Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2010

Argentina soccer players support the candidacy of the Grandmothers of May Square for the Nobel prize

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

From an Argentine socialist:

Dear friends, I am attaching a picture of the Arg World Cup Team holding a banner in support of the candidacy of the Grandmothers of May Square for the Nobel prize. I am sending it for good reason.

It seems to have been censored on every mainstream media outlet, including Internet concerns they control, because the main owner of the main private media group in Argentina, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, has a couple of stolen children. After a most protracted justice process, they are at last to undergo a confrontation of their DNA with data in the world famous National Genetic Data Bank of Argentina.

The CEO of the group has been reported as boasting long ago that he had obtained the kids for Mrs. Herrera de Noble.

In the midst of a war against the great media, the results of this comprobation are unfathomable.

And it is the Grandmothers who are behind the whole thing.

Please circulate as widely as you can.

October 16, 2009

Latin Music addendum

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 12:35 am

Desi Arnaz, husband to and co-star with Lucille Ball of the I Love Lucy Show in the 1950s when Latin Music was first taking off, performs “Babalu Aiye”, a Yoruban hymn to the Orisha god of death and healing. When I was a kid, we used to love to sing “Babalu”, the Afro-Cuban Santeria chant that slaves brought over from the Yoruba kingdom.

October 14, 2009

PBS Latin music documentary

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Departing from its usual stodgy, white bread fare, PBS has scheduled a two-part series on Latin Music. The first part aired last Monday night and can be viewed on their website as well, a benefit for those who are outside of the USA.

Part one focused on Afro-Cuban music and particularly the Fania Records phenomenon. When I was collecting vinyl records, I bought at least 50 Fania Records starting from the mid 70s until the label began to peter out after its sale in 1979. Fania was the place to go if you wanted to hear artists like Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and Larry Harlow—all of whom are interviewed for this superb documentary. Now in their 50s and 60s, they reflect back on the golden age of Salsa, a term that was practically synonymous with the Fania label. The best way to think of Salsa is Afro-Cuban musician adapted to the streets of New York City. It is still played but without the passion and creativity of the 1970s. Like the jazz of that period, it was an art form that reached maturity and now exists only as a pale shadow of its golden age. And just as the Blue Note label epitomized classic modern jazz, so did the Fania label epitomize Salsa.

Part one puts Salsa into historical context, showing the importance of a Cuban musician like Israel “Cachao” Lopez who along with his brother Orestes López practically invented the Mambo in the 1940s. Cachao died in 2008 at the age of 90 but I had the great fortune to see him in concert. This is from my review:

While I’m sure just about everybody is aware of the phenomenon of Afro-Cuban music, or the derivative “salsa”, some words are in order about the origins of this music. Afro-Cuban music is distinguished by a rhythm known as “clave”, the Spanish word for key. This is a one-two-THREE, one-two beat that underlies all the various forms, from Mambo to Rumba to Charanga (what evolved into the 1950s dance craze, the cha-cha.) The music is characterized by improvisations on a repeated theme that grow in intensity. Imagine Ravel’s Bolero with a driving bongo beat and passionate lead singer and you get the idea.

The music is a marriage of African percussion and Spanish dance music that originated on the island of Cuba in the 1920s. A typical Afro-Cuban conjuto (band) consisted of African percussion instruments–bongo, timbale, conga–and some combination of brass, piano and strings. A key component was a coro (chorus) or lead singer who sang in a nasal, high-pitched style that evoked the folk singers of the countryside. Some musicologists speculate that this singing style was derived from the slaves’ attempt to vocally imitate the sounds of the guitar that they heard being played inside the plantation.

Two of the great pioneers of the style were the blind guitar player Arsenio Rodriguez and bandleader Benny More. Rodriguez adopted the polite danzon style of the predominantly white middle-class Cuban society and adapted it for performance in working-class African dance-halls in the 1930s. His driving guitar and the tight percussion ensembles that accompanied him captured the imagination of Cuban society. More’s band adapted the swing style of contemporaries like Count Basie and he performed before huge audiences in Havana throughout the 1940s and 50s. His music in turn influenced American Jazz, especially Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban Jazz orchestras of the 1940s and 50s. Gillespie hired the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and the arranger Machito to help him incorporate the distinctive style.

