Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2018

The Octopus

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,television — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm


Recently I had the opportunity to watch season one and two of “The Octopus” (La Piovra, another term for the mafia, just like Cosa Nostra), an Italian TV series that ran from 1984 to 2001. All ten seasons of this outstanding drama about one cop’s determination to take on and destroy the Sicilian mafia can be seen on MHz Choice, a VOD website devoted to European film and television and mostly focused on what the French call policiers and well worth the $7.99 monthly subscription fee. If after having seen my CounterPunch article about Swedish, Marxist-oriented detective series on Netflix, and moreover have appreciated such fare, you’ll be motivated to subscribe to MHz Choice since it has a sizable offering of Scandinavian crime fiction. For my money, literally speaking, this is the only genre on Netflix that is worth my while in recent years and if your tastes are similar to mine, MHz Choice is well worth the price of a subscription.

Having seen at least a half-dozen Italian films about the Sicilian mafia over the years, both narrative and documentary, the main takeaway is that the Italians would never dream of making the sort of films that established the reputations of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese tends to portray his characters as morally deficient but even with the worst of them, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy De Vito in “Goodfellas”, you are likely to find them demonstrating a raffish charm. As for “The Godfather”, it depicts the Corleone family as the good guys sustaining the “honor” of a virtual benevolent society against the bad gangsters, no matter that no such family ever existed. The “Sopranos” on HBO was obviously made in the same spirit and helped to convey the impression that with their malapropisms, Tony’s gang was just a modern version of Shakespeare’s clowns but with a violent streak.

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October 24, 2018

Life and Nothing More

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Opening at the Film Forum today, “Life and Nothing More” shares the title of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1992 narrative film about the aftermath of the 1990 earthquake in Iran that cost the lives of 30,000 citizens. Antonio Méndez Esparaza’s film, while likely not an homage to Kiarostami’s masterpiece, shares its compassion for victims but on another fault line, that of the racial and class divide of contemporary Florida.

Using neorealist conventions heightened by a very gifted non-professional cast, the story is defined by the constraints imposed by capitalist society on a single mother working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Fifty years ago, when I was working as a welfare worker in Harlem, I sat by the side of a 28-year old mother of four in her hospital bed trying to convince her stay in bed since doctors warned that if she checked herself out, another heart attack would cost her life. Through her sobs, she kept asking why she had to suffer so much. Unlike Job, her suffering and the suffering of the single mom in Esparaza’s powerful film is not a test of their faith by God but the results of wage slavery magnified by racism.

When we first meet Regina, she is working as a waitress at the Red Onion restaurant somewhere in Florida when an African-American man named Robert tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her. Since her husband is doing time for aggravated assault, she is wary of all men. In a subsequent conversation with Robert, she puts him off by saying “fuck all men”. Not willing to take no for an answer, he approaches her again during her break on another day and breaks down her resistance. Since there are so few pleasures in her life, being taken out for dinner and shooting pool with him later is something that she looks forward to. That is the first step in cementing a relationship that finally ends up with him moving in with her and treating the three-year-old with tenderness.

The stumbling block is her son Andrew who is as hostile to adult men as his mother is initially but with less of an incentive to open up to a man he suspects of taking advantage of his mother’s yearning for company. An argument between his mother and Robert in the middle of the night leads to a confrontation in which Andrew pulls out a gravity knife with a warning to Robert to stand down. Fed up with lover and son alike, Regina throws both men out—at least for the evening.

All of these people are living on the knife’s edge. A loss of a job, an unplanned pregnancy or an arrest can push them into a bottomless crevice that is social in nature rather than geological as was the case in Iran in 1990. In a high school class on “Hedda Gabler”, my teacher Fred Madeo, a leftist who used to write letters to the Guardian Newsweekly, told us that when we see a pistol in the first act, a seed is planted in our minds to expect that pistol to be fired before the play has ended. The gravity knife in “Life and Nothing More” plays the same role.

The authenticity of “Life and Nothing More” is astonishing. It has a documentary-like matter of factness that serves the narrative arc. Given the flammable nature of the social relations in the world occupied by the characters, a spark can set off a conflagration at any minute. It is reminder that if the anger and frustration of Black America ever gets turned at its real enemies, the class struggle of the future will make the sixties look like child’s play.

Early in the film, Regina is out in the parking lot with two other waitresses, one white and the other Black, taking a cigarette break and discussing the 2016 elections. They agree with each other that whoever is elected, their lives won’t change.

