Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 25, 2013

Email I just received as a Goldman-Sachs alumni

Filed under: capitalist pig,journalism,liberalism — louisproyect @ 2:49 pm

January 24, 2013

Arianna Huffington and Lloyd Blankfein Discuss Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs

Lloyd Blankfein and Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, today co-authored an opinion piece to coincide with the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum being held in Davos. Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs examines how entrepreneurship is driving growth around the world and the role of women entrepreneurs, in particular.

This week, politicians, writers, activists, and non-profit leaders are gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. While the issues to be addressed range from health care to regulation to the environment, the two of us share a common interest in one particular topic — economic growth and job creation. While many European countries are struggling with double-digit unemployment, and America’s recovery continues to limp along at best, many of us gathered in Davos will draw important lessons, not just from one another — amidst the well-intentioned talk and catchy phrases — but from the individuals around the world who are building growth and creating opportunity every day, often overcoming extraordinary obstacles.

Visit GoldmanSachs.com to read the op-ed in full…

November 12, 2012

Who says the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson wasted their money?

Filed under: capitalist pig,financial crisis,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:54 pm

David and Charles Koch

Sheldon Adelson

One of the things heard incessantly since Election Day is that the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson did not get their money’s worth. Alternet’s R.J. Eskow spoke for many of his co-religionists:

I should be a better person than this, but I take no small amount of satisfaction in knowing that Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers wasted lots and lots and lots of money this year.

It is necessary to put this into perspective. The Koch brothers spent $400 million. That represents just .008 of their combined personal fortune of fifty billion dollars. Forbes Magazine shared my perspective when it came to Adelson:

Yes, Sheldon Adelson crapped out on Election Day. But Adelson has plenty of more chips to place on the table–billions more.

True, the casino billionaire spent at least $53 million on this election cycle with little to show for the investment. And while it’s a massive amount of money for most people, and most companies, it’s pocket change for Adelson. The Las Vegas Sands boss is worth $20.5 billion. My colleague Clare O’Connor drew this great comparison yesterday: “Imagine an average person with a $100,000 net worth buying a pair of Tory Burch shoes ($250). You’d care if you lost them, but you wouldn’t be ruined.” Adelson’s $53 million is gone. The billionaire isn’t going anywhere.

Although I am not privy to the innermost calculations of such characters, I think that they share one thing with me, namely a belief that there is no room for compromises when it comes to electoral politics.

Historically this was not always the case with the Republicans. The most notable example in recent times was the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower who Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, described in these terms: “Could Eisenhower really be simply a smart politician, entirely without principles and hungry for glory, who is only the tool of the Communists? The answer is yes.” He also stated: “With regard to … Eisenhower, it is difficult to avoid raising the question of deliberate treason.”

It should also be noted that Fred Koch, the paterfamilias of the reactionary gang, was a founding member of the John Birch Society and that his sons’ funding of the nativist and racist Tea Party movement reflects a continuity with the past.

It is important to understand that at one time “Eisenhower Republicans” enjoyed hegemony in the party. Despite the tendency of the Communist Party and many 60s radicals to dub Richard Nixon as a looming fascist, he had plenty in common with Eisenhower, for whom he served as Vice President for two terms. In an interview with Howard K. Smith in January 1971, he said “I am now a Keynesian”. Can anybody imagine that empty suit President Obama saying something like that? This, in fact, is where he stands:

Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces, but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, person responsibility, optimism, and faith.

That Reagan’s message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities.

Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 31-32

Some people, especially younger people who have no memory of liberal Republicanism, believe that Ronald Reagan transformed the Republican Party. In reality, the seeds were planted in 1964 when Barry Goldwater said in his acceptance speech as Presidential candidate for the Republican Party: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Come to think of it, he was right.

Goldwater’s aim back then was to transform the Republican Party into a conservative party. In doing so, he found a counterpart among many liberals who yearned that the Democratic Party become more purely liberal. In practice this meant purging the party of the Southern racists, something that turned out to be unnecessary after Nixon adopted his “Southern Strategy”.

Today there are no important liberal Republicans. Arguably, the last one standing was Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who defected to the Democratic Party in 2009 three years before his death. (It is not so well-known that Specter was a Democrat to start with, from 1951 to 1965.)

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats never could be mistaken for a liberal party after George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972, at least when it came to presidential nominations. Starting with Carter, there has been a steady drift toward the ideology of the Democratic Leadership Council, a nasty collection of rightwing politicians who began defining themselves as “New Democrats” in the same spirit of Tony Blair’s “New Labour”.

In March 2009, Obama told the New Democratic Coalition, a group described by politico.com as “comprised of centrist Democratic members of the House, who support free trade and a muscular foreign policy”, that he indeed was a New Democrat.

Before Bruce A. Dixon split with Black Commentator, a website that eventually became typified by Bill Fletcher Jr.’s pro-Obama think-pieces, he wrote an article titled “In Search of the Real Barack Obama: Can a Black Senate candidate resist the DLC?”. For some reason, this must have nettled candidate Obama who took the trouble to write the ‘zine prior to his election:

Dear Black Commentator:

I read with interest, and some amusement, Bruce Dixon’s recent article regarding my campaign, and his suggestion that perhaps my positions on critical issues facing this country are somehow being corrupted by the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).  Given that Bruce [and I] worked together back in 1992 to empower communities through organizing and the ballot box, I wish he’d taken the time to give me a call and check out his facts.

To begin with, neither my staff nor I have had any direct contact with anybody at DLC since I began this campaign a year ago.  I don’t know who nominated me for the DLC list of 100 rising stars, nor did I expend any effort to be included on the list beyond filling out a three line questionnaire asking me to describe my current political office, my proudest accomplishment, and my cardinal rules of politics.  Since my mother taught me not to reject a compliment when it’s offered, I didn’t object to the DLC’s inclusion of my name on their list.  I certainly did not view such inclusion as an endorsement on my part of the DLC platform.

This, of course, was still at the time when Obama was trying to fool some people into thinking that he had liberal credentials. After his election, he dropped any such pretenses. In his re-election bid, he made no effort to reestablish such credentials since so few people would take him seriously. Instead, his super-PAC spent hundreds of millions of dollars making the case that Romney was a greedy, out-of-touch bastard. The ads reminded me of Pee Wee Herman’s rejoinder to his tormentor Francis in “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure”: “I know you are, but what am I?”

Well, I know what Obama is. He is a liberal Republican, maybe even a centrist Republican. In fact, if anybody can tell the difference between a Gerald Ford and a Barack Obama, except for their pigmentation, they have a talent for splitting hairs second to none.

Yes, Virginia, there has been a realignment in American politics, at least on the Presidential level. We have conservative Republican presidents going back to Reagan, but with the Democrats we get nominees who are indistinguishable from Gerald Ford or Howard Baker. But when one of these slobs gets elected, as happened last Tuesday, we get the liberal pundits greeting it once again as the second coming of the New Deal.

Returning to the Republican Party, the question of Koch and Adelson’s money being “wasted” deserves further interrogation. I strongly recommend a look at Chris Kromm’s very fine Southern Voice, where you can find an article by Chris titled “Did Big Money really lose this election? Hardly.” Chris writes:

The fact that TV ads are most effective with less-engaged voters might explain money’s continuing influence in state and local races, which receive far less media exposure and voters may know even less about the candidates and issues.

