Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 10, 2016

Jason Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital”

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Earlier this year I was startled to discover that a debate had broken out between supporters of John Bellamy Foster on one side and Jason Moore on the other over how to properly theorize ecology from a Marxist standpoint. Since Moore’s scholarship was influenced by Immanuel Wallerstein, I wondered what the problem could be. Weren’t they all on the same wave-length with Monthly Review having provided a platform for the dependency theory/World Systems schools that included Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and others?

As it happens, ecology is a topic that lends itself to debate since except for Marx’s relatively brief discussion of soil fertility and Engels’s observations on the despoliation of the Alps, there was very little analysis until the Green movement took off in the early 1960s. Rachel Carson’s article on DDT helped to create an awareness that pollution was not just an annoyance but a threat to human existence. This led to Marxist scholars trying to anchor the new movement theoretically even if they spoke in a hundred different voices. Unlike analyzing imperialism, there was no theoretical continuity to build upon. Basically ecosocialism had to be created from scratch.

For me it meant dumping some of the baggage I picked up in the Trotskyist movement. After all, Trotsky embraced nuclear power in “If America Should Go Communist” and Joe Hansen, who was Trotsky’s bodyguard in Coyoacan, lauded the Green Revolution (the term for chemical-based farming rather than ecology) in a 1960 pamphlet titled “Too Many Babies?: The Myth of the Population Explosion”.

When I began reading and writing about Marxism and ecology nearly 25 years ago, I soon became aware that it was a highly contested field with almost as much acrimony as you could find in the Leninist left over how to build a revolutionary party. Although almost everybody except Frank Furedi could agree that fracking and industrial farming were threats to the environment, there were disagreements over how to theorize the nature/society nexus.

Initially there was a strong tendency to view Marx and Engels as inadequate guides to understanding the environmental crisis. In a November-December 1989 New Left Review article, Ted Benson was generally sympathetic to M&E but considered them to be susceptible to the “productivism” that reigned supreme in the 19th century when capitalism was transforming the world. Benson viewed this as overly optimistic, finding fault with Marx’s statement in V. 3 of Capital that the “Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital” since it didn’t consider the problematic of natural limits.

In the early 90s I had occasional email contacts with James O’Connor who had launched a journal titled “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” (CNS) in 1988 that provided a platform for people like Benson. O’Connor was one of the first scholars working in the field who attempted to ground his ecosocialism on Marxist theory or at least his own interpretation of the theory. He posited something he called “the second contradiction of capitalism” that described a capitalism that undermined the conditions needed to reproduce itself:

An ecological Marxist account of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system focuses on the way that the combined power of capitalist production relations and productive forces self-destruct by impairing or destroying rather than reproducing their own conditions (“conditions” defined in terms of both their social and material dimensions).

Although I eventually moved away from O’Connor’s theory and toward those developed by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett that I considered better grounded in Marxism, I remain indebted to his insights that I credited in articles on Hurricane Sandy and Flint, Michigan.

In 1998 I wrote a brief critique of David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature & The Geography of Difference” on the Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L) that took note of what I considered his wrongheaded take on American Indians that echoed Shepherd Krech’s mistitled “The Ecological Indian”, a book that had the usual junk about bison being driven off of cliffs, etc. I suspected that O’Connor, who was a PEN-L subscriber at the time, had ideological differences with Harvey since he asked me expand on my brief post and submit it to CNS. After working a couple of months on it, I was shocked to discover that O’Connor felt his readers would not find it useful.

At the time, I was fairly close to John Bellamy Foster and asked him why my article could have been rejected. After reading it, he told me that it was far too “materialist” for the prevailing editorial outlook at CNS.

Before long I would discover that O’Connor also resented Foster likely because of a somewhat critical review of his “Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism” in the February 1999 Monthly Review by Paul Burkett that described his “second contradiction” theory as “hampered by the artificial lines he draws between capital’s exploitation of labor and capital’s destructive use of natural and social conditions.”

O’Connor got the chance to retaliate against Foster, who he likely blamed for publishing Burkett’s article, in the June 2001 issue of CNS that contained critiques of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology”. I loyally defended Foster against the attacks as did Jason Moore in the very next issue of CNS where he wrote: “The idea that nature has its own laws of motion that can be bent but not controlled by human society runs like a red thread through Marx’s Ecology. In so doing, Foster makes a signal contribution to the renewal of an activist materialist outlook that is at once historical and geographical, social and ecological.”

It turned out that David Harvey had his own problems with Foster who he had labeled as a “neo-Malthusian” in the book I had reviewed for CNS. I guess in the world of celebrity Marxism, being a “neo” is a favored insult considering Robert Brenner’s labeling of Paul Sweezy as a “neo-Smithian” in NLR. So you can get the idea by now. In this small world having theoretical differences over how to theorize ecosocialism can lead to some really bad blood.

Despite being upset with how MRZine became an outpost of pro-Assad propaganda, I have had no issues with Foster’s writings on ecology as well as those of Paul Burkett who was on the same wave-length. The two had made important contributions to highlighting the “green” component of Marx’s writings especially the passages that dealt with the “metabolic rift”, a term that referred to the growing gulf between city and countryside with human waste polluting the Thames rather than fertilizing wheat fields. For Marx, the soil fertility crisis of the 19th century was as big a threat to society as global warming is today.

So when I first learned that there were rival camps supporting either Foster or Jason Moore, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now that I have just finished Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital”, I am in a much better position to comment on the differences between two of the most respected ecosocialist scholars.

To start with, despite having met Jason Moore in person for only the first time this year, I have exchanged email with him over the years mostly to show my appreciation for his contribution to the Brenner thesis debate in articles such as “Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World-Economy” that showed the influence of Sidney Mintz who had argued that sugar plantations in Jamaica were far more advanced than any factory in Europe in the 17th century despite being based on slave labor.

When I discovered that Moore’s 2007 dissertation was titled “Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism”, I was eager to read it especially since it included an epigraph by one of my favorite musicians: “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

I had long believed that the origins of capitalism had more to do with the European colonization of the Americas than tenant farming in Britain, especially since Marx was quite explicit about that in chapter 26 of V. 1 of Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

My attention was primarily focused on the genocidal wars against native peoples but secondarily on how it was connected to environmental despoliation as I pointed out in an article on the Blackfoot Indian that Foster published in “Organization and Environment”, a journal that he lost in a hostile takeover. When the high plains were purged of the bison in order to serve the profit motives of cattle ranchers, the end result was the same kind of metabolic rift that Marx diagnosed:

Modern capitalist society has no use for the advice of Engels or for the Blackfoot philosophy. It regards nature as simply something to be dominated. It builds cities in the desert and drills for oil in the rainforest. The dire consequences of these actions are now staring us in the face. Cities like Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles are ecological nightmares as water from the surrounding states is diverted from its proper use in agriculture. The cities might have pleasant looking shrubbery in air-conditioned shopping malls, but meanwhile the surrounding countryside is rapidly being turned into a desert.

What Moore did in his dissertation was connect the dots between the rise of capitalism in Europe and the transformation of nature in the New World into a source of natural resources critical for the growth of industry in the Old World. Without sugar and cotton plantations, silver mines and the like, Europe would have remained a backwater. It was not just Columbus’s arrival that made this possible; Western Europe also marched eastward and carried out similar predations in China, India and Eastern Europe. In essence, it was all part of an evolving World System that viewed nature useful only as a substratum for commodity production.

Moore described the process thusly:

We can now state the matter simply. The principal spatial expression of endless capital accumulation is the endless conquest of the earth. Limitless economic expansion premised on the rising productivity of labor is limitless geographical expansion premised on the low-cost exploitation of human and extra-human nature. Because the system has been ruthlessly competitive, there is an inescapable temporal counterpart to this geographical tendency – not only the endless conquest of the earth but the conquest and incorporation of the earth in the most rapid way possible.

Essentially, “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital” is an attempt to extract a theoretical framework for ecosocialism based on the research contained in his dissertation. It is part a restatement of some of the essential historical findings in the dissertation with an attempt to ground them philosophically by breaking with a Cartesian dualism that has ostensibly hampered Marxist theorization of the nature/society nexus. Indeed, the aim of the book is to remove the slash between nature and society and view them as dialectically related.

Cartesian dualism is a peculiar creature. These abstractions of Nature/Society separate symbolically what is unified practically in the history of capitalism: the life activity of the human species in the web of life. On the one hand, the binary is clearly falsifying and confused. It presumes an ontological separation that animates historical narratives in which relations between human (“social” relations) are theoretically independent of relations between humans and the rest of nature. The binary, moreover, confuses particular natures that are objects of capitalist development with nature as the matrix within which capitalism develops. Nature/Society forms a binary of violent abstractions in Sayer’s sense of the term—removing constitutive relations from the historical phenomena under investigation. One can no more extract “nature” from the constitution of capitalism than one could remove law, class struggle, the modern state, science, or culture.

I will return to how this rejection of Cartesian dualism led to the current ideological conflicts between Foster’s supporters and Moore after giving you a sense of the erudition that distinguishes Moore’s book from any I have read in the literature of ecology. The grasp of historical, geographical, scientific and cultural strands and how they interact with each other can be breathtaking.

For example, in chapter eight, titled “Abstract Nature and the Limits to Capital”, Moore explains how critical the metric system was to the rise of capitalism. Adopted by the French republic in 1799, it served as the modern mechanism of exchange. It arose to facilitate trade across borders, a key ingredient for undermining feudal economies that relied on distinct measuring systems.