Cachao…was born in 1918. He plays bass and was a member of the Havana Symphony orchestra for 30 years. He invented the Mambo in the 1940s. He arrived in the United States in 1963 and has never performed in Cuba since the revolution. Along with the singer Celia Cruz, Cachao is a symbol of the generation of Afro-Cuban musicians who felt more comfortable as expatriates. Cruz is an outspoken enemy of the Cuban revolution, while Cachao keeps his beliefs to himself for the most part.

Watching this show put me in a nostalgic mood, reminding me of my encounters with Latin music for over 50 years. Back in the mid 1950s, my Boy Scout troupe took Latin dancing lessons. We learned the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, which the documentary describes as a simplified Mambo. This was around the time of the Honeymooner’s episode when Jackie Gleason as the bus driver Ralph Kramden takes lessons as well. One of the most popular musicians of the time was Perez Prado, whose “Patricia”, a typical cha-cha-cha, was a huge hit.

In Kramden’s Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains, where I grew up, Latin music was extremely popular with Jews. Larry Harlow muses that for some reason Jews took to Chinese food and Latin music. In the Borscht Belt hotels of my youth, you could always hear Tito Puente and other stars performing before adoring fans. Harlow was born as Lawrence Ira Kahn in Brooklyn in 1939. On his way to his classical piano lessons in East Harlem as a young boy, he was mesmerized by the sounds of Afro-Cuban music and resolved to become a Latin musician himself. Other Latin musicians referred to him as el Judio Maravilloso. Here’s the young Larry Harlow performing a classic Cuban tune “La Cartera”:

In 1966 I lived on the second floor of a tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey while going to graduate school. My apartment was above Felix’s restaurant, a lunch counter that catered to Latino longshoremen. This was long before Hoboken was transformed into a yuppie, hedge-fund manager playground. Sometimes I felt like I lived in Felix’s restaurant since the smell of bacon frying in the morning pervaded my apartment, as did the sounds of the juke box which blasted Latin music all day long. Although it is difficult to remember what they were playing, my guess is that it was what they call jibaro music, the sounds of the Puerto Rican countryside. As a Nuyorican, Willie Colon went back to the island frequently in order to learn how to play the music of his gente. The fruits of this labor was “There Goes the Neighborhood” (Se Chavó El Vecindario), an album featuring Hector Lavoe as lead singer and traditional Puerto Rican trombonist Mon Rivera.

A year later a friend who lived in the same tenement, who was always on the lookout for the latest thing happening in music, suggested we take in a concert featuring Eddie Palmieri who I knew nothing about. Palmieri did not record for Fania, but his albums were among the best-selling of that period. He is still going strong at the age of 73. Palmieri is an incredible song writer and pianist strongly influenced by Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. And like Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, his music has always been socially aware without being didactic. Here he is in a 2008 performance of “Palo pa’ Rumba”. This is among the greatest music of the past half-century:

October 4, 2009

Mercedes Sosa, dead at 74

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm

Award-Winning Singer Mercedes Sosa Dies at 74

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009 7:54 AM

Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer who emerged as a electrifying voice of conscience throughout Latin America for songs that championed social justice in the face of government repression, died today at a medical clinic in Buenos Aires. She was 74 and had liver, kidney and heart ailments.

With a rich contralto voice, Ms. Sosa was foremost a compelling singer whose career spanned five decades. She performed with entertainers as varied as rock star Sting, the Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés and folk singer Joan Baez, who said she was so moved by Ms. Sosa’s “tremendous charisma” and emotive firepower that she once dropped to her knees and kissed Ms. Sosa’s feet.

Ms. Sosa’s towering artistry, which led to several Latin Grammy Awards, belied her physical dimensions. Short, round, dark-skinned and often dressed in peasant clothing, Ms. Sosa was affectionately nicknamed “La Negra” (the Black One) as an homage to her indigenous ancestry.

It was a term of endearment that followed her throughout the Spanish-speaking world, said ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter, who has written about Ms. Sosa. “It’s hard to overestimate her popularity and importance as a standard-bearer of folk music and political engagement through folk music,” he said.

Ms. Sosa once declared that “artists are not political leaders. The only power they have is to draw people into the theater.” While not defining herself as a political activist, Ms. Sosa asserted herself in the “nueva canción” musical movement of the 1960s and 1970s that blended traditional folk rhythms with politically charged lyrics about the poor and disenfranchised.

