Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2020

Head’s up to trolls

Filed under: Trolls/stalkers — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

I have made it clear in the past and will repeat it now. If you use a proxy server, you will get the boot. In the 15 years this blog has been in existence, I have had nothing but trouble with people using this technology. For some reason, using it brings out the worst in people. I have no idea why they bother since a regular IP address will not help me track you down in order to punch you in the nose. An IP address is as confidential as an unlisted telephone number.

In many blogs, you need a legitimate email address to post comments. WordPress.com does not allow this and it doesn’t pay to upgrade my blog to take advantage of it. Frankly, I don’t even care if you use some bullshit name and email address like “Janet Avery”. And I even care less if you come here to abuse me for living on the upper east side of Manhattan or whatever sick obsession you have. I am as thick-skinned as a rhinoceros. Just don’t USE A FUCKING PROXY SERVER.

Here, btw, is the report on the proxy IP address this jackass was using:

February 14, 2020

Marx, Lincoln and Project 1619

Filed under: Civil War,Counterpunch,Project 1619,slavery — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

Victoria Woodhull: Spiritualist and leader of the first socialist international in the United States


It must have enraged the historians who signed Sean Wilentz’s open letter to the New York Times and their World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) allies to see Abraham Lincoln knocked off his pedestal. How insolent for Nikole Hannah-Jones to write in her introductory essay for Project 1619 that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” Lincoln was not only an iconic figure for the average American. Karl Marx admired him as well for his war on slavery. Since the primary goal of the critics of Project 1619 was to prioritize class over “identity”, naturally Karl Marx was just the authority to help make their case against the bourgeois New York Times intent on dividing the working-class.

Since the WSWS sets itself up as a Marxist gate-keeper par excellence, we can assume that the historians also had the Karl Marx-Abraham Lincoln in mind when they hooked up with the Trotskyist sect. James McPherson is probably the closest to WSWS ideologically, having granted them interviews over the years. When they asked him if he read Karl Marx’s writings on the Civil War, the historian replied, “Well, I think they have a lot of very good insight into what was going on in the American Civil War. Marx certainly saw the abolition of slavery as a kind of bourgeois revolution that paved the way for the proletarian revolution that he hoped would come in another generation or so. It was a crucial step on the way to the eventual proletarian revolution, as Marx perceived it.”

In this article, I will look critically at what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about these questions. Although I have been a Marxist for 52 years, I have little patience with those who put him (or Lenin and Trotsky) on a pedestal. I believe that Nikole Hannah-Jones had good reasons to question his sanctity. More to the point, I will argue that Marx and Engels lacked the political foresight to see how black Americans would be short-changed after the Civil War. Keeping in mind that the first socialist international was located in the United States, we must examine its relationship to the newly emancipated black population. Based on my reading of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International,” my conclusion is that it fell short.

Continue reading

February 12, 2020

The rancid politics of the Douma false-flag brigades

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Medal of Freedom awardee and Syria false flagger speaks out

Almost a year ago, a group of pro-Assad academics in England organized as the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media and led by the odious Tim Hayward posted a report on their website written by former OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) employee Ian Henderson. It was a highly technical rebuttal to the official report, which concluded that dozens of Syrians living in Douma were killed by gas released from a weaponized chlorine tank dropped by a regime helicopter.

Delivered as a series of bullet points, Henderson’s report concluded:

  1. In summary, observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.

“Manually placed” could have only meant one thing. Even though Henderson stopped short of stating it, the pro-Assad academics said it for him. This was a “false flag” intended to provoke American intervention. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, they concluded that jihadis planted the chlorine tanks. Part of the conspiracy also involved killing dozens of Douma residents beforehand just to lend an air of realism to the staged event, like in a Hollywood film: “As we have previously noted, if the Douma attack was staged the only plausible explanation for the deaths of the victims is that they were murdered as captives by the opposition group in control of Douma at the time.” Most recently, one of Hayward’s henchmen went so far as to claim that they used a “gas chamber”. 

Eventually, another “whistleblower” turned up, an ex-OPCW employee first identified as “Alex”. He eventually turned out to be one Brendan Whelan. Like Henderson, Whelan stuck to the technical details that he presented to a conference organized by Wikileaks in October 2019. Wikileaks has also been posting leaked OPCW documents intended to absolve Assad of the Douma chemical attack. As part of the propaganda offensive by Wikileaks, an open letter was signed by former OPCW director José Bustani, Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk. They hoped that  their good names would help draw attention to “alternative hypotheses on how the alleged chlorine munitions came to be found in the two apartment buildings.” It is sad that these model citizens’ reputations will be stained forever by serving such filthy ends.

Grayzone has joined the British academic Assadists and Wikileaks in a tripartite propaganda campaign, posting and commenting on leaked material. As you probably know, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton were well-known opponents of Assad but had a change of heart after Blumenthal had an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow for the purpose of celebrating RT’s anniversary. Once he returned, he started writing articles of the kind that he formerly denounced. Some people believe that he is getting paid by Russia to write propaganda. I have no proof one way or another.

Adding to these fairly high-profile outlets, there are other defenders of Assad who rally around the OPCW leaks. They include individuals like Jonathan Cook and Robert Fisk, as well as websites such as Mint Press, Off-Guardian, Consortium News and Moon of Alabama.

For the most part, the debate around Douma has been focused on technical issues such as whether there was forensic evidence of chlorine gas poisoning or whether the placement of the weaponized chlorine tanks was consistent with a helicopter attack or not. Much of it has been probably far too arcane for the average leftist to absorb. The best of it has originated from Eliot Higgins’s BellingCat or from Brian Whittaker’s articles on https://al-bab.com/. I have written a number of articles myself that are focused on the objective factors that make a false flag unlikely, such as the difficulty of securing weaponized chlorine tanks, but will take a look at Douma from a different angle today.