As Facing South and The New Yorker showed, in 2010 an onslaught of outside spending in North Carolina by outside money groups led by Republican donor Art Pope was a key factor in fueling a historic GOP takeover of the state legislature.

That put N.C. Republicans in charge of the once-a-decade redistricting process, producing new maps which the John Locke Foundation — which is largely funded by Pope’s foundation — readily admits were crucial to enabling the GOP to expand its power in the General Assembly in 2012.

Money’s state-level influence in North Carolina continued this year, too. According to FollowNCMoney.org, a money-tracking website run by the Institute for Southern Studies, more than $14 million from super PACs and other outside groups poured into N.C. state races.

Of the top 10 spending groups in North Carolina — which made up more than 90 percent of the $14 million total — seven were Republican-leaning groups, who outspent their Democratic-leaning counterparts by more than a two-to-one margin.

And unlike the national super PACs, conservative spending groups in North Carolina enjoyed a much higher winning percentage: Of the 10 races that attracted the most outside money, nine ended in Republican victories. (As for Pope, he and his operatives are well-represented in the newly-elected GOP governor’s transition team.)

But even if Koch and Adelson type funding had less of an effect in the South and elsewhere, that would not prompt such donors to wash their hands of their project, which is not limited to immediate and measurable goals. They are building a reactionary movement that is seeking to turn back the clock to 1890 or so. By spending hundreds of millions of dollars, they push the political agenda to the right. In doing so, the “centrist” politics of a self-avowed New Democrat like Obama shifts to the right along with them.

More to the point, the reactionary agenda of the Koch Brothers is ultimately shared by many corporate bosses who never would be caught dead at a Tea Party rally. Nothing symbolizes this better than The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that gained some notoriety after its heavy paws were detected in the struggle against Scott Walker in Wisconsin and, even worse, their support for “Stand Your Ground” laws that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s murder.

In the outcry over their Koch-funded skullduggery, some major corporate members were forced to drop their affiliation, including Walmart, Coca-Cola, Wendy’s, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

The people who run these corporations are not that interested in ideology. What they are interested in, however, is protecting their class interests. The ultimate explanation for the rightwing assault on our standard of living, our safety on the job, our right to a job, our health, and our right to express our opinion, is a declining rate of profit. While it is not within the purview of this article, and more importantly my limited expertise, to explain why there is such a tendency, suffice it to say that the good old days are gone forever. Despite the rhetoric of a Ronald Reagan on one side and a Barack Obama on the other (all proportions being guarded), well-paying jobs is a thing of the past.

I do recommend an article by Marxist economist Michael Roberts who blogs at http://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/ titled “Does it matter who wins?”, written the day before the election. It is a close look at the economic prognosis of the U.S. and concludes on this note:

For me, the bellwether for the health of US capitalism is the rate of profit.  That shows little sign of returning to levels seen in the late 1990s, let alone back to the golden age of the 1960s.  A low and probably falling rate of profit implies a low rate of new investment ahead, with unemployment staying well above ‘normal’ levels.  And it implies the likelihood of another slump in production before the next four years are over along with the continuance of the Long Depression, now in its fifth year.  And remember the Long Depression that started in 1873 lasted 20 years.

Given these prospects, the bourgeoisie will be forced to rely on the carrot and the stick—or perhaps more accurately, the soft cop and the hard cop. With declining profits, the ruling class will be forced to cut expenses both privately and publicly. Wages will be pushed down, mostly as a result of the threat of runaway shops our outright closings. Expenditures on education, health and the environment will be cut as well.

In the long run, the U.S. will look more and more like Detroit with the wealthy living in gated complexes and the poor forced to make do with less and less. Furthermore, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrates, “natural” disasters will weigh more heavily on the less privileged.

Under such circumstances, there will be mounting anger of the sort on display throughout Southern Europe. The more far-sighted members of the ruling class are planning ahead, to see what powerful and ultimately lawless measures will be necessary to suppress any revolt that threatens their hegemonic rule. And, as well, the more far-sighted members of the working class, including the intelligentsia that has thrown in its lot with this class, will be required to put together an audacious and intelligent plan of action that can meet such scum head-on and defeat it.

March 29, 2012

Who is John Galt?

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,Columbia University,mafia — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

If you’ve read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, as I did as an enthusiastic high-school rightwinger back in 1960, that’s a no-brainer. Galt was the hero of Rand’s novel who symbolized her own reactionary beliefs by leading a “strike” of creative, free-market geniuses against a regulation-burdened system that was controlled by the grasping, needy 99 percent of society.

It is also the name of the corporation that did the demolition work on the Deutsche Bank tower that was rendered uninhabitable after the 9/11 attack as a subcontractor to Bovis Lend-Lease, the huge multinational in charge of Columbia University’s Manhattanville’s expansion. On February 20, 2008 the NY Times reported:

Federal safety regulators have accused the contractors who were taking down the former Deutsche Bank tower in the summer of indifference or intentional disregard for dangerous conditions that led to a fatal fire there, and of a host of other serious safety violations, officials said on Tuesday.

The regulators cited the project’s general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction management company, and its former subcontractor, the John Galt Corporation, for 44 safety violations, and proposed fining them nearly half a million dollars.

A year earlier (8/23/2007), the Times provided its readers with some background on the company obviously named after Ayn Rand’s regulation-hating hero:

The  John Galt Corporation of the Bronx, hired last year for the dangerous and complex job of demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, where two firefighters died last Saturday, has apparently never done any work like it. Indeed, Galt does not seem to have done much of anything since it was incorporated in 1983.

Public and private records give no indication of how many employees it has, what its volume of business is or who its clients are. There are almost no accounts of any projects it has undertaken on any scale, apart from 130 Liberty Street. Court records are largely silent. Some leading construction executives in the city say they have never even heard of it.

That may not be as surprising as it seems. John Galt, it appears, is not much more than a corporate entity meant to accommodate the people and companies actually doing the demolition job at the emotionally charged and environmentally hazardous site at the edge of ground zero.

The companies and project managers who have been providing the expertise, the workers and the financing for the job are Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Company, which is not in business to demolish skyscrapers, and former executives from Safeway Environmental Corporation, a company that was already removed from one contract at 130 Liberty because of concerns about its integrity…

In the 17 months since Galt took shape — and as problems mounted at the demolition site, including repeated safety violations — city and state officials have made announcements about the work and problems at 130 Liberty referring to John Galt as if it were a fully established corporation, and never mentioning by name the more controversial and less than perfectly qualified people and companies doing the work.

(John Galt, by the way, is a central character, an engineer, in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The book begins with this line: “Who is John Galt?”)

John Galt’s stationery puts its headquarters at 3900 Webster Avenue in the Bronx, near Woodlawn Cemetery, the same address as Regional Scaffolding’s. The two companies also share many of the same officers…

Safeway first surfaced on the scene at 130 Liberty when it, along with Regional Scaffolding, won a $13 million scaffolding contract in 2005 for the bank building.