Let me conclude with the director’s compelling statement in the press notes, worthy of citation in its totality:

Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves, Rome, Open City), the father of neorealism and perhaps its most important writer, expressed the following in his 1952 “Some Ideas on the Cinema” interview:

The most important characteristic of neorealism is to realize that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. It has now been accepted that reality is hugely rich, and that to be able to look directly at it is enough. The artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.

In my film Life and Nothing More, with all major roles played by non-professional actors, we aimed to follow those principles and give a voice to those in desperate circumstances. It is a philosophy employed in my previous film, Aquí y Allá, and one I am again devoted to exploring. Their sole presence on screen is an act of political resistance. With each of their actions, or with all of their actions, they shout, whisper and cry: “We are here. This is our life and who we are.”

Likewise the script was inspired by extensive interviews and conversations with individuals, similar to those portrayed in the film. In addition, we established an ongoing dialogue with local judges, public defenders, educational and counseling professionals, as well as other key personnel involved in the legal system. While it is a fictional narrative, the film is as true to life as possible thanks to their collective stories.

The film has changed our lives and understanding of the world around us, and it has been a rewarding and touching journey; we hope it will change other people’s perspectives as well. I make films to understand realities unlike my own. I don’t start a film with self- reflection but, instead with curiosity, admiration and a sense of the political nature of film. I am a stranger here in the United States, and a stranger to the world of the film’s characters. I am the guest of my non-professional actors, and they will guide me. It is a privilege for me to be able to watch with the actors how the film will unfold.

October 22, 2018

The Unknown Citizen

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden is my favorite poet. Unfortunately, Poem Hunter only has one of his poems online, obviously dictated by copyright laws. The other major poetry database, Poetry Foundation, only has a handful. This motivated me to buy a used copy of the Collected Poems, a 915 page Vintage paperback for only $14.99. I turned through the pages a few minutes ago and picked out this quintessential 1939 poem that reflects his political sensibility–so far from the “proletarian” dictates of the Communist Party. There is no need to puzzle over its meaning. It speaks for itself.

When he was at Oxford, became part of the “Oxford Group” that was also called the “Auden Generation.” Stephen Spender, another favorite of mine, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice were also members. The Oxford Group was influenced by Marxism but as should be obvious from the poem below, with a distinctly Brechtian sardonic outlook.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/o7/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

October 21, 2018

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the leftist tilt toward Mohammad bin Salman

Filed under: conspiracism,Saudi Arabia — louisproyect @ 10:10 pm

Leon Trotsky wrote an article in 1938 titled “Learn To Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists” that warned about basing your politics on putting a minus wherever your own ruling class puts a plus:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat.

For most leftists who are still connected to the planet Earth, the focus must be on the brutality of the Saudi state and the Trump mafioso that is finding ways to discredit Jamal Khashoggi. Typical was Glenn Beck who tweeted: “If the Saudis did what the world is now saying they did, perhaps we will see what we all already knew: we should not be in bed with SA! But let’s also remember, Khashoggi was with the Muslim Brotherhood and not a good guy either. Both sides are bad here.”

This is basically the same thing heard from the Angry Arab who was interviewed on the Real News Network. If anything, he was even more vitriolic than Beck: “For much of his life, for the whole of his life mind this last year, this man was a passionate, enthusiastic, unabashed advocate of Saudi despotism. He started his career by joining bin Laden and being a comrade of bin Laden. There are pictures of him with weapons. He fought alongside the fanatic mujahideen, who were supported by the United States in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan among others, against the communist, progressive side in that war. And he was unrelenting in his advocacy on their behalf, as well as for his praise for bin Laden.”

Do the beliefs Khashoggi held 40 years ago when bin Laden was leading jihadists against the Russian occupation really matter today? On that basis, I probably should be denounced by the Angry Arab for having been a member of the Young Americans for Freedom in high school.

It is consistent with the Real News editorial outlook to invite the Angry Arab. For as long as I have been aware, Paul Jay’s broadcasts have featured the kind of people diagnosed by Leon Trotsky in 1938, especially the Grayzone crew that got booted from Alternet. Among them is Ben Norton who got into the act by Tweeting:

So one has to wonder if Norton is taking the side of MBS. If the CIA is the greatest danger to humanity, why not defend someone who they are targeting? As it happens, there are signs that he has shared the analysis of the Saudi state press on important matters especially when it comes to dealing with al-Qaeda, a group that keeps Norton awake at night for fear that one of its agents might put a bomb under his bed.