Maps were also a sine qua non for world capitalism in its early stages. The skilled mapmakers of the Dutch East India company were necessary for helping its colonizers identify which piece of territory were ripe for conquest.

Accurate measurement was not only necessary for the conquest of land. It was also how human beings could be commodified as well, particularly in the slave trade. Traders had defined the “standard” slave: male, thirty to thirty-five years old and between five and six feet tall. Referred to as a pieza de India (piece of the Indies), the slave so designated could be used in economic planning for the colonist.

Is it possible that such a necessary integration of world systems and ecology could be accomplished without being committed to the “web of life” perspective defended by Moore? I for one cannot be positive that this is the case but can only say that if it enabled him to write such a powerful account of how we have ended up in such an intractable and ongoing environmental crisis today, this practically justifies it.

Turning now to Moore’s criticisms of Foster, they are contained in chapter three titled “Towards a Singular Metabolism: From Dualism to Dialectics in the Capitalist World Ecology” and are relatively brief—no more than a couple of pages—and begins with a tribute to Foster’s writings on the metabolic rift that integrated capital, class and metabolism as an organic whole.

The criticism, as far as I can tell, rests in these few words:

Foster’s insight was to posit capitalism as an open-flow metabolism, one that requires more and more Cheap Nature just to stay in place: not just nature as input (e.g., cheap fertilizer) but also nature as waste frontier (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions). Many of the most powerful implications of metabolic rift thinking, however, remain fettered by the very dualisms that Foster initially challenged. Not least is an unduly narrow view of accumulation as an “economic” process (it is surely much more than this) and an undue emphasis on the rarely specified “destruction” of nature.” Historical natures are subject to broadly entropic processes—the degradation of nature—but these are also reversible within certain limits. Much of this reversibility turns on capitalism’s frontiers of appropriation.

However, a more extensive critique of the theory of the metabolic rift can actually be found in an article titled “Transcending the metabolic rift: a theory of crises in the capitalist world ecology” that appeared in the January 2011 Journal of Peasant Studies. There Moore writes:

Surely part of the answer is directly given in Foster’s reading of Marx himself. In this interpretation, Marx’s critique of capitalism emphasized how ‘bourgeois society’s . . . domination of humanity’ rested on its ‘domination of the earth’, especially in the form of large-scale landed property. The endless accumulation of capital is, in other words, the endless commodification of nature. But rather than corral accumulation crisis in one pen, and biospheric crisis in another, might we instead begin from the relations that connect the two? I am therefore concerned that the particular distillation of the metabolic rift into ‘general properties’ loses sight of the whole as a ‘rich totality of many determinations and relations’.

In other words, back in 2011 and now in his latest book, Moore’s criticism is not that Foster’s reading of Marx on the metabolic rift is wrong but that it does not go far enough. The first inkling I got that Foster was stung by Moore’s criticism was in an article titled “Marx’s Ecology and the Left” that was mostly a polemic against the kind of Frankfurt-inspired analysis that could be found in James O’Connor’s CNS. But I had trouble figuring out why Moore would be included as he was toward the end of the article when Foster and co-author Brett Clark referred to “some thinkers” who invert the Frankfurt School’s domination of nature thesis and turn it into an “uncritical production of nature notion” that effectively “de-naturalizes social theory to an extreme, imposing ecological blinders.” When I went to the end notes, I discovered that Moore was one of those thinkers:

Moore presents a social “monist and relational” view, rooted in a metaphorical concept of “singular metabolism,” and defined in terms of “bundled” society-nature relations, in which he equates capitalism and “world ecology,” rejecting Marx’s own theory of metabolic rift.

With all due respect to John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, there is no evidence that Moore rejected Marx’s theory of metabolic rift or Foster’s scholarship that rested on it. He accepts it totally but only faults Foster for not going far enough in its application.

Subsequently Foster and Clark wrote an article titled “Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology” that sounded as if Moore might have been included in the woeful Sasha Lilley collection titled “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth”, a book that warned against warnings that capitalism was destroying the planet:

In a turn away from ecological science, Moore warns against the “fetishization of natural limits.” Directly contradicting some of the world’s leading climate scientists, members of the Anthropocene Working Group, he asserts: “The reality is not one of humanity [i.e., society] ‘overwhelming the great forces of nature.’” Rather he suggests that capitalism has an apparently infinite capacity for “overcoming seemingly insuperable ‘natural limits’”—hence there is no real rift in planetary boundaries associated with the Anthropocene, and, implicitly, no cause for concern. At worst, the system’s appropriation of nature ends up increasing natural resource costs, creating a bottom-line problem for capital, as “cheap nature” grows more elusive. Capitalism itself is seen as a world-ecology that is “unfold[ing] in the web of life,” innovating to overcome economic scarcity whenever and wherever it arises. (emphasis added)

This attempt to paint Moore as a neoliberal Green could only have been written by ignoring his chapter ten titled “The Long Green Revolution: The Life and Times of Cheap Food in the Long Twentieth Century” that has the same basic message as Foster’s “The Vulnerable Planet”, namely that we are facing catastrophe unless capitalism is abolished.

This chapter hearkens back to the soil fertility crisis of the nineteenth century that was never really resolved by the Green Revolution hailed by Joe Hansen. It describes a stark failure to sustain a working class that benefited from Cheap Food historically all to the advantage of a ruling class in need of Cheap Labor. The chapter also alludes to the mounting crisis of climate change that while threatening the utter destruction of cities on the seacoasts also impacts food production since drought undermines the possibility of feeding the working population. The final page of the chapter can hardly be mistaken as endorsing the idea that capitalism has an “infinite capacity” for overcoming natural limits:

Capitalist agriculture today is headed towards an epochal transition: from contributing to capital accumulation by reducing the costs of labor-power undermining even the middle-run conditions necessary for renewed accumulation. This is signaled by the rise of negative-value. At the point of production the superweed effect shows our future in the present: more energy- and chemical-intensive strategies to discipline agro-ecologies as these evolve into forms of work/energy hostile to the law of Cheap Nature. At the scale of the biosphere the energy-intensive character of capitalist agriculture now feeds a spiral global warming that increasingly limits capitalism as a whole.

Global warming poses a fundamental threat not only to humanity, but, more immediately and directly, to capitalism itself. This inverts the usual line of radical critique, which overstates the resilience of capitalism in the face of these changes—an overstatement that derives from a view of capitalism as a social system that acts upon nature, rather than a world-ecology that develops through the web of life. The condition for maintaining negative-value in its latent state was the possibility for moving entropy out of commodity production. Today, such latent negative-value can no longer be moved out, as biospheric changes penetrate global re/production relations with unusual power and salience. Global warming will, in the coming two decades, so thoroughly mobilize until-now latent negative-value—fed by capitalist agriculture and in turn undermining the Cheap Food model—that it is difficult to see how capitalist agriculture can survive(emphasis added)

As I understand it, Moore has been trying unsuccessfully to have a public debate with Foster. I would hope that one can be organized before long since it would be of keen interest to activists and scholars alike. While some of the issues might appear abstruse, they ultimately affect us on the most basic level, namely the possibility of human life to continue. Facing what many scientists call a Sixth Extinction, the stakes of such an exchange are very high.

I would like to conclude this post with some of my own reflections on the issues raised by Moore’s book.

To start with, I am not convinced that Cartesian dualism is exactly the obstacle to understanding and resolving the environmental crisis. To begin with, the Cartesian dualism is much more about the individual and nature rather than society and nature, and in particular the individual mind as the famous dictum “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) would indicate.

In fact, the philosophers of modernity who are in many ways nothing more than discussants on Descartes’s “Meditations on First Philosophy” had little interest in society as such. They were preoccupied with epistemological questions revolving around whether the mind can truly perceive the real world. As reported by Boswell, Samuel Johnson had this to say about George Berkeley, a radical idealist:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

The Cartesian tradition is basically a restatement of the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, one that prioritizes the mind philosophically. As such, idealism influenced the way in which social scientists, including historians, explained the world past, present and future. It is the philosophy that serves as a handmaiden to capitalism since it predicates progressive social change as the outcome of good ideas rather than revolutionary action by the masses. You can see this most clearly in electoral politics where candidates promising reform have managed to hoodwink working people for the past three centuries at least.

Marx and Engels broke with idealism as part of the generation of post-Hegelians who had finally come to terms with the priority of the real world over ideas. As a materialism, Marxism constitutes the end point of Cartesian idealism as Engels explained in “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”:

The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange — in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; that the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of a given historical period. Hegel has freed history from metaphysics — he made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded, and a method found of explaining man’s “knowing” by his “being”, instead of, as heretofore, his “being” by his “knowing”.

If Marx and Engels were correct in defending a dialectical and materialist approach to understanding and then changing the world, might it be said that they continued to operate on the basis of a kind of dualism? In the passage above, Engels refers to the superstructure that develops out of the “real basis” in society, the class relations between worker and boss being of supreme importance. Isn’t base/superstructure a fundamentally dualist conception? Needless to say, there have been many Marxists who were troubled by this formula that slid easily into economic determinism and that was capable of being turned into a state religion by Stalin. That being said, Marx’s writings are replete with references to a kind of duality between society (referred to usually as man) and nature. For example, in chapter 48 of V. 3 of Capital, which deals extensively with the problems of soil fertility, Marx writes:

Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.

