Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 15, 2019

Noel Ignatiev: Remembering a Comrade and a Friend

Filed under: Counterpunch,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm


For all of the opprobrium Facebook deserves, it is still essential for building ties on the left when there are so few opportunities for networking in real space as opposed to cyberspace. Just checking now, it seems that I became a FB friend with Noel Ignatiev sometime in 2015. It was worth it to me to make such a connection, even if it meant putting up with all the ads and heavy-handed automated interference into saying what was on my mind. (I lost FB posting privileges twice for no good reason.)

Back in the mid-nineties, when I was working at Columbia University, I used to make frequent stops during lunchtime at Bookforum, an excellent source of scholarly literature, including that written by Marxists. One day I spotted a new book by Noel Ignatiev titled “How the Irish Became White” that stopped me in my tracks. I had dispensed with the notion long ago that white workers would join a Marxist group just by selling them copies of the Militant newspaper. Even if the book focused on the Irish, it might offer insights into the question of American political backwardness.

Despite being based on Ignatiev’s Ph.D., it read nothing like a dissertation. It was a politically engaged attack on white privilege supported by in-depth research. It also demonstrated a grasp of the broad contours of American culture that suggested the author’s ability to think outside the box. For example, Ignatiev made the case that Huckleberry Finn was Irish based not only on his last name but what Mark Twain wrote in a May 7, 1884 letter: “I returned the book-back [book cover for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]. All right and good, and will answer, although the boy’s mouth is a trifle more Irishy than necessary.”

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November 13, 2019

Cardin, Halston, St. Laurent

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Before my wife became a tenure-track professor in the Economics and Business Department of Lehmann College/CUNY in New York (now successfully completed), she was an adjunct at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a SUNY school that was a first choice for many aspiring designers—many of whom were contestants on Project Runway.  In Project Runway, there were dozens of entrants but only one won the grand prize after weeks of contests involving, for example, making dresses out of paper shopping bags, etc. She was curious about how their work stacked up against other aspiring designers, all of whom hoped to get the first prize, $100,000 plus having a collection of their work showcased during Fashion Week in New York. My wife also enjoyed watching designer clothing being made since she is a stylish dresser unlike the women I knew from my Trotskyist days who would consider owning a Michael Kors handbag tantamount to crossing a picket line.

So what does this have to do with me? In the course of watching Project Runway, I became a devoted fan. Back in 2010, I wrote about a spin-off of the show titled “On the Road with Austin and Santino” that followed two finalists around the country designing a wardrobe for plain janes. I wrote:

The last episode…was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

With Project Runway under my belt, I made a point of reviewing any film featuring haute couture designers, including a Karl Lagerfeld documentary, one about Valentino Garavani, and a CounterPunch review (!) of a narrative film about Yves St. Laurent.

Recently, I got my hands on three documentaries about the designers mentioned in the title of this article, including a documentary on Yves St. Laurent made by Olivier Meyrou in 2007. Titled “Celebration”, it was suppressed by his estate until now since it depicted a frail and pathetic 71-year old man in the early stages of dementia, but who was still capable of mounting one of his memorable shows.

Still alive at 96, Pierre Cardin is arguably the most important designer of the 20th century. “House of Cardin” was shown as part of the DOC NYC film festival and will likely make it into theaters sometime in 2020. For most people, including me, Cardin was only a brand name (I have his cologne, so there), but this fascinating documentary puts him into the larger context of social history.

To start with, his father was a wealthy landowner in Italy of French descent who moved back to France in 1924 because he opposed Mussolini. He apprenticed for a clothier at the age of 14 and then left home to work for a tailor in Vichy in 1939. After the war, he moved to Paris where his burgeoning career including designing the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”. Cocteau, an open homosexual, introduced the drop-dead handsome young Cardin to other gay film makers, including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti with whom he had flings as the nonagenarian designer recalls with a smile.

To put Cardin into cultural context, he was a futurist in the tradition of both Italian and Russian artists of the early 20th century. His dresses and gowns employed stark geometric patterns that were a break with the frilly designs of the past favored by the bourgeoisie. These outfits on display at the Museum Pierre Cardin in Paris are typical.

In the 1960s, Cardin’s clothing was favored by the young and the rebellious who had money, of course. Once he introduced an affordable prêt-à-porter (ready to wear) line, his clothing became as popular as Levi jeans. Among the people who loved Cardin’s fashion were the Beatles who make a pitch for him here.

At one point Cardin refers to himself as a socialist designer, although I think he is going a bit overboard there. Perhaps if the capitalist class was made up primarily of homosexual dress designers, we’d be better off at least on the basis of all the films I’ve seen about this wing of the bourgeoisie. Dare I call it progressive?

Now available on Amazon Prime, “Halston” tells the story of Roy Halston Frowick, who was born in Des Moines in 1932, the son of a typical corn belt family. Like Pierre Cardin and just about every male designer I’ve seen in a documentary or on Project Runway, he showed an affinity for sewing and designing from an early age.

After moving to New York in 1957, he became the head milliner (hat designer) at Bergdorf-Goodman where he became friends with Andy Warhol, a window-dresser at the time. Later on they would reunite as Studio 54 regulars in the 60s. Halston, who had dropped the first and last name, became famous for designing the cloth dress and hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration in sharp contrast to the mink coats other wives were wearing. Like Pierre Cardin, Halston had an aversion to haute bourgeois pretensions.