But Safeway, its former owners, Harold Greenberg, 61, and Stephen Chasin, 56, and another company they long operated, Big Apple Wrecking and Construction Corporation, had a troubled history.

Mr. Greenberg, of Staten Island, has gone to federal prison twice for crimes related to the industry.

Identified by federal investigators as a Gambino crime family associate, he was convicted in 1988 of bribing a federal inspector to overlook asbestos-removal violations while Big Apple was demolishing Gimbels department store on East 86th Street in Manhattan. Three years later he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a bid-rigging scheme involving other contractors.

Safeway’s failure to disclose his criminal history and the accusations of mob ties led the authorities to bar the company from working on city schools in 2003. School investigators contended that Mr. Greenberg and his partner in Big Apple and Safeway, Mr. Chasin, sought to disguise their roles in companies in order to obtain public contracts and other work from which his convictions would bar them.

(Safeway Environmental was one of the subcontractors used in the development of a new headquarters for The New York Times, across Eighth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.)

Although I was aware of the Deutsche Bank tragedy and the pattern of neglect that led to the death of firefighters there, I had no idea that Bovis Lend-Lease was held responsible.

History seemed to be repeating itself last Thursday when I arrived at my office on W. 131rd Street to encounter a small army of police cars, fire engines and television reporters gathered there on account of a building collapse across the street from where I work. Earlier that morning a partly-demolished building had collapsed on some workers, killing one.

The workers were employed by Breeze Construction, whose president Toby Romano was convicted in 1988 of bribing inspectors investigating health violations on asbestos-removal jobs. As opposed to Greenberg’s Gambino affinities, Romano was tied to the Luchese crime family. When I brought this fact to the attention of Robert Kasdin, a powerful officer at the university in charge of the “back office”, later that day when he was addressing our staff on the accident, he assured us that Breeze is now run by Toby Romano Jr. and not his criminal father. Anybody who is familiar with how the mob does business will not be assuaged by this, especially in light of another report that surfaced the next day in the NY Daily News:

THE TRAGIC death of a hardhat who was demolishing a building owned by Columbia University came after the school and its contractors racked up a slew of safety complaints, the Daily News has found.

The Ivy League institution has been hit with 59 code violations and has been forced to shut down work 13 times since launching its controversial campus expansion two years ago, building records show.

The complaints were spread across the 64 properties located on the 17-acre site, which runs from 125th to 133rd Sts., and between 12th Ave. and Broadway.

My guess is that Bovis Lend-Lease and Breeze will pay no penalties, either in cash or jail sentences, based on the outcome of a criminal trial related to  the Deutsche Bank fatalities: all those charged were found not guilty. In cases such as these, it is very difficult to establish guilt given the often highly problematic nature of the physical evidence. The Times reported:

The prosecution theory revolved around one pipe in a maze of pipes in the toxic tower’s basement. Mr. Alvo was accused of ordering cut a standpipe that provides water to a high-rise in an emergency. When the blaze struck, firefighters could not get water on it for more than an hour.

Prosecutors argued Mr. Alvo and his co-defendants knew it was a crucial pipe for firefighters, that it shouldn’t have been cut and that they did nothing to repair it.

This sounds very much like the kind of defense that Breeze would adopt if its officers were ever brought to trial, as the Columbia Spectator reported on Monday:

Century-old beams, and not safety oversights, led to the death of a construction worker when a Manhattanville building collapsed on Thursday, according to the contractor responsible for the building’s demolition.

The building—which was being torn down as part of Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville—was built about 100 years ago, and it collapsed when demolition workers from Breeze National cut a structural beam. Breeze National said in a statement that while most structural beams that run horizontally are joined together at a vertical column, the beam that the workers cut had an “unknown, unusual, latent condition.”

The beam, Breeze said, “carried past the column and was joined to the other horizontal beam by a splice with bolts” that was encased in two feet of concrete. Breeze said that because the building is so old, no available structural drawings revealed this unusual structure, and the bolts failed when the beam was cut, causing the collapse.

Even under the best of circumstances, demolition is a very dangerous business like firefighting, coal-mining or lumberjacking. Unlike firefighting, which is not subject to the dictates of the market, the other job categories operate under a very tight logic of time = money. Whether or not the accident would have occurred last Thursday, Columbia University has an obligation to make sure that Bovis and Breeze are kept on a tight leash. Given the school board of trustee’s domination by real estate developers and hedge fund managers, there is probably no reason to be optimistic.

The building collapse at Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion and the criminal past of Bovis and Breeze are reminders of the deep tentacles of the construction industry penetrated by the mafia. And as was the case with Deutsche Bank and Columbia’s expansion, time equals money. If shortcuts must be made at the expense of human life, so be it. This was the verdict of another construction “accident” that occurred on East 91st Street in 2008 just a few blocks from where I live. Last month, when the manslaughter trial began, the prosecutor used words almost the same as those used in the Deutsche Bank trial, as the NY Times reported on February 21. The article also pointed out the difficulties faced in rendering a guilty verdict:

A tower crane collapsed and killed two men on the Upper East Side in 2008 because the crane’s owner put profit ahead of safety, prosecutors said Tuesday as his manslaughter trial began.

An assistant district attorney, Eli Cherkasky, said the owner, James F. Lomma, had hired an unqualified Chinese company to do a critical repair that predictably failed, an “outrageous” departure from industry standards that was “criminal in every sense of the word.”

Mr. Cherkasky said repeatedly that the low price and quick turnaround by the Chinese company, RTR, had driven Mr. Lomma’s decision-making, causing the deaths of Donald C. Leo, who was operating the crane when it collapsed on May 30, 2008, and Ramadan Kurtaj, another construction worker.

“They were killed because of one man’s greed,” Mr. Cherkasky told Justice Daniel Conviser, who is hearing the case without a jury in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. “He was content to risk other people’s lives so he could collect $50,000 a month in rental fees.”

Mr. Lomma’s lawyers presented a different story in their opening remarks. They said that a heavy “headache ball” on the crane’s line was hoisted into the boom, ostensibly by the operator, causing the line to snap, and that the heavy ball fell straight down, forcing the suddenly unbalanced crane to tip over backward.

James Kim, a defense lawyer, said the risk of such an event was well known and referred to as “two blocking.” But he said officials had missed the true cause of the accident because they had focused on RTR’s welding work early in their investigation.

Mr. Kim also said that Mr. Lomma, the owner of New York Crane and Equipment Corporation, was not unduly concerned about the repair cost and lost revenue from the crane’s being out of service because a contract required the renter, Sorbara Construction, to keep paying the monthly fee during the crane’s repair, and insurance covered the cost of the repair itself.

The collapse of the crane at East 91st Street and First Avenue was the second fatal crane accident within a few months at the end of a tremendous cycle of building in the city. The acquittals from the earlier crane collapse, as well as from the 2007 blaze at the former Deutsche Bank building, show the difficulty of prosecuting such cases.

What the article does not mention is the role of the DeMatteis Corporation, who happens to be my landlord and also like Bovis not above doing business with mob-related outfits. I invite you to read what I wrote about all this back in 2008.

