Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 28, 2017

Jeffery Webber and the Pink Tide

Filed under: Counterpunch,Latin America — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH APRIL 28, 2017

Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay

On February 28th I got email from a Pluto Press representative about a new book by Jeffery Webber titled The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left that seemed very timely. Pluto did not quite come out and say it but the book appeared to be an obituary on the Pink Tide.

Since I remembered the sharp exchanges between Webber and Australian Socialist Alliance member and Evo Morales supporter Federico Fuentes in the pages of the British SWP’s theoretical magazine, I was curious to see what Webber had to say. As a self-described Marxist critic of the Bolivarian revolution and left-leaning governments in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, Webber would seem to be vindicated by recent events. Argentina and Brazil had new rightwing governments. Bolivian voters had rejected a referendum that would have permitted Morales to run for a fourth term and Lenin Moreno, Rafael Correa’s successor, was elected in Ecuador by the narrowest of margins. Finally, Venezuela was coming apart at the seams. Since I had written reviews of three books by Hugo Chavez’s one-time economic adviser Michael Lebowitz and a biography of Chavez by Richard Gott, it was the right time to revisit the 21st century socialism question.

Jeffery Webber

Although Webber’s book purports to be unified thematically, it was not written from scratch. Instead, it is mostly a patchwork of  articles that have been published in JSTOR type journals such as The Journal of Agrarian Change. I was hoping for a systematic analysis of the Pink Tide but instead discovered an intelligent but frequently mistaken collection of chapters having little in common except the author’s rejection of a project with a clouded future.

The two chapters titled “Global Crisis and Latin American Tendencies: The Political Economy of the New Latin American Left” and “Contemporary Latin American Inequality Class Struggle, Decolonization, and the Limits of Liberal Citizenship” were newly written for the book and amount to an ideological frontal attack on the Pink Tide governments. Despite my disagreement with Webber’s analysis, I strongly recommend that people grappling with the political crisis of left governments in Latin America buy his book and pay close attention to his arguments. There is a dialectical contradiction between his views and those of the pro-Chavez left and a resolution on a higher level is only possible by engaging with both sides of the polarity.

Like many with sympathies for Trotskyism, Webber is always on the lookout for latter-day Kerensky’s. If you read him carefully, you will understand that Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998 repeated the early stages of the Russian revolution when both the rich and the poor rallied around the Social Revolutionary Party leader who made promises about a better future for all even if he secretly sought to keep Russia part of the capitalist system. Like many on the left, Webber considers elections to be a trap. Instead he identifies with “extraparliamentary forms of social struggle—road blockades, strikes, land occupations, worker takeovers of abandoned factories, protests, and even quasi-insurrectionary waves of mass action that toppled neoliberal governments in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador.” In other words, these were the real revolutionary movements that could have seized power if only they had a party to represent them rather than ones led by scheming, neoliberal fakers like Chavez, Morales and Correa who “bent over backwards to capitulate to capital and ensure market confidence”. If neoliberal governments were toppled, the new ones remained neoliberal even if as they were leavened with populist good will and generous social programs. As a title of the book, “The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same” pretty much says it all. Like the classic Who song, Webber wrote something so we won’t get fooled again.

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April 21, 2017

Citizen Jane; The Activists

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

Counterpunch, April 21, 2017

Documentaries That Punch

As a rule of thumb, political documentaries work best when they have a hero and a villain just like in narrative films. One of the most memorable examples is Michael Moore squaring off against Roger Smith in “Roger and Me”. Granted, the richer and more entrenched in the Democratic Party Moore has become, the more the likability factor has worn off. But back in 1989 who could not love the shambling son of an auto worker trying to track down and confront the corporate boss responsible for shutting down the GM plant in Moore’s home-town and other rust belt cities?

You can see the same sort of human drama in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” that opens on April 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and on VOD platforms. Citizen Jane is Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that was published in 1961 and was in its way as important as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that was published a year later. If Carson’s book was a clarion call for preserving the integrity of the natural world, so was Jacobs’s book a call for preserving the integrity of the urban world, specifically New York City.