Now I would be the first person to defend the right of anybody to question something that Marx or Engels wrote. They were products of their age and could hardly be untouched by the dynamism of capitalism that was at its height when they were trying to build a revolutionary movement. Keep in mind that Marx was an unabashed admirer of Abraham Lincoln, who was the quintessential bourgeois revolutionary even to a dyed-in-the-wool Political Marxist like Vivek Chibber. If Marx ever took note of Marx’s waffling on abolition, it never came to my attention.

Despite my reservations about Cartesian dualism being a key obstacle to developing an ecosocialism adequate to the task of saving the planet, I am sympathetic to the idea of a Marxist research project that is monist in spirit. Specifically, I would identify a program for resolving the environmental crisis that synthesizes scientific research and political strategy as urgently needed. Currently, there are disparate efforts usually based on one’s professional training either as biologists, climate scientists, historians, sociologists, etc. that amount to the story of the blind men and the elephant. Is it a tusk (climate change) or is it a trunk (soil fertility) or is it a tail (assaults on the poor such as in Flint) or is it an ear (biodiversity)?

The lack of a synthesis on the science side seems particularly glaring. You have an entire panoply of environmental threats growing out of the commercial exploitation of the Amazon rainforest that requires an analysis that spans water and soil chemistry, public health, and climate science. And all of this is connected to the plight of native peoples who are like the canaries in the coal mines, the first to face extinction by the capitalist system’s inexorable drive for profits.

To identify, confront and finally abolish the system that threatens humanity and nature, it will require a movement of scientists, scholars and workers that functions as a subset of a larger world movement that in the final analysis is the only one capable of moving toward a future based on the common good rather than private profit. As daunting as that sounds, it will eventually become possible because it is the capitalist system itself that will drive people into common struggle.


October 8, 2016

Italian fascists storm exhibit on Assadist torture chambers

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm


October 7, 2016

Films from Iraq, Syria and Iran

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:46 pm

Over the years I have seen many documentaries about Third World countries that were invaded by the American military or its proxies such as the Nicaraguan contras but none comes close to achieving the artistic and political power of Abbas Fahdel’s “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” that is distinguished by the insights of a brilliant director born in Babylon, Iraq. It consists of two parts, the first filmed in his country on the eve of the American invasion and the second in the first few months after it had occurred. Together they add up to 334 minutes and I can only say that I hungered to watch parts 3 and 4 if they existed. Unlike any other films in this genre, this is the very first—at least that I am familiar with—that is made by someone who is a native of the land suffering from invasion and occupation.

By analogy, think of what might have been possible if a Vietnamese director had access to relatively inexpensive digital cameras in 1965 and interviewed the peasants who had been forced into strategic hamlets as well as the intellectuals in Saigon who could speak for the country’s nationalist yearnings. But also imagine that the director had included not just the suffering of his countrymen but also their culture, their humor and the values that had sustained them for millennia. Fahdel’s friends and relatives, who had been victimized both by Saddam and by the American occupation, are the voice of the Iraqis we have never heard. They are cultured, wise and sardonically witty about the conditions that have been forced on them. Among them is the star of the movie, the director’s 12-year-old nephew Haidar who is wise beyond his years and appealing enough to be featured in a Kiarostami film.

I suspect that the title of the film has the same irony-tinged purpose as Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” that turned the tables on D.W. Griffith’s racist epic. With the Islamophobic TV series “Homeland” and the Department of Homeland Security that supposedly protects us from al-Qaeda, Fahdel reminds us that Iraqis were and are the ones truly committed to the freedom and dignity of their own nation. With 9/11 being made an excuse for the invasion of Iraq, we are absolutely required to understand how Iraqis lived and what they believed. Sitting through part one of “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” will allow you to get past the stereotypes and see how people lived in Baghdad in their daily lives under extraordinary conditions.

You see the extended Fahdel family preparing for the invasion as if it were a category 4 hurricane like the one that just plowed through the Caribbean. They put tape on the windows, store food and medicine and even go so far as to dig a well in their back yard in case the water stops flowing to their home. We see Haidar doing his shift on the hand-pump when his older sister arrives home from classes at the local college. He scolds her for not relieving him but she only smiles in response since he is obviously accustomed to giving her a hard time—affectionately.

While he is on the job making the sure the family has a supply of water, a group of girls practice using diapers as a gas mask. They have heard that if you put charcoal in the diapers, it will allow you to stave off an American poison gas attack. All the while they laugh at each other wearing diapers on their faces.

A day trip to Hit, a small city on the Euphrates river, introduces us to a middle-aged man who was born a Jew but converted to Islam in 1980 because his Muslim friends and neighbors treated him with affection and respect. He was so enthusiastic about converting that he persuaded a number of Jews to convert as well. One of the local Muslim men who is chatting with Fahdel says that he relies on the former Jew for advice on how to pray.

While much of part one consists of memorable scenes such as these, there are also many scenes of the city’s vibrant street life with its assortment of food bazaars and used book sellers in the Baghdad neighborhood favored by intellectuals and bohemians—those at least who have not been thrown in prison by Saddam. Conversations with the street vendors fills in the social fabric of a city whose immense visual appeal is captured by the director’s camera.

Throughout part one we get a sense of how detached Saddam Hussein was from reality. The Fahdels sit in their living room watching the news each evening as the clock is ticking toward Zero Hour. There are constant references to “our Father Saddam”, a cult figure whose grandiosity makes the North Korean Kim dynasty look modest by comparison.

In part two we see the devastation wrought by the American invasion that for most people living in Baghdad represents a total breakdown of law and order. Despite the impression we have of iron control of the streets by the American military, it is much more like a dystopian urban nightmare where criminals have free rein. If some of you may remember how Donald Rumsfeld shrugged his shoulders at the looting of museums, there is another aspect that was never reported on in the American media.

Saddam had emptied the prisons before the invasion to shore up public support for the regime but never bothered to distinguish between those who were political dissidents and those who were common thieves. It was the thieves, not the political dissidents, who ruled Baghdad in year zero. Carjacking and burglaries were such a frequent occurrence that law-abiding citizens armed themselves with AK-47s to protect their families. Cab drivers were preyed upon both for any cash they had on hand and for their cars that could be used for getaways in robberies. Fahdel’s relatives say that even though Saddam was a monster, the streets were safe.

If you were not the victim of a carjacker, you had to worry about an American military that viewed every Baghdad as a potential threat. Fahdel speaks to a number of families whose houses have been destroyed by tanks or helicopters even though they were not part of the resistance and just as often owned not a single weapon.

With his ties to the city’s cultural elite, we are taken on a tour of the trail of destruction the invasion left. One relative worked for state radio for 35 years. He and Fahdel survey the wreckage of the building that was responsible for airing nothing but music and news. What kind of “advanced” society would wreak such havoc? A man who worked as an actor the in film industry for many years takes Fahdel to the state film institute that has been blasted by gunfire and bombs. Tripods have been melted to the floor and film cans are strewn about the floor. The actor holds up a half-destroyed reel of film and remarks that its loss is a loss of the country’s history. When you destroy its culture, you not only lose the past but the possibility of building a better future.

The cultural and intellectual elite of Baghdad figure as the film’s narrators since it is they who understood how the country had been misruled for decades. One man describes the elite as schizophrenic since they verbally praised Saddam at work in order to not only keep their job but avoid being “disappeared”. It was only at home that they were able to pour out their grievances. “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” is their film and we are deeply grateful to Abbas Fahdel for giving them a voice.

“Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” opened yesterday at the Anthology of Film Archives in NYC and it is the one film that you should see this year since it is not only a masterpiece about the particular tragedy of Iraq but also an antidote to the Islamophobia that not only has infected the Republican Party but that casts a pall across the political landscape in general. With Hillary Clinton having voted for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is essential to listen to the heart and soul of a Muslim nation. I was struck by the similarities of the Baghdad wise men and women in Fahdel’s film with so many of the Syrians who were dominant in the early days of the revolution. They, like Fahdel’s friends and relatives, are the best hope for the Middle East.

Opening today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, “Theo Who Lived” is the story of Theo Padnos, a free-lance reporter who was abducted by al-Nusra in Syria in October 2012 and held captive for two years under abominable conditions. The film consists of him recounting the life he led in various improvised jails with daily beatings and accusations of being a CIA agent.

Mostly, Padnos blames himself for allowing this to happen since he trusted a couple of men he met in Istanbul who assured him that they would sneak him into Syria to interview the FSA. It turned out that they were al-Nusra supporters who had neither his interests nor the revolution’s at heart. While al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, was by no stretch of the imagination as savage as ISIS, you are left with the impression that they are useless to the revolution except for their fighting skills that is a double-edged sword. Every feat they carry out in battle only gives them the credibility they need to suppress other currents in the struggle and make unity across class lines more difficult.

While most of the film focuses on Padnos’s ordeal (he was released after two years when Qatar arranged a prisoner exchange no doubt enhanced by the captive’s ability to bind with al-Nusra’s leader who apparently became convinced that he was no spy), you find yourself wondering what made him tick.

The Wikipedia on Padnos mentions that he studied Islam in Yemen and Damascus, has a PhD in literature from the U. of Mass., Amherst and is fluent in Arabic and Russian. He wrote a book titled “Underground Muslim” about his studies at the Salafist academy in Yemen. One can only say that if other reporters had such a background, the media would be a lot more trustworthy when it comes to the Middle East.

If you are not in a position to see “Theo Who Lived”, you at least owe it to yourself to read the fascinating article by Padnos that appeared in the NY Times shortly after he was released by al-Nusra. This description of the bonds that were developing with the group’s leader should give you an idea of how it was his own native abilities that saved his life rather than a ransom that the USA never would have supplied:

Suddenly I found myself standing at the edge of the desert with the Man of Learning [al-Nusra’s leader]. He gave me a suit of jihadi clothing, told me to blend in with his fighters and promised me that once we got to Dara’a, a city near the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, he would send me back to my family.

