandernistas, by contrast, have absolutely no ties to the working class and pin all their hopes on getting Democrats elected.

If abstaining from “the breathtaking developments in electoral politics” leads to nobody noticing socialists “trying to pull them to the left”, there’s really no reply. But if this is the purpose of the Jacobin left and the DSA, that certainly leaves a vacuum that will remain empty until a revolutionary movement begins to take shape and begin filling it up. Balhorn warns against a “hangover” from the Comintern days when reformist and revolutionary socialism both represented real mass movements and the choice between the two actually meant something.

What an odd formulation. My reading of the 1920s and 30s differs sharply from his. In fact, the mass movements of that time were sadly devoid of revolutionary politics. By 1923, the Communist Party in Russia had become hostile to Marxism, even as it was defending a bureaucratic regime in the name of Marxism. The first indication of where things were going was  the Shanghai disaster of 1927. The Comintern insisted that the Chinese CP soft-pedal criticisms of the Kuomintang and to operate only as a disciplined bloc within the nationalist organization. The net result was the arrest of a 1,000 Communists, the execution of 300, and another 5,000 gone missing.

From 1927 until the most recent past, Stalin and his successors were gravediggers of revolutions. What is necessary today is a new international of revolutionary socialists that Balhorn writes off because there is no mass revolutionary movement in the USA. I don’t think this the proper stance of an internationalist. There are important insurgent movements that began to take shape after 2011, which demanded solidarity from the left, especially its most advanced contingent in Syria that had a strong anti-capitalist dynamic early on as reported by Anand Gopal in Harpers.

Instead, Jacobin slandered the Syrian revolution as a counter-revolution, relying on the analysis of Assadists like Greg Shupak, Patrick Higgins, and Asa Winstanley rather than the Syrian or Arab left. Finally, after 4 years of publishing reactionary garbage of the sort that appears on Consortium News or Global Research, the magazine changed gears. Did Bhaskar Sunkara have a change of heart or did he finally decide that Assadism was not a marketable product? Marx advocated the “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Let’s adopt that as our guiding star, even if it is not marketable.

March 1, 2019

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People

Filed under: Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 10:31 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in NY and at the Laemmle a week from now is the documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People” that despite being made before 2016 (based on the typical schedule of film productions) could not be more relevant to the current crisis. With the battle between Donald Trump and the “mainstream media” over “fake news”, a look at the life and career of Joseph Pulitzer will give us the perspective we need on how newspapers functioned in the broader fabric of American society during the Gilded Age. He symbolized the ultimate contradictions of the capitalist press. Determined to boost circulation, he tailed after William Randolph Hearst’s “fake news” during the Spanish-American War and lived to regret it. If “click bait” is the bête noire of electronic media, so was the circulation wars between Pulitzer’s The World and Hearst’s The Journal. For those who are nostalgic for the good old days of responsible reporting, seeing this excellent documentary will remind you how much they have in common with the bad new days we are living through now.

Born in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian Jew who grew up in dire poverty. Of his 8 siblings, only one other grew into adulthood. His father died when he was 11, leaving the family to its own devices. At the age of 17, he took advantage of a recruitment offer from the Union army. Since Lincoln had a shortage of troops as a result of rich northerners paying bribes to keep their kids from serving, immigrants would get tickets to America to replenish the ranks.

Managing to stay alive, Pulitzer found himself unemployed at the end of the war but resourceful enough to “Go West, Young Man” as Horace Greeley put it. He ended up in St. Louis and found himself playing chess with Carl Schurz, the German revolutionary who was a “Forty-Eighter” just like Pulitzer’s uncles. That in itself might have recommended him to Schurz but the older and highly successful man was far more impressed with the beating he took at the chessboard from the youth. Seeing him as a gifted individual, he hired him to work at his newspaper. Rising rapidly to the top, Pulitzer amassed enough money to buy what would become the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper that the family owned until 2005.

As ambitious as he was shrewd, Pulitzer decided that New York was the place to go if you wanted to be in the media “big leagues”. Leveraging the money he made in St. Louis, Pulitzer bought The World and turned into the kind of newspaper that he pioneered, namely a tabloid-style voice that took up the cause of poor people and that held the feet of the rich to the fire.

I say “tabloid-style” because it was a full-page newspaper like the NY Times rather than the NY Post or the NY Daily News. However, the emphasis was on attention-getting stories about corruption, Gilded Age plutocracy of the sort symbolized by Stephen Schwarzman today, and “human interest” stories about the kinds of people who paid a penny each day to read The World.

A typical circulation ploy by Pulitzer was to publicize the need for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was being put together during the paper’s rise to the top. He called on New Yorkers to contribute to a fund to pay for the pedestal and who would be recognized for their contribution by being named in an Honor Roll in the paper. He made sure to update the Honor Roll only several days after the contribution was made (usually between a penny and a dime) in order to encourage those making a donation to buy the paper each day until their name showed up.

In 1895, Harvard graduate and rich kid William Randolph Hearst came to New York from California and launched the Journal. Showing the kind of mercilessness depicted in his fictional version in “Citizen Kane”, he began poaching reporters and editors from the World. In addition, he adopted the tabloid style of the World that was expressed above all by Hogan’s Alley, a comic strip that featured a bald kid in a yellow nightshirt nicknamed The Yellow Kid. After Hearst lured the author to the Journal, he escalated the sensationalism to the point of caricature, so much so that the term “yellow journalism” encompassed both newspaper.

When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, Hearst featured the same kinds of articles that led up to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and LBJ’s war in Vietnam before that. “Fake news” would be an understatement. Under pressure to sell newspapers, Pulitzer began publishing the same kind of “yellow journalism” but would live to regret it. Close to his death, he featured investigative reporting on President Theodore Roosevelt’s virtual colonization of Panama that was calculated to enrich investors in the new canal. Roosevelt was so incensed that he sued Pulitzer for libel but the Supreme Court ruled in Pulitzer’s favor in the interest of freedom of the press.

The film benefits from interviews with academic historians and media professors but above all one interviewee stands out, namely Nicholson Baker, the author of the WII revisionist (after the fashion of Howard Zinn) “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization”. In 1999, Baker discovered that the British Library had plans to junk more than 2,000 bound volumes of American newspapers, including hundreds of editions of Joseph Pulitzer’s ground-breaking color pages of the New York World. Baker spent $26,000 of his own money to rescue the archives and the film would not be nearly so brilliant without their images.

Most of us know the name Pulitzer through the annual prizes bestowed in his name. He funded the awards and the Columbia Journalism School as well. He was a complex man who deserved the complex treatment he received in this film. If newspapers are in bad shape today, we can at least be grateful that documentary film is in its golden age.

Caracas Chronicles, Part I of an Ongoing Series

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

I just got back from Venezuela and I’ll be writing a lot about the country next week. Virtually everything you read or see about the country in the U.S. media is a lie. And to be clear, I don’t mean skewed or misleading or incomplete, I mean a lie.

For example, people in Venezuela are not starving — at least very few are, if any — nor is the country a dictatorship. But that’s exactly what you would believe from reading the likes of the atrocious Hannah Dreier, who failed upward from the Associated Press to ProPublica, that beacon of investigative reporting, and who has been a chief propagandist for the rancid old oligarchy.

I was all over the barrios of Caracas, especially San Augustin.

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