Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 10, 2018

The Yellow Vests, capitalism and communism

Filed under: climate,Ecology,farming,France — louisproyect @ 11:09 pm

Three years ago Michael Moore made a documentary titled “Where to Invade Next” that posed the question of why can’t Americans enjoy the good life most Western Europeans do. Traveling from country to country, he showed how the welfare state created by successive social democratic governments made for better health care, education, child care, etc. He visited a public school in France where he had lunch with sixth graders who had no interest in trading their healthy and appetizing free lunch for a Big Mac, French fries and a giant Coke.

As I pointed out at the time, this social democratic dream was turning into a nightmare, especially for immigrants. It was only a matter of time that France would become ground zero for a revolt against a system that provided few benefits for those who live in the countryside and suburbia. Indeed, my first reaction to the riots is that the white people in France were finally expressing the anger that made the banlieues erupt in 2005.

If steep taxes are supposedly necessary to support the universal health care that Moore supported in “Sicko”, another paean to enlightened social democratic governance, it was lost on the average citizen not fortunate enough to work as an IT specialist or lawyer in Paris. With the closing of rural hospitals, the country’s universal health insurance is next to useless. Under Macron, subsidies to the suburbs and countryside have been cut sharply. $42 billion at the time of his election, they are now $30 billion. The pain this has caused was sufficient to spur a wholesale resignation of mayors around the country who feel too strapped to do their job.

This was not the first time a protest occurred over gasoline/diesel fuel tax hikes. Almost four years ago to the date, “Red Caps” in Brittany forced Francois Hollande to cancel a tax targeting commercial trucks. Protesters, who saw the tax as harmful to farmers who were already having trouble competing with other EU countries, wore red caps. They were first worn in a seventeenth century revolt centered in Brittany as well. As is the case today, the movement took direct action to remind the “socialist” government that it could not neglect those in the boondocks. So grievous was their situation that a virtual epidemic of suicides had plagued the countryside. A recent survey revealed that a French farmer kills himself every two days.

Echoing Donald Trump’s MAGA bluster, Macron has been pushing a Make Our Planet Great Again campaign that was worth pursuing even if it caused temporary pain for the yellow vest social base. On the campaign’s website, there are ambitious goals sounding somewhat like the Green New Deal bandied about on the American left but without the socialist rhetoric:

Regarding mobility, a tax priority has been set: to achieve tax harmonisation between diesel and gasoline before 2022, and to speed up the rise in the price of carbon without penalizing the poorest households. The Climate Plan has set the objective of ending the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. A large public consultation has also been launched, the “National Conference on Mobility”, to anticipate mobility in 2030 and draw up policies promoting soft and less polluting mobility;

The Climate Plan is striving to put an early end to the import in France of products contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and plans to develop a National strategy against imported deforestation. As far as its own forests are concerned, France has put in place a National Plan for forests and woodlands and a National Biomass Mobilisation Strategy, which advocate forestry that is more proactive and better respects ecosystems, with the aim of maintaining and extending their central role in carbon storage;

France is strengthening its actions to protect the marine and land ecosystems, in France and at an international level, which contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation: increasing its funding for ecosystems protection projects, taking advantage of overseas to launch initiatives for biodiversity helping the climate, and calls for projects to develop nature-based solutions.

You need to understand that it does little good to promote a “soft and less polluting mobility” in 2030 when a tax hike today threatens the ability of hard-up French families to get through the month. In a highly revealing article for the NY Times on December 2nd, Adam Nossiter described the austerity that grips Guéret, a typical yellow vest town. Nossiter describes how typical families live:

“We just don’t make it to the end of the month,” said Elodie Marton, a mother of four who had joined the protesters at the demonstration outside town. “I’ve got 10 euros left,” she said, as a dozen others tried to get themselves warm around an iron-barrel fire.

“Luckily we’ve got some animals at the house” — chickens, ducks — “and we keep them for the end of the month,” she said. “It sounds brutal, but my priority is the children,” she said. “We’re fed up and we’re angry!’ shouted her husband, Thomas Schwint, a cement hauler on a temporary 1,200-euro contract.

Hill-Knowlton, the notorious PR firm that cooked up the propaganda campaign about Saddam’s troops yanking babies from the incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital to leave them on the cold floor to die, revealed rather candidly that despite the impression that the tax hike was geared exclusively for “Green” causes such as eliminating nuclear energy plants, it was not quite the case: “While the government has recently announced a new increase in fuel taxes to come in January, the prices have increased by 19 cents for the essence fuel and by 31 cents for the diesel fuel since the beginning of President Macron’s mandate. In 2018, fuel taxes brought in a total of €34 billion for the state. Of these 34 billion, only 7.4 billion are directly earmarked for ecological transition, while the rest is earmarked for the State’s overall budget.”