We traveled in the same car. He talked to me about the difficulties of being a mujahid, or Fighter on the Straight Path of God. One afternoon early in our voyage, he told me that the world misunderstood him. “It must be difficult when the whole world wants to kill you,” I said. “Plus all the problems now with ISIS. And Bashar al-Assad probably wants to kill you, too.”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s true. But ISIS are the worst. They have made me very sad.”

On March 1, 2016 Nabil Maleh died at the age of 79 from lung cancer. Described in the NY Times obituary as a “giant of Syrian cinema”, this was his country’s counterpart to the men and women featured in Fahdel’s film, a man forced into exile in 2011 for his support for the revolution. The Times obit states:

His 2006 documentary “The Road to Damascus” was prescient in examining conditions that led to the 2011 uprising. In it, Mr. Maleh’s crew travels around the country interviewing ordinary Syrians, who discuss the poverty and corruption that had resulted in an exodus from rural Syria to Damascus, with job seekers and their families settling in ramshackle housing on the city’s outskirts. The film was never shown in Syria.

That film is not available online but you can see his 1972 film “The Leopard” about a poor farmer who stages a virtual one-man revolt against the feudal aristocracy that still ruled Syria as late as 1946, the year in which the events that inspired the film took place. A Jadaliyya article on Maleh discusses the film:

Released in 1972, The Leopard captivated Arab audiences and introduced Syrian cinema to the global stage. The film is set in 1946, as the French Mandate forces scaled back their presence, and local feudal landlords, aghas, took their place as oppressors. The Leopard opens with, and periodically returns to, a close-up of the protagonist’s scowling face set against a raging sea, as a haunting voice-over draws on Syrian folk ballads. In the second scene, shot in silhouette, Abu ‘Ali’s wife, Shafiqa, asks why he has acquired a gun, now that the French have gone. Abu ‘Ali avoids the question, but the answer quickly emerges: Syrian landlords, backed by soldiers, demand more tribute than the peasants can afford after a bad harvest. The hero resists, is arrested and beaten, but escapes to the hills, staging guerilla attacks against the new forces of tyranny. Comrades from his days fighting the French try to join him, but Abu ‘Ali turns them away. This is his fight alone.

While the native bourgeoisie took over for the French eventually, the oppressive conditions in the countryside never came to an end. It was certainly Maleh’s understanding of these realities in 1972 and in 2011 that forced him into exile.

Finally, there is “Under the Shadow” that also opened today at the IFC Center in NYC. With an Iranian director and cast, it is virtually an Iranian film although its subject matter made it impossible to be produced in the Islamic Republic since it is a horror movie with affinities to Japanese and Korean films about haunted houses but more specifically evokes the nifty Australian film “The Babadook”.

But the real horror was the war between Iraq and Iran that serves as the backdrop for the film. Living in Tehran under constant threat of missile attacks from Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) are getting ready to take refuge in the countryside while her husband is away serving as a medic on the front lines.

As that day draws near, things start to get weird in the apartment after Dorsa loses her favorite doll. Things start going bump in the night and Dorsa develops a malevolent streak that frightens her mother.

The cause, according to a superstitious neighbor, is an evil spirit called a Djinn that was raised by an Iraqi missile that landed on a floor above them. Unlike most horror films, there is very little violence or shock effects. It is mostly about creating a strange atmosphere that hearkens back to early horror films such as Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People”.

In the press notes director Babak Anvari relates the inspiration for the film:

I was born and raised in Tehran in the early years of the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war it was mandatory for my father to serve as a doctor for a month each year in the war. The months when he was away were like hell for my mother. She recalled how truly afraid she was during those times, despite efforts to keep herself together. Nowadays she blames herself for how timorous my brother and I were, believing that she unconsciously passed her fears on to us during that time. Conversations with my mother reminded me of my childhood fears and anxieties and ultimately sparked the idea behind Under the Shadow. Although Under the Shadow is a work of fiction in the genre of horror, many key elements of its plot have been taken from my own experiences, stories I’ve heard and people I knew.

If you can’t make it to the IFC, you can look forward to it showing up on Netflix soon or watch it now for only $6.99 using the link just above. It is a very fine genre film with just enough insights into Iranian society to set it apart from the average flick.

October 5, 2016

Getting Gaddafi wrong

Filed under: journalism,Libya — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

Chris Welzenbach

In today’s CounterPunch, there’s the typical fulsome encomium to Gaddafi written by one Chris Welzenbach that you used to see all the time in 2011. The author has been involved in the Chicago theater scene for many years. Maybe his work with actors had the unintended result of yielding an article about Libya that is mostly fictional, including this:

Prior to Gaffafi’s [sic] murder, Libya was a stable country if not a traditional nation-state. According to a report titled “Gaddafi’s Libya Was Africa’s Most Prosperous Democracy” by Garikai Chengu that appeared in the January 12, 2013 edition of Countercurrents.org, “. . .

One of the most troublesome legacies of the “anti-imperialist” worship of Gaddafi and Assad is its utter disregard for scholarly standards. I am not talking about getting articles published in a peer-reviewed journals but simply doing the due-diligence to make sure that a citation is based on scrupulous fact-checking.

In the quote above, the author cites a Countercurrents article that in trying to prove that Libya was a “democracy” includes what looks like an impressive finding from the NY Times:

In 2009, Mr. Gaddafi invited the New York Times to Libya to spend two weeks observing the nation’s direct democracy. Even the New York Times, which was always highly critical of Colonel Gaddafi, conceded that in Libya, the intention was that “everyone is involved in every decision…Tens of thousands of people take part in local committee meetings to discuss issues and vote on everything from foreign treaties to building schools.” The purpose of these committee meetings was to build a broad based national consensus.

Wow! This sounds like Gaddafi was the head of a country that was another Rojava (leaving aside the question of whether the anarchist claims were somewhat overblown).

But if you track down the NY Times article, as the author Chris Welzenbach should have done instead of simply accepting the Countercurrents article at face value, it states:

In Libya, the theory goes, everyone is involved in every decision. People meet in committees and vote on everything from foreign treaties to building schools.

Authoritarian leaders all over the world take steps to create a veneer of democracy. In Egypt, for example, there are elections, though there is never any doubt that the governing party will win.

Libya outdoes almost all of them.

Here, tens of thousands of people take part in meetings to discuss issues that are decided by a small group at the top, with all direction coming from the Brother Leader.

“He makes the decisions,” said a high-ranking diplomat in Tripoli, the capital, who is not being identified to avoid compromising his ability to work here. “He is the only one who knows.”
Reporters from The Times watched as committees around Tripoli discussed Colonel Qaddafi’s plan to abolish the government. After the perfunctory poetic genuflecting to the leader, more than half the speakers said they did not want money, they wanted a functioning government. They were angry and heartbroken that such a resource-rich nation, a member of OPEC, could be performing so poorly.

“We don’t need money,” said Nadia Ali, 35, at one of the forums in Tripoli. “We need roads, we need health care, we need education, we need an economy.”

Maybe I am just a stick in the mud but when you cite an article that includes a dishonest citation, maybe you should stop pretending to be an investigative journalist or even a radical. The author should stick to staging Tennessee Williams and leave the political economy to experts.

October 4, 2016

A Syrian responds to Max Blumenthal

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

(Posted to FB by Marcell Shehwaro, pictured above)

Where are the Syrians in Max’s Speech?

I read Max’s article which aims to open our eyes to the dangerous hidden reality behind The Syria Campaign. I read it over and over and all I felt was a combination of patronisation and humiliation in detail after detail… Beginning with the focus on who took the photo of Omran and who published it and neglecting the fact that what happened to Omran did actually happen and the boy really was bombed. But of course this detail is marginal… just as marginal as all other Syrian men and women in that piece of writing. All of us are marginal details.

More important now is how to help the killer escape by spreading doubts around all the human rights violations they committed.

My organization is one of the 73 organizations that signed on to suspending cooperation with the UN. The decision was taken and planned as per the following steps. Months and days of dysfunctional coordination with the UN as a result of the political ties of the UN’s offices in Damascus. Let alone the grave failure, that the UN admits to, of dealing with the sieges. The Syrian anger towards this topic was portrayed through many responses, actions, banners and campaigns such as United Nothing. All those are purely Syrians but it seems not important enough for Mr. Blumenthal to mention.

We internally shared the statement, which was drafted by Syrian humanitarian organizations, for endorsement. We even objected to the mild language of the statement which some described as nice and friendly. After the internal agreement of the drafting organizations, which apparently it’s not convincing to the writer that the Syrian organizations have a decision-making mechanism, we shared the statement publicly for wider endorsement.

Of course Mr. Max is able to judge and knows better than all of us that we as Syrians have been influenced to shape our opinions! We have been “spurred” to sign!

We are mislead, absent, easily manipulated.

This is how Syrian organisations are portrayed in the article.

On the no-fly zone and regime change. Here comes a more irritating speech. Early 2012, I wrote a “silly’ blog under the title “10 reasons why I am against no-fly zone”.

I wrote all possible and expected reasons in relation to sovereignty, imperialism and so on.

I was “naive” back then to think there were global civilian protection mechanisms that will prevent us from tending to such solution ie; no-fly zone. I used to think that airstrikes will never be part of the regime response against people. I had the luxury to do so as by then we were not bombarded at from the sky yet.