Finally, some words on John Galt. Back in 1960, when I was an Ayn Rand (and William F. Buckley) fan, I really had no idea what was going on in the world. My rightwing beliefs were mainly a reaction against the Kennedy liberalism that was popular at my school. In some ways I was no different from Charles Bukowski who used to talk up Adolph Hitler in his Los Angeles high school in the 1930s just to piss other students off.

Facing the draft and working for the welfare department in Harlem in 1967 was a cold glass of water thrown in my face. Not only was I averse to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, I would have no use for Democratic Party liberalism of the sort that was ready to send me to Vietnam to kill or be killed. My last vote for a Democratic Party politician was for LBJ in 1964. That was that, as far as I was concerned.

My ideals clashed with the brutal reality of a criminal war and the criminal treatment of Black Americans. Perhaps I am just naïve, but as long as corporations like Bovis, John Galt and Breeze bend or break the law, they must be shunned. I will not forsake the ideals of my youth that were pumped into me by the teachers and journalists who never tired of reminding us how wonderful democracy and good government were. If their lectures turned me into the dirty commie that I am today, there’s not much I can do about that. It is the rulers who must be changed, not me. And that’s that.

December 10, 2011

Gordon Gekko, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

Filed under: capitalist pig,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

NY Times Op-Ed December 8, 2011
All the G.O.P.’s Gekkos
By PAUL KRUGMAN

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the release of the movie “Wall Street,” and the film seems more relevant than ever. The self-righteous screeds of financial tycoons denouncing President Obama all read like variations on Gordon Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech, while the complaints of Occupy Wall Street sound just like what Gekko says in private: “I create nothing. I own,” he declares at one point; at another, he asks his protégé, “Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy?”

The Los Angeles Times recently surveyed the record of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Mr. Romney ran from 1984 to 1999. As the report notes, Mr. Romney made a lot of money over those years, both for himself and for his investors. But he did so in ways that often hurt ordinary workers.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/opinion/krugman-all-the-gops-gekkos.html

From the latest Harper’s Magazine Index:

Amount employees of private-equity firm Bain Capital have donated to the campaign of its co-founder Mitt Romney: $69,500

To the Obama campaign: $119,900

December 4, 2011

Malefactors of great wealth in three new films

Filed under: capitalist pig,Film,financial crisis,oil — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Regular readers of my film reviews know that I do not tend to hype a film. Except for a comment like “a must see”, I generally prefer understatement. That being said, I strongly urge New Yorkers to go see the documentary “The Big Fix” that opened on Friday at the AMC Loews Village Theater. Co-directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, a husband and wife team, it is a searing investigation of BP’s ongoing trashing of the Gulf of Mexico that has largely gone unreported since the supposed capping of the Deepwater Horizon well and the cleaning up of the Gulf.

As someone who generally keeps up with environmentalist issues, I sat watching a press screener with my mouth agape at the horrors perpetrated by an out-of-control oil company and their paid servants in Congress. No other film have I seen in the past five years or so has left me with the feeling that the people running the country—both in government and in corporate boardrooms—are no different than the mafia. In fact we might be better off if the mafia was running the country since these gangsters at least have a feudal sense of noblesse oblige.

Josh Tickell is a Cajun, a descendant of French settlers in Louisiana, who grew up to become a film maker rather than a musician, cook, or oil field worker that are the typical jobs that members of this ethnic group take on. But despite his achievements as a documentary filmmaker, his heart is obviously with the working people of Louisiana, who are being screwed royally by BP.

The film begins with a historical survey of Louisiana that establishes its status as a kind of internal colony of the U.S. With the stranglehold of oil companies on the state’s political machinery, those in the “99 percent” have much more in common with the people of Iran under the Shah than they do with most Americans. As the film points out, British Petroleum was a key player in Iran until the 1979 revolution and now views Louisiana as just another source of superprofits, whatever happens to the environment and the local population being utterly immaterial.

There is some fascinating archival footage of Governor Huey Long, who was dubbed a “fascist” when I was a high school student. “The Big Fix” makes a convincing case that Long only became demonized when he demanded that oil companies doing business in Louisiana pay their fair share of taxes.

The Tickells decided to go down to Louisiana to make a film after becoming convinced that BP was involved in a cover-up. The film combines their own cloak-and-dagger filming of the company’s deceitful practices as well as interviews with economists and scientists who make the case that the Gulf of Mexico is practically dead now, despite BP’s nauseating commercials about people coming down to enjoy the seafood and the beaches.

The gist of their investigation reveals that the waters appear clean because BP has been spraying enormous amounts of Corexit, a chemical dispersant used widely by Exxon and BP after one of their disasters. The purpose of Corexit is to reduce oil slicks into tiny droplets that sink beneath the surface of the water, thus making it appear as if it is clean. However, small fish ingest the chemical and are then eaten by others higher up on the food chain. As one long-time fisherman in the area told the Tickells, dolphins can be seen coughing as they rise to the surface of the water.

Whole coughing dolphins is an image that is hard to shake from your mind, what is even harder to shake is the sight of ulcerated skin that is fairly endemic to people living near the waters. So pervasive are the toxic chemicals used in the “clean up” that Rebecca Tickell became permanently affected herself and will probably never enjoy a complete recovery from various illnesses, including the lingering effects of chemically-induced pneumonia.

The final moments of the film are devoted to an exploration of how BP gets away with its criminal activity, which involves many of the same themes raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It pays millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans alike in order to get them to serve as lackeys. What is even more disheartening is to see how compromised the university system is in Louisiana. Typical is Ed Stapleton, a professor emeritus at LSU who was initially alarmed by the impact of the BP spill but after the company lavished 10 million dollars on the school he became a fixture on shows like David Letterman giving jocular remarks on how clean the waters were. The only parallel is watching some of the nuclear industry functionaries in Japan announcing to their countrymen that there was nothing to worry about.

“The Big Fix” is the real deal. It does not spare any politician or corporate functionary and goes after Obama with the kind of fury that I have not seen in any documentary since this rotten tool of corporate America took office. The film relies on Chris Hedges to help make their case and he is in fine fettle. Don’t miss this one. It will remind you why you became a socialist and if you are still a liberal, it will turn you into a fire-breathing revolutionary.

Like most people on the left, I regarded the fight between Mikhail Khodorkovsy, the president of Yukos Oil and the richest man in Russia, and Vladimir Putin as a pissing contest between two skunks.

Although the documentary titled “Khodorkovsky” that opened on Friday at the Film Forum is not intended to persuade anybody that the oligarch had any redeeming social value, it does make a pretty convincing case that he was victimized mostly because he stood up to Putin. When Putin told him to stay out of politics, Khodorkovsky did not back down. For his efforts, he was sent to prison for six years for widely regarded as trumped up charges on tax evasion and just recently had another six years tacked on.

Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, his mother was not. He was a member of the Communist Party youth group when the USSR was still intact and learned how to make money hustling in its ranks by acting as a kind of social director. Using his Komsomol connections, Khodorkovsky set up the bank Menatep when Gorbachev was still in charge.