Jane Jacobs’s Roger Smith was Robert Moses, the “power broker” profiled in Robert Caro’s 1975 classic who was a symbol of the corporate-driven agenda of “urban renewal” that ran counter to Jacobs’s vision of urban spaces that grew organically from the bottom up, just like the flora and fauna of “Silent Spring”.

There were ties between Smith and Moses that might not be obvious at first glance but ultimately the “power broker” and the GM CEO shared a vision of American cities that privileged the automobile and saw the expressway connecting suburbs to the heart of the city as a kind of economic bloodstream that could make America great. Alfred Sloan, who was the CEO of GM in its early years, was deeply hostile to FDR and joined the American Liberty League, which was 1930s equivalent of the David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.

But as WWII broke out, GM’s new CEO William Knudsen became Secretary of Defense just as his successor Charles E. Wilson would become under Eisenhower. The internecine ties between GM, the national-security state and the post-WWII economic recovery helped crystallize a “golden age” that both Michael Moore and Donald Trump in their own way seek to resurrect: the Chevrolet and the suburban tract home as the divine right of workers.

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April 14, 2017

Glory

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,former Soviet Union — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

Corruption and Poverty in Bulgaria

Bykov has described his film as a treatment of the central dilemma facing his country: conscience versus survival. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory” that is closely related to Bykov’s film thematically. Like Nima, Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.

After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.

His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.

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March 31, 2017

Pop Cinema: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH MARCH 31, 2017

Each year I review over 100 films with most of them being the kind that show up in art houses: leftist documentaries, foreign-language films, American indies and the like. In November, I start catching up with the films that major Hollywood studios are pushing for NYFCO awards such as “Moonlight”, “Brooklyn”, “Spotlight” and other high-minded products that are geared to college-educated, NY Times reading, PBS subscribers. It is what you might call the Merchant-Ivory trade.

But what I really love and rarely write about are the horror and action films that dominate the multiplexes, mainly because they are so crappy. For example, I can’t get enough of “Alien” type films where a plucky band of space travelers must fend off some deadly creature that is killing them off one by one. One such film titled “Life” opened this week and could only muster a 66 percent fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Generally, anything under 98 percent is usually enough to make me walk out on looking like the subject of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, so there was no point in spending $12 on a geezer ticket for a movie that the generally reliable Slant Magazine characterized: “If you ever find yourself in outer space and the only person talking any sense is Ryan Reynolds, locate the nearest escape hatch.”

Through pure serendipity, I saw five films recently that except for one might be of interest to CounterPunch readers. The four that made the cut are apolitical except for the one at the top of the list, but can at least function as escapist fare for that segment of the population that is burdened by angst over the President from Hell. If you’ve spent all week long passing out leaflets in the bitter cold (do activists do that nowadays?), you might as well treat yourself to a film in which the monsters are purely celluloid.

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Trailers for films under review:

March 17, 2017

Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,journalism — louisproyect @ 3:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, March 17, 2017

Scialabba for the Defense

Four years ago I reviewed George Scialabba’s For the Republic: Political Essays in CounterPunch and am pleased to now review his latest collection Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015, whose title is borrowed from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, a poem written on the eve of WWII:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Although the book stops a year before Donald Trump’s election, there is no better way to understand this low, dishonest president than by reading Scialabba’s take on those who paved the way for him, especially Ronald Reagan. While I certainly understand how surprised some Americans are by Donald Trump’s awfulness, as if he was some sort of historical deus ex machina, I cannot escape a sense of déjà vu as if the years 1981-1989 were being replayed. Are we being forced to endure horrible reactionary presidents for all of eternity like Bill Murray enduring Groundhog’s Day? God help us.

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February 24, 2017

Bitter Harvest

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor

“Bitter Harvest”, opening today at the AMC 25 Theater in New York is the first narrative film treatment of one of the 20th century’s greatest human disasters, the death by famine of millions of Ukrainians due to Stalin’s forced collectivization. The Ukrainians call this the Holodomor. The subject matter alone would make this film worth seeing, no matter your take on what is arguably a highly-charged question for many on the left. Beyond that, it is a dramatically compelling film about the life of a prototypical young Ukrainian from this period, a young man named Yuri (Max Irons, the son of Jeremy) who is torn between the peasant life of his native village and the allure of cosmopolitan Kiev where several his friends have gone to become part of the socialist experiment. For Yuri, Kiev is a place where he can also develop as an artist under the tutelage of instructors imbued with the revolutionary fervor of the pre-Stalinist USSR.

