Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 20, 2019

The ISO, #MeToo, and the need for a fresh start

Filed under: #MeToo,ISO — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

In recent years, I have developed a grudging admiration for the International Socialist Organization for its outspoken opposition to the Assadist left and for its refusal to adapt to the DSA’s “inside-outside” Democratic Party orientation. Furthermore, its willingness to open its newspaper up as an open forum to debate out whether to support the Sandernista movement impressed me as a sign that rigid “Leninist” norms are being abandoned even if with baby steps. Finally, someone I have deep respect for is an ISO member and a highly regarded journalist whose membership is an open secret. I was able to have lunch with him about four months ago and the topic of the ISO came up. I told him that I was pleased with the growing openness and flexibility of the group. So was he, he said, but added that it still had a long way to go.

So, despite all the articles I have written for the past 20 years holding the ISO’s feet to the fire, I am saddened by its current crisis that reflects both a malignant misogyny in the organization as well as a tendency by some of the top leaders to tolerate it, if not participate in it personally.

This has been a simmering dispute since 2014 when ISO members complained about a rape culture in the organization that ironically mirrored the British SWP being torn apart by the refusal of the Callinicos leadership to expel a party leader charged with raping a rank-and-file female member. Both state capitalist groups were going through the same crisis simultaneously and both were in a state of denial.

In the SWP’s case, the denialism led to a massive loss of members. Like a time-bomb with a very long fuse, the ISO’s denialism has finally caught up with it. At least you can say that unlike Callinicos and company, they seem up to the task of cleaning house.

At the 2014 ISO convention, there were concerns about the leadership not giving due weight to the woman’s side in a rape investigation in an article titled “Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns”:

The first disagreement S raises in her document is an argument that due process is fundamental to democracy, and that the changes we suggest would eliminate due process. We believe our policy would not eliminate due process, which is fair treatment in adjudication. We maintain that anyone accused of sexual assault or intimate partner violence in our organization should have an opportunity to defend themselves, make a statement, produce evidence, and, if desired, appeal a decision.

Our disagreement is centered around what constitutes sufficient evidence to find that someone has violated our organization’s code of conduct in these cases. The Steering Committee document suggests we should be predisposed to believing accusers, while simultaneously presuming the innocence of the accused. Here we run up against a problem: Is it desirable – or even possible – to believe both accuser and accused? We believe that logically, practically, and politically speaking, the answer is no. [emphasis in the original]

The S referred to above is Sharon Smith who was the National Organizer of the ISO at the time and who emphasized in her article titled “The complexities of rape and sexual assault: a contribution” the need for “due process” in judging whether an accused member was guilty or not.

In this year’s convention, not only was Sharon Smith’s “due process” argument rejected, she and other long-time members were voted off the Steering Committee and replaced by those who would have agreed with the authors of “Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns”. A letter by a former member [FM] to the convention was the trigger:

You have recently elected the respondent in the NDC’s (National Disciplinary Committee) first sexual misconduct case to the ISO’s highest leadership body. This member was accused of rape. My committee voted to expel him, but we were pressured to rescind our verdict. This is not a document I want to write. But my conscience will not allow me to keep quiet. Few in the organization know about this case, in part because the former leadership obscured its existence. The fact that the accused ultimately rose in stature within the ISO is a testament to how unevenly sexual assault cases have been handled.

This was enough to foment a determined revolt against the Steering Committee members aligned with Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa, Paul D’Amato and Ahmed Shawki and to produce badly needed reforms. (I only mention these people because of their high profile.)

The SC [Steering Committee] had an emergency meeting last night to begin a discussion of the implications of this document and what next steps need to be taken. Here are some of the immediate steps we have taken:

    • We immediately responded to FM and to the allies who were copied on the email to thank her for sending it, informing her that we would be sending it out and discussing as a leadership and stating that we take this very seriously.
    • After SC members asked that the respondent identify himself and resign, Joe R identified himself and voluntarily resigned from the SC and said he would take a leave of absence. We voted to suspend him and stipulate that a decision will be made on his membership status after a body independent of the SC had deliberated, created a process and made recommendations based on further investigation into this case.
    • In addition to a process for taking up these very serious allegations, we need to empower a body independent of the current SC who can investigate the conduct of the 2013 SC and the central participants in that 2013 process. Whether that should be the recently formed #MeToo commission, the NDC or some other body still needs to be determined, but will be soon.
    • We are organizing a joint meeting with the NC this week to discuss this fully and to develop a process for a public statement about this. We will also be inviting the original NDC members to this meeting. In addition, this meeting will be discussing how to create a space for membership-wide discussion.
    • Nikki W from Portland is organizing a support call for survivors or others triggered by this document. It will include trained mental professionals who can help comrades to process this. We will send these details out today; you can also reach out to her at nikkiwilliams23@gmail.com if you need resources or support before the call. The document is very clear and rather than editorializing, we will leave comrades to read and assess it for themselves. We will be writing assessments, a public statement and providing space for analysis and discussion of what took place, lessons learned from it and what needs to change in the coming weeks. We believe it speaks both to failures of our political culture that we have identified as well as failures to adequately address the needs of survivors, a lack of understanding of the dynamics of rape and sexual assault and the failure to create a process that could prioritize doing our best to determine the truth of what happened over bureaucratic proceduralism. This is not separate from the issues we have been reckoning with and the culture we are fighting to transform – though this experience is a particularly acute and devastating manifestation of this culture. There is no way to move forward from this without the utmost honesty and critical assessment.