Until today I regret that feeling of luxury.

Yes Max, The Syria Campaign say we need a no-fly zone and it is because it echoes what Syrians call for day and night.

Yes we want the shelling to stop. We want the aerial bombardment to stop. Which is until this moment just a small detail in your article.

Yes the Russian and Assad airstrikes target Syrians, their hospitals and schools.

But this article is not about that small detail that takes the lives of hundreds every day.

This one is about how dare an “advocacy” project for Syrians to convey Syrian messages to the world!!

Yes Max we do want a no-fly zone because two of our education staff were injured last week. Maybe because the manager of our education office in Aleppo has to face a decision whether to close schools and deprive children of their right to education or open schools and risk their safety and lives.

Because once we had to discuss a real decision, and not imagined, on what is the “normal” ij number of airstrikes where we would continue to operate civil and humanitarian activities and when do we cross the “Ok” number.

Because hospitals are underground. Because schools are now underground.

They brought us bunker buster bombs you know. I looked this word up in your article. It doesn’t sound that important.

Bunker buster bomb that destroys schools and hospitals and even shelters.

But what I found in your article that foreigners want a No Fly Zone. How dare they!!!

Dear Max, if you had listened to Syrians. If you just had assumed that we exist and do have opinions, maybe you would have figured out how we reached this point.

How do we live every day based on Whatsapp ringtone bringing the news of the location of each attack and who are the casualties.

Syrians there live on military air forces planes rhythm, wondering are we going to be bombed during the day only? Shall we work at night? Instead. No shall we do early mornings.

The Russians and the regime which you are discomforted with our will to topple are now working full time job. Day and night. We die. The simple logic is that we want to live. They attack us using air force. We want airstrikes to stop. Don’t you think this is logical?

It is not because we are emotional people. All people across the world, I believe, don’t want to be attacked by air force. This is something common, no?

While discussing toppling the Regime it seems that you are missing some points dear Max. Let me make things clear for you. In 2011 we revolted against one of the toughest dictatorships. We called for freedom and for democracy. We as syrians, for sure if you managed to believe me, want democracy, we want the end of arrests, incommunicado arbitrary detention and shooting at peaceful demonstrations. We want the end of chemical attacks and Bunker buster bombs. We dream of change. Changing this regime, the same regime you referred to revolting against as a coup over a democratically elected government and not as a people’s will to restore its rights. Wait maybe you know better than us about our affairs.

Yes sir, The Syria Campaign as an advocacy group in support of us Syrians does say a lot of what we say over and over which no one listens to. Maybe this is considered political to you but I can see you are trying to take things to a level that is very dangerous for us Syrians. Not only as Syrians but you are undermining the activist movements across the world by painting democracy as a political issue. Hence justice, equality, freedom, and impunity become political issues that civil society activist should not get invloved in. This makes dictators happy while we work like doves of peace.

Yes Mr. Max, we syrians suffer daily from patronization over our advocacy as when we say Bashar Al Assad is killing us, our “supporters” rephrase to “ Syrians are being killed, Syrians were attacked, Syrians are starved”. The perpetrators are passive in that discourse.

Another example that comes to mind. We say:

“We want the shelling to stop so we can move on with our struggle for democracy”. Becomes “Syrians want the war to end so they can go back to peace.”

Our asks are trimmed or toned so we don’t disrupt anyone with such an ugly form of patronization. This what has forced us to see the need to define advocacy. Is it teaching Syrians what they should want while they face death everyday? Or conveying Syrian messages and voices to the world?

I will not even bother to comment on the White Helmets accusation. They have enough of the hallelujah of Syrian women every time they reach an airstrike site rushing to save people. In addition to cheers from children that they have saved and those are even more honoring than Nobel peace prizes even if I really hope they get it. We are just happy and proud as the White Helmets are from us.

Ah wait who are we? We are invisible in your article at the end. So no worries.

The Green Party and Syria

Filed under: Green Party,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm


Over the past five years, I have written 204 articles about Syria in the hopes that I might convince the left to support the Syrian rebels. The Syrian revolution is our generation’s version of the Spanish Civil War. Unlike the 1930s, however, much of the left today is backing the Syrian equivalent of General Francisco Franco’s fascist military in Spain.

Given my commitment to the struggle against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, many of my friends and colleagues wonder why I am supporting the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, whose positions on Syria are exactly those I have been writing against for the past five years. The time has come to explain this paradox, but, before doing so, it would be useful to examine closely what Stein and Baraka have said on the Syria issue, if for no other reason than to confront the actual record.

The Left’s Syria Problem

To understand support for Assad on the left, it helps to think diagrammatically, in terms of concentric circles. The innermost circle belongs to people like Professor Tim Anderson, an Australian who is one of Assad’s most hard-core, Western leftist supporters. In circles closer to the middle, you have people like Baraka, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh, and others who would likely admit that Assad is a neoliberal who has collaborated with the CIA in torturing abductees (the facts are undeniable), but see him as a lesser evil to the “jihadists.” Close to the outer edges, you have someone like Stein, who likely never gave much thought to Syrian realities, but has relied on what she has read from those closer to the middle circles, in places like CounterPunch, Salon, The Nation, the London Review of Books, and ZNet. (If these references to concentric circles reminds you of Dante’s Inferno, I cannot blame you.)

While ignorance is no defense in a court of law, Stein is neither better nor worse than the vast majority of the left, which has made up its mind that the U.S. government is actively seeking regime change in Syria. Like most on the left, Stein sees Syria’s problems largely as an outcome of American intervention on the side of “extremist” groups funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Steeped in this belief, Stein issued a foolish statement on November 2, 2015, opposing American ground troops in Syria and accusing President Barack Obama of trying to engineer “regime change” in the country. In her statement, she urged the U.S. government to work with Syria, Russia, and Iran “to restore all of Syria to control by the government rather than Jihadi rebels.”

Unfortunately, Stein seems not to know that the Syrian uprising was sparked by suffering created by the Assad government. Even if Islamist groups have tried to hijack the uprising since then, the genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.

Unlike Stein, who superficially parrots the left’s prevailing “anti-intervention” viewpoint, Baraka’s Baathist sympathies are far more pronounced. Indeed, if he were the one running for president, I would not support his candidacy.

read full article

October 3, 2016

Max Blumenthal follows Ben Norton down the bloody primrose path

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Max Blumenthal

In today’s Alternet Max Blumenthal showed up in the Baathist amen corner sitting in a pew next to fellow liberal hack Ben Norton, a location almost guaranteed to boost the career of young or nearly-young journalists. Like Norton, Blumenthal was admired not that long ago for refusing to join Bashar al-Assad’s fan club. Norton was an ex-member of the International Socialist Organization, a group that had the backbone to oppose Assad, making a very modest living free-lancing for liberal ‘zines like Alternet. While I have no idea how much Norton now makes writing for Salon, a prime source of Assadist propaganda, it certainly must be more than what he made as a free-lancer. Meanwhile, Blumenthal, who unlike Norton never had a Marxist background to shed, has seen his career moving in the opposite direction. While once prominent enough to be a guest on MSNBC, our boy Max is now free-lancing for Alternet where his crapola appeared this morning.

Titled “Inside the Shadowy PR Firm That’s Lobbying for Regime Change in Syria”, it is hardly worth reading past the title given the notion that “regime change” would now be on the agenda after 5 years of American indifference to Assad’s genocidal assault on cities and neighborhoods opposed to the mafia torture state Blumenthal now pimps for.

For those of you not familiar with Blumenthal’s erstwhile willingness to oppose a criminal dictatorship, there is some background to be considered in order to appreciate how sharp a turn he has made toward the kind of crypto-Stalinism that runs through the Baathist amen corner like a shit stain.

In June 2012, Blumenthal resigned from Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper that had a reputation for being leftist. For him, whatever leftism it had once espoused was trumped by its support for Assad:

I recently learned of a major exodus of key staffers at Al Akhbar caused at least in part by disagreements with the newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency. The revelation helps explain why Al Akhbar English now prominently features the malevolent propaganda of Amal Saad Ghorayeb and the dillentantish quasi-analysis of Sharmine Narwani alongside editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin’s friendly advice for Bashar Assad, whom he attempts to depict as an earnest reformer overwhelmed by events.

There is no small irony in Blumenthal now writing the same kind of filthy attacks on the White Helmets as Narwani.


Then in September 2013, he wrote an article for the Nation Magazine titled “We Just Wish for the Hit to Put an End to the Massacres” that while opposing American air strikes (the “hit” alluded to in the title) empathized with the Syrian refugees he interviewed:

When I asked the refugees of Zaatari about alternatives to US intervention like a massive international aid effort, or the Russian-brokered deal to confiscate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons supply, I was immediately dismissed. “Just hit Assad and leave us to take care of ourselves!” a 65-year-old man from Dara’a snapped at me.

Two months later Blumenthal was interviewed by Danny Postel on Syria and the antiwar movement that had begun functioning like a wing of the Baathist amen corner. Postel, as many of you know, is a leading voice of the pro-Syrian revolution left.

So you get the idea. Three years ago he had the courage to stand up to the prevailing and morally compromised left that has attached itself to the Baathist cause alongside Alex Jones, Golden Dawn in Greece, UKIP in Britain and a thousand other rightwing slobs whose main distinction is that they hate Nicholas Kristof and immigrants equally.