In effect, the remaining 26.6 billion was designed to make up for the loss of revenue from Macron’s wealth tax cut. In October 2017, a bill was passed in order to repeal the one imposed by the Socialists in the 1980s on incomes over $1.5 million. The wealth tax supposedly drove rich people out of the country, including actor Gerald Depardieu who was granted Russian citizenship in 2013. In a tit-for-tat arrangement, Depardieu defended the jailing of Pussy Riot. In keeping with his “hooligan” character supposedly praised by Putin, he was accused of the sexual assault and rape of a young female actress in August, 2018. This should give you some idea of the sort of person whose needs had to be catered to, even if it meant leaving Elodie Marton with 10 Euros at the end of the month.

Maxime Combs, a French economist and climate change activist, wrote an article that was translated into English for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website. It debunks the notion that the tax hike can help to wean people from fossil fuel usage, especially the poor. He urges a different approach to the problem from eco-tax manipulation:

By making the increase in fuel prices the central policy that must drive the inhabitants of the country to change their vehicles and change their boilers, without reducing their mobility needs and their heating needs, Emmanuel Macron and the government are making themselves prisoners of an ideology that prevents action on the structural causes of too great a dependence on fossil fuels.

Putting an end to urban sprawl and bringing economic activities closer to workplaces – rather than moving them away from already urbanized areas – relocating public services and ensuring the sustainability of local shops, developing public transport and options for alternative modes of transport, are priority areas for reducing the need for mobility reliant on carbon.

This gets much closer to the solution that is really needed even if it doesn’t close the circle. It is not just a question of reducing the need for private transportation and commercial trucks. It also points in the direction of overcoming the “metabolic rife” that is associated with separating the organic production of plant fertilizer (both human and animal) from the crops that require it.

Petroleum products do not only threaten a sixth extinction because of the greenhouse gases they generate. In addition, they are key to industrial farming that relies on plastics for a wide variety of its infrastructure including mulch, greenhouse covers and tunnels. Once crops are harvested, plastic is used to package them for sale in Walmarts and other grocery stores spread around the country. This amounts to $32.4 billion in 2016, with 14.2 billion pounds of resin consumed.

Industrial farming is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, fossil fuels are essential for farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads—all designed to transport food from the farming regions to cities hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Just consider the enormous amount of energy that is expended to ship soybeans, corn and other key agro-export commodities from Brazil to seaports in China or India and their transportation by truck to other destinations once they get there.

As capitalism grows apace everywhere in the world, gaining acceptance for its ability to satisfy every desire that advertising creates for a working class bewitched by commodity fetishism, the threat of extinction deepens. Even if Macron eliminated gas-powered cars in France, you still have two major automobile companies that rely on exports to produce the profits that stock prices are based on. The Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën joint venture produced 734,000 cars in Chinese plants in 2014. Those sales are necessary for the life-blood of French capitalism to flow.

This is the miracle of capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to how it replaced the system that preceded it:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

What Marx does not pay much attention to is the modes of production that preceded this miracle. From ancient Greece to the late Middle Ages, it was the city that formed the basic unit of production rather than the state. So, for example, a places like Tenochtitlan, London, Tripoli, and Damascus arose because they were suited to its natural terrain both in terms of resources and demography. The towns and cities were the hub of commercial activity that relied on the agricultural belt that surrounded them. Food was transported by carts pulled by oxen or horses rather than Mack trucks.

The Barada River was indispensable to the rise of Damascus as the crown jewel of the Arab world. Its name is reflected in the tormented victim of Assad’s barrel bombs Wadi Barada that means Barada Valley. In 1834 a British traveler described Damascus as “a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains, and bubbling streams.” The Barada river was “the juice of her life,” a “gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon” (the mountain range that borders Lebanon and Syria.) The various water sources flowed into the city via seven canals that were built during or before Roman presence in the region. For many, the well-watered wonders of the city were paradisiacal.

Some of these cities became so powerful that they were capable of bring other cities under their sway as part of an empire based on tribute rather than capital. Rome was the most famous of these in the pre-capitalist era and arguably a victim of its own success as its reliance on long-distance exploitation of resources and slavery eroded its ability to reproduce itself.