In July 2017, he and Blumenthal wrote an article fingering one Bilal Abdul Kareem as an al-Qaeda member. Kareem had gotten on their wrong side by interviewing jihadists in Syria. But some of their indictment came from an unlike source—the Saudi press. Given their obsession with Saudi Arabia as the source of Wahhabist terror worldwide, it is odd that they would find its media reliable.

They article states: “In fact, the Saudi Arabian news outlet Al Arabiya reported on June 7 that Abdul Kareem officially joined al-Nusra in 2012.” It turns out that Al Arabia was full of crap. It reported that Kareem was guilty because the man who produced videos with him was also an al-Nusra member according to British authoritiesThis is the same state that is about to suffer economic hardship just so it can keep Muslims out and is also the same state that put down the red carpet for MBS just seven months ago. That doesn’t get in the way of Norton taking its allegations at face value.

As far as I know, the only other person who is warning about a CIA coup against the Saudi monarchy besides Norton is the Moon of Alabama blogger, a German only known as Gerhard, who wrote: “Recently Khashoggi started a number of projects that reek of preparations for a CIA controlled color-revolution in Saudi Arabia.”

What evidence do they offer, other than the fact that some people who formerly held top posts in the Obama national security apparatus go on MSNBC and CNN to denounce MBS? Isn’t it obvious that Donald Trump administration is so committed to that he likens the attack of out-of-power figures like John Brennan to the opposition to Kavanaugh? These conspiracy-mongers don’t really care very much if their predictions don’t bear out. Three years ago, I told WSWS.org cult leader David North that WWIII was not on the agenda just because Nicholas Kristof called for a stepped up defense of Kyiv. For this, I was labeled a NATO tool. When you are dealing with the likes of David North, Ben Norton, the Angry Arab et al, you are entering a fact-free zone unfortunately.

Some on the left (using the term in its most expansive manner) treated news of Khashoggi’s assassination as “fake news”. The Off-Guardian, an Assadist conspiracist website, was one example with an editor weighing in just three days ago: “Do we currently know the man is dead? Let alone who may have killed him? I don’t think we can make that claim. We have an allegedly vanished journalist. We have a number of unproven claims, of varying plausibility. None of this is evidence of anything.” Caitlin Johnstone, who sees the world in exactly the same way as the conspiracy-mongers at Off-Guardian, used the same argument on the same day, almost as if they had been in contact: “So stay skeptical. Just because the talking heads are telling you that Jamal Khashoggi has been brutally murdered and it’s very important that you care doesn’t mean you have to believe them. If this is a propaganda narrative to advance a new oligarchic agenda, there’s no reason to go helping them advance it. Eyes wide.”

Eyes wide? More like the title of Kubrick’s last movie: eyes wide shut.

October 20, 2018

Mercantile Capitalism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Jairus Banaji

Probably because British colonialism screwed their homeland so royally, Indian Marxists tend to be some of Political Marxism’s most vehement critics. Perhaps the best known of them is Jairus Banaji, who received the Deutscher Prize in 2011 for his “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation” that is available online. That year, Banaji’s book edged out Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism”. I wish I could have listened in on the jury’s deliberations.

Since I tend to see Banaji and the writing team of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu (A&N henceforth) as occupying the same place ideologically in this debate, I was surprised to see Banaji’s broadside against “How the West Came to Rule” in the latest HM. I found most of his article extremely useful but had some of the same qualms as expressed by Anievas and Nişancioğlu in a reply to their critics.

The nub of Banaji’s criticism of A&N is that they see Caribbean sugar plantations of the 17th century, for example, as combining both pre-capitalist and capitalist features in a “transitional” mode. For Banaji, there is nothing “pre-capitalist” in these plantations so if you look at these debates across a spectrum, the PM’ers were the direct opposites of Banaji with A&N toward the middle, leaning a bit in Banaji’s direction. Banaji makes his case thusly:

Without doubt the least fortunate pages in How the West Came to Rule are those dealing with the slave plantations. The plantations are characterised both as ‘ “transitional forms” of social relations combining complex amalgams of capitalist and non-capitalist relations’, as the ‘interlacing and systemic fusion of different relations of production’, and as productive units ‘geared specifically towards capitalistic [sic] production’ which ‘operat[ed] according to distinctly capitalist rules of reproduction’. Now both characterisations cannot simultaneously be retained, for if these enterprises really were ‘geared specifically towards capitalist production’, then they embodied capitalist relations of production even if exploitation in them was based on slave labour. No teleology prescribed that those slaves would eventually be transformed into wage workers employed by the same owners or by others.