I want to show how the entire notion of a “false flag” runs counter to the agenda of the Trump administration that could care less about Syrians being gassed. In fact, Douma had been subject to three chlorine gas attacks in 2018 prior to the one that left over 40 people dead. Not a peep was heard from the White House before then. All told, there have been 336 chlorine gas attacks in Syria and 98 percent of them have been linked to the dictatorship.

Only once has the USA retaliated and that was after the attack on Douma in 2018, when Trump authorized a missile attack on buildings in Damascus that were supposedly part of its chemical weapons development program, as well as some air bases. Since chlorine can be purchased by practically anybody involved with sterilizing swimming pools and the like, the missile attack was mostly for show. The Economist reported that the USA contacted Russia in advance just to make sure that it didn’t become collateral damage. NBC News described it as an “empty gesture”, especially since the advance warning allowed the dictatorship to evacuate its war planes and helicopters to safety.

The propaganda offensive around Douma is based on the notion that Donald Trump is bent on “regime change”, whereas in fact he had zero interest in such a project. The only reason he retaliated after the Douma gas attack was to show that the USA was still capable of unleashing a well-orchestrated military offensive even if it was pulling its punches. The false-flaggers fail to acknowledge that Trump never had a problem with Baathist rule in Syria. Unlike George W. Bush, who was determined to topple it in Iraq, Trump never saw Syria as a threat to American interests except perhaps for Iran’s presence.

Keep in mind that Trump marched to the tune of a different drummer. Instead of listening to Max Boot or William Kristol, he was attuned to the commentary on Fox News that is for the most part on the same wave-length as Grayzone, et al. This should be obvious from the red-carpet treatment afforded Max Blumenthal during his appearances on Tucker Carlson’s show. But you might be surprised by how extensive sympathy for Assad was not only on Fox News but other rightwing media voices that Trump took to heart.

Just the other day, Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom. I bet you didn’t know that Rush was a false-flagger in good standing. Here he is in 2013 (as shown in the YouTube clip above) blaming the rebels for using sarin gas on their own supporters in East Ghouta:

And then late last night, early this morning, I run across this piece by Yossef Bodansky. And I look him up, find out who he is, just shared his resume with you, and his story, his article here is that there is evidence, mounting evidence that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack. But not only that, that Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan this Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition.

Just four days after the April 7, 2018 Douma attack, Ann Coulter called the experts who blamed Assad a bunch of liars.

Steve Doocy: shares the concerns of Grayzone, et al

Although the name Steve Doocy might not ring a bell, he is one of the hosts of Fox and Friends, the morning talk show that Trump starts his day with. Just a few days after the Douma chlorine attack, Doocy said, “I was reading this morning in Newsweek … that apparently this group called the White Helmets, … there are stories that they staged bodies to make it look like there was a gas attack.”

Glenn Beck, a former Fox TV star who went on to form his own media company called TheBlaze TV, was also caught in the act of  false-flagging. On April 17, 2018 his website posted an article titled “The war machine springs to life over Syria,” a title that sounds like it might have appeared on Grayzone. It stated:

Are these so-called “moderate rebels” morally capable of using poison gas on civilians, children especially? You bet they are. These are proven head-choppers, supported by the US, who have publicly posted numerous videos of themselves beheading children. Morals are not part of their framework or this war.

Plus, the gas war crime certainly serves their interest more than it does Assad’s at this time.

Between the two suspects, it’s far more likely that the increasingly desperate jihadists, who are clearly losing the fight at this point, would use any and every method at their employ to their advantage.

Finally, you have Michael Savage who is probably the most ardent supporter of Donald Trump on talk radio. He, like the others, drew the line on bombing Syria. Here he is in a scathing attack on what he called a “Potemkin raid”:

It was not just the Fox News talking heads that rejoiced in Trump’s repudiation of neoconservative-type warmongering. There were probably hundreds of articles from the left that saw him as a welcome departure from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama interventionism.

Gareth Porter, a perennial false-flagger, wrote an article for Middle East Eye titled “US intervention in Syria? Not under Trump” that was subtitled: “The Trump administration may recognise that the Syrian army is the only institution committed to resisting terrorism in its country.” Specifically:

The US military leadership was never on board with the policy of relying on those armed groups to advance US interests in Syria in the first place.

It recognised that, despite the serious faults of the Assad regime, the Syrian army was the only Syrian institution committed to resisting both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

It seems likely that the Trump administration will now return to that point as it tries to rebuild a policy from the ashes of the failed policy of the Obama administration.

Dave Lindorff, a long-time contributor to CounterPunch with impeccable anti-imperialist credentials, chimed in as well with an article titled “Trump does something right for once”. It celebrated his announced withdrawal of 3,000 troops from Syria—a bit prematurely. But it did give him credit for at least making such an announcement that included this provocative encomium: “Hell, I’ll be the first to endorse him for a Nobel Peace Prize!”

Although American policy in Syria is still filled with contradictions, there is little doubt that Trump has given Putin carte blanche to have his way. Idlib is being bombed to oblivion, while the Max Blumenthal’s of the world are warning about American intervention being prepped by another false flag.

