Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 21, 2019

Shtisel

Filed under: Jewish question,television — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

Over the past month, I watched seasons one and two of “Shtisel”, an Israeli soap opera (for the last of a better term) about haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews living in Jerusalem. It has little to do with Israeli politics or society since the characters disdain the Zionist project entirely. In season one, Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, the bullheaded patriarch of the Shtisel clan, decides to prevent the young students at the yeshiva where he teaches from watching the air show of the Israeli air force to their dismay. His son Akiva, who teaches there as well, overrules his father and allows the kids to watch the planes through the yeshiva windows. This should not be interpreted as his openness to Zionism, only his “softness” to the kids. He has zero interest in politics. All his energy is focused on drawing and painting, “hobbies” frowned upon in the Haredi world. The conflict between father and son provide most of the tension in this stellar drama. On a personal level, you are drawn into their test of wills but on a larger canvas, this is the central drama of the ultra-orthodox everywhere in the world, one between the closed, ritualistic and suffocating social norms and the yearning of young orthodox Jews to taste the forbidden pleasures of the outside world.

None of the characters in Shtisel are played by the Haredi themselves, an outcome dictated by their disdain for television entertainment, especially one that was critical of their values. Dov Glickman, who plays the father, is a veteran Israeli actor who began his career performing in the IDF’s naval revues. His son is played by Michael Aloni, who also played one of the cops in “Our Boys”. Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky conceived the idea for the show and have co-written the scripts. They bring a level of realism that you might expect from men who grew up in an ultra-orthodox family.

If you are a Jew, “Shtisel” might resonate with you more than the average viewer but rest assured that once you get past the oddities of Haredi life (they pray before drinking a glass of water), you will find each episode immediately recognizable and touching. For example, in season one Akiva has fallen head over heels in love with a woman who is probably 7 years older than him and widowed twice. Since the Haredi use matchmakers often given instructions to bring together a man and woman together based on traditional values, the idea of Rabbi Shtisel’s son marrying an older woman and one who had two husbands dying on her was not one he would tolerate. He must have taken Tina Turner at her word when she sang, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Once you get past the ultra-orthodox parameters of the conflict, you soon realize that Akiva’s determination to marry the woman he loves rather than one his father deems “appropriate” is basic to family dramas of any religion or race. What makes “Shtisel” so amazing is its ability to make the narrowly particular so universal.

For those who have seen the 2017 American film “Menashe”, you will immediately recognize its kinship with the Israeli TV series. What made “Menashe” so exceptional was the willingness of an American Haredi man (Menachem Lustig) to take the leading role of a widower who will have to accept his son becoming part of another observant family unless he remarries. Like “Shtisel”, matchmaking is a key part of the drama. I consider “Menashe” a masterpiece and urge you to see it on the usual streaming services including YouTube.

In my review, I stated:

Like John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”, Menashe has a low-paying job as a clerk in a retail store—in his case a small supermarket owned by a fellow Hasid. He owes his landlord back payments on rent and is constantly hitting up his boss for loans. In the first hint that the film is not romanticizing Hasidic life, Menashe argues with his boss about selling unwashed lettuce to a Hasidic housewife, a violation of strict Jewish dietary laws. He is told that the store’s profits are more important than following scripture.

Among the key characters in “Shtisel” is Shulem’s brother Nuchem who has returned to Jerusalem from  Belgium where he runs various businesses, much of which seem to be bending ethical rules of one sort or another. When one of them is on the verge of failure, he implores Shulem to sign for a loan to keep it afloat. Shulem agrees but only on one condition. His brother has to sign a statement acknowledging his refusal to live up to his responsibilities as a son. He left it up entirely to Shulem to look after their ailing mother, a situation obviously not restricted to the ultra-orthodox.

Judaism is an odd religion. It is based on the need to carry out “mitzvahs”, which means commandments. So, when I was growing up, you frequently heard something as a “real mitzvah” in the sense of being charitable or benign in the Christian sense, like Jesus attending to lepers. However, for the ultra-orthodox, the mitzvah would be something like saying a prayer before drinking a glass of water or wearing side curls—acts having little to do with ethics.

In 2001, I read a book titled “Postville” by Stephen Bloom that told the story of the Rubashkins, a Lubavitcher family that had taken ownership of a meatpacking plant in Iowa in order to turn it into a major purveyor of kosher meat. Bloom, who is a secular Jew and writing professor at the U. of Iowa, ingratiated himself into their world and spent many evenings with them drinking vodka and sharing feasts at Friday night shabbat dinners.

Even if they followed every single mitzvah to the letter, these were people of the deepest moral failings. Hundreds of undocumented immigrants offered accounts of Rubashkin fostering a hostile workplace that included 12-hour shifts without overtime pay, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and sexual harassment.

Sentenced to 27 years for his crimes, Sholom Rubashkin’s sentence was commuted by Trump in 2017. No doubt Jared Kushner helped persuade his father-in-law to free the monster because his understanding of the “mitzvah” was the same as the packing house owner. Just say your prayers and you will be “righteous”, whatever that means. Kushner has donated $250,000 to the Lubavitcher movement that unlike the Haredi depicted in “Shtisel” sees Israel as evidence of God’s will.

In 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu was running for his first term as prime minister, the Lubavitchers ran a costly campaign with the slogan. “Netanyahu. It’s good for the Jews.” The campaign was financed by Josef Gutnick, a wealthy Australian businessman with close ties to the late Lubavitcher rabbi and a major supporter of the settlement movement.

On September 7th, the Sunday Times Book Review covered Times reporter Bari Weiss’s new book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. The reviewer was Hillel Halkin, a rightwing Zionist who found her attempts to synthesize liberalism and Zionism laughable. Halkin is a regular contributor to The New York Sun, a neoconservative newspaper that was launched by Conrad Black in 2001 as an alternative to The New York Times. Black was found guilty of financial fraud in 2007 and sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison.

Halkin’s review was in keeping with tendencies both in the USA and in Israel to align Judaism with reactionary politics. In the case of Israel, of course, the term reactionary is relative. Even under the most “liberal” Zionist government, Israel was already moving rapidly toward consolidating an apartheid state. Halkin understands this tendency and fails to understand why Weiss does not. It would occur to me that before very long, the split in Judaism will become so deep that the two camps will begin to consider each other as mortal enemies. Halkin sounds like he wants to “bring it on”:

Weiss fails to realize that she herself is an example of the wishful thinking about Judaism that is ubiquitous among American Jewish liberals. One might call this the Judaism of the Sunday school, a religion of love, tolerance, respect for the other, democratic values and all the other virtues to which American Jews pay homage. This is a wondrous Judaism indeed — and one that has little to do with anything that Jewish thought or observance has historically stood for. “We’ve always been there,” Weiss approvingly quotes a friend of hers, hurt to the quick by the proposed banning of “Jewish pride flags” at the 2019 Washington Dyke March. Always? As if the right to define oneself sexually as one pleases were a cause Jews have fought for over the ages!

