Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez is dead

Filed under: obituary,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Hugo Chávez: poor boy from the plains who became leftwing figurehead

Venezuelan leader leaves legacy of literacy and healthcare for poor alongside crumbling infrastructure and dependence on oil

Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, has died after a long battle with cancer, according to his vice-president Nicolás Maduro. Photograph: George Tuley/AP

No one imagined it would end like this. A ravaged body, a hospital bed, a shroud of silence, invisible. Hugo Chávez‘s life blazed drama, a command performance, and friend and foe alike always envisaged an operatic finale.

He would rule for decades, transform Venezuela and Latin America, and bid supporters farewell from the palace balcony, an old man, his work complete. Or, a parallel fantasy: he would tumble from power, disgraced and defeated by the wreckage of revolution, ending his days a hounded pariah.

Instead, the 58-year-old leader, whose death was reported on Tuesday by his vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, succumbed to cancer at a hospital in Caracas, departing this world behind drapes of official secrecy. The boy from the plains of Barinas who loved to draw and sing and grew up to be an army officer, a coup plotter, a president and world figure, leaves an ambiguous legacy of triumph, ruin and uncertainty.

It was a surreal, slow-motion death. He announced his cancer in June 2011 to a stunned nation. The comandante, sick? He was indestructible: possessor, as Gabriel Garcìa Márquez once noted, of a body of reinforced concrete. Chávez drank more than 30 cups of black coffee a day, worked till 3am, talked on his weekly TV show without script (or interruption) for eights hours straight.

“We will beat this,” he told Venezuela, enlisting the country in his fight for survival, and, until late last year when he disappeared from view for treatment in Cuba and officials turned grave, the government insisted for a year and a half that, no matter how bloated and haggard he looked, he was recovering.

During 2012 Chávez would break spells of seclusion by appearing on TV clutching that day’s newspaper, like a hostage’s proof of life video. Many Venezuelans were convinced the cancer was a ruse, that he was faking it to wrongfoot opponents.

But he was dying. The type of cancer and its prognosis were official secrets, kept in the same vault as Fidel Castro’s medical records.

Death will return Chávez to the spotlight. His funeral promises to be a vast, tumultuous affair of weeping throngs and foreign leaders’ cavalcades. The millions of mostly poor Venezuelans who considered Chávez a champion since he was first elected in 1998 will be bereft.

“Uh, ah, Chávez no se va,” went the chant. Uh, ah, Chávez won’t go. A gleeful, defiant riposte to opponents who tried in vain to oust him. Now he has gone, but whither his “21st-century socialist revolution”, a unique experiment in power fuelled by charisma and bountiful oil revenues?

Read full article

https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/04/15/hugo-chavez-and-the-venezuelan-revolution/
https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/04/17/hugo-chavez-and-the-venezuelan-revolution-part-2/
https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/04/20/hugo-chavez-and-the-venezuelan-revolution-conclusion/
https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/finding-fault-with-hugo-chavez/
https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/11/18/mike-gonzalez-on-hugo-chavez/

January 29, 2013

Letter to the New York Times ombudsman on Hugo Chavez

Filed under: media,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Dear Ms. Sullivan,

After reading the hatchet job on Hugo Chavez by Alberto Barrera Tyszka and Cristina Marcano in last Tuesday’s op-ed page, I decided to check the paper’s archives (I am a subscriber) to see if there is a general trend.

I was shocked to discover that a certain Francisco Toro blogs at http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/. He can best be described as having the same relationship to Venezuela that someone like the Miami expatriate community has to Cuba: frothing-at-the-mouth hostility. I suppose that the paper might excuse itself for offering him a blog to spout his propaganda if it didn’t have such a terrible record in its Venezuela reportage.

In doing a bit of digging on Mr. Toro, who received an MSc from the London School of Economics, I discovered that he resigned his from his reporting job in January 2003. Frankly, he should have never been hired in the first place. This is the letter he sent to his editor Patrick J. Lyons:

“After much careful consideration, I’ve decided I can’t continue reporting for the New York Times. As I examine the problem, I realize it would take much more than just pulling down my blog to address your conflict of interests concerns. Too much of my lifestyle is bound up with opposition activism at the moment, from participating in several NGOs, to organizing events and attending protest marches. But even if I gave all of that up, I don’t think I could muster the level of emotional detachment from the story that the New York Times demands. For better or for worse, my country’s democracy is in peril now, and I can’t possibly be neutral about that.”