In yesterday’s Grayzone, there’s an article by the halfwit Aaron Maté that recapitulates all of the false flag themes that have been oozing out of the pores of the pro-Assad “left” for the past two years. One thing in particular caught my eye. He wrote:

Alex revealed that a delegation of three US officials visited the OPCW at The Hague on July 5th, 2018. They implored the dissenting inspectors to accept the view that the Syrian government carried out a gas attack in Douma and chided them for failing to reach that conclusion. According to Steele, Alex and the other inspectors saw the meeting as “unacceptable pressure.” In his statement to the UN Security Council, Henderson confirmed that he attended the meeting.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, they implored? Who authorized them to do so when clearly the Trump administration was well on its way to washing its hands of the entire resistance to Assad. A year before that delegation showed up at OPCW headquarters, Trump had cut off all funding to the rebels as the July 19, 2017 NY Times reported:

President Trump has ended the clandestine American program to provide arms and supplies to Syrian rebel groups, American officials said, a recognition that the effort was failing and that the administration has given up hope of helping to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The decision came more than a month ago, the officials said, by which time the effort to deliver the arms had slowed to a trickle.

It was never publicly announced, just as the beginnings of the program four years ago were officially a secret, authorized by President Barack Obama through a “finding” that permitted the C.I.A. to conduct a deniable program. News of the troublesome program soon leaked out.

In light of all the evidence that Trump has zero interest in a military intervention in Syria of the kind that Obama mounted in Libya, why do Wikileaks, Tim Hayward’s gang and Grayzone continue to act as if it is 2002 and Colin Powell is making speeches about WMD’s in Iraq? After 9 years of asymmetrical warfare in Syria that has included the bombing of hospitals, chemical attacks, the torture and murder of captive rebels by the thousands in Syrian prisons, the starvation siege of places like Aleppo and East Ghouta, these contemptuous apologists for mass murder like Max Blumenthal, Tim Hayward, and Julian Assange flunkies continue to act as if they are heroic antiwar activists and investigative journalists. In fact, they are swimming with the tide. The reality is that they are likely acting on the basest of motives that might include payoffs from the Kremlin and an intoxication with strongmen like Assad and Putin that only a psychiatrist could explain.

February 10, 2020

My NYFCO ballot for 2019

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) had its annual awards meeting on December 8, 2019. As is usually the case, my ballot and the membership majority were not quite aligned. You can check out their awards here, which agreed with the Academy Award’s choice of “Parasite” for best film of the year. I usually don’t pay much attention to awards since I don’t believe in competition but since someone on Facebook asked me what my nomination for best documentary was, I decided to post my ballot. (I told him that “American Factory” was not my first choice but defended it as a good film notwithstanding it being produced by the Obamas.)

New York Film Critics Online 2019 Awards Nomination Ballot

NAME: Louis Proyect

Breakthrough Performance (name actor/film)


  1. Adam Driver (Marriage Story)


  1. Taron Egerton (Rocketman)


  1. Adam Pearson (Chained for Life)


Supporting Actress (name actor/film)


  1. Laura Dern (Marriage Story)


  1. Jess Weixler (Chained for Life)


  1. Marziyeh Rezaei (Three Faces)


Supporting Actor (name actor/film)


  1. Joe Pesci (The Irishman)


  1. Jamie Bell (Rocketman)


  1. David Call (Depraved)


Screenplay (name film)


  1. The Irishman


  1. Marriage Story


  1. Chained for Life


Cinematography (name film)


  1. Arctic


  1. Joker


  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Use of Music (name film)


  1. Rocketman


  1. Joker


  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Debut Director (name directors/film)


  1. Joe Penna (Arctic)


  1. Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn’t Real)


  1. A.B. Shawky (Yomeddine)


Director (name directors/film)


  1. Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)


  1. Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)


  1. Aaron Schimberg (Chained for Life)


Actress (name actor/film)


  1. Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)


  1. Carlie Guevara (The Garden Left Behind)


  1. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Woman at War)



Actor (name actor/film)


  1. Robert De Niro (The Irishman)


  1. Adam Driver (Marriage Story)


  1. Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)


Ensemble Cast (name film)


  1. Knives Out


  1. Bombshell


  1. The Wild Pear Tree


Picture (name film)


  1. The Irishman


  1. Marriage Story


  1. Three Faces


Foreign Language (name film)


  1. Woman at War


  1. Rojo


  1. Styx


Documentary (name film)


  1. The Cave


  1. For Sama


  1. The Biggest Little Farm


Animated Feature (name film)


  1. I Lost My Body


  1. Weathering With You





February 8, 2020

Eric Blanc’s ersatz socialism

Filed under: DSA,reformism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm


Eric Blanc

For those trying to keep track of the ongoing attempt to seduce American radicals into Democratic Party politics, Eric Blanc’s articles are essential. Unlike most of the people who write for Jacobin, Blanc got some intensive training in Marxism starting with his membership in Socialist Organizer, a tiny sect affiliated with the U.S. fraternal section of the Organizing Committee for the Re-constitution of the Fourth International. His next stop was the ISO, where he was likely in the vanguard of the group’s mass exodus into the DSA. Now, comfortably ensconced there, he is a member of the Bread and Roses caucus that takes pride in itself as the Marxist redoubt of the group hoping to Re-constitute social democracy in the USA.

On top of all this, he has been something of a disciple of Lars Lih who has written millions of words extolling Lenin while at the same time making it clear that he is not a socialist. This deep immersion in Marxist lore has seen Blanc come up with some very fresh ideas, especially on the role of borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation. More recently, and unfortunately, his erudition has mostly been used to promote voting for Democratic Party candidates as a tactical “dirty break”. Unlike the crude “lesser evil”, “stop the fascist threat” analysis perfected by the Communist Party, Blanc frames his arguments in neo-Kautskyist terms, even though, as his critics make clear, Kautsky was adamantly opposed to voting for liberals.