Filmed in the agricultural heartland of Ukraine, “Bitter Harvest” begins with a depiction of the daily lives of peasants that in the 1920s followed patterns that had existed for hundreds of years. It is circumscribed by the growing season, the harvest, religious observations and festivals. Considering the deep roots of Ukraine’s agrarian society, there would be clashes with the new communist authorities under the best of circumstances.

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February 17, 2017

In Dubious Battle

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Steinbeck’s Red Devils

When I received email from a publicist announcing the premiere of a film based on John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” directed by and starring James Franco that opens on Friday, February 17th, I knew at the outset that this would not be in the same league as John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath”. Everything I have heard from Franco in the past five years or so persuades me that outside of acting he overestimates his talents, whether it is writing poetry or teaching classes in the NYU film school. If he wants to become a renaissance man, it would probably be best for him to stick to projects he is qualified for, like being named the face of Gucci’s men’s fragrance line.

Like most people I suppose, my knowledge of Steinbeck is based on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”, a novella I read in high school. The publicist provided a synopsis of the film: “In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up against the landowners after getting paid a faction of the wages they were promised. The group takes on a life of its own—stronger than its individual members and more frightening.” I said to myself that even if Franco makes a mess of this Steinbeck story, it would still be worth watching for the subject matter alone. Guess what. I was wrong.

Steinbeck’s novel was based on historical events. In the early 1930s, farmworkers in California fought pitched battles with the agribusinesses we became familiar with in the 1960s when the UFW was fighting to organize farmworkers in the lettuce fields and grape vineyards.

The earlier strikes were organized by the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). Franco stars as Mac McLeod, a Communist organizer who has taken raw CP recruit Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff) under his wing. The two of them head off to the fictional Torgas Valley, where they begin working at an apple orchard owned by Bolton, an old-school capitalist pig reminiscent of C. Montgomery Burns on “The Simpsons”. Not long after starting work, they learn with the rest of the men that their pay will been cut from 25 to 20 cents per hour. They can take it or leave it. Robert Duvall, a long-time Republican outlier in Hollywood, was cast as Bolton. No method acting preparation was required from someone who belonged to a labor-hating political party.

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February 10, 2017

Land of Mine

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:59 pm

Nazi Youth as Human Mine Detonators

In “Land of Mine,” Danish director Martin Zandvliet has defied conventional thinking on this historical episode and made the best narrative film I have seen this year, one that I recommend highly to CounterPunch readers. It opens on Friday at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles and at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza in New York with a national rollout soon to follow.

The film has the same white-hot intensity as the 1953 “Wages of Fear” classic that had a couple of men driving trucks filled with dynamite up a treacherous mountainous road to be used to stanch an out of control oil well fire. Yves Montand, one of the drivers, carries out his assignment with great aplomb while his partner is paralyzed by fear. As each obstacle is faced on their way up the mountain, the tension mounts.

Defusing a bomb has the same sort of built-in drama. I found myself covering my eyes every time one of the Nazi POW’s was unscrewing a fuse. If you understandably don’t care much about whether such people live or die, be prepared to have your expectations turned upside down as the film progresses.

Between 1942 and 1944 Germany built the Trump-like Atlantic Wall designed to thwart an Allied invasion from Great Britain. This was a massive system of fortifications along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia with Denmark expected to be a likely landing for invasion forces. The country had more landmines per square foot than any other location along the entire European coast.

Written by the director, the screenplay has the audacity to accurately portray the Germans as teenagers who had been dragooned into service toward the end of the war to replace the seasoned troops annihilated in Russia. Like Yves Montand, who sought nothing more except to live for another day and enjoy the reward he got for delivering the dynamite, these boys wanted nothing more except to go home and pick up where they left off.

