Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2016

Left Forum 2016: The Truth is Out There

Filed under: conspiracism,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Ever since I left the SWP in late 1978, I have been attending the yearly Left Forums in NY that were known as the Socialist Scholars Conference prior to a split in the leading bodies in 2004 over Yugoslavia. Veteran social democrat Bogdan Denitch, who died a few months ago, was viewed as a Serbophobe by the faction that would go on to form the Left Forum in 2005. That year there were two conferences, one in the name of the Socialist Scholars Conference and the other as the Left Forum. Next year there was only the Left Forum as many of the figures aligned with Denitch reconciled with their erstwhile ideological opponents.

From 2005 until 2015 (excluding 2007 for some reason I can’t recall), I have written reports on the Left Forum and more recently produced videos of the sessions I attended. This year I have decided not to attend since it has reached the point where quantity has turned into quality as Plekhanov might have put it. Or more accurately, it has reached the point where quantity has turned into excrement. In a nutshell, the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend. Are there panel discussions that would be worth my while? I suppose so but that is almost like someone trying to convince me to tune into WBAI. The station exudes such a stench that my hand refuses to obey my brain’s order to dial up 99.5FM.

In a very real sense, the Left Forum has been transformed into something resembling WBAI—leading to the pun that it has been subject to Pacification. The other night the hand got the upper hand over the brain and I listened to WBAI for a couple of minutes. I was not surprised to see that they were in the midst of one of their biweekly fund-drives. Nor was I surprised to see that they were offering premiums for a 5 DVD documentary titled “The Great Lies of History”. One, of course, is about 9/11. Another is: “Cancer: The Forbidden Cures”. It claims that the “drug-dominated medical profession” has suppressed cures including Mistletoe and Bicarbonate of Soda. I suppose they are geared to oral and stomach cancer respectively. I don’t think that Lew Hill had this in mind when he launched Pacifica in 1946.

While WBAI is much more fixated on such quackery from the likes of Gary Null, it too traffics in the sort of “anti-imperialism” that has swamped the Left Forum. Amy Goodman, the station’s star for what that’s worth, has allowed Seymour Hersh to babble on about Syria in the very week that Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami were in NY on a book tour for “Burning Country”. When Goodman was approached about doing an interview with them, she said no.

Meanwhile, Goodman and Slavoj Zizek are doing the closing plenary on Sunday night. At this stage of the game, inviting Zizek to speak to a left audience is almost as much of an insult as inviting Donald Trump. I have heard through the grapevine that Verso Press has cut its ties to the Elvis Superstar of Marxism over his filthy insistence that Syrian refugees adapt to Western norms but he is good enough for the Left Forum apparently.

I have to give credit to Amber A’lee Frost who sized up the 2015 Left Forum conference accurately in The Baffler.

That’s right: If you pay your registration fee and fill out the proper forms, you get a room and a table and a spot on the schedule. So in addition to all those experienced and intelligent rabble-rousers, Left Forum is a home for 9/11 Truthers, those who would save us from the terrors of “mandatory fluoridation,” and the generally batshit and/or pathologically anti-social. No one is required to observe their lectures, but they wander into other people’s and there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing.

Frost singled out a panel from 2014 as a “wackjob nadir”, the infamous “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”).

The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.

What’s odd about their obsession with Zizek is a failure to see how close he is to them ideologically. With his disparagement of the Syrian rebels as “a mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups”, you’d think he’d be hoisted on their shoulders. Of course, on the far left some of the bitterest quarrels take place among sects that were born from the same womb. Just look at the Trotskyists.

It must be said at the outset that the people who run the Left Forum are not identified with this kind of conspiracism. It just so happens that it is a Big Tent that allows virtually anybody to schedule a panel discussion. The fact that this year’s conference is flooded with “Žižek Delenda Est” type barking dogs only reflects the siren’s call of conspiracism on the left, one in which a Marxist class analysis is so sorely lacking.

Let me walk you through a few of the panels to give you an idea of what you can get for your $70, starting with Deep State: The Fabricated Global War on Terrorism — Why the Left Should Unite to Expose and Rebel Against It that pretty much epitomized the malaise that afflicts the Left Forum. The organizers breathlessly announce:

The yellow-journalism press rarely reports that ISIS was 100% planned, created and controlled by US/NATO/Israel/Turkey/Saudi forces. Publicly this newest bogeyman is reviled and used to whip up fear and bellicosity. Behind the scenes, ISIS is our shock troops, the go-to mercenaries to effect regime change in places like Libya and Syria, and ensure wavering countries like France tow the line.

One of the speakers is Wayne Madsen, an “investigative reporter” and author of “Unmasking ISIS”. He is a 9/11 Truther, as are many in this neck of the woods. As part of his investigative reporting, he came up with the startling revelation that Barack Obama is a homosexual who belonged to the same Chicago gay bath house as Rahm Emmanuel. Madsen was able to provide about the same amount of proof as those who allege that Obama was born in Kenya. Madsen’s articles have appeared in  CounterPunch, In These Times, The Progressive and The Village Voice. Don’t ask me why.

For more of the same, you can attend How Universal U.S. Sovereignty Threatens World Peace. It features Sarah Flounders of the Workers World Party and Michael Perino, who once told CounterPunch readers that about 50,000 Blacks were “massacred” in Libya. Since the highest estimate for all casualties in the Libyan civil war was half of that, who knows where Perino got his number.