Blanc’s latest foray into DP apologetics is available in an article titled “From Meyer London to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”. In analogizing the two politicians, he is once again using an ersatz version of socialist theory and history in the same manner as his “dirty break” article that made the case for socialists using the ballot line of the two capitalist parties in primaries. Historically, this coincided with SP leader Meyer London being elected to the House of Representatives without such gimmicks.

London never used this dubious tactic since at the time the SP had massive support. In Eugene V. Debs’s run for president in 1912, he got an astounding 6 percent of the vote. As for Meyer London, he was one of the only two SP’ers who were ever elected to Congress. The other was Victor Berger, who, like London, was a “sewer socialist” with politics akin to Eduard Bernstein. Why in this day and age of deep capitalist crisis with fascism on the march all over the planet would anybody look to someone like Meyer London as some kind of positive example? Beats me.

Blanc believes we should study London’s career because he proposed New Deal type reforms in Congress long before the New Deal. In Blanc’s words, he had “only a light commitment to Marxism…, believed in an evolutionary transition to socialism and wavered in his opposition to the First World War.”

Notwithstanding these political flaws, Meyer London was more dedicated to the working class movement than any Democrat. He was a strong ally of the garment workers in New York City and pushed for “comprehensive social insurance for all in the form of national health care, unemployment and disability insurance, and public works jobs programs.”

Of course, there is a yawning gulf between London and A. O-C, who is obviously intent on serving as a Democrat despite her lip-service to socialism. In the second half of his article, Blanc explains why this decision was forced on her.

There are no easy answers or simple formulas for how to proceed in today’s novel context. Given the relative weakness of the socialist movement, and the well-known obstacles to electing third-party candidates in the US, it made tactical sense for Ocasio-Cortez, like Sanders before her, to run on the Democratic Party ballot line. At the same time, elected socialists will ultimately need full political independence from the party establishment in order to advance their class-struggle agendas. We’ll eventually need a party of our own. Playing by the rules of the game has led all too many honest politicians to cover for, and bend to, a corporate-funded Democratic machine whose built-to-fail centrism led to our current Trump nightmare.

It was only after reading this subtle exercise in Marxoid casuistry a second time that it dawned on me what he was carefully eliding. Meyer London was a member of a party. He had to operate within its political guidelines in order to get its financial and organizational support for his election campaigns. In other words, his relationship to the SP was like that of any politician in the European Second International parties. With all proportions guarded, he and Berger operated as parliamentarians that were expected to carry forward their party’s program in the same way that they did in Kautsky’s SPD. In fact, the term “democratic centralism” did not originate in Russia. It originated in Germany long before “What is To Be Done”.

As Paul LeBlanc explains in “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean. Furthermore, in Russia it was first used by the Mensheviks at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they agree that “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

So, what in the hell does this have to do with today’s “democratic socialist” movement? Not only is Bernie Sanders not a member of the DSA; he doesn’t even encourage people to join. Basically, they and Jacobin operate as his fan club. He is free to say whatever he wants and when he says or does something clearly problematic, they are free to say “tut-tut” or rationalize it, as was the case with the Joe Rogan endorsement.

While they are not in the same kind of exalted position as Sanders, A. O-C and the “squad” pretty much have the same kind of latitude even if they are members (Ilhan Omar is not). They rely on the DSA to do the grunt work and once they are elected they use their own judgement when they vote or say something dumb. In a Left Voice article titled “Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Represent the Politics of the DSA?”, we see how far she can stray from democratic socialism, a program that would likely exclude support for Israeli war crimes:

Ocasio-Cortez’s statements about replacing ICE with a more humane INS have already garnered criticism from her left supporters. But a major source of concern for DSAers was Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks on the occupation of Palestine. Pushed a bit by Margaret Hoover on Firing Line about a tweet in which she denounced the Land Day Massacre, Ocasio-Cortez said not only that she “believes absolutely in Israel’s right to exist,” but also that she “just looked at that incident [as] just an incident.” When asked about her use of the term “occupation,” she replied, “I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these.”

Although my politics are much more aligned with Rosa Luxemburg than Karl Kautsky, I would be a lot more sympathetic to the DSA if it was aspiring toward Kautsky’s model. Instead, it is much more reminiscent of the Young Democrats I used to run into during the Vietnam antiwar movement. They came to meetings wearing Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern buttons, politicians they saw as being capable of returning the Democratic Party to its New Deal traditions. In exchange for passing out campaign literature, the young activists might be rewarded with an early end to the Vietnam War just as DSA’ers hope that the USA will be transformed into Sweden if Sanders is elected.

February 7, 2020

The Revolutionary Cinema of Patricio Guzman

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm


On February 12th, the IFC in New York will begin showing “The Cordillera of Dreams”, the latest film from Patricio Guzman. The 78-year-old Chilean is one of Latin America’s most celebrated leftwing directors, whose three-part “The Battle of Chile” became an iconic film alongside Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s 1968 tripartite “Hour of the Furnaces” that dealt with the revolutionary movement in Argentina. For sixties radicals like me, these films were required viewing. Timed to the release of Guzman’s latest, Ovid—the Netflix of the left—has added five Guzman films to their nonpareil inventory. After some words on “The Cordillera Of Dreams”, I will cover some of the new Ovid offerings.

Cordillera is the Spanish word for mountain range, such as the Andes that Guzman uses as a symbol of Chilean hopes and disappointment. Constituting 80 percent of Chile’s landmass, it is the primary source of the country’s copper-mining wealth and its cultural legacy. For most Chileans, it is just something seen in landscape paintings, including a mural in the Santiago subway.

