Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 18, 2021

Devils

Filed under: Counterpunch,financial crisis,television — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 18, 2021

Arriving with very little fanfare on Amazon Prime, the Italian TV series “Devils” is easily the most penetrating narrative drama on “banksters” I have ever seen. Set mostly on the trading floor of New York London Investment Bank, an obvious fictional version of Goldman Sachs, it stars Alessandro Borghi as Massimo Ruggero, who manages the hedge fund group and is in line to become the next co-CEO. He is opposed by a rival for the position who views Massimo’s cutthroat tactics as inimical to British banking’s glorious past, when the bank supposedly served the average citizen rather than speculators only interested in making a fast buck. He is not shy about telling Massimo to his face that Italians don’t belong in leading positions in such an august institution like NYLIB.

This 10-part series is based on the novel “Diavoli” that was written by Guido Maria Brera, an Italian who worked for a number of years in the financial industry. His experience help gives the book a palpable reality of the sort that makes ex-attorney John Grisham novels about law firms so compelling. Saying that, it is necessary for those viewing “Devils” to be prepared for financial industry minutiae, especially selling short—Massimo’s specialty. Showing little concern for the consequences of its impact, he left behind ruin everywhere he decided to make profits off ordinary peoples’ losses.

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January 11, 2021

Nomadland

Filed under: aging,Film,financial crisis,housing,poverty,Travel — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Generally, I try to read as little as possible about a film before I watch a screener in order to avoid the possibility that I might be influenced by other critics. All I knew about “Nomadland” is that it starred Frances McDormand as a sixtyish woman, who after losing everything in the 2008 financial crisis, becomes a “nomad”. This means that she travels around the country in a van taking menial jobs like in an Amazon warehouse or scrubbing toilets. With this in mind, I wondered if I was about to see a “Grapes of Wrath” updated for our epoch.

The film begins with a Steinbeckian touch. We see Fern (McDormand) loading her van with her belongings after the only employer in Empire, Nevada—a sheetrock factory—has closed for good. Like the Joads in “Grapes of Wrath” being foreclosed, she is forced by economic circumstances to look for salvation elsewhere. Like the Joads with their loaded jalopy, her road to a better life is filled with potholes. Her first job is working in an Amazon warehouse, where we expect her to end up either injured or too exhausted to keep up with the pace. To my surprise, she and other elderly women lugging cartons onto conveyor belts appear to be holding their own. After work, she retires to her van, eats a rudimentary meal, and prepares for the next day. So, I wondered when was the clash with the capitalist class going to begin.

It turns out that the film had less in common with “Grapes of Wrath” than it does with road movies like “Easy Rider” or “Five Easy Pieces”. The nomads in “Nomadland” are men and women who travel around the country in RVs or vans rather than motorcycles but with the same sense of wanderlust. Since many of you are probably not familiar with “Five Easy Pieces,” this stars Jack Nicholson (who was also in “Easy Rider” as a companion to the two motorcycle road warriors) as a man working on oil rigs in the southwest, who lives in cheap motels, and hangs out in tawdry roadhouses just like other roughnecks. It turns out, however, that this is just an appearance. In reality, Nicholson is from a wealthy family and a trained classical pianist running away from his past.

Shortly, I will explain how this connects with McDormand’s character but first I will point out that director Chloé Zhao never had the slightest interest in agitprop. In a note attached to my DVD screener, she revealed her intentions:

Having grown up in big cities in China and England, I’ve always been deeply drawn to the open road — an idea I find to be quintessentially American — the endless search for what’s beyond the horizon. It’s filled with stories of hardship, perseverance and co-existence — people helping each other, working together to survive when they disagree on almost everything. It was the spirit of the Old West and it’s still the spirit of the road today.

The open road? That’s what Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters sought in “Easy Rider”. Instead of horses, they rode Harleys. Likewise, the elderly men and women wandering around the country for dead-end jobs have their own steeds: vans, trailers, and RV’s. In “Easy Rider”, the two heroes stop at a hippie commune to enjoy drugs and sex. As for Zhao’s nomads, including Fern, they end up at a rent-free trailer park where communal meals are shared. No drugs, no sex, but the old folks get by drinking beer and making small talk.

As for the comparison with “Five Easy Pieces”, we learn (spoiler alert) that Fern has a wealthy sister who has invited her numerous times to come live with her. But Fern prefers to live in a tiny van without running water and heat. The closest the film comes to depicting the miseries of being homeless (the nomads like to describe themselves as houseless), we see Fern with an onset of diarrhea that she relieves by crapping into a bucket in her van.

The film is based on a nonfiction work of the same name written by Jessica Bruder in 2017. I have no idea whether Bruder downplayed the miseries of the people she interviewed, but a NY Times review by Arlie Russell Hochschild cannot help but question the lack of a class perspective. Hochschild is the author of a book titled “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” that tried to get to the bottom of why people in Louisiana voted for rightwing politicians despite being screwed by them through low-paying jobs and exposure to toxic chemicals. Like Bruder, she lived among the people she interviewed and tried to bond with them. This was her perceptive take on something that was missing in the book and, more egregiously so, in the film (the Linda mentioned in the excerpt is a character a lot like Fern):

What forces set these nomads in motion? Here I wish Bruder had given us a view from beyond the driver’s seat. For years, stockholders have taken the lion’s share of rising corporate profits, leaving a shrinking share to the middle- and working-class worker. The current administration and Congress aim to cut the nation’s safety net and to loosen regulations on banks, stirring fears of another devastating crash. The stage seems set to leave Americans on their own to travel a potentially bumpy economic road, a scene that would seem to fly in the face of the picket-fence stability and localism bandied about in conservative rhetoric. Republicans like to talk about “freedom,” but the tax reform they’re currently proposing would most likely widen the gap between rich and poor even further, reducing Linda’s freedom to stay put if she wanted to.