This “new song” movement, formed by singers, poets and songwriters with Marxist leanings, cast light on the struggle against government brutality and the plight of the downtrodden throughout the hemisphere. Ritter said, much of the nueva canción songs favored by Ms. Sosa “drew upon the rich heritage of Latin American poetry and literature to score their political messages.” This, he said, gave it a far-more enduring fascination than protest songs in the United States during that period, whose “blunt, direct lyrics were part of their political efficacy, but also limited their long term poetic appeal.”

Here are the lyrics of “We’re Still Singing,” which she sang accompanied by the large Andean drum called the bombo: “I was killed a thousand times. I disappeared a thousand times, and here I am, risen from the dead. . . . Here I am, out of the ruins the dictatorship left behind. We’re still singing.” Ms. Sosa came under official harassment and intimidation by the right-wing, nationalist junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The government was responsible for the deaths and disappearances of an estimated 30,000 real and perceived leftists, and Ms. Sosa transformed her sold-out concerts into rallies against the abuses of power.

Her songs were banned from Argentine radio and television, and she courted arrest by singing anthems of agrarian reform such as “When They Have the Land” at one performance in the university city of La Plata. Many in attendance were arrested by security forces, and Ms. Sosa was publicly humiliated by an officer who walked onstage and conducted a body search.

Ms. Sosa scheduled more concerts in the face of threats against her. They were subsequently canceled when anonymous bomb threats were called in. The military governor of Buenos Aires prohibited her from further performances. Unable to earn a living or speak out as an opponent of the regime, she moved in exile to Europe in 1979 and lived for three years in France and Spain.

She recalled this as a dark period for her artistically, and at times her voice failed. “It was a mental problem, a problem of morale,” she told the New York Times. “It wasn’t my throat, or anything physical. When you are in exile, you take your suitcase, but there are things that don’t fit. There are things in your mind, like colors and smells and childhood attitudes, and there is also the pain and the death you saw. You shouldn’t deny those things, because to do so can make you ill.”

Ms. Sosa returned to Argentina shortly before the dictatorship crumbled, and she found that her popularity had risen to a dramatic new peak. At home, her concerts attracted tens of thousands of ticket buyers, and her albums sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Abroad, she was a star attraction as well, and a political celebrity. She received a 10-minute standing ovation for a 1987 concert at Carnegie Hall and received ecstatic reviews when appearing in other major American cities, including Boston and Washington. She broadened her repertoire to include rock, pop and cabaret songs, always sung in her native language.

Esquire magazine noted, “Your Spanish may or may not be good, but Mercedes Sosa requires no translation. Hers is the song of all those who have overcome their fear of singing out.”

Haydée Mercedes Sosa was born July 9, 1935, in San Miguel de Tucumán in rural northwestern Argentina. She was of mixed Indian and French ancestry, and her parents were day laborers.

She said the geography and culture of the area was also crucial to her development. It was desolate, with far greater influence from the indigenous culture of nearby Bolivia than distant, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. She called it “an advantage for someone who wanted to be a folk singer,” and at 15, she won a local radio station’s amateur-hour contest.

In the late 1950s, she and her first husband, guitarist Manuel Oscar Matus, with whom she had a son, moved to Mendoza, a city at the foot of the Andes. There, they helped form the new-music movement that fused folk rhythms with the language and politics of the moment, and wrote an artistic manifesto as well. Her international touring career followed her appearance at an important folklore festival in Cosquín in 1965.

Not a songwriter, she was a keen interpreter of others’ works. The Chilean writer Violeta Parra was responsible for Ms. Sosa’s signature song, “Gracias a la Vida” (Thanks to Life), a number more nostalgic that political. Ms. Sosa collaborated on two acclaimed albums in the early 1970s with composer Ariel Ramírez on lyricist Félix Luna on the albums “Cantata Sudamericana” ( South American Cantata) and “Mujeres Argentinas” (Argentine Women).

She received a Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2000 for Ramírez’s “Misa Criolla,” and again for “Acústico” in 2003 and “Corazón Libre” in 2006. She continued to win over younger audiences by incorporating the music of rock singer-songwriters such as Argentina’s Charly García and Sting, whose song “They Dance Alone” paid tribute to the disappeared in Argentina.

June 9, 2009

Cocaleros: a documentary about Bolivia

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

May 13, 2009

The difference between Bush and Obama

Filed under: Latin America,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

by Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist.