In the 17th century, Western European nations repeated Rome’s glory but on a capitalist basis. States were created in order to support the armies and navies necessary to embark on a colonization program. Once a colony was established, the old organic unity that kept a place like Damascus viable disappeared. Furthermore, in the post-colonial epoch, the Syrian state, for example, was forced into commodity exchanges in order to subsist in a capitalist world. Perhaps the only way to avoid being sucked in was to use your own feudal military might to stave off the invader as was the case with Japan until Admiral Perry fixed their wagon. Probably, the only non-capitalist survivors in the world today are Cuba and North Korea, even though the pressure on them is enormous. Cuba relies on the tourist trade and North Korea is rapidly transitioning into a market economy in the post-Mao mold.

That leaves the naked tribesmen of North Sentinel islands to keep the faith, one supposes.

Toward the end of “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Engels writes:

At all earlier stages of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities. This collective production was very limited; but inherent in it was the producers’ control over their process of production and their product. They knew what became of their product: they consumed it; it did not leave their hands. And so long as production remains on this basis, it cannot grow above the heads of the producers nor raise up incorporeal alien powers against them, as in civilization is always and inevitably the case.

The task before us is to return to pre-capitalist property relations, but moreover those that precede feudalism with its forced exploitation based on the rule of the aristocrats. Something closer to the city-state of the Aztecs, the Incas or the Mayans is needed but one based on the freedom made possible by machinery rather than captured slaves. In recognizing the value of such a “backward” looking goal, Mariategui remains a socialist whose vision is more prescient than ever:

The subordination of the Indian problem to the problem of land is even more absolute, for special reasons. The indigenous race is a race of farmers. The Inca people were peasants, normally engaged in agriculture and shepherding. Their industries and arts were typically domestic and rural. The principle that life springs from the soil was truer in the Peru of the Incas than in any other country. The most notable public works and collective enterprises of Tawantinsuyo were for military, religious or agricultural purposes. The irrigation canals of the sierra and the coast and the agricultural terraces of the Andes remain the best evidence of the degree of economic organization reached by Inca Peru. Its civilization was agrarian in all its important I aspects. Valcarcel, in his study of the economic life of Tawantinsuyo, writes that “the land, in native tradition, is the common mother; from her womb come not only food but man himself. Land provides all wealth. The cult of Mama Pacha is on a par with the worship of the sun and, like the sun, Mother Earth represents no one in particular. Joined in the aboriginal ideology, these two concepts gave birth to agrarianism, which combines communal ownership of land and the universal religion of the sun.”

November 27, 2018

Manual Garcia Jr. “Climate Change Action Would Kill Imperialism”

Filed under: climate — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm


August 10, 2018

Making sense of Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth”

Filed under: climate,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 1:21 am

I just finished reading last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine article “Losing Earth” by Nathaniel Rich on the failure of elites to respond to the climate change crisis between 1979 to 1989. Since the author is the son of leading liberal pundit Frank Rich, it should not come as any surprise that it is something of a morality play with Al Gore, Friends of the Earth staff member Rafe Pomerantz and James Hansen on the side of the angels and John Sununu, Bush ‘41’s Chief of Staff, playing Satan.

In such a personality-driven article, you don’t get any sense of the institutional and social pressures that led to inaction. Indeed, you might even draw the conclusion that if Sununu had been more enlightened, the planet would be in much better shape today.

The article has generated angry denunciations by Naomi Klein in Intercept and Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin. They agree that the main flaw of the article is that keeps talking about “our” failure to respond to the crisis, an analysis that does not address the class distinctions that shut the door on mass participation to avert climate change. Battistoni writes: “Rich recognizes that the problem is political, but again, he draws the wrong conclusions. At one point, he wonders, “if science, industry and the press could not move the government to act, then who could?” I don’t know — how about the people?”

For her part, Klein writes:

And yet we blew it — “we” being humans, who apparently are just too shortsighted to safeguard our future. Just in case we missed the point of who and what is to blame for the fact that we are now “losing earth,” Rich’s answer is presented in a full-page callout: “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.”

Yep, you and me. Not, according to Rich, the fossil fuel companies who sat in on every major policy meeting described in the piece. (Imagine tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the U.S. government to come up with policies to ban smoking. When those meetings failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason is that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?)

I think their critiques are well-taken but why would you expect anything different from the NY Times? Years ago, Alexander Cockburn wrote a piquant critique of FAIR, with its frequent campaigns against the NY Times and the Washington Post for dispensing ruling class propaganda. Why, he asked, would you expect them to write anything that did not promote the interests of the class it serves? Of course, with this in mind, you have to ask yourself why both newspapers have been functioning as PR flaks for Jacobin for almost a decade now.

