Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2013

A reading guide for students of Marxism

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

A Marxist education

In early February I received this email from a Marxmail subscriber:

If I am not imposing on you —could you recommend some items to read to get some concise (assuming that is the right word to use) and basic understandings of marxism in its pure form and then the debates that either honed it or distorted it. I am new to this other than having some info from high school and reading the communist manifesto. I can follow some of the items sent to the list but the background to some of them is way above my level. Thanks for any recommendation you can make.

It has taken me a while to get around to responding to this but this does not reflect a lack of interest on my part. To the contrary, this is one of the main reasons I launched Marxmail—to help people new to Marxism get a better handle on the main concepts without enduring the sectarian nonsense I had to put up with as a recruit to the Trotskyist movement in 1967.

Despite my regrets about the 11 years I spent in the movement, I can say that I received a very good education from some very capable teachers, including old-timers who were closely connected to Leon Trotsky, like George Novack, Farrell Dobbs, and Joseph Hansen. I always had the hope that the participation of veteran Marxists on Marxmail would help new comrades get up to speed, especially since many of the discussions take the form of sharp debates. Some of the best lessons I received in Marxism were not part of an organized lecture series but debates at a branch meeting with people like Peter Camejo on the other side of a question from Larry Trainor, an older trade union veteran of the party.

Before recommending a reading guide, I want to refer you to a Yahoo mailing list I initiated in January 2008 to meet a similar request. The archives are here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/. Basically the format was a post from me followed up by discussion. As it turned out, there wasn’t much discussion. Looking back in retrospect, I think the attempt at an online class had mixed results. I tended to write about topics that probably reflected a bit too much of my own concerns that were often a bit abstruse. Also, the mailing list medium does not lend itself to the kind of give-and-take that you would get in a physical as opposed to a virtual classroom.

There is a very good chance that I will return to this at some point in the future but in a different format. It will probably be based on videos of me lecturing on basic concepts on a blog with people asking questions or making comments. There’s also a good chance that I will try to use Skype for online discussion, keeping in mind that you are limited to 8 people communicating at once. I really have to look into different options, including the possibility that some leftwing institution would donate the resources for an electronic classroom like the kind that MIT and Columbia University are using. In general I am skeptical about electronic classrooms but for people like us spread across 5 continents there’s probably no alternative.

Okay, without further ado, here is a reading guide for learning Marxism divided to online texts and those only available in dead trees format. I should add that Les Evans, a leader of the SWP who has since evolved into a Christopher Hitchens figure politically but without his overweening ambitions, recommended a number of the online texts to me back in the late 60s.


1. Karl Marx, “Wage Labor and Capital”. Although this is an unfinished work, it is an excellent introduction to Marx’s basic economic theories written in a straightforward manner geared to the audience: the German Workingmen’s Club of Brussels.

2. Ernest Mandel, “An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory”. Like the work above, it was written as a kind of introductory text.

3. Frederick Engels, “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”. This is actually an excerpt from a larger work, “The Dialectics of Nature”, that is not nearly as important as this part that is generally read on its own. It anticipates much of modern ecological thought.

4. Abram Leon, “The Jewish Question”.  I joined the SWP just around the time of the Six Day War in 1967 when there will still lots of illusions about Israel on the liberal left. As someone raised in a kosher home with mom a Zionist zealot one of the first questions I had for Les Evans is what was the Marxist position on anti-Semitism. He proceeded to give me an impromptu 30-minute one-on-one lecture drawn from Leon’s book. Leon, I should add, was a Belgian Trotskyist who died in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.

5, Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours”. I have always regarded Trotsky as the finest writer of the Marxist movement. In this brilliant polemic, he answers liberals who have accused Marxists of believing that the ends justify the means. Here is a sample: “Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.”

6. V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”. Some believe that this work is obsolete since it addresses inter-imperialist rivalries of the sort we haven’t seen since WWII. I would reply that the greater value of the work is its ability to unmask the connections between big banks and the state, of obvious relevance to the contemporary scene.

7. Evelyn Reed, “Is Biology Women’s Destiny?”. A good introduction to the themes Reed dealt with in a large book titled “Woman’s Evolution” that is only available in print from Pathfinder Press, the SWP publishing wing. I think the book is very much worth reading but only if you get it second hand from Amazon or from the library.

8. CLR James, “The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States”. Using his party name JR Johnson, James demonstrates the kind of analysis that made him such a strong influence on the Marxist wing of the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s and 70s.

9. Jim Blaut, Lenin’s evolution on the National Question. This and two other chapters from Blaut’s book on the national question can be read here. Blaut was a member of Marxmail until his untimely death in 2000. I plan to scan and upload the remainder of his book over the next few months.

10. Felix Morrow, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain”. This book shows the remarkable ability of a Trotskyist to expose class-collaborationism. When I first read it, I assumed that all that was necessary in politics was to make such points. Alas, I did not understand at the time that revolutions are not made on the basis of telling workers about colossal failures but leading them in struggle to a successful conclusion. That being said, Morrow is a terrific writer.

I could obviously cite another 50 books and articles but this should be a good start.

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1. Leo Huberman, “Man’s Worldly Goods”. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Huberman was with Monthly Review when he wrote this, a primer on Marxist economics geared to workers.