As a matter of historical record, it was Greek and Roman high society, not the Jews, that practiced and preached polymorphous sexual freedom. Judaism fiercely opposed such an acceptance of sexual diversity, against which it championed the procreative family, the taming of anarchic passions, and the cosmically ordained nature of normative gender distinctions that goes back to the first chapter of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image. … Male and female created he them.” And while we’re at it, it was the Greeks, not the Jews, who invented democracy. What mattered to Jews throughout nearly all of their history (and still does to a considerable number of them today) was the will of God as interpreted by religious authority, not free elections.

Judaism as liberalism with a prayer shawl is a distinctly modern development. It started with the 19th-century Reform movement in Germany, from which it spread to America with the reinforcement of the left-wing ideals of the Russian Jewish labor movement. As much as such a conception of their ancestors’ faith has captured the imagination of most American Jews, it is hard to square with 3,000 years of Jewish tradition. Weiss has delivered a praiseworthy and concise brief against modern-day anti-Semitism, but if she thinks this long tradition is ultimately compatible with contemporary American liberal beliefs, she might want to take a closer look. Honestly regarded, Judaism tells another story.

October 18, 2019

Our Boys

Filed under: Counterpunch,Palestine,television — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 18, 2019

Last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a boycott against Israel’s channel 12 for producing the HBO mini-series “Our Boys.” He described it as anti-Semitic and slandering Israel internationally. This month I watched “Our Boys” and can recommend it not only as a docudrama but as a brutally honest retelling of how the Israeli cops apprehended 3 West Bank settlers that murdered a 16-year old Palestinian boy. They were seeking to avenge Hamas’s killing of 3 teen-aged boys who were settlers like them. What makes the show so authentic was the division of labor between Israeli and Palestinian film-makers who were determined to get the story right. The Israelis wrote the script for the Jewish characters. They were either cops or part of the West Bank settlement that bred the racism that allowed 3 men to beat a defenseless teen with a wrench until barely conscious. They finished him off by pouring gasoline down his throat and then setting fire to him.

It was left to director/screenwriter Tawfik Abu-Wael to bring the Palestinians to life. To his great credit, he has made the parents of the martyred son Mohammed Abu Khdeir two of the more fully realized Palestinian characters in any film I have seen. As the father Hussein Abu Khdeir, Johnny Arbid portrays a man being torn by two opposing forces, even to the point of splitting him in half psychologically. On one side is the Palestinian community that is mainly interested in his son being exploited as a martyr to benefit the movement. On the other is the Israeli police that needs his cooperation to help them make the arrest and prosecution of 3 settlers acceptable to most Israelis. His presence at the trial is key, even if it means defying the Palestinian political leadership. They denounce the trial in advance as being a farce that would allow the 3 to go free. His wife Suha Abu Khdeir (Ruba Blal) can accept his decision to cooperate with the police but is still distrustful enough to consider not showing up for the trial. Their drama, including the horrors of discovering what happened to their son, helps to draw you into the story.

Continue reading

October 16, 2019

The Cave

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

This Friday, “The Cave” opens at the Metrograph in NYC at 9pm. Directed by Feras Fayyad, who will be on hand for the Q&A, it tells the story of the main hospital in East Ghouta that was forced to operate below ground in order to escape relentless Russian aerial bombardment. It is focused on three women who chose to work in dangerous conditions and with none of the blandishments a medical profession affords. Their heroism is a reminder that the Syrian revolution brought out the best of the people even if people like Tulsi Gabbard would have you believe that their ambition was to impose sharia law and carry out a new 9/11 attack.

Dr. Amani Ballour is the hospital’s manager. Not only does she have to contend with Russian warplanes, she also to put up with patriarchal attitudes among the men she is serving. Early on, we see her trying to explain that since East Ghouta is under siege, he won’t be able to get the medication his wife needs from the hospital pharmacy. He replies that if it were a man who was managing the hospital, the medication would be available.

“The Cave” was directed by Feras Fayyad, who also directed “Last Men in Aleppo” in 2017, a documentary about the White Helmets that can now be seen on Amazon for $3.99. In my CounterPunch review of that film, I pointed to its value as a corrective to the propaganda offensive mounted by the likes of Max Blumenthal and company:

Despite the bleak situation faced by Syrian rebels and the dead certainty that Assad will remain in power, there are leftists who will greet the release of “Last Men in Aleppo” in the same way they greeted “The White Helmets”–as a propaganda film designed to burnish the reputation of a group serving al-Qaeda’s interests in Syria. In articles by Vanessa Beeley, Rania Khalek, Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, you get the same talking points that you get in RT.com. The White Helmets are creatures of the USA and Britain designed to make Assad look bad, just like those “false flag” sarin gas attacks.

Seeing “The Cave” can be a wrenching experience since so much of it is devoted to the suffering of people, most of them children, who are brought into the hospital for emergency treatment. We see the three female doctors working under impossible conditions as the roar of Russian jets penetrates to the underground hospital they serve.

Unlike other documentary filmmakers, Fayyad’s lived experience made him uniquely positioned to capture the human drama of first responders in Aleppo and female physicians in East Ghouta. Like them, he was part of the most powerful revolutionary upsurge of the 21st century. If any proof was needed of the threat it posed to the rich and the powerful, it is the scorched earth policy of Assad and his Russian allies that shows the need for throttling the infant in the cradle.

In March 2011, Bashar al-Assad began cracking down on the country’s nascent pro-democracy movement. Because he had made a film about an exiled Syrian poet, Fayyad was arrested, imprisoned and tortured for 15 months. The dictatorship not only jailed protestors but anyone seen as even slightly sympathetic to their cause.

Fayyad was an eye-witness to the savagery of Syrian prisons. “One of the things that you heard all the time was the torture of women and children. And women would be tortured mostly because they were women. The regime was using women as tools of war, to intimidate and attack its opponents. I came out of prison destroyed, angry. As a male growing up in a family of strong women, this was very personal for me. I felt that someday I had to use my voice as a filmmaker to speak out.”

Since East Ghouta was under siege, Fayyad was forced to recruit a film team that would work under his direction from afar. Filmed in East Ghouta between 2016 and 2018, when a regime chemical attack precipitated an exodus to Idlib by the doctors and their patients, “The Cave” makes the audience feel close to claustrophobic and frightening underground environment. The primary subjects of the film rarely venture to the surface, where the risk of being killed by a Russian warplane is very high.

Most of their lives is spent in artificially lit rooms with cellphones the primary connection to the outside world, including Dr. Amani’s poignant phone calls to her father. By showing both their harrowing experiences as emergency room attending physicians and their quotidian existence preparing meals, celebrating birthdays (there is no cake, only popcorn) and trading friendly jibes, we can connect with them as complex characters. Fayyad says, “Of course, the bombings and terrible events that happen are powerful and important to capture. But I also wanted to shine a light on the small, quiet details of each day – things that at first glance may seem unimportant but that, when looked at with more care, are actually the things that make us human.  That enable us to survive.”