I am afraid that Banaji undermines his own case by projecting capitalism backward in history to the point that it is difficult to distinguish between antiquity and modernity as might be obvious from this sweeping panorama:

The sheer historical variegation of capital, especially commercial capitalists, over the centuries is striking – from the Roman capitalists who had ‘vast sums invested in Asia’, according to Cicero, or the capitalists of Fars in southern Iran whom the geographer al-Iṣṭakhrî described in the tenth century as ‘passionate’ about ‘accumulating capital’, or the ‘large capitalists’ who drained the salt marshes east of Basra using slaves imported from East Africa, or the ‘northern Kiangsu industrialists’ who invested in a booming iron industry employing thousands of wage labourers, or the ‘merchant princes’ of late-Song/Yuan China who owned massive shipyards and were both shipowners and international merchants at the head of ‘great business firms’, or the Corner brothers of Venice who built substantial sugar interests in Cyprus on plantations that imported large copper boilers from Italy, to the Dutch Calvinist merchants who emerged from the great Flemish dispersion of the seventeenth century to become the ‘economic élite of Europe’ and ‘the heirs of medieval capitalism’; the big colonial merchants of London who would ‘accumulate sufficient capital to diversify investment around their core business into ship-owning, joint-stocks, insurance, wharf- leases, and industry’, when London expanded rapidly in the late seventeenth century; the East India Houses of the nineteenth century, old City firms with branch houses in India that speculated repeatedly in indigo, opium and sugar; the Beirut trading houses who exported raw silk to French commercial houses in Marseilles and Lyons in the early part of the twentieth century; or, finally, big international merchants of our own period, companies like UAC, CFAO, and Metallgesellschaft.

Does it make sense to refer to Roman capitalists in the time of Cicero, namely the first century before Christ? Perhaps this only makes sense if you collapse all of the various stages of world history into class societies and the primitive communist societies that preceded them. Is there a difference between Roman slavery and that of the Deep South? I tend to think so. In my view, there is something to be said for the PM emphasis on relative surplus value that depends on the introduction of machinery into the productive process when extending the working day and other forms of exploitation associated with absolute surplus value have run their course. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, he was trying to identify the dynamism of the capitalist system of his day, which surely could not have been mistaken for Cicero’s Rome.

Now that this is out of the way, I want to focus on Banaji’s discussion of mercantile capitalism that according to Charles Post does not exist.

At an HM conference in 2015, someone raised a question about merchant capital in a panel discussion that included Post. Post answered by saying that that such an interpretation was based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. In other words, Post was saying basically the same thing as Spencer Dimmock who dismissed chapter 31 of Capital with its reference to slavery and colonialism as being written when Marx was still under Adam Smith’s influence. According to the PM’ers apparently, it was only when Marx had become fully mature by V. 3 of Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other superfluous stuff that got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

Toward the end of his article, Banaji defines merchant capital (or mercantile capitalism) as being very real and very much consistent with Marx’s mature analysis:

Yet Marx himself described mercantilism as the ‘first scientific theoretical treatment of the modern mode of production’. With the Mercantile System, he writes elsewhere, ‘it is no longer the transformation of commodity value into money that is decisive but instead the production of surplus-value’. And in another passage, this time from the Grundrisse, he describes the Mercantile System as an ‘epoch where industrial capital and hence wage labour arose in manufactures’; but here he adds the fascinating aside: ‘Industrial capital has value for them [the mercantilists], even the highest value, as a means … because it creates mercantile capital and the latter, via circulation, becomes money’.

If, as Marx believed, the manufacturing period involved an expansion of industrial capital, then of course these were industries largely controlled by merchants. We can always call this industrial capitalism, but today historians would doubtless prefer to see these early forms of industrial capital as simply one aspect of the wider system of merchant or commercial capitalism that expanded in the late-medieval/early-modern world. In his brilliant monograph on the Venetian silk industry, Luca Molà points out that in Vicenza by the end of the sixteenth century ‘the silk mills belonging to merchants alone were well over 100’. Merchant capitalists extended control over production in multiple ways. But they also dominated a host of major economic sectors such as foreign banking, wholesale trade, shipping, government finance, tax-farming, and so on. In any case, regardless of where they invested, we have to abandon the tautology which claims that ‘The independent and preponderant development of capital in the form of commercial capital is synonymous with the non- subjection of production to capita …’, an assertion which ignores Marx’s own remarks about the role of merchants in the luxury industries.