2. A.L. Morton, “A People’s History of England”. As you can figure out from the title, this is the British counterpart of what Zinn wrote for the U.S. but frankly more engaged with the Marxist method. Morton is great.

3. Robert G. Williams, “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”. This is an excellent explanation of how “primitive accumulation” in Central America (driving small peasants off their land and turning it into cattle ranches to supply fast food restaurants) led to the revolutionary struggles of the 1970s and 80s.

4. Michal Perelman, “The Invention of Capitalism”. Michael has written many very good books but this is my favorite. It deals with the primitive accumulation phase of capitalism and the ideology put forward to defend it.

5. Michael Yates, “Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy”. This is a critique of neoliberalism written in a super-clear fashion. Since Michael has taught workers (and prisoners) over the years, he was obviously channeling Karl Marx’s “Wage Labor and Capital”.

6. Doug Henwood, “Wall Street”. The best-selling Verso book of all time will tell you how the stock market works to the disadvantage of working people.

7. Michael Lebowitz, “Beyond Capital”. Michael has lived in Venezuela for more than a decade and provides insights into 21st century socialism based on a classical Marxist erudition.

8. John Bellamy Foster, “The Vulnerable Planet”. Although I have grown disgusted with Foster ever since he gave MR’s imprimatur to Yoshie Furuhashi’s demented blog aka MRZine, I can strongly recommend this book as about the best introduction to the environmental crisis that I can think of.

9. Mike Davis, “City of Quartz”. A dystopian take on Los Angeles by a preeminent scholar who drove a truck once upon a time.

10. Walter Rodney, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”. A brilliant and angry study of colonialism.

March 8, 2013

Letter sent to NYT reporter

Filed under: journalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

William Neuman

Dear Mr. William Neuman

I can’t say I am surprised that in comparing Venezuela’s economic statistics to other Latin American nations not on the newspaper’s shit-list you did not include Gini coefficients. As you may know, the higher the number, the higher the inequality. So here are the stats for the countries you deemed more “successful” than Venezuela, which has a Gini coefficient of 39.

Brazil: 51.9
Chile: 52.1
Colombia: 56
Peru: 46

I can’t say I blame you for omitting Gini coefficients. That is not the way to crawl your way to the top of the heap at the gray lady, a newspaper whose ace financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin had the distinction of writing a column not long after Occupy Wall Street broke out advising a banker friend that he had nothing to worry about.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect, a long-time NYT reader and critic

ps. You wouldn’t be related to Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, would you?

March 7, 2013

Gut Renovation

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:14 pm

Playing at the Film Forum until March 12th, Su Friedrich’s “Gut Renovation” could have easily been called “I Hate the Rich”, a title suggested to her by a friend who sympathized with her struggle against the real estate industry’s largely successful effort to transform Williamsburg into Condoburg.

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.

Anybody who has lived in New York for the better part of 40 years as I have can bear witness to the incestuous relationship between city government and the real estate industry. Friedrich spent a year turning a run-down loft into a pleasant living space even though she understood that it was not licensed as a residential dwelling. Landlords anxious to exploit every inch of rentable space looked the other way. Once Williamsburg became trendy, the real estate sharks moved in and began tearing down older commercial and industrial buildings in order to erect condos that would feature studio apartments selling for $500,000. And after they got done with the candle and ornamental iron-fabricating firms, they went after the artists.

The building complex I am living in now was a cat’s paw of gentrification. Called Ruppert-Yorkville Towers after the working class beer brewery, it was clearly designed to pave the way for condos, Duane-Reade pharmacies, and Starbucks. The working class residents of the neighborhood would soon be forced to relocate after rents skyrocketed.

Big powerful institutions are always using their political connections to get their way. My former employer Columbia University used eminent domain to force Manhattanville small businesses to go elsewhere. Bard College trustee Bruce Ratner (the brother of leftwing constitutional lawyer Michael Ratner) get his way to build a white elephant development in downtown Brooklyn. NYU is in a struggle against its own faculty to muscle its expansion through in the heart of Greenwich Village. Whether private or public, this is capitalist development at its most thick-fingered, vulgar worst.

Jane Jacobs died in 2006 at the age of 90. Author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, there was nobody more perceptive about the terrible harm done to culture and civilization by the relentless drive for real estate gains at the expense of the human need for beauty and tranquility.

Jim Kunstler, the author of “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape”, interviewed Jacobs back in 2000 for Metropolis Magazine. She recounted a battle waged in the mid-50s against developers who wanted to do to the West Village what has happened in Williamsburg. Kunstler asked her, “Who wanted to knock down the West Village?” Her reply:

It was the Rockefellers wanted to knock it down. But that’s never been established, watch out, you might be gotten for libel. But that was really where it was generated in the downtown lower Manhattan Association which was David Rockefeller’s organization. And they wanted it.

There were all these essentially private visions of how beautiful the city would be, and it was to be all these high rises here. And there would be a little enclave all the most expensive and pretty houses in the village would be left. But all the parts along the edges—the ones that people of lower income occupied—especially of mixed uses. That was our sin in the West Village. We had all these mixed uses. And now all these former manufacturing places are turned into the most expensive lofts with condominiums that sell for over a million dollars. These people, even as real estate experts, they didn’t know from nothing. They were so ignorant. Not only about what they were destroying, but about what people would like. Well, I am digressing. I still get angry about it.