As for our own nomads, I recommend Marxmailer Michael Yates’s “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue”. After retiring from decades of teaching economics, Michael and his wife Karen became nomads for many of the same reasons as the film’s subjects. They enjoyed being footloose and were open to taking low-paying jobs that were often the only kind available in the rugged back country they hoped to see in their peregrinations. Also, they always stayed indoors even if it was in a cheap motel! At Michael’s blog, titled the same as his book, you can read a chapter. From what I’ve read in this book, it would have made for a much more interesting film:

Again in Flagstaff, we were enjoying the exhibits in the Museum of Northern Arizona. We ended our visit with a stop at the museum’s bookstore. We were admiring the Indian-made works of art for sale when an Indian artist came in and showed the manager some of his jewelry and asked if the museum was interested in buying his pieces. Apparently the craftsmanship was good, but the Indian had been drinking and was known to the manager. The manager and his assistant treated this man as if he were a pathetic drunk unworthy of their time. He kept lowering his price, giving up whatever pride he had to these white people with money. A few minutes later, he was dismissed. After he left, the two museum staffers mocked him. The assistant, not realizing her ignorance, said that perhaps it was time for the Indian to join AA. We left the museum with heavy hearts. It was as if the history of white oppression of Indians had been reenacted in microcosm before our eyes.

In Estes Park, people smugly said about a group of shabby riverside shacks not far from our cabin, “Oh, that’s where the Mexicans live.” The local peace group didn’t bother to solicit support from local Mexicans because “They probably wouldn’t be interested. They have to work too hard and wouldn’t have time.” We were talking to a jewelry store owner who, after remarking on how much safer (often a code word for “whiter”) Estes Park was than his former home in Memphis, Tennessee, said that the Estes Park crime report was pretty small and those arrested always had names you couldn’t pronounce. (Those damned Mexicans again.) In the laundromat we met a woman from the Bayview section of Brooklyn, and she said that she had moved here because you couldn’t recognize her Brooklyn neighborhood anymore. She told us, without I think realizing how racist she sounded, that there were so many Arabs there now that locals call it “Bay Root.” “Get it?,” she said, “Bay Root.”

December 11, 2018

WWII ended the Great Depression, not New Deal economics

Filed under: Counterpunch,financial crisis,WWII — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

My views on these matters were first put forward in a blog post titled “Did World War Two End the Great Depression”, written in September, 2011. It cited a Paul Krugman Op-Ed piece written in 2008 and titled “Franklin Delano Obama?”. Krugman made the case that “What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.” With respect to the public works projects mentioned by Al Ronzoni, Krugman described them as “largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office.”

In Krugman’s view, FDR was someone who “thought he was being prudent by reining in his spending plans.” Sounds rather like Obama, doesn’t it? In fact, Krugman’s op-ed was a cautionary tale warning Obama, the supposed new FDR, not to be as tightfisted with government-funded recovery programs as occurred during the New Deal unless he wanted to take “big risks with the economy and with his legacy.”

Well, given the high costs of another world war (after all, those H-Bombs can make a real mess of things), Obama didn’t even create a public works program—the only option open to him. In fact, as I have argued, Obama was inspired more by Herbert Hoover than FDR. As someone who relied heavily on U. of Chicago economists, he was not likely to embark on a new New Deal despite all the advice he got from Paul Krugman, The Nation Magazine, Huffington Post, et al.

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October 3, 2017

The political economy of hurricanes and debt

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

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

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

January 29, 2017

Divided We Fall

Filed under: Film,financial crisis,trade unions,ultraright,Wisconsin,workers — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

If victorious strikes by teamsters in Minneapolis in 1934, by San Francisco dockworkers the same year and auto workers three years later in Flint define the rise of the American working class as a powerful force to be reckoned with, three confrontations between labor and capital in our lifetime mark its retreat.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 airline controllers who had gone out on strike as a signal that the partnership between labor and capital was a thing of the past. Four years later, the meatpacking workers organized as P-9 struck Hormel in an effort to maintain the good-paying jobs with generous benefits that were seen as essential for a decent middle-class existence. With the defeat of P-9, jobs at Hormel and other meatpacking jobs became non-union, low-paying and dangerous with a predominantly immigrant workforce made up in large part of vulnerable undocumented workers.

While not a strike as such, the union-led struggle in Madison, Wisconsin of 2011 was launched to prevent teachers and other public service employees from being “Hormelized”. When Governor Scott Walker introduced a bill in January of that year that would cut wages, benefits and eliminate dues checkoff—a mechanism that is essential to keeping a union functioning in a closed shop environment—over 100,000 people took part in a “kill the bill” movement that adopted many of the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement that erupted a couple of months later.

For those not old enough to have bitter memories of the P-9 strike, I recommend tracking down Barbara Kopple’s 1990 film “American Dream” that unfortunately is nowhere to be seen on VOD but that can be borrowed as a DVD from better libraries, such as Columbia University’s. Kopple is also the director of “Harlan County, USA”, another documentary about labor struggles, in that case a 1973 strike by coal miners in the legendary pro-union county that voted 8-1 for Donald Trump in November.

Kopple has declined in recent years, stooping so low as to make a documentary about Woody Allen in 1997 and following up with a docudrama about the Hamptons in 2002 that was a Yankee version of British soap operas like Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey.

Fortunately for us, a new Barbara Kopple has emerged, namely Katherine M. Acosta, the sociologist and obviously politically advanced director of “Divided We Fall”, a film about the Wisconsin labor struggle that I had the good fortune to watch yesterday. For now, the film has not found a distributor and hopefully this review will inspire some enterprising party to invest in this film that is equal to Kopple at her best and moreover a story that demands the attention of everybody trying to understand how we have ended up with an orange-haired baboon in the White House determined to throw us back to the 1880s. Essentially, the defeat of the public workers struggle in Wisconsin involved all of the players and all of the contradictions that led to the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the nightmare we are now living with.

Even if you’ve read every article about the Wisconsin struggle as it was unfolding in 2011, nothing comes close to seeing exactly how young people and workers rallied to the capitol building to put their bodies on the line to oppose Scott Walker’s anti-labor assault that was as calculated a bid to destroy organized labor that year as Reagan’s firing of the airline controllers was in 1985.

Acosta draws from a wide variety of interviewees, from relatively lowly teaching assistants at the U. of Wisconsin, including FB friend Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, who is a brilliant Marxist analyst in her own right, to sociology professor Rahul Mahajan, who I first ran into in the mid-90s as a graduate student on the list that would evolve into Marxmail. Rahul is witty, wise and as informed in class analysis as Wrigley-Field. So, with people like that in the front ranks of the occupation of the capitol building and in strategy meetings, what could have gone wrong? The title of the film says it all. The movement was divided and as such bound to fail.

There were basically three blocs involved within the workers’ camp but each with its own priorities. Those closest to the student movement like Wrigley-Field and Mahajan were revolutionaries, to put it bluntly. They saw the fight against Scott Walker in exactly the same way that Farrell Dobbs saw the fight to organize truck drivers in 1934, as the first step in building a new (in this instance, renewed) labor movement that could fight effectively for the interests of workers in general and lead ultimately to a transformation of American society.

