Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2018

How Ukraine’s neo-Nazis came to oppose NATO and the European Union

Filed under: fashion,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 6.15.31 PM A conference that unites Russian and Ukrainian fascists

Putin’s propagandists, including Boris Kagarlitsky, Roger Annis, Stephen F. Cohen and Daniel Lazare, would have you believe that Washington is using Ukrainian fascists as a battering ram against Russia. The overall strategy is to encroach militarily through NATO while using the EU to weaken Russia economically. Euromaidan was a conspiracy to further these aims, especially in light of the protests being triggered by Yanukovych’s refusal to join the EU. The next step would be for Ukraine to join NATO using the excuse that it had to protect itself against Russian designs on its territory, with Crimea and Donetsk being the prelude to further advances. Of course, everybody on the left must understand at this point that Russia had the right to protect its territorial integrity just as JFK did back in 1963 by demanding the removal of missiles from Cuba.

Of the three principal fascist organizations in Ukraine—Svoboda, Pravy Sektor and the Azov Battalion—the last of the three is the most clearly neo-Nazi. Russia Insider, whose editor Charles Bausman blames the Jews for being America’s worst warmongers, published an article titled “Media Ignore 20,000 Nazis Marching in Kiev, Obsess Over Charlottesville” on October 30, 2017. It states “Ukrainian Nationalists are being used as useful idiots in an ancient plan to divide and conquer Russia, starting with the destruction of Russia’s birthplace – Kiev. Western powers have been trying to do this since before the Austrian Empire.”

The organizers of the protest were the National Corps and the Pravy Sektor, both of which are banned in Russia. Most people are familiar with Pravy Sektor but what was the innocuous sounding National Corps? It turns out that this is a political party formed by Andriy Biletsky, the commander of the Azov Battalion that earned a reputation for being little more than a death squad in the Donetsk Republic. Just look at its insignia to get an idea of how closely tied to neo-Nazism it is:

Given this nefarious history, you’d have to believe that the National Corps would be gung-ho for NATO and the EU. Well, maybe not. In an article titled “The Frightening Far-Right Militia That’s Marching in Ukraine’s Streets, Promising to Bring ‘Order’”, the Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova reported:

Biletsky’s party, the National Corps, is against Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO. He says he thinks the EU wouldn’t let Ukraine join, and that he is “not a fan of NATO.” Among other things, both demand Western European democratic standards for membership.

While not neo-Nazi, the nationalist Aidar Battalion (now disbanded), which Amnesty International accused of “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”, agrees with Biletsky, as its former leader Serhiy Melnychuk made clear in a Huffington Post interview:

I am against Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO. I think that Ukraine should pursue common military objectives with NATO, like counter-terrorism. Ukraine’s official position right now is to become a member of NATO, which violates the Budapest memorandum’s calls for Ukrainian neutrality. We want to have some of the benefits associated with closer integration with Europe, like a visa free regime, but we should resist becoming part of the NATO security bloc. Instead, Ukraine can lead a new system of collective security, which will include all neutral countries.

These developments should not be that surprising. Despite their hatred of Russia, the far right in Ukraine has plenty in common with pro-Russian fascist organizations spreading up all over Europe. Anton Shekhovtsov, the author of Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir tweeted about a conference in Germany shown above that seeks “a strong Europe that protects and promotes its peoples, their cultures and their idiosyncrasies. The Occident, with its millennia of history, is the foundation on which the Europe of the future is built.”

Among the guest organizations is the Russian Imperial Movement, a right-wing political group united around reverence for the Russian Empire, the czar and Russian Orthodoxy.

And guess who is a guest speaker. None other than Olena Semenyaka from Ukraine who is speaking on “Beyond the ‘Wall of Time’: Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger on the New Metaphysics”. I am sure you know who Martin Heidegger is but Ernst Jünger might not ring a bell. He was not a Nazi but had beliefs that dovetailed with theirs. Wikipedia states that he criticized the Weimar Republic, stating that he “hated democracy like the plague.” He portrayed war as a mystical experience that revealed the nature of existence. Jünger considered total military mobilization as the life-blood of Germany. Nice.

And who is this Olena Semenyaka? She was the press representative of the Azov Battalion who was asked in an interview whether Euromaidan was about joining the EU. Her answer:

It should be stressed that the Maidan protests were not “pro-EU” per se. Although, before the beginning of war with Russia, a big percentage of Ukrainian citizens idealized the EU as an embodiment of civilization and higher living standards, the failed EU association agreement, which was probably not even Yanukovych’s fault, was only a trigger for expressing a wider public discontent with his regime in general. Of course, ignorance and the work of the mass media and international funds, above all, are to blame for the uncritical and unconditional support for the EU that still may be found among Ukrainian citizens. But experience has had a sobering effect on them as well, The EU’s friendly relations with Putin and the Russian Federation, in spite of sanctions, its disapproval of nationalism and demands for the federalization of Ukraine, which under current conditions means nothing but separatism, the lack of real political and military aid, and more, have led to growing disillusionment with the EU.

Also, I have to add that, although Yanukovych is believed to have been a puppet of Putin, he, in no way, can be considered “anti-Western” or “anti-EU.” As in Russia’s case, the anti-Western rhetoric is only a disguise for selling out the country to the West while claiming to “raise it from the ashes.” All high-ranking Ukrainian officials, the same as the Russians, keep their funds in Western banks while their children study abroad, so confrontation with the West is just a populist fiction. The reality is with the struggle for territories, like the Ukrainian Crimea, and resources.

It was Yanukovych’s regime that initiated Euro-integration, and during his rule the Berkut riot police, which tried to disperse the “pro-Western” Maidan, also protected the first gay parade held in the Ukraine that was attended by the Mayor of Munich. So, the mass pro-EU sympathies expressed during Maidan can be better interpreted as the first attempt of Ukrainians to escape from the yoke of post-communist oligarchic capitalism that flourishes both in Ukraine and Russia.

Fleeing the “the yoke of post-communist oligarchic capitalism that flourishes both in Ukraine and Russia.” Who can argue with that? Sounds exactly like the sort of thing that Boris Kagarlitsky might have written, or Ernst Röhm for that matter if he were alive today.

August 23, 2017

A “New Dawn” for Fascism: the Rise of the Anti-Establishment Capitalists  

Filed under: Counterpunch,fashion — louisproyect @ 2:19 pm

(I got to know Michael Barker, the author of this article, when we were both focused on exposing “humanitarian interventions” in Yugoslavia. At the time, much of what I wrote dovetailed with the sort of article found on DissidentVoice, Information Clearing House, et al.

I veered sharply from this outlook after Putin invaded Chechnya and lost track of Michael Barker, who I had a great deal of respect and even affection for at the time. After earning a PhD, he decided to turn his back on academia since he saw it as a corrupt arm of the capitalist system despite liberal pretensions.

Out of the blue, he has written an article that is both politically powerful and deeply researched. This is one of the most important articles you will read in CounterPunch in this or any other year.)

A “New Dawn” for Fascism: the Rise of the Anti-Establishment Capitalists  

Photo by Mark Dixon | CC BY 2.0

The world rests on a precipice. On the one hand is institutionalized exploitation and imperialist violence. The well-being of humanity continues to be severely hampered by the priorities of a small unstable capitalist class, who would prefer that the rest of us – those who must engage in a daily struggle to purchase the essentials for living (like food and a roof over our heads) – remain unorganized as a cohesive class. And on the other hand, there are those who believe that the fundamental class division between the rulers and the workers is both intolerable and unsustainable, and so seek to participate in and organize mass movements for social change that will bring an end to the domination of one class of people over another.

In the face of the continued resistance of ordinary people, in recent decades global elites have unfortunately forced through a number of regressive counter-reforms upon society, which have served to undermine the ability of our class to collectively fight back. These losses have as much to do with the failures of leadership shown by organizations of the working-class as they do with any concerted planning on behalf of elites. Yet in lieu of the current existence of mass democratic working-class organizations in most of the world, problematic and conspiratorial, but ostensibly anti-establishment, ideas have been able to sometimes temporarily supplant class-based analyses about how and why social change happens. This essay therefore seeks to problematize some of these wrong-minded ideas with a special reference to revolutionary uprisings in Russia and the Ukraine.

To the eternal consternation of those elites who would prefer to deny us our basic class solidarity, and critically, knowledge of our class’ victories, revolutions are a mainstay of humanity’s emancipatory history.  Indeed, popular mass-based uprisings occur all the time, and can take place where they are least expected – as demonstrated by the two successful revolutions that took place one hundred years ago in the poor and materially deprived country that was Russia. But despite the unanticipated nature of the two Russian revolutions of 1917, the democratic and socialist advances made in Russia did much to boost working-class confidence worldwide; think for example of the momentous Seattle General Strike of 1919, or moreover, how close a mass working-class movement came to subsequently organising a successful revolution in Germany.