(Hat tip to http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine)

April 14, 2009


Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

Opening at the Film Forum in New York tomorrow, Heddy Honigmann’s “Oblivion” (El Olvido) is a penetrating study of poverty in Peru, particularly its impact on children who scrape by as shoeshine boys, jugglers, gymnasts, and musicians on the busy streets of Lima. They are like the children you can spot selling candy in New York subways or flowers on the streets of Los Angeles, but with much greater odds against them. Despite the grimness of the topic, the documentary is often very funny as well as always lyrical.

Honigmann, a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in Lima in 1951, got the idea for the movie from a waiter:

A few years ago it was a waiter, at work in a fancy restaurant, who was the inspiration for the rediscovery of my city. This waiter, whom I recognized after many years away from Peru, told me how he has survived the humiliation and hardship by smiling. Others manage to hold up their heads by silently making fun of the class that oppresses them, remembering with pride that they have survived both economic crisis and political terror from both sides. And some survive by entertaining car drivers with acrobatics, hoping for a few coins.

All my characters are first-class actors. Hardly any of them have ever been in a museum. Nor have they heard of Marcel Proust or Maria Callas; yet all the people you’ll meet in Oblivion are born poets.

The characters in “Oblivion” are either like the waiter, adult veterans of decades of misrule who are reflective about Peruvian realities, or the children who are barely old enough to understand what is happening to them.

Honigmann interviews the waiter at the restaurant where he points out the table that Alan Garcia used to sit at. Notwithstanding the fact that Garcia as a good tipper, his presidency was regarded by the waiter and all other adults in the movie as a complete disaster for working people. This includes a bartender who whips up a Pisco Sour, a kind of national cocktail. As he mixes together the brandy, lime juice, egg whites and native brandy, he reflects on the greed and treachery every president in his lifetime has demonstrated.

She follows the waiter home to his modest home where she continues to interview him and now his wife. She asks her if she has ever been to the restaurant to enjoy the meal that Garcia favored. No, they could not afford it. After a while, the waiter puts on a tape of a local singer from his province in the North, a place he was forced to leave because of a lack of jobs. (Lima has grown 16-fold since the 1950s because of economic hardship in the countryside.) The singer’s lyrics tell a tale of army-inflicted terror on villagers, an obvious reference to the dirty war conducted by Fujimori and something deeply personal to the waiter, two of whose cousins were murdered in his native village.

By coincidence, the movie arrives at the Film Forum just 8 days after former president Fujimori was convicted of crimes against humanity, as the Washington Post reported:

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was convicted Tuesday of “crimes against humanity” and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in killings and kidnappings by security forces during his government’s battle against leftist guerrillas in the 1990s.

The verdict, delivered by a three-judge panel on a police base outside Lima where Fujimori has been held throughout the trial, marked the first time that an elected head of state has been extradited back to his home country, tried and convicted of human rights violations.

Human rights activists called it a precedent-setting verdict that upheld the ideal that violent abuses cannot be ignored under the banner of fighting terrorism.

“This is a sentence for all the innocents killed in the dirty war,” said Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was among a group taken from a Lima university and executed in 1992 by a military death squad under Fujimori.

While nobody would gainsay the need for punishing Fujimori for his crimes, true justice would require a social and economic transformation of a Peru that has condemned its children to work as beggars in its streets by the thousands. Death by malnutrition or disease is as permanent as one brought on by a soldier’s bayonet.

Despite their hardships, the children in “Oblivion” put on a brave face and do the best they can to survive, if not enjoy their crafts. Clearly, they juggle balls or perform cartwheels in the streets partially for the same reason that other children do so for play. Wearing a big smile, one young girl tells Honigmann that she has dreams to be an Olympics gymnast one day. Perhaps the greatest crime of the permanent Peruvian government that rules on behalf of the white upper classes is that it effectively prevents such dreams from being realized.

I watched “Oblivion” last night after spending an hour preparing a scanned version of José Carlos Mariátegui’s out-of-print “Seven Interpretative Essays of Peruvian Reality” that will eventually be uploaded to the Mariátegui Internet archive. Although Mariátegui was politically active in the 1920s, his critique of Peruvian society would be the same as the waiters and bartenders in Honigmann’s movie. In the 1929 essay titled “Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint“, Mariátegui wrote:

In Peru, the white aristocrat and bourgeois scorn the popular and the national. They consider themselves white above all else. The petty bourgeois mestizo imitates their example. The Lima bourgeoisie fraternizes with the Yankee capitalists, even with their mere employees at the Country Club, the Tennis Club, and in the streets. The Yankee can marry the native senorita without the inconvenience of differences in race or religion, and she feels no national or cultural misgivings in preferring marriage with a member of the invading race.