October 14, 2019

Why you should donate to the CounterPunch fund-drive

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

I began writing for CounterPunch (CP)  in August, 2012. My first article was a defense of Pussy Riot against some of their “anti-imperialist” detractors on CP who felt the need to defend the “silent majority” in Russia from such anarchist ne’er-do-wells. It is important to understand that I was invited to write such an article by Jeffrey St. Clair who has always defended ideological diversity in CP despite attempts to depict it as having an agenda. If you really want to understand why there was always a ratio of 10 articles in favor of Assad for every one of mine, it is simply a function of so few people opposed to Assad having the discipline and presence of mind to write something. For all the years I have been writing for CP, the integrity of the editorial team of Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank is beyond reproach. Their only agenda is to put out a lively and popular leftist print and online magazine that will live up to the reputation of the late Alexander Cockburn who was its guiding light for many years. If anything, Jeffrey and Joshua have not only kept up to those high standards but have been responsible for making the CP better than ever.

Since CP articles are not divided into categories and since there are so many of them, it might be difficult to identify the themes or concerns that make it special. Hopefully, after I identify the ones I deem most important, you will understand the need for opening up your wallet or pocketbook for the current fund-drive.

ECOLOGICAL CRISIS/SPECIES EXTINCTION

Since Alexander Cockburn and the current editors have all written about ecology for various magazines before launching CP, it is not a big surprise that this is one of its major focuses. Last month, as I was reading Christopher Ketcham’s “This Land” for a CP review, I began to cross-reference the activists he was profiling with the CP archives. To my amazement, most were regular contributors to CP just like Ketcham. One of them was George Wuerthner, who has written 213 articles for CP over the years and over 36 books on various aspects of ecology and species preservation. A recent article on “How Agriculture and Ranching Subvert the Rewilding of America” is must-reading since it challenges the growth-oriented perspective of most Green New Deal advocates. Having people like Wuerthner contributing to CP should not be underestimated. With Extinction Rebellion activists putting their bodies on the line to protest incursions into rainforests and publicly-owned lands in America’s western states, getting the word out on key battles between Trump’s lackeys and those on the front lines is essential.

CLASS INDEPENDENCE IN THE ELECTORAL ARENA

CounterPunch has become a firewall against the viral spread of “socialist” support for the Democratic Party. While respecting ideological diversity (CP probably has as many pro-Bernie articles as anti), the magazine has become a pole of attraction for people who view the Democratic Party as the graveyard of protest movements. Jacobin, the main purveyor of socialists orienting to the DP, has a rating of 25,661 on Alexa globally. By contrast, CP is rated at 50,354. Given all the glowing praise Jacobin has received in the bourgeois press, its numbers are not that surprising. Just imagine if Jeffrey St. Clair was getting fawning interviews in the NY Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker. CP would probably have a rating twice as high. Of course, they don’t write puff pieces about CP because they rightly understand that its editors and readers mean business.

A PLATFORM FOR INDEPENDENT MARXIST ANALYSIS.

I am not the only independent Marxist writer who has made CP his or her home. Without much fanfare, CP has become a much more important and reliable source of Marxist analysis than any other publication on the left. While Jacobin does have good material, it is often written from an academic perspective and not entirely relevant to an activist readership. Just off the top of my head, I think of regular contributors like Pete Dolack, Michael Yates, Victor Grossman, Patrick Bond and Michael Balter as exemplars of the non-dogmatic and highly informed Marxism that needs to be given a platform. With the dissolution of the ISO, an important voice of classical Marxism has disappeared. As long as CP keeps going, you can be sure that it will continue to publish articles that are not only faithful to the Marxist method but written with the type of panache we are accustomed to seeing in CP.

TAKE OUT YOUR POCKETBOOKS AND WALLETS NOW

I am sure that anybody reading this can afford to donate $50 to the fund-drive. That comes to a dollar a week, less than you spend on chewing gum or coffee. Go here (https://store.counterpunch.org/) and chip in right now. It will make you feel great afterwards.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a review of Richard Seymour’s “The Twittering Machine”, a book that takes a dystopian look at social media. While I believe that Richard was on-target, I still believe that its possibilities for radical change are enormous. The willingness of people to work collectively and for free on Wikipedia should indicate that not everybody is in it for a fast buck.

Without any advertising, CP relies heavily on reader contributions. Most of us have gotten use to the idea that nothing is really free on the Net even though you are not paying for a subscription. Just spend 2 minutes on Salon or Alternet and you will see an ad that covers every inch of your screen. You can understand why such magazines rely on ads since their analysis is not much different than what you get on MSNBC. CP, on the other hand, can avoid such commercialism because it relies on a reader base that hates capitalism. I will leave it like this. To show how much you hate capitalism, there’s no better way of expressing it than donating to the CounterPunch fund drive. DO IT NOW.

October 12, 2019

Country Music

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Many people associate country music with those whom Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” or those Obama characterized as clinging to their guns and religion. I felt that way myself until I got to Houston in 1973 and began listening to country music driving to work each day. This was before the two country stations had become commercialized and unlistenable just as is the case with NYC’s WNSH (as in Nashville). You could hear Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, and even classics from Hank Williams in each and every hour. It also helped that my best friend in Houston, the late Nelson Blackstock, was an avid country music fan with a large collection. The two of us used to go hear Asleep at the Wheel whenever they were in town. This was a Western Swing band that played in the style of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It was led by Ray Benson, a Jew from Philadelphia who Nelson adored.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three different documentaries on country music. Two are films opening in N.Y. this week and the other was an episode from Ken Burns’s Country Music series on PBS that is being streamed for the benefit of people not living in the USA. All are a pleasure to watch and will help you get some perspective on a type of music that, like jazz, can be regarded as a national treasure.

If you’ve seen “Walk the Line”, the very good biopic about Johnny Cash, you’ll be familiar with the broad outlines of “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash”, especially since his story is so well-known. His drug problems, his meteoric rise to fame, his marriage to June Carter, and his identification with the underdog are no secret. But what makes this documentary so special is the extraordinary range of figures in the music world who were close to Cash, including Rick Rubin, the record producer responsible for his last albums, including the one with his heart-rending version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”.

The biopic glosses over an important part of Cash’s struggles, namely his inability to line up record contracts in the 2000s as a result of his drug-induced unreliability and changing tastes. The records Rubin produced made Cash a star once again and helped him go out on a high note with young fans embracing him.

The technique of the film is interesting. Director Thom Zimny, who has a long history making shorts with Bruce Springsteen, got his hands on an audio recording of Cash towards the end of his life and uses it as a voice-over for most of the scenes depicted in the film. Without that voice-over, it would still be a very good movie but having it makes it great.