Once he gained fame for his hat designs, he went out on his own and became one of America’s most popular dress and gown designers. If Cardin was influenced by futurism, Halston made his mark by designing clothing that women felt comfortable in, almost like sleepwear. Often made out of a single piece of cloth, they never made a woman feel constricted. They were almost like the gowns of Greek and Roman antiquity. Here’s some examples:


Like Cardin, Halston wanted to reach as many customers as possible. Partly to make more money but also because he was no elitist. He made a deal with J.C. Penny for a ready-to-wear line that appalled Bergdof-Goodman’s management so much that they dropped his upscale line from their store. Cardin went through a similar experience. In 1959, he was expelled from the Chambre Syndicale for launching a ready-to-wear collection for the Printemps department store, but was soon reinstated.

In the 1960s, as his fame grew, his company was made offers that he couldn’t refuse. The Halston name and his business were purchased by Norton Simon, Inc and then by Esmark Inc. He was under enormous pressure to pump out designs for the sake of their bottom line but he grew frustrated by corporate interference. They were looking for someone more along the lines of those who made their mass marketing products,  but it was impossible for Halston to abandon the imperious stance of a star designer, all the more so since he had a major cocaine habit.

Finally, Esmark got fed up with him and changed the locks in his office in 1984 so that only those vetted by them could gain entrance. He could not even start a new business in his own name since Esmark had a lock on it as well.

Just four years after he was fired from Esmark, he learned that he had HIV and moved out to San Francisco to live with his brother. Until his death in 1990, he remained reclusive and was at least able to reunite with a family who loved him without qualifications.

Just acquired by KimStim, a leading-edge film distributor based in Brooklyn, “Celebration” will likely be available as DVD or VOD before very long. (Check their website for information).

We hear very few words from Yves St. Laurent in this cinéma vérité film but plenty from his one-time companion and business partner Pierre Bergé who functions pretty much as his care-giver in this poignant 74-minute documentary. At one point, he works with St. Laurent to prepare for the delivery of a speech thanking industry figures for one of his many awards. Bergé reminds him to stand up straight and to smile. For the entire film, we see a grim-looking St. Laurent who almost always had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Since his fingers tremble, that’s probably easier for him.

The film is not so much about the fashion business as the other two films. Rather, it documents the ravages of old age and fading glory. My suggestion is to watch in in tandem with the narrative I reviewed for CounterPunch. While it was also painful for its depiction of how the French military made Yves St. Laurent suffer as a draftee during the French-Algerian War, it also shows his creative prowess that made him legendary in fashion circles. Like “Halston”, it is for rent on Amazon Prime.


November 12, 2019

The 2019 Other Israel Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Israel,Palestine — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

For as long as I can remember, I’ve received invitations to cover the Other Israel Film Festival in New York that I’ve consistently ignored. This was largely a reaction to the word Israel rather than Other. In the back of my mind, the idea of covering the festival was a violation of the BDS campaign even though I have been covering Israeli films for as long as I have been a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Recently, I wrote a review of an Israeli documentary titled “Advocate”, whose subject Lea Tsemel is a 73-year old Israel attorney who might be compared to William Kunstler in her willingness to take on cases of outcasts that are prejudged in the media just like The Central Park Five. Both her and her husband were members of the Israeli Trotskyist movement and utterly fearless in their anti-Zionist stance. If you haven’t seen this powerful documentary, you can do so now as part of the Other Israel Film Festival that opens on Thursday, November 14th.

It was only because of the persistence of publicist Isil Bagdadi that I took the trouble to look at the festival schedule. After having seen the films listed below and “Advocate” beforehand, my recommendation for attending the festival is unqualified. For both their subject matter and their cinematic mastery, they are evidence of both Israeli and Palestinian’s pride of place in the film world outside Hollywood. The festival is largely a result of the funding and hard work of the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan, which could not be more unlike the 92nd Street Y, just a block from me, that provides a regular platform for Israeli government officials. Even if the JCC embraces Zionist values, its support for the Other Israel film festival will likely shake up Jewish thinking about Israel as should be evident from the films discussed below

Schedule information is at https://www.otherisrael.org/oi-13-schedule-venues/.

“Comrade Dov” is Dov Khenin, a Communist Party member who served 13 years in the Knesset for the Jewish-Arab party Hadash, a coalition to which the CP belongs. Like Lea Tsemel, Khenin is an attorney but not one with a history of defending Palestinian militants, as far as I know. By the evidence of the documentary, he is a Zionist who supports a two-state solution based on his belief that it is impossible for two nationalities to co-exist within the same borders.

History would seem to be passing Khenin behind based on the evidence of opposition to his most recent run for the Knesset from within Hadash. Two young women, one Arab and the other a Jew, state that they can’t support him because Israel needs a revolution, not reform, even if well-meaning.

Well-meaning does describe Khenin. He sponsored a rise in the minimum wage that paralleled the campaign for $15 in the USA and which succeeded to his credit. He also took up the cause of workers in a small textile manufacturing company that was about to be shut down. Another priority for him was blocking the demolition of a Palestinian village in the West Bank and its replacement by settlers. Both of these campaigns failed.

Despite his inability to see beyond the Zionist facts on the ground, Khenin is a courageous and principled politician. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is him being interviewed by a TV reporter connected to the Lubavitcher Hasidim. When the reporter makes an Islamophobic comment, Khenin stops him in his tracks and tells him to never question other people’s faith. With leaders such as this, it is not hard to understand why the CP gained a foothold in Israel while revolutionary groups have functioned mostly on the margins.

Director Emmanuelle Mayer spent 10 years filming the attempts by a Ghanaian immigrant named Johnny trying to pick up skills in Israel that he could use back in Africa. Like most African immigrants, he has a dead-end job. He scrubs toilets and mops floors for an Israeli building owner but dreams of making a living as the owner of a fish farm like the kind that exist in China and other East Asian nations. As the son of a fisherman, he wants to avoid the vicissitudes of fishing in the coastal waters of Ghana but lacks the skills to get a fish farm off the ground. He is in a race to gain such skills before a nativist pogrom or immigration cops force a premature flight.