My attitude toward the Rich article was somewhat more positive since I saw it as a briskly-paced examination of how inside-the-beltway maneuvering takes place. You know the sort of thing I am talking about. As sports radio is to the machinations taking place in the NY Yankees management before a trade deadline, so is this article to how climate change  policy-wrangling took place three decades ago. It makes you want to bathe in a disinfectant.

Both Klein and Battistoni seem to think that Jacobin and the DSA honchos are like men and women on horseback riding in to save the day. Klein is practically breathless:

These are the stakes in the surge of movement-grounded political candidates who are advancing a democratic eco-socialist vision, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of our natural world. Partly inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, candidates in a variety of races — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Kaniela Ing in Hawaii, and many more — are running on platforms calling for a “Green New Deal” that meets everyone’s basic material needs, offers real solutions to racial and gender inequities, while catalyzing a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Many, like New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and New York attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout, have pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies and are promising instead to prosecute them.

These candidates, whether or not they identify as democratic socialist, are rejecting the neoliberal centrism of the establishment Democratic Party, with its tepid “market-based solutions” to the ecological crisis, as well as Donald Trump’s all-out war on nature. And they are also presenting a concrete alternative to the undemocratic extractivist socialists of both the past and present. Perhaps most importantly, this new generation of leaders isn’t interested in scapegoating “humanity” for the greed and corruption of a tiny elite. It seeks instead to help humanity — particularly its most systematically unheard and uncounted members — to find their collective voice and power so they can stand up to that elite.

I hate to sound like an old stick in the mud but I doubt that electing Sandernistas will have even the slightest impact on climate change. The truth is that it will take many years for a Sanders type administration to occupy the White House and even when in power it will have its hands tied when dealing with the massive inertia the capitalist system imposes on governmental action.

To reverse climate change requires revolutionary action and that is something that is beyond the DSA’s capability to carry out. Given every opportunity to present their analysis of the environmental crisis, both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez never really make clear that capitalism is the main obstacle to climate justice. Corporations will always put their profits ahead of social need, even if alternative energy sources in the USA begin to resemble the kind of advances being made in Europe and China. Given the need to avoid red ink, corporations will always fall back on fossil fuels even if they are supposedly “clean” such as natural gas.

Ultimately, humanity will need to abolish the private ownership of the means of production in order to ensure that its future needs are safeguarded. If you think that Donald Trump is a fascist danger right now, you haven’t seen capitalism in its final, most deadly stages defending itself against the rabble. Twenty-five years from now, when the struggle had reached a fever pitch, you can surely expect George Soros’s son to be funneling money to Richard Spencer and the Proud Boys. I guarantee it.


October 3, 2017

The political economy of hurricanes and debt

Filed under: climate,colonialism,financial crisis,Puerto Rico — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Yesterday I interviewed Ian Seda-Irizarry, an economics professor at John Jay College, about the situation in Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised, The interview covered the hurricane aftermath as well as the ongoing economic disaster that makes recovery all the more difficult. Despite the grim situation, there are signs that a new left is emerging in Puerto Rico that prioritizes class demands and a new approach to the age-old question of the island’s colonial status. Ian recommends the following articles as good background on Puerto Rican politics and economics:

2) https://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Politics-Primaries-and-Crisis-in-Puerto-Rico-20160602-0035.html
3) http://www.fsdrecertification.com/sites/default/files/contentgroups/economics/SedaAJuntaforPuertoRico.pdf
4) http://www.fsdrecertification.com/sites/default/files/contentgroups/economics/02-Ian_1.pdf

September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and the dialectics of nature

Filed under: climate,Counterpunch,disaster,Ecology — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

Between 1872 and 1882, Frederick Engels worked on a book titled “The Dialectics of Nature” that sought to apply Marxist dialectics to the natural world. Although it was never completed and is filled with dated ideas about science, it is a work that has earned the respect of some of the most important scientists on the left such as Stephen Jay Gould who praised its best known chapter that was issued separately as a pamphlet—The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Long before people such as Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson were laying the groundwork for the eco-socialism of today, Engels anticipated the kind of contradictions that have led to three disastrous hurricanes: Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey. Engels wrote:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries.

If you understand that the prairies surrounding Houston, the wetlands to the south of New Orleans and the brush that grew across the coastline around greater New York were closely related to the forests of the earliest class societies that Engels refers to, you will realize that “each victory” will bring us closer to the ultimate defeat of civilization itself. Just consider the words that follow those above:

When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

Furious torrents. Are there any words better matched to the pictures of Houston seen on television every night?

Continue reading

August 28, 2017

U. of Houston professor Robert Buzzanco speaks about Hurricane Harvey

Filed under: climate,disaster — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

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