Nevertheless making a revolution is the not the solution for all ills, as one prominent historian of the Russian revolution put it: “To overthrow the old power is one thing; to take the power in one’s own bands is another.” And ultimately for revolutions to truly serve the needs of the working-class they must succeed in wresting power from the ruling class. Hence although it is true that over the past century many revolutions have taken place, the majority of these uprisings have only succeeded in transferring power from one segment of the ruling elite to another. The ruling-class “may win the power in a revolution not because it is revolutionary,” but because it “has in its possession property, education, the press, a network of strategic positions”. By way of contrast: “Deprived in the nature of things of all social advantages,” an insurrectionary movement of the working-class “can count only on its numbers, its solidarity,” and the degree to which it is organised and ready to assume power during a revolutionary struggle.

The fact that many previous revolutions have failed to deliver democratic control of our lives – with power all too often falling back into the hands of the super-rich – does not mean that such failures were somehow pre-ordained. And it certainly does not imply political collusion between revolutionary leaders and the forces of reaction. But this does not stop the sections of the ruling class from leaping on these failures in order to suit their own nefarious ends. Indeed, now that many people are looking for alternatives to the current corrupt political establishment, a resurgent coalition of neo-fascists and other assorted critics of Western imperialism are striving to take full advantage of the ongoing global economic crisis. They do this by identifying themselves as the genuine critics of the global ruling-class and by misidentifying socialists and revolutionaries as the real enemy of the working-class. In such opportunist and reactionary narratives of social change, genuine revolutionary leaders and popular uprisings are portrayed as unwitting tools of the ruling class elites. So now, as ever, we should be conscious of what are enemies are doing in plain sight, as the stakes have never been higher.

Working-Class Power in the Russian Revolution

When democratically organized bodies of the working-class are unable to provide a fighting leadership within any given popular uprising, leadership still exists, but it falls elsewhere, that is, outside of the democratic control of ordinary workers. This is precisely what happened during the initial February revolution in Russia 1917. This initial Revolution did act to oust the despotic Tsar, but only to allow another unrepresentative and undemocratic elite to take over the reins of the country. But with the new Provisional Government that came to power being unwilling to cede power to the majority of Russians, the subsequent October Revolution succeeded where the former failed in enabling a mass movement of the working-class to assume power. Revolutionary working-class leadership was provided by the democratic forces of the Bolshevik Party, a force which in later years was tragically misled and debased by Stalin and his admirers.

The ruling-class, wherever they may lie, have never been disinterested with the outcomes of revolutionary struggles. In February 1917, elites across the world welcomed the new trusted rulers of Russia. This can be contrasted with their subsequent dismay in October, when international elites felt compelled to mobilize their armies to back the displaced Russian ruling class in their long and bloody civil war against socialism. It was this protracted crisis and the failure of similar revolutions to spread elsewhere that helped pave the way for Stalin’s eventual seizure of power. Moreover, it was Stalin’s undemocratic reign as the leader of the Communist Party that served to mislead the global forces of the working-class and ultimately undermine people’s faith in the power of socialist ideas to change society for the better. This is not to say that socialists and workers did not continue to fight for a genuine workers democracy and the removal of Stalinist toxin that dominated communist politics. Here some of the most notable individuals in organising against the Stalinist counter-revolution were those forces organized around Leon Trotsky — one of the principal leaders of the October Revolution.

Although at present no large and influential revolutionary party is based in Russia, germinal forms of such organizations do exist and their members, like other independent trade unionists, continue to suffer repression at the hands of Putin’s capitalist state. Putin’s elite, just like other ruling cliques elsewhere, like to portray those seeking revolutionary change as dangerous enemies of the people, whose democratic activities must be ruthlessly crushed. Following the template of the 1917 Revolution elites and their supporters do their best to smear socialist activists as dupes or willing agents of foreign imperial powers. This was the strategy deployed against the members of the Bolshevik Party both prior to and after the October Revolution, and fittingly enough it is the same ridiculous lie that is told about the leaders of the revolution to this day.

Wall Street’s Bolshevik Conspiracy?

Today the main proponents of the fabrication that the Bolsheviks were merely tools of Western imperialists are right-wing conspiracy theorists, many of whom like to refer to themselves as either libertarians or apolitical. One of the most famous texts expounding this timeless deceit is Anthony C. Sutton’s Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution (1974), a book whose “research” has now been given a new breath of life by Professor Richard Spence’s more sophisticated but equally conspiratorial book Wall Street and the Russian Revolution: 1905-1925 (2017). But despite being an apparent specialist in modern espionage and the occult, Spence, like many more run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorists, has an unhealthy propensity for treating declassfited files released by ill-informed intelligence agencies at face-value. Spence however is no marginal scholar as in 2010 he worked as a research fellow at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and has been interviewed the Russian television channel NTV as a so-called specialist on “Trotsky’s American Connections” for an upcoming documentary on the Russian Revolution. In addition he remains a regular contributor to the popular pro-Putin conspiracy magazine, New Dawn.

For those who simply don’t have the time to keep up with the latest extraterrestrial elite machinations and the New World Order’s genocidal plots, you should know that New Dawn is a big-hitter in the field, with bimonthly issues over-brimming with ‘adverts’ for alternative medicine boosted by all manner of quasi-fascist nonsense.[1] The latest issue of this bloated magazine leads with the article “Putin takes on the U.S. Deep State” (July/August), with the author of this piece being former InfoWars editor, Patrick Henningsen. Most notably the only politician listed on New Dawn’s roll-call of endorsers for their verbose tosh is the neo-fascist, Alexandre Dugin, who they correctly identify as the “leader of International Eurasian Movement.” As Dugin’s endorsement explains: “New Dawn magazine is one of the best sources of realistic information on the state of things in our world as it nears its inevitable and predicted end.”

Here the connection between the delusions promoted by New Dawnand the mystifying work of people like Professor Spence is the utility of their ideas to the powerful, more specifically in helping to undermine the legitimacy of revolutionary socialism. Certainly the liberal (globalist) elites that New Dawn and their writers obsess about do engage in anti-democratic activities. But New Dawn’s paranoid ramblings about the actions of these allegedly all-powerful elites is far removed from the sober Marxist class-analysis that is necessary to understand how such elites profit from capitalism (and sometimes from fascism). But what else would you expect from a magazine that includes well-known fascists like Dr Kerry Bolton upon its roster of regular writers. Focusing on Bolton for a moment, he cites as authorities for his own pro-Putin conspiracies the work of Antony C. Sutton and Richard Spence, and asserts that Stalin was correct in his belief that both Trotsky and his followers “were agents of foreign capital and foreign powers” seeking to promote capitalism!?

Bolton points to the fact that a handful of leading Trotskyist intellectuals went on to work hand-in-hand with the CIA as further proof that Marxists were always working for Wall Street. What Bolton fails to mention is that these intellectuals all renounced their belief in Marxism in order to become well paid and respected conservatives. Moreover in the early days of their new-found careers as turncoats these former Marxists simply joined forces with the longstanding conservative leadership of the AFL-CIO, who right from the early days of the Russian Revolution had been open in their opposition to Bolshevism and to union democracy more generally. Bolton is therefore only correct when he says that neoconservative activists eventually went on to help create the US Government’s interventionist and imperialist National Endowment for Democracy (NED), but only in the early 1980s. Bringing his conspiracy up-to-date, elsewhere Bolton draws a direct connect between “international capital” and individuals like George Soros and groups like the NED, with regards their continuing role in “fomenting revolutions”. As he goes on to explain for an article published with the neo-fascist/Traditionalist publisher Counter-Currents (an outlet which  popularizes the nazi mysticism of “Hitler’s Priestess” Savitri Devi):

“The primary factor that was behind the bankers’ support for the Bolsheviks whether from London, New York, Stockholm, or Berlin, was to open up the underdeveloped resources of Russia to the world market, just as in our own day George Soros, the money speculator, funds the so-called ‘color revolutions’ to bring about ‘regime change’ that facilitates the opening up of resources to global exploitation. Hence there can no longer be any doubt that international capital a plays a major role in fomenting revolutions…”

Putin’s Ukraine

In the November 2014 issue of New Dawn the magazine featured another article authored by Bolton titled “The great conspiracy against Russia: what is really behind the campaign against Putin?” His purile rant began with considerable gusto:

“When the war-drums start beating in Washington against a state or statesman, one is entitled to wonder what transgression might have been made against the ‘New World Order’. Over the past few decades we have seen one nation after another succumb to either financial blandishments, or when those fail, long-planned, well-funded ‘spontaneous’ colour revolutions, and as a last resort bombs. The states of the ex-Soviet bloc largely succumbed to ‘colour revolutions’ orchestrated by the Soros network, aligned with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USAID and a host of other funds and NGOs.”

Following close to Putin’s now-official propaganda line, Bolton fumes against the imperialist interventions of the NED undertaken in the Ukraine and their allegedly manufacturing of endless popular uprisings. But in reality it should be obvious that the sizable financial support provided to civil society groups by US elites does not allow them to manufacture revolutionary discontent out of thin air; it only allows them to promote their own capitalist interests in their ongoing attempts to forestall genuinely radical, dare I say, revolutionary socialist change. Yes, the US will do everything in their power to encourage new capitalist governments that are more likely to prioritize friendly relations with them, but so too would Russia.