Like a leitmotif in one of Wagner’s operas, Guzman returns to images of the mountains, captured beautifully by a drone. They serve as a backdrop for the nation’s search for identity in a period when neoliberalism governs all social relations. That identity remains with him despite not having lived in the country since the coup. In dozens of films since “The Battle of Chile”, he has struggled to keep alive the dreams that marked the pre-coup years when everything seemed possible. The cordillera of dreams is a way of saying that dreams are as permanent as the Andes.

Continue reading

February 5, 2020

Jimmy Dore, Joe Rogan, and the left

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,comedy,Green Party,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 11:02 pm

On October 17, 2018, the Socialist Worker newspaper—the voice of the disbanded ISO—published an article titled “The Independent Left Must Oppose Islamophobia.” It called attention to a statement of the NY branch of the ISO condemning Howie Hawkins’s “decision to welcome the endorsement of political commentator and comedian Jimmy Dore and to feature Dore alongside Howie at a livestream event this September in Brooklyn.”

Howie was running for governor against Andrew Cuomo that year and obviously had no reason to disavow Dore, who—as the ISO correctly pointed out—was a supporter of Bashar al-Assad. The ISO also took potshots at the Green Party’s 2016 vice presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka, who had written several articles about Syria that were not nearly as toxic as Dore’s podcasts, although certainly wrong. What the NYC ISO failed to point out in its statement was the lack of any evidence that Baraka used his campaign to promote Assad.

The purity of the ISO comrades is most admirable but perhaps they should have applied the litmus test to themselves, especially Haymarket books that published no less than 8 books by Roland Boer. Granted the books were only his turgid ruminations on the relationship between Protestantism and Marxism but perhaps they hadn’t noticed that his blog Stalin’s Moustache had been an open sewer of support for suppressing the Uyghurs, the Tibetan right to self-determination, and other offenses even more grievous than Jimmy Dore’s. While I would never put John Bellamy Foster in the same category as the slimy Roland Boer, the online publication MR has operated for the past 20 years or so has been both a propagandist for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad. When ISO’er Phil Gasper wrote a flattering review of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology,” it didn’t occur to him to slap Foster’s wrist—as well as it shouldn’t.

So why the special treatment for Howie Hawkins, who, unlike Baraka, never said a word endorsing Assad either in print or in a speech? In fact, he has opposed him ever since the revolution began in 2011.

I have a suspicion, although I can’t prove it, that the NY ISO’ers were already beginning to go through a road to Damascus conversion about the value of “democratic socialism”, which requires as an article of faith rejection of candidates running to the left of the Democratic Party. We’ll never know, of course.

The ISO statement turned Syria into a litmus test, which a Green Party campaign email failed since it described Dore as “one of the most courageous and funniest political voices we have today.” Scolding the Greens, the ISO’ers retorted, “In fact, he is a vocal supporter of the worst variety of Assadist and Islamophobic conspiracy theories on the Syrian conflict.”

In fact, about 90 percent of the left today, including Noam Chomsky, Bhaskar Sunkara, and other well-known figures, would fail that litmus test as well. Dore, who might be described as a funny version of Max Blumenthal, happens to be a trenchant critic of the Democratic Party. So are the people who write for Black Agenda Report. For that matter, probably 90 percent of the people who have written for CounterPunch since 2011 line up with Jimmy Dore. Many believe that this reflects the editorial outlook of editors Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank but in reality it simply indicates the dominance of pro-Assad support of those who submit articles. What is the possibility that a united revolutionary left can be built in the years to come in a deepening capitalist crisis that is based on a litmus test of something like the Syrian revolution? Almost zero.

I hadn’t given much thought to this controversy since 2018 but a recent flap about Bernie Sanders and Joe Rogan brought it back to mind. Rogan is a lot like Jimmy Dore but with a much larger megaphone. Starting out as a stand-up comedian, he has become one of the most listened-to podcasters. Like Dore and the Chapo Trap House crew, he has tapped into a broad audience that likes its commentary raw and funny—even if it is at the expense of weak and marginalized communities. Like Dore, Rogan is a conspiracy theorist who understands the appeal of such a discourse for the average American. His Joe Rogan Experience averages 16 million downloads a month, which can represent a potential goldmine for the politician who appears on his show.

On August 6, 2019, Bernie Sanders made a guest appearance on Rogan’s show that Jacobin’s Luke Savage described as being consistent with his speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or his town hall appearance on Fox News. What’s interesting is that Savage lumped Rogan together with the rightwing Christian school and Rupert Murdoch’s shitty news channel. That changed in a few months when Rogan decided to endorse Sander’s candidacy and Sanders tweeted that endorsement with no qualifications.

Some Nation Magazine writers have been favorable to Bernie Sanders while others lean toward Elizabeth Warren. Unlike Jacobin, the magazine, which tends to buy into the New Deal legends wholeheartedly rather than half-heartedly, was in no mood to rationalize Sanders playing footsie with Rogan. Donna Minkowitz, who Newsweek Magazine listed as one of “30 gay power brokers” in 1993, lashed out at Sanders in an article titled “Bernie Broke My Heart When He Embraced Rogan’s Endorsement”:

In 2018, he told frequent guest Gavin McInnes, founder of the violent white supremacist and misogynist gang known as the Proud Boys, that people often become gay or lesbian because of “molestation at an early age.… it seems to be a real factor.”

And Rogan, who has reveled in using the N-word, said that going to a black neighborhood made him feel like he was visiting “the Planet of the Apes.” He likes to use the word “faggot,” has announced that queer women “don’t have the lower back muscles” to give other women “a proper fuck,” and says campuses are being too aggressive in prosecuting sexual assaults. He also claims that “feminism is sexist.”

All of this is why I felt so hurt and angry when I saw my favorite candidate, Bernie Sanders, trumpet Rogan’s endorsement in a campaign commercial released on Twitter.