A lot of Zimny’s film will be a revelation for most of us. It turns out that Cash was a strong supporter of indigenous rights and defied prejudices in the industry in a struggle to make sure that the songs got heard on country stations. When he ran into resistance, he paid for a full-page ad in Billboard explaining why the issue was so important to him. Two years ago, after the fascists marched in Charlottesville, Cash’s children were horrified to learn that one of them was seen a news clip wearing a Johnny Cash t-shirt. Billboard covered the story in an article titled “Johnny Cash’s Family Condemns White Supremacist: Read Cash’s 1964 Letter to Radio Stations” that will give a good idea of how important Cash was in using popular culture to change minds.

The children of late country legend Johnny Cash remember their father as a peaceful social justice advocate. So when video footage of the neo-Nazi rallies that broke out in Charlottesville over the weekend captured one white supremacist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt, the singer’s daughter, Roseanne Cash, spoke out.

“[Johnny Cash] would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our society, and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII,” Roseanne wrote in an emotional Facebook post also signed by Kathy, Cindy and Tara Cash.

“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” opened yesterday at Cinema Village in NY and will open at the Laemmle in LA on October 25th.

“Fiddlin’” opens at the Cinema Village on October 18th and at the Laemmle in LA on the same day. Directed by Julie Simone and produced by her sister Vicki Vlasic, the film consists of performances by and interviews with some of the best “old timey” musicians in the USA. Perhaps the term “old timey” may not ring a bell with you. In a nutshell, it is the guitar, banjo and fiddle based music that the settlers of the Appalachian mountains developed in the 19th century, bringing their traditions from the British isles with them. Since the banjo originated in Africa, there is little question about old timey music being the first to bring Black and whites together culturally.

We hear from the musicians at a yearly fiddler’s competition in Galax, Virginia. The film has a seamless transition between performance and background on the musicians through interviews. One of the things we learn from them is that bluegrass evolved out of old timey music in the same way that bebop evolved out of swing bands. Old timey music is basically ensemble music while bluegrass, which was pioneered by Bill Monroe in the 1940s, allowed for virtuoso performances by soloists. There is little doubt that bluegrass had a lot more commercial possibilities as Monroe and other stars signed lucrative record deals with RCA et al. It seems like at least 3 out 4 of the performers at Galax had day jobs as welders, carpenters, guitar makers, housewives, etc. They play the music because they love it. After you’ve seen this very appealing film, you’ll understand why.

Some of you might remember Tony Thomas, an African-Leader of the SWP. After leaving the party, he began devoting most of his time to playing the banjo and studying the African-American role in making this instrument part of the old timey heritage. This video should be of interest:

So should this one:

I am sure Tony would disagree with me but I think this endeavor will count for a lot more than his sectarian political career.

Ken Burns’s “Country Music” follows the same formula as the series he did on jazz but is much better since it does not rely on the questionable input of Black neoconservative Stanley Crouch. The research on this new series was done by Dayton Duncan, a longtime collaborator. Whatever qualms I had about Burns in the past were abandoned because of his work on the documentary “The Central Park Five” alongside his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. This film was more than social commentary. Like the HBO documentaries on the West Memphis Three who were falsely accused of Satanic ritual murders of cub scouts, Ken and his team helped to build the movement to free the young men who were victims of the same kind of hysteria.

I saw episode 5, titled “The Sons and Daughters of America (1964 – 1968)”, of “Country Music” that can be seen for free here.  (Episodes 1 through 3 are behind a paywall.)

Like the Johnny Cash documentary, it is graced by a terrific array of musicologists and musicians who know the history well. Special mention must be made of Dwight Yoakam, the country and western singer who has also acted in a number of films, including being cast as a true “deplorable” in Billie Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade”.

When he started out, Yoakam insisted on playing “honky tonk” music rather than the horrible commercialized Nashville sound you hear on country stations today. This is the kind of music Hank Williams made and is to the white working-class of the 40s and 50s what the blues were to their Black co-workers. Of course, what makes is all so interesting is the interaction between black and white in the early stages of the music, just as was the case with Appalachia’s old timey sounds.

Episode 1 of the series begins with Jimmy Rodgers, the white railroad worker born in 1897 who virtually invented country music in the same way that Louis Armstrong invented jazz. Rodgers used a guitar to back up his blues yodeling. Rodgers influenced African-American blues musicians but he likely never would have developed his unique style without being open to the Black sounds all around him growing up in the Deep South.

Episode 5 is set against the turmoil of the sixties and shows how in addition to Johnny Cash taking up the cause of native Americans, women performers began to confront the sexist conventions of the industry that allowed male stars to always refer to someone like strong women like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn as “little girls” on the Grand Old Opry and other shows.

The best part is devoted to Merle Haggard, who raised the hackles of antiwar activists because of his pro-war hit “Okee from Muskogee” that begins:

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free

Years later, Haggard said, “It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool… and most of America was under the same assumptions I was. As it’s stayed around now for 40 years, I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. … I’ve become educated. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now.”

Politically, Haggard is just as estimable as Johnny Cash. He will go down in musical history as the bard of the American working-class. Born in a railroad car and penniless for his entire youth, Haggard decided to try to make a life in music since he saw that a life of crime was leading him to an early death. At San Quentin, he became a model prisoner and just after his parole became a superstar in short order.

This is Haggard at his best.

 

October 11, 2019

Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Jewish question,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

Recently, Pluto Press came out with Nathaniel Flakin’s “Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers.” It pays tribute to another Jewish Trotskyist who displayed incredible heroism and dedication to proletarian internationalism. Like Leon, Monath was a left Zionist starting out, but became convinced that Zionism was a hopeless illusion. And like Leon, he was caught by the Gestapo in his youth and died at their hands.

Flakin has performed a yeoman’s service by digging through archival materials, the few letters that Monath wrote, and memoirs by his contemporaries to help bring this obscure figure to life. While there is virtually nothing in this biography that refers to the current period, we cannot help but consider the parallels to Trump, Orban, and Modi’s persecution of the “other”. If being a revolutionary in 1941 France or Belgium required enormous courage, there are other difficulties we face today. We have few worries about being hauled off to a torture chamber in countries like the USA or England. Instead, we have to swim upstream to defend a revolutionary socialism that has become unfashionable. Our problem is indifference rather than repression. We are grateful to Nathaniel and his comrades at Left Voice for having the iron will so necessary to defend the ideas of Karl Marx in a period when the spirit of compromise and pragmatism infect so much of the left.

The first paragraph of Flakin’s Introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book:

It is late 1943 in Brittany in north-western France. For three years the population has been suffering under the Nazis’ increasingly brutal occupation regime. In the city of Brest, however, there are astounding scenes of fraternization: Young French workers and equally young German soldiers greet each other with raised fists. An illegal newspaper reports from Kerhuon, ten kilometers from Brest: “On August 6, German soldiers marched through the city and sang the Internationale,” the anthem of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Between 25 and so German soldiers from the Brest garrison had organized themselves into illegal internationalist cells. They obtained identification cards and weapons for the French resistance. They felt so confident that they began to ignore the basic rules of conspiracy. They met in groups of ten. “It was madness,” recalled their comrade Andre Calves, decades later.