In the middle were union officials at the local level who had to stand up for the rights of their membership, those people who would be forced to pay more for health insurance and face wage stagnation. Like the average member, the officials had a class status just one step above precarity. Losing a job as a clerical worker in an AFSCME union could plunge some into penury and worse. The officials often came directly out of that social layer and knew what was at stake.

The head of AFSCME, who was led off in handcuffs toward the end of the film, was Marty Beil. Beil, who died two years ago, was a bear of a man with Michael Moore’s physique (or lack thereof) who understood the importance of AFSCME better than the top officials in Washington. Formed in Wisconsin in 1932, AFSCME was the first and foremost organizer of predominantly white collar clerical government jobs even though it grew to include firefighters. It is of some interest that Beil’s first job was as a probation and parole officer, not exactly the sort of position that you would associate with labor militancy. As the film makes clear, the police presence at the capitol building was initially drawn from campus and local cops who were much more sympathetic to the struggle, even to the point of marching in support. Such contradictions might vex those addicted to Marxist schemas but one that the film skillfully engages with especially as these cops were replaced by state troopers who had no use for workers at all.

Another powerful presence from the local labor movement was John Matthews, the president of the city’s public schoolteacher’s union who combines a soft-spoken Midwest speaking style with a willingness to openly confront the national leadership of his union. These big shots parachuted into Madison and stayed at a luxury hotel, where they mapped out a strategy to settle the strike on terms favorable to Scott Walker.

For reasons probably having something to do with being reluctant to defend their role in in Acosta’s film, they are not heard from. But you don’t need to hear from AFSCME president Gerald McEntee to know what agenda he would follow in Madison. In 2009, McEntee was being paid $480,000 per year. When you make that kind of money, plus fringe benefits such as staying at Madison’s best hotel on the membership’s dime, you tend to lose track of the sort of class antagonisms that drove the average worker to rise up.

Another problem was the reliance on Democratic Party “friends of labor” who were just as eager as McEntee to deescalate the struggle in Madison and get things back to normal, even as they were giving speeches in support of the unions and in working to undermine Republican attempts to steamroll through Walker’s legislation.

If the film consisted of nothing but talking heads, it would still be worth watching, particularly to hear from Wrigley-Field, Mahajan and other radical students and professors at the U. of Wisconsin. But beyond that, Acosta was present throughout the occupation directing her film crew to capture the Occupy Wall Street type drama of those sitting in. That footage combined with the commentary by people involved with the struggle make up for an unforgettable movie experience that screams out for nationwide distribution.

The film makes clear that occupy type tactics could only go so far. The Republicans had a majority in the state legislative bodies and would ultimately prevail. Of course, the real question is why a shit-hook like Scott Walker could ever become governor of a progressive state like Wisconsin.

Once the occupation ran out of steam (helped along by “kettling” tactics by the state troopers), the trade union officials and Democrats thought that the answer was to replace Walker. Instead of considering ways to block the legislation by either a general strike (probably an over-projection by some leftists) or guerrilla tactics in the workplace like “sick-outs” or working by the rule, all the energy went into the recall campaign.

But the recall was to no avail. Walker was reelected. Why?

He was reelected because he was to Donald Trump as his Democratic Party opponent Tom Barrett was to Hillary Clinton. Walker had defeated Barrett in 2010 and by even more votes in the 2012 recall election. This has to do with Barrett running exactly the same kind of campaign as Clinton, one geared to the “swing voter” and careful to avoid any association with trade unions, sit-ins and the like.

But looking past the Wisconsin context, which the film understandably did not try to address, I would suggest that there was an important element that militated against success. As the film’s title implies, there were problems of being divided—but not just within the labor movement but in the Wisconsin population as a whole. Seen as benefiting from Democratic Party largesse, the taxpayers felt that these unions were a privileged layer. If Wisconsin was facing a fiscal crisis, why shouldn’t teachers et al not have to “chip in” to bail out the state?

The fiscal crisis, of course, was rooted in a system that included “starving the beast”. State budgets were in the red because taxes kept being cut. If the Democratic Party had stood up to the rich, returned tax rates to what they were under Eisenhower, pushed through single-payer health insurance and stood up for the rights of homeowners who had been devastated by the subprime meltdown of 2008, maybe the voters would have been more motivated to back the Democrats. This would have required a total transformation of the labor movement that might yet be in the offing as we sail into the stormy seas facing us over the next four years. As Harriet Rowan, one of the politically astute graduate students interviewed in the film, put it toward the end of the film, we can’t wait for the leadership to catch up with the people.

 

 

May 30, 2016

Is America committing slow-motion suicide? A look at the decline of CUNY

Filed under: economics,Education,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Since my wife is a faculty member at Lehman College, the picture of its library in yesterday’s NY Times captured my attention:

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 1.12.29 PM

Lehman and other City University of New York colleges were profiled in an article titled “Dreams Stall as CUNY, New York City’s Engine of Mobility, Sputters” that like so many in the newspaper recently depicts an American in deep if not irreversible decline. Lehman’s library was a case in point:

At Lehman College in the Bronx, Robert Farrell, an associate professor in the library department, said the library’s entire book budget this academic year was $13,000, down from about $60,000 a decade ago. Because the roof has been chronically leaky, about 200 books were damaged during a rainstorm three years ago; a tarp still covers some volumes.

Mr. Farrell also said that the library has had to reduce its spending on academic journals and database subscriptions. “We can’t be a serious institution of higher learning without providing our faculty and students with access to these kinds of things,” he said.

It was just one more reminder that the ruling class of the USA has no intention of funding the public good. With respect to private enterprise, unless the same kinds of profits can be generated on American soil that can be made overseas in an epoch when capital takes wings and flies around the globe in search of higher profits, you will wait in vain for the post-WWII prosperity that both the Trump and Sanders campaign evoke. After all, capitalism does not exist to create middle-class jobs. It exists to allow men and some women to be able to buy $15 million condominiums in New York and vacation in St. Bart’s just like Gaddafi’s sons did.