So in the Ukraine, as elsewhere, Putin intervenes as an imperialist power-broker to promote his own countries’ capitalist foreign policy objectives, while the US does the same. Neither, however, have the best interest of the working-class at heart, and so both governments and their contributions to the “East-West tug-of-war” deserve our criticism. This is not, however, how other political commentators see matters, and perhaps in part because of the lack of an influential working class political alternative (which still needs working on), some misguided people end up following the crude logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Bolton breaks from such motivations only because he chooses to support Putin because it serves his own personal agenda – even though, it should be said, Putin himself is no fascist.

Regime Change Inc. and the New World Order

A further intriguing example of similar reactionary thinking vis-a-visthe dynamics of social change is provided in the work of F. William Engdahl, who in 2004 republished his 1992 book A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order with the left-wing publisher Pluto Press. Prior to Pluto’s not so inspired decision to publish this book, Engdahl had spent decades working as an editor for Lyndon LaRouche’s conspiracy network (at least until 1997), and his book merely recycled many LaRouchite narratives including that the 1960s counterculture New Age movement was a manufactured CIA-backed “project.” To be more specific, according to Engdahl the creation of the hippie movement had been overseen by the “Anglo-American liberal establishment” which was then used in conjunction with another “weapon” of the elite, the creation of a “manipulated ‘race war’”.  As part of this fictional elite-orchestrated process of social change Engdahl went on to add more details to his heady conspiracy, noting that: “The May 1968 student riots in France, were the result of the vested London and New York financial interests in the one G-10 nation which continued to defy their mandate.” In a brief comment he then explained his idiotic belief that…

“modern Anglo-American liberalism bore a curious similarity to the Leninist concept of a ‘vanguard party,’ which imposed a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the name of some future ideal of society. Both models were based on deception of the broader populace.”

Since publishing his first book Engdahl has continued his prolific publishing record by writing for New Age neo-fascist magazines like New Dawn. Building upon his credentials as an oil historian he now publicises his conversion to the latest right-wing conspiracy craze that asserts that oil is actually limitless and not actually a fossil fuel (in this Engdahl consciously drew upon Stalinist research carried out by Russian and Ukrainian scientists in the 1950s). Engdahl’s ability to read conspiracies into any subject are truly second to none: a couple of years ago he chose to misinterpret medical research that actually highlighted progress in the struggle to fight cancer in order to write an article asserting that scientific evidence proved that chemotherapy, not cancer, is the real killer!

Engdahl it seems is a man with a special mission, and in recent years he has served on the advisory boards of two neo-fascist journals that were published in Italy (Geopolitica which was edited by a leading member of Dugin’s International Eurasian Movement, and Eurasia, Rivista di Studi Geopolitici which was published and edited by Italian Nazi-Maoist Claudio Mutti)Engdahl is also a regular contributor (like Dr Bolton) to the articles and videos produced by the neo-fascist Russian think tank Katehon – a group funded by billionaire philanthropist Konstantin Malofeev (see later) whose work is overseen by the close Dugin-ally and homegrown Ukrainan esoteric fascist, Leonid Savin. In line with this political orientation, Engdahl additionally writes and acts as an advisor for Veterans Today, an organization that, in the name of opposing warmongering, does yeoman’s service to popularizing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.[2]

Engdahl’s railing against the globalist conspiracy was fully evident in his 2009 book Full Spectrum Dominance: Totalitarian Democracy in the New World Order. Herein Engdahl focuses on the historic activities of liberal philanthropy and the NED in creating what he calls synthetic movements for ‘non-violent change.’ This book was well-received in certain Russian military circles, and was cited approvingly by fellow Katehon contributor Andrew Korybko in his 2015 book Hybrid Wars: The IndirecAdaptive Approach To Regime Changewhich Korybko was able publish while he was a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. Korybko is also privileged enough to be able to espouse his views to a global audience through his work as a journalist for Sputnik International. However, although people like Engdahl and Korybko do great work at popularizing disempowering theories, arguably the most effective proponent of the conspiracy surrounding the activities of the NED in Eurasia was undertaken by Putin’s former chief PR strategist, Gleb Pavlovsky.

Gleb Pavlovsky’s unique role in helping develop a reactive strategy to foreign “democracy” promoters like the NED has been referred to as “Putin’s Preventive Counter-Revolution” by Robert Horvath. He argues that his strategy was born of the regimes anxiety in the wake of the 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia, which marked “the first of the new wave of democratic revolutions in the post-Soviet space”. Pavlovsky is subsequently credited with having been the “mastermind of the Putin regime’s response” to these NED/Soros-backed democratic interventions. Moreover, Horvath adds a personal aside to this tale, observing that because Pavlovsky had served as “an advisor to the [Viktor] Yanukovych camp in the Ukrainian presidential election [in 2004], he had experienced the ‘Orange Revolution’ as a personal defeat.” Hence Pavlovsky’s went on to play a critical role in encouraging Putin to respond with a more thoroughgoing embrace of a conspiratorial interpretation of social uprisings.

No doubt taking hope from such conspiracies, Putin, during the 2007 Russian election, delivered his “most venomous tirade against the enemy within” for “counting ‘upon the support of foreign foundations and governments and not the support of their own people’. The following week these foreign enemies were then the focus of Arkadii Mamontov’s powerful conspiracy documentary Barkhat.ru (velvet.ru), which, as Horvath explained, “vilified leading opposition activists involved in the Other Russia coalition.” In this documentary F. William Engdahl found his voice yet again as the sole foreign expert to legitimate this open display of state propaganda. Echoing the aforementioned conspiracies surrounding the foreign funding of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mamontov maligned the anti-Putin political activism undertaken by the libertarian Russian-Croatian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, explaining to his viewers that Kasparov had “returned from America, like his colleague Trotsky once did”.

Bigotry in the Service of Tsardom

Perhaps styling himself after Fox News’ own once-powerful conspirator, Bill O’Reilly, Mamontov never misses a chance to launch vicious tirades against western liberalism. Mamontov thus puts his weekly sermons on the major national TV channel, Rossiya 1, to full use in the service of Putin’s anti-liberal brand of authoritarianism. In many ways the content of these Orwellian hate shows might be seen as an attempt to emulate Stalin’s famous show trials, allowing Mamontov and his conspirators to publicly try and convict all those guilty of tainting Russian patriotism. Just as Stalin persecuted Trotsky’s supporters as fascists (the enemy within), to Mamontov all critics of Putin (whether liberal or socialist) are fascist as far as he is concerned. That said, it is the alleged perversion and decadence of the West that features as Mamontov’s number one target, with one of his most vile contributions to date being his 2015 documentary Sodom, which is nothing other than a relentless attack on homosexuality. Keen to utilize ‘independent’ western critics to attack America’s latest so-called export, Sodom features the notorious anti-gay Christian activist Scott Lively, who in addition to being the author of bile-filled book The Pink Swastika, famously advised the Ugandan government on their notorious anti-homosexual legislation. Lively later went on to closely replicate Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill by working with Brian Brown to help the Russia state draft their own hateful Anti-Gay Laws. Notably, only last year Brian Brown went on to be elected president of the World Congress on Families – an international far-right coalition which has been correctly described as “one of the major driving forces behind the U.S. Religious Right’s global export of homophobia and sexism.” Joining arms with American funders, conservative Russian elites also played a central role in founding the World Congress on Families; and one billionaire who is to the fore of currently funding the Congresses activities is the loyal Putin-supporter, Konstantin Malofeev.

Much like the amazing Octopus-like reach of the Koch Brothers in America, Malofeev, as a devout extremist philanthropist, not only acts the president of his own neo-fascist think tank, Katehon, but has also founded his own his own Russian Orthodox TV channel with none other than Dugin sitting at its editorial helm. Another of Malofofeev’s explicitly elitist pet ambitions is to ensure that a new patriotic cadre is ready to rule Russia when (as he hopes) the Eurasian movement comes to complete domination of the state apparatus. To undertake this task Malofofeev created St Basil the Great School, which as he explained “in an interview with the Guardian, is meant to function as ‘an Orthodox Eton’, which will prepare the new elite for a future Russian monarchy.”

The fond memories that Russian oligarchs maintain for the alleged glory days of the pre-1917 reign of the Tsar are reactionary in the extreme, which, when combined with the mainstream media’s demonization of revolutionary social movements, has troubling consequences for the potential future growth of working-class struggle. Indeed the level of misunderstanding of Russia’s most significant political historical event is perplexing to anyone who has studied Russian history. One such liberal Bolshevik expert is Professor Alexander Rabinowitch, who, reflecting upon his recent visits to Russia explained how he

“…was struck by the absolutely crazy questions I was being asked: Was there a February Revolution? Is it true that everything was great in Russia in February, and it was the Generals or the Masons or the intelligentsia that caused the Revolution? And this to some extent is being encouraged, the idea that the Empire – that Imperial Russia was strong and that is where Russia’s future lies – I think that is being encouraged by the [Putin] regime, which really cannot just ignore the Revolution, and so it is helping fund serious scholarly conferences [which Rabinowitch attends], but at a popular level that’s not what is happening, and crazy things are being published and crazy things are being said, and these lead to crazy questions…. I certainly get that as I read about popular thought in newspapers.”