Want to know about The Situation in Ukraine? Then haul your ass over to a panel organized by UNAC, the “coalition” made up of Socialist Action members and other like-minded leftists who have succumbed totally to the “axis of resistance” disease now an epidemic on the left. The SA members were educated in the Socialist Workers Party, a group that was distinguished by its embrace of Ukrainian opponents of Soviet domination in the 1960s. One of the speakers is Bruce Gagnon, who like many in this milieu blames Kiev for starting the civil war in Ukraine when it threatened to remove Russian as one of the official languages as if the people in Donetsk and Luhansk would suffer the same kind of fate as Kurds in Turkey. This was essentially a Goebbels type of big lie. The truth is that Russian would continue as a regional language along with 17 other languages including Yiddish but Ukrainian would be the sole official language, which only meant that it would be used in driver license applications, etc. Was that a reason for Putin to dispatch thousands of special forces into Eastern Ukraine? Obviously not. His real intention was the same as Catherine the Great’s—to keep Ukraine under Russia’s thumb.

You can guess from the title The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and War in the “Middle East” (I have no idea what the scare quotes in the title indicate) what this one is about. Organized by the pro-Assad International Action Center, it includes Kazem Azin as one of the speakers, a contributor to Workers World newspaper and an ardent supporter of the Islamic Republic who once claimed that “Imam Khomeini was able for the first time to unite all religious groups and the majority of the people under the banner of Islam.” Of course, if you were stiff-necked enough to refuse being so united, you might end up being tortured in Evin prison.

If you miss the X-Files, as I certainly do, you might want to check in on Deep State: False Flags — How a United Left Could Defeat a “Global Gladio” Agenda since it features Richard Dolan as a panelist. Dolan is the author of “A History of False Flag Operations” but he is probably best known for his books on UFO’s and the National Security State. This leftist version of Fox Mulder once met with a CIA agent referred to as “Anonymous” who on his death bed revealed that The Truth Is Out There:

Facing impending kidney failure, this individual felt compelled to disclose secret information he feels is too important to keep secret. In the video, he claims to have served in the U.S. Army, worked for the CIA, and worked on the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book–one of the USAF’s official studies of UFOs. And he refers to the project as “partially a fraud.” Asking for clarification, Dolan states, “You’re saying some of the Blue Book cases were completely fictitious?” The anonymous man responds, “Yes.”

“Anonymous” alleges that, after an invasion threat from President Dwight Eisenhower, he and his superior at the CIA were allowed inside the secretive Area 51 in Nevada to gather intel and report back to the president. There, “Anonymous” describes seeing several alien spacecraft, including the craft that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Then, he and his superior were taken to the S-4 facility southwest of Area 51 where they observed live extraterrestrials.

On Sunday there’s more from UNAC at The Fight to End US Wars as well as two 9/11 Truther panels, one titled Time to Take Down the Wall Between the Left and the Truth Movement and the other Exposing 28 Pages of 9/11 Evidence, Legislating Transparency. Don’t forget to bring the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in case your mind begins to wander. Also, for vintage conspiracy theory navel-gazing, you can’t top The JFK Murder Cover-up: Your Rosetta Stone to Today’s News, Elections, Policy. I suppose that one of the speakers will argue that Al Qaeda was on the grassy knoll at the rate things are going.

Just to be clear, 90 percent of the workshops are more conventional in nature. I wish I could say that this would be sufficient for me to shell out $70 but I am afraid that far too many are empty theorizing that I have little use for. For example, something titled Marx, Hegel, and the Current Situation  is a non-starter. Apparently the participants have been studying Hegel for years at the Brecht Forum and at the Marxist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons. With all due respect to the speakers, I studied Hegel fifty years ago at the New School mostly to maintain a student deferment and don’t want to go back there now. But if Hegel works for you, don’t let me get in the way. That’s a helluva lot better than nattering about Area 51 but then again just about anything else is–especially for $70 that can be better spent on dinner for two at a Thai restaurant.

 

June 14, 2015

Syria panels at the Left Forum 2015

Filed under: Left Forum,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Below are videos recorded by me and by The Struggle Video News (TSVN) of two closely linked panels at the Left Forum that should be of keen interest to anybody who has been following events in Rojova, Yarmouk, and Syria as a whole. In addition, they amount to a challenge to the pro-Assad left over how to understand the struggle against Baathist tyranny that is now in its fifth year.

The panel I covered was titled “The Syrian Tragedy: Failure of the Left and the Need for a Movement of Solidarity” that featured Yusef Khalil, an ISO member, chaired and spoke the role of counter-revolution in the region both at the hands of the West and local elites. Yasser Munif, an Emerson College professor and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. Joseph Daher, who is a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current living in exile, spoke about the persistence of the grass roots movement in Syria despite all efforts of the Baathist dictatorship and jihadist gangs to wipe it out. Although my video failed to credit her in the introduction, the final speaker was Elisa Marvena, a member in Spain of Solidaridad Global con La Revolution en Syria.

The other panel was titled “The Syrian Revolution, Yarmouk, Rojava: Politics of Solidarity” Yusef Khalil, chaired the meeting and spoke about the rise of ISIS. Emrah Yildiz, a Turkish graduate student at Harvard, gave a wide-ranging talk about the Kurdish struggle in Syria that actually faced the same sort of obstacles that if faced in Turkey. He referred to repression that took place in Syria against the Kurds in the early years of the Erdogan regime that was saluted by Assad as a welcome blow against terrorism. Finally, there were powerful presentations by Talal Alyan Mariam Barghouti, two Palestinian activists, who called out those in the Palestinian solidarity movement who have failed to take a clear stand against the Baathist siege of Yarmouk that has cost the lives of nearly 3000 Palestinians, including 400 who were tortured to death in Assad’s dungeons.