I don’t know. It seems to me that any newspaper trying to persuade the world that it is impartial would have questioned Mr. Toro’s credentials from the get-go. But then again, hiring him was not the first instance of assigning someone to cover Venezuela with a clear animus toward Hugo Chavez.

In 2003 Al Giordano of Narco News provided this background (http://www.narconews.com/Issue30/article584.html) on Juan Forero, Mr. Toro’s predecessor:

•  Also last April, New York Times reporter Juan Forero reported that President Chávez had “resigned” when, in fact, Chávez had been kidnapped at gunpoint. Forero did not source his knowingly false claim. Forero, on April 13, wrote a puff piece on dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona – installed by a military coup – as Carmona disbanded Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution and sent his shocktroops house to house in a round-up of political leaders in which sixty supporters of Chávez were assassinated. Later that day, after the Venezuelan masses took back their country block by block, Carmona fled the national palace and Chávez, the elected president, was restored to office.

•  Forero – who, Narco News reported in 2001, allowed US Embassy officials to monitor his interviews with mercenary pilots in Colombia, without disclosing that fact in his article – was caught again last month in his unethical pro-coup activities in Venezuela. Narco News Associate Publisher Dan Feder revealed that Forero and LA Times reporter T. Christian Miller had written essentially the same story, interviewing the same two shopkeepers in a wealthy suburb of Caracas, and the same academic “expert” in a story meant to convince readers that a “general strike” was occurring in Venezuela. The LA Times Readers Representative later revealed that Forero and Miller interviewed the shopkeepers together. Neither disclosed that fact.

Now I understand that the NYT hires people like Toro and Forero for a reason. It has the same relationship to the U.S. State Department that Pravda had to the Kremlin. I suppose that the only solution to such incestuous ties is to work for the transformation of an economic system that allows—as A.J. Liebling once put it— freedom of the press to be guaranteed only to those who own one.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

February 28, 2012

Whither ’21st century Venezuelan socialism?’

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

A guest post by Saroj Giri

 

Capitalism Expands but the Discourse is Radicalized: Whither ’21st Century Venezuelan Socialism’?

by Saroj Giri

University of Delhi

Abstract

‘Protagonistic democracy’, ‘initiative from below’, or ‘autonomous agency’ is presented by critical left supporters of Venezuelan socialism as counter-balancing Chavez’s statist top-down tendencies. Why should it only counter-balance and not go beyond Chavismo and any reified state power? This has to do with presenting it, often unwittingly, as an undifferentiated bloc, albeit internally highly democratic and empowering. What therefore needs to be highlighted is internal contradiction and differentiation within protagonistic democracy, so that what Marx in the Communist Manifesto once called ‘a line of march’ of the movement as a whole is emphasized – something overlooked by scholars like Michael Lebowitz. Without a ‘line of march’, the most radical democratic practices can get boxed into a ‘bloc’ fighting a reified, externalized enemy. ‘Class struggle’ gets reduced to a populist fight against ‘alien elements’, ‘conspiratorial foreign oligarchs’ and so on – is this not the experience of ‘21st century humanist socialism’ so far?

download article

February 16, 2012

El Sistema

Filed under: music,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

NY Times February 15, 2012
Fighting Poverty, Armed With Violins
By DANIEL J. WAKIN

CARACAS, Venezuela — Corrugated tin roofs, ramshackle cinder-block huts, labyrinthine streets caked with garbage and rubble, the possibility of random violence at any turn. And this section of the Sarría barrio is not even bad for Caracas.

But Sarría also plays host to a center of El Sistema, Venezuela’s program of social uplift through classical music. So just across the street from such blighted scenes young children with violins and French horns and trumpets filled the spaces of an elementary school on Tuesday.

A brass ensemble barked in a corridor open to the Caribbean air. A percussion group rumbled in a dirt courtyard nearby. In a classroom newly hatched violinists played a G major scale and simple Venezuelan tunes after a week of learning. At least two choirs were rehearsing.

The contrast was stark but also typical of El Sistema, which was founded in 1975 but became widely known only in the last five years thanks in part to the meteoric rise of its most famous product, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Mr. Dudamel, 31, became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 and is now in Caracas with his orchestra for a cycle of the Mahler symphonies.

“It’s my goal to keep going, so I can be a great musician,” said Emily Castañeda, 10, who began playing French horn two weeks ago and was producing honorable sounds during a lesson. Or, added Emily, whose mother is a cleaning woman and who does not know her father, she might become a doctor.