Again one popularizer of such nonsense is F. William Engdahl who wrote in 2015 in the journal of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences that:

“Contrary to the mythology that passes for history at western universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton or Harvard, Russia in the years leading to outbreak of World War I was on the path to become a towering prosperous economic nation, something especially not welcome in London.”

This gobbledygook leads Engdahl to his latest conspiratorial revelation: “Wall Street and the City of London financed Leon Trotsky, Lenin, and the Bolshevik Revolution essentially as they did Boris Yeltsin after 1990, to open up Russia for looting and balkanization by favored western companies.”

Propagating Conspiracies and New Eurasianism

Contemplating the nature of the Russian media’s relentless misrepresentation of the colored revolutions as simply “organized and paid for by the Americans,” one mainstream commentator writing for The Atlantic earlier this year observed: “Now, we see the same kinds of theories pop up in state media portrayals of the Revolutions of 1917.” But strictly speaking this is not really a new development as evidenced by the putrid outpouring of the likes of Engdahl and Spence. But such false flag right-wing propaganda is not limited to journalists and academics, as Putin’s former key advisor, Gleb Pavlovsky, as mentioned earlier, also played a critical role in spreading such misinformation within Russian society. Pavlovsky was aided in this task through his role as the host of a news show (between 2005 and 2008) that was aired on RTV  – a Russian television channel that has been owned by natural gas giant Gazprom since 2001.

Corporate networking events like the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum also play an important role in laundering the latest conspiracy theories amongst the Russian power elite. Last year, for example, Engdahl was featured on an all-star panel sponsored by energy giant Rusal that was titled “The Russian Economic Growth Agenda.” Speaking alongside Engdahl on this prestigious line-up was one of Putin’s primary economic advisors, Sergey Glaziev, who also sits on the advisory board of the right-wing think tank, Katehon. Glaziev likewise maintains his own close connections to Engdahl’s former boss, Lyndon LaRouche, whose shadowy conspiracy network published the English translation of Glaziev’s book in 1999 as Genocide: Russia and the New World Order.

These ominous links between LaRouche’s reactionary conspiracy network and Russian elites have been well-documented elsewhere, but needless to say LaRouchites often feature as “experts” on Russian television, particularly on Russia Today. LaRouche and his co-conspirators are even counted as close allies of one of Dugin’s key ideological supporters, Natalya Vitrenko, who is the leader of the misnamed Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine. Following in Stalin’s footsteps Vitrenko, with no hint of irony, regularly refers to her democratic opponents as fascists, just as LaRouche himself does. (Note: LaRouche has good form in supporting authoritarian leaders; a good example being the ideological aid his network bestowed upon the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines during the peoples revolution of 1986.)

But while LaRouche with his endless supply of “alternative facts” has certainly provided further fuel for the explosion of conspiracy theories in Russia, the proselytizing of other homegrown intellectuals should be considered more important. This is especially the case with the reactionary neo-Eurasian ideas that have taken root within Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime; a dark influence that reared its head during Putin’s annual address to the federal assembly in December 2012 when the president reminded his disciples of the contemporary relevance of the ideas of the late Lev Gumilyov’s (1912-1992). Gumilyov was a vehemently anti-Marxist theorist of the fledgling Eurasian movement who, amongst his other bizarre beliefs, was incensed that the Bolshevik Revolution had embodied “alien” western and Jewish values. It was Gumilyov’s intellectual legacy that has been rehashed and updated by both Dugin (who describes Gumilyov as his most important Russian mentor) and by a once-prominent professor at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Philosophy, Aleksandr Panarin (1940–2003).  Although Dugin is best-known as the intellectual guru for the Eurasian movement, Panarin’s primary contribution to this developing paradigm was to insert the esoteric and fascist ideas of the philosophical leader of the French New Right, Alain de Benoist.

Postmodern Confusion in France and Beyond

The French New Right as it turns out first began their rise to influence around the activism of Alain de Benoist in the wake of the revolutionary uprising of May 1968, with their new collective organizational form being the Research and Study Group for European Civilization (GRECE). Realizing that old-style fascism was discredited amongst the broader public, GRECE sought to promote themselves as anti-elitist but neither Left nor Right (neither socialism or capitalism), and they quickly went about popularizing their conspiratorial mishmash of fascist and occult ideas.

A useful book that provides details about the origins and influences exerted by GRECE and their global followers is Tamir Bar-On’s Where Have All The Fascists Gone? (2007), in which the author emphasizes that 1978 stood out as a “breakthrough year for GRECE in terms of receiving larger access to the mainstream public.” This was because a “number of important GRECE figures, including Alain de Benoist, began to write regular articles that year in the right-wing Le Figaro Magazine.” This however was no accidental flash-in-the-pan, as the editor of the popular Le Figaro Magazine, Louis Pauwels, had previously “written in the revolutionary right’s Cahiers universitairesin the 1960s.” Moreover, although overlooked by Bar-On, in 1960 Pauwels had coauthored the irrationalist, Romantic treatise known as Les matin des magiciens, which later made its 1964 debut in America as Morning of the Magicians. And given the long-standing cross-overbetween neo-fascist and occult/new age theories it is very pertinent that Pauwels book had been credited with “the distinction of launching a revival of interest in the occult in the 1960s and 1970s…” Clearly other objective historical conditions also played a major role in driving people away from class-based analyses of society, but the historical role played by ultra-right-wing occultists like Pauwels should not be overlooked. After all it is by examining the lives of people like Pauwels and his co-thinkers that we might begin to understand why both mystical and neo-fascist ideas have been able to make something of a resurgence among the public in recent decades.

Here the theories of the French New Right actually overlap somewhat with the debilitating postmodern ideas that were popularised by French intellectuals in the wake the 1968 revolution in France — not just their commitment to provide an alternative to Marxism. This worrying phenomenon was highlighted in the 2004 book New Culture, New Right: Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe which was written by the right-wing postmodernist Michael O’Meara, an individual who presently works alongside fellow neo-fascists Kerry Bolton and Leonid Savin at the Athens-based Academy of Social and Political Research. Of relevance here, O’Meara’s personal biography sheds further light on the relationship on the intellectual upheavals in some parts of the so-called Left, as in 1999, writing under his former pen-name, Michael Torigian, O’Meara published a left-wing book titled Every Factory a Fortress: The French Labor Movement in the Age of Ford and Hitler. But then just a few months later O’Meara clarified his recent embrace of Alain de Benoist’s right-wing ideas in an article published in the controversial journal, Telos, which was titled “The philosophical foundations of the French New Right.”

Here it is important to acknowledge that the broader ideological slide from left-wing hostility to Marxism to right-wing hostility to Marxism was, in its own unique way, pioneered by Telos in the post 1968 period. Established in May 1968 by disillusioned left-wing academics, Telos set out on a search for an alternative to Marxism in order (ostensibly) to help emancipate the working-class. The new ideas Telos then unearthed arguably did a great service in enabling the development of post-Marxist ‘left-wing’ alternatives, most famously postmodernism. In the early 1990s Telos’ ever-expanding search for new theories eventually led their editors into an unfortunate embrace of the French New Right. As Boris Frankel’s observed in his prescient article “Confronting neo-liberal regimes: the post-Marxist embrace of populism and realpolitik” (New Left Review,  December 1997), it is vital that the “upsurge of right-wing populist movements in OECD countries” and “Telos’ theoretical cultivation of ‘postmodern populism’” should not be overlooked in coming to terms with history. On this I couldn’t agree more.

Final Thoughts/Hopes

The hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution is now upon us, and one of the most remarkable events in human history should provide inspiration and hope to billions of people. At present the world and its inhabitants stand at a critical juncture. Capitalism is once again demonstrating its inability to provide for the needs of the majority of people, and as every day passes, our inhumane system is driving even more people into poverty. Socialist alternatives to capitalism are not only possible but they are now supremely attainable: technological advances must be harnessed, not to oppress and surveil us, but to free us all from the daily grind of working life.

The eventual deformation of the Russian Revolution should be considered one of history’s major tragedies, and the Revolution’s gross distortion under the anti-democratic influence of Stalin and his apparatchiks must never be repeated. This is why Leon Trotsky and his supporters dedicated their lives to exposing all the dangerous betrayals of the working-class that took place under the misleadership of the Stalinist Communist Party, while also committing themselves to the ongoing struggle for a socialist future where ordinary people have full democratic control over workplaces and their lives. For undertaking such a struggle for justice, socialists and particularly Trotskyists have been relentlessly demonized by all capitalist institutions, by Stalin’s heirs, and by conspiracy theorists and their neo-fascists friends.

The Russian Revolution was a genuine democratic uprising of the working-class against their rulers which is precisely why it has always been so maligned by its ideological enemies. The Revolution was most certainly not orchestrated by Wall Street elites – in the same way that other popular revolutions that continue to shake the world are not the pet projects of Wall Street. Nevertheless it is true that when revolutions are deprived of a democratic leadership that is willing and ready to overthrow capitalism and bring about a socialist transformation of society, such revolutions will most likely only succeed in exchanging one set of undemocratic elites with another. This may give some form of respite to ordinary people, especially when they manage to replace capitalist dictatorships with capitalist democracies, but at the end of the day under the continued domination of capitalist misrule profits will always trump human need.