June 11, 2015

South Africa panel at Left Forum 2015

Filed under: Left Forum,South Africa — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

This is the video for a Left Forum panel discussion on South Africa organized by Socialist Action. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a contributor to Black Agenda Report, chronicled the EPA’s role in covering for an American corporation’s failure to protect South African miners from vanadium poisoning. Patrick Bond’s presentation focused on the growing class inequality in South Africa, with some eye-opening revelations about how the new housing provided by the ANC leaves something to be desired. Marty Goodman, a Socialist Action member, spoke about the failure of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders to live up to expectations.

June 6, 2015

For an independent left party: videos from Left Forum 2015

Filed under: Left Forum,third parties — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

The two videos below were made at last weekend’s Left Forum in New York and both reflect the mission of the North Star website, namely to help create a radical party in the United States along the lines of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, among others.

The first that was held on Saturday was organized by the Green Party and chaired by Howie Hawkins. It was very much in the spirit of the Chicago Left Elect conference held early in May since it featured speakers from the ISO, Socialist Alternative and the Greens. The Socialist Alternative speaker was notable by drawing a sharp distinction with Bernie Sanders even as the group is exploring ways to exploit the eventual disappointment that his leftist supporters will experience when he is defeated in the primary.

On Sunday the North Star had a workshop that was chaired by a member of the Philly Socialists and that featured a talk by another member. This group is among those that are playing an important role in the class struggle using strategy and tactics flowing from local conditions rather than ideologically superimposed according to some antiquated schema. Jim Brash and Louis Proyect of the North Star editorial team also spoke.

Notable for this workshop was the extremely thoughtful contributions during the Q&A, including from audience members who departed from the usual sectarian recipes and tried earnestly to engage with the topic. The consensus was that this was a very productive experience for all involved.

May 23, 2015

North Star workshop at Left Forum

Filed under: Left Forum,North Star — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 11.06.52 AM

Those of you attending the Left Forum at John Jay College next weekend might want to check out a workshop titled “Toward a Mass Left Party” that was organized by Matt Hoke, a member of the North Star editorial board. It meets at 12pm on Sunday in room 1.124

The abstract for the workshop is as follows:

Since the economic crisis of 2008, nor since the contraction of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, no mass pole of attraction has arisen to address the suffering of working people in the USA. Meanwhile, new mass parties have spawned in Europe in quick and stormy expansions, while also facing contradictions and difficulties. In the US, a new attraction towards intertendency politics and electoral action has emerged as expressed by the Electoral Action Conference in Chicago, and certain groups are experimenting new tactics to directly engage people’s needs, whether the $15 movement, serve the people projects, or solidarity networks.

The chairperson for the session is Loren Anderson of the Philly Socialists who has provided technical support for North Star and other related projects

Participants include:

Louis Proyect

Affiliation: North Star founder & editor

Bio: Louis Proyect was a member of the North Star Network launched by Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, an experiment in regroupment around a nonsectarian outlook that inspired the current website. Louis also identifies with efforts by the Socialist Union of the 1950s that was led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman.

Abstract: Louis will be focusing on international developments in Syriza and Podemos.

 

Jim Brash

Affiliation: North Star & Green Party

Bio: Jim Brash has been a member of UFCW Local 1262 for 15 years, and is a green council member of the Green Party of New Jersey. He is also the green party candidate for New Jersey’s 26th Legislative District. Interests include studying American history, political theory, economics, religious philosphy, & miltary strategy.

Abstract: Jim will be mainly be talking about the nuts and bolts of his own electoral efforts.

 

Stephanie Altimari

Affiliation: Philly Socialists

Bio: Stephanie was an early member of Philly Socialists who has coordinated a wing of its serve the people project based around tutoring for English as a Second Language.

Abstract: Stephanie will be talking about the service model, solidarity networks, and the social network theory of building an organization.

 

July 14, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — Syriza panel

Filed under: Greece,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

This is the sixth and final in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

The question of Syriza is very fresh in my mind after seeing Alex Callinicos attack it in his prolix article “Thunder on the Left”.

More generally, evidence of a new form of left politics emerging has proved more apparent than real. The profound economic and social crisis in Greece and intense working class resistance to the austerity policies imposed by the troika of the European Commission, ECB, and International Monetary Fund allowed Syriza to skyrocket into the dominant position to the left of centre in Greek politics. After Syriza’s spectacular advances in the parliamentary elections of May and June 2012, there was much tut-tutting about my description of its politics as left reformist which, or so it was claimed, failed to acknowledge the extent to which Syriza represented a break with the old polarities of reform and revolution. In the subsequent two years, under Alexis Tsipras, Syriza has marched firmly onto the centre ground in order to project itself as a responsible party of government, in the process marginalising its left opposition. This shift is epitomised by Tsipras’s coming out after the European elections in favour of the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission: left reformism would look good by comparison.

Callinicos’s distinction between reform and revolution is based on an idealist conception of politics. By idealist, I don’t mean like the Boy Scout pledge of honor but in Plato’s Republic where people living in a cave only have an impression of reality rather than reality itself. As Socrates puts it:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

The role of a philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic is to educate the unenlightened cave dweller about the realities beyond the cave. Thus, the role of Marxists is to educate the mass movement about the need for revolution. Callinicos (and his fellow Leninists) are a kind of priesthood that has achieved enlightenment. They go out among the cave dwellers to explain why a revolution is necessary. This involves pointing out the “historical lessons” of the 20th century in such a manner that the recitation on the Russian Revolution will cause the scales to fall from the listener’s eyes. In some ways, this is the same approach as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have literature tables at major subway stations throughout New York.