The article mentions that the City University of New York was founded by Townsend Harris in 1847 as the Free Academy of New York to educate “the children of the whole people.” What a benign figure. But if you take five minutes digging into his past, you will learn that he was named the first Consul General to Japan in July, 1856 just after Commodore Perry made the Japanese an offer they couldn’t refuse. Perry commanded a fleet of four warships that arrived in Edo Bay on July 8, 1853. After the Japanese instructed him to go to Nagasaki, the designated port for foreign contact, he threatened to burn Edo to the ground unless they kowtowed to American demands to “open” up their country for trade. As it happens, the American Manifest Destiny that led to this gunboat diplomacy and the creation of a school for “the children of the whole people” went hand in hand. Slavery, colonial expansion abroad and internal expansion through the grab of Mexican and Indian land were essential to the consolidation of a modern capitalist powerhouse that needed an educated workforce to maintain its ledger books and sell its commodities.

It is questionable whether the same imperative exists today, even as neocolonialism and the oppression of Mexicans and Indians continue.

It is probably not news to people who have been following higher education issues as I have ever since I began working at Columbia University in 1991, but essentially the powers that be are “starving the beast” as Grover Norquist urged. The Times reports:

Since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student, while tuition has risen by 33 percent, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Arizona is spending 56 percent less, while students are paying 88 percent more. In Louisiana, students are spending 80 percent more on tuition, while state funding has been cut by 39 percent.

The article places emphasis on feuding between NYC mayor Bill De Blasio, hailed by the liberal left like Obama was in 2008, and Governor Cuomo about whom there are no illusions. Cuomo has foisted much of the funding for CUNY on the city, a burden it can ill afford. Some say that this is his way of paying back the PSC, my wife’s union, for backing his rival Zephyr Teachout in the DP primaries in the last gubernatorial election.

As a frequent visitor to the Nicaragua Network meetings in 1989, De Blasio struck me as a smooth operator but I hardly figured him as a future mayor. Despite dark reminders about his visit to Cuba and Sandinista sympathies, De Blasio has been a reliable friend of real estate interests. In yesterday’s Times, there’s an op-ed piece on the gentrification of Harlem that nails him for his failure to take them on:

Still Harlem endures as a community with high hopes, and in 2013, we felt sure we had found a champion. Bill de Blasio ran as the mayor for everyone, which we figured had to include Harlem. Black voters were crucial to his victory, and we thought we were covered and cared for. He even has a likable son, as liable to get stopped by the police as ours might.

We were wrong. The man we saw as “our mayor” may talk about housing affordability, but his vision is far from the rent control and public housing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia once supported, and that made New York affordable for generations. Instead, he has pushed for private development and identified unprotected, landmark-quality buildings as targets. He and the City Council have effectively swept aside contextual zoning limits, which curb development that might change the very essence of a neighborhood, in Harlem and Inwood, farther north. At best, his plan seems to be to develop at all speed and costs, optimistic that the tax revenues and good graces of the real estate barons allow for a few affordable apartments to be stuffed in later.

Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, one of the more prestigious campuses in the CUNY system, blogged about the article:

The piece makes a brief nod to my campus, Brooklyn College, whose “rapidly deteriorating campus” has earned it the moniker “Brokelyn College.”

I can personally attest to that. On Thursday, as I left campus, I stopped in the men’s room of our wing of James Hall. One of the two urinals was out of business, covered by a plastic sheet. I sighed, and thought back to the time, about a year ago, that that urinal was so covered for about six months. The clock in my office has been stopped for over a year. Our department administrator tried to get it fixed: it worked for two days, and broke again.

He includes a picture of the desks in a classroom:

You can bet that there are no desks like that at NYU or Columbia where the students are being prepped for jobs in the financial services or those sectors of the economy that look after big business’s far-flung empire. I imagine that an MBA from either of these two schools and a minor in computer science might open doors at an accounting firm or investment bank. Art history or sociology? Forgettaboutit.

You have to understand the decline of CUNY in the context of public higher education’s nationwide crisis. Everywhere you look, schools are being denied funding adequate to their needs. This almost certainly means that it will be more and more difficult for American corporations to staff the middle-tier managerial positions for which these schools are expected to furnish. The Times article points to the difficulties a young woman is facing trying to become qualified as a public school teacher:

At City College, Anais McAllister, 22, a senior from Yonkers, said she had planned to major in English with a concentration in education, which would have allowed her to become a teacher after graduation. When some of her required education classes were canceled, she realized she would need another year — and another $6,000, at least — to graduate with the education credential.

With her scholarship expiring at the end of this academic year, and a younger brother entering trade school in the fall to obtain his plumber certification, she dropped the education concentration.

“The fact that this can happen, where your department can be cut financially where you have to think about dropping it, is ridiculous,” she said.

With her problems probably being repeated across the system, it will be difficult for public schools to operate effectively, which obviously will be of little importance to someone like Cuomo who is a major backer of charter schools.

When Corey Robin posted a link to the Times article yesterday morning on FB, the first comment to appear was this: “We’re committing slow-motion suicide as a country.” I responded as follows:

This is obviously related to the state of American capitalism that in its current phase has little interest in the kind of national development that led to all sorts of public investments such as expressways, railway systems, higher education on one hand and on the other private investment in nationally-based manufacturing (auto, steel, etc.) Bernie Sanders advocates investment in the former but really has no idea how to get the capitalist class to invest in American manufacturing when you can get Mexican auto workers to accept much lower wages. The writing is on the wall but it is not suicide–it is homicide. Andrew Cuomo, the Koch brothers, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Barack Obama–all of them could care less if Lehman College, where my wife works, has a leaking ceiling. They are only interested in serving their own class interests. The USA needs a socialist revolution and the longer we place hopes in capitalist reform, the longer we delay confronting the tasks that are staring us in the face.

Of course in FB, you are loath to post longer comments but I’d like to now expand upon what I wrote.

On May 15th Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Rutgers University that contained this Panglossian statement:

Point number one:  When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt.  (Laughter and applause.)  Take it with a grain of salt.  We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history.  We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before.  But I guess it’s part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.

Guess what.  It ain’t so.  (Laughter.)  The “good old days” weren’t that great.  Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly.  There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will.  But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes.  In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.  (Applause.)

Although the students were likely to appreciate the president’s visit, they might have questioned his take on the “good old days” considering that the school’s tuition is now $13,000 per year, one of the most expensive public university in the country. Of course, the school has tried to generate revenue through its athletic program but it keeps running into scandals on an almost yearly basis, the latest one connected to the football coach trying to get the administration to overlook a star player’s failing grades.

The problem for Obama is that many Americans do remember “the good old days”, which were not that long ago. When I was a student at the New School in 1967 and had completed most of the credits I needed for a PhD in Philosophy, I needed a job to keep me going as I worked on my dissertation. That led to jobs as a welfare worker and 5th grade teacher in Harlem that went begging back then when AFDC and funding for public education were in ample supplies as part of the Great Society—funded to some extent by feverish war spending a la Military Keynesianism.