Of course there are many real reasons why people become disillusioned with the tiring fight for a fairer society, and it doesn’t help when the working-class are repeatedly let down or betrayed by the promises of their so-called political leaders. And all the while we should be aware that all sorts of fascists and right-wing populists are presently ready and waiting to take advantage of popular discontent if we fail to organize our class effectively on a global scale. Learning from this, socialists must therefore continue to lead by example and fight for every reform we can possibly wring from the ruling-class, while simultaneously making the case for why it will be necessary to ditch capitalism once and for all if we are to secure any lasting gains for our class. A socialist revolution is possible, as the centenary of the events in 1917 should remind us, now we just need to organize to make it happen.


[1] For details on the connections between fascists and the new age movement see, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity (2002), p.292. I have written about this in my series of articles that critically scrutinized the reactionary spiritual conspiracies woven by David Icke; see part III “Ruling-Class Aliens” (Swans Commentary, July 28, 2014) for Icke’s use of anti-Semite conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russian Revolution.

[2] To read more about how LaRouche and Engdahl’s conspiracies have been popularized on mainstream TV, see Michael Wolraich’s Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual (2010). In recent years Engdahl’s books have been published by the so-called “Progress Press” which excitedly republished LaRouche’s “underground classic” Dope Inc.: Britain’s Opium War against the United States. Furthermore, Engdahl’s 2009 book Gods of Money: Wall Street and the Death of the American Century directly draws up the conspiracies of Antony C. Sutton, refers to the “remarkable work of the 19th and early 20thCentury German writer, Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West” (a book popular in fascist circles), and uncritically cites the “research” of famed fascist anti-Semite Eustace Mullins. At present Engdahl is counted as a regular contributor to the online journal “New Eastern Outlook” which is published by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Other well-known conspiracy theorists who write for this publication include Tony Cartalucci and Andre Vltchek.

More articles by:

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).

April 24, 2015

The Political Economy of Fashion

Filed under: fashion,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm
The True Costs of an Aesthetic

The Political Economy of Fashion


Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in aChronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

read full article

October 29, 2013

The decline and fall of Levi-Strauss

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

No, I am not talking about the French anthropologist who applied structuralism to indigenous societies. Rather it is the blue jean company that has fallen upon hard times, much to my dismay. I imagine that after posting this and the one on Barneys yesterday, this will be the last I have to say on the rag trade for some time to come.

After going from a 34 waist to a 31, I have had to replace my trousers some of which were over 10 years old including a pair of Levi’s 501 blue jeans. I have had a pair of such jeans going back to 1961 in my freshman year at Bard College when upperclassmen advised me that they were “cool”. They have a button fly and shrink a size or two after the first washing. The material was like stiff and heavy canvas when it first came off the shelf but softened and faded most pleasingly after about a dozen cycles through the washing machine.

Unfortunately the 501 jeans Levi-Strauss sells today have nothing in common with my original pair except the name. The material is thinner and cheap looking. They are also prewashed. The upside is that you don’t have to worry about shrinkage. The downside is that they look like crap.

If you go to Amazon.com, you will find the “most helpful critical review” of the Levi’s 501 jeans:

Real 501’s are made of 14 oz canvas-like material. These “Iconic Rigid” jeans are made of some sleazy, much lighter material that takes on a carefully contrived set of wrinkles to make them look like they’d been worn to bed soaking wet and dried out overnight. If you want real 501’s stay away from these. I sent mine back right away.


Before revealing how this state of affairs came to be, a look at the roots of this garment manufacturer would be useful.

Levi Strauss (the first name is generally a last name in Jewry, it means a member of a priestly caste) was a German Jew who launched his blue jean company in 1853 out of San Francisco. The jeans were actually pioneered by a Latvian Jewish tailor named Jacob Davis who purchased denim from Levi Strauss. When the miners and other hardscrabble men who bought pants from Davis kept coming back to have them patched, he came up with the idea of reinforcing them with copper rivets at the points of maximum stress like the pockets corners. As is often the case in design, functionality and beauty are joined at the hip.

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Although they started out as work clothes like the Carhartt brand, they became a fashion statement in the 30s and 40s with the growing popularity of dude ranches. The look became popular in Hollywood films, with James Dean in “Giant” being representative.

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As well as Marlin Brando in “The Wild One”.

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By the time I got to Bard College, Levi jeans had become popular among the early 60s hipsters—most of whom were strongly influenced stylistically by the beat generation. Bob Dylan wore Levi’s.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.49.54 AMRapidly approaching my 69th birthday, I suppose I seem a bit foolish trying to dress in the same style I had adopted in 1961 but then again I remain attached inexplicably to the habits of my youth, including Marxism. It looks like I will be wed to Marxism for as long as I live but unfortunately the Levi 501 jeans will go by the wayside.

So what happened? This article puts it altogether:

The Guardian, Sunday 3 June 2007
Story of the blues
By Hadley Freeman

Levi’s was the original denim brand. In 1873, Jacob Davis, a tailor, hooked up with Levi Strauss to create a special pair of trousers for a woodcutter that were strong enough to hold in his bloated stomach. But things have come a long way since then and many industry observers say Levi’s has failed to keep pace.

Since 1996, the company’s sales have been dropping fast. It has lost billions of dollars in sales, closed dozens of factories and laid off nearly half of its workforce because, competitors say, it failed to take advantage of the change in the denim market when jeans shifted from being seen as a work garment to a style statement. Jonny Sorensen, the chief executive of Von Dutch, one of the denim brands Levi’s is suing, told the New York Times: “[Levi’s] missed the boat. Now they want to make a lot of noise and scare people away.”

Calvin Klein introduced the concept of designer denim back in 1978, and Helmut Lang upped the ante two decades later by giving his jeans designer prices. But it wasn’t until the late 90s, with the emergence of Earl jeans from California, that the denim craze truly took hold. This label shifted people’s perceptions of jeans: no longer were they chunky workman wear but a sexy item that showed off a woman’s figure. In Earl’s first year, it had a turnover of $600,000. In its second, sales rose to $10m. In 2001 the company was sold for roughly $86m. “A woman now needs a different pair for every occasion, just like shoes: some days you want a sexy pair, other days you want to be more relaxed and slouchy,” says Suzanne Pendlebury, womenswear buyer for Harvey Nichols.

But the emphasis here is on “new”: jeans are not what they once were – baggy, frumpy, clumpy – and the mid-priced classic brands, such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, have struggled in the new marketplace. They have been squeezed out between, on the one hand, the flashier designer brands and, on the other, the cheap ranges offered in supermarkets and on the high street. Topshop’s Baxter jeans, for example, sell 18,000 pairs a week. Both the top and the bottom ends of the market have focused on denim’s new fashion-based image. Lee and Wrangler, on the other hand, have struggled with stagnating sales. Last year, Levi’s ended an eight-year fall in sales but it is still trying to recoup its losses from its period of what Onda describes as “steep decline” in the late 1990s.

Full: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2007/jun/04/fashion.retail

Levi-Strauss’s collapse raises all sorts of interesting questions about the commodity. Here is a product that underwent no significant changes since its birth around 150 years ago. It began to die in the marketplace as soon as people like Calvin Klein began to market blue jeans as a fashion item rather than a workaday garment (even though it did have its own esthetic.)

To what extent are there real benefits in style changes? Also, what was the role of such a “proletarian”, no-frills garment in destabilizing societies that were based on the rejection of commodity fetishism? The Levi-Strauss website recounts the role of their product in the Cold War:

Back (Then) in the U.S.S.R.


Russia – part of the former Soviet Union – is a fairly new market for Levi’s® jeans, but the company and the brand actually visited that country more than fifty years ago.

In 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to increase cultural contact between the two countries in order to ease tensions between the Cold War rivals.  The agreement stated that exhibits are “an effective means of developing mutual understanding,” and both nations agreed to host exhibitions from the other country. In 1959 the United States Information Agency coordinated the American National Exhibition which was sent to Moscow. Vice President Richard Nixon opened the Exhibition on July 25. (Remember the Kitchen Debate?)

Included in the displays of American culture, science, and technology was a good- sized booth created by Levi Strauss & Co., filled with displays of 501® jeans and Western-themed advertising. Staffers wore jeans and cowboy shirts, and 501® jeans were also worn by entertainers hired to treat the crowds to some down home American music.

Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. Why? As explained then by the international press service R&F Features, “Eager Soviet visitors handled – and occasionally helped themselves to – display samples of the all-American denim pants.”

Levi’s® jeans were a coveted, but forbidden capitalist item in the Soviet Union for the next thirty years. Then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Russian citizens could buy “real” (not black market) Levi’s® jeans for the very first time.