El Sistema’s aim is to address a depressingly universal problem: how to remove children from poverty’s snares, like drugs, crime, gangs and desperation. The method, imagined by El Sistema’s founder, the economist and trained musician José Antonio Abreu, was classical music. Orchestras and music training centers around the country were established to occupy young people with music study and to instill values that can come from playing in ensembles: a sense of community, commitment and self-worth.

With nearly one-third of Venezuela’s population of 29 million under 14, the need is large.

Since the program’s founding, El Sistema estimates that it reaches 310,000 children in 280 teaching locations, called núcleos, said Eduardo Méndez, the executive director. About 500 orchestras and other ensembles, from preschool groups using paper cutouts of instruments to the world-class Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, fall under El Sistema’s umbrella. Mr. Abreu has said his goal is to reach 500,000 children by 2015.

The program has become the envy of the music world, inspiring similar programs in many countries and attracting influential proponents like the conductors Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle. It has prompted a number of books and documentaries, countless news reports and a steady flow of musicians and educators tramping through showcase núcleos.

The attention has made Sistema officials adept at playing host to visitors, who receive a warm but fairly controlled welcome, which is usually necessary in dangerous areas. These officials and Sistema fans speak in near mystical terms of Mr. Abreu and his program’s results.

The populist government of Hugo Chávez is also happy with the program, pouring 540 million bolivars, about $64 million, a year into it. Foundations and donors add various amounts each year as well as gifts of instruments.

The Sarria núcleo, on the city’s northern edge, is housed in a prekindergarten-through-sixth-grade school of 1,200. In an arrangement with the government it offers after-school activities from 2 to 6 p.m. for 600 children.

Sarria embodies many of the principles that seem to make El Sistema so successful. All instruction and instruments are free. No child is turned away, teaching is done in groups, and many of the instructors have passed through El Sistema themselves (and are thus committed to the movement). Public performance is ingrained from the beginning. The núcleo is within walking distance of the students’ homes.

All performers are given medallions that have the image of a violin on one side and the motto “Tocar y Luchar,” “To Play and to Fight,” on the other.

“From the time they start playing and performing for others, they feel they are proud of what they are doing,” Mr. Méndez said.

The Sarria orchestra was in the final throes of rehearsing for a concert this week. The núcleo’s director, Alejandro Muñoz, 32, was conducting. He is a stern figure who had already assigned some timeouts to talkative members. They were playing Handel’s “Water Music” and “Alma Llanera,” considered an unofficial Venezuelan anthem that every Sistema orchestra player learns.

“The main thing in our núcleos is the quality,” Mr. Méndez said. “We teach them with the best quality possible.”

Mr. Muñoz, a violinist, was himself born in a barrio and passed through a núcleo. “My mother thought it would be a safe place,” he said. He was identified as a conducting prospect and sent to a conservatory.

At Sarria the beginning violin teacher was Ismenia Molina, 51, who was one of the earliest members of the first Sistema orchestra, giving her the aura of a founder. She has been with El Sistema for 33 of her 51 years.

El Sistema also has choirs and programs to teach instrument-making and repair.

Things don’t always run smoothly in the program. Tensions sometimes arise between Sistema officials and the administrators of the buildings they use. The program’s growth sometimes outpaces the supply of teachers and instruments. Parents don’t always cooperate in getting children to rehearsals or lessons. Instruments are stolen in this crime-ridden country.

One fact sometimes overlooked is that Sistema is also open to people from middle-class or upper-middle-class families.

The Sarría núcleo’s founder, for instance, Rafael Elster, had a privileged upbringing. Mr. Abreu assigned him to set up the núcleo in 1999, and he spent 10 years there, suffering several armed robberies and the cleaning out of his house.

The majority of Sistema children do not go on to musical careers, but many come back and work for El Sistema anyway. Mr. Méndez, for instance, is a lawyer.

“Once you get touched by El Sistema,” he said, “you will never leave El Sistema.”

June 6, 2011

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Alternative”

Filed under: socialism,swans,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Michael Lebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Lebowitz, Michael A.: The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, Monthly Review Press, New York, ISBN 978-1-58367-214-3, paperback, 191 pages.