Continue reading

October 9, 2019

After Manukha the matchmaker discards Shulem’s dead wife’s clothes, will he call off their marriage?

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Episode seven in season two of the ravishingly beautiful Netflix series “Shtisel” is titled “The Lost Children’s Good Will”. I have plans to write a fuller review of this show about Haredis living Jerusalem in a future blog post but this episode deserves some commentary on its own since it is so close to my own family experience even though we were secular.

The two main characters in “Shtisel” are Shulem Shtisel, the widowed sixty-something principal of a yeshiva and his twenty-seven year old unmarried son named Kive (short for Akiva) who has launched a career as an artist. Although he appears to be burdened by a thousand different strictures the ultra-orthodox live by, in his father’s eyes and those of others in their family and social milieu, he is considered a “rebel”.

Shulem has secured the services of a recently widowed matchmaker named Manukha to find a wife for his son. In consultations with her, she suggests that his son’s bachelorhood might be a function of his own refusal to move past his wife’s death. She follows up with a virtual order that the two get hitched. He leaves that up in the air but events conspire to make it happen. When standing on a dining-chair to change a lightbulb, he trips to the floor and injures his foot. Lying on the floor helplessly like a beached whale, he is finally rescued by Manukha hours later when she became alarmed by his failure to return her phone calls. Realizing that he had the need for someone to look after him, especially in light of what he perceived as his son’s fecklessness, he agrees to marry the matchmaker and a date is set.

Manukha does not like living in the past. In advance of her marriage to Shulem, she hires an observant handyman to begin knocking down a wall in his kitchen so as to make room for her own future planned modernization. When Kive awakens early one morning to hear the pounding of the worker’s sledge-hammer, he is outraged. Why hadn’t anybody informed him about this desecration of his mom’s kitchen, even if it was in the name of remodeling? His father takes Manukha’s side and the demolition continues. Not willing to put up with either the noise or the effacing of his mother’s memory, he packs a bag and moves into the studio where he works.

A day or so later, Shulem has his own bit of trauma over Manukha’s roughshod attempts to make over the Shtisel household. He comes home from a day at the yeshiva to discover that she has put all of his dead wife’s clothing into large garbage bags that she intends to donate to a Haredi thrift shop. Shulem is stunned but is not yet ready to defy her in the same way his son did. Having to choose between a dead wife’s memory and a new wife’s admittedly brusque takeover bid of his apartment is something to be resolved in a later episode.

When my mother was around my age, she belonged to the reform synagogue in Monticello, NY. Even though it was a 10-mile drive, she was willing to put up with it because she hated the synagogue in Woodridge that had become taken over by the Satmars, a Hasidic sect whose members are like those in “Shtisel”.

Not long after she started going to services there, she met Victor, a widower like her. He grew up on a farm outside of Monticello that was right next to Max Yasgur’s, whose land became the site of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Before long, they were a couple but I suppose not on an intimate basis. Victor’s son made a living piloting marijuana into the USA from various sources until he died in a crash. When she learned about this, she began to offer emotional support and the two became quite attached to each other. She had experienced her own family tragedy and the two helped keep each other afloat emotionally.

Like Manukha, my mother had a forceful personality. She called Victor up every night to check up on him and brought home-cooked meals over to his house 2 or 3 times a week. My mother was a terrible cook but he appreciated the gesture.

At a certain point, she broached the subject of marriage with him. She had little in common with the Haredi culture of Woodridge and felt more at home in Monticello. What prevented the marriage from being consummated was perhaps what will prevent Shulem and Manukha from becoming man and wife. My mom explained to me what made Victor reject my mother’s proposal. Unlike my mother, he had a very long and satisfying marriage. When his wife died, he kept all her belongings exactly where they had been up until her death. She called their bedroom a “shrine” to her memory. He never would have let her take over. If my mom had done anything like Manukha, he would have disowned her. Of course, things never got that far.

So, despite the rituals that mark ultra-orthodox life, they have certain things in common with reform Jews like Victor and my mother. Even though they rely on match-makers rather than online dating or hooking up in a synagogue like my mom and Victor did, once the marriage starts there are certain universal human relations that fall into place. I imagine you can make the comparison between the Haredis and Christians or Muslims just as well.

This is what make “Shtisel” so magical. Once you get past all the strange rituals (they say a prayer every time they drink a glass of water), you see that their lives and ours are so alike. What makes me reflect on all this as a film critic is why Americans can’t make films so emotionally involving. Leaving aside network TV, which is all garbage, HBO family dramas about ordinary people are non-existent. “The Sopranos” had much of the same ability to get inside family dynamics but all within the context of a Hobbesian universe ruled by homicidal instincts. The gentleness of “Shtisel” is quite an accomplishment, especially from its Israeli creative team. More about that to follow after I have completed watching season two.

October 8, 2019

Mr. America

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

If you are a Andy Kaufman fan, you’ll probably like “Mr. America”, a film that opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. It stars Tim Heidecker as a character named Tim Heidecker who has some similarities to the real person. In this mordant satire, the semi-fictional Heidecker has decided to run for District Attorney in San Bernardino County, California even though he is not a lawyer, nor does he live in the county. His motivation for running is only to unseat the DA who prosecuted him unsuccessfully for the murder of 18 young people who bought toxic e-cigarettes from him at a music festival he organized in the county. Even though a hold-out on the jury forced a mistrial, Heidecker still felt victimized.

The premise of the film is that a documentary is being made on his run, which is a disaster from beginning to end. The only person who takes him seriously is a woman named Toni Newman (Terri Parks) who shares his MAGA-like hope that he can make things become “like they once were” in San Bernardino, which means before the Latinos and Blacks moved in.. As he passes out incoherent campaign literature at the doorsteps of a white-bread suburban neighborhood, he reminds people he runs into to vote for him because he will “put an end to crime” on the first day he takes office. The comparison to Donald Trump could not be more obvious.

However, the intention of Heidecker and co-writers Eric Notarnicola (who also directed) and Gregg Turkington is not exactly satire in the conventional sense. It is much more to describe the rot at the core of American society that can allow a politician such as the fictional Heidecker to emerge. The film could not be more different than the tame cable comedy shows like Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart used to host. It is a much darker form of comedy that will likely have your eyes fixed on the various scenes as if they were highway accidents. For example, he has posters made with these words written in 72 point bold letters: “We have a rat problem”, referring to the DA he is running against. When restaurant owners allow him to put them up on their storefront windows, only one objects—a sign of the psychological and political numbness that besets the USA.