It’s the same kind of anger found in “Gut Renovation”. Highly recommended.

Brilliant take-down of the bourgeois press

Filed under: journalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 1:34 am

Idiot Joy Showland

Every Hugo Chávez obituary in the Western press

by Sam Kriss

Darth Hugo Destruktor Chávez, the outspoken and inflammatory Venezuelan leader, died yesterday in Caracas when the Invisible Hand of the free market reached down his throat and shook loose his gall bladder. He is survived by his four children and his millions-strong army of terrifying cyborg drones.

To his supporters and those implanted with his mind-controlling Chavismo-chips, Chávez was Emmanuel, the reborn Christ. To his detractors, he was Double Hitler. As ever, the truth is somewhere in the middle – while he was certainly born, he was not Christ; and while there was only one of him, he was most definitely Hitler.

Hugo Chávez exploded onto the world stage in September of 2005, when he took the stand at the United Nations General Assembly to complain at length about the air conditioning. However, he first came to prominence in the hitherto-unknown land of Venezuela in 1992. In that year, he and a band of avaricious raiders attempted to steal the Seer’s Eye, an enormous sapphire kept in the vaults of the Federal Legislative Palace. Thankfully, his plot was foiled, and the stone was destroyed before it could be used as a component in Chávez’s Ionising Doom Cannon, a laser weapon that would have been capable of extinguishing the Sun.

However, that which is dead cannot die, and Chávez escaped the dungeon dimension he was cast into to come to power in 1998. While not going so far as to actually do anything remotely dictatorial, Chávez was far from a democratic leader. Instead of competing honestly in elections, he provided services and raised the standard of living for the people of Venezuela, ensuring their gratitude and thereby gaining an unfair advantage at the polls. Much of the funds for this insidious election tactic of ‘making things better’ were rerouted from the newly nationalised oilfields: through this wanton kleptocracy, billions of petrodollars were withheld from deserving rich white people. Under his rule, the murder rate soared; a tend analysts have linked to his predilection for riding round Caracas slums at night and picking off pedestrians with a hunting rifle.

Absolutely nothing happened in April of 2002.

On the international stage, too, Chávez made some severe missteps. From his innumerable lazy Sunday morning lie-ins with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, in which he and the tie-hating weirdo spent hours curled up together on the sofa watching reruns of Friends, to his decision to travel back in time to 1939 and sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on behalf of both nations, Chávez maintained a policy of automatic support for tyrants, dictators, traffic wardens, accordion players, queue-jumpers, and other evildoers.

For all the vaguely defined suffering that I’ll assume he’s caused, Chávez’s death opens up new opportunities for Latin America. Freed from his yoke, leaders across the continent are now free to abandon his schemes for mutual assistance and non-usurious development lending. Only a broad network of grassroots citizen activists stands between the Venezuelan people and the rapprochement with financial imperialism that they definitely want, even if they don’t know it yet.

I’ve always thought that a good way to test the sincerity of anyone who claims to be on the Left is to find out their attitude to Hugo Chávez. Those who try to disavow him tend to be, in general, useless: they want a pure, ideal socialism, not socialism as a real material movement. Chávez wasn’t perfect. In some areas he went too far; in many he didn’t go nearly far enough. Nonetheless the immense good his Bolivarian Revolution has done for the people of Venezuela – and for people across Latin America and the world – is undeniable. What must be remembered, though, is that Hugo Chávez didn’t do any of this alone. His achievements were those of every doctor, teacher, worker, farmer and organiser who worked to improve the lives of those around them. The social movements he helped build and connect will long survive him. Descanse en paz. La lucha sigue.

March 6, 2013

George Galloway defends Hugo Chavez’s legacy against rightwing asshole

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 11:50 pm

Caught in the sequestration web

Filed under: financial crisis,unemployment — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Two days ago I got a letter from NY State Unemployment telling me to show up for an appointment next week to certify for extended benefits after my current benefits expire on August 14th. I got a chuckle out of the work search record I was supposed to bring with me. There were 10 rows, one for each prospective employer you contact each week.

Aren’t these people aware that once you reach the age of fifty or so, the chance of getting a job in your field is about the same as winning the American Idol contest? The NY Times reported on February 2nd:

In the current listless economy, every generation has a claim to having been most injured. But the Labor Department’s latest jobs snapshot and other recent data reports present a strong case for crowning baby boomers as the greatest victims of the recession and its grim aftermath.

These Americans in their 50s and early 60s — those near retirement age who do not yet have access to Medicare and Social Security — have lost the most earnings power of any age group, with their household incomes 10 percent below what they made when the recovery began three years ago, according to Sentier Research, a data analysis company.

Their retirement savings and home values fell sharply at the worst possible time: just before they needed to cash out. They are supporting both aged parents and unemployed young-adult children, earning them the inauspicious nickname “Generation Squeeze.”

New research suggests that they may die sooner, because their health, income security and mental well-being were battered by recession at a crucial time in their lives. A recent study by economists at Wellesley College found that people who lost their jobs in the few years before becoming eligible for Social Security lost up to three years from their life expectancy, largely because they no longer had access to affordable health care.