As I said above, there is an element of Stalinism that explains why so many on the left back Assad. It should also be mentioned that there is something that Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal have in common with earlier generation of Kremlin boosters like William Z. Foster. For the first time within Marxism, Stalin made it possible to change one’s positions without bothering to explain why. For example, the CP opposed intervening against Hitler after a pact was signed with Ribbentrop but when Hitler invaded the USSR, it switched to supporting intervention. It was transparently clear why the CP turned on a dime but its inability or unwillingness to clarify its reversal compromised it in the eyes of those on the left who were not ideologically so flexible, in other words those that had the kind of principles Norton and Blumenthal lack.

Since neither Norton or Blumenthal were ever exactly in the same sort of position as a CP’er in 1941, their silence on their u-turn is all the more disgusting. Could it be that they are just out to make a buck? Maybe so but I think the real reason is that neither of them are particularly deep thinkers. To really come to a firm position on Syria requires a commitment to reading articles and books that detail the class conflict that finally led to an explosion in the Spring of 2011. When you write for Salon, Alternet and The Nation, there’s really no need to bother with historical materialism after all. Just write what generates traffic and subscriptions. That’s what’s expected when you are running a business, after all.

Turning now to Blumenthal’s article, it breaks no new ground in smearing the White Helmets as an instrument of regime change. You can read the same crap from Vanessa Beeley, Rick Sterling and Eva Bartlett—just the sort of people he was supposedly so miffed at when he quit writing for Al Akhbar. He goes so far as to cast doubt on the Russian or Baathist role in bombing a Red Crescent aid convoy on September 18th, saying that “no evidence of barrel bombs has been produced”. Stop and think about it. The only alternative to such a finding is the “false flag” narrative that people like Beeley et al have been pushing for the past 5 years: the rebels attacked their own people to give the USA an excuse to invade Syria and overthrow Assad. Are these people out of their fucking minds? It took only 3 months after George W. Bush’s flunkies began making speeches about WMD’s for him to invade Iraq. If the American ruling class was for regime change, it wouldn’t need White Helmets to grease the slides.

Blumenthal’s main target is a group called Syria Campaign that I have not heard of before. According to him, it is responsible for making the UN’s job more difficult in Syria. He cites someone working for an NGO in Damascus who told him that the group was “‘dividing and polarizing the humanitarian community’ along political lines while forcing humanitarian entities to ‘make decisions based on potential media repercussions instead of focusing on actual needs on the ground.’” Now I hate to sound suspicious and everything but what kind of NGO works in Damascus? What are the humanitarian needs that it is responding to? I was not aware that in Assad’s capital city you had the victims of barrel bombs, siege-induced starvation and medical emergencies because hospitals had been levelled to the ground. It also makes me wonder what kind of NGO would get the green light from Assad. One that perhaps has people willing to tell a fool like Blumenthal what he wants to hear?

Much of the rest of Blumenthal’s article is taken up with the kind of dizzying connect the dots journalism that you find in 9/11 Truther websites and the further reaches of the Baathist amen corner like Moon of Alabama. One dot is the White Helmets. It connects to the Syria Campaign that connects to AVAAZ that connects to Purpose that connects to Ayman Asfari, the “U.K.-based CEO of the British oil and gas supply company Petrofac Limited. Asfari is worth $1.2 billion and owns about one-fifth of the shares of his company, which boasts 18,000 employees and close to $7 billion in annual revenues.” According to Blumenthal, all of the “regime change” propaganda he is funding is rooted in his desire to being able to return to Syria on his own terms in order to exploit the country economically. This is what has been called Vulgar Marxism in the past. In Blumenthal’s case I would just describe it as Vulgarity.

He blandly reports that “Asfari’s support for opposition forces was so pronounced the Syrian government filed a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of supporting ‘terrorism’”. One gathers that Blumenthal would be not only for the arrest but the extradition of Asfari to Syria where the Syrian cops could give him a lesson that he would not soon forget.

Descending fully into the cesspool and drenched now in fecal matter that will stick with him for the rest of his sorry career, Blumenthal casts doubt on the photograph of Omran Daqneesh, the shell-shocked young boy sitting in an ambulance. Blumenthal smears the effort to publicize the photo as orchestrated by al-Nusra and connects the man who took the photo with an Aleppo brigade that beheaded a supposedly 12-year-old named Abdullah Issa who “may have been a member of the Liwa Al-Quds pro-government Palestinian militia.” He links this allegation to a BBC article but fails to mention that it issued a retraction positively identifying him as a pro-Assad militia member. Furthermore, he was not a 12-year old but a 19-year old according to his family that presumably knew him better than Blumenthal.

Three years ago Blumenthal was willing to quit Al Akhbar rather than write tripe such as this. I guess that he needs a job to pay the rent and the cheap whiskey he will need to help him forget how degraded he has become.



October 1, 2016

The 13th; The Birth of a Nation

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

While likely scheduled for distribution independently of each other, the pending release of “Birth of a Nation” and the selection of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” for last night’s opening of the New York Film Festival practically amount to joint appearances. The first is a narrative film written, directed by and starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, that opens everywhere on October 7th, the same day that DuVernay’s documentary about the prison-industrial complex is released to Netflix.

Put succinctly, these are two films that must be seen as complements to each other. In explaining why forms of slavery linger on to this day, DuVernay’s film starts with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that was the centerpiece of Stephen Spielberg’s vastly overrated “Lincoln”. If you read the fine print of the amendment, you will see that it stipulates: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is that “except as a punishment for crime” that is key to understanding how the phenomenon of what author Douglas Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name” continues to this day.

“The 13th” begins by describing the quandary faced by the southern bourgeoisie once slavery was abolished. Without Black people no longer in bondage and free to rely on subsistence farming, how could you secure the cheap labor that was necessary to get the economy going? The answer was convict labor. From the earliest days of reconstruction, laws were passed in the south to impose stiff prison terms on offenses as minor as loitering—used of course on a discriminatory basis against Blacks. As convicts, they could be forced to do the same kind of work they used to do as slaves and with even less concern about their comfort or their health.

The efforts at identifying Blacks with crime was an ongoing one. Key to that was depicting the Deep South as a victim of Northern aggression and the connivance of the freed slaves who were savages with nothing but criminal mayhem in their hearts, particularly raping white women. In 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote a book titled “The Clansman” that was key to the revival of the KKK. A decade later D.W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on Dixon’s book and that became a wildly popular film in both the north and the south, so much so that Woodrow Wilson organized a private screening at the White House.

When asked by Filmmaker Magazine why he chose the same title as Griffith’s KKK propaganda, Nate Parker replied:

From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

I will return to Ava DuVernay’s documentary but will now make the case for Nate Parker’s film being the first made by an American filmmaker that is both artistically and politically on the same level as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn”. Only 36 years old, Parker has made a breakthrough film that is my choice for best picture of 2016 that will almost inevitably not be dislodged from that status even as the director is now being dogged by controversy about a rape charge made against him in 1999.

Like “12 Years a Slave”, a much heralded 2013 film by Black British director Steve McQueen, much of “The Birth of a Nation” is a searing depiction of slaves being brutalized to the point where you need to cover your eyes. In one scene, we see a slave master using a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave in chains who is on a hunger strike. Without the teeth, it is easier to put a funnel into his mouth and force-feed him just as is the case with 3 prisoners in Wisconsin this year who were protesting solitary confinement.

What distinguishes Parker’s film from McQueen’s is that it is not merely a grim parade of suffering that is the British director’s hallmark and something Armond White once described as follows:

For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.

For Parker, the real story is Nat Turner’s religious, moral and political evolution from a preacher hired out to plantation owners to pacify their slaves with hopes for the afterlife into a rebel determined to fight for his freedom until death.

The film begins with the young Nat Turner reading a book he purloined from his master’s library and reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln. When the master’s wife learns about his ability, she invites him into the library to see the books at leisure. When he approaches a shelf, she pulls him away and says that those will not be of use to him. He only needs to read one book, the bible that she slips into his hands.

At first he feels a sense of pride in being able to deliver sermons to the slaves that lifts their spirits but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the cruelty he sees delivered upon them diurnally and the “pie in the sky” he preaches reaches a breaking point after his wife is raped and beaten by a three men out patrolling for runaway slaves.

Besides the character development and dialog that are at a level much higher than any Hollywood film I have seen in years, “The Birth of a Nation” is a cinematographic wonder with poetic renderings of nature, humanity and the southern agrarian milieu. The white characters are universally despicable but not in the cartoonish way of most films about the slave epoch especially Quentin Tarantino’s stupid burlesque of the period.

Many of you are probably aware that William Styron wrote a novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967 during a period of deep Black militancy. Styron’s portrayal of Turner had little to do with Nate Parker’s film. He found Turner to be a “dangerous religious lunatic and . . . psychopathic monster” based on his reading of Turner’s confession to a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas Gray. Styron’s version of Turner was so offensive that a rejoinder titled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” eventually appeared. In anticipating his later morphing into a bigoted reactionary, Eugene Genovese wrote a long defense of Styron in the N.Y. Review of Books.

In reading a 2008 NY Times article about Styron and the Nat Turner controversy, I found myself wondering what Turner actually said in the confessions. As it happens, it has been posted on the Internet and is well worth reading. Much of it has the rhetoric of a sermon but there are a couple of sentences that help you to understand why Nat Turner became a rebel:

And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.”

For Styron, Nat Turner’s rebellion was not that much different than the advance of an unnamed former slave in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” upon a white southern belle who generates so much fear that she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. The Wikipedia article on Styron’s novel describes his version of the scene that is the climax of Parker’s film:

From the very beginning, however, Nat’s rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat’s leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army.