The money he made running Menatep allowed him to bid successfully for the state-owned oil company that would become Yukos. Unlike other oligarchs, he shunned the lavish lifestyle and had no use for gangster entourages that became endemic in the early years of the post-Soviet Union.

The documentary was directed by Cyril Tuschi, a German who adopts a somewhat detached and bemused attitude throughout the film suitable for his ambivalence toward Khodorkovsky. It is not clear to me that Tuschi had much interest in the broader questions of post-Communist society, the contradictions of capitalism, or anything else that matters to my usual readers. He seems to be motivated to tell an interesting story about a rather dubious figure and does a reasonably good job.

Mentioned only fleetingly in the film was Khodorkovsky’s attempts in 2003 to form partnerships with Western oil companies, something that Putin regarded as inimical to Russian interests. At the time, some leftists gave critical support to Putin as a kind of “anti-imperialist”. While not using this term, Vladimir Popov did make the case in the March-April 2007 New Left Review for Putin as a kind of imperfect defender of Russian interests in acting against the oligarchs.

I appreciated Tony Wood’s response to Popov’s article that appeared in a subsequent issue:

The reassertion of state control over strategic companies and sectors has been seen as a sign of stealth nationalization—the state using its administrative powers to crush Khodorkovsky’s Yukos and, more recently, even muscle aside multinational companies such as Shell. Western establishment analysts have diagnosed these developments as a case of ‘resource nationalism’, likening Putin’s actions to those of Chávez or Morales, while the latest leitmotif of Russian political discourse has been the idea of ‘sovereign democracy’—essentially referring to Russia’s ability and determination to pursue an independent course, no longer reliant on loans or approbation from the West.

Neither of these concepts is an adequate measure of the orientation and outlook of Russia’s contemporary elite. As noted above, the Putin administration has not actively redistributed oil wealth to those dispossessed by the ‘reforms’ of the 1990s; indeed, its tax regime seeks precisely to benefit the wealthy still further, while the monetization of benefits and increased charges for utilities penalize the poor. Though the poverty rate is declining and wages rising, any significant drop in oil prices will likely reverse these trends, which will once again have the most severe impact on the lowest income strata. The decision to spend the oil windfall on euros and dollars, meanwhile, is ostensibly motivated by a desire to keep inflation in check; but in a context of continued infrastructural dysfunction, such prudence is a form of deferred suicide, starving the nation of the public goods that would secure its survival in the longer term.

Turning from documentary to fiction, I can recommend “Margin Call”, now playing in theaters all across the U.S. as the best dramatization of the 2008” subprime meltdown whose effects are still being felt.

By contrast, Oliver Stone’s follow-up to Wall Street is incoherent trash and the HBO mixture of fiction and documentary titled “Too Big to Fail”, starring William Hurt as Henry Paulson, is best described as a whitewash of bankster malfeasance. With a screenplay by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who was stupid enough to write a column about taking a phone call from one of these types of scumbags asking whether he had anything to worry about with the OWS movement, this is a story about the public-mindedness of Paulson and company who saved the country from going under. It was hard to take this seriously when the HBO movie aired. It is even harder now in light of a Bloomberg News report:

The Federal Reserve and the big banks fought for more than two years to keep details of the largest bailout in U.S. history a secret. Now, the rest of the world can see what it was missing.

The Fed didn’t tell anyone which banks were in trouble so deep they required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day. Bankers didn’t mention that they took tens of billions of dollars in emergency loans at the same time they were assuring investors their firms were healthy. And no one calculated until now that banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its January issue.

Saved by the bailout, bankers lobbied against government regulations, a job made easier by the Fed, which never disclosed the details of the rescue to lawmakers even as Congress doled out more money and debated new rules aimed at preventing the next collapse.

Directed by J.C. Chandor (his first film), “Margin Call” takes place in a 24 hour span as a financial analyst—an MIT graduate with an engineering degree–discovers that his firm’s collateralized mortgage holdings were likely to bankrupt the company given the direction of the market.

The CEO, played to a tee by Jeremy Irons, orders the traders to dump the subprime holdings on unsuspecting customers no matter the long-term consequences. Playing his second in command, Kevin Spacey bridles at this proposal and only accedes under pressure. This was the only thing in the film that did not quite ring true. If you get to be second in command at a place like this, clearly modeled after Goldman-Sachs, you sold your soul to the devil long before becoming that powerful.

The movie has a crackling electricity and very fine dialog rendered in a realistic manner. Throughout the entire film, there is no attempt to offer up a back-story or anything that would make the characters sympathetic. The net effect is like looking at an aquarium full of piranhas and hoping that the glass doesn’t break.

That being said, none of the characters in the film is “evil” in the sense that Gordon Gekko was in “Wall Street”. They are simply doing their job. That is actually what makes the film so powerful. It is not interested in exposing crooks but in putting the financial system under a microscope. That, after all, is what Karl Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.

September 26, 2011

Goldman Sachs rules the world

Filed under: capitalist pig,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 11:20 pm

The Yes Men deny any involvement:

Rastani is not in Liberty Plaza (#occupywallstreet)

By Andy Bichlbaum on Sep 27 2011 – 9:56am Tagged:

The Yes Men wish to commend Mr. “Alessio Rastani” for his masterful performance as “trader” on BBC World yesterday. Mr. Rastani’s real name is Granwyth Hulatberi; he once appeared on CNBC MarketWrap as a “representative” of the WTO. Well done, Granwyth! You’re getting better and better.

Just kidding. We’ve never heard of Rastani. Despite widespread speculation, he isn’t a Yes Man. He’s a real trader who is, for one reason or another, being more honest than usual. Who in big banking doesn’t bet against the interests of the poor and find themselves massively recompensed—if not by the market, then by humongous taxpayer bailouts? Rastani’s approach has been completely mainstream for several years now; we must thank him for putting a human face on it yesterday.

If you’d like to see the human face of the human perspective—the perspective of the 99% victimized by our demented and out-of-control financial system—come join the occupation of Wall Street. Michael Moore did so  last night, and pointed out that in America, it’s just 400 people who own as much as most of the rest of us put together—and that when we decide we really want to change the rules of the game, those 400 people won’t be able to do squat about it.

* * * *

It looks like the Yes Men pranked  BBC once again!

* * * *

Trader Or Prankster? We Called Alessio Rastani And Asked

Yesterday a purported independent trader going by the name Alessio Rastani appeared on BBC and said some delicious things, namely that he’s been dreaming about a recession and that Goldman Sachs rules the world.

Gawker promptly called him a “sociopath.” My colleague at Forbes said he might be a psychopath.  Some people commenting on his Facebook page called him a “muppet,” a “nasty little self-publicist” and a “totally honest bastard who wants to rise to the top of [on] the rest of the world’s misery.” Another suggested that he die.

But then talk circulated that Rastani might be a member of Yes Men, a collective of impersonators. Was his little talk a hoax? When I reached Rastani in London to ask, he spouted some vague wisdom, mentioned his “trader friends,” and insisted that trading is his obsession. He started off the conversation:

AR: I had something to tell you guys. The guy who wrote [on Forbes] mistakenly wrote that I’m a Wall Street trader. I’m not an institutional trader. I wouldn’t dream of ever doing that. I trade my own money, my own account. That’s what I always wanted to do. I like the idea of not having a boss. I did work for one institution, but I realized I want to do it for myself. I just started, and I worked with some of the best traders in the world. I saw how they were doing things. Eventually I developed my own style.