As an initial stab at this business, he gets his brother to dig a pond in his home village and fill it with catfish. It is only after Johnny gets an apprenticeship with an Israeli fish farmer that he understands how much technology and capital are required to be successful. Fish farming requires a deep knowledge of the chemicals and food required to keep hatchlings alive as well as tools such as microscopes to check on their progress. Without the director making a heavy-handed statement on Johnny’s chances, the film dramatizes the immense gulf between Third World countries and those that are fortunate enough to get a seat the imperialist table. It makes those Thomas Friedman articles about Africa’s pending rise look more foolish than ever.

Directed by Palestinian Bassam Jarbawi, “Screwdriver” is a gripping narrative film about the attempts of a man named Ziad to recover from the effects of 15 years in an Israeli prison. Although it is drawn from the collective experience of the Palestinian nation, it is much more of an existential and psychological portrait of a lost soul. As Ziad, Ziad Bakri captures the wraith-like quality of someone who is still a caged man despite his release from prison—caged by his psyche rather than iron bars.

When he was young, Ziad hung out with a posse that hardly fit the mold of Palestinian activism. Their favorite pastime was stealing a car, driving off somewhere, parking on the side of a road, and drinking beer. One night as they sat in one such car, someone shot at them from afar and killed Ramzi, a good friend of Ziad’s. A week or so later, when the posse—minus Ramzi—was driving down a road late at night in another stolen car, they spotted a man standing next to a car with Israeli plates. Except for Ziad, they decided to take revenge on the man. Taking a U-turn, they drove past the car and shot him. A few seconds later, Israeli cops pursued their car and chased them on foot as they fled. Only Ziad was apprehended. During his interrogation, he refused to finger his accomplices. No problem, the Israeli cop told him. You shot an Arab, not an Israeli. Despite the plates, he was one of them.

Upon Ziyad’s release from prison, he is regaled as a hero by the Palestinian politicos despite the problematic aspects of his imprisonment. Complicating things, the man they shot came to a ceremony to announce his forgiveness. It was part of the struggle, so to speak.

Meanwhile, Ziyad walks around with a perpetual headache and an inability to connect with any friends or family members emotionally. Although the term PTSD does not get mentioned in the film, it is obvious that this is his problem. The only person who is able to break through his invisible cage is a Palestinian filmmaker named Mina (Yasmine Qaddumi) who is making a documentary that focuses on human emotions rather than politics. Open to her initiative, Ziyad spends productive but often painful filming sessions with her until he finally decides that she is exploiting him. He accuses her of using the trapped people of the West Bank for her film until she makes it back to the USA, where she lives the good life. The theme of imprisonment, both literal and figurative, provides the narrative thrust of a powerful film breaking with Middle East filmmaking conventions.

Director Bassam Jarbawi put it this way in an interview with The Daily Sabah:

Since Palestine is a captive country, Jarbawi said: “I always wanted to make a film about Palestine and captivity; thus, I made this film.”

“Cause of Death” is an investigative report into the death of a Druze cop named Salim Barakat in 2002 based on the stubborn pursuit by his brother Jamal to get at the truth. On the evening of March 5, 2002, a terrorist opened fire on a Tel Aviv restaurant with an M-16. On patrol not far from the scene, Salim raced to the restaurant and began struggling with the man who stabbed him in the neck until either Salim’s weapon or those of another cop left him dead.

In the police report, Salim is credited with saving lives and portrayed as the stabbing victim of the terrorist in a ferocious struggle just outside the restaurant. However, Jamal, who was an investigator for an insurance company, is not satisfied with the report. Paying close attention to police recordings, he hears his brother announce that the terrorist is dead. But in a few seconds, another two shots ring out in clear contradistinction to the police claim that with the death of both the terrorist and Salim, calm returned to the scene.

This is a far more gripping tale than anything you can see on network TV like NCIS, especially since Jamal is so different from the cops he is investigating. Homespun and deferential to everybody he speaks to, he is convinced that someone dining at the restaurant fired a weapon that accidentally killed his brother but is frustrated by the man’s refusal to take responsibility and the police stonewalling his efforts.

The film is the first one ever made by Ramy Katz and amounts to a condemnation of the Israeli police for telling self-serving lies. If this can happen with the Druze, a sect that collaborates with Israeli authorities, what fate would Palestinians suffer under most other circumstances?

November 11, 2019

Saving Atlantis

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

Starting tomorrow, “Saving Atlantis” will be available on iTunes. This is the definitive documentary on the loss of coral reefs as a result of global warming. It relies on the testimony of marine biologists and the people whose livelihood depends on their health. Such people, many of who are indigenous, are fisherman or small proprietors in the tourist industry who will be ruined by their disappearance. Others facing ruin include those who live near the seacoast where coral reefs are a natural barrier against flooding during hurricanes, cyclones and other storms that create monstrous waves. Finally, it will be a loss to our cultural heritage since the coral reef is one of the world’s great natural wonders, just as much as the Grand Canyon or the glaciers. With the irrational use of fossil fuels posing the danger to assets belonging to all of humanity, this film helps to raise awareness and should be seen and recommended to friends and comrades.

In the film, scientists explain how coral reefs come into existence. The coral is a tiny, tentacled polyp that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with algae that settle down in its innards. The coral keeps the algae alive while it provides its host with nutrients. When a coral dies, it leaves behind a calcium carbonate skeleton that starts off at the bottom of the ocean floor and soon reaches massive proportions over the millennia. When the water rises to a certain temperature (varying from one coral species to another), the algae is expelled from the host, which itself soon dies. The lifeless coral becomes a ghostly white, a process referred to as bleaching.