In contrast to the “white aristocrat and bourgeois”, Honigmann demonstrates her affection for and solidarity with the “popular and the national”. For a glimpse into Peruvian reality that rates about as high as any political documentary that I have seen on Latin America, a trip to the Film Forum to see “Oblivion” is very highly recommended.

February 26, 2009

The End of Poverty?

Filed under: Africa,Film,imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Scheduled for theatrical release in September 2009, Philippe Diaz’s “The End of Poverty?” was a feature presentation at the 2008 African Diaspora Film Festival. After watching this documentary last night, I feel confident in stating that there is no sharper critic of the capitalist system in the film world than Philippe Diaz. This amazing movie not only explains how global inequality has its roots in 1492, but also allows the victims of “Western civilization” to speak for themselves. Indeed, the movie will remind you of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous reply to a Western reporter who asked him what he thought of Western civilization. He answered, “I think it would be a good idea.”

The documentary begins by putting third world poverty into historical context. Although it wisely draws upon expert witnesses indisposed to openly use Marxist terminology, there is little doubt that the movie’s implicit inspiration for its analysis of colonialism and dependency comes from chapter thirty one of Volume One of Capital, The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, where Karl Marx writes:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In keeping with his determination to allow the victims of this process to speak for themselves, Diaz goes to Potosi where miners escort him into a section of the mine that commemorates its earliest victims. (It should be mentioned that Diaz, unlike Michael Moore, does not interject himself into the film. That, plus his revolutionary politics, distinguishes him from the popular but essentially liberal documentary maker.) Quoting Eduardo Galeano, one miner states that the silver extracted from the mines could have been used to build a bridge from Potosi to Europe. He adds that a bridge could have also been made with the bones of the miners who perished in the silver mines-an estimated 8 million succumbed to the hardships imposed by the Spanish rulers. Another miner, clearly educated in his nation’s class history rather than its classrooms, observes that the mita, a form of Incan forced labor adapted to the emerging capitalist system, required miners to live and work underground for periods of up to six months.

Even for those who are well-schooled in the history of imperialism, including myself if you will allow me a moment of immodesty, there are some revelatory moments. One expert points out that the Dutch lacked the resources and the capital to develop capitalism on its own. It “jump started” its economy by colonizing the islands now known as Indonesia. I was far more informed about the relationship between Great Britain and the slave trade outlined in Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” but now feel strongly motivated to learn more about the Dutch thieves commemorated in those Rembrandt paintings.

“The End of Poverty?” conducts interviews with workers and peasants across the planet, from Bolivia to Brazil in Latin America to Tanzania and Kenya in Africa. As inured as I am to the brutality of imperialism, I practically bolted from my chair to locate a phone number or email address for an agribusiness named the Dominion Group that has made life hell for Kenyans. Having lived on and worked the same farmlands for hundreds of years, they were robbed of their livelihood when Dominion dammed a nearby river in order to irrigate their legume crop that was strictly for export. In a fine article that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Laura Flanders detailed the impact:

Dominion Farms, an affiliate of Dominion Group, based in Oklahoma, moved into Siaya in 2003 through an arrangement with the local and state authorities. After several years of negotiations, Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess leased public land from the government on a pledge to develop a high-tech fish and rice farming operation that he promised would bring jobs, reduce hunger and make Siaya and neighboring Bondo provinces the “breadbasket” of Kenya. (In the United States, Dominion builds for-profit prisons and federal buildings.)

Until Dominion came along, the people of this part of Kenya made their living drawing water from the local Yala River. They raised goats and cows and farmed small plots of land. Widows and children harvested papyrus and sisal from the nearby swamp from which they crafted rough mats and baskets. A major habitat for endangered fish and birds, the Yala Swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and most delicate ecosystems in East Africa. The half-million or so local residents weren’t rich but they were self-sufficient, says Owiti. Now they’re forced to live on the generosity of churches or on the corporation’s handouts.

“Development should not bring harm to the local community,” said Owiti at the World Social Forum. But that, she says, is just what has happened. In the last four years, Dominion Farms has built a dam on the Yala River, drained much of the swamp, subjected the fields to aerial spraying and drowned not only public land but, residents claim, private property without legal authority.

Dominion offered residents compensation to leave their homes (generally 45,000 Kenyan shillings, approximately $64). Many, like Salome, a local grandmother, refused, but their land was submerged anyway. “I grew cabbages, I made mats, I planted maize and millet. Now all my fields are flooded,” said Salome.