I have an entirely different take on Syriza, similar to that of Peter Bratsis—the panelist who begins just after 33 minutes into the video. Like Bratsis, I view Syriza as a reformist party that will never be able to lead a revolution but there is no use in lecturing the masses about that. They don’t see the problem in terms of capitalism but in terms of austerity. They vote for Syriza because the party is opposed to austerity. If Syriza is elected and continues to support austerity, that will raise the question of the need to transform the economic system that imposes austerity no matter the party that is in power.

In “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, Lenin proposed that the Communists form an electoral bloc with the Labour Party led by Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson. After WWI broke out, Ramsey MacDonald resigned in protest for its support for the war. Arthur Henderson, who joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, was his replacement. Has Alexis Tsipras been guilty of any crime more serious than this? People like Callinicos make a big deal out of Syriza sticking with the Euro as if the currency a nation is based on makes a real difference when it is dominated by imperialism. Greece’s problems do not revolve around the currency it uses but rather in its relationship to the rest of the world capitalist system.

Finally, the real issue facing the Greek left is how to unite people on a class basis against a ruling class that is tightly coupled to the German bourgeoisie. Syriza offers a framework for revolutionaries that will enable them to connect with millions of Greeks who have not yet achieved a revolutionary consciousness. Unlike the Greek Communist Party, Syriza is relatively open and transparent—a function of the “reformism” that Callinicos disdains. The alternative to the CP and Syriza is the tiny and inconsequential Antarsya that is united around the need for revolution but a “reformist” party that can begin to serve as a pole of attraction for revolutionaries. In the event that Syriza is elected and fails to carry out its mandate, it will be up to its left wing to push the agenda for overcoming austerity in the only way possible: overthrowing Greek capitalism.

 

July 3, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — panel on Registering Class in 21st Century Socialist Strategy

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

This is the fifth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Bryan Palmer, a Canadian historian and James P. Cannon biographer, gave a presentation that was designed to refute the “precariat” theory of Guy Standing. This term combines precarious and proletariat as a way of accounting for the growing percentage of temporary workers such as adjunct professors, blue-collar part-timers, etc. I am not sure how much traction the theory has on the left but Socialist Register, the organizer of the panel, thought it sufficiently anti-Marxist, to recruit Palmer to refute it. Basically he argues that for most of its history, capitalism has created a working-class that is “precarious”. You can listen to his presentation or read a version of it that appears with the two other panelists here: http://www.leftforum.org/content/registering-class-21st-century-socialist-strategy.

Palmer makes the argument in his paper (and very possibly in his talk) that the lumpenproletariat should not be viewed as distinct from the proletariat:

For all that Marx and Engels could write in the pejorative language of their times about what would later be called ‘the underclass’,44 they were also not unaware of how the ‘residuum’ was reciprocally related to the stalwart proletarians on whom they based their hope for socialism. Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 had much of moralistic condemnation in it, especially with respect to immigrant Irish labour, but this did not mean that he saw the most downtrodden sectors of the proletariat as irredeemably separated out from the working class. Indeed, in an 1892 preface to his Manchester study, Engels recorded with considerable optimism the extent to which socialism’s advance in England had registered even in a former bastion of lumpenproletarianization, London’s East End. ‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool that it was six years ago’, Engels wrote. ‘It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism”’, he continued, adding, ‘that is to say the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers’.45

I think that Palmer makes some very interesting points but I would disagree with the notion that the Irish or the denizens of the East End were “lumpen”. Instead they were unskilled workers who were burdened with alcoholism, petty crime, and other “anti-social” behavior. Indeed, this is exactly the same profile of the earliest autoworkers that Henry Ford sought to “uplift”:

Wall Street Journal, May 9 2013
By RICHARD SNOW
Henry Ford’s Experiment to Build a Better Worker

A review of “I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford” by Richard Snow.

Early in 1914 Henry Ford, spurred by a combination of wanting to cut down the high turnover in his workforce and what seems to have been genuine altruism, announced that henceforth the base wage in his factory would be five dollars a day. This at a stroke doubled the prevailing salary for industrial work, and it caused a sensation.

But Ford company workers discovered that achieving their five-dollar day came with some rigid stipulations. To qualify for his doubled salary, the worker had to be thrifty and continent. He had to keep his home neat and his children healthy, and, if he were below the age of twenty-two, to be married.

Joe landed a job at Ford, and that is when Mr. Andrews entered his life, to find him living in “an old, tumbled down, one and a half story frame house.” Joe and his family were in “one half of the attic consisting of three rooms, which were so low that a person of medium height could not stand erect—a filthy, foul-smelling home.” It contained “two dirty beds…a ragged filthy rug, a rickety table, and two bottomless chairs (the children standing up at the table to eat).” The family owed money to their landlord, to the butcher, to the grocer. The eldest daughter had gone to a charity hospital the week before. Mr. Andrews said the remainder of the family “were half clad, pale, and hungry looking.”

Mr. Andrews at once got the pay office to issue Joe’s wages daily instead of every two weeks. He secured a $50 loan, and such was the Sociological Department’s seriousness of purpose then that Mr. Andrews, not Joe, borrowed the money. Mr. Andrews paid the butcher and the landlord, rented a cottage, and filled it with cheap but sound new furniture, new clothes, and, he said, “a liberal supply of soap.”

Chibber’s talk was a variation on the one he has been giving at conferences ever since the publication of his book attacking subaltern studies (it is mistitled as a critique of postcolonialism, a field that includes subaltern studies.)

His emphasis is on the need for “universalism”, a principle or whatever you want to call it that it is under attack from postmodernists in the academy, including subaltern studies specialists.