The LS&CO. Archives has a letter from one such happy customer, a woman named Larisa Popik, who wrote us in August of 1991:

A man hasn’t very much happy minutes in his life, but every happy moment remains in his memory for a long time. I’m not the fanatic of clothes, but the buying of Levi’s jeans (501) is one of such moments in  my life.  I’m 24, but while wearing your jeans I feel myself like a 15-years-school-girl, I feel myself like a graceful, slender and beautiful girl. 

Thank you very much for such comfortable, soft, light and nice jeans. Good luck to your kind and necessary business!

So, Levi 501 jeans—a vanguard fighter for capitalist restoration—now falls victim to the very process it seemed contrary to.

Maybe there’s hope for Levi’s in filling a niche for those wealthy enough to purchase jeans that perhaps allude to their birth in a place totally the opposite of where they are sold now: Barneys.

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October 28, 2013

Barneys bigotry

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 1.04.51 PM

Published by billionaire Mort Zuckerman, a diehard member of the Israel lobby, the New York Daily News has been evolving into a fairly hard-hitting “anti-racist” publication, to use the term that has come under close scrutiny in the recent past by people such as Adolph Reed. If you go to their website, you will see for example an item on the disgusting Trayvon Martin “costume” worn at a Florida Halloween party. Juan Gonzalez, Amy Goodman’s co-host at Democracy Now, has been writing a column at the News for years now. So, in general, this is a paper that is more liberal in some ways than the NY Times that has not had an African-American op-ed columnist since Bob Herbert left some years ago. Charles Blow does have a column that appears on Saturday but it is fairly narrowly focused on polling and demographics.

The News broke the story on a young Black man being racially profiled by Barneys, the upscale clothing store that I used to patronize in the 1980s when I worked on Wall Street.

The clothing store Barneys purports to cater to a certain class of person, one so chic and so monied as to be eager to spend $280 on a pair of jeans or $2,850 on a skimpy woman’s “bicolor jacket.”

Apparently, in Barneys’ view, this class of person did not extend to a young, black New York City male who took a flier on buying a $300 Ferragamo belt. Trayon Christian says store security had him busted by the NYPD.

Christian is a 19-year-old New York College of Technology engineering student who lives in Queens. He has a work-study job that deposits his pay directly into a Chase bank account.

After picking out the belt, he offered his Chase debit card for payment. This was a transaction of a kind that happens thousands of times a day at Barneys’ Madison Ave. flagship emporium.

Without incident, the trendy from neighborhoods like the upper East Side make their picks and flash their cards as if this is where they belong . But not Christian, who has filed suit charging that Barneys concluded, based on skin color, that his money was stolen.

Christian says that, after presenting his debit card, he complied with a request for identification, completed the purchase and walked out, only to be stopped by plainclothes NYPD cops, who said that Barneys had called, accusing him of using a fake card.

In Christian’s telling, he was handcuffed and spent two hours in the 19th Precinct stationhouse while cops verified that he was who he said he was and that the money was his to spend.

The incident has had ramifications in a city polarized around the question of racial profiling. Bill de Blasio, certain to be the next mayor, has called for the abolition of “stop and frisk”, a practice that targets Blacks and Latinos disproportionately.

It has put Jay Z, the rapper businessman, on the spot:

Jay-Z — under increasing pressure to back out of a collaboration with the luxury store Barneys New York after it was accused of racially profiling two black customers — said Saturday he’s being unfairly “demonized” for just waiting to hear all of the facts.

The rap mogul made his first statement about the controversy in a posting on his website. He has come under fire for remaining silent as news surfaced this week that two young black people said they were profiled by Barneys after they purchased expensive items from their Manhattan store.

My last big-ticket purchase at Barneys was a 700-dollar Armani suit that I bought just a few months before losing my job at Goldman Sachs in 1988. It, along with my Paul Stuart suits, went to a thrift shop about a year after I began working at Columbia University. Don’t ask me why I wasted my money on such commodities. Temporary insanity, I guess.

The story of Barneys’s transformation over the years is one that is very much connected to those taking place in New York City generally, as it has become much more of a FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) center as well as a haven first for Eurotrash and more recently for the offspring of Russian oligarchs and oil sheikhs.

The store is named after Barney Pressman, a Jew who launched it in 1923 at 7th avenue and 17th street with the $500 he got from hocking his wife’s engagement ring. He got started in what New Yorkers call the rag trade working in his father’s clothing store, pressing trousers 3 cents a pair.

Early on, Barneys catered to less than wealthy men who wanted to buy a prestigious brand like Hickey-Freeman or Oxxford that were bought wholesale at odd lots and auctions. Often the customer would ask for the Barneys label to be removed so as to leave open where the suit was purchased. At the time Saks 5th Avenue had a lot more clout than Barneys.

In the 1960s the store was transformed into a snooty boutique under the stewardship of Fred Pressman, the owner’s son. As prosperity became generalized in the long postwar expansion, New Yorkers had more money to burn. Barneys’s original location expanded to five floors and a new store was launched on 61st and Madison, both catering to women as well as men. After Fred Pressman retired, his sons Gene and Robert took over and targeted the rich and the infamous even more. If you’ve seen Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, you’ll get a good idea of what the typical Barneys wardrobe looked like.

On August 29, 1993, the NY Times Sunday Magazine had a 5000 word article on the store’s ambitions. Like cocaine, Studio 54, and Madonna, it was an icon of the period as reporter Steve Lohr indicated:

Much of retailing, it is said, boils down to understanding life styles and spotting trends. Over the years, Gene Pressman has certainly done plenty of field research. He is by nature a participant, trying what was hip and trendy ever since Woodstock in 1969. “I got so wasted,” he recalled fondly. “And wasn’t the music great?” Later, he sampled Manhattan night life, knew the Andy Warhol crowd, took in the scene of Studio 54 and the like.

He lives in Bugsy Siegel’s former house, a Tudor mansion in Westchester County, overlooking Long Island Sound, which he redid to accommodate a 14,000-bottle wine cellar and a garage with vintage cars. Guests, also clearly a carefully edited selection, get tours past the ’62 Aston Martin in the garage and the expensive wines in the cellar. Gene is married these days with two children. He drives fast, but the rest of his fast-lane life may simply be a fond memory.

Though he’s wealthy and surrounds himself with expensive toys, he clings to his version of 60’s counterculture values. He pulls his white shirt away from his neck to show that it is monogrammed, but on the inside. “How about that for reverse snobbery?” he says.

In order to build their empire in New York as well as stores in other countries enjoying a booming economy, the Pressman’s partnered with Isetan, a Japanese department store also catering to the rich.

Like the Japanese economy, Barneys expanded too fast and too much on a mountain of debt, thus leading to bankruptcy in 1996. In 1999 a book by Joshua Levine titled “The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory and Greed “ was published by William Morrow. If the title evokes Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, this review in the New York Observer will explain why:

Some years ago, a friend took her 14-year-old son to the 17th Street Barneys to buy a birthday gift for his style-conscious grandfather. Dressed in full New York private school uniform (frayed baggy jeans, ripped T-shirt), my friend’s son seemed to have come from a different fashion planet; here the aliens were buying and selling silk socks that, judging by their price, must have been produced by worms specially selected and properly compensated for outspinning their grubbier brothers. For a while, the boy was mystified, and put off. But eventually he succumbed to the lure of the buttery loafers, the ties arrayed in bright rainbows, like elegant wearable candy; he fell for the seductive chemistry of luxury, snobbery and taste. As they left, he turned around, and promised the expensive, attractive things, “I’ll be back!” When I asked my friend how this made her feel, she said, “As if I’d personally introduced him to the Devil.”

The most entertaining and upsetting sections document the sheer wastefulness, misguidedness and mismanagement that went into the construction of the catastrophically expensive–$267 million–Madison Avenue Barneys, the Pressmans’ monument to themselves: “‘The Pressmans kept saying they wanted this to be the most beautiful store in the world,’ says one of the top architects on the project … ‘We did a whole boutique [lined] with goatskin … I was arguing that you could do this in a faux finish, and you might spend an eighth of the price. The response was, like, why use faux goatskin when you could use real goatskin?’”

Why? Presumably, so all that expensive fabulousness could be osmotically absorbed by the sales staff, who would then feel righteously entitled to give Barneys’ customers the maximum amount of attitude. The arrogance and oily-hip demeanor of the salespeople eventually became a liability for the store, as shoppers began to wonder why they were sneered at so contemptuously when they handed over their credit card to pay for, say, the Rei Kawakubo bump dress that for a small fortune could make a woman look like she had tumors growing on her ass.

Like other wonders of the world (the Pyramids, for example), the building took its toll not only in money but in human life. One worker fell off a scaffolding, the other tumbled down an empty elevator shaft–a death that, Mr. Levine suggests, may have been connected to a dispute over the profitable disposition of the scrap metal that the construction site was generating. But unlike the slave laborers who built the Pyramids, these workers expected to get paid, a modest expectation often at odds with the Pressmans’ increasingly precarious financial situation. Creditors resorted to scrawling nasty graffiti on the unfinished building and (as they grew more impatient) making death threats against their employers, tactics the Pressmans countered by beefing up store security.