When those jobs became too much of a psychological toll, I began looking at the classified ads in the Sunday Times business section, which usually ran for 5 pages or so. They were in alphabetical order and I turned directly to those that started “college graduates”. There were usually about three hundred listed that read something like this: “Major insurance company seeks programmer trainees, starting salary $6000. No experience necessary.” That’s how I got my first job at Met Life in 1968. The $6000 was adequate to pay for a modest one-bedroom or studio apartment. For me that was “the good old days” even though it was inextricably linked to a brutal imperialist war that would cost the lives of millions of Vietnamese.

For most working people in the area, jobs could be landed at places like Ford Motors in Mahwah, New Jersey or the oil refineries just across the river along the New Jersey Turnpike. Those were good union jobs that paid the kind of money that would allow you to live in a suburban tract housing and send your kids to college. Those who remember those “good old days” are being wooed by both Trump and Sanders who have about as much of an idea to bring them back as I do about the origins of the universe.

None of this matters to Barack Obama or the rich bastards who are funding both the Democrats and Republicans an on equal opportunity for profit basis. Their newspapers like the NY Times and even Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal can publish hand-wringing items like the one on CUNY but in the final analysis, they have no idea how to make America “great” again.

We are living in a period that can both be described as capitalist decline and capitalist expansion. Places like Detroit go down the tubes but for the capitalist investor, it could not be any better. All you need to do is stroll around the Chelsea neighborhood in NYC and gaze at the new condominiums that are the preferred homes for Wall Street hedge fund operators or plutocrats from Brazil, Russia, India or China, the bloc of nations that are supposed to be rescuing us from neoliberalism according to imbeciles like Mike Whitney.

The truth is that we are in a new kind of “The Other America”, the 1962 book that SP leader Michael Harrington wrote about the pockets of poverty in a nation in which everybody else was prospering. The coal fields of West Virginia and California’s Central Valley came under the spotlight. Nowadays, it is getting to the point where there will be pockets of extreme wealth surrounded by oceans of poverty or near-poverty only relieved by those middle-class families that can tread water sufficiently to keep from drowning.

This is not a nation “committing suicide”. It is one in which the superrich are killing the rest of us through a slow process of attrition. There is absolutely nothing in Bernie Sanders’s economic program that can reverse this. The idea that the USA can adopt a Nordic socialist model when Northern Europe itself has been cutting back on social programs and making life hell for immigrants is—in a word—utopian. The sooner we revive the radical movement of the sixties in which Sanders was committed to genuine socialism, the better.

 

 

May 8, 2016

Karl Marx rides again

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

**FILE**John Wayne appears in a scene from "True Grit," a Hal Wallis production, directed by Henry Hathaway. Wayne won his best-actor Oscar for his role in the 1969 movie. Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison, would have turned 100 on Saturday, May 26, 2007. He died at the age of 72 of stomach cancer in June of 1979 after a career that spanned more than 170 films. (AP Photo)

(From my 2014 archives)

Seemingly three or four years late in the game, Rolling Stone weighed in on the relevance of Karl Marx. In an article titled Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014, Sean McElwee told his readers that the Great Recession of 2008 confirmed Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system as “chaotic” and “crisis-prone”.

Just to make sure that nobody would accuse him of being a Commie, McElwee also points out that Marx was wrong about many things, especially failing to offer a proposal about what should replace capitalism. This lack left his writing “open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century.” Now it should be said that Marx never intended to write about the workings of socialism, not that this would have made any difference to Stalin. The horrors of the USSR have much less to do with Marx’s failure to write what he called “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (Afterword to the 1873 edition of V. 1 of Capital) than the sheer backwardness of Czarist Russia, exacerbated by a bloody civil war.

I could not help but notice the renewal of interest in Karl Marx’s ideas just after the 2008 financial crisis began. While the Communist Manifesto is the second-best selling book in history, there was a pronounced spike in sales around that time, no doubt aided by Marx’s words that read like a prophecy: “The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.” McElwee paraphrases Marx: “Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more Americans to take on debt. When there were no subprime borrows left to scheme, the whole façade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.”

It is interesting to note that Sean McElwee does not allow his past associations with John Stossel, the Hudson Institute and Reason Magazine to prejudice him against Karl Marx, a sure sign that history is moving in the right direction. There was a time when McElwee found rightwing ideas more useful. After graduating from King’s College in New York, a school with the dubious distinction of having Dinesh D’Souza named president in 2010, McElwee’s writings tilted rightward as evidenced by his Reason article arguing that plastic garbage floating around in the oceans was not that worrisome.

After 2008 there were deep worries in the financial punditocracy. You might remember that scene in China Syndrome when the first shudders took place in the nuclear reactor. Was this going to be the “Big One”? That is how Nouriel Roubini must have felt on August 11, 2011 when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer:

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

Even more shockingly, George Magnus, an economist with the UBS investment bank, advised Bloomberg News readers to Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy just 18 days after Roubini’s interview appeared. Magnus quoted Marx’s Capital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” But his solutions had more to do with Keynes than Marx, such as this one: “Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.” If Karl Marx confronted a crisis as deep as the one we faced in 2008, his advice would have been to nationalize the banks not use them as tools for fiscal pump-priming.

However, Umair Haque probably spoke for most of these commentators—including Sean McElwee, I imagine—when after posing the question Was Marx Right? in the Harvard Business Review he came down squarely on the side of capitalism. After giving Marx his due (“Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed”), Haque sides with McElwee on the “recipe” question: “Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but.”

It is, of course, only natural that Marx’s books get taken off the bookshelves and dusted off during a period of profound economic crisis. For that matter, a political crisis will also have the same effect. In 1967 I took the unprecedented steps of reading the Communist Manifesto after two years of facing the draft and working in Harlem as a welfare investigator. A combination of napalm bombing of peasant villages and urban rebellions against racism and poverty convinced me that a revolution was necessary and who better to consult on that matter than Karl Marx?

I made the decision at that time to join the movement founded by Leon Trotsky since his connections to Karl Marx seemed to have more of a pedigree than those of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. I failed to realize at the time that notions of pedigrees were exactly what prevented Marxism from full development.

In April 1939, just a year before his assassination, Leon Trotsky wrote Marxism in Our Time as an introduction to a new edition of Karl Marx’s V. 1 of Capital. It is of extraordinary value as a statement of the ABC’s of Marxism, as well as unwitting evidence of its unresolved contradictions.