Since rape is a key event in Parker’s movie as well, but more logically one involving a white assault on a Black woman, much has been made about the controversy that surfaced on August 16th when it was revealed that he was accused but then cleared of rape charges when he was a student at Penn State. His accuser committed suicide in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The news led the prestigious American Film Institute to cancel a screening. Parker is scheduled to appear on “Sixty Minutes” tomorrow night but I am not sure I am interested in hearing about the case.

Even if he was guilty of the heinous act, that does not make “The Birth of a Nation” any less worthy of the accolades it has received. Long after Nate Parker is dead and gone, people will be watching this film in the same way that others have viewed Griffith’s classic. Its message is toxic but it was an important film as even James Agee argued. While Griffith was never accused of such a crime, his film was arguably responsible in part for thousands of lynchings. The legacy of Parker’s film will be one as a significant contribution to the art of cinema and the Black struggle. His own life is incidental to that.

Returning now to Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece of a documentary, it overlaps in considerable ways with Parker’s film since they both are reflections on one of America’s original sins: slavery.

“The 13th” is a fearless work that is not afraid to take on sacred cows including Bill Clinton who was once referred to as “our first Black president” by Toni Morrison in 1996. DuVernay provides compelling detail about how a series of presidents have re-instituted “slavery by another name” by making black skin a signifier for crime.

It all started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” that went hand in hand with a war on drugs that has been essential to the carceration epidemic that has resulted in 1 out of 3 Blacks ending up behind bars in their lifetime as opposed to 1 out of 17 whites. Nixon’s aide John Erlichman put it this way:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Ronald Reagan’s aide Lee Atwater explained how you can be a racist without actually using words like “nigger”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Now everybody knows that people like Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and Donald Trump are racist pigs but what about Bill Clinton, the “first Black president”?

DuVernay calls  upon expert witnesses who are much less impressed with the former president and his wife now running for president who referred to young Blacks as “super-predators” in 1996, a term that had the same kind of loaded significance as a scene from D.W. Griffith’s film.

Leaving aside words, some of Clinton’s critics who appear in the film cite his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill as far more harmful than any legislation backed by Republicans. It was responsible for mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” life sentences that have filled our prisons.

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, a book that has obviously influenced DuVernay’s film, is interviewed throughout the film and is one of many very informed and eloquent social critics that make “The 13th” must-viewing. In a Nation Magazine article  titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, she explains why (it should be mentioned that she had problems with Bernie Sanders who also voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill):

An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.

Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.

To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

September 30, 2016

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in NY, “Do not Resist” could not be more topical. It is a close look at the militarization of police departments in the USA as well as an evolving form of profiling that has an eerie affinity with the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report” based on a Philip K. Dick short story.

The film opens on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri as Black Lives Matter activists and their supporters fill the streets in August 2014 to protest the killing of Michael Brown. The forces arrayed against them are essentially the same as those that Iraqis confronted in places like Fallujah and Mosul: heavily armored troop carriers with cops in body armor toting automatic rifles. Unlike the automatic rifles that can be purchased in gun shops, these have not been altered to only fire single shots. These M-16’s are capable of firing 700–950 rounds per minute. Is this the right weapon for the streets of Ferguson or any American city for that matter?

In the 1960s, the left and the Black Panther Party in particular used to refer to the cops as an occupying army. Back then it might have struck some liberals as a hyperbole but reality has caught up with the rhetoric. This is exactly what police departments have become in a place like Concord, New Hampshire that has had exactly two murders in the past 16 years. Director Craig Atkinson films a city council meeting in which there is a hearing on whether to accept the “gift” of an armored troop carrier from the Department of Homeland Security that has dispensed $38 billion in military equipment to local precincts since it was formed. One of the people speaking to the councilman is a Marine corps veteran who served in Fallujah. Despite his insistence that the equipment has no use in Concord, they vote to accept it.

We see cops in a training session with David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, professor of military science, and Army Ranger who founded something called the Killology Research Group. No, I am not joking. He tells the audience that arresting a “bad guy” affords the same kind of pleasure as having sex and then goes on to say that cops are in the business of being more violent than the criminal since that is what it takes to keep the peace. Poor George Orwell didn’t see the half of it. Oh, did I mention that Grossman never was in combat?

Even further out on the insanity spectrum is Richard A. Berk, a U. of Pennsylvania criminology professor who tells Atkinson that we are moving closer to the point where criminals can be identified before they are born by examining the demographics of their parents, including race. At some point, this will become an exact computer-driven science that will allow preemptive strikes against the “bad guys” just like Predator drones.

In January 2013, Wired Magazine reported on the professor:

The software aims to replace the judgments parole officers already make based on a parolee’s criminal record and is currently being used in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Richard Berk, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the algorithm, claims it will reduce the murder rate and other crimes and could help courts set bail amounts as well as sentencing in the future.

“When a person goes on probation or parole they are supervised by an officer. The question that officer has to answer is ‘what level of supervision do you provide?’” Berk told ABC News. The software simply replaces that kind of ad hoc decision-making that officers already do, he says.

To create the software, researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 crimes, including homicides, then wrote an algorithm to find the people behind the crimes who were more likely to commit murder when paroled or put on probation. Berk claims the software could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

What makes the film compelling above all else is the willingness of people like Berk and various Swat team officers to open up to Atkinson who accompanies them on raids just like in the awful reality show “Cops”. The footage is appalling. We see more than a dozen heavily armed cops raiding the home of an African-American family on the premise that a major drug trafficking gang lives there. They bust all the windows in the course of the raid for reasons that make about as much sense as any other forms of police behavior depicted in the film. It turns out that there is a tiny amount of weed in the house that belongs to a young man going to college who they take off in handcuffs. When asked by his father what they are going to do about the broken windows, they shrug their shoulders and say it was necessary.

In the press notes, Atkinson states how he came to make the film:

In April 2013, I watched the police response in the days following the Boston Marathon bombing in awe. I had never associated the vehicles, weapons and tactics used by officers after the attack with domestic police work. I grew up with the War on Drugs era of policing: My father was an officer for 29 years in a city bordering Detroit and became a SWAT commander when his city formed a team in 1989. What I wasn’t familiar with, since my father’s retirement from the force in 2002, was the effect the War on Terror had on police work. Making this film was an attempt to understand what had changed.

Knowing that interviews with experts would do little to communicate the on-the ground reality of American policing, we instead set out to give the viewer a direct experience. We attended police conventions throughout the country and started conversations with SWAT officers at equipment expos and a seemingly endless cascade of happy hours, offering the only thing we could: an authentic portrayal of whatever we filmed together. On more than one occasion, we were on our way to the airport, camera in hand, only to receive a phone call from our contact in the police department instructing us not to come. Our access seemed to be directly tied to the amount of negative press the police were getting at that time. It became increasingly difficult to get access after the events in Ferguson, and there were many times we thought we would have to stop production altogether. The urgency of the situation, however, motivated us to continue.

Like Craig Atkinson, co-directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi had extraordinary access to some sordid characters, in this instance the top cleric of the Red Mosque network in Pakistan rather than racist cops. The result was a compelling documentary that is essential for understanding the growth of jihadi-breeding Madrassas in Pakistan that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York.

Much of the film consists of interviews with Maulana Abdul Aziz, who despite his bland manner is just as toxic as any ISIS figurehead. While he claims to be a man of peace, he insists that Pakistan will endure bloody turmoil until it becomes an Islamic state.

His main adversary is Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor in Lahore who is one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a miracle that he has not been killed. He is particularly appalled by the total absence of scientific education in the madrassas that are mostly devoted to teaching young boys and girls how to memorize the Quran.

While the film does not exactly apply a historical materialist analysis to the growth of the Red Mosque network, it is painfully obvious why the schools are flourishing. For children from the Pakistani countryside, as well as those who came originally from Kashmir, it is the only way to have food and a roof over their heads. Their parents tend to be poor farmers and day laborers who are just one step beyond starvation themselves. According to the UN’s most recent Human Development Indicators report, 60.3% of Pakistan’s population lives under $1 a day. If memorizing the Quran means having something to eat, that’s motivation enough. Indeed, it might even motivate you to become a suicide bomber as is suggested by an 8-year old student of Aziz reciting a chant about jihad for the cameras that includes a line about killing anybody who attacks their mosque.

The Red Mosque network does have reasons to fear such an attack since an escalating series of confrontations between them and the government finally led to the siege of their main mosque in Islamabad in 2007 that resulted in 254 deaths. This led to a war in Waziristan that pitted Aziz’s allies in the Taliban against the Pakistani army that led to another 3000 deaths.

The film depicts a conflict that has ramifications for the entire world, not just in Islamabad or Pakistan. The boys who go to Aziz’s madrassas are cannon fodder for an Islamist movement that believes the solution to the world’s problems is Salafism of the most extreme variety. Right now the White House solution to this “threat” is Predator drones.

In November 2014, Steve Coll reported on Predator drone strikes for the New Yorker magazine, a weapon that Obama joked about in a White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.” Most people understand how creepy the president was when he made this joke, especially in light of what was happening on the ground as Coll reported:

On January 23, 2009, three days after Obama took office, two C.I.A. drones struck inside Pakistan—one in South Waziristan and one in North Waziristan. Both attacks reportedly killed civilians. The strike in North Waziristan hit a private home in the village of Zeraki. According to an affidavit from two witnesses, filed in a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the dead included an eighth-grade boy and schoolteachers. The South Waziristan strike killed a pro-government peace negotiator who was a tribal leader and four of his family members, entirely in error, according to “Kill or Capture” (2012), a book about Obama’s counterterrorism policy by the former Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman.