One of the side-effects of the rape crisis in the British SWP was a re-examination of Leninism, the poorly understood organizational model embraced not only by the ISO, the British SWP but just about every other group on the left that has a schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party.

Richard Seymour, who was one of the leaders of the SWP that resigned over the rape cover-up, wrote an article titled “Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos” that drew a dotted line between covering up sexual predation and Leninism:

Alex Callinicos’ article on the crisis in the SWP purports to be a defence of Leninism in the face of a ‘flood of attacks’ – by which Alex means the crisis that has engulfed the party over the mishandled investigation of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a Central Committee member.

The piece does nothing of the sort, but is rather an encapsulation of the flaws that have brought us to this pass. It is clearly intended as an opening salvo in the CC’s response to the growing opposition within the party. In particular it draws on the long tradition of dealing with dissent over particular issues by means of the absurd implication that that dissent is an attack on the heritage of the October revolution, accompanied by an airy dismissal of the actual facts. This maneouvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s; that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century. This is pure substitutionalism – and on its own measure of providing strong interventionist leadership, is a complete failure.

Isn’t this the same dynamic that was at work in the ISO?

There is just too much of a pattern in these “vanguard” organizations for it to be only a coincidence. The first major occurrence was when Gerry Healy got booted from his own sect-cult after imposing himself on just one too many young female members. It took years for him to be punished, just as it took such a long time for Harvey Weinstein to face arrest.

My own former organization has had the same track record. A member named Mark Curtis was arrested for the attempted rape of a 15-year-old African-American girl in 1988 and served 8 years of a 25-year sentence. At the time and even now, Jack Barnes insisted that he was innocent. After Curtis was released from prison, he was arrested for soliciting prostitution by an undercover cop. This time, he was expelled from the SWP. When Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir” appeared, I characterized his account of being molested as a young child by an SWP member who baby-sat for him as bogus. I refused to believe that the party, no matter its other deep faults, would not let such behavior go unpunished. Now, I am not so sure.

What do all these groups have in common? To start with, rape and sexual harassment are not universal. Some groups are totally innocent. It is not as if reading “What is to be Done” gives some alpha male the idea of raping a female member. But when and if an alpha male does carry out such a crime, there is a tendency to clear his name because the thought of losing a star member who might be the Lenin of our age is too much to bear.

It is a fixation on the idea, even if unstated, that all are led by Lenin’s avatar. Whether it is someone batshit crazy like Jack Barnes and Gerry Healy, or relatively sane like Alex Callinicos and Ahmed Shawki, there is undue confidence in the helmsman. You can see how ruffled the feathers of a leadership can become when faced by such charges. They say that the fish rots from the head downward. This is just as true of Leninist formations as it is for the mafia. On February 19, 2014 The Steering Committee and National Committee of the ISO issued a statement titled “A Response to Slander” that fired back at the Renewal Faction, whose views are now embraced by a new steering committee. The statement says:

The former members, grouped together in the “Renewal Faction,” cynically distorted an account of a case–written in a document meant to be for internal discussion about the process of dealing with such cases, given their rarity in our organization–in order to falsely equate a local situation in the ISO with the mishandling of rape charges against a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party-Britain that caused a profound crisis in that organization.

In fact, the equation was mathematically, morally and politically correct. I have no idea whether the new leadership can do everything that is necessary to restore confidence in the organization but I wish them the best. I don’t believe that the ISO is a nucleus of a vanguard party that is so necessary but until the real thing comes along, they are the best people on the left as far as I am concerned, warts and all.

 

March 18, 2019

Making kosher half-sour dill pickles

Filed under: food,Jewish question,Turkey — louisproyect @ 10:25 pm

In the 50s and 60s, my father had a fruit store in Woodridge, NY that was famous for the kosher half-sour dill pickles made in the back of the store. By the time I was 14 years old, I began making them using his time-honored recipe. It consisted of the standard spices that he bought wholesale, garlic, dill and vinegar. You put about 25 pounds of Kirby cucumbers into a huge barrel, mixed in the other ingredients, put the lid of a peach basket on top of all this, and topped it off with a heavy stone to keep everything compacted together with the pickling ingredients. People used to come from miles around to buy his pickles.

The kind of barrel I used, about four feet tall.

In recent years, I have gotten into the habit of buying what my Turkish relatives call turşu, which is pronounced turshu. There was a great store that sold turşu on 85th and First but like so many small businesses became a casualty of extortionist rental leases.