Volume 3 of Capital was not exactly written by Karl Marx, who died before it could be turned into a cohesive manuscript. It was completed by Engels, who based himself on Marx’s notes. But there is little doubt that it represents his mature thought. That being said, it is worth referring to chapter 20 titled “Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital” that captures the contradictory nature of commodity production in the period either neglected by PM’ers or given short shrift by Ellen Meiksins Wood in her reference to the East India Company as “pre-capitalist”:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. However, in its first period — the manufacturing period — the modern mode of production developed only where the conditions for it had taken shape within the Middle Ages. Compare, for instance, Holland with Portugal.[5] And when in the 16th, and partially still in the 17th, century the sudden expansion of commerce and emergence of a new world-market overwhelmingly contributed to the fall of the old mode of production and the rise of capitalist production, this was accomplished conversely on the basis of the already existing capitalist mode of production. The world-market itself forms the basis for this mode of production. On the other hand, the immanent necessity of this mode of production to produce on an ever-enlarged scale tends to extend the world-market continually, so that it is not commerce in this case which revolutionises industry, but industry which constantly revolutionises commerce.

As it happens, the only PM’er who wrote a book focused on the merchants was Robert Brenner himself in his 1993 “Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London’s Overseas Traders 1550-1653”. As might be expected, the British colonists operating sugar plantations in Barbados were not capitalist in Brenner’s eyes. The only genuine capitalists in the 17th century were those who leased (or owned by this point) the vast agrarian estates that provided the oomph necessary to make the industrial revolution possible. Brenner’s book was reviewed that year in the London Review of Books by Perry Anderson who has never written about the “transition” debate except in this review, as far as I know. He lauds Brenner’s research but finds his landmark thesis lacking. You’ll note how close it is to what Marx wrote in chapter 20 of V. 3 of Capital:

For all the power of this case, there were always difficulties with its overall context. The idea of capitalism in one country, taken literally, is only a bit more plausible than that of socialism. For Marx the different moments of the modern biography of capital were distributed in a cumulative sequence, from the Italian cities to the towns of Flanders and Holland, to the empires of Portugal or Spain and the ports of France, before being ‘systematically combined in England at the end of the 17th century’. Historically, it makes better sense to view the emergence of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of inter-related sites. In this story, the role of cities was always central. English landowners could never have started their conversion to commercial agriculture without the market for wool in Flemish towns – just as Dutch farming was by Stuart times in advance of English, not least because it was conjoined to a richer urban society. Yet, even if the ‘bourgeois’ contribution to the economic genesis of capitalism is conceded, this does not mean that a political ‘revolution’ was necessary to smooth its path. That would have been one possible reading of Brenner’s case, with its emphasis on the immanent dynamism of competitive production for the market. Where does his new work leave the issue?



October 19, 2018

Lost Village; Fail State

Filed under: Academia,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries drive a stake into the heart of very different forms of higher-educational chicanery. Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, Roger Paradiso’s “Lost Village” is a no-holds-barred assault on NYU for its role in turning Greenwich Village into a wasteland of empty stores, CVS’s, banks, and fast food emporiums while simultaneously making its student body pay for its excesses, driving female students to turn to prostitution to keep their studies going. Also opening today in Los Angeles’s Laemmle theatre and at the Maysles theater in New York next Friday is “Fail State”, an investigative report on for-profit colleges. Of keen interest to CounterPunch readers, neither film leaves the Democratic Party unscathed. Despite his liberal pretensions, Mayor Di Blasio bestows his blessings on NYU’s scorched earth tactics in the Village while Democrats show little interest in putting the kibosh on for-profit colleges that both Obama and Trump sanctioned, the first commander-in-chief in typically triangulation mode and the second with the same kind of cynical boosterism that characterizes his criminal regime.

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October 16, 2018

The Inner Dimensions of Socialist Revolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:16 pm

via The Inner Dimensions of Socialist Revolution

Thoughts provoked by the HM Symposium on “How the West Came to Rule”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

In 1976, Robert Brenner wrote an article titled “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe” in a scholarly journal that defined what would become known as “the Brenner thesis”. Based entirely on an accident of history, it was only in England in the late 14th century that agriculture became capitalist. There was a tripartite class relationship in which the landed gentry began leasing out land to tenant farmers, who then hired wage labor to produce for the market. Once capitalist farming kicked in, it paved the way for capitalism in general. So, if it weren’t for tenant farming, England never would have come to rule the world.

Before this miracle happened in England (and to a much lesser degree in Holland) and which would never be repeated elsewhere before the 19th century, most farming was done by peasants who only sold what was left over after satisfying family needs. These were “yeoman” farmers of the kind popularized in “The Little House on the Prairie” and many other heartwarming American sagas. They prospered until the redskins came along and destroyed their homes and kidnapped their children as depicted in John Ford’s “The Searchers”.