At some point I am going to give all this the attention it deserves but do want to make a couple of points now. Chibber has a curious argument (I am drawing from his article rather than the talk) that capitalism does not necessarily destroy all precapitalist cultural institutions even as it becomes the “universal” economic system. This would seem to contradict what Marx wrote in “The Communist Manifesto”:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Since one of subaltern studies’ main complaints is that a mechanical Marxism failed to account for the persistence of “religious fervor” in societies like India’s, Chibber is quick to assure his readers that capitalism can easily put up with “precapitalist” customs, culture, superstitions, etc. as long as they don’t get in the way of profit-making:

This whole argument rests on the assumption that if a practice does not directly advance capitalism’s reproduction, by being part of what Chakrabarty calls its ‘life-process’, it must elicit a hostile response from capital. But we might ask, why on earth would this be so? Returning to the question I posed in the preceding paragraph, if a practice is simply neutral with respect to accumulation, wouldn’t the natural response from capital be one of indifference? Chakrabarty makes it seem as though capitalist managers walk around with their own political Geiger counters, measuring the compatibility of every social practice with their own priorities. But surely the more reasonable picture is this: capitalists seek to expand their operations, make the best possible returns on their investments, and as long as their operations are running smoothly, they simply do not care about the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment.

I am not exactly sure what Chibber is driving at here. If all that subaltern studies was about was nagging Western Marxists for their underestimation of “the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment”, I doubt that such a tsunami of books and articles would have been produced over the past several decades in the name of subaltern studies. For example, it would seem fairly obvious that despite what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “backward” institutions have never seriously threatened capitalism. Just look at Saudi Arabia.

I have not read Chakabarty so I cannot comment much more on this but I did have a look at an article cited by Chibber that supposedly makes the same sorts of mistakes, namely Gyan Prakash’s “Postcolonialism and Indian Historiography” that appeared in the dreaded Social Text in 1992, the same journal that was hoodwinked by Alan Sokal. Although Prakash’s article is burdened with the usual jargon (inscribed, palimpsest, catachrestic, etc.), he makes some essential points about the problem of Indian historiography that supersede narrower questions of cultural exceptions to a universalizing capitalism:

In fact, like many other nineteenth-century European ideas, the staging of the Eurocentric mode-of-production narrative as History should be seen as an analogue of nineteenth-century territorial imperialism. From this point of view, Marx’s ideas on changeless India – theorized, for example, in his concept of the “Asiatic mode of production” – appear not so much mistaken as the discursive form produced by the universalization of Europe, by its appropriation of the absolute other into a domesticated other. Such a historicization of the Eurocentrism in nineteenth-century marxism enables us to understand the collusion of capitalism and colonialism, and to undo the effect of that collusion’s imperative to interpret third-world histories in terms of capital’s logic.

Thanks to recent Marxist scholarship, Wittfogel’s work on the Asiatic Mode of Production has been pretty much debunked but when subaltern studies was taking off, it was still taken seriously—including on the Marxism list. You might even say that when Marxism discarded this theory it was possible to arrive at a more “universalist” understanding of Indian history, one that would make it more amenable to Chibber’s vision of things.

However, that’s not exactly the way that Irfan Habib sees it. Habib is the dean of Marxist history in India and, for that matter, a sharp critic of postcolonialism and Edward Said’s notion of “orientalism” in particular. But that does not prevent him from implicitly dissenting from Chibber as he writes in “Problems of Marxist Historiography” (Social Scientist, Dec. 1988):

Social formations constitute successive organisations of society, so that the classic order of succession has been primitive communism-slavery-feudalism- capitalism. Whether the classic order is also universal is a question on which there has been much controversy. Marx did not think that pre-colonial India was ‘feudal’: it lacked serfdom, and there was identity between tax and rent. The ‘Asiatic Mode’, which Marx speculated on in the 1850s, has been resurrected as the Tributary Mode by Samir Amin; and sub-classified into ‘feudal’ (based on rent) and ‘despotic’ (based on tax) by Chris Wickham; Kosambi and R.S. Sharma have argued that India did not see the stage of slavery, but had forms of feudalism from the middle of the first millennium or thereabouts to the colonial conquest.

While the controversy is not likely to cease, I do not wish to discuss it here at length. My own views are against a universalization of ‘feudalism’ as an umbrella to cover all pre-capitalist systems whatever their actual modes of surplus-extraction (class-exploitation). I agree that failure to universalize feudalism would lead us to accept a multiplicity of social formations over different territories; but I see no scandal in this. I would reassert that this is also implicit in the Communist Manifesto, when it treats capitalism as the first universal mode of production, and speaks of complex class structures preceding it.

Suffice it to say that the ideological foundations of Chibber’s attack on subaltern studies rest on exactly the kind of “universalization” that troubles Habib. Despite their jargon and despite their fixation on the “superstructure”, the subaltern studies people were grappling with a real problem and that was seeing India through the prism of European history and British history more particularly. The underlying assumption of political Marxism is that capitalism originated in the British countryside as a result of the introduction of lease farming mostly as a contingent event and then diffused to the rest of the world. This is a topic of great interest to me and that will provide the primary entry point when I get around to reading both Ranajit Guha and Vivek Chibber.

I won’t say anything more about Arun Gupta’s talk except that it dealt with Walmart workers and was extremely powerful.

June 26, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on post-Chavez Venezuela

Filed under: Left Forum,ultraleftism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

This is the fourth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum. I apologize in advance for a brief presence of my bald pate toward the middle of the event for about 10 minutes, which thankfully did not interfere with the audio. A fellow videographer tipped me off about this intrusion and I promise it won’t happen again.