READ FULL

September 16, 2011

Lifestyles of the rich and infamous

Filed under: capitalist pig,Libya — louisproyect @ 1:55 pm

Pythons, parties and offshore accounts: Life among Libya’s elite

Hannibal Gaddafi’s abandoned laptop contains snapshots of the dictator’s playboy son and his entourage

By Kim Sengupta

The Independent, Friday, 16 September 2011

Libya’s rebels were yet to make the military breakthrough which would see his father swept from power but Hannibal al-Gaddafi was taking the precaution of reviewing his finances. There was a bank transfer for $14,999,920.82 (about £9.5m), another of $6,439,201.76, and a third, more modest one of $3,233,434.10. He was, one could assume, reassured about having enough put away for rainy days ahead.

The documents, with details of accounts in Paris, Panama and Tunis, were found by The Independent on a laptop belonging to the fourth son of Muammar Gaddafi, abandoned as he fled with his family from his mansion in Tripoli. The papers show the sheer extent of wealth Hannibal Gaddafi had accrued while working as a “consultant” to Libya’s national shipping corporation. Many of the transactions involve Amen Bank and the North African International Bank, both based in the Tunisian capital, and the company Indotex SA based in Panama. Others go through a myriad of institutions before ending up at accounts at tax havens.

Hannibal Gaddafi, his wife Aline Skaf, a former model from Lebanon, and their two children have sought refuge in neighbouring Algeria along with other members of the Gaddafi family. The new Libyan government has demanded that Algiers send them back to face charges, including theft of state assets.

Hannibal’s opulent home was among those raided by local people and revolutionaries after the fall of Tripoli. Young fighters wandered around the villa or lounged on the Italian sofas. Empty bottles of Dom Perignon and Johnny Walker Black Label whiskey lay scattered on cracked glass tabletops.

The photographs detail Hannibal Gaddafi’s lavish lifestyle, sailing on one of his yachts and getting ready for flights on a private Gulfstream jet, and the phalanx of staff to look after the family, including one of Shweyga Mullah, an Ethiopian nanny who has later discovered severely burned, the result, she said, of having boiling water poured over her by Aline Skaf for failing to keep the children quiet.

This was just one of several occasions that Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife had been accused of assaulting those who worked for them. In 2008 they were arrested in Geneva on charges of “bodily harm, threatening behaviour and coercion” against two members of staff. Gaddafi’s regime retaliated by imprisoning two Swiss businessmen and cancelling contracts with Swiss firms.

The following year police in London were called to Claridge’s Hotel in the early hours of Christmas morning after the management were alarmed at the sound of a woman screaming. Aline Skaf was discovered bleeding heavily and taken by ambulance to hospital where she was treated for facial injuries. Soon afterwards Hannibal Gaddafi threw a party for his wife in New York where the cabaret was provided by Beyoncé.

Some of the pictures on the laptop were taken at another party, in Cairo, with belly dancers and a well known Egyptian singer providing the entertainment. Aline Skaf sits arms entwined with her husband, with a bruise on her face.

September 13, 2011

Texas is a unique place

Filed under: capitalist pig,conservatism — louisproyect @ 3:07 pm

NY Review September 29, 2011
Republican Days of Wrath
by Michael Tomasky

The national press has largely pigeonholed Perry into the “Tea Party” category, a designation that is certainly not without merit. It was, for example, outside a Tea Party rally in April 2009 that Perry made his remark about the possibility of Texas seceding:

Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come out of that?

Yet calling Perry only a Tea Party candidate is misleading. He is also a candidate of the Republican establishment—the senior party members who raise millions of dollars and influence the party’s priorities—because that establishment today is itself quite right-wing. It is based chiefly not on Wall Street anymore but in Texas (and in Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is located). The “tiny splinter group” of “a few Texas oil millionaires” whom Dwight Eisenhower famously disparaged in 1954 now is arguably the most powerful tendency within the party. The state’s rich Republicans have been the chief backers of everything from George W. Bush’s campaigns to attacks on Democrats like the Swift Boat ads used against John Kerry in 2004.

(clip)

NY Times July 20, 2011
Child’s Play, Grown-Up Cash
By KATE MURPHY

APART from the open bar by the swimming pool, the main attraction at parties held at the Houston home of John Schiller, an oil company executive, and his wife, Kristi, a Playboy model turned blogger, is the $50,000 playhouse the couple had custom-built two years ago for their daughter, Sinclair, now 4.

Cocktails in hand, guests duck to enter through the 4 ½-foot door. Once inside, they could be forgiven for feeling as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Built in the same Cape Cod style as the Schillers’ expansive main house, the two-story 170-square-foot playhouse has vaulted ceilings that rise from five to eight feet tall, furnishings scaled down to two-thirds of normal size, hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel.

The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 32-inch flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air-conditioned. This is Texas, after all.

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.

(clip)

June 17, 2011

Battle for Brooklyn

Filed under: capitalist pig,Columbia University,Film — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, “Battle for Brooklyn” chronicles a struggle that resonates strongly with me. It pits a community group against real estate developer Bruce Ratner who intended to remove home-owners and businesses from the very spot upon which he sought to build an enormous complex. Ratner eventually used eminent domain to push through his project, just as Columbia University has done in Manhattanville, a neighborhood in West Harlem. About four years ago I moved into new offices as part of the university’s initial expansion into this area. Both Ratner and Columbia University have powerful connections in state and local government that allows them to steamroll over opposition and both like to see themselves as bastions of liberal culture and friends of the Black community.

“Battle for Brooklyn” holds Ratner’s pretensions up to close scrutiny. The documentary is directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, the same pair responsible for “Horns and Halos”, a documentary about the battle mounted by Soft Skull Press’s Sander Hicks to publish J.H. Hatfield’s scorched earth biography of George Bush after White House pressure convinced St. Martin’s Press to bail out. Sander, who would eventually become a 9/11 truther, is obviously the kind of Quixotic figure that Hawley and Galinsky are drawn to since “Battle for Brooklyn” features Daniel Goldstein in the role of David to Ratner’s Goliath. Unfortunately, in this instance Goliath prevailed.

Daniel Goldstein lives in a remodeled building on Pacific Street that is similar to many in New York City’s five boroughs. Priced out of the Manhattan market (I am only making a guess that this was the case for Goldstein, a graphic artist), they settle in working-class neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Long Island City and elsewhere to enjoy a roomy apartment or loft with the latest amenities. When Ratner offers the occupants of Goldstein’s building a million dollars each to move out, they take the money and run. Goldstein, a 30ish young man with a rebellious streak as pronounced as I have ever seen, decides to remain and fight. After joining Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), he begins to spend more time organizing people than on his career. His passion for the cause (and perhaps other incompatibilities) leads to the break-up his engagement. But all is not lost. He finally hooks up with and marries Shabnam Merchant, an Indo-American woman who is as dedicated to the cause as he is.