Now you would think that if tenant farming was a sine qua non for capitalist development, why didn’t yeoman farming in the USA inhibit the growth of manufacturing, especially in the north that fought for free labor in the Civil War? Charles Post has an explanation for this in his book on the origins of capitalism in the USA. It seems that the high price of land forced farmers to specialize and produce for the market rather than for their own subsistence. Once they became squeezed by competition, they sought ways of reducing labor costs, thus creating an impetus for farm machinery.

Now, it should be understood that this analysis cannot be found anywhere in Marx’s writings. In chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” (can’t be more specific than that, right?), he states emphatically:

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.

His main interest in the agrarian economy was not in tenant farming, etc. but how the landed gentry dispossessed yeoman farmers who would then be forced to become wage slaves. In chapter 27, titled “Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”, he wrote:

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.”

In chapter 26, which also deals with primitive accumulation, Marx geolocated the first sprouts of the capitalist system. It wasn’t England:

Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalistic era dates from the 16th century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has been long effected, and the highest development of the middle ages, the existence of sovereign towns, has been long on the wane.

Now this would likely cause most people on the left to shrug their shoulders and ask themselves what’s the big deal. After all, as Marx once said, the point is to change it—not to pinpoint where and when it got started. If these debates were taking place in obscure scholarly journals, that would likely have been the end of it. But a year after Brenner’s dry as dust article appeared, he took to the pages of New Left Review to turn his thesis into a litmus test. If you agreed with Paul Sweezy that capitalism started off because of expanded international trade in the late middle ages, a hypothesis associated with Henri Pirenne, you were some kind of ideological Menshevik. Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank were singled out as non-Marxist because they viewed colonialism and slavery as a sine qua non for the origins of capitalism in Europe. Considering what Marx wrote in chapter 31, you’d conclude that Brenner’s beef was with Karl Marx, not these three.

Today, the most vociferous Brennerite on the scene is Spencer Dimmock who wrote a book in 2015 titled “The Origin of Capitalism in England 1400-1600” that combines the kind of scholarly investigation of the material Brenner worked with in his first article with a slashing defense of Political Marxism (another word for the Brenner thesis) against its critics. The book can be downloaded from here.

I’ll give credit to Dimmock for a couple of reasons. It was he who made it downloadable, not someone trying to cheat him out of his royalties. (Ranked 1,611,042 by Amazon, they are probably rather modest.)

He is also the first PM’er to specifically address what Marx wrote about capitalism and slavery even if he gets it wrong. Referring to chapter 31, he cites Marx: “The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England, in more or less chronological order.”

However, according to Dimmock, the term “primitive accumulation” in that quote is derived from Adam Smith. It assumes that capitalism needed a “prior” accumulation of capital for a kick start. Even if Marx wrote that gold and silver from the New World from the sixteenth century onwards and super profits from the slave trade and plantations from the seventeenth century onwards were necessary, he was channeling his inner Adam Smith, just as Brenner accused Paul Sweezy in his NLR article. Gosh, who would want to be accused of promoting Smithian views? Not me.

Adam Smith did not use the term “primitive accumulation”. He called it “previous accumulation” instead. For Smith, this was a peaceful process, in which some workers worked harder and were thriftier than others. The money they put aside helped them become capitalists and build factories. Slavery, colonialism, dispossession and other violent measures did not enter the picture.

The latest issue of Historical Materialism has a symposium on Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism” that was published in the same year as Dimmock’s book. Dimmock and Post are among his critics, as well as Jairus Banaji, also a Brenner critic who is disappointed that the authors cede too much ground to Brenner. Neil Davidson, another critic, is also disappointed but mostly because they base their history on Leon Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development that in Davidson’s eyes (and Post’s as well) does not apply to precapitalist society. I can only say that HM deserves kudos for hosting such a symposium since the debate is just as urgent as it ever was. I suspect that for most people on the left it will only generate a shrug of the shoulders but for those who have been following the debate, it certainly is worth a trip to a research library to track down the latest issue. (Information on how to buy HM is at the end of this article.)

Post, like Davidson, came to his understanding of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development through training in Trotskyist sects, just as was the case with me. His article is titled “The Use and Misuse of Uneven and Combined Development: A Critique of Anievas and Nişancıoğlu” and as the title implies makes the case that the theory is not useful in understanding world history in its totality. Of more immediate interest to me is Post’s critique of the authors’ reference to colonialism and slavery as being essential to the development of capitalism in England. He has a rather narrow view of their role: “The slave plantations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced exotic items (coffee, sugar, tobacco) for a large, but primarily well-off market made up of nobles and government officeholders on the Continent and capitalist landlords and farmers in England.” It was only when cotton entered the equation that such imports could make a difference but Post qualifies that by saying it was the ex post facto consequence of industrial capitalism having taken root.