For those that remain, the company’s dam blocks access to the river, the one available source of fresh water. “Now they want us to use standing water,” explained Paul Obeira, another Yala Swamp resident. But with the standing water comes infection. Malaria and typhoid rates are rising. Now aerial spraying is killing livestock. “I have lost 110 goats and our women are suffering from health problems because of the spraying,” added Obeira. Dominion Farms has applied for a permit to spray the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in this part of the world because of its negative health consequences.

Although Diaz’s documentary does not mention him anywhere, it is obvious that the title of the film is a rebuttal to Jeffrey Sachs’s “The End of Poverty”. Sachs was the architect of the neo-liberal “shock therapy” that ultimately led to the revolt that placed Evo Morales in power. In more recent years, Sachs has positioned himself as a prophet of global equality and has toured with U2’s Bono in well-publicized missions to lift up the natives. Obviously, unless the capitalist system is abolished, there is little that Sachs’s measures can do. Indeed, that is the whole point of the movie.

Ironically, Bono has just moved his music-publishing business from Ireland, one of Europe’s most underdeveloped capitalist countries, to Netherlands in order to shelter its song-writing royalties from taxation. Ireland now joins the ranks of countries alongside Java that have been screwed by the Dutch.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of Columbia University’s most visible “public intellectuals” and now runs the The Earth Institute, a think-tank devoted to all sorts of ideological flim-flammery, including the notion that chemical farming is what Africa most desperately needs to relieve hunger.

Another economics professor/celebrity at Columbia University is Joseph Stiglitz who is one of the experts interviewed in “The End of Poverty?” Although Stiglitz is obviously not an unrepentant Marxist like me, he certainly makes a lot more sense than Sachs since he focuses more on changing social structures rather than Bono-Sachs’s style aid. One has to wonder however whether Stiglitz still believes that China, his model for the developing world, is still viable. In the past year or so, over 25 million workers have been fired from their jobs in the coastal export manufacturing zone and forced to return to the impoverished countryside.

In the final analysis, it is only central planning and production for human need rather than profit that can relieve such suffering. In years past, this kind of proposal would have been dismissed as “socialism”. With the financial crisis tearing the world apart, that might not be a scare word any longer. As a recent cover of Newsweek put it, we are all socialists now. Of course, my idea of socialism varies greatly from Newsweek, but at least the newsweekly allows people like me to get our foot in the door. One must assume that after another two or three years of growing unemployment worldwide, that door will be smashed down by colossal social forces led by the poor people Diaz so generously gave a voice to.

I also strongly urge you to watch Diaz’s “The Empire in Africa”, which is available from Netflix. This movie is about the civil war in Sierra Leone and, unlike most documentaries about suffering in Africa, indicts the imperialists and the UN. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

As the violence deepened in Sierra Leone, the UN “came to the rescue”, just as the expensive full-page savedarfur.org ads in the NY Times call for now. Using Western funding from aboveground and clandestine sources, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected President with a clear mandate to stop the killing. A long-time employee of the UN, he had the enthusiastic support of the US, Great Britain and France who understand how to manipulate the international body to their own devices. He also had support from ECOMOG, an armed force made up of contingents from a number of African nations, with Nigeria supplying most of the muscle. In other words, Sierra Leone was a model for what is called for in Darfur. As those who urge “humanitarian” intervention in Darfur keep telling us, an effective fighting force made up UN and or African nations is all that is needed to save innocent lives. Nobody should have any such illusions after watching “The Empire in Africa”.

“The End of Poverty?” website

October 22, 2008

Latin America and the dependency theory debate

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

After Robert Brenner wrote his attack on dependency theory in the 1977 NLR, the impact was immediate. Marxists in the academy found the appeal to return to a class-based Marxism very seductive, especially among Latin American specialists. The Marxist-oriented journal called Latin American Perspectives became consumed with debates between supporters of Robert Brenner and Andre Gunder Frank almost immediately and the summer and fall issues of 1981 were combined to discuss the Dependency and Marxism debate.

Unfortunately, the archives of Latin American Perspectives are only available to those with a subscription to JSTOR, but I have selected two fairly representative items from the two sides for your review.

John Weeks, a supporter of the Brenner approach even though he does not mention Brenner by name (others do), contributed an article titled “The Differences Between Materialist Theory and Dependency Theory and Why They Matter”. Before presenting his article and my interspersed comments, I want to offer some personal reflections even though their relationship to the matter at hand might seem tangential.