Taking an entirely different tack, Michael Brooks and Ben Burgis told Jacobin readers that “It’s Good That Joe Rogan Endorsed Bernie. Now We Have to Organize.” Unlike Luke Savage, the two cherry pick the Dr. Jekyll side of Joe Rogan rather than his Mr. Hyde:

In some contexts, ranging from Palestine to health care to Trump’s child separation policy he’s been a voice of reason and compassion. On that last subject, he’s gone so far as to say that if you don’t oppose what Trump has done to immigrant and refugee families, “you aren’t on the team” of the human race.

As for democratic socialism’s chief arbiter of what is politically correct, Bhaskar Sunkara assured Guardian readers that “the Joe Rogan endorsement is a good thing for Bernie Sanders.” In a confessional mode, Sunkara wrote:

I’m a Joe Rogan Experience listener myself, and I have been for a few years. But like most of the show’s seven million YouTube subscribers, I skip most episodes and only watch a few clips here and there. Rogan has a strange range of interests — and he’s had on thousands of guests that have aired millions of views, some inspiring, some cringeworthy or odious.

I normally end up watching the ones with comedians or pop-thinkers, and I morbidly can’t turn away from the ones with right-wing charlatans like Jordan Peterson, but avoid all the mixed martial arts stuff and Rogan’s updates on his diet, exercise regime, or bowel movements (this stuff constitutes much of JRE’s output). And, of course, I’ve never bought any of the medically dubious “nutritional supplement” hawked on the show.

Well, at least you can say that Howie Hawkins probably had very little knowledge of what Jimmy Dore stood for. In a reply to the NYC ISO statement, he wrote:

I had never even heard of Jimmy Dore before. I heard from no one during the campaign about Jimmy Dore and Syria except the NYC ISO, until the Friday before the election when a pro-Assad “anti-imperialist,” alerted by NYC ISO’s statement, posted an attack on my pro-Syrian revolution position on Facebook that began circulating among campaign supporters. I had to respond then, and it is appended at the end of this response.

To be honest, I had no idea who Jimmy Dore was until someone clued me in that he was an Assadist. As for Joe Rogan, I remember him from the days when he was a commentator on the mixed martial arts cable show,  the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I thought he was a loud-mouth back then but not much more so than anybody else who was connected to a “sport” I tired of after six months or so.

Frankly, if I had any influence on Sanders, I wouldn’t have advised him to disavow Joe Rogan. He seems a lot less harmful than the politicians he has been connected with in a long and somewhat contradictory career, including Hillary Clinton, the politician he endorsed for President in 2016.

Oh, and by the way, Jimmy Dore finally realized what a mistake he made by reaching out to Howie Hawkins, even if the ISO purists never corrected their own by stigmatizing him.


February 4, 2020

Ray and Liz

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

“Ray and Liz”, a 2018 British film, is now being made available as a DVD or VOD by KimStim, a small Brooklyn-based company that specializes in independent, foreign, and documentary film. It was written and directed by Richard Billingham, the son of the eponymous Ray and Liz and older brother to Jason, the three principal characters of this harrowing portrait of people living on the dole in the Black Country of England. Black is not a reference to people of African origins but to the towns just west of Birmingham, named, according to Wikipedia, for the soot from the heavy industries that once covered the area, although a 30-foot-thick coal seam close to the surface is another possible origin. Wikipedia adds, “During the Industrial Revolution, it became one of the most industrialized parts of the UK with coal mines, coking, iron foundries, glass factories, brickworks and steel mills producing a high level of air pollution.”

Now, Black Country is England’s version of Flint, Michigan or any other rust belt region in the USA. Although Billingham’s film is not meant be a history of the area and only a study of his hyper-dysfunctional family, you can easily surmise that the alcoholism that turned his parents into a child’s worst nightmare grew out of the same kind of despair that led to an opioid epidemic in West Virginia and other coal-mining states. In the same way that chronic unemployment led some people to either vote for Trump or stay at home because of Hillary Clinton’s indifference to their suffering, the film will give you a good idea of why Brexit might have succeeded. It is particularly useful in raising the question whether “socialist” measures such as the dole or council housing are adequate to the needs of people like Ray and Liz. Their self-destructive behavior obviously flows from the feeling of worthlessness after years of being unemployed.

It is impossible to determine whether all the events that take place in “Ray and Liz” are based on reality, but if the one that begins the film did take place, it is a miracle that Richard Billingham could have become the productive artist that he is today. As Job said in the Old Testament, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

The day starts with Ray’s brother Lol coming over to babysit Jason, who appears to be about three years old at the time, while Ray, Liz and Richard go off shopping for new shoes. Like Ray and Liz, Lol is an alcoholic and totally unreliable—even more so than them. Just minutes after they depart, Bill shows up—the young, motorcycle-driving, muscular and malicious tenant who rents a room in their council house. Despite being warned by Liz that he will be “pummeled” if he touches their booze, Lol gives Bill the green light to search for their stash. He brings down a cardboard box filled with bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and brandy that the two men begin sampling. Bill makes sure to keep pouring new shots for Lol that he gladly consumes in a graphic illustration of why mixing your drinks is not a good idea. Getting him dead drunk will allow Bill to follow through with his plans.

Once Lol crashes to the living-room floor like a falling tree, Bill arranges the near-empty bottles around him as planted evidence and robs his wallet. Next, he takes some shoe-polish and dabs it on Jason’s face like warpaint. To make sure that Ray and Liz will reach full fury after coming home, he places a carving knife in the toddler’s hand. Liz, a chain-smoking, tattooed, obese but powerful woman, wakes Lol up from his drunken slupor by beating him over the head with the heel of the new shoe she has just bought and tells him that he should never come back.