Reading The Rise and Fall of Barneys means wading through the details of the bad business decisions that brought the Pressmans low; some people love this sort of thing, which I find about as exciting as watching a stranger balance his checkbook. And at times I couldn’t help wishing that Mr. Levine had gained access to the family. To know what makes the Pressmans tick might be like channeling the Pharaohs, or Louis XIV. Nonetheless, Joshua Levine has done a serviceable and entertaining job of explaining why, when my friend’s son makes his long-promised return to the pretty ties and shoes of the Chelsea Barneys, the store he remembers will be long gone–and he’ll find himself in Loehmann’s.

March 30, 2012

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: beatniks,Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Reviewed below:

–“Beat Hotel”

–“God Save My Shoes”

–“Surviving Progress”

In catching up with AMC TV’s terrific “Mad Men” series (Season Five began last Sunday), I was watching an episode from Season Two the other night. Peter Campbell, a copywriter from a very Waspy family, went to a doctor with his wife to find out why they were having trouble procreating. Set in 1962, it was natural for the doctor to ask Campbell in his one-on-one discussion with him: “Do you really want to have a child?” Campbell replied vociferously, “How can you ask such a question? Everybody wants to have children.”

As part of its ongoing attempt to reflect different aspects of American society, the show depicts the burgeoning counter-culture—even including the bearded hipster copywriter named Paul Kinsey.

As I watched the exchange between the doctor and Peter Campbell, I could not help but think of the opening lines of one of my favorite poems from the early 60s, Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”:

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where’s the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap-
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?

For countless numbers of young people, Corso’s poem symbolized an alternative path for living in America by one’s own rules. Instead of buying into the suburban utopia with its split-level houses and two-car garages, we would make life into an adventure—smoking dope, hanging out in Lower East Side tenements listening to Charlie Parker records, working as clerks in bookstores, and trying to finish a novel or that next poem.

Just two nights after watching the “Mad Men” episode I had the exquisite pleasure of watching what might just be the best documentary on the beat generation, a film titled “The Beat Hotel” that opens at the Cinema Village in NY this evening.

Like the Chelsea Hotel in NY in the 1960s and 70s, the fleabag, no-name hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur in Paris became a beacon for cultural rebels during the 1950s. Three of its leading denizens were the aforementioned Gregory Corso, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who shared his tiny room with Peter Orlovsky.

The film relies heavily on the photographs of Harold Chapman who lived there as well. Chapman also supplies invaluable recollections of what life was like in the hotel, including fascinating details about its seediness. There was only one bathroom on each floor, each featuring a “Turkish” (or squat) toilet that evoked those Gahan Wilson cartoons from an old New Yorker Magazine.

“Beat Hotel” also includes some absolutely fantastic animation based on the paintings of Elliot Rudie who also lived there. Like Chapman, Rudie has plenty of great anecdotes about hanging out with Burroughs and the gang.

The hotel was owned and run by Madam Rachou who was sympathetic to political as well as cultural rebels. During the Algerian war of independence, she provided a haven for leftists being pursued by the French cops.

In contrast to the opulent but spiritually bereft environment of “Mad Men”, “The Beat Hotel” was a fertile oasis that brought great pleasure to the men possessed by a vision of a better world, even if it was not based on any kind of economic or political program. Allen Ginsberg, who put in some time as a copywriter himself, put it this way in “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

Now, 57 years later after this poem was written, young people not that different than me continue to look to the beat generation as an inspiration. They, and people of any other age, should go see “Beat Hotel” to get an idea of how it all got started.

Also opening tonight at the Quad Cinema in NY is “God Save My Shoes”, a fascinating examination of women’s high heels. For those who have read my posts on Sex and the City, both the television show and the universally despised part 2 movie (except for me and WBAI’s resident Marxist film critic Prairie Miller), this review should come as no great surprise. As Karl Marx once said—quoting Roman playwright Terrence—”Nothing human is alien to me”. The same goes for me, including high-heel shoes.

Despite the film’s nod to Sex and the City as having inspired the explosion of sales in high-heels over the past decade or so, it has as much in common with a Modern Language Association convention as it does with pop culture. It interviews Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer whose beautiful but largely unwearable commodities were favored—if not fetishized—by lead character Carrie Bradshaw. Indeed, the documentary shows outtakes from several fashion shows as runway models trip over their own feet bedecked in 5 inch heel shoes. A similar scene takes place in Sex and the City when Carrie tries modeling as a PR stunt.

Shoe designers like Blahnik are artists in their own right, even if their work might have the effect of confining women just as feet-binding and corsets did in an earlier age, as observed by Valerie Steele, the curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum (a school where my wife has taught political science classes for over 5 years.) In addition to Steele, we hear from Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, whose grasp of the history, the esthetics, and psychological and social implications of high heels is just as penetrating.

The academic experts allow for the possibility that such shoes empower women insofar as they raise their wearers to the same height as men. At the same time they fret over the obvious health hazards and their sexual objectification of women. This contradiction, of course, is at the heart of the film’s message and makes it such compelling viewing.

In keeping with the “Mad Men”/”Beat Hotel” times-are-changing motif expressed above, it occurs to me that the high-heels fad among young women is related in some ways to the almost universal tendency for African-American women to straighten their hair using toxic chemicals as pointed out in Chris Rock’s fascinating “Good Hair”. If the 60s was all about being “natural”, the late 70s onwards is much more about appearance—a repeat of the awful fifties in many ways. Let’s hope that the financial crisis might have a useful side-effect just as the 1930s Great Depression did, namely an impulse toward reexamining what the “good life” is all about.

On April 6th, a week from tomorrow, “Surviving Progress” opens at the Cinema Village in NY, the same locale as “The Beat Hotel”. This documentary can best be described as a look at the same phenomenon covered in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, the tendency of civilizations to destroy themselves over time through unwise economic and environmental practices—but without Diamond’s crappy politics. Probably the first and best overview of this tendency was stated by Frederick Engels in “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

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 … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Unlike Diamond, directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks make the link between the capitalist economic system (even though they refrain from using the term) and environmental despoliation. In answering the question why the Amazon rainforest keeps getting chopped down even as it threatens to undermine humanity’s future, they call on left economist Michael Hudson who explains that Brazil was simply acting on the suggestion made by the IMF to pay off debts through the rapid and extensive use of agricultural exports. The general thrust of the film is to put the blame on the international financial system for a possible extinction of life as we know it. What makes this all the more interesting is Martin Scorsese’s role as executive director. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the great artist of personal crime is beginning to understand that the biggest problem is corporate crime.

“Surviving Progress” has a stellar cast of academics like Michael Hudson (Stephen Hawking among them) and people in the political arena charged with the duty of saving the planet from predatory financial interests. Among them is Marina Silva, a Brazilian senator who was formerly Minister of the Environment, who is shown in the Amazon at a logging factory and at the small towns that house the desperately poor loggers and farmers encroaching on the forest. They plead their case, stating that if the Amazon is the lungs of the north, it is also the heart of the Brazilian poor. Without an Amazon to exploit, there is no future for them.

While the film does not get into alternative ways of economic development, it is fairly obvious that the future of the planet can only be guaranteed through the elimination of private property and the profit motive. As Hollywood fictional films continue their sorry descent into the cesspool, we can at least be assuaged by the determination of courageous directors like Mattieu Roy and Harold Crooks to tell the truth without worrying about whether their film will be the next blockbuster. For intellectual and political stimulation, and as well as to respond positively to an imperative to make such documentaries worth making, I urge you to put “Surviving Progress” on your calendar.

June 13, 2011

Savage Beauty: the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Always looking for an opportunity to disassociate myself from a herd mentality on the left, I have found occasion in the past to write about haute couture designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino Garavani, and the Project Runway veterans Austin and Santino, who were featured in a Bravo series last year about designing fancy gowns for women in the boondocks who drove trucks, worked in construction, etc.

From time to time, I get complaints from people who read my blog about my failure to address burning issues of the day like the trade union struggles in Madison. I always defend myself by saying that I am not trying to compete with Znet or Counterpunch. I write about what interests me, even if that opens me up to the charge that I am an intellectual dilettante. Or maybe I concur with Karl Marx who concurred in turn with the Roman playwright Terence’s dictum “Nothing human is alien to me.” (Nihil humani a me alienum puto.) After spending 11 years in a disciplined Marxist-Leninist group that functioned more or less like the Borg in Star Trek, I made up my mind after resigning that I would follow my own path wherever it might lead, including a visit to the Metropolitan Museum yesterday to see “Savage Beauty”, an exhibition of the work of Alexander McQueen, the high fashion designer who killed himself in February 2010, a month before his fortieth birthday.

On the occasion of McQueen’s untimely death, I posted a NY Times obit to the Marxism mailing list that included these paragraphs:

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

Well, call me a dilettante but how in the world would I turn down the opportunity to see the clothing described above with my own eyes?

McQueen was in the news lately when it was revealed that Kate Middleton would be wearing an Alexander McQueen wedding dress. As it turns out, the dress was actually designed by Sarah Burton who was the head designer at the firm founded by McQueen. That being said, it was likely that McQueen would have worked on such a gown if he had been alive. Despite his outsider posture, he understood that his ambitions were inextricably linked to the upper class that he so detested.