(Swans – June 6, 2011)   Despite his identification with the Venezuelan revolutionary process, Michael Lebowitz differs from “20th Century Socialists” who hitched their wagon to an “actually existing” system. For obvious reasons, Soviet, Maoist, and even Cuban socialism has too often tended to foster the rigid pursuit of a certain kind of model, either economically or organizationally. There was an unfortunate but understandable need to elevate Soviet-style planning or “Bolshevik” party-building methods (even if they were never actually pursued by Lenin) into some kind of catechism for the Marxist faithful to follow.

Obviously, none of this applies to Venezuela — a country that is still capitalist by strict definitions. Marxist theory is challenged to describe the ever-shifting reality of a society permeated by working-class power and institutions that represent profound challenges to the existing system. Co-ops, for example, are a principal medium for economic development outside the profit system. If one has no patience for explaining contradictions, then one might be advised to avoid Venezuela.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/lproy70.html

March 28, 2011

Left Forum 2011 — part two

Filed under: Left Forum,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

This article contains a video of all the presentations made at “Venezuela and the Chavez Government: Advances and Shortcomings” on Sunday morning, plus my commentary.

Here’s the panel abstract:

Venezuela is going through a crucial period right now because it is emerging from a two-year recession and President Chavez and his allies have won only narrow electoral victories since the loss of a 2007 constitutional reform referendum. In addition, after 12 years in power there is a certain erosion of enthusiasm among rank and file Chavistas. Chavez is up for reelection in 2012, which will be one of his most critical contests yet. The speakers on this panel will explore what is currently going on in Venezuela, in terms of the advances and the shortcomings of the Chavez government and they will thereby try to make sense of where Venezuela has been and where it is heading.

The speakers included:

  • Steve Ellner—Universidad del Oriente, Venezuela
  • Dario Azzellini—Johannes Kepler Universität, Austria
  • Isabel Delgado—Ministry of Basic Industries and Mines, Venezuela
  • Mark Weisbrot—Center for Economic and Policy Research
  • T.M. Scruggs – University of Iowa / Independent Scholar

I found Ellner’s talk the most interesting since it claimed that Venezuela illustrated Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution to some extent. It differed, however, because Chavez believes in compromise and Trotsky didn’t. This amounted to a swipe against the trade union activists who have been interviewed in the ISO and British SWP press. In my view, they have made some important critiques from the left but are in no position to supersede Chavez. This is a function of “vanguardist” habits that prevent them from a reaching a critical mass.

I should add that a panel discussion took place last year along the same lines, as I reported:

12pm-1:50pm: Lessons from Venezuela: Achievements and Failures

This featured three very well-known commentators—Steve Ellner, Greg Wilpert and Eva Gollinger—as well as two that were new to me: Carlos Martinez, the author of “Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots”, and Dario Azzellini, the co-director of a documentary “Venezuela from Below”.

All the talks were a mixture of interesting observations about the current situation in Venezuela with what I am afraid were muddled theories about “21st century socialism” which amounts to statements that the revolution is impossible to categorize, but different from statist, 20th century models, and filled with contradictions, etc. There was a certain amount of defensiveness from Steve Ellner who stated that the revolution would never satisfy “the Trotskyists”, both inside the country and out.

Azzellini went furthest out on a limb by trying to describe Venezuela as an example of “council communism” since so many councils were being formed with the encouragement of the government. Apparently, these councils would eventually change from quantity to quality and result in a full-fledged socialist state or something like that. He said that Venezuela was very much like the Paris Commune, perhaps in a bid to assuage the “Trotskyists” in the audience who needed reassurance that the experiment in Venezuela was in conformity with the Marxist classics.

In the Q&A, feeling a bit testy from all the foggy rhetoric, I said that it might make sense to stop worrying about whether Venezuela conformed to some classical definition of socialism and perhaps be satisfied with the analysis put forward by Marxmail’s Nestor Gorojovsky, namely that Chavez was a radical nationalist not much different from Peron or a dozen other anti-imperialist heads of state. It is much better to leave it like that rather than to offer up definitions utterly lacking in theoretical rigor. I don’t think that the panelists were happy with my intervention, even though it was offered by somebody totally in sympathy with Hugo Chavez’s presidency.