Since the panel included Steve Ellner, I was especially motivated to cover this event. For my money, Steve is the sharpest analyst of Venezuela politics. Period. During the Q&A I commented that despite the fact that I fully supported the process in Venezuela, it seemed appropriate at this point to stop referring to it as “21st century socialism” since there is little likelihood that it will ever lead to the abolition of capitalism. It amounts to a Keynesian type economic program that is committed to the welfare of the masses, something that is inspiring in its own right. Unfortunately, Steve’s reply was not recorded but he made the point that nobody in Venezuela, either on the right or the left, feels that Venezuela is socialist. But what is equally important is the growth of working class institutions of economic and political power that will ultimately clash with capitalist power. This is what explains the sharp clashes in Venezuela now, a focus of the panel presentations that were on a uniformly high level.

This prompts me to say a few words about an article by Chris Gilbert, an American now teaching at a Venezuelan university, that appeared on Counterpunch yesterday. Like many others, particularly among the “Leninists” in the ISO, Gilbert expresses impatience with the Bolivarian process so much so that he invokes the Russian Narodniks as an example of the sort of thing that is necessary in Latin America, including Venezuela.

I am sure that Chris means well but he is a bit confused about the history of our movement, especially when he writes about Marx’s disgust with those who promoted reformism in his name:

Marx himself thought differently. While growing increasingly exasperated by the German Social Democratic party and its ambition to plod (and pact) itself toward a peaceful victory through the tireless accumulation of forces, he found a breath of fresh air in the character of Russian pistol-bearing narodniks whom he called “terrorists.” These folks knew how to live with brio and die with dignity. They had a revolutionary ethic and thought creatively. They read and studied Marx but did not take him to be the last word. Perhaps the twentieth-century figure most like them is the young Fidel Castro.

To start with, Marx was not unhappy with the German party contesting in elections and in other open and legal arenas but with the influence of LaSalle’s ideology on a wing of the party that reflected an opportunist tendency to adapt to the Junkers welfare state taking shape under Bismarck. There is not the slightest hint that Marx proposed “the propaganda of the deed” in Germany. His main goal was to reorient the German party for the need to struggle uncompromisingly against the bourgeois parties until the conquest of power was posed.

Gilbert links to Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Road” but Shanin’s book based on an analysis of Marx’s letters to the Russian populists has zero to do with shooting Czarist officials. Instead it is an embrace of the idea that the precapitalist peasant communes could form the basis of a revolutionary government that could be the first step in a European-wide proletarian revolution. Marx explained that his focus on Britain’s economic history that proceeded from feudalism to capitalism as a basis for the socialist stage was not a universal template. He thought that the capitalist stage could be skipped entirely.

Chris seems to grasp this to a certain degree when he wrote:

 The narodniks of the People’s Will Party used violence because they did not see history as a linear universal progression in which all must follow the same route. They felt that the Russian people were sitting on potential socialism and socialist potentialities. The violence was the means to release these potentialities.

However, the Narodniks did not use violence in order to skip the capitalist stage. Instead, they did so as a way of inspiring the masses to take revolutionary action. Marx’s thinking was entirely different. He believed that socialists should be part of the mass movement, pushing it to revolutionary conclusions. In contrast, the Narodniks operated in small conspiratorial circles and had little interest in organizing strikes or running for the Duma. In fact it was their very elitist method that led to their legal party becoming a reformist obstacle to socialism—the Social Revolutionary Party of Alexander Kerensky. Terrorism and electoral opportunism went hand in hand.

Chris is fed up with the Latin American left that bases itself on Lenin’s critique of ultraleftism, directed against the immature Communist Parties that were trying to emulate the Bolsheviks. While I have no use for those who cite Lenin’s pamphlet to justify support for bourgeois candidates, it remains a good corrective to boneheaded tactics that isolate the left.

But it would be useful to remind ourselves of what Lenin had to say about the Narodniks, who had little to do with Fidel Castro who ran as an Ortodoxo candidate and who was active in the student movement. Even after he took up arms, the July 26th Movement used every opening afforded it under the Batista dictatorship to mobilize the masses, including repeated attempts to build general strikes through the trade union movement that required reaching out to the CP that had supported Batista in the 1930s and 40s.

For Lenin’s views on the Narodniks, I recommend a look at the 1902 article, aptly titled “Revolutionary Adventurism”:

The Social-Democrats will always warn against adventurism and ruthlessly expose illusions which inevitably end in complete disappointment. We must bear in mind that a revolutionary party is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class. We must bear in mind that any popular movement assumes an infinite variety of forms, is constantly developing new forms and discarding the old, and effecting modifications or new   combinations of old and new forms. It is our duty to participate actively in this process of working out means and methods of struggle. When the students’ movement became sharper, we began to call on the workers to come to the aid of the students without taking it upon our selves to forecast the forms of the demonstrations, without promising that they would result in an immediate transference of strength, in lighting up the mind, or a special elusiveness. When the demonstrations became consolidated, we began to call for their organisation and for the arming of the masses, and put forward the task of preparing a popular uprising. Without in the least denying violence and terrorism in principle, we demanded work for the preparation of such forms of violence as were calculated to bring about the direct participation of the masses and which guaranteed that participation. We do not close our eyes to the difficulties of this task, but will work at it steadfastly and persistently, undeterred by the objections that this is a matter of the “vague and distant future.”

That has far more in common with Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement than the Narodniks of Lenin’s day or sad attempts to emulate them now.

 

June 21, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on art and gentrification

Filed under: art,housing,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

This is the third in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

As I will point out, the topic might be of great interest to those who have looked askance at the “art market” but unfortunately the presentations were not that great. I do urge you watch the video, however, since the speakers were genuine authorities in the field of how artists often unwittingly serve as the shock troops of gentrification.