Funny to hear sugar being reduced to an exotic item marketed to the wealthy. By the mid-18th century, it had become the most valuable commodity in Europe and one savored by rich and poor alike. In a 1989 article titled “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism”, Jim Blaut identified sugar as a key commodity:

After the plantation system had proven its profitability in the Atlantic islands it leaped to Brazil and became even more profitable and much more important. Here, at the close of the 16th century, it was producing a profit permitting a doubling of productive capacity every two years, a profit which amounted, early in the 17th century, to £1,000,000 sterling per year. By the year 1600, the annual value of sugar exported from Brazil already amounted to £2,000,000 sterling – twice the annual value of England’s total exports to all the world; this should be viewed against the backdrop of the traditional view that England’s exports in that period, principally of wool, were paradigmatic for the “awakening” or “rise” of capitalism.

Turning to Dimmock, whose article can be read online just like his book, you get a restatement of the Brenner thesis and a dismissal of most of the “How the West Came to Rule” as a failure to understand the thesis or, understanding it, misrepresenting it. As for colonialism and slavery, Dimmock minimizes its importance in the same fashion as Post:

Without the super-profits of slavery, the history of capitalism and industrial development may have taken a different course. But given that the symbiotic development of agrarian and industrial capitalism had already taken great strides by the 1620s, when Virginia and Bermuda were only just emerging, and that the social structure of England had been irreversibly transformed by then, it is difficult to see how the force of this structure could have been restrained or ‘choked off’ so easily.

Well, for most people the term “industrial capitalism” evokes textile mills in Birmingham two centuries later but I’ll leave Dimmock to his own devices on this.

For me, the more interesting question is whether it took the tripartite agrarian class relationship central to the Brenner thesis to generate profit-seeking in the countryside. He writes:

Because in an established feudal/absolutist society peasants possess the vast majority of the land, and are able to derive their subsistence from that land without becoming overly dependent upon the market for their inputs through wages or trade income, the surplus from their production can only be sufficiently extracted from them by political force or its threat.

In Anievas and Nişancıoğlu’s reply to Dimmock, they refer to a Dutch historian named Jessica Dijkman who rejects the “idea that peasants were by nature subsistence-oriented and only turned to the market if they were forced to”. In her book titled “Shaping Medieval Markets”, she points to a significant degree of farmers producing for the market rather than for their family. Although she is hardly combatant in the Political Marxism debates, she refers to Brenner in a footnote as someone tied to that idea.

She compares Holland, Flanders (ie., contemporary Belgium) and England and produces statistics that belies the Brenner thesis. Let’s start with Holland:

By 1500 not just non-agrarian activities in the Holland countryside were market-oriented, but so too were most agrarian activities. This may seem surprising, since this development had not been accompanied, as it was in England, by the rise of large landownership, tenant farming, and wage labour. In Holland, for the time being, peasants held on to their land: the structure of small family farms remained in place until at least the middle of the 16th century. By then, about 20% of labour input in agriculture was performed as wage labour.

In inland Flanders, subsistence farming generally held sway but in the coastal areas, profit-seeking held sway. Large farms emerged that conformed to Dimmock’s accidental miracle of capitalist tenant farming in England and around the same time. Dijkman writes:

The result was a predominance of middle-sized and large leasehold farms that mainly produced meat, dairy, and commercial crops. The Veurne district is a good example. In the early 16th century, the polders around Veurne were an important cattle-farming region. Although very little information on the marketing of meat and dairy produced on the large farms in this district is available, there can be no doubt that most of these products were sold on the urban markets in the vicinity.

And when you line up the numbers, Holland and Flanders were far more advanced in terms of their use of wage labor, a sine qua non for the PM’ers:

The PM’ers are in unenviable position. Most joined this school decades ago and rarely go outside their comfort zone. I doubt that you will ever find someone like Dimmock or Post working on a global survey of how the tripartite agrarian institutions of late 14th century England can be seamlessly tied to the emergence of the industrial revolution. Mostly they are content to use inductive reasoning to make their case. Honestly, I would love to see someone as erudite as Dimmock produce data that leads to the conclusion that the British East India Company was inconsequential. Even if it was wrong, it would give me something to work with.