Although Billingham covers the same terrain as Ken Loach, it is not as a social critic. Indeed, I could not help but think that the film had something in common with the comic strip “Andy Capp” that was a fixture of British and American tabloids in the 1960s. Andy Capp was a worthless, alcoholic, and chronically unemployed worker who had no respect for himself or for others, especially his wife Flo who often had to drag him home from a pub. Don Markstein, the creator of a web-based encyclopedia about comic strips, wrote:

Early on, the Andy Capp strip was accused of perpetuating stereotypes about Britain’s Northerners, who are seen in other parts of England as chronically unemployed, dividing their time between the living room couch and the neighbourhood pub, with a few hours set aside for fistfights at football games … But Smythe [the author], himself a native of that region, had nothing but affection for his good-for-nothing protagonist, which showed in his work. Since the very beginning, Andy has been immensely popular among the people he supposedly skewers.

Perhaps Markstein cannot grasp that the affection working-class people had for the strip is a function of their own inferiority complex. It is like how some black people enjoyed “Amos and Andy” or how some American Indians are okay with racist names like the Washington Redskins or mascots like the Cleveland Indians’s Chief Wahoo. Although I confess to having never seen a single episode of “Shameless”, the British TV show it is based on seems to follow the same pattern as “Andy Capp”. The main character, Frank Gallagher, is an unemployed alcoholic from Northern England who has few redeeming features. Libcom, an anarchist website, does make the case for “Shameless” as drawing a contrast between “the strength, complexity and resilience of the contemporary ‘underclass’ against the patronising poverty-traps laid by liberal handwringing, middle-class moral managerialism and New Labour police-state discipline and punishment,” but I’d still stick with Ken Loach.

“Ray and Liz” is currently available as a DVD from Walmart or Target for $18.95, $7 cheaper than at Amazon. You can also wait until April, when it will be available as VOD. Although I still have reservations about its politics, it is searing and often very funny study of down and out working-class life in today’s England.

February 2, 2020

The Fairway bankruptcy and the role of private equity

Filed under: capitalism,food — louisproyect @ 11:25 pm

Although Fairway is a chain of 15 grocery stores in and around the metropolitan NY area, its imminent Chapter 11 bankruptcy reflects broader trends in the American economy that define not only the Trump presidency but the predatory character of American capitalism of the past 25 years at least.

I may have more interest in the Fairway story than other leftists for several reasons. To start with, there’s a good chance that the store near my high-rise will be closing and thus leaving me with no alternative except to shop at Whole Foods. In New York, there are two tiers of grocery stores with Whole Foods, Fairway and Trader Joe’s constituting the high end and Gristedes and similar stores the low-end. Owned by billionaire John Catsimatidis, who once compared raising taxes on the wealthy to how “Hitler punished the Jews,” Gristedes store notorious for its price-gouging and the general unavailability of fish except for farm-raised salmon.

I also tend to be more interested in the nuts and bolts of the fruit and vegetable business since my father owned one, just like the Glickberg family that started Fairway in 1935. In a New Yorker article written by Adam Gopnik, a Fairway shopper himself, he captures what is essential about the store:

Born in the early nineteen-thirties as a fruit-and-vegetable stand on the Upper West Side, Fairway was originally the multi-generation property and obsession of the Glickberg family, starting as a more down-market variant of Zabar’s, which is still in business up the street. Fairway’s magic, as one of its former partners, Steven Jenkins, wrote in a lively and lovely memoir of his years there, “The Food Life,” lay in the juxtaposition of grungy, discount-minded practicality with genuinely inspired and discriminating product choices.

Like Gopnik and most New Yorkers, I will mourn the passing of a NY icon that was as identified with the city as Strand’s bookstore or the Sabrett’s hot-dog stands, but I will also understand it as the logical outcome of a world in which cash is king:

This produces something like a paradox of possessiveness, a contradiction of consumption. We know that a transaction of money for goods is simply that, but at the same time we feel the passing of the place where the transaction occurred as something far more than a material loss. It is no accident, to use a locution favored by the Marxists, that John Updike, in detailing the last days of his echt-American character Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, made one of his final epiphanies the realization that the Christmas displays in the Kroll’s department store, in his mangy but beloved home town of Brewer, were merely commercial come-ons, to be discarded as soon as they stopped paying profits to the store’s owner—that what, in Harry’s boyhood, had been “those otherworldly displays of circling trains and nodding dolls and twinkling stars in the corner windows as if God Himself put them there” were not that at all.

My perspective on the Fairway story owes a lot to a friend who has worked in private equity for decades and who is very familiar with how the store became the latest victim of Wall Street greed. If you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” you’ll be familiar with Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas based on the corporate raiders of the 1980s such as Bard College graduate Asher Edelman, Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, and Michael Milken. All of these financiers made fortunes out of leverage buyouts of the kind Gekko was counting on to dissolve an airline he had just bought, selling off its assets in order to cash in on the pension plan, and leaving the employees to their own devices.

You don’t hear the term LBO much nowadays but private equity firms operate on the same basis but supposedly with less of the mercenary ambitions of men like Asher Edelman and company. Edelman became notorious when after agreeing to teach a class on corporate raiding at Columbia University’s business school, he offered $100,000 to any student who came up a recommendation for a company to take over.

You can get an idea of the continuity between the bad old days and the current-day reformed private equity industry from the company that ranks number 2 in terms of assets. That is KKR, the initials that stand for Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. Kravis is Henry Kravis, who was one of the LBO’ers featured in the book “Barbarians at the Gate”. Co-written by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, it described the battle vulture firms fought for ownership of RJR Nabisco, an unlikely merger of a tobacco company and one that made cookies. Warren Buffett, one of the players, made an observation that really displayed the mindset of buyout specialists: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.”