In 1990 I organized a debate on behalf of the NY Nicaragua Network just prior to the Nicaraguan elections that would result in the FSLN being voted out of office. It was not hard to figure out that Paul Berman was the ideal candidate to speak against the FSLN. This Village Voice self-described anarchist (he now calls himself a liberal) had been writing attacks on the FSLN for a number of years, all in the spirit of casting the Sandinistas as enemies of true working-class socialism. Berman evolved into a cold war type liberal subsequently and gained some notoriety as a “leftist” supporter of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our good friend Richard Seymour has a chapter on Berman in his forthcoming book from Verso that I am awaiting with bated breath.

For the pro-FSLN perspective, I gave Michael Moore a call and he was more than happy to debate Berman. Just a year or so earlier Moore had been fired from Mother Jones for refusing to print one of Berman’s hatchet jobs on the FSLN and was looking forward to a chance to nail him. Although I cannot remember exactly why we decided not to go with Moore, we instead extended an invitation to John Weeks on the advice of NACLA, the journal on Latin America that had not yet degenerated into the kind of mixture of civil society bullshit and State Department liberalism that fills its pages today.

Berman spoke first and was obviously well-prepared, even if his ideas were bogus.

When Weeks began to speak (I was chairing the meeting), I was astonished to see that he did not have anything written down and just “winged it” for 15 minutes. The gist of his presentation was that the FSLN was no different than the PRI in Mexico and there was never any reason for imperialism to be so determined to overthrow it. He characterized it as bureaucratic and mildly social democratic, etc. In other words, in accepting our invitation to defend the FSLN, this knucklehead did not have the common decency to state that he was some kind of ultraleft opponent of the FSLN. Following the meeting, a group of us headed over to a nearby bar where a savvy veteran of the Central America solidarity movement whispered to me that Weeks was some kind of Maoist.

The reason Weeks was so dismissive of the Sandinista revolution was that it was not “class” oriented enough for him. There were far too few industrial workers in the vanguard and far too many small ranchers and members of the “informal economy” to satisfy the litmus test of those who had mastered their Grundrisse.

The main difference between the dependency theorists and those influenced by Brenner was over the question-in my opinion-whether national oppression was a viable category in Marxist terms. I have written about this at some length here and invite you to have a look at some point.

Continue reading

August 13, 2008

More Mariátegui

I have posted 3 more chapters from José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list. This makes 5 out of 7 from arguably his most important work that is both out of print and not represented on the Internet until now. Thank god for the scanner. Let’s hope that the University of Texas Press has no objection to their intellectual property rights being violated. They, after all, allowed this seminal Marxist text to languish.

Chapter 2 is titled “The Problem of the Indian” and serves as a kind of introduction to the much longer chapter 3 on “The Problem of Land”. Suffice it to say that for Mariátegui the 2 “problems” are interrelated as demonstrated by the very first sentence: “Any treatment of the problem of the Indian–written or verbal–that fails or refuses to recognize it as a socio-economic problem is but a sterile, theoretical exercise destined to be completely discredited.” He goes further and identifies describes the “socio-economic problem” as revolving around land: “A fresh approach to the problem of the Indian, therefore, ought to be much more concerned with the consequences of the land tenure system than with drawing up protective legislation.” To understand how the oppression of the Indian is related to land tenure, I direct your attention to chapter 3.

Chapter 5 deals with “The Religious Factor” and deserves to be required reading for anybody who is trying to understand the issues being posed by political Islam, “liberation theology” in Latin America, etc. Using the Incan religion as a point of departure, Mariátegui has some very interesting things to say about Catholicism, Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.

For Mariátegui, Catholicism was the handmaiden to the Spanish sword, which in comparison to Protestantism was inimical to capitalist growth. Clearly, the influence of Max Weber is at work in his thinking:

In general, the experience of the West furnishes concrete evidence of the close association of capitalism and Protestantism. Protestantism appears in history as the spiritual yeast of the capitalist process. The Protestant Reformation contained the essence, the seed, of the liberal state. Protestantism as a religious movement and liberalism as a political trend were related to the development of the factors of a capitalist economy. Facts support this argument. Capitalism and industrialism have flourished nowhere else as they have in the Protestant countries. The capitalist economy has reached its peak in England, the United States, and Germany. Within these countries, people of Catholic faith have instinctively clung to their rustic tastes and habits. (Catholic Bavaria is also rural.) No Catholic country has reached a high level of industrialization.