This year I had another comment that reflected my mixed feelings about “21st Century Socialism” (it had nothing to do with Hugo Chavez’s ties to Qaddafi). I stated that all socialist revolutions of the 20th century grew out of armed struggles (including the October 1917 revolution, which involved winning the army over) against despotic rule. Once the old state with its repressive apparatus was dismantled, a “workers state” would nationalize the means of production and institute large-scale planning. But the new model taking shape in Latin America has operated on a totally different basis. Leftist presidents have been elected but have carried out reforms, often quite radical, that have an anti-capitalist dynamic. The failure of these governments to complete this new type of revolution suggests that it might not be possible, especially with the collapse of the USSR that provided economic and military aid in the past.

Time will tell, I am sure.

June 23, 2010

Hugo Chavez interview (part one)

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Mark Weisbrot, co-writer of “South of the Border” debunks BBC interviewer here.

March 22, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Saturday sessions

Filed under: Academia,China,financial crisis,india,socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

For those who are not familiar with the Left Forum, this is a yearly gathering in NYC that began as the Socialist Scholars Conference in 1982. In 2005 there was a split between the more rightwing social democrats on the steering committee, such as Bogdan Denitch, and those more inclined to agree with the perspective of Monthly Review, Socialist Register, etc. The leftists launched Left Forum and the rightists pretty much faded from the scene.

I regard the Left Forum as an important event for the left and have seen it become more and more relevant to the class struggle. While it is nominally an academic conference (the original orientation to “socialist scholars” set the agenda pretty much on a permanent basis), it is not as rarefied as the Rethinking Marxism conferences in Massachusetts.

So here goes.

10am-11:50am: Developmental Terrorism in India Today

This is the second year in row that I have attended panel discussions organized by Sanhati, a network of scholars and activists focused on the struggles of the poor and the peasantry in West Bengal. As Marxmail subscribers know, we receive fairly regular communications from Sanhati whose website http://sanhati.com/ is must reading for those with an interest in Indian politics.

The first speaker was Sirisha Naidu, an economics professor at Wright State University in Ohio, who spoke about the conflict between indigenous forest dwellers, who rely on collective use of the “commons”, and private industry bent on exploiting the forest for commodity production. Years of struggle by the forest dwellers finally resulted in the Forest Rights legislation of 2006 that protected their rights within the usual pro-business loopholes you’d expect in any bourgeois laws. Despite the loopholes, the legislation has been a real aid to advancing the mass movement. You can read her paper The Individual Versus the Common in the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 on the Sanhati website.

Next was Svati Shah, who teaches Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the U. of Mass., where a number of Sanhati activists are based. She spoke about the economic forces driving rural people to Bombay (she used this word rather than Mumbai—why I am not sure), forced to migrate because of landlessness and meager resources—especially water that is being squandered by sugar plantations. Water shortages are also a big problem in the city where a new suburban neighborhood only gets water one out of five days from public sources. This has led to the sale of water as a commodity, a form of exploitation that will surely increase under the impact of climate change.

The final speaker was Siddhartha Mitra, a web developer in NYC who spoke about the Naxalite insurgency in the state of Chhattisgarh, an area where mining companies have clashed with indigenous populations. As is the case with all areas in which the Maoist guerrillas have gained a foothold, the objective conditions are rotten-ripe for revolution. Mitra stated that in the rural areas, largely unreachable through roads or any other modern forms of transportation, 1 out of 2 households lack water and 10 out 16 villages have no hospitals. Once the insurgency broke out, the local bourgeoisie launched something called “Salwa Judum” (purification hunt) that involved the distribution of guns and cash to the local population to be used against the Naxalites. You can read an account of his visit to Chhattisgarh at the Sanhati website: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/1921/

During the q&a, I asked whether Indian Marxists have theorized about the problematic of indigenous or tribal peoples in India living in precapitalist social conditions as an obstacle to the development of a proletariat. As someone who has studied this problematic in Latin America, where “stagist” conceptions have pitted revolutionaries such as the FSLN against their own indigenous populations like the Miskitos, I wondered if the Communist Party—a promoter of “modernization” in Bengal—had cast their role in such terms. My question did not seem to register with the panelists but I might follow-up on this on my own.

12pm-1:50pm: Lessons from Venezuela: Achievements and Failures

This featured three very well-known commentators—Steve Ellner, Greg Wilpert and Eva Gollinger—as well as two that were new to me: Carlos Martinez, the author of “Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots”, and Dario Azzellini, the co-director of a documentary “Venezuela from Below”.