“If I break my wrist, I lose my house,” said Susan Zimmerman, 62, a freelance writer in Cleveland, of the distress that a medical emergency would wreak upon her finances and her quality of life. None of the three part-time jobs she has cobbled together pay benefits, and she says she is counting the days until she becomes eligible for Medicare.

In the meantime, Ms. Zimmerman has fashioned her own regimen of home remedies — including eating blue cheese instead of taking penicillin and consuming plenty of orange juice, red wine, coffee and whatever else the latest longevity studies recommend — to maintain her health, which she must do if she wants to continue paying the bills.

“I will probably be working until I’m 100,” she said.

This morning I went to the Unemployment website to file a weekly claim and found this bit of news there:

ALERT: Federal cuts to extended unemployment benefits (beyond 26 weeks)

Updated March 1, 2013

Beginning with the week ending April 7th, federal government budget cuts known as sequestration could affect your unemployment insurance benefits.  If you are receiving regular UI benefits you will NOT see any change.  However, if you are receiving federal extended unemployment benefits that start after 26 weeks, the federal government has directed us to reduce your payments by 10.7% beginning that first week in April.  New York State has no control over these cuts in benefits and no ability to waive or reduce the level of cuts.  If you are going to be affected, you will receive a letter during the month of March telling you your exact benefit amount.  Please check this website for the most up to date information concerning the sequestration cuts.  And please be aware that our telephone call center agents do not have any more up to date information, so it is best to use our webpage, Facebook page or contact the United States Department of Labor at 1-866-487-2365, the White House at 202-456-1414 or your member of Congress at 202-224-3121.

What this means is that the 14 weeks of extended benefits I am eligible for after August 14th will be cut from $404 to $360. Now as it turns out my situation is not as dire as most facing such cuts. My wife is a full-time professor who makes a decent income, while I am collecting Social Security payments of $2400 per month. But what if I was 58 instead of 68, single, and living in a typical Manhattan apartment that rents $2000 per month for a studio? That easily could have been me.

Gawker has been running a series on the unemployed, including this tale of woe from someone who had been working in information technology for 9 years:

One evening, four months later, in January, 2010, I got a call at home from work, which was unusual. I was told that my position would be eliminated in favor of contractors, who would develop an e-commerce platform in house. The department head thanked me for my five years of work (it was actually 9, but she didn’t know that; she had only started six months before) and that was that. I kept updating the blogs in the normal way, but someone seemed to notice the snarky tone that the blogs suddenly seemed to take, and complained to the company. I got a phone call asking if I knew what the blogs were, and who updated them. I told them that I no longer worked there and did not normally give out advice for free, but that if there were domains out there that they owned and had control of, it might be considered a liability.

I have not held a full-time job since. I am either “overqualified” (too old), “lack proper qualification” (I have no degree) or I “don’t fit the company culture” (am not pretty enough to be a marketing director).

I have been staving off the sheriff by making crappy landing-page type websites for fly-by-nights that want to increase their Google rankings on their real websites, or by working phone banks, or by playing standup bass in bluegrass bands. There has not been a single month in the last two years where I have made more than $1200. My modest mortgage payment is $1198. My three children and I are living on a $420 SNAP benefit. My wife, who does actually have a degree, got a part time, temp job at the local library after they laid off all the regular employees and hired temps. She left about six months after the paychecks stopped.

Meanwhile the stock market keeps breaking records.

Maybe that’s a function of the New New Economy:

NY Times March 3, 2013
Recovery in U.S. Is Lifting Profits, but Not Adding Jobs

With the Dow Jones industrial average flirting with a record high, the split between American workers and the companies that employ them is widening and could worsen in the next few months as federal budget cuts take hold.

That gulf helps explain why stock markets are thriving even as the economy is barely growing and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

With millions still out of work, companies face little pressure to raise salaries, while productivity gains allow them to increase sales without adding workers.

“So far in this recovery, corporations have captured an unusually high share of the income gains,” said Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “The U.S. corporate sector is in a lot better health than the overall economy. And until we get a full recovery in the labor market, this will persist.”

The result has been a golden age for corporate profits, especially among multinational giants that are also benefiting from faster growth in emerging economies like China and India.

These factors, along with the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep interest rates ultralow and encourage investors to put more money into riskier assets, prompted traders to send the Dow past 14,000 to within 75 points of a record high last week.

While buoyant earnings are rewarded by investors and make American companies more competitive globally, they have not translated into additional jobs at home.

Other recent positive economic developments, like a healthier housing sector and growth in orders for machinery and some other durable goods, have also encouraged Wall Street but similarly failed to improve the employment picture. Unemployment, after steadily declining for three years, has been stuck at just below 8 percent since last September.

With $85 billion in automatic cuts taking effect between now and Sept. 30 as part of the so-called federal budget sequestration, some experts warn that economic growth will be reduced by at least half a percentage point. But although experts estimate that sequestration could cost the country about 700,000 jobs, Wall Street does not expect the cuts to substantially reduce corporate profits — or seriously threaten the recent rally in the stock markets.

“It’s minimal,” said Savita Subramanian, head of United States equity and quantitative strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Over all, the sequester could reduce earnings at the biggest companies by just over 1 percent, she said, adding, “the market wants more austerity.”