The film takes us on a journey to all four corners of the world where coral reefs can still be found. We meet fishermen in Colombia, Polynesian islands and Australia as well as surfing pros in Hawaii. In addition to preventing Hawaii’s coastal villages from being flooded, they also serve to create the giant waves that draws professional and amateur surfers to its islands from all over the world.

One of the main goals of marine biologists right now is to discover why some coral are more resistant to bleaching than others. A worldwide project is underway to identify their cellular makeup, including DNA, so as to bioengineer a strain that might be able to resist the effects of global warming. While this project is commendable, one must understand that it might lead to blind alleys over decades, just as the case with cancer research. In the meantime, all efforts must be made to join Greta Thurnberg and other activists on the front lines of the struggle to eliminate fossil fuels.

I recommend both seeing this film and consulting the official website that has an excellent collections of links to activists and scientists on the front lines. I particularly recommend the page on Coral Facts  that should be read, even if you don’t get around to seeing the film. Among them is this:

Coral reefs hold secrets to human health

Many drugs come from natural products, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what medicines that impact human health can be found in these habitats. According to one recent study, “the prospect of finding a new drug in the sea, especially among coral reef species, may be 300 to 400 times more likely than isolating one from a terrestrial ecosystem.” Coral reef products have been used for the treatment of everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease.

If this isn’t reason enough to preserve them, then we have lost the ability to understand the need for self-preservation. Given a choice between SUV’s and air conditioning on one side and a cure for cancer on the other, most people would choose the latter.

November 10, 2019

Capital in the 21st Century

Filed under: capitalism,Film,Keynesianism — louisproyect @ 8:21 pm

This minute, the documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is playing at the SVA Theater as part of the DOC NYC film festival. Obviously, this review is behind the curve but you will still be able to see it in theaters in April 2020. It is based on Thomas Piketty’s 816-page book of the same name, with Piketty reprising the same arguments found there. Since I doubt that many of my readers, including me, have read Piketty’s book, the film is must-viewing if for no other reason that it will familiarize you with the post-Keynesian foundation upon which the book rests. Besides Piketty, you will hear from other economists and social scientists who are trying to figure out a way to combat neoliberalism without going the whole hog and becoming—god forbid—Marxists. This includes among others Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times, and Suresh Naidu, a youngish Columbia University professor who organized a conference there celebrating the work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Bowles and Gintis are famous (or infamous) for their criticisms of “orthodox Marxism”, i.e., Marxism. I have a strong suspicion that post-Keynesianism or post-Marxism (about the same thing really) will give you a leg up in a tight job market in the academy.

The film begins with Piketty reminiscing about a trip he took to Eastern Europe and Russia just after Communism collapsed. This weighed heavily on his mind since it dramatized the vulnerability of society when its economic foundations begin to be eaten away, as if by termites. The lessons he drew were a major inspiration for his book that essentially warned about capitalism’s vulnerability as its elites develop the same kind of indifference to the pain as that of the bureaucracy toward those on the bottom of the “Communist” world. To help him drive home these points, he includes another expert not ordinarily associated with post-Keynesian thought, namely Francis Fukuyama whose reputation was based on the idea that liberal capitalist democracies would soar above the wreckage of the USSR and other post-capitalist societies. In an interview with the New Statesman in October 2018, Fukuyama echoed the main idea found in Piketty’s writings, as well as Stiglitz, Krugman, et al. Asked how he viewed the resurgence of socialism in the USA, he replied:

It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work.

If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back.

For the first half of the film (roughly 60 minutes), we get a history of capitalism from the 18th century to the current day. It is very informative and of great use even to people like me, who believe that New Deal economics is never coming back.

The chief worry of Piketty is that we are returning to the 18th century when the common folk lived in terrible conditions. Economist Kate Williams claims that the average life expectancy was 17 years at the time (it was probably more like 40, which of course is also a horrible sign of inequality). It was also nearly impossible for a commoner to become middle-class or wealthy, a function of fortunes being handed down from generation to generation. A large part of Piketty’s critique of capitalism is its susceptibility to dynasty-building of the kind that existed under feudalism. Drawing upon a rich trove of stock footage and old movies, we see a snippet of a scene from “A Tale of Two Cities” that shows Basil Rathbone as a French aristocrat sneering at the idea that ordinary people should get a fair share of society’s wealth. To reinforce this point, we see excerpts from “Les Miserables”, a very good film based on the Victor Hugo novel.

Finally, relief came in the form of new societies created in virgin territories in the British colonies like North America, New Zealand (where the film was produced) and Australia where the class system did not have the chance to consolidate, or at least not to the extent of Europe. Unfortunately, the film does not refer to the fate of the indigenous peoples but frankly there’s not much attention paid to them in Marx either.

As capitalism matured in the 19th century, its growth slowed down because of rivalries between various empires, England and France the foremost. Eventually, the competition became so extreme that the solution took the form of intermittent warfare and, finally, the Great War that led to millions dying and capital going up in smoke. Piketty argues that one good thing came out of it: the dissolution of feudal privilege that had persisted under capitalism, particularly with the Junkers ruling class in Germany.

The Great Depression and WWII had the same contradictory effect. On one hand, it caused death and suffering. On the other, it led to social democratic reforms that allowed working people to be entitled to health, education and housing benefits that never would have existed in the 18th or 19th century. Once again, the film brackets out an important factor that would help make this understandable, namely the existence of the USSR as an alternative to the capitalist system. Would the New Deal, England under Labour, Sweden, et al have existed without the communist alternative putting pressure on the ruling classes? I would argue not. Suresh Naidu, the most impressive of the post-Keynesians heard from in the film, is also honest enough to say that the prosperity that made such programs possible owed a lot to WWII that put people back to work and fostered economic growth, a function of military Keynesianism, the only fruitful application of Keynes’s theories.