All the talks were a mixture of interesting observations about the current situation in Venezuela with what I am afraid were muddled theories about “21st century socialism” which amounts to statements that the revolution is impossible to categorize, but different from statist, 20th century models, and filled with contradictions, etc. There was a certain amount of defensiveness from Steve Ellner who stated that the revolution would never satisfy “the Trotskyists”, both inside the country and out.

Azzellini went furthest out on a limb by trying to describe Venezuela as an example of “council communism” since so many councils were being formed with the encouragement of the government. Apparently, these councils would eventually change from quantity to quality and result in a full-fledged socialist state or something like that. He said that Venezuela was very much like the Paris Commune, perhaps in a bid to assuage the “Trotskyists” in the audience who needed reassurance that the experiment in Venezuela was in conformity with the Marxist classics.

In the q&a, feeling a bit testy from all the foggy rhetoric, I said that it might make sense to stop worrying about whether Venezuela conformed to some classical definition of socialism and perhaps be satisfied with the analysis put forward by Marxmail’s Nestor Gorojovsky, namely that Chavez was a radical nationalist not much different from Peron or a dozen other anti-imperialist heads of state. It is much better to leave it like that rather than to offer up definitions utterly lacking in theoretical rigor. I don’t think that the panelists were happy with my intervention, even though it was offered by somebody totally in sympathy with Hugo Chavez’s presidency.

3pm-4:50pm: The ‘PIIGS’, Baltics, and Hungary: Economic Crisis on the EU’s Internal Periphery

This was a look at the failed economies of the European periphery.

Jeff Sommers, who teaches at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Latvia, gave an excellent talk on the origins of the worst economic crisis in Europe today—perhaps greater than Iceland’s. Since I recorded his talk and plan to upload it to Youtube, I won’t say anything about it now except to recommend it highly. Jeff, as it turns out, is somebody I used to have email exchanges with long ago when he was on PEN-L. He has also collaborated a bit with two of my favorite people on Marxmail, the late and lamented Mark Jones and Jim Blaut. I will announce Jeff’s talk just as soon as I have worked out the kinks with IMovie and Youtube.

Mark Weisbrot, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an ubiquitous figure on the leftwing of the Internet, spoke about the financial policies of Wall Street banks that led to the disaster in the countries under discussion. I suspect that Mark’s talk was drawn from a paper on the CEPR website titled Latvia’s Recession: The Cost of Adjustment With An “Internal Devaluation”. Based on what I heard from Mark, this paper should be required reading for radicals.

Mark was followed by Salvatore DiMauro, a Geography professor at SUNY New Paltz who spoke about the situation in Hungary, an area that he specializes in. Apparently, the shock therapy that was administered there in the early stages of the crisis is intended to be a model for the other basket cases in Europe.

5pm-6:50pm: Debunking the Myth of the “China Model”: Is a Radical Alternative Possible?

This started off with a talk by Ben Mah, a Chinese private investor based in Canada in his 60s or 70s (shades of Henry Liu) who has no use for capitalism in China! However, the fire was mostly directed at Western banks rather than the Chinese elite, a tendency that I also associate with Henry Liu.

He was followed by two young academics studying/teaching in the USA: Tong Xiaoxi and Xu Zhun. They are part of an increasing participation by Marxist academics from China at the Left Forum, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, I have found nearly all of their contributions to be a bit academic—a function perhaps of the tight leash that the government keeps on the intelligentsia. It is one thing to invoke a Marxist analysis; it is another to tie that analysis to a program of political action. Tong Xiaoxi spoke about the forms of political protest in China, using conventional sociological discourse that at least had the merit of viewing protests as a good thing. Xu Zhun gave a disarmingly modest talk on the impact of changing agrarian relations in China which has had two stages. First, there was the conversion of collective farms into individual households which had the merit from the ruling party’s standpoint of undermining class solidarity. This was an advance over the old system, but insufficient for the needs of a “modernizing” economy. The next phase, currently in progress, involves converting the land for use by large commercial farms. In other words, China is undergoing the changes that took place in Britain or the USA but telescoped in time.

The last speaker was Michael Hudson, who is a lively speaker and interesting personality. He began by defining neoliberalism basically as a form of exploitation in which Western banks impose a dollar regime on a weaker country, strip its industrial assets and dictate terms favorable to imperialism. Supposedly, according to Hudson, China has rejected neoliberalism and is some kind of success story. To give you an idea of where he is coming from, Hudson referred to a book he wrote some years ago that has been translated into Chinese and is being discussed by the country’s nationalistic-minded economists, to his great pleasure. I can’t recall the title but it makes the case that protectionist policies guaranteed the success of American corporations. Somehow, this had little to do with “radical alternatives” to the China model and I made that point during the q&a. I asked Hudson what differentiated him from Paul Craig Roberts who makes similar points on Counterpunch. I also asked him what good China’s “success” did while it was at the expense of other East Asian economies that—according to Marty Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett—were the losers in the competitive export marketplace. He had no answer.