As a percentage of national income, corporate profits stood at 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, the largest share at any time since 1950, while the portion of income that went to employees was 61.7 percent, near its lowest point since 1966. In recent years, the shift has accelerated during the slow recovery that followed the financial crisis and ensuing recession of 2008 and 2009, said Dean Maki, chief United States economist at Barclays.

Corporate earnings have risen at an annualized rate of 20.1 percent since the end of 2008, he said, but disposable income inched ahead by 1.4 percent annually over the same period, after adjusting for inflation.

“There hasn’t been a period in the last 50 years where these trends have been so pronounced,” Mr. Maki said.

At the individual corporate level, though, the budget sequestration could result in large job cuts as companies move to protect their bottom lines, said Louis R. Chenevert, the chief executive of United Technologies. Depending on how long the budget tightening lasts, the job cuts at his company could total anywhere from several hundred to several thousand, he said.

“If I don’t have the business, at some point you’ve got to adjust the work force,” he said. “You always try to find solutions, but you get to a point where it’s inevitable.”

The path charted by United Technologies, an industrial giant based in Hartford that is one of 30 companies in the Dow, underscores why corporate profits and share prices continue to rise in a lackluster economy and a stagnant job market. Simply put, United Technologies does not need as many workers as it once did to churn out higher sales and profits.

“Right now, C.E.O.’s are saying, ‘I don’t really need to hire because of the productivity gains of the last few years,’ ” said Robert E. Moritz, chairman of the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers.


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


March 4, 2013

Food, Fasting and Health–the personal and the political

Filed under: food,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

miami_fattyThe Unrepentant Marxist in South Beach, January 2011: 160 pounds

skinny_louThe Unrepentant Marxist today: 145 pounds

Back in 1989 I read a terrific novel by Oscar Hijuelos titled “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” about a couple of Cuban-American brothers who co-led a band in the 1950s whose greatest achievement was an appearance on the “I Love Lucy” show. After one brother dies in an auto accident, the other stops performing and takes a job as super in Washington Heights. Most of his free time is spent listening to old records of the Mambo Kings and hanging out in the neighborhood, playing dominoes, eating comidas tipicas, and drinking beer.

As happens to many people in their 60s, the surviving brother’s health starts to decline. After he survives a heart attack, the doctor puts him on a strict diet. No more comidas tipicas–just salads, fresh vegetables and lean meat. And absolutely no beer and no salt. After a month or so of this regimen, he develops such a craving for a Cuban sandwich (ham, pork, and melted cheese topped with a nice salty pickle) and a bottle of beer that he decides to go out in a blaze of glory. He brings home a Cuban sandwich, a quart of Budweiser, and dies in the middle of enjoying them while a Mambo Kings record plays away reminding him of his well-spent youth.

I really loved the novel and that particular passage. But that was nearly 25 years ago when I was 44 years old and fairly blasé when it came to matters of health, aging, and the big D. (That’s death.)

As you will learn as you hit your fifties and sixties, the weight tends to accumulate over the years, largely a function of a slowing metabolism. About 10 years ago I took a blood pressure test at work and learned that it was “slightly elevated”. And then around a year ago my taking naps on a nightly basis for a month got my wife so worried that she pressured me into seeing a doctor. I tried to explain to her that I don’t like going to doctors because I don’t want to get any bad news like I have cancer or something. Apparently medical experts are divided on most questions including the value of yearly checkups.

But the long-sacrosanct recommendation that everyone should have an annual physical was challenged yet again recently by researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen.

The research team, led by Dr. Lasse T. Krogsboll, analyzed the findings of 14 scientifically designed clinical trials of routine checkups that followed participants for up to 22 years. The team found no benefit to the risk of death or serious illness among seemingly healthy people who had general checkups, compared with people who did not. Their findings were published in November in BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal).

NY Times, January 21, 2013

I was not surprised to learn that I still had elevated blood pressure but also too much of what they called “bad cholesterol”. Now my diet was nothing like the Mambo Kings guy but I do confess to enjoying eggs on the weekend and a buttered bagel. The bigger problem for me, however, was finding some healthy food to eat at lunch when I was still working at Columbia University. The only place that was convenient to my outpost in Manhattanville, where the school was colonizing as if it were the West Bank, was a Fairways grocery store that had food to take out at lunch. Yes, I will bare my soul. Many days I brought back sausages and peppers or meat loaf with mashed potatoes back to my desk. Plus I confess to having a half-muffin each morning. The feelings I get over this now are similar I’m sure to what somebody who kicked a $200 per day heroin habit must feel. How can I have been so stupid?

But what makes this all the more disconcerting is the memories I have of my mother’s last 2 or 3 years as she battled congestive heart disease. Yes, she was in her mid-80s when things got bad but who would want to do anything that makes hardening of the arteries more likely? I know I have to go some day but the idea of being a stroke victim or some other circulatory disease scares the pee out of me. When I used to visit my mother at the special nursing unit of the local hospital, I was always shook up when I saw Milt Brizel my high school geometry teacher who was paralyzed from the neck down, the aftermath of a stroke identical to the one depicted in the 2012 movie “Amour”, directed by Michael Haneke.

Haneke’s typical plot involves some deeply painful setback to a comfortable petty-bourgeois family, from home invasions to environmental collapse. The virtue of “Amour” is its willingness to describe exactly what befalls an elderly couple when one becomes incapacitated. At a certain point the wife demands to die but the husband keeps her alive, a challenge to notions about what really defines “love”.