As a New Yorker, this is a topic that interests me a great deal since I have seen any number of neighborhoods in New York undergo gentrification through a process that follows a familiar pattern. Artists looking for a cheap studio will buy or rent commercial lofts, often in violation of building codes, and then turn them into living lofts. Two old friends, now deceased, bought a loft on the Bowery in 1969 for that very purpose. Around the same time, further to the West, Soho was being transformed after the same fashion. I am not sure how many artists are now operating in Soho, an area that is punctuated by Moncler, Gucci, and Armani boutiques.

Soon to follow was Tribeca, an area that followed the same pattern. Besides the boutiques, Soho and Tribeca are fabulous places for hedge fund managers to live. With their tattoos and their French bulldogs, they feel utterly bohemian.

As artists kept getting priced out of Manhattan, they explored other places, eventually “discovering” Wiliamsburg. Before long Williamsburg became “Soho-ized” as artist Su Friedrich pointed out in her documentary “Gut Renovation”, about which I wrote:

Friedrich’s documentary is an angry and deeply personal look at the 20 years she has spent in a Brooklyn neighborhood that I always considered a bohemian stronghold even if there were obviously attempts to gentrify it. As is the customary practice in New York, artists like Friedrich flock to somewhat seedy but charming neighborhoods in search of cheap industrial lofts to turn into studios. The most famous example is Soho, the area “South of Houston Street” that is nothing but a warren of overpriced restaurants and boutiques nowadays. The only artists who remain there are those who are successful enough to mount shows in Madison Avenue galleries, a snooty area that the once downscale Soho now resembles.

Friedrich is a remarkable personality whose flair for vitriol is worth the price of an admission ticket. She is not above accosting well-heeled couples on the street that are toting shopping bags from Bloomingdales and accusing them of destroying her neighborhood. In one priceless moment in this darkly comic saga, she yells at a bunch of real estate agents and developers from the window of her loft. She is both shameless and priceless.

The artist/gentrification nexus appears outside of New York. One of the most egregious examples is Braddock, Pennsylvania, a destitute small city near Pittsburgh that was once home to steel mills. In the largely African-American city, a white Mayor has called for the transformation of Braddock by appealing to artists (implicitly white) to settle there. In my article on Braddock, I call attention to what the Levi blue jean corporation said during the time it was running commercials filmed there:

The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay.  Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca.  Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town.   As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.

As opposed to this cynical bullshit in the name of social justice, put forward at a time when Braddock’s only hospital was being shut down, Tony Buba fought for true working-class values as opposed to blue jean iconography.

I would call your attention to an article written by Martha Rosler, one of the two panelists in the video. Titled “The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation”, it makes some essential points about the art/gentrification problem. This “solution” to America’s deepening urban crisis of poverty and social decay is being offered to Detroit today after being dubbed a success in Pittsburgh, another hollowed out metropolis. Rosler writes:

This repopulation and transformation of cities—from spaces bereft of shops and manufacturing, starved of resources, and inhabited by poor and working-class people or squatters living in ill-maintained housing stock, into spaces of middle-class desire, high-end shopping, and entertainment—took at least a generation. It also required the concerted effort of city leaders. New York’s Soho and East Village had proved, by the late 1970s, that the transformation of old warehouses and decaying tenement districts into valuable real estate could be accomplished by allowing artists to live and work in them—if nothing else, city government recognized or identified with such people and understood their needs. Those elected officials who might, in an ear­lier era, have supported organized labor, found that such constituencies were fading away. Artists, in addition, were not going to organize and make life difficult for city governments. In the following decades, the Soho model became paradigmatic for cities around the world. (Another popular tactic was to attract small new industrial shops, mostly high tech ones.) But no matter how much the arts (whether the performing arts or the institutionalized visual arts in museums) have been regarded in some cities as an economic motor, that remedy is not applicable everywhere, and not every city has proved to be a magnet for the arts. A new urban theory was required.

 

June 17, 2014

Left Forum 2014 panel discussion on fracking

Filed under: fracking,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

This is the second in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Like most people on the left and particularly those with an ecosocialist orientation, I have been following the struggle over fracking quite closely. But I have an additional motivation. Sullivan County in upstate NY, where my tiny village of Woodridge growing up can be found, is a battleground over fracking drawing support from the Hollywood film star Mark Ruffalo who has a country house there.

If you grew up in the southern Catskill Mountains that extends through Sullivan County you will be familiar with the trout streams that were fed by melting snow from those mountains. Their names are legion: the Neversink, the Willowemac and Callicoon Creek. The Neversink was not just valuable for sport; it also feeds the Neversink Reservoir, one of NYC’s primary sources of exceptionally clean water.

When I was young, I used to swim in the Neversink in kind of natural pool underneath a tiny suspension bridge that was designed by John Roebling, the same engineer responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge. Although I stated in my article on Shamir that I have no use for the spiritual, that river is about as close to godlike as any I can think of. It was my Ganges.

The Croton Bridge (named after the company that built it in 1897)

The Riverkeeper Website is a good source of information on the threat posed by fracking:

The entire West-of-Hudson portion of the New York City Watershed (supplying 90% of drinking water to over half the state’s population) sits on top of part of the Marcellus Shale, a large mineral reserve deposit deep beneath the earth’s surface. Oil and gas companies have known about this shale reserve for decades, but the technology to extract natural gas from it has become available only recently. The Marcellus Shale spans across at least five states. To extract natural gas from the mineral reserve, oil companies plan to use a process called “hydraulic fracturing.”

“Fracking” involves injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water under high pressure directly into shale formations. This toxic brew, along with any natural gas, is then extracted, or leaked to the surface. Whether any toxic discharges will flow into New York City’s drinking water supply is uncertain.