Tomorrow I report on the Sunday sessions.

February 25, 2009

Venezuelan high school musicians

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

February 17, 2009

Reflections on Marc Saint-Upéry

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Marc Saint-Upéry

Last Sunday I put an article written in 2004 titled “The Limits of Social Movements: An untimely reflection” by Marc Saint-Upéry on the Marxmail website. It was translated by Ethan Young, a Marxmail subscriber, who quite rightly viewed it as an important contribution to an ongoing debate, even though history has more or less superseded it.

In the late 1990s the “anti-globalization” movement spawned efforts to theorize revolution on non-Marxist terms, even though lip-service was occasionally paid to Marx. In works such as Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” and John Holloway’s “Change the World Without Taking Power” there was an attempt to write off traditional Marxist concepts of taking state power in order to construct a more just economy based on human need rather than private profit. Evoking ideas found in autonomism, ultraleft or council communism and anarchism, Hardt-Negri and Holloway became fixated on the act of struggle itself rather than the goal of seizing power. In its aversion to centralized political power through the dreaded “Leninist” party, this sector of the left squandered opportunities to make a revolution in Argentina. Setting up piquetero roadblocks became an end in itself, while the need to coordinate strategy on a national level was dismissed as outmoded Leninist thinking.

Saint-Upéry writes:

As soon as they take part in the dispute over the common good and the social order, social movements move openly and directly to politics and contribute to the definition of the political agenda. Nevertheless, the relation of the social movements with politics – much less politicians – is not usually understood in the sense of state institutions, public policy and electoral competitions. In the latest debates on social movements in Latin America, there was a certain tendency to presuppose the existence of an emphatic split between social self-organization and political institutions. This absolute dichotomy often reflects a slippery attempt at moralizing the strategic debate, and a new version of old fundamentalist impulses. Nowadays, the question is: just what is the revolution, who are the revolutionaries and the reformists, how best to distinguish the “pure” from the “impure” in order to defend the virginity of idealized social movements against any institutional contamination. The most extreme form of this purism is found in a curious book by John Holloway. However, I believe that Holloway’s thesis is only the hyperbolic crystallization of a vague but insistent ideological mood that other authors offer in more qualified forms.

He also points out certain internal contradictions in the Zapatista movement, which in Holloway’s sector of the left amounts to a kind of model:

The case of the Zapatistas is very particular for its creation of armed “self-limited” insurrection and its subsequent trajectory. In any context outside of pure coercion or institutional anarchy, the most general problem of social movements is that their essential “internal institutionality,” while original and autonomous in form, cannot overlook “external” institutionality and the problems that it raises: Who holds sovereignty? Who is the legitimate representative? – and so on. The autonomy of social movements from the political-electoral market, especially its corrupt, “for sale to the highest bidder” versions, is indispensable. To believe, all the same, that this autonomy lessens the problems of the struggle for state power, of the contentious formation of the general will, of the institutionalization of the rules of social coexistence and of public deliberation, of the equitable administration of resources, of the representation of citizens and of their active participation in public matters, is the coarsest of illusions.

I weighed in on Holloway and the Zapatistas in a 2003 article titled “Fetishizing the Zapatistas: a critique of ‘Change the World Without Taking Power‘”. The fact that my article and Saint-Upéry’s are more than 5 years old might tell you something about how its relevancy to today’s world. In a series of blows following the 9/11/2001 events, the “anti-globalization” movement of the imperialist nations has been superseded more or less by the “war on terror” and economic crisis. In the first instance, the tasks of the antiwar movement were simply of no interest to the more ideologically-driven foot soldiers of the “anti-globalization” movement who preferred fighting in the streets over maximalist demands like “Stop capitalism” to mass actions designed to force the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 3rd world, there were even more powerful forces at work that would render Holloway’s schemas obsolete. In a series of countries in Latin America, radical governments came to power through elections, a means of struggle that the Zapatista left regarded as irredeemably tainted.