That same contradiction exists within the Metropolitan as well. The curators were obviously sympathetic to McQueen’s rebellious nature even though the board of trustees at the Met typifies the tastes of American blueblood society, including the Anglophilia that prevails at PBS television as well. Despite this, the curators did not mince words:

“The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as . . . haggis . . . bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.”

—Alexander McQueen

McQueen’s collections were fashioned around elaborate narratives that are profoundly autobiographical, often reflecting his Scottish heritage. Indeed, when he was asked what his Scottish roots meant to him, he replied, “Everything.” McQueen’s national pride is most evident in the collections Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995–96) and Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7). Both explore Scotland’s turbulent political history. Highland Rape was based on the eighteenth-century Jacobite Risings and the nineteenth-century Highland Clearances, and was the first collection to introduce McQueen tartan. Shown on semi-naked, blood-spattered models that staggered down a runway strewn with heather and bracken, the clothes were intended to counter romantic images of Scotland. In contrast, Widows of Culloden, which was based on the final battle of the Jacobite Risings, was more wistful, featuring exaggerated silhouettes inspired by the 1880s. McQueen’s message, however, remained defiantly political: “What the British did there was nothing short of genocide.” Despite these heartfelt declarations of his Scottish national identity, McQueen felt intensely connected to England, especially London. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said. His deep interest in the history of England was most apparent perhaps in The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (autumn/winter 2008–9), a dreamy quixotic fairy tale inspired by an elm tree in the garden of McQueen’s country home near Fairlight Cove in East Sussex. Influenced by the British Empire, it was one of McQueen’s most romantically nationalistic collections, albeit heavily tinged with irony and pastiche.

If you are inclined to see “Savage Beauty”, my suggestion is to go early in the morning and on a weekday unless you are willing to put up with a half-hour wait on line. I am not quite sure why this is such a hot ticket right now but you will get the most out of the show if you are not forced to compete with other attendees for a unblocked view of the clothing on display.

Like Lady Gaga, Alexander McQueen understood that a career in the arts could be advanced by being outrageous. One might be sure that he would have appreciated her showing up at a Grammy show in a meat dress, a move obviously indebted to the McQueen esthetic.

For most of the past century, avant-garde art, including some haute couture designs, has proceeded on the basis that we are in a period marked by decadence. As you walk your way through the McQueen exhibit, you feel as if you have walked into a Poe short story. The dominant colors are black and gray, relieved mostly by the colors of artwork that have been integrated into a dress or a gown. In one jacket, you see an image drawn from “The Thief to the Left of Christ” by Robert Campin, a fifteenth century artist. In another item, you see elements of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of tormented sinners. This is hardly the sort of garment you would see at a cocktail party in the Hamptons, needless to say.

In fact, most of the clothing on display challenges conventional understandings of what constitutes haute couture. Platform shoes have impossibly high heels that threaten to topple anybody wearing them. Dresses made of black leather look like the sort of thing you’d find in an S&M boutique even if they incorporate McQueen’s ravishing sense of style.

This mixture of beauty and decay is what might be expected from a social system that is on its last legs. The artist cannot help but understand that art is resting on rotten foundations, just as was the case in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Ushers”. In the 17th century the Dutch masters were content to represent the burghers as benign figures, but in the 20th century onwards—after two world wars, countless colonial wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation—it is impossible not to notice the rot all around you, starting from the heads of society: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Barack Obama, David Cameron, et al. In such circumstances, Lady Gaga’s meat dress and Alexander McQueen’s “savage beauty” make perfect sense.

September 12, 2010

Picture Me: “a model’s diary”

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

As a fan of cable TV’s Project Runway and documentaries about Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, I jumped at the opportunity to see a press screening of Picture Me: “a model’s diary” last Thursday that was scheduled to coincide with Fashion Week in New York. (The movie opens at the Angelika Theater on September 17.)

However, this film was anything but the kind of free PR that the fashion industry might have expected. It was co-directed by Ole Schell, a documentary filmmaker, and Sara Ziff, his girlfriend—a professional model since the age of 14 who kept a video log of her experience in the industry over a five-year period. Weaving together her amateurish shaky footage with his own interviews with industry honchos, the finished product is a complex, ambivalent and altogether fascinating glimpse into the world behind the photos seen in Vogue and Elle magazines and the mammoth billboards on Times Square.

That is what one might have expected given their background. Ole Schell is the son of famous Sinologist Orville Schell whose first movie was Win in China, a documentary on the country’s entrepreneurial tidal wave. By the same token, Sara Ziff is not the stereotypical bubble-headed model (the movie’s main breakthrough is challenging these stereotypes) but the thoughtful and self-aware daughter of an NYU biochemistry professor and his wife, an attorney.

One day a total stranger approached Sara on the street asked her if she was a model. When she answered no, he set up an appointment with her at a top agency and her career began immediately. She knew that this would take her away from the path of college education and a career more in line with her parent’s expectations but the promise of a glamorous world, travel and buckets of cash persuaded her to take a shot at it. Although the film does not mention it (and really does not need to do so), the third “benefit” (buckets of cash) is exactly what draws young women into exotic dancing, porn films and prostitution.

While the world of runway modeling would seem to have little to do with these tawdry professions, we learn that they now recruit from the same labor pool: the impoverished nations of Eastern Europe such as Byelorussia and Romania, two countries whose representatives are seen in the film.

There is also the same kind of meat market mentality that operates in both realms. Sara Ziff says that the objectification is so extreme in the modeling world that an agency bigwig will often grab a model’s thigh or rear end in his or her hand and comment “She’s too fat” without even asking the model’s permission. For them, the model amounts to the same thing as a head of cattle on display at an auction.

We also learn that sexual predation is commonplace in the fashion industry. A top photographer will have his version of the casting couch, often selecting a young model under the age of 15. It is a sign of the desperation of poor women trying to break into the field that charges are not filed on a regular basis as they were in the Polanski case.

Despite the horrors that Sara Ziff put up with, she freely admits that the money kept her going. She was making more money than her dad and able to buy a fancy loft in Soho. But the longer she stayed in the industry, the more alienated she became. It was also getting to the point when she was becoming “too old”, an astounding verdict given that she was only 23. We learn that the industry is a revolving door, always on the lookout for the next big sensation, ideally a 15 year old just beyond the body of an anorexic.

At the end of the film, Ziff has been accepted into Columbia University General Studies and the closing credits inform us that she is majoring in political science and has begun work to launch a fashion model’s trade union. Good for her and good for Ole Schell for making a remarkable movie.

February 12, 2010

Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

NY Times February 11, 2010
Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Alexander McQueen, the renegade British fashion designer known for producing some of the most provocative collections of the last two decades, was found dead on Thursday morning in his London home, the police there said. He was 40.

At the beginning of his career, Mr. McQueen became a sensation for showing his clothes on ravaged-looking models who appeared to have been physically abused, institutionalized or cosmetically altered, all while peppering his audience with rude comments. “I’m not interested in being liked,” he said. He once mooned the audience of his show.

But he was enormously creative and intelligent, and he seemed to sense that the fashion industry needed to have its buttons pushed. His fall 2009 collection was the talk of Paris when, reacting to the recession, Mr. McQueen showed exaggerated versions of all of his past work on a runway strewn with a garbage heap of props from his former stage sets. He was suggesting that fashion was in ruins.

“The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem,” he said. “There is no longevity.”

In his work, Mr. McQueen drew on Orientalism, classicism and English eccentrics, and also his ideas about the future, combining them in ways that were complex and perplexing.

As designers have done for centuries, Mr. McQueen altered the shape of the body using corsetry and anatomically correct breast plates as a recurring motif. More recently, his work took on increasingly futuristic tones, with designs that combined soft draping with molding, or ones in which a dress seemed to morph into a coat. At his last show, in October, the models wore platform shoes that looked like the hulls of ships.

Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London on March 17, 1969. His father was a taxi driver; his mother was a social science teacher. His father wanted him to become an electrician or a plumber, but Lee, as he was always known, knew he wanted to work in fashion. His father, Ron McQueen, survives him, as do five siblings.

Aware of his homosexuality at an early age (he said he knew at age 8), he was taunted by other children, who called him “McQueer.” He left school at 16 and found an apprenticeship on Savile Row working for the tailors Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes. In a story he repeated on some occasions but at other times denied, he was bored one day and wrote a derogatory slur in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.

As he struck out on his own, Mr. McQueen was immediately recognized for his brashness. The models in his October 1993 collection walked the runway with their middle fingers extended, and their dresses were hand-printed to appear as if they were covered with blood; some of it looked fresh. He also showed trousers cut so low that they were called “bumsters.” Criticized at the time because some did not cover the rear, the trousers were credited with initiating a low-rise trend that eventually caught on with every mainstream jeans maker in the world.

“His was a hard show to take, but at least it offered one solution to the identity crisis of London fashion,” wrote Amy M. Spindler, then the fashion critic of The New York Times.

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

“Nicey nicey just doesn’t do it for me,” he said.

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