I keep track of the fracking fight in my hometown newspapers, the Middletown Times-Record and the much smaller circulation Sullivan County Democrat, the newspaper my mom used to write for. Since the hotel industry went bust, Sullivan County has become one of the poorest counties in the state. As such, landowners—many of whom are impoverished farmers—are tempted to lease their land to an energy company. For the time being, Cuomo has suspended fracking but given his shitty politics, there’s some question how long that will last. The third speaker on the panel dealt with NY state issues.

A Middletown Times-Record video on the Neversink River:

The first speaker was Steve Horn, who you may know as the foremost journalist covering the fracking beat right now. I strongly suggest you bookmark his blog: http://www.desmogblog.com/blog/steve-horn

This article from the Middletown Times-Record should give you a sense of the sharp divisions in Sullivan County:

Emotions run high as fracking divides neighbors
Takes toll on communities

By Steve Israel

Times Herald-Record,  02/17/13

An anti-fracking hunter no longer hunts in the woods he’s trod for decades. He says he was made to feel so uncomfortable by the pro-fracking hunting friends who own the land, he just doesn’t feel like he’s wanted there.

A pro-fracking volunteer at a public radio station quits the station. She feels ostracized because of what she says is the anti-fracking atmosphere.

Then there’s the builder of second homes who’s potentially put hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction on hold in Sullivan County towns where fracking is a possibility. He’s waiting until the state finally decides whether the natural gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will be permitted.

The possibility of fracking – and all its explosive divisiveness – has insinuated itself so deeply into so many aspects of local life, the fabric of that life has been frayed.

That is the one thing both sides of the issue can agree on.

“Everything has become politicized,” says builder Charles Petersheim, who will not build his Catskill Farms homes in certain western Sullivan County towns until the state issues a decision on fracking.

“The grocery store, the town board, the chamber of commerce. And there’s no rest.”

“I don’t think anything has had the impact on the town as much as fracking,” says Town of Highland Supervisor Andy Boyar, whose Delaware River town banned fracking last summer.

“The residue, the hard feelings still exist and we need to heal.”

“It’s permeating other issues in ways we never would have predicted,” sums up former Sullivan West School District Superintendent Ken Hilton. When his district tried to sell one of its unused schools, the issue of whether to keep or sell the mineral rights for natural gas beneath school property became a point of contention.

No subject is immune

From real-estate values that anti-frackers say would plummet and pro-frackers say would soar, to farms that anti – and pro-frackers say would either be ruined or saved, the implications of fracking have, for many local residents, become as much a part of the daily conversation as the weather. And even that weather would be affected by fracking, say those against it, because of the polluting climate change they say fracking would cause.

But nowhere in the region is the reach of the fracking divide more obvious than the town, planning or zoning board meetings of Sullivan County that once attracted a handful of residents but now can be standing-room only whenever there’s a chance fracking might be discussed.

Take the recent public hearing on the proposed comprehensive plan – or blueprint for growth – in the western Sullivan Town of Callicoon. The plan includes a provision for gas drilling, which fracking opponents (and the county planning department) want removed and supporters want retained.

The steady flow of remarks to the Town Board by the standing-room-only crowd of more than 60 made it obvious that virtually every aspect of local life would be hurt or helped by fracking – depending, of course, how you felt about an “issue (that) can affect us all whether we want it or not,” said Nathan Swenberg.

“Are you really ready to gamble with our tax base, our health, our economy,” asked fracking opponent Jill Wiener, ticking off the areas of local life she said will be at risk if the town allows fracking.

The heart of local life

That’s why emotions always run high whenever this potential strand in the fabric of local life is mentioned as a possibility. It’s no exaggeration to say that for some, the debate over fracking gets at the heart of what local life is all about.

Those for it view it as the key to economic progress and livelihood in this county where the unemployment rate hit 10 percent in December.

Some struggling farmers “wait every day to see what New York is going to do,” says Callicoon Supervisor Tom Bose, who mentions a farmer raising cattle in nearby Broome County who’s waiting for gas drilling – and its royalties – to begin, to pay Bose the money he owes him.

But those against it say fracking and its industrial activity will ruin the lifeblood of Sullivan – its pristine water and pastoral land.

“I know people in the city who want to buy homes but won’t consider the area until this thing is resolved,” says Cristian Graca of Shalom Mountain Retreat in Livingston Manor.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the fracking debate has been on the community itself.

“A lot of people are unfriendly to one another,” said Earl Myers at that comprehensive plan meeting.

John Ebert, who supports fracking and the comprehensive plan, put it like this at that meeting when he said he spoke for “the silent majority of citizens in this township” and expressed a sentiment of the most vocal pro-frackers:

“We also have a minority group with a lot of mouth, money and misinformation to slow progressive progress in this township.”

‘You can be blacklisted’

In fact, fracking is so divisive, and so controversial, some choose not to express their real opinions about it for fear they – or their businesses – will be hurt. Others say longtime acquaintances with opposing views on fracking no longer speak to them because of how they feel.

“If you’re not part of the anti-fracking community, you can be blacklisted,” says Petersheim, expressing a sentiment many for fracking say. He’s spoken out against the legality of towns trying to zone out fracking, as well as the laws that are supposed to protect roads from fracking truck traffic, but, he says, would also hurt construction activity.

Bose agrees that folks for fracking often remain silent.

“We’ve seen contractors who can’t wait for this to happen, but they’re cautious in what they say because they don’t want to hurt their business,” he says.

And because whatever decision the state ultimately makes on fracking will bound to be appealed, the divisiveness in so many strands of the fabric of local life is likely to deepen.

That’s why Boyar – who mentions the cursing and obscene gestures he’s seen because of fracking – speaks not only for his town, but also for just about every area that’s been torn by the divisive issue.

“The town really has to go through a healing process.” he says. “It really does.”

 

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