When you keep in mind that Hillary Clinton is a big fan of Predator drones, approving 99 out of a 100 strikes, that’s reason enough to vote Green in 2016.

Finally, there is “The Hurt Business”, a film that unfortunately came to my attention only yesterday on the very day it was both opening and closing. I am not quite sure how the documentary got distributed on a single-day basis but it is an excellent film about a not so excellent subject—Mixed Martial Arts—that should be available on VOD before long (I will post a notice when that happens.)

In 2002 when I got cable, mostly as way to watch TV after the antenna on top of the WTC came crashing down along with the rest of the building a few months earlier, I stumbled across something called MMA that I found oddly compelling in the same way that “Cops” was compelling. Although I hate violence and police arrests, especially of people smoking weed as seen in “Do not Resist”, there was something morbidly fascinating about men beating each other up.

“The Hurt Business” has the particular merit of explaining why such spectacles can command the attention of a Marxist like me as well as millions of other Americans who do like to see people beaten to a bloody pulp. I am not a sociobiologist but there is something very deeply rooted in class society that allows it to become a spectator sport. In fact, the film points out that it was part of the Greek Olympics early on and even shows a vase from the 5th century depicting a fighter “tapping out” to show that he is surrendering.

Despite the senselessness of the “sport”, the participants interviewed by director Vlad Yudin, a Russian émigré, include some of the retired fighters I used to watch more than a decade ago (Tito Ortiz, Chuck Lidell, Ken Shamrock, Kenny Florian) and today’s top names including Ronda Rousey, who some regard as pound for pound the finest female fighter who ever lived (until she got knocked out last year), are all articulate, self-effacing, funny, and likeable.

Two things stand out in the film. First is the vulnerability the fighters have to being economically exploited. For many, a big payday is $25,000—hardly a sum that will allow you to live like a hedge fund manager. If you become a headliner like Rousey, the pay-off will be much larger but getting there is no easy matter. Unlike boxing, where eye damage and the like can keep you out of the ring for an extended period, mixed martial arts is a combination of boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and just about every other form of hand-to-hand combat. This means that you can blow out a knee as happened to former light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans whose struggle to recover and get back into the ring is just one of the human dramas that the film sensitively depicts.

While there is only a brief mention of concussions in the film, it should be abundantly clear that MMA fighters are just as susceptible to permanent brain damages as boxers. One fighter admits to a doctor that he has suffered 14 concussions in his career. Like baseball players, there is a big temptation to use steroids. For a MMA fighter, the incentive is even greater since their career is so much more short-lived.

I suspect that boxing, MMA and even football will die out when the capitalist system is replaced by one that values human life and happiness above everything else. Maybe in that better future, competition will take place over the chess board or even touch football. Or maybe people will just be tired of competition period. After 10,000 years it does become tiresome.


September 28, 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

If Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” had a subtitle, it could well be “Why Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Party leader”. Focused on the Kafkaesque ordeals a 59-year old widowed carpenter puts up with to get health allowance benefits after suffering a heart attack, it is an indictment of an entire social system in which Britain’s most vulnerable are being thrown overboard by a cold and cost-conscious bureaucracy that received its marching orders from the combined forces of New Labour and the Tories.

As the film begins, we only hear the voices of Daniel Blake and his petty official interrogator who is asking him a series of questions about his health status: Was he able to lift his arms above his head?; Could he walk 50 meters from his home?; Was he having problems with his bowel movements? After each question, he responds by saying that it is heart preventing him from work, not his hands, feet or ass. His physician has told him that he must receive benefits for another month before he can be cleared to go back to work, something that he wants more than anybody including the penny-pinching bureaucrats. This is of no importance to his interrogator who deems him fit to work.

When we finally see the two, they are sitting in a benefits office in Newcastle, a solidly blue-collar city in northeast England where Blake has worked all his life. It gave birth to the saying “Bringing coal to Newcastle”, which means a foolish action since Newcastle had been a mining town as far back as the sixteenth century. The office houses the local Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)  and looks just like the unemployment office I used to visit after retiring from Columbia University in 2012. Despite the reputation of American cruelty to those in a dependent state, I never faced the kind of grilling that Daniel Blake submitted to. When Blake is told by the bureaucrat that he is required to start working for work immediately or else he would be cut off, he challenges her. How do her inane questions that have nothing to do with his heart attack trump the his doctor’s orders? What gives her that power? Upon being challenged, she replies superciliously that she is a qualified health professional and invites him to challenge the denial of benefits if he so wishes. She has him over a barrel.

Not knowing much about this aspect of the one-time vaunted British welfare state, I did a bit of research and discovered that the interrogation was being carried out under a plan designed by Atos, a French firm that was hired out to the DWP in 2008 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Was it possible that Loach was exaggerating the assault on health and income benefits? If anything his account was understated as demonstrated by this February 12, 2016 Telegraph article:

A dying Army veteran suffering from dementia has been sent a “Capability For Work questionnaire” by the Department for Work and Pensions, his family say.

Desmond O’Toole, 63, served his country in the Royal Engineers but is now being cared for in a nursing home as Alzheimer’s has left him unable to walk, talk or chew food.

Now his family have taken to Facebook to complain about the DWP questionnaire to see if Mr O’Toole is able to return to work.

“Yet again my mum has to fill in another 20-page form so my dad can get the benefits he needs.”

Daniel Blake is simultaneously a fully-developed character and a universal symbol of Britain’s betrayed working class, just as much as the miners who struck in 1984. Although much more representative of individual resistance than mass action, Blake continuously evokes sympathy from onlookers who also feel screwed by New Labour and the Tories. As Blake witnesses a young woman and her two children being given the runaround at the DWP office, he does what any class-conscious worker would do. He speaks up on her behalf and confronts the two security guards who are throwing her out.

This leads to a close connection between him and the single mom’s family who have ended up in Newcastle when an apartment had become available. It was a big step up from living in a homeless shelter in London but the woman named Katy (Hayley Squires) is still living on the margins, depending on the food bank and even resorting to shoplifting to keep her children fed.

As Daniel Blake, Dave Johns is my pick for best actor of 2016. Besides being an actor, he is a stand-up comedian who has worked in improv. He brings a sense of comic timing to the role that often gives you the feeling that the film itself was partly improvised just like a Mike Leigh film.

As it happens, the script was written by Paul Laverty who wrote the screenplay for Loach’s “Carla’s Song”, a film about the Sandinista revolution. Laverty drew upon his own experience making this film. When I was involved with technical aid projects in Nicaragua, Laverty—an attorney—was providing information to human rights groups about contra crimes he collected in the war zone. He also wrote the script for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, Loach’s film about the Irish rebellion of the 1920s.

Laverty’s recollections in the press notes should give you an idea of how close he and Loach were to the realities of the British poor. The film has an authenticity about the marginalized population that most British films lack, even when their heart is in the right place:

But the immediate spark for this story started with a call I got from Ken to join him on a visit to his childhood home of Nuneaton where he has close connection with a charity that deals with homelessness. We met some terrific workers and they introduced us to some of the youngsters they were working with. One lad whom they had recently helped shared his life story with us. It was his casual mention of hunger and description of nausea and lightheadedness as he tried to work (as usual, zero hour contracts with precarious work on an ad hoc basis) that really struck us.

As Ken and I travelled the country, one contact leading to another, we heard many stories. Food banks became a rich source of information. It struck us that when we made MY NAME IS JOE or SWEET SIXTEEN, or even going further back to Ken’s earlier films, one of the big differences now was the new world of food banks.

As more and more stories came to light we realised that many people are now making a choice between food or heat. We met a remarkable man in Scotland, principled and articulate, desperate to work, who refused point blank to do meaningless workfare, who was given endless sanctions by the Department for Work and Pensions. He never turned his heating on, survived on the cheapest canned food from Lidl and nearly got frostbite in February 2015.

We heard stories of “revenge evictions” i.e. tenants thrown from their homes for having the temerity to complain of faults and poor conditions. We were given examples of the poor being moved from London and offered places outside the capital, a species of social cleansing. And it was impossible not to sense the echo from some fifty years back when Ken and colleagues made CATHY COME HOME although this was something we never talked about.

Breaking the stereotypes, we heard that many of those attending the food banks were not unemployed but the working poor who couldn’t make ends meet. Zero hour contracts caused havoc to many, making it impossible to plan their lives with any certainty and leaving them bouncing between irregular work and the complexity of the bene t system.

Another significant group we spoke to in the food banks were those who had been sanctioned (i.e. bene ts stopped as punishment which could be from a minimum of a month to three years) by the DWP. Some of the stories were so surreal that if we had them in the script they would undermine credibility, like the father who was sanctioned for attending the birth of his child, or a relative attending a funeral, despite informing the DWP of the reasons. Literally millions have been sanctioned and their lives, and those of their children, thrown into desperation by a simple administrative decision. Criminals are treated with more natural justice, and the fines are often less than what benefit claimants lose when hit by a sanction.

Food. Heat. House. The basics, from time immemorial. We knew in our gut this film had to be raw. Elemental.

“I, Daniel Blake” will be shown at the NY Film Festival on Saturday, October 1 at 3:00 PM and Sunday, October 2, 12:30 PM. It is Ken Loach at his best and it doesn’t get any better than that. (Ticket information here.)




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