The second half of the film examines the worrisome tendency of capitalist economies to revert to the 19th century and earlier as all of the gains of the welfare state are eradicated. A good part of this is devoted to a searing critique of the Reagan and Thatcher regimes that set in place the neoliberal model that has led to the gross inequalities of today, including under New Labour and Clinton-type presidencies. Piketty maintains that the model was built on a lie. Workers were told that even if the gap between their income and the capitalist class would grow as a result of trickle-down economics, they would still be better off because the pie would also grow exponentially. The workers slice might decrease from 25 percent to 20 percent but if the pie doubled, they’d still be better off. Piketty, Stiglitz, et al supply the statistical evidence that shows most workers living only slightly better than decades ago, with the poorest among them even having a loss of real income.

The film ends with an appeal for political action that might reverse the by now 50-year decline of working class security and income. In April of this year, Stiglitz sat down with the dreadful Andrew Ross Sorkin of the NY Times to discuss the renewal of interest in socialism. Stiglitz reassured Sorkin that Sanders’s agenda is not focused on “ownership of the means of production” or a statist system. Instead, “He’s really concerned about the social contract of health, education.” As for Stiglitz, he also supports a return to the good old days of liberal democracy but under private ownership as indicated by the title of his new book “People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent.”

What Piketty, Stiglitz, et al don’t seem to grasp (or grasping it, disavow it) is the structural barriers to liberal democracy or even social democracy that Stiglitz correctly described as having little to do with socialism. The film pointed out that the pie has not been growing, a function no doubt of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. In areas where it has been growing, it has been at the expense of democracy such as in China. As Suresh Naidu pointed out in the film, it was WWII that broke the back of the Great Depression, not New Deal measures.

WWIII anybody? No thanks.

November 8, 2019

Socialism in Our Time?

Filed under: Counterpunch,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

Mr. Clean Break


Until now, Catalyst has not published an article defending the “dirty break”, “inside-outside” tactic. In the latest issue, however, you can read a gargantuan article (14,258 words) titled “A Socialist Party in Our Time?” that is behind a paywall. One imagines (ahem) that getting a copy will not be that difficult in an age when information yearns to be free.

The co-authors are graduate students, Jared Abbott at Harvard and Dustin Guastella at Rutgers. Both are also DSA members and—I’ll bet—Bread and Roses members. They start by offering a socialist version of the Goldilocks story. On the American left, there are three beds. One is “movementist”, preferring demonstrations to electoral politics. But it is too “narrow” a bed since it cannot translate its street actions into policy. The other bed is also too narrow since it belongs to the “sectarian” left that stubbornly avoids all contact with the Democratic Party and sees the fight for socialism only possible by joining up with one of their Leninist groupuscules.

Abbot and Guastella invite us to snuggle up into the only bed that is the right size for any sensible person. It is “like the mass parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an organization that competes for elections, mobilizes a mass base, and has a democratic internal structure.” This describes the socialist parties of the early 20th century and the Communist Parties later on. Since the DSA is too small to effectuate a “clean break” for such a party, it instead has to be tactically clever and oh-so dirty.

Continue reading

The Archive: How McCarthyism forced an American lawyer into exile

Filed under: Film,McCarthyism,repression — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

The six-year old David Drucker

Bronchitis prevented me from attending press screenings for this year’s DOC NYC Film Festival that runs from November 6th to the 15th but I did manage to see a documentary short titled “The Archive” that will be shown alongside other films at the Cinépolis Chelsea this Saturday, November 9th, at 9:30pm.

The Archive” tells the story of David Drucker who was a victim of McCarthyism in the 1950s like thousands of other Americans. His background will be familiar to anybody who has reviewed this history. His parents were Russian Jews who fled Czarist oppression at the turn of the century and came to live in New York City.

David Drucker got a law degree and went to work for a trading company set up to facilitate commercial ties between the USA and the USSR. During the 1930s and 40s, this would have been an entirely aboveboard professional association but as soon as the Red Scare began, anybody with Soviet ties began to be considered a traitor. The film deploys footage of J. Edgar Hoover’s testimonies before Congress and other sordid reminders of the past most effectively.

Director Peter Spence and Drucker’s daughter Emily Drucker Collins will be there for the Q&A.

Other shorts to be shown at the 9:30 screening include one on the legacy of cotton in the American South, a subject much on my mind now while reading Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”. Another is on NY’s cab drivers, who are facing a deep crisis over medallion debts and competition from Uber. Put succinctly, these are my kinds of films and likely yours if you’ve been reading this blog over the years.

November 6, 2019

Peppermint Candy

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

In a stellar Nation Magazine review of “Parasite”, the overhyped new Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho, E. Tammy Kim writes:

South Korea’s best filmic interpreter of class and social inequality is not Bong but Lee Chang-dong, who made last year’s elegiac Burning as well as Poetry (2010) and one of my all-time favorites, Peppermint Candy (1999). But Lee is too understated to draw the kinds of audiences that Bong can. Asked about his hopes for Parasite, Bong said that it “is in parts funny, frightening, and sad, and if it makes viewers feel like sharing a drink and talking over all the ideas they had while watching it, I’ll wish for nothing more.” Which ideas does he have in mind? Inequality, betrayal, and a kind of we’re-all-doing-our-best both-sides-ism are most apparent. The film doesn’t push us further—to mull Korea’s crisis of affordable housing, discrimination against the poor, fetishization of English and Western commodities, and glut of overeducated, underemployed youth driving the parasitic family’s scheme.