Trotsky does not shy away from the key challenge to Marxism that I first heard in a social studies class in 1958 when the American economy was reaching new heights–what his article refers to as “the theory of increasing misery”. Our teacher said something that most of us heard in public school growing up in the USA. It goes something like this: Karl Marx was right about workers being oppressed and exploited in 1850 but he never would have dreamed about how wealthy they would become a hundred years later. Probably the first person to articulate this seemingly irrefutable point of view was Werner Sombart, the German ex-Marxist and author of Why there is no Socialism in America.

Writing in 1939, when misery was widespread throughout the capitalist world, Trotsky would seem to have had the upper hand but interestingly enough he sought to vindicate Marx’s analysis not on the basis of what existed during the depths of the Great Depression but at the height of its economic vitality: the roaring 20s. Trotsky observed that while industrial production increased by 50 per cent between 1920 and 1930, wages only rose only by 30 per cent. The workers were getting screwed in the best of times.

Like the nuclear reactor that withstood a meltdown in China Syndrome, the American economy supposedly is in recovery. Of course there are those unfortunates who cannot seem to find a job, especially in the Black community, but the stock market is at an all-time high and the housing market—according to the experts—is doing quite well. GM is showing a handsome profit even if it faces criminal charges for failing to inform owners of their cars that a faulty ignition might lead to fatal accidents.

More to the point, the NY Times of March 12, 2014 reported on economist Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that would be of little assurance to anybody except the wealthy. Piketty deploys a mountain of data to prove that economic inequality will not only persist into the future but that the system itself is the primary generator, not “vampire squids” as Matt Taibbi put it. It is the very nature of the system that leads to a concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom. Timesman Eduardo Porter, not a critic of capitalism after the fashion of Nouriel Roubini, puts it bluntly:

The deep concern about the distribution of income and wealth that inspired 19th-century thinkers like David Ricardo and Karl Marx was attributed to a misunderstanding of the dynamics of growth leavened with the natural pessimism that would come from living in a time of enormous wealth and deep squalor, an era that gave us “Les Misérables” and “Oliver Twist.”

Today, of course, it’s far from obvious that the 19th-century pessimists were entirely wrong.

Glancing back across history from the present-day United States, it looks as if Kuznets’s curve swerved way off target. Wages have been depressed for years. Profits account for the largest share of national income since the 1930s. The richest 10 percent of Americans take a larger slice of the economic pie than they did in 1913, at the peak of the Gilded Age.

Recently, a trend within Marxism has emerged that argues against the importance of “immiseration” altogether. To somehow link revolution with a declining standard of living is tantamount to what they call “Catastrophism”, a word in the title of a collection of essays edited by West Coast radio host Sasha Lilley: Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Lilley’s chapter (Great Chaos Under Heaven: Catastrophism and the Left) in the collection can be read in Google books, something I highly recommend it even if I disagree with every word. Lilley is a stimulating thinker who can at least be given credit for being forthright. While she correctly discredits the notion that the capitalist system will collapse as a result of its own contradictions (Marx instead believed that cyclical crisis was endemic to the system), she goes too far in saying that crisis itself was inimical to class consciousness and political struggle and that an expanding capitalist economy was far more propitious for the left:

With the exception of the 1930s, periods of intense working class combativeness in the United States have tended to coincide with periods of economic expansion, not contraction and crisis. The two big strike waves of the early twentieth century, from 1898 to 1904 and 1916 to 1920, took place during years of growth. These were periods in which radical workers forced employers to raise wages—by 35 percent between 1890 and 1920—and, through struggle, successfully shortened the workweek by nine hours. These strikes were fueled by relative prosperity, and industrial action fell off when the economy moved downward.

Workers struck throughout the early 1960s for that matter. This was a time when the UAW, the Teamsters, and the railway unions went out on strike for substantial wage increases all the time. During the brief time I was a public school teacher in the late 60s, Albert Shanker was one of the most “militant” trade unionists in the U.S. if going out on strike is some kind of litmus test. This was the guy after all who resulted in civilization being destroyed after he got his hands on a nuclear weapon, as the Doctor told Woody Allen in Sleeper after he awoke. That’s pretty militant but I do not think that’s the sort of thing Lilley had in mind.

But the kinds of strikes that capture Marxist’s attention are not the Samuel Gompers inspired affairs for higher wages. Instead we study what happened in Flint, Michigan in 1936 and 1937 when workers occupied factories and battled the cops and National Guard. This was a strike that began to educate workers about FDR back-stabbing the CIO. Like it and so many other major class battles of the 1930s, it eventually came to naught because the Communist or Social Democratic leadership (Victor and Walter Reuther in the case of the UAW) was determined to back FDR. If the trade union movement had broken with the Democrats and launched a labor party, American politics would look a lot different today.

In the final analysis, it is politics that is key for Marxism in our time. Accepting Piketty’s findings at face value (something made easier by the “new normal” of unemployment, stagnating wages, environmental despoliation, and decaying infrastructure), the emphasis should be on strengthening the left and challenging the rich on every single issue that divides us. Nobody can predict when and if the class struggle will reach such an advanced level that workers will become revolutionary, but the best way to move forward in that direction is by exploiting every injury and insult to those who own nothing but their labor power.

Although Marx was the first to understand the laws of motion in capitalism, it was really up to Lenin to think through what strategies were most effective. Ironically, it was lessons he learned from the German Social Democracy that helped him to formulate policies for a Czarist state that on the surface had little in common with a parliamentary democracy like Germany’s.

In “What is to be Done?”, Lenin appealed to his Russian co-thinkers to learn from the Germans:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

You have to wonder how our dogmatic Marxists of today can have so little appreciation for how the Russian social democracy operated. Could you imagine any of the 57 varieties of “Leninist” sects ever taking up the cause of a “bourgeois progressive” being denied the right to take office? Just recently, the Senate rejected Obama’s appointment of Debo Adegbile to a top civil rights post because he had participated in an appeal filed on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A powerful left party in the USA would have raised hell about this, even if the Democrats did not lift a finger.

In terms of the laws against “obscene” publications and pictures, and governmental interference in the election of professors, Lenin is amazingly prophetic when you think of Piss Christ and Ward Churchill. In many ways, capitalism is not just about whether the boss is enjoying a higher return on profits than a worker’s rise in wages since Marxism is not reducible to economic determinism. Capitalism constitutes an assault on our lives during every working moment of the day and the duty of a revolutionist is to find ways to get people to come out of their apolitical shell and take part in civil society in order to fight for greater freedoms now and total liberation after the final conflict.