I don’t agree with this. In my view, the “backwardness” of Catholic nations in Europe is only relative. Mexico City, for example, was about as industrialized as Boston in 1776. I cover this in depth here.

That being said, it must be acknowledged that Mariátegui—as always—is capable of seeing both sides of an argument:

Neoscholastics insist on disputing or minimizing the influence of the Reformation on capitalist development, claiming that Thomism already had laid down the principles of bourgeois economics.18 Sorel has acknowledged the services rendered to Western civilization by Saint Thomas in his realistic approach to the dogma in science. He has especially stressed the Thomist concept that “human law cannot change the legal nature of things, which is derived from their economic content.”19 But if Saint Thomas brought Catholicism to this level of understanding economics, the Reformation forged the moral weapons of the bourgeois revolution, opening the way to capitalism. The neoscholastic concept can be easily explained. Neothomism is bourgeois but not capitalist. Just as socialism is not the same thing as the proletariat, capitalism is not the same thing as the bourgeoisie. Capitalism is the order, the civilization, the spirit born of the bourgeoisie, which existed long before and only later gave its name to an entire historical era.

Finally, on the question of religion, Mariátegui neatly dissects the liberal anti-clericalism of his day, which anticipated the bleatings of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens today:

But capitalism has lost its revolutionary spirit and so this thesis has been overtaken by events.32 Socialism, according to the conclusions of historical materialism, not to be confused with philosophical materialism, considers that ecclesiastical forms and religious doctrines are produced and sustained by the socio-economic structure. Therefore, it is concerned with changing the latter and not the former. Socialism regards mere anti-clerical activity as a liberal bourgeois pastime. In Europe, anti-clericalism is characteristic of countries where the Protestant Reformation has not unified civil and religious conscience and where political nationalism and Roman universalism live in either open or latent conflict, which compromise can moderate but not halt or resolve.

Finally, chapter 6 on “Regionalism and Centralism”, although written about Peru, applies equally to Bolivia today. In the 1920s, Peru faced the same geographical-political divide facing Evo Morales today. Lima, the capital, was home to wealthy white descendants of Spanish colonizers just as is the 4 secessionist regions in Bolivia and was situated on the lowlands facing the Pacific. In both Peru and Bolivia, the indigenous peoples lived in the highlands. And in both instances, class politics tended to be reflected in debates over regionalism versus centralism. In the passage below, Mariátegui refers to gamonalismo,. a term that he uses interchangeably with feudalism. As I have said elsewhere, I don’t find the term feudalism that useful in describing the upper classes in Latin America but on everything else I am in accord with Mariátegui:

Assuming that “the problem of the Indian” and the “agrarian question” take priority over any problem relative to the mechanism of the regime if not to the structure of the state, it is absolutely impossible to consider the question of regionalism or, more precisely, of administrative decentralization from standpoints not subordinate to the need to solve in a radical and organic way the first two problems. A decentralization that is not directed toward this goal is not even worth discussion.

And decentralization in itself, simply as a political and administrative reform, would not signify any progress toward solution of the “problem of the Indian” and the “problem of land,” which fundamentally are one and the same. On the contrary, decentralization carried out for no other reason than to authorize a degree of autonomy to the regions or departments would increase the power of gamonalismo against any solution in the interest of the Indian masses. To become convinced of this, it is enough to ask oneself what caste, what class, what category opposes the redemption of the Indian. There is only one, categorical, answer: gamonalismo, feudalism, bossism. Therefore, is there any doubt that the more autonomous a regional administration of gamonales and caciques, the more they would sabotage and resist any effective attempt to redress the wrongs done to the Indian?

There can be no illusions. The decent groups in the cities will never prevail against gamonalismo in regional administration. The experience of more than a century has taught us what to expect of the possibility that in the near future a democratic system will function in Peru that will fulfill, at least on paper, the Jacobin principle of “popular sovereignty.” The rural masses, or the Indian communities in any case, would remain outside suffrage and its results. Therefore, even if only because the absent are never right—les absents ont toujours tort—the organisms and authorities that would be created “through election,” but without their vote, would have neither the ability nor the knowledge to do them justice. Who would be so naive as to imagine that, within the present economic and political situation, the regions would be governed by “universal suffrage”?

Read chapters 2, 5 and 6 in their entirety here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/

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