As a sign of how backward American society is, the right of someone to end their own life in dignity is excluded in all but three states: Washington, Oregon and Montana. A truly civilized country would allow someone suffering some painful and terminal disease to take a couple of pills to end their misery. But the grip of organized religion is so great that it was capable of making someone as saintly as Jack Kervorkian to serve 8 years of a 10-25 year second-degree murder conviction sentence.

When I had my physical a year or so ago, I weighed 160 pounds. The doctor told me that he saw no need to put me on the kinds of medications that are advertised relentlessly on the network news each evening. He advised me to change my diet and get more exercise.

Once I retired on August 31, 2012, it became a lot easier to make those life-style changes. To start with, I cook my own food and not the junk they prepared at Fairway. Each morning starts with a bowl of steel cut oatmeal mixed with flax seed. When I first read that steel cut oatmeal was good for reducing bad cholesterol, I decided to get on board even if it reminded me of the Garrison Keillor radio show’s spiel for the fictional Raw Bits cereal: “It gives you the strength to get up in the morning and do the things that need to be done.”

Now, just a bit more than 6 months after retiring, I am down to 145 pounds and wearing size 32 trousers, that are actually a bit baggy on me. In a few months I will make another appointment with the doctor even though the NY Times does not think it is necessary (nor do they think that criticisms of Napoleon Chagnon are valid.) So, you ask, how did I do it? I imagine that most of you except the most morbidly curious have stuck with this post since it would remind you of the typical geezer telling you about his or her latest surgery.

Well, it has been the result of fasting every Monday and Thursday. Back in March 2012, a most remarkable article appeared in Harper’s magazine titled “Starving your way to vigor: the benefits of an empty stomach”. Written by Steve Hendricks, who embarked on a fasting regimen himself, it is an eye-opening account of its history as a medical treatment rather than a guide to spiritual elevation (something that interests me about as much as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on HBO.)

In the 1960s a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania named Garfield G. Duncan be came troubled by the epidemic of American obesity, which then afflicted a shocking one man in twenty and one woman in nine. (Today it afflicts one in three men and women alike.) Like other researchers, Duncan fasted obese patients and studied how many regained their lost weight. Unlike other researchers, he noticed that the blood pressure of every patient who was hypertensive fell to within normal limits during these fasts. He reported, for illustration, the case of a man of fifty-three years and 325 pounds whose unmedicated blood pressure was 210/130 and whose medicated pressure was 184/106—still menacingly high. The man fasted for fourteen days without drugs, and his blood pressure fell to 136/90. Six months later, it was 130/75. Duncan did not record how many of his patients sustained such improvements after their fasts, but the possibility of a simple cure for some forms of hypertension seemed well worth pursuing.

Not until 2001, however, was there a definitive follow-up to his work. Its au thor, Alan Goldhamer, had fasted thousands of patients at his TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, California, and had seen high blood pressures trill downward like Coast Range streams. He studied 174 hypertensives who fasted for ten days; 154 of them became normotensive by fast’s end. The others also enjoyed substantial drops in pressure, and all who had been taking medication were able to stop. In patients with stage 3 (the most severe) hypertension, the average drop in systolic pressure was 60 mmHg. In all patients, the average drop in systolic/diastolic was 37/13. According to Goldhamer, this was and remains the largest reported drop in blood pressure achieved by any drug or therapy. Like Duncan, Goldhamer did not formally study how long his subjects maintained their newly lowered blood pressures, but he surveyed forty-two subjects six months after their fasts, and their average blood pressure had risen hardly a jot.

For me the best part of fasting is that is really easy. You don’t have count calories. All you need to do is not eat. Can anything be simpler? What I learned almost immediately is that you don’t get any hungrier 12 hours into the fast than you were in the first hour. Plus, you can eat pretty much normally on other days, which for me consists of the sort of food that the Mambo King guy hated. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than some beans and a glass of red wine.

As my readers know, at least those who have stuck around long enough to read this ponderous piece, the issue of food and health has reached a crescendo of late, largely having to do with Michele Obama’s hypocritical campaigning. As a huckster for Walmart’s Healthy Food Initiative, she is just as shameless as her husband who just put a long-time Walmart executive in charge of the White House budget office. That shows where the second coming of Herbert Hoover’s head is really at.

Last Saturday morning Chris Hayes had a special food show on MSNBC. His featured guest was Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef and host of the hit TV show “Top Chef”. He was there to promote “A Place at the Table”, his new documentary on hunger that reflected his deep-felt concerns about poor people getting adequately fed, just like our First Lady. Colicchio told Hayes:

People look at feeding programs whether it’s snack or whether school lunches a handout as a charity program. And we have to look at it as sort of a tool to prepare our children to eat, especially when you look at breakfast programs. There`s a new study that just came out by Deloitte that was done with Share a Strength and No Kid Hungry.

And they`re showing when kids eat breakfast in school, their math scores go up by 17 percent. They have less incidence of being absent. And so, there`s all kinds of benefits. And so, the school lunch program is just — right now, it`s just not funded. And that clip that you showed actually set up the — I actually testified in front of Congress on behalf of the school lunch program.