Just by coincidence, I urged FB friends to see “Peppermint Candy”, a film I reviewed twenty years ago. Below is that review followed by a link to a YouTube video that will allow you to see the film for only $2.99. It is a masterpiece that deserves the kind of accolades the crowd-mentality critical establishment is now lavishing on “Parasite”.

Peppermint Candy

Even if it were not a great film, “Peppermint Candy” would be worth seeing just as a guide to the dramatic changes in post-dictatorship South Korea. While ostensibly a Citizen Kane type morality tale about an evil man, it is really a mirror held up to a country whose two main pillars were military/police brutality and worship of mammon.

A group of people in their forties are at a reunion picnic on the bank of a river beneath a railway bridge. Into their midst wanders a man in a business suit who is either drunk or demented, or both. Soon they remember that he is Yongho, a fellow worker from 20 years ago. After encouraging him to take part in their gaiety, he begins to shriek and howl during a Karaoke performance. He climaxes this act by jumping into the river with his business suit on, slapping at the water like a madman. Then he mounts the railroad bridge, where he stands in the middle of the tracks awaiting a train that might come barreling out of a tunnel at any moment. Ignoring their calls to come down to safety, he finally meets an oncoming train with the cry, “I’m going back.”

In a series of flashbacks, we do go back with Yongho and discover what has driven him to suicide. His “Rosebud” is nothing less than the social role imposed by South Korean society in its rise to “success” in the post 1980s. “Peppermint Candy” is mainly an attempt to rip the pleasant facade off this image.

Yongho has decided to kill himself for two reasons. As the president of a small company wrecked on the shoals of the recent economic crisis, he has no other options. We learn through the most immediate flashback that he is living in a shack and can not afford the price of a cup of coffee. With the last little bit of his disposable income, he has bought a pistol. Before shooting himself, he ponders over who he will take with him. The list appears endless. In reality, it is the system that is at fault. He is also ready to kill himself for the pain he has inflicted on others, both those close to him and those who have wandered into his murderous path as soldier and cop.

Each flashback is preceded by camera shots of a train speeding along the South Korean countryside played in reverse. As people and animals walk backward along the track, we travel back in time to find out how Yongho went wrong.

Before becoming a businessman, he learn that he was a cop. In 1987 the cops have apprehended a student leader who is taken back to the station-house to be tortured. They want him to divulge the name of a leading pro-democracy activist. Yongho, the most sadistic and experienced cop, holds the student’s head under water while wearing an impassive, almost bored, expression on his face.

It wasn’t always this easy. In 1984 when he was a rookie cop, he was initiated into the art of torture. After a trade unionist prisoner shits on him during a session, he rushes into the bathroom to wash himself off. While peeing, another more seasoned cop casually mentions to him that he will not be able to forget the smell. That is what “Peppermint Candy” is about mostly, a man learning how, but never successfully so, to get over the smell.

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Kwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.

When we finally arrive at 1979, we discover an entirely different Yongho at the banks of the river, where the original picnic took place. He is a shy young man in love with nature who presents Sunim with a flower that he has picked from the banks. When he sits beneath the railroad bridge, tears come to his eyes perhaps because he is overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounds him. Like Citizen Kane, this kind of innocence will be stolen from him as he becomes part of the dominant culture in Korean society.

NY critics have had some trouble connecting South Korea with the individual Yongho. The program notes at the New Directors/New Film series state: “In epic style, it covers the dissolution of a man and the development of a nation.” It would be more accurately worded: “the simultaneous dissolution of a man and a nation.” The NY Times warns that “a political dimension to Yongho’s malaise is evident, but also, for one not intimately familiar with recent South Korean history, hard to grasp.” Perhaps the critic suffers from relying on the NY Times coverage on South Korea, which goes a long way to explaining why things are hard to grasp. The systematic brutality depicted in the film never made its way to the front pages of the newspaper, which was much more interested in “economic miracle” and the dictatorship’s support for anti-Communist initiatives in the region.

“Peppermint Candy” was directed and written by Lee Chang Dong and stars Sol Kyung Gu as Yongho in the most impressive acting performance that I have witnessed this year. In the unlikely event that “Peppermint Candy” is released for general distribution, it is not to be missed.

November 5, 2019

When Lambs Become Lions; The Elephant Queen

Filed under: Africa,Ecology,Film,poaching — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Long before the African elephant became the poster child of wildlife preservation and ecology activists, I became aware of their precarious condition when I saw John Huston’s “Roots of Heaven” in 1958. Based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conducted nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa, it was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

In my 2014 review of the film, the first time I had seen it since 1958, I wrote:

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

This week I saw two new documentaries filmed in Kenya that rekindled my interest in the preservation of the African elephant. One, titled “When Lambs Become Lions”, opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on November 22nd and at the Village East in NYC on December 6th. It is the story of poachers like the kind that were the villains in Huston’s film on one side and the game wardens on the other who have orders to shoot to kill any poacher. What gives the documentary particular interest, beyond the question of the elephant’s survival, is that the two main subjects of the film—a poacher and a cop—are cousins and very close. The other is titled “The Elephant Queen”, a family-oriented portrait of a herd led by Athena, a 50-year old animal ruling over a matriarchy that faces death from a drought rather than from poachers. It premieres on Apple’s new streaming service meant to compete against Netflix and Amazon Prime for $4.99 a month.

The films complement each other. They help to show both the importance of the elephant to the Kenyan ecosphere and the utter waste of a precious living natural resource as a result of the vain consumption of ivory for chintzy carvings sold to the Chinese nouveau riche,

We first meet the poacher in “When Lambs Become Lions”, who is only identified as “X”. He comes from a family that has been poaching for decades, including his father who was killed in the act by park rangers when X was only a child. Not having the stomach to see an elephant killed, he has an underling named Lucas carry out the act using a bow and arrow laced by poison drawn from a frog. It seems likely that these poachers are drawing upon tribal traditions that go back for centuries just like some American Indians who kill whales. However, when such practices become monetized in a society dominated by severe poverty, they are much more capable of leading to extinction.