Besides Heidecker and Parks, the only other major character is Gregg Turkington, whose character, like his, has the same name. In the film, he is represented as having been a co-host of a TV show about films that the two once did together before it crashed and burned. In real life, Heidecker and Turkington co-hosted just such a show. Here’s a snippet:

Turkington haunts Heidecker, showing up at sparsely attended campaign event to denounce him for setting fire to his VHS archives of obscure Hollywood films from the 1970s. Like Heidecker and like Andy Kaufman, Turkington is a master of deadpan humor and—to be honest—is the main reason to see “Mr. America”.

I first saw Turkington in “Entertainment”, a 2015 film directed by Rick Alverson and co-written with Heidecker and Turkington. He played a comedian whose shtick was insulting his audience just as Tony Clifton used to do in Andy Kaufman’s comedy revues. Following the Clifton model, Turkington’s performances in comedy clubs pushed the envelope of audience acceptance. Although most people assumed that it was Kaufman who portrayed Clifton, it was actually Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s long-time friend and co-writer.

In my survey of Alverson’s films for CounterPunch last year, I wrote about “Entertainment” as well as similar work titled “Comedy” (both can be rented below) that starred Heidecker a “a rich and sadistic creep named Swanson, who lives in a yacht in the Hudson River and who spends most of his time hanging out with aging hipsters like himself who enjoy humiliating people beneath them on the social ladder.”

To give you an idea of the social commentary Alverson, Turkington and Heidecker are about, let me cite my CounterPunch review:

Although Tim Heidecker has made a living as a comedian pushing the transgression envelope, he understood that despite Swanson and his pals attempt to simulate it, the film was a critique of the entire scene. He told the Los Angeles Times:

The idea of trust-fund guys who live in Brooklyn in their 30s is really interesting to me. There’s a time and a place where that kind of bohemian lifestyle is appropriate, soon after college, in your 20s. But there are people still living that many years later; they haven’t evolved to the next phase. I know people like that. There are elements of me in that. And there’s something very interesting sociologically. That behavior has been validated or seen as a positive thing or a cute thing or a quirky thing. The movie tries to be critical of that lifestyle in a fairly subtle way. The biggest mistake people could make is watch the movie and think there’s any condoning of anyone in it. This character is clearly meant to be grotesque.

He follows that up with an observation that is in sync with Alverson’s about the role of religion:

There’s a generation of people I think without a strong connection to family, to religion, to civic duty. They have a real disassociation from the problems of the world. People we’re talking about live in a “Matrix” alternate reality. I’m not an expert. I hope that there are people interested in a variety of things, in making our cities and world a more livable place, with engineering and science degrees. But film-criticism majors are only going to be so useful in our warming globe.

October 7, 2019

Was there anything “socialist” about CIO officialdom’s alliance with FDR?

Filed under: Jacobin,New Deal,socialism,trade unions,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

UAW President Walter Reuther conferring with President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office, 1952

On October 2nd, Jacobin published an interview with Jake Altman titled “The Socialist Party in New Deal–Era America” that made an amalgam of Norman Thomas’s party and FDR. This is not the first such exercise in bad faith. On June 19th, Seth Ackerman wrote an article titled “Why Bernie Talks About the New Deal” that made identical points. It is understandable why these “democratic socialists” would try to shoehorn Norman Thomas’s SP into their neo-Kautskyist political agenda.

If the DSA is a continuation of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party as Thomas was a continuation of Eugene V. Debs, then everything is hunky-dory especially if you can convince people that Thomas “viewed Roosevelt’s program for reform of the economic system as far more reflective of the Socialist Party platform than of his own [Democratic] party’s platform”. The quote is from a Norman Thomas biography that Ackerman thought would bolster his SP/New Deal amalgam. Whatever credibility the biographer claimed, it seems unlikely that he ever thought much about the words of Norman Thomas himself who once said, “Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”

For Ackerman and Altman, one of the main proofs of the socialist character of the New Deal was its cheek-by-jowl connection to the CIO’s organizing drives. Ackerman writes, “By 1936, the newly formed industrial unions that grew out of those strikes had become the core of his political base, and most were led or had been organized by socialists and communists: Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers, Harry Bridges of the Longshore Workers, John Brophy of the CIO. At the same time, thousands of socialist and communist experts flooded into the New Deal agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board and the Treasury, Agriculture, and Commerce departments.”

Altman says about the same thing. “You also have socialist leaders and organizers in a number of unions, and they achieve a lot in terms of building a robust labor movement in the United States. They didn’t do it on their own, but through coalitions they were able to build some really impressive institutions like the United Auto Workers (UAW). It helped that they had allies in unions that were already led by social democrats, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). The ACWA poached promising organizers from the Socialist Party for union work, and some of these socialists went on to hold important positions in the labor movement for decades. The most well known are the Reuther brothers. There was a robust middle rank, too.”

Missing from this analysis is any reference to the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when FDR allowed the bosses to smash the trade union organizing drive led by Gus Hall and other radicals. In FDR’s infamous words, he told capitalists and workers “a plague on both your houses”. Furthermore, there is little evidence that organizing drives to build industrial unions in and of themselves have that much to do with socialism. Both Ackerman and Altman view the Reuther brothers as symbols of the ties between the Socialist Party and the New Deal. However, Walter Reuther not only quit the SP in 1939; he led the purge of CP members from the CIO after becoming president of the UAW in 1947.

What neither Ackerman and Altman can seem to grasp is the dialectical relationship between FDR’s relatively tolerant attitude toward CIO type unionism and the co-optation of the working-class into the imperialist hegemonic aspirations of the USA from 1941 onwards. In order to rely upon working-class support for its colonial wars abroad, it was necessary to offer sufficient material gains to make co-optation feasible.

Just before his untimely death, Leon Trotsky wrote an article titled “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” that was discovered in a desk drawer. If you’ve never read it, I urge you to take a look. And, if you have read it, I urge you to take a fresh look since it shows Trotsky at his most prophetic. Of the CIO, he writes:

In the United States the trade union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new “leftist” trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.

On December 13, 1942, Walter Reuther wrote an article for the N.Y. Times titled “Labor’s Place in the War Pattern” that illustrated exactly what Trotsky was warning about.

These tragic realities must compel American labor to an appreciation of its obligations as a major member of America’s war team. Labor’s place in the new pattern that war has forced on America is clear.

Labor’s first obligation is to realize that we are not now producing solely to provide our population with their everyday needs, but that we are producing primarily to protect our freedom, our nation and our homes from destruction.

Labor must face the challenge of the war as it would a forest fire or a flood that menaced the home town. The promise of labor’s spokesmen that strikes will be abandoned for the duration of the war, a pledge which has been underwritten by labor’s organizations in conventions, must be honored.

That no-strike pledge would haunt the UAW and other CIO-type unions until this day. The “national interest” is just a cover-up for the right of the rich to enjoy their wealth without any concerns for the needs of working-people. It is exactly how GM managed to impose a two-tiered pay scale on the UAW and how it is trying to maintain its grip on “our nation’s” well-being.