Colicchio joined a panel in the second half of the show that took up other questions related to food and the poor, in this instance the lowly paid workers who often had to rely on tips. Hayes introduced the segment this way:

In 1960, according to the CDC, Americans spent just 26 percent of their food budget eating away from home. By 2011, that figure had almost doubled to 49 percent.

Food retail and service is one of the healthiest growing industries in the country. For the past decade food industry job growth has far outpaced totally sector job growth.

And yet by almost any measurements, most of these are simply not good jobs. They are some of the worst jobs in the country. In fact, food industry workers use government assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps in much higher than the general workforce does.

Over 27 percent of the food industry workers on Medicaid, compared to 19 percent of the general workforce, and over 13 percent of food service workers receive food stamps compared to just 8 percent of the general workforce.

According to Food Chain Workers Alliance, a workers advocacy group, nearly 80 percent don`t have paid sick days or don`t know if they do. Eighty- three percent of food industry workers do not receive health insurance from their employer, and 58 percent do not have any health insurance at all.

Given his familiarity with the terrain, or at least what his researchers fed to him over the teleprompter, one wonders why Hayes failed to grill Colicchio on this:

NY Times December 13, 2008

Lawsuit Accuses a Top Chef of Wage and Tip Violations


Tom Colicchio, the celebrity restaurateur and judge on Bravo’s popular “Top Chef” television show, was sued in federal court on Thursday by a former waitress who accused his company of misappropriating employee tips, withholding some overtime pay and sometimes failing to pay minimum wage. Mr. Colicchio’s restaurants — including Craft, Craftbar and Craftsteak — were also named in the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the waitress, Nessa Rapone, who used to work at the bustling Craftbar restaurant at 900 Broadway, between 19th and 20th Streets, asserted that Mr. Colicchio’s company, Craft Worldwide Holdings, improperly shared employee tips with supervisors, did not keep proper time records and fired her when she protested.

The lawyers for Ms. Rapone, a Brooklyn resident who worked at Craftbar from March to May 2007, are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan. It accused management of federal and state wage law violations, including failing to pay workers time and a half for all hours worked beyond 40 a week. It also asserts that management shared employee tips with other workers who were not eligible under federal and state law to share in the tip pool.

Ms. Rapone’s lawsuit also accused the company of not compensating her for the cleaning and care of the uniform that she was required to wear at Craftbar.

“The Craft restaurants, all upscale establishments designed by well-known architects and catered by award-winning chefs, have earned Mr. Colicchio and his partners great success,” one of Ms. Rapone’s lawyers, Justin M. Swartz, said in a statement on Friday. “This success, however, has come at the expense of the restaurants’ hourly service workers to whom the defendants have denied proper minimum wages, overtime compensation, and tips they earned from customers.”

If you go to Craft’s website, you’ll see a bunch of farms that supply locally grown and organic meat, fish and vegetables with names like Cavendish Game Farm—not a supplier to TGIF’s, you can be sure. Colicchio says, “Please enjoy some of the great ingredients grown, raised and caught by our friends that share our commitment to serving great food. We feature their bounty on this evening’s menu.”

All this “localism” got started, as you probably know, at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley where reservations have to be booked months in advance and where a typical entrée is $85, and where the rhetoric is quite Green:

Alice and Chez Panisse are convinced that the best-tasting food is organically and locally grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who are taking care of the land for future generations.

Chain-smoking and hard drinking celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain, who would have probably sought out the Mambo King’s favorite restaurant, is unimpressed with Waters to say the least:

I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic. I mean I’m not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that, but I’m a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits. I’m suspicious of orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth. I’m a little reluctant to admit that maybe Americans are too stupid to figure out that the food we’re eating is killing us. But I don’t know if it’s time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald’s. My libertarian side is at odds with my revulsion at what we as a country have done to ourselves physically with what we’ve chosen to eat and our fast food culture. I’m really divided on that issue. It’d be great if he [Obama] served better food at the White House than what I suspect the Bushies were serving. It’s gotta be better than Nixon. He liked starting up a roaring fire, turning up the air conditioning, and eating a bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup. Anything above that is a good thing. He’s from Chicago, so he knows what good food is.

I know little about the cable TV comedy Portlandia, except that it pretty obvious from this clip that they are as fed up with “local” and “organic” food pretensions as Bourdain:

Having said that, I of course believe in environmentally sustainable farming, ranching, and fishing. I own Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan books on healthy food and Green practices and swear by them.

But ultimately, like any other intractable social problem like global warming, food and health are ultimately a function of the mode of production. As long as there is profit in industrial farming and the peddling of sugar-laden fast food to the masses, the nation will continue to endure an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and all the rest.

The 90 year old Sidney Mintz, one of my favorite Marxist historians and political theorists, wrote a book in 1996 titled “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom” whose final pages are worth quoting in their entirety as a coda to this post.

What does the American future hold, so far as eating is concerned? In a series of brilliant recent papers, Cornell University scientist David Pimentel and his colleagues have predicted sweeping changes in American agriculture, and hence in American eating patterns over the next half century!’ Indeed, the changes that these scientists forecast, if they do occur, will be more radical in their effects on American eating than even those of the last half century—which is to say a very great deal. Demographic, agricultural, and other factors enter in. Pimentel and his colleagues, working from present trends, predict a doubling of the national population by 2064; a reduction in arable land (through both erosion and urbanization) in the neighborhood of 180,000,000 acres, or 38 percent, in the same period of time; and a total exhaustion of national fossil fuel resources in not more than two decades. The figures on rapidly diminishing water supply are similarly worrisome.