We then started buying kosher dill pickles from Fairway, even though they didn’t sell the entire range of turşu products, which in addition to pickles can include mixed vegetables. Since Fairway is owned by Blackstone, a company I really hate for personal reasons, I decided to look into making them myself. It turned out to be a roaring success.

If you have access to a Whole Food store, you can buy Kirby cucumbers there. Then, you order the Ball spicing mix  from Amazon (or buy it from Whole Food or your local supermarket, even though I think you’ll have to end up ordering it online since it is not an everyday product.)

Kirby cucumbers

If you are making two quarts of pickles, as the Ball instructions indicate, make sure to use 2 ½ pounds of pickles rather than the 3 ½ it calls for since that would require a third quart jar. But still use the same amount of pickling ingredients. Don’t bother buying fancy gourmet vinegar. Heinz works just fine. This is what you’ll end up with after a week in the fridge. Trust me, they taste great. I say that as a bona fide expert on kosher pickles learned as an apprentice to my master pickle-maker Jack Proyect.

The next step is to make turşu with the other ingredients, a mixture of cauliflower, long green peppers, carrots and cabbage. Goes great with barbunya pilaki and kuru fasulye.

March 16, 2019

From a Bookforum review of Bhaskar Sunkara’s “Socialist Manifesto”

Filed under: Jacobin — louisproyect @ 2:53 pm

These are the closing paragraphs of a review of Bhaskar Sunkara’s “Socialist Manifesto” by Frank Guan in the latest Bookforum (April/May 2019) that arrived in my mailbox last night. It is not even on their website yet. I was so anxious to cite it that I used OCR from the print copy. It should be up on their website in a couple of weeks or so. My advice is to check https://www.bookforum.com/inprint/ then and if it is up, and you want the entire article, drop me a line at lnp3@panix.com and I’ll be not only happy to send you a copy but urge you to spread it near and far. Guan is razor-sharp and has taken Bhaskar’s measure like a skilled surgeon.

How does one review a manifesto fairly? As Sunkara’s fifteenth point says, “History matters.” Like The Communist Manifesto, his book exemplifies how the past dictates the future. The reading of what was determines the horizons of what will be. The difference is that while Marx interpreted the history of capitalism to justify the future emergence of world communism, Sunkara is interpreting the history of Marx’s own apostles as he hopes for the future emergence of American socialism. The novelty of Marx’s manifesto electrifies; knowing that nothing like communism has existed before, it speeds toward the day when communism will be everything. The Socialist Manifesto is restrained, almost apologetic; it is haunted by the specters of pessimism and belatedness, the knowledge that socialism has already been tried, already been found wanting.

Lacking dialectical prowess, what’s left to fall back on? It’s no accident that Sunkara’s approach to facts resembles nothing so much as that of a Southern Baptist youth pastor; readers are coached like kids ready to stray at the slightest indication that faith is difficult to keep. The book applauds the lively disputes between socialists in prewar Germany and Russia, but the existence of Western Marxist currents other than its own is buried in silence. The pervasive and all but insoluble bigotry that characterized most of the American labor movement throughout its “long and distinguished history” is stowed away in endnotes. The critical role of the American state in exterminating socialist movements across the Third World is mentioned once; its role in shutting socialist parties out of power in Western Europe is not mentioned at all. The Cold War is barely mentioned and never examined.

The intent behind this airbrushing appears to be tactical, to render American socialism more palatable by playing down the degree to which socialism has been anti-American and America has been anti-socialist. Yet what is lost, really, by acknowledging how much the extreme hostility of the American capitalist state to socialist freedom movements across the world has contributed to their failure? By demonstrating how that state’s tremendous military, covert, and financial power has been consistently deployed to besiege and undermine its enemies, to the point that socialists must adopt a paranoid, militarized, hierarchical organization to survive (thereby surrendering democracy), open up to capital investment and exploitation (thereby surrendering socialism), or else surrender unconditionally? Why obscure the fact that capital, in the West, under neoliberalism, is on permanent strike, its primary profits divorced from both employment and the manufacturing sector, and thus essentially immune to labor agitation? Why pretend that an America under socialism would retain its privileged status in the world economy, despite that status being dependent on the linked imperial rents of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, fossil-fuel conglomerates, and the military-industrial complex? “Better than others, we [socialists] can perceive class relations and how they offer common avenues of struggle,” Sunkara claims. But a sustained and penetrating analysis of present-day America—its economy, society, culture, and politics—is as absent from The Socialist Manifesto as the hard accounting of how much risk one runs in seeking to improve America for its most oppressed citizens. Not only does this book begin with make-believe, its unrealness never ends.

 

March 15, 2019

Ben is Back; Beautiful Boy

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

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 15, 2019

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

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

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

Continue reading

March 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2019

The Primitive Accumulation debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

March 8, 2019

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2019

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

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 8, 2019

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

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

Continue reading

Separated at Birth

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

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

Rosen Gatzov “The Hook” (Marian Valev)

Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt)

March 7, 2019

3 Faces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

March 5, 2019

Democratic Socialism: a hot commodity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bingo.

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