Arrayed against them and their neighbors are an enormously powerful and ruthless bloc consisting of Ratner, his top executives, and a rogue’s gallery of politicians, including the buffoonish Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz. They portray the project’s benefit in such glowing terms that you would think that they were on some kind of social uplift mission rather than a typical real estate boondoggle. Ratner is a truly despicable figure, who naturally enough became a member of Bard College’s Board of Trustees. Leon Botstein has a particular flair for recruiting limousine liberals such as Ratner, who will be sitting alongside Stuart Resnick at board meetings. Resnick is the owner of a number of “enlightened” New Agey type products like POM juice and Fiji water that put profits over sustainable development.

The film exposes a dirty trick used by Ratner that I had not been aware of. Formed to oppose Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a group called Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) claimed to speak on behalf of the Black community. Its publicity tried to exploit racial and class differences, claiming that DDDB was a bunch of white yuppies trying to prevent Blacks from getting good-paying jobs. Eventually the film reveals that the group was funded by Ratner, as this N.Y. Daily News article by Juan Gonzalez reported on October 18, 2005:

Forest City Ratner paid BUILD $10,000 earlier this year to distribute copies of a promotional newspaper about the Atlantic Yards project called the Brooklyn Standard.

Then in August, the developer donated an additional $100,000 to the group to pay its salaries.

That was two months after BUILD and seven other Brooklyn neighborhood groups signed a so-called Community Benefits Agreement with Forest City Ratner that promised up to one-third of the housing built would be “affordable” and set aside jobs for local residents.

Ratner provided an entire building rent-free for BUILD headquarters on Pacific St. and supplied all of the group’s office equipment. The developer also is paying for a public relations firm to represent BUILD and the other neighborhood groups that support Atlantic Yards.

Last weekend, Ratner issued another $28,000 contract for BUILD to hire 100 neighborhood people to distribute a second copy of its promotional newspaper, said the developer’s spokesman Joe DePlasco.

The latest issue of that newspaper – 300,000 copies were printed – has a big front-page photo of Mayor Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the project, next to developer Bruce Ratner.

Although I strongly recommend this film, I wondered if there was a failure to include experts on the project who could have provided some background. For example, the film says very little about Frank Gehry’s participation in Ratner’s project (he was eventually dropped as part of a belt-tightening exercise). I think that his participation says volumes about his own questionable status as architect of our generation, being put forward as a latter-day Frank Lloyd Wright. It would have been good to hear architectural historians weigh in on the overall value of the project from an esthetic standpoint. As a long-time New Yorker, I have grown very dubious of mega-projects that lack any kind of organic link to the surrounding community. While I of course mourn the loss of innocent lives, I shed no tears for the demolition of the WTC on 9/11. Perhaps if the terrorists had waited until after midnight when the buildings were unoccupied, like the SDS Weathermen used to do, then the razing of the towers might have seemed more benign.

All that being said, “Battle for Brooklyn” has a kind of credibility that might have been undercut with the interviews of anti-Ratner experts. The goal of Hawley and Galinsky is to allow each side to make its case, obviously allowing people like Marty Markowitz to hoist themselves on their own petard. An audience will respect the directors for not tipping the scales through bias, even though their sympathy for Daniel Goldstein is obvious. In many ways their approach is similar to “Crude”, the documentary about the law suit against Chevron’s despoliation of water and soil in Ecuador. After a while, you’d like to throw a tomato at the television or movie screen when some oily (pun intended) Chevron executive pleads innocence. As is the case with “Battle for Brooklyn”, you have no doubts about who the bad guys are.

Interview with the directors: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2011/jun/09/battle-brooklyn/

My last article on Bruce Ratner is here: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/05/24/ratner-botstein-and-gehry-birds-of-a-feather/

And on the Columbia expansion: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/04/28/columbia-expansion/

May 9, 2011

Being played for a sucker by Random House

Filed under: capitalist pig,Pekar — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

Chris Schluep, Harvey Pekar's editor

This morning I feel beat to shit.

I woke up at 3am last night and began obsessing for a good two hours over Random House, the scumbag publishers and their editor Chris Schluep who keeps giving me a run-around on the book I did with Harvey Pekar. Harvey always spoke well of Schluep but I can’t help but think of him as a cog in a big machine that I never would have had any dealings with had I not been assured by Pekar that he was under contract for two new books, including the one I was doing with him.

My take on publishing jibes with the one depicted in the movie “Wolf”, starring Jack Nicholson as a top editor who gets shafted by a Rupert Murdoch type media mogul who has just taken over his company. After being bitten by a wolf, Nicholson not only becomes a werewolf, he develops the aggressiveness needed to succeed in the publishing business. In one memorable scene, he pisses on the shoes and pants legs of a rival who has landed his job after the takeover. That, to me, smacked of verisimilitude.

I first got warnings that the book was going to end up shit-canned after seeing an article in the NY Times titled “The Unsettled Afterlife of Harvey Pekar” that dealt with some prospective posthumous projects. It refers to a couple of Random House possibilities, but not mine:

Random House is publishing at least two more of his graphic books: one, called “Huntington, West Virginia, ‘On the Fly,’ ” in which Mr. Pekar reflects on promoting his movie and other books, and a second, written with Ms. Brabner, called “Harvey and Joyce’s Big Book of Marriage.”

Now I can understand why Random House would have prioritized these books since they appeal to his fan base, people who could never get enough of his tales of woe about working as a file clerk or butting heads with the rich and the powerful—like David Letterman. Too bad I don’t know how to draw; otherwise I’d have come up with a comic strip about my own frustrations dealing with a colossus like Random House.

I always felt skeptical about the idea of Random House coming out with a book about my own life. Who in their right mind would spend good money to read about the trials and tribulations of a Marxist activist when there were all sorts of books by celebrities like Bettheny Frankel or Rob Lowe that you could read on the beach?

As it turns out, Pekar decided to do something with me because he was probably tired of writing about himself. Like his earliest collaborator R. Crumb, he was exploring new ways of expressing himself. Crumb eventually wearied of doing comics about his own neurotic sexual and racial obsessions; likewise I am sure with Pekar’s sad sack tales. At least that’s my take. He told me numerous times that he was seeking to become the Studs Terkel of our generation. My story amounted to the sort of thing you can read in “Working” or any of his other “as told to” classics. Too bad that Harvey didn’t live into his nineties like Studs. And too bad for me that I got drawn into a project that had no future after his death.

What steams me up the most is the feeling that I have been ripped off. I spent a good four months writing and rewriting the material that would eventually be illustrated by Summer McClinton, a young and very gifted artist whose work Harvey raved about. Now Random House’s contract was with Harvey and not me obviously. His widow Joyce Brabner and the artist have been paid off, fulfilling Random House’s obligations for a book that is now dead and buried. A year ago Schluep assured me that the book would be published. It turns out he was probably bullshitting me. It would have been better for me not to have been left hanging. When I raised the topic with him again two months ago, he said that a decision had not been made but he would get back to me within the month. Of course, he did not get back to me. Like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf”, he has the power to piss on me metaphorically speaking. I am not under contract and under capitalism that is how things operate, as any lawyer will tell you.