This is an unbelievably grim scenario. If it eventuates, food exports (now calculated at an average of about $155 per person per year, given our present population) would be reduced to zero. For Americans, food costs would increase by a factor of between three and five—at worst, up to more than half of total income. Should these calculations prove correct, however, the composition of the American diet would also have to change substantially. While nearly two-thirds of the national grain product of the United States, grown on over two million acres, is now used as livestock feed, by 2060 all of it would have become food for us, not for our cattle and pigs and poultry. In effect, Pimentel sees North Americans coming to eat as most of the rest of the world eats, with meat representing a much reduced fraction of our total caloric and protein intake. Since India’s nearly one billion people and the People’s Republic of China’s even larger population get 70 to 8o percent of their calories and nearly all of their protein from grains and legumes, such a change in the States would be in the direction of aligning North American consumption with that of the rest of the world. It would also contribute to a vast improvement in American health. Substantial farmland could be returned to agriculture; the number of bypass and cancer operations would certainly decline.

But will it happen? As I write, McDonald’s looks ahead to a rapid expansion of its enterprises in such places as the People’s Republic of China, where it aims to add 600 retail establishments in the next decade; and Japan, where it now boasts more than a thousand. Whatever the scenario for the United States, many companies are working hard to spread our way of eating world-wide. Nor is there evidence that many Americans are much concerned, either about our fossil fuel consumption or our diet. Driving cars and eating meat are highly valued acts; though both involve the expenditure of unimaginably large quantities of water, soil, cereals, and fossil fuel, there is no collective indication that anyone is deeply concerned. Only sudden shortages reveal, as if in lightning flashes, how deeply held such consumption values are; Operation Desert Storm was a case in point. Indeed, one solution” to the Pimentel prophecies is war. Successful aggression could keep meat and gas available and affordable, at least for a good while longer. Its effects on American moral integrity would be utterly disastrous. But the enormity of the decisions involved in such trade-offs would not be clearly grasped until after the decisions were made. There is a real trap in our not separating what we are free to do, but need not do, if it is a bad idea—from what we cannot help doing, even though it is a bad idea, because we think someone is trying to stop us from doing it.

No one can look down the road and predict how the American people will behave, fifty years from now. One sinister prophecy is embodied in the words of Josef Joffe, the editorial page editor of Suddeutsche Zeitung, who writes: “It is profligacy—being hooked on the sweet poison of consumption—that might yet lay low the American economy and thus American might.” But the worry is not that we will let our consumption gluttony destroy our economy; it is, rather, that we might let our obsessive notions of individual freedom destroy our democracy. The long-term lessons of our economic and agricultural policies are there to be learned now. But we have to be willing to learn them.

Wealth inequality in America

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

March 3, 2013

Bob Woodward

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm


Woodward at war
By: Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei
February 27, 2013 08:01 PM EST

Bob Woodward called a senior White House official last week to tell him that in a piece in that weekend’s Washington Post, he was going to question President Barack Obama’s account of how sequestration came about — and got a major-league brushback. The Obama aide “yelled at me for about a half-hour,” Woodward told us in an hourlong interview yesterday around the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington’s powerful have spilled their secrets.

Digging into one of his famous folders, Woodward said the tirade was followed by a page-long email from the aide, one of the four or five administration officials most closely involved in the fiscal negotiations with the Hill. “I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today,” the official typed. “You’re focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. … I think you will regret staking out that claim.”

Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’”


* * * *

Debunking Bob Woodward

by Louis Proyect

(Swans – December 5, 2005)   Bob Woodward was the first reporter to be informed that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. While keeping that a secret, he tried to minimize the importance of Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation on television and in the pages of the Washington Post. This led many media analysts to wonder why one of America’s premier investigative journalists would violate the principles that made him so famous. As this article will try to point out, Woodward was never the fearless muckraker popularized by Robert Redford’s portrayal in All the President’s Men. Moreover, the Washington Post was exactly the kind of paper that would recruit and promote somebody so willing to violate journalist ethics in the pursuit of advancing his own career and the larger goals of American foreign policy.

The story starts with Eugene Meyer who bought the paper in 1933 and turned it into a family fiefdom just as the Sulzbergers, another German-American Jewish family, had made the New York Times its own. Meyer was a financier who served in high government posts from WWI through the New Deal under both Democratic and Republican administrations — just the sort of background that one would expect in a publisher of a major American daily.

During the 1930s, the children of ruling class families often veered to the left as a response to the social misery that stared them in the face and out of sympathy with the new radical movement that included many of the brightest members of their generation. Katherine Meyer was no exception to this rule. As a Vassar student, she took a bus to Albany with other students to protest a loyalty oath. In 1936, she wrote an article for a student newspaper complaining that Hollywood lacked the guts to make a “genuine Left wing” film. This was prompted by moves to censor a film based on Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, a cautionary tale about the rise of American fascism. As a board member of the American Student Union, she took part in peace demonstrations, struggles to abolish ROTC on campus, efforts to promote desegregation, and fundraising for the Spanish Republic.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy31.html

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