Another private equity firm in the top ranks is Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s firm, which in partnership with KKR and a real estate investment firm called Vornado, bought Toys R Us in a leveraged buyout. Leveraging meant that private equity firms put up a relatively small amount of cash out of their own wallet and allow the target firm to put up most of the money by borrowing from the banks. In most cases, under new ownership, the firm is expected to use the capital to expand rapidly and show a handsome profit. If everything goes according to plan, it will be sold to new investors within five years or so. If you’ve seen the show “Flipping Out” on cable TV, you’ll get an idea of how all this works. Jeff Lewis, the star of the show, would buy a run-down house, make improvements, and then put it on the market. There’s always a risk that the house will not attract a buyer. Unlike Jeff Lewis, the private equity firm will not bear that much of a loss since the debt belongs to the target company and the one that victimized it.

In 2007, the Glickberg family decided that they would retire from the grocery business. One family member, Howie Glickberg, the founder’s grandson, decided to keep it going through a deal with Sterling Capital Investors, a Connecticut private equity firm that loaded it with debt and, with Glickberg’s agreement, embarked on an aggressive expansion plan. Within a few years, the chain would include 15 stores, including the one near me. Before long, Glickberg was eased out of the new company. Undoubtedly, his aversion to rapid expansion antagonized the Sterling partners who now ran the company and who enjoyed massive salaries, which were one of the causes of Fairway’s red ink.

In addition to the financial drain from the extravagant fees paid to the Sterling crew, there were other problems that dragged Fairway down. To start with, the suburban stores did not have the same cachet that the NY stores had. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, Fairway was an icon. In New Jersey or Connecticut, not so much. On top of that, it had to contend with Whole Food that was able to cut costs. Unlike Fairway, which was a union shop with good benefits, Whole Foods was not. Founded by libertarian John Mackey in 1981, it is the second-largest non-union grocery store behind Walmart. New employees would get a pamphlet titled “Beyond Unions.”

Going from the frying pan into the fire, Whole Foods employees began reporting to a new owner in 2017, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Instead of getting a pamphlet, new employees are expected to sit through a 45-minute anti-union video. Ideally, Bezos would prefer a store without human labor and is well on his way to making that happen. He is now using a robotic barista from Briggo in some of his stores and more might be on the way.

There is every possibility that Bezos will convert Whole Foods into a new entity called Amazon Go that will be cashierless. The technology would use AI-powered visual recognition and sensors to track items and tie them back to the shopper purchasing it. Shoppers then would scan their Amazon mobile app upon entering the store to get started.

It was not only Whole Foods that cut into Fairway’s profits. They also had to deal with FreshDirect. Unlike Whole Foods or Fairway, FreshDirect (based in the NY metropolitan area, like Fairway) has no stores. You order from a website and then get your order delivered to your door. Ironically, FreshDirect was started by a former Fairway executive but the funding came from Peter Ackerman, a leverage buyout specialist who made millions working with the dirtbag criminal Michael Milken at Drexel-Burnham. With the money he made out of crooked deals on Wall Street, Ackerman started something called the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict that has a lot in common with Gene Sharp’s operations. He was also the past president of Freedom House, an old-line anti-Communist think-tank.

As to Fairway’s future, there’s a good chance that the five Manhattan stores will be bought by ShopRite, a grocery chain that has been around since 1946. A retailers’ cooperative that uses economy of scale, including bulk purchases to lower prices, this would be a much better fit for Fairway than another private equity vulture. While it is by no means a workers cooperative, this type of business would likely be a return to the good old days for Fairway.

Speaking of retailers’ cooperatives, I should also put in a good word for Key Foods, which is one of my favorites. Although it is not as upscale as Fairway, if not downright funky, its bulk purchases as a co-op undoubtedly explains the eye-opening discounts. For example, a bottle of Tropicana orange juice routinely goes for $5.50 at Gristedes while the price at Key Foods, just two blocks from my high-rise, is only $3.99. I also appreciate that around half the cashiers are hijab-wearing Muslims. I can also report that Key Food is a union shop, even though UCFW has had its issues with management over the years.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Elizabeth Warren has targeted the private equity vultures that have resulted in 10 of the largest 14 retail bankruptcies since 2012. In an article she posted on Medium titled “End Wall Street’s Stranglehold On Our Economy,” Warren took aim at private equity:

My plan would transform the private equity industry and end this looting with a comprehensive set of legal changes, including:

    • Putting private equity firms on the hook for the debts of companies they buy, making them responsible for the downside of their investments so that they only make money if the companies they control flourish.
    • Holding private equity firms responsible for certain pension obligations of the companies they buy, so that workers have a better shot of getting the retirement funds they earned.
    • Eliminating the ability of private equity firms to pay themselves huge monitoring fees and limiting their ability to pay out dividends to line their own pockets.
    • Changing the tax rules so that private equity firms don’t get sweetheart tax rates on all the debt they put on the companies they buy.
    • Modifying bankruptcy rules so that when companies go bust, workers have a better shot at getting pay and benefits and executives can’t pocket special bonuses.
    • Preventing lenders and investment managers from making reckless loans to private equity-owned companies already swimming in debt and then passing along the danger to the market by requiring them to retain some of the risk.
    • Empowering investors like pension funds with better information about the performance and effects of private equity investments and preventing private equity funds from requiring investors to waive their fiduciary obligations.
    • Closing the carried interest loophole that lets firm managers pay ultra-low tax rates on the money they loot.

I don’t plan to vote for her if she is the DP candidate, needless to say, but good for her.

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.