X’s cousin Asan is a prime example of such precariousness. He and his fellow park rangers haven’t been paid for two months. When a government representative meets with them, they want to know when they will be paid. He shrugs his shoulders and tells them that he has no idea. He adds that if this does not meet their needs, they can find another job.

In a conversation between X and Asan, we learn that the park ranger had also been a poacher earlier in life. We soon begin to understand that both occupations, breaking the law and enforcing it, come with risks. The poacher risks being shot down by a ranger while the ranger has to risk penury because the Kenyan government will not live up to its fiscal responsibilities. Towards the end of the film, we see the new president Uhuru Kenyatta making a speech about the need to save the elephants, topped off by the burning of $150 million worth of tusks. One wonders why he can’t act decisively to keep the police force paid on time, especially since they are probably not making very much money to begin with.

During the film, Anas’s wife gives birth. One wonders how close she came to being denied basic health services because Kenyatta’s Ministry of Health officials stole nearly $50 million of funds allocated to the national free maternity program. In a society dominated by illegality, can anybody be surprised that those on the bottom imitate those at the top?

In an interview with director Jon Kasbe, who spent three years embedded in both X and Asan’s social milieu to gain their trust, he is asked if why the film did not result in a call to action, as is typically the case with documentaries about elephants or rhinoceroses facing extinction because of tusk poaching. He answered:

We hope that the film challenges the existing conversation around poaching. We can’t focus on the preservation of animal life without considering the economic realities and perspectives of the people who have shared land with these animals for a long time. While it is not an overt message in the film, we feel the story can point attention to the lack of proper pay, resources, and training given to wildlife rangers. These rangers are expected to live in the bush 26 days out of the month and oftentimes don’t have basic necessities like boots, clean water, food, or blankets. I spoke to many hunters who said it would be much harder to bribe rangers who had better work conditions. In fact, many poachers claim they would consider switching sides for good, if it meant stable pay and proper resources.

“The Elephant Queen” is a throwback to the heavily anthropomorphized Walt Disney documentaries that I grew up watching and loving as a kid. Athena, the matriarch, is always being described by narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor as “worried” or “sad” about some threat to her family’s well-being. There are also touches that smack of video and audio editing meant to entertain a child or early teen. When a dung beetle narrowly misses being stepped on by an elephant, we hear it squeak in alarm. I am no dung beetle expert but I doubt that any sound like that every came out of a dung-beetle’s mouth. The video editing is less egregious. It is obvious meant to draw out the full drama of an African elephant’s odyssey in search of water and food, even if it sometimes has a “staged” quality.

All that being said, it is a great documentary that like “When Lambs Become Lions” is a labor of love. Co-Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent four years in close proximity to Athena’s family in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park that was prime territory for poachers until the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation partners beefed up security.

Essentially, the film might be subtitled “The ecology of a waterhole” since 90 percent of the film shows the web of life that an elephant and a water source can nurture. The waterholes are home to elephants, bullfrogs, chameleons, dung-beetles, killifish, and terrapins—all of which are captured in minute detail by Mark Deeble’s camera. The elephant defecates and the dung-beetle rushes up to siphon off a ball of the stuff that he can then stash away for future meals. It is absolutely captivating.

Whether or not you decide to become an Apple TV+ subscriber is up to you. I would only urge you to take out a trial membership just so that you and your children—if you have any—can see a powerful film about a creature that was placed on earth not to furnish tusks to the poaching industry but to keep the humble dung-beetle and all other creatures both large and small alive and healthy.


November 3, 2019


Filed under: Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

The first thing that strikes you about Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is its open homage to two of Martin Scorsese’s films: “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”. From “Taxi Driver”, it borrows the main character’s borderline personality and the portrayal of New York City as hell on earth. Travis Bickle, the Vietnam vet evidently suffering from PTSD, puts it this way: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

While “King of Comedy” is not considered vintage Scorsese, it was made to order for Todd Phillip’s main character Arthur Fleck, whose last name even evokes De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver”. In “King of Comedy”, De Niro plays an aspiring stand-up comedian who idolizes Jerry Langford, the Johnny Carson-like late night host played by Jerry Lewis. To connect with Scorsese’s film, De Niro is cast as late night host Murray Franklin in “Joker” but with much more of a mean streak—think of David Letterman waking up on the wrong side of bed. Now about the same age as Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy” and endowed with the same kind of geezer cockiness, De Niro is the best thing about “Joker”.

Unlike the muscular and fearless Travis Bickle, Arthur Fleck is a downtrodden sad sack who has been picked on his whole life. We meet him working as a clown on the streets of New York in 1981. He holds an advertising sign above his head meant to draw customers into the shop he dances about in front of. Within a few seconds, a gang of teens (mostly Latino, it appears) grabs the sign from him and runs down the street with him in hot pursuit. When he catches up with them in an alley, they beat the living daylights out of him. One cannot be sure of director Todd Phillip’s intention, but this evokes the “wilding” episodes of the 1990s that gained notoriety through the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five. Or perhaps Phillips simply wanted to indicate that the city was infested with sadistic teens.

More directly related to the period, Fleck is riding the subway home late at night in his clown costume when a trio of drunken “Wall Street” guys (employees of the future Batman’s father Thomas Wayne, as it happens) begin to harass a young woman seated opposite them. Afflicted with a mental illness that turns out to be sui generis, Fleck begins to laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. This draws the trio’s attention away from the woman and toward Fleck who is carrying a pistol that a fellow clown gave him for protection (and to make a few bucks through the sale.) When they begin to beat and kick him, he shoots two to death on the subway car and pursues the third in the station, who becomes his last victim. This incident will remind any New Yorker of the Bernhard Goetz attack on four black teenagers in a subway car in 1984. Goetz, a white technician, fired bullets from an unlicensed pistol into all four because he felt that they were trying to rob him.