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February 3, 2017

The Founder; Joy

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

Drive-Thru Capitalism: Ray Kroc, Joy Mangano and the American Entrepreneur as Schemer

As briskly paced and entertaining biopics, the 2015 “Joy”, which can now be seen on HBO, and “The Founder”, playing now at multiplexes everywhere, have much in common. They are celebrations of an entrepreneurialism seemingly at odds with the sense of “carnage” alluded to in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. As rags to riches tales, they hearken back to one of the foundational myths of American capitalism, the Horatio Alger novels of the Gilded Age that would have you believe that perseverance and ambition could overcome any obstacle.

Joy is Joy Mangano, the inventor of the self-cleaning mop that she considered to be the housewife’s savior. She got the idea while wringing out an old-fashioned mop with her hands. After being cut by a glass shard hidden within the mop, the light bulb went on over her head. What if a lever at the top of the mop could accomplish the same task safely by squeezing the cotton strings remotely?

The Founder is none other than Ray Kroc, the man who launched a thousand McDonalds starting in 1954 after discovering the original store in San Bernardino, California that had been started by brothers Richard James “Dick” McDonald and Maurice James “Mac” McDonald. While the film does not mention the word, they had applied Taylorism to the drive-in restaurant business with all its advantages to the employer and imposing all its ills on the employee. In this generally upbeat film, the employees are extras. Fundamentally, the film is about Ray Kroc figuring out ways to push the brothers out of the business while retaining the brand name. At the end of the film, after they have been cheated and cast aside, Dick asks Ray Kroc why he ever felt the need to involve them in a franchise operation. Since he saw the method they were using to turn out burgers and fries as if they were Model-T’s coming off the assembly line, he could have gone ahead without them. Michael Keaton, playing Kroc with considerable flair, tells him that nobody would have gone to a Krocburger restaurant—too Slavic. But McDonalds? That evokes Americana.

The films have a very clever approach. They allow the audience to simultaneously cheer for the lead characters while maintaining a sense of superiority. Much of “Joy” consists of Mangano making a breakthrough at QVC, the predecessor to the Home Shopping Network, a channel that practically defines tackiness.

Making her debut selling her mop on QVC, she freezes up in front of the lights just like Ralph Kramden did in that classic Honeymooners episode when the bus driver stammers helplessly in front of the cameras with the Swiss Army Knife-like Handy Household Helper clutched in his fist. Norton tries to help him out by offering a cue. “Can it core a apple?” (Not a typo!) Poor Ralph Kramden remains frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights and ends up going back to his bus route on Monday morning, the eternal proletarian loser.

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January 27, 2017

The Politics of a Punch: Richard Spencer and the Black Bloc

Filed under: black bloc idiots,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

The Politics of a Punch: Richard Spencer and the Black Bloc

Unless you do not own a computer or have been in a coma for the past week, you are probably aware of alt-right leader Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a man dressed in black bloc garb. For a beleaguered left, this became as inspirational as the appearance of a silhouette of Jesus on the sidewalk created by bucket of paint dropped accidentally from the top floor of a building under construction would be for Christians. In either case, there is little connection between overcoming the evils of capitalism or Satan but it matters little to those desperately in search of a victory.

One of those believers is Natasha Lennard who wrote an article for The Nation breathlessly announcing “Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc”. For Lennard, the punch was a “transcendental experience”, akin to watching Roger Federer. Not being a tennis fan, it is a bit hard for me to relate to this. Maybe if she said it was like watching Muhammad Ali deck Joe Frazier, it would have had more resonance but Spencer hardly seemed worse off 15 seconds after the punch.

Lennard was not only a reporter; she was a participant in a black bloc action that consisted of 500 people, the largest she bragged since the antiwar protests ten years ago. I suppose if the USA had the same population as Iceland, this might have been impressive. I admit that if the goal is to run around in black clothes and break windows that number might count for something. Leonard describes the experience as if it were akin to a Sufi ceremony rather than a political protest: “You don’t know who does what in a bloc, you don’t look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty.” Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty? I hate to sound like an old stick in the mud but knocking over a trash can happens all the time in my neighborhood as drunken 24-year old Ivy League graduates pour out of sports bars late Saturday night.

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