For an alternative to Walter Reuther’s class-collaborationism, I recommend Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”. Preis was a member of the SWP whose book diverges sharply from Ackerman and Altman’s gauzy portrayal of FDR’s partnership with CIO officialdom. This excerpt will show you how some workers defended their class interests during WWII despite the no-strike pledge:

There were many signs of the growing restiveness of the industrial workers as 1942 drew to a close and during the opening months of 1943.

The coal miners, for the most part isolated in small towns, were squeezed worst of all. When Pennsylvania anthracite miners started an unauthorized walkout on January 2, 1943, it was clear that they had reached a point of open revolt against economic conditions.

On March 10, the UMW opened negotiations with the Appalachian soft coal operators. Among the seven demands [union president John L.] Lewis and the UMW committee presented to the mine owners were: (1) retention of the existing 35-hour, five-day week in the coal mining industry; (2) inclusion of all time traveled from the pit entrance to the point of work and back to the surface as part of the paid work time; (3) a $2-per-day raise in base pay.

The UMW president cited the terrific accident rate in the mines due to lack of safety equipment: 64,000 men killed and injured in 1941; 75,000 in 1942; an estimated 100,000 in 1943, with the intensification of war production.

The mine owners brushed aside the UMW’s demands and the Roosevelt administration intensified pressure on the union to capitulate.

Roosevelt himself intervened as the April 1 mine strike deadline approached. He asked the operators on March 27 to agree to extend the existing contract beyond April 1 and make any subsequent wage adjustment retroactive to that date. At the same time he said that the dispute must be settled “under the national no-strike agreement of December 26, 1941” with “final determination, if necessary, by the National War Labor Board.”

The moral position of the miners was becoming stronger every day. The CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and AFL [American Federation of Labor] leaders backed the miners’ demands and, for the time being, refrained from open attacks on the UMW’s threat to strike. Local bodies of the United Auto Workers and other CIO unions passed resolutions of unconditional support for the miners.

On April 22, the WLB announced it was assuming jurisdiction of the case. The UMW refused to appear before this “court packed against labor.” On April 24, WLB Chairman Davis announced that the board would consider the case only within the framework of the Little Steel Formula, which automatically ruled out any raises for the miners.

Miners in Western Pennsylvania and Alabama left the pits that same day, a week in advance of the truce deadline.

The United Press reported that 41,000 bituminous miners were already out.

 FDR as strikebreaker

The spreading coal strike forced Roosevelt to step forward personally to take public responsibility for leading the opposition to the miners. He telegraphed Lewis on April 29 that he would use “all the powers vested in me as President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” if the strikes were not ended by the morning of May 1. Roosevelt’s threat brought an immediate defiant reply from the mine workers. Nearly 10,000 Ohio miners left the pits. By the morning of Saturday, May 1, every union soft coal mine in the country was closed.

The national strike of the miners was not only the largest coal strike the country had seen up to this time. It was the largest single strike of any kind the land had ever known. It was carried out with a dispatch, discipline and single-minded determination that had never been surpassed in the American labor movement.

The press did surpass itself in the volume of vituperation, slanders and threats hurled at the miners and Lewis. Lewis was linked with Hitler in newsreels, on the radio, in countless newspaper cartoons. Union leaders joined the chorus of anti-labor forces who were screaming for nothing less than the destruction of the miners union under the guise of aiding the war for “democracy.”

On May 1 Roosevelt himself ordered government seizure of the struck coal mines under Solid Fuels Administrator Harold L. Ickes. Ickes “seized” the mines by promptly ordering the American flag to be flown over all mine properties and directing all mine owners and managers to run the mines as government agents in the name of the government—all profits to continue as usual. Ickes then declared the miners were working “for the Government” and ordered them back to work.

The miners didn’t budge.

It was during the first of the series of wartime coal mine strikes that the Communist Party revealed to what depths of treachery it could really sink in order to demonstrate to the United States capitalists how useful the CP could be to them if American capitalism would make some kind of permanent deal with the Kremlin.

The May 1-4 national coal strike brought the anti-labor, strikebreaking activities of the Communist Party to a peak of ferocity that the vilest capitalist enemies of the unions did not surpass. On April 29 the Daily Worker carried a front-page appeal by CP National Chairman William Z. Foster, urging the miners not to respond to their union’s strike call.

On the morning of June 1, some 530,000 miners refrained from entering the pits “without any special strike call being issued and with casual matter-of-factness,” as George Breitman, the Militant’s correspondent, wrote from the mining area around Pittsburgh.

 ‘Can’t dig coal with bayonets’

Roosevelt, on June 3, threatened to call out the troops unless the miners returned to work by June 7.… The miners merely shrugged and repeated their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.”

By the time the official strike deadline, November 1, had arrived, all 530,000 coal miners were out, for their fourth official national wartime strike within one year.

Roosevelt was at the end of his rope. He could not arrest 530,000 miners. He could not force them to go down into the pits at bayonet point, and even if he could, they need not mine an ounce of coal. He could not jail Lewis and the UMW leaders, for the miners swore they would strike “till Hell freezes over” if Lewis were victimized in any way. The President again seized the struck mines and authorized Ickes to negotiate a contract.

The WLB on November 20 finally agreed to a contract acceptable to the union and contractors. This fixed the mine wage at $57.07 a week and provided $40 to each miner for retroactive payment for travel time.

The UMW Policy Committee ratified the new contract on November 3 and instructed the miners to return to work. They had cracked the wage freeze.

If the miners had not fought and won, if they had been defeated, it would have meant not only the crippling and possibly the crushing of one of the most powerful industrial unions—the UMW—but a demoralizing blow of shattering proportions for the auto, rubber, steel, electrical equipment, and other CIO workers. The government would have introduced new “formulas” to slash wages, increase hours of work and intensify the exploitation of labor in the name of patriotism and the “needs of the war.”

Instead, the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944 and 1945, reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945-46.

The miners themselves were able to go on from victory to victory in the war and immediate postwar period, winning many new gains, such as health and welfare funds, retirement pensions and other conditions, which then became objectives of the CIO unions as well.

 

October 5, 2019

Christian Parenti’s weak tea

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Christian Parenti

As should be abundantly clear at this point, the Bhaskar Sunkara publishing empire has little to do with ecosocialism. It unfurled its banner in the Summer 2017 Jacobin issue that included Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s recommendation of nuclear energy as well as other ecomodernist nostrums. In the latest Catalyst, there’s an article by pro-nuclear Syracuse University professor Matt Huber that continues along those lines. All three have a special animosity toward any notion of ecological limits, with Huber being irked by André Gorz’s call: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.”

Two days ago, Christian Parenti’s “Saving the Planet Without Self-Loathing” appeared in Jacobin that, like the three authors mentioned above, took a hard line against the idea of ecological limits. He wrote:

This worldview has driven much of conservationism. It is at the heart of the concern with “overpopulation.” It lurks within the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” And it is found in the “jobs vs. environment” debate.