But in order to become effective, Marxism has to learn how to avoid the “pedigree” trap alluded to above since size matters. Nothing prevents growth more than hairsplitting after all. To be taken seriously by working people, socialists have to get out of their isolation chambers and use ideas and language drawn from their nation’s own experience. This means first and foremost casting off the iconography of the Russian Revolution and especially terms like “communism” that would be totally misunderstood by the ordinary person even if they excite Slavoj Žižek.

In early 2010 the Gallup Poll discovered that 36 percent of Americans view socialism positively. Can you imagine if Gallup had used the word communism instead? That word might have registered more positively in the NYU sociology department but we are far more interested in what appeals to the average American.

As is most likely the case, Kshama Sawant was elected to City Council in Seattle by representing herself as a socialist rather than a communist and downplaying the dogmatic beliefs of her Trotskyist organization. Instead of making speeches about the need for a Leninist party, it was the need for a $15 minimum wage that won her volunteers and votes.

As a sign of how intoxicated the left can become when it loses track of what century it is in, the Socialist Workers Party of the USA—a group Leon Trotsky hailed as most faithful to his party-building conceptions—dismissed Sawant’s campaign as “reformist”:

Constrained to the narrow boundaries that typify capitalist election contests for local offices, her literature avoided important political issues that affect all workers, such as high unemployment and a woman’s right to choose abortion. It made no mention of key international issues, Syria, the place of the Cuban Revolution, the common interests of working people worldwide against the bosses or the global crisis of capitalism that is driving their attacks against us.

Considering that her bid was for City Council, it made eminent good sense for her not to make speeches about Syria and the Cuban Revolution (whatever that means in 2014, when the country seems poised to adopt the Chinese model).

Not long after the cops expelled the last Occupy protester out of the last public park, I had hopes that the movement could have come together and run candidates under the name of the Occupy Party. Unfortunately, the autonomist and anarchist prejudices of the key activists made this impossible. For the ordinary person, taking a leave of absence from their job in order to camp out in the bitter cold was never a realistic possibility to begin with.

Making every possible tie to the Occupy movement, the Sawant campaign became a small token of what may be possible if the American left puts aside its petty differences and began to come together in a common organization to defend the rights of working people for a livable wage as well as their freedom to go to a museum and see works like Piss Christ or photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.

We have no crystal ball that would indicate when such an organization has reached the critical mass that is necessary to lead to the explosive reaction that can transform society and usher in a new civilization based on freedom and justice but we must do everything in our power to remove all obstacles in our way, especially those put there in the name of Marxism.

March 11, 2016

Boom Bust Boom

Filed under: economics,Film,financial crisis,humor — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

If I were to mention that a new film opened today that consisted pretty much of economists discussing financial crisis, your eyes would glaze over, right? But when such a film is directed by Monty Python alum Terry Jones, that’s a horse of another color. (It is co-directed by Bill Jones who directed a documentary on fellow alum Graham Chapman and Ben Timlett who produced a six-part TV tribute to the group.)

So what you get is a wickedly funny but mind-expanding analysis of 2008 by economists both famous (Paul Krugman) and famous only to their comrades (Nathan Tankus) that is driven by the proposition that the capitalist system is inherently unstable.

To give you an idea of how deep it gets into its material, it spends 15 minutes reprising Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis using his son Alan and a cartoon representation of dad going back and forth on the ramifications. As someone who has delved somewhat superficially into Minsky over the years (I prefer the more hard-core Marxists obviously) but never quite understood him, this was an amazing segment that finally allowed his ideas to sink in. Put in a nutshell, crises are cyclical affairs that grow out of stability. When a system is stable as the American economy was after WWII, it is easier for a sense of euphoria to develop that leads to speculation of the sort that makes bubbles possible. Once the bubble bursts, the system goes into crisis and a sense of impending doom. Then, once again, the system drags itself out of the abyss and new round of stability ensues–leading once again to another round of instability.

Minsky is much beloved by a number of the interviewees including Randall Wray from the U. of Missouri (a department that tolerates dissidents opposed to neoclassical bunkum), New Yorker Magazine contributor John Cassidy, British journalist Paul Mason, and our boy genius Nathan Tankus from Naked Capitalism and PEN-L.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 3.43.58 PM

We learn that Minsky decided to study economics in the 1930s because the pat answers being presented by academic experts and media pundits was so out of whack with the reality. As it turns out, it was the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement (events that can be understood as a somewhat less cataclysmic repeat of the 1930s) that inspired Nathan to study economics. How do I know? He told me so.

Using puppets, animation and Terry Jones’s inspired narration, the film makes economic history not only understandable but hugely entertaining. For example, in reviewing past bubble-bursting affairs, it starts with the Tulip Mania in Holland of 1637 in which the lovely but ultimately common bulb was sold as if it were gold until one morning sellers showed up at a marketplace to discover that all the buyers were gone. Terry Jones illustrates this with an animated caricature of a Rembrandt portrait of a Dutch burgher singing “I kiss thee tulips with my two lips”.

Towards the end of the film, there is a well-deserved assault on the economics profession from people like Nathan who are trying to use the discipline as a tool for social change. We hear from students in the postgraduate economic society at the University of Manchester who like him are organizing extracurricular activities to examine about the true cause of economic instability, a phenomenon that their own instructors have ignored. One student points out that economics department get funding based on the studies they produce for mainstream outlets that are inherently neoclassical. So there is an economic incentive to falsify economics.

This is an amazing film that I can’t recommend highly enough. That being said, I did have a problem with a segment that seems to express a bias of the men who made it, namely that financial crises arise out of some deeply rooted flaw in human psychology that fosters a get rich quick behavior. Indeed, the film begins with an explanation for the subprime crisis that veers a bit too much in the direction of poor people getting mortgages they really didn’t qualify for.

We hear from scientists involved with studying rhesus monkey behavior on an island near Puerto Rico. They trained them to gamble by choosing one of two options: the safe choice offered them at least a little food for sure, while a risky choice generally offered them a bigger amount of food but only a fifty-fifty shot of getting it. One of the scientists argues that given 35 million years of evolution, such behavior is very difficult to eradicate.