A few days after sending me Saint-Upéry’s article, Ethan Young followed up with a translation of an interview that the author gave to “Le Monde Diplomatique” in November, 2008. Despite the 2004 article’s aversion to “social movement” ideology, it is clear from the interview that Saint-Upéry is less than enthusiastic about 21st Century Socialism.

Q: Regarding this crisis, does the “21st century socialism” preached in Latin America represent an alternative?

A: Let me tell you a little story. There is a leader, extremely popular in the lowliest subsets and the least educated population sectors who explains that “here, the citizens own the natural resources collectively and we share the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” This same leader fought a battle without quarter to force the private oil companies to pay more taxes and royalties for the exploitation of the oil wells. Moreover, this person is perceived by the people as somebody “who understands our problems and speaks like us, not like the arrogant elites.”

This leader is named… Sarah Palin (her again), ultra-reactionary governor of Alaska and McCain’s running mate, who makes a gift each year of a four-digit check ($3,269 in 2008 ) to each citizen of this subarctic petro-state. Frankly, the idea that a new form of socialism will be invented from a nondescript experiment in neo- development, of caudillismo, extractivism and hyperdependence on the worldwide market and prices of raw materials, seems to me a joke in bad taste.

The global crisis will clarify the limits of so-called “21st century socialism.” In practice they are clear already, and they will be more and more so as the situation worsens. As for the “theory,” I have very closely followed some of the debates on 21st century socialism in Venezuela and Ecuador , among others. One can only be struck by the vague, spell-binding, purely emotional or abstract and sometimes quite simply delirious character of the speeches that circulate on this subject.

Beyond some well-intentioned but warmed-over declarations on the virtues of participatory democracy (which, however, functions today in Venezuela either as pure vertical manipulation, or as a security valve for popular frustrations with the feverish inefficiency of the central administration, and in general as an ambiguous mixture of both), I see no conceptual tool emerging, no proposal for a concrete institutional construction that could guide us in the search for an alternative to capitalism.

Despite everything, the socialist imaginary* seems to have recovered a certain role.

Although Saint-Upéry strikes me as a bright fellow, the comparison between Sarah Palin and Hugo Chávez is rather foolish. We should not forget that his government is a direct outgrowth of a working-class rebellion in 1989 called the Caracazo. Furthermore, Chávez has attacked the privileged bourgeois elements in the oil industry in order to reallocate profits to raise the standard of living of the poor. If he wants to equate this with Sarah Palin fighting “a battle without quarter to force the private oil companies to pay more taxes and royalties for the exploitation of the oil wells”, then who am I to quibble with a journalist using his imagination for literary effect. But the facts militate against this flight of fancy.

In fact, all Palin did was send $1200 checks to the citizens of Alaska in an obvious effort to bribe the taxpayers in an effort to secure her reelection. In contrast, Chávez’s use of oil has been as much about international solidarity as it has been about improving the living conditions of Venezuelans. In an effort that mirrors Cuba’s medical aid to poorer nations, Venezuela has supplied oil to countries on the front lines of struggle in Latin America in defiance of U.S. efforts to strangle them. Chávez has also built alliances with Iran and other OPEC nations in order to prevent the imperialist nations from exploiting a precious resource to their own advantages. This, more than anything, is what earns their reputation as “rogue states”. One supposes that Saint-Upéry missed this dimension because it did not satisfy his rather high standards for a “socialist imaginary”.

At the risk of sounding like Sarah Palin, I for one thing it is a very good thing that Venezuela uses oil to benefit the poor and that Bolivia intends to use natural gas and lithium for the same purposes. Here’s what indigenous peoples had to say about the discovery of enormous reserves of lithium in the February 2, 2009 N.Y. Times:

At the La Paz headquarters of Comibol, the state agency that oversees mining projects, Mr. Morales’s vision of combining socialism with advocacy for Bolivia’s Indians is prominently on display. Copies of Cambio, a new state-controlled daily newspaper, are available in the lobby, while posters of Che Guevara, the leftist icon killed in Bolivia in 1967, appear at the entrance to Comibol’s offices.

“The previous imperialist model of exploitation of our natural resources will never be repeated in Bolivia,” said Saúl Villegas, head of a division in Comibol that oversees lithium extraction. “Maybe there could be the possibility of foreigners accepted as minority partners, or better yet, as our clients.”

I regret that comrade Saint-Epuréy is left cold by this sort of thing, but this has a rather stimulating effect on my own “socialist imaginary”.

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