To start with, there are two ways of understanding overpopulation. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, wrote “The Population Bomb”, a book that by the authors’ own admission was an attempt to apply Malthus’s ideas to the contemporary world. On the other hand, the combination of an expanding population expecting to enjoy the life-style of the average citizen in a G8 country will be impossible to realize. The world’s population today is 7.6 billion and is expected to be around 11 billion by the end of the century. If a car, air-conditioning, and meat 3 or 4 times a week are considered non-negotiable, then we are in trouble.

Last August, Leigh Phillips wrote an article for Jacobin titled “In Defense of Air-Conditioning” that had this subtitle “Opposition to air-conditioning is just another form of austerity politics. Nothing’s too good for the working class — especially not freedom from the heat.” He assures us that there would be no downside to making air-conditioning a universal right since Canadians enjoy electricity without environmental consequences: “While it may seem fantastical in much of the US, north of the border, the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.” Leaving aside the obvious risks associated with nuclear power, one has to wonder if Phillips has any idea of the damage hydroelectric dams have done to indigenous people in Canada as I pointed out in a CounterPunch article 5 years ago. Perhaps Phillips agrees with Huber that such “marginal” populations do not offer sufficient social weight for an effective “strategy”. Perhaps? No, probably definitely.

Parenti alludes to the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” It sounds to me as if he is trying to pick a fight with “degrowth” advocates like Jason Hickel but is not quite up to the task. It should be mentioned that Parenti believes that there are technical solutions to climate change that might be capable of allowing everybody to keep their air-conditioners running 24/7. As pointed out by Ian Angus, Parenti wrote an article for Dissent that backed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a “fairly simple” way of solving the climate change crisis. Angus debunked this claim:

There is only one commercial plant in the entire world that captures CO2 directly from the air. According to the journal Science, it takes in just 900 tons of CO2 a year, roughly the amount produced by 200 cars. The company that built it says that capturing just one percent of global CO2 emissions would require 250,000 similar plants. “Fairly simple” just doesn’t apply.

Parenti’s main goal in this article is to debunk the notion that “Western environmentalism has long suffered from”, namely an implicit Malthusianism that sees humanity as intruders upon a harmonious and static thing called “nature.” It might have been helpful if Parenti had named some names but it is likely that he is referring to Deep Ecology, a movement with some misanthropic tendencies that are associated with David Foreman, who was a co-founder of Earth First! Foreman left the Sierra Club after it rejected his anti-immigration proposals. Nowadays, Foreman is involved with the Rewilding Institute, a project that might lead to a ban on cattle ranching in most of the West and repopulating it with native grasses and bison. In my view, something like this will be necessary for the survival of humanity whether or not Parenti gets it.

Parenti addresses the Jacobin readers as if they were in junior high school:

The truth is, we are not intruders. In reality, humans have always been an environment-making species. In fact, every species is.

What we call “nature” or “the environment” is ultimately just the sum total of layer upon layer of organism-environment interactions. Thus it is dynamic, not static. Every organism interacts with, and impacts, its environment. At the same time, every organism is always also part of the external environment of all other organisms.

Environment making is what life forms do. Bees need flowers from which to collect nectar and pollen; in the process of their foraging, bees pollinate flowering plants, helping them reproduce and spread. Thus, bees are central to producing a habitat that produces bees.

To survive, beavers need beaver ponds. But they do not find their niche habitat — they make it by compulsive dam building. When beavers build, they also destroy. In areas they flood, previously established plant communities drown — including, on occasion, bee habitat.

This is followed by a little lecture on Engels’s “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” that from Parenti’s presentation sounds to my ears like early ecomodernism:

Just as our ancient ancestors “learned to consume everything edible” thanks to the technology of fire management, Engels noted that fire allowed humans “to live in any climate” and thus “spread over the whole of the habitable world.”… The further afield early humans moved, the more technology they created and used, the more environments they helped shape.

How odd that Parenti would not refer to the section in Engels’s article that most ecosocialists know almost by heart:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

Like a physician reassuring a 75-year old person with some deadly illness that they can live to 78 at least, Parenti tells us: “In other words, human labor can have life-encouraging effects, or it can do the exact opposite, depending on how labor and production are organized.” So, everybody knows what this means. Capitalism is life-discouraging and socialism is life-encouraging.

Except that the examples supplied by Parenti of “life-encouraging” human labor don’t have very much to do with socialism. He hails a fish farm in Spain and Chinese rice-growing. While there’s no point in denigrating such efforts, you don’t get the sense of the apocalyptic future that faces us at the end of the 21st century. Like everybody else on the Sunkara Express, Parenti believes in the Green New Deal. While the Jacobin/DSA sees this as tantamount to overthrowing capitalism, those with cooler heads see it as something likely not to come into existence under capitalism.

In a 2015 article written before the GND had become for the Jacobin/DSA what Trotsky’s Transitional Program was for me in my impetuous youth, Parenti wrote an article titled “Shadow Socialism in the Age of Environmental Crisis” that will give you a clear idea on where he stands on the most urgent issue of our day, namely how to get rid of the capitalist system that Malcolm X called “vulturistic”.

Shadow socialism is nothing more than government ownership of, for example, canals and railroads in the 19th century and the New Deal in the 20th:

Then comes the New Deal in which America’s Shadow Socialism becomes explicit. The effort to get out of the crisis of the Great Depression relied on the state to jump-start capitalism, to redistribute wealth downward to common people, to create markets by giving poor people jobs and income so they could buy the products of industry and keep the economy turning over. And the state itself purchased (and still purchases) large amounts of technology, invested heavily, and consumed a vast amount of output.

In the conclusion of his article, Parenti sheepishly apologizes to wild-eyed young radicals who probably made the mistake of reading Howard Zinn rather than Michael Harrington:

Let me end with that and an apology or explanation. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary or radical, but what I’m trying to do is to be very, very realistic. Because I don’t think it is sufficient to be outraged about this and invoke the righteousness of our cause. We have to come up with credible solutions and stories that will really work and strategies that will work at different time frames. So, okay, what I’ve suggested here is not the solution to all problems associated with capitalism. It’s not even the solution to the environmental crisis. It’s just a realistic approach to dealing with climate change so as to buy time, so as to pull back from the brink, so that we can continue struggling. If we don’t take things that seriously and get comfortable with the contradictions implied in that, I think we will not be able to address the climate crisis. But we do have the means to do it economically and technologically, and so it is just a matter of politics.

Is this the end result of Parenti making a career as a professional intellectual rather than as a professional revolutionary as I tried back in 1967? He worked for George Soros’s Open Society for many years and is now ensconced in the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in NY. It is becoming clear to me that it exactly such people who are providing the brain-power, such as it is, for Sunkara’s publishing empire. But don’t fret. This kind of pablum leaves a vacuum that will be filled by genuine sans culottes, not the pretend kind that write for Jacobin.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.