This is a little too close to Jared Diamond’s sociobiology for comfort. I don’t think that evolution has anything to do with this. Generally speaking, pre-capitalist society, especially among hunting and gathering peoples, is marked by an aversion to risk. People hunted collectively in order to provide food that would keep them fed for a given period without any desire to accumulate after the fashion of a banker buying collateralized mortgage obligations in 2006.

Whenever I hear about monkeys or chimps having anything in common with us, I am reminded of a silly business in Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee”. This exercise in sociobiology (an updated version of the 19th century social Darwinism) includes a chapter titled “The Golden Age That Never Was” where he argues that since monkeys and apes have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the May 22, 1991 Independent that this lesson must have been lost on Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol and other homosexual artists.

“Boom Bust Boom” opened today at the Village East in New York City. Don’t miss it. It is more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

April 11, 2014

Reading Richard Seymour in the Age of Austerity

Filed under: economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 11:48 am
Strategies of Resistance

Reading Richard Seymour in the Age of Austerity

by LOUIS PROYECT

Dating back to the overthrow of Salvador Allende, financial austerity has been the watchword of the capitalist class. Frederick Hayek supplanted John Maynard Keynes in the ideological driver’s seat, as the free market became sacrosanct. Adding to the neoliberal momentum, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused Karl Marx to lose his official status for a third of mankind. Despite the hiccup of interest in Karl Marx following the 2007 financial meltdown and rueful reflections by Francis Fukuyama that it might not be the end of history after all, the mantra of balanced budgets and eliminating “waste” was taken up by politicians and pundits alike. To paraphrase W.H. Auden, we seem to be living through an Age of Austerity.

As perhaps the first study to take these issues head-on, Richard Seymour’s “Against Austerity” is a must-read primer for old hands in the class struggle and newcomers alike. Leaving aside the merits of his arguments—and they are plentiful—Seymour would be worth reading if for no other reason than his elegant and witty style. At the risk of inflating the young man’s ego, I regard him as the most compelling prose stylist on the left since Alexander Cockburn in his heyday and Christopher Hitchens before he turned into Mr. Hyde. Also, unlike most people who write for leftwing publishing houses, Seymour has a brash but self-effacing manner that is as refreshing as a cold beer on a sweltering summer night. From the book’s preface:

There is also a certain familiar use of esoteric political theory and rococo ornamentation that some readers will find off-putting. I hope so anyway. Those readers would be far better off reading something else. (Or, alternatively, stay and have your middlebrow sensibilities challenged.) This book comes with swearing and unapologetic intellectual swagger.

I imagine you’re scanning this page while still in the bookshop calculating whether you’d be willing to be seen reading this book on the train. If the above appeals to you, you’re probably a bit ‘wrong’ in some way, but I welcome you. If it doesn’t, then make your way the holy apotheosis of bookshops that is the ’3 for 2′ section. And buy yet more inconsequential shit with which to line your shelf of good intentions.

Read full article

October 19, 2013

Assault on Wall Street

Filed under: Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 1:23 pm

“Assault on Wall Street”, a B movie that was in and out of New York theaters about a year ago for only a moment and with scant attention from critics, just showed up on Netflix streaming. The director Uwe Boll is regarded as one of the worst in the world, with some considering him the “Ed Wood of the 21st century”. The film got one “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and six “rottens”. The one fresh came from my NYFCO colleague Prairie Miller who described it:

Possibly the only director on the planet who has garnered a strange recognition through utter infamy, Boll engages in a weirdly raw and rowdy subversive ideological descent into the dysfunctionally dark recesses of US culture.

Prairie’s full review

I went to a press screening but did not write anything about it since I considered it to be more in the grindhouse genre than a serious film dealing with the collapse of the financial system like J.C. Chandor’s great “Margin Call”.

Although I still am loath to overpraise this film, it is definitely worth watching if you are a Netflix subscriber. It starts out in exactly with the way that “Margin Call” ends with a Goldman-Sachs type firm dumping bundled securities worth almost nothing on unsuspecting clients, including a security guard named Jim Baxford who is a modern-day Job. His wife is undergoing expensive cancer treatments whose monthly costs are only partially covered by insurance. When his investments go south, he can no longer pay his bills and his wages become garnished. Once that happens, he loses his job as an armored truck guard since the company cannot keep someone with major financial burdens on the payroll since they theoretically might be tempted to become part of an inside job.

The only thing that Baxford becomes tempted into becoming is a combination of Travis Bickle and an Occupy Wall Street protester. The finale of the movie is a beautiful and deeply satisfying mass murder of a bunch of stockbrokers and other scumbags who victimized our hero. Is that a spoiler alert? Sorry about that.

German director Uwe Boll’s last film was obviously preparatory to this. Titled “Postal”, it is a “comedy” that Wikipedia describes as follows:

The film takes place in the town of Paradise, Arizona (a ghost town in real life), where the volatile Postal Dude, after being mocked at a job interview, kicked out of his local unemployment office and discovering that his morbidly obese wife is cheating on him, is more than a little angry and is desperate to get enough cash to finally leave his dead-end town. He decides to team up with his Uncle Dave, a slovenly con artist turned doomsday cult leader who owes the US government over a million dollars in back-taxes. With the help of Uncle Dave’s right hand man Richie and an army of big-breasted, scantily clad cult members, the Dude devises a plan to hijack a shipment of 2,000 Krotchy Dolls, a rare, sought-after plush toy resembling a giant scrotum. Uncle Dave plans to sell them online, where their prices have reached as high as $4,000 a doll.

Unbeknownst to them, Osama bin Laden and his group of Al-Qaeda terrorists, who had been secretly hiding in Paradise since September 11, under the watchful eye of bin Laden’s best friend George W. Bush, are after the same shipment, but for entirely different reasons. Hoping to outdo the catastrophe of 9/11, they plan to instill the dolls with Avian influenza and distribute them to unsuspecting American children. The two groups meet at the shipment’s destination, Nazi-themed amusement park Little Germany. A fight between Postal creator Vince Desi and Postal director and park owner Uwe Boll (which ends with Boll being shot in the genitals, confessing “I hate video games”), sparks a massive shootout between the cult, the terrorists and the police, resulting in the deaths of dozens of innocent children. The Dude and the cult are able to get away with both the shipment and the park’s opening day guest, Verne Troyer, pursued by Al-Qaeda, the police and a mob of angry citizens.

I can’t vouch for this but “Assault on Wall Street” does have its moments.

Boll is something of a character. In June 2006 he challenged some of his harshest critics to a boxing match, something I should have done with Vivek Chibber now that I think about it. He beat the living crap out of one of them:

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