I imagine that Schluep is not comfortable with all this, having assured me a while back that he is “not a scumbag”. I suppose he is not but the company he works for surely is.

In 1998 Random House was taken over by Bertelsmann, a German media company with 103,000 employees. Now Bertelsmann has a most interesting history—just the sort of venue for a memoir by an unrepentant Marxist as the BBC reported on October 8, 2002:

Bertelsmann admits Nazi past

German media giant Bertelsmann has admitted it lied about its Nazi past and that it made big profits during Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany using Jewish slave labour.

A commission set up by the firm found Bertelsmann rode the rise of the Nazi party to restructure itself from a religious and school book publisher to supply millions of anti-Semitic texts.

The IHC found Bertelsmann had targeted the youth market with its “Exciting Stories” series and the “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth” annual which pushed its sales up 20 fold.

The IHC said the company’s “legend” that it was a victim of the Nazis was a lie.

The Commission found that Bertelsmann made “indirect” use of Jewish slave labour in Latvia, and Lithuania but not at its German headquarters.

The then head of the company, Heinrich Mohn, also made donations to the SS, Hitler’s special forces and concentration camp guards.

The company had close ties to the Nazi regime, particularly the Propaganda Ministry, and printed 19 million books during World War II, making it the largest publisher for the German army.

Bertelsmann used its “revised” history when it took over the biggest US book publisher Random house in 1998.

Harvey died before I had a chance to share this information with him. As a proud but non-observant Jew, I am sure he would have had a word or two to say about being under contract to a company that used Jewish slave labor.

There were signs that Bertelsmann’s infatuation with Hitler continued well after WWII. In 1983, Stern Magazine, part of the German publisher’s empire, came out with the Hitler Diaries that turned out to be a hoax. A Nation Magazine article dated November 8, 1999 reported:

In 1980 Bertelsmann’s Stern magazine published poems and illustrations supposedly written and drawn by Hitler during World War I under the title “Rhymes by Private First Class H” (“Gereimtes vom Gefreiten H”). Dirk Bavendamm, a 61-year-old German historian who had been instrumental in helping Stern obtain the material, wrote an accompanying article noting that the poems and drawings show Hitler as an ordinary soldier. In one illustration a German soldier gently holds a baby; in another, a soldier helps a mother lying in bed while a baby nestles in a cradle. Subsequently the poems and drawings were determined to be forgeries. (Later, Mohn gave the green light to a Bertelsmann division to purchase the Hitler diaries, by the same forger, which also showed a milder Hitler. They were published in Stern in 1983.)

Bavendamm’s career was not affected. His book Roosevelt’s Way to War (Roosevelts Weg zum Krieg) was published in 1983. Rewriting history, he stated that Roosevelt, not Hitler, had caused World War II. He also wrote that American Jews “controlled most of the media,” and he claimed they gave a false picture of Hitler.

Even if Bertlesmann did not have Nazi skeletons in its closet, its role in turning Random House into another “bottom line” oriented corporation of the sort that has left the USA economically and culturally impoverished was obvious to Andre Schifrin, the founder of the New Press and a sharp critic of the publishing industry. In a February 17, 2003 Nation Magazine article titled “‘Random’ Destruction”, Schifrin commented on the firing of Ann Godoff, the head of Random House whose “mistake was to adhere to the higher standards of Random’s past.”

Bertelsmann sought to turn Random House into something much more commercial in the pursuit of higher profits, pumping out the kind of tripe that can soar to the top of the best-seller list. The NY Times reported that Godoff “considered her unit’s books above the merely commercial popular fiction published by other divisions. She candidly told associates that she felt little personal interest or affinity for commercial romances, thrillers and other page-turners–the meat and potatoes of much of the publishing business.” Hmm. Maybe that was my mistake. I should have put more steamy stuff into the memoir. I did include my romance with a comrade in Houston who had been working as a go-go dancer before I got to town. Harvey told me that I needed to put as much as that stuff in as I could.

In defending itself against charges that it was turning into the publishing counterpart of People Magazine, a Random House spokesman stated “Random House will continue to do many, many books for a niche audience, books that will continue to appeal to the literary critical world.” Sigh, if only that was true. On the other hand, maybe I’ve been selling myself short. They say that the Communist Manifesto became a best-seller in Germany in 2007, around the time that capitalism began its worldwide collapse. Maybe the Bertlesmann CEO decided that it was not in his class interests to publish anything favorable to Marxism, even if it appeared in the style of a Jewish stand-up comedian favored by both Harvey and me.

Ultimately Peter Olson, the guy who ran Bertlesmann’s American operations and who fired Ann Godoff, figured out that it was in his own interest to make Random House follow the short-term dictates of the market. Like so many of the crooks responsible for the collapse of the housing market, mass unemployment, and deepening class inequalities, he figured out what side of the bread was buttered: his own. Schifrin writes:

And there is yet one more factor that cannot be overlooked. Obviously, as the Times and others noted, Olson has “his own targets to meet” His compensation is based on his “success in meeting annual targets each year.” Thus, the personal income of a handful of managers is an essential factor in deciding what the future of American publishing will be.

I suppose I only have myself to blame for getting suckered into this time-wasting business. There’s a mystique about being published that is really quite powerful. It appeals to your sense of vanity in the same way that an appearance on the Letterman show might. If you read Harvey’s account of being in the limelight, however, you will be struck how ambivalent he was. While he hoped to get the word out about his comic books on Late Night, he mostly felt exploited—the butt of Letterman’s frat boy humor.

That’s what happens when you put yourself at the mercy of a powerful corporation. It will find one way or another to fuck you over.

My experiences with print publishing over the years are pretty negative. After submitting a book proposal to an editor at St. Martin’s on Marxism and the American Indian about 12 years ago, I never received a reply. I have to wonder whether editors get some kind of training when they go to work at places like St. Martin’s or Random House on how to make an unheralded writer feel like two cents. It’s about the same story with leftist academic journals that tend to treat you like a dissertation student, subjecting your submission to peer review—as if getting printed in a journal that has a circulation of 2000 is of any importance to me. I get that many visits to my blog every day.

As everybody knows, print publishing is going through a deep crisis. More and more of Harvey’s work began appearing on the Internet through the auspices of The Pekar Project that defines its role this way:

Harvey Pekar’s been mining the mundane for magic for more than 30 years in his autobiographical American Splendor comics. Now he has teamed with SMITH and some remarkable artists to create his first ongoing webcomics series—and some of his jazziest work to date. The new stories will appear every other week, with interviews, creator spotlights, and behind-the-scenes goodies, as well as essays and art from Pekar collaborators and inhabitants of the extended Pekarverse.

Obviously with Harvey’s death, the future of this project is very much in doubt. Clearly, I have the responsibility to make the work I did with him available to the general public on the Web. Ironically, Harvey never used a computer, finding it too confusing. He once told me that Joyce forbade him from using hers. I am quite sure that he would have been gratified to see “The Unrepentant Marxist”, the title of our collaboration, appearing on my blog. After all, that is the title of my blog and the best place for it to appear, all things considered.

POSTSCRIPT:

Chris Schluep is no longer at Random House.

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