This scene is simply unbelievable. Anybody who works on Wall Street in an obviously well-paying job, drunk or not, is the last person who will harass a total stranger on a subway train. Most New Yorkers, especially those dressed in business suits, simply want to be left alone. To advance his plot, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, tried to connect the dots between Thomas Wayne and the future Joker by having him kill the three white-collar workers in his employ. If I had been in a writing session with the two, I would have warned them against such an unlikely act of aggression by people who work in cubicles. Then again, they probably calculated that this would make no difference to a theater audience that cared so little about logic. This is 2019, after all.

Phillips’s problem is that he wanted to capture the malaise of New York City in the early 80s, but blend it with the Batman story. In previous films drawn from the comic book, Gotham (i.e., New York) was much more mythical. In Tim Burton’s hands, there was no attempt to draw analogies with the real city. Most of the action occurred indoors with Jack Nicholson as the Joker stealing every scene. In Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight”, we see more of Gotham’s street life but it is even more disconnected from New York (it was filmed in Chicago.)

Unlike Nicholson and Ledger’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is no master criminal. He is a pathetic figure who makes Walter Mitty look like a hard-nosed realist. Each night he watches De Niro’s Murray Franklin and fantasizes about making an appearance on his show. He does make an appearance one night but not in the fashion he hoped for. One of Franklin’s assistants gets his hands on a video recording of Fleck bombing at a comedy club. Nobody laughs at his jokes and when he himself begins to have one of his psychotic laughing bouts, he is shown the door. When Fleck sees himself being humiliated on national TV, he begins to plot his revenge.

At this point, he is beginning to resemble Travis Bickle who was humiliated by election campaign aide Cybill Shepherd, who was so aghast at his taking her to a 42nd Street porn movie for a date that she told him never to contact her again. In retaliation, he decides to assassinate the liberal politician she is working for.

What makes Todd Phillips a second-rate director/screenwriter compared to Martin Scorsese, who he obviously reveres, is character development. In “Taxi Driver”, we get to know Travis Bickle intimately. Throughout his haunting voice-over monologues that we hear as he drives across city streets late at night, we understand his pain and alienation. We also learn more about his motivation in his conversations with fellow workers and even the campaign worker who found him physically attractive, if clearly “off”. But most of all, the scenes between De Niro and Jodie Foster, playing a 12-year old streetwalker, are some of the most poignant in any film made in the 1970s. Showing a paternal care for her that makes his ultimate violent explosion logical, we see a consistency that is utterly lacking in “Joker”. Throughout the entire film, there is almost no dialog between Fleck and other characters except his mother who is as disturbed as him. In one particularly grotesque scene, he is shown scrubbing her back when she is taking a bath. The only time he expresses himself is when he begins to laugh uncontrollably, like someone with Tourette’s Syndrome shouting four-letter words out of the blue in public.

About that laughing disorder, I checked on it the day after seeing “Joker”. People magazine claims that while the movie never identifies the specific illness, such fits of controllable laughter are based on an actual disorder called the Pseudobulbar Affect, or PBA. When you check Wikipedia on the Pseudobulbar Affect, however, you learn that it has nothing to do with schizophrenia or any other psychosis. Instead, it is connected to a neurological disorder or brain injury. Some researchers look to the role of the corticobulbar pathways. When there are lesions, you can see a failure of voluntary control of emotions.

Obviously, Phillips is not interested in lesions. For him, the laughing goes hand in hand with Fleck’s mental illness that is obviously schizophrenia. Proof of that is his hallucinations of having a romance with a woman who lives down the hall from him. On the day of his appearance on the Murray Franklin show, he walks into her apartment unannounced (the door was unlocked—another touch of illogic in this script) expecting to enjoy some intimacies. When she walks in, she says, “Aren’t you the guy who lives down the hall? What do you want”. When he acts as if she was his girlfriend, she tells him to leave or else she will call the cops.

Obviously this rejection primes him to fire a bullet into Murray Franklin that evening on national TV. His psychosis has finally matured into the condition that will identify him as the Joker from that moment on. This is not the first time that a connection has been made between mental illness and the Joker. In a November 4, 2007 interview with the NY Times, Ledger described his character as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”.

Schizophrenic? In film today, there are very few nationalities that can still be demonized routinely without pushback. Arab terrorists obviously remain the number one favorite of Hollywood hacks, but “crazy people” come in second with hardly anybody taking up their cause. The reality is that schizophrenics never carry out attacks for revenge, such as was the case with Fleck’s killing of Murray Franklin. By and large, they carry out acts of violence against total strangers who voices in their head direct them to push in the path of an oncoming subway train, etc. Another typical victim is the schizophrenic himself who the voices condemn as not worth living.

The best way to prevent such tragedies that are becoming more and more common as hospitals were emptied of the mentally ill years ago after psychotropic drugs like Thorazine were developed is to develop a support network. If they are taken under supervision in group homes, medicated properly, and have social workers looking after them, the violence decreases. There is an allusion to that in “Joker” in  a scene between Fleck and a psychotherapist but that hardly makes up for the utterly backward portrayal of someone suffering from a mental illness.

My advice is to wait for this movie to show up on Amazon Prime. It is certainly not worth the $15 you’d have to pay for it at your local Cineplex. Why it has garnered such raves, including from those on the left who would have you believe it is the second coming of “Battle of Algiers”, is simply beyond me.


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