Essentially, they are not interested in the capitalist system. What they were looking for is evidence of the kind of class relations that Marx identified in V. 1 of Capital with its strict focus on the textile mills. This entails a kind of ideological selectivity that makes all those statements from Marx to the contrary disappear. Ones like this:

But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, the corvée, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom etc. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those [southern] states [of the American Union], the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself.

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October 11, 2018

Art and the capitalist mode of production

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

Unlike the Corvair, a commodity worth more after its destruction

I had at first considered the possibility of concluding my review of 3 films dealing with the commodification of art with an attempt at situating this tendency within Marxist theory but abandoned that plan because the literature on the topic was much more expansive than I had realized and because my review would have been far too long and perhaps abstruse for most CounterPunch readers. In this article, I want to take a tentative look at one analysis and conclude with my own take.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Deutscher Memorial Prize, Dave Beech’s “Art and Value” rejects the idea that the paintings and other art works sold at Sotheby or Christie’s auctions are capitalist commodities. While I have not read his book, I did read the introduction that is online here. I was struck by the influence that the Brenner thesis has on his approach:

The many ways in which art and artists have adjusted to capitalist society require special study, but I shall neglect all those that have nothing to say about whether art corresponds to the capitalist mode of production. Both the nature of the capitalist mode of production and its relationship to the pre-capitalist mode of production was elucidated during the Marxist debates on the transition from feudal- ism to capitalism in the 1950s and the Brenner debate in the 1970s.15 These debates, which did not put any emphasis on the fate of art, have an enormous bearing on the question of art’s economic and political ontology, if we pursue the Marxist analysis of art’s mode of production.

This suggests to me, especially through its use of the term “capitalist mode of production” rather than “capitalist system”, that Beech uses wage labor as a litmus test for using the word commodity. If you applied that test to slavery, then you would conclude that slaves existed outside the sphere of capitalist commodity production. While nobody would ever mistake what Renoir was doing with picking cotton, it seems to me that both were involved in commodity production within the capitalist system.

Although Beech is not exactly a Political Marxist, he clearly shows their influence. Perhaps they wouldn’t invite him into their club since it is Maurice Dobb that gets cited far more than Brenner in the introduction. For those of you not familiar with these arcane and acrid debates, Dobb had a series of exchanges with Paul Sweezy that anticipated Brenner’s slashing attack on Sweezy in the 1977 NLR. As it happens, Dobb did not meet Brenner’s exacting standards since he argued that slavery and colonialism were essential to the origins of capitalism in England alongside the enclosure acts.

Focused on the “transition” question, Beech writes: “Instead of theorising art’s relationship to capitalism through the concepts of commodification, culture industry, spectacle and real subsumption, all of  which have a superficial ring of truth, the key to understanding art’s relationship to capitalism must be derived from questioning whether art has gone through the transition from feudalism to capitalism.”

Referring at length to Dobb’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Beech draws a distinction between the commodity production that has existed from time immemorial to that which exists under capitalism. By this standard, the artist is not involved in capitalist production since he or she is an independent proprietor having more in common with the guild artisans of the Middle Ages:

The artist is also a commodity producer today insofar as she owns her own ‘petty implements’ and, unlike the wage labourer, continues to own the product she produces. However, since the independent craftsman was neither a capitalist nor a wage labourer, and handicraft production does not conform to the capitalist mode of production, then the artist can be a commodity producer without this fact suggesting by any means that the artist has been economically transformed by the capitalist mode of production. Thus, the evident ‘commodification’ of art is not proof that art has become capitalistic.

It is easy to understand why it is difficult to understand art production in conventional Marxist terms. To start with, art is one of the few commodities that is neither consumed like food or wine, nor integral to the functioning of the capitalist economy such as a lathe, a truck or a computer. Once it is produced, it is meant to be preserved for eternity unless it is something like Banksy’s “Girl with Red Balloon” that after being auctioned off at Sotheby’s auction for a cool $1.4 million was shredded by remote control. In keeping with the torrid and irrational art market, its value increased immediately upon its destruction.

The other quality unique to art is that it is meant to be unique—that is to say, never repeated. Except for lithographs and other such works, the artist aspires to novelty both within his own body of work and within the artistic population as a whole. Of course, when an artist has achieved a measure of fame, he or she may defy this convention as Andy Warhol did with his Campbell Soup and Brillo Boxes. Surely, if this is how he started out, the paintings would have never sold for millions.

Obviously unwilling or unable to define the social role of the artists, Beech assigns the term economic exceptionalism to define their relationship to the capitalist system even though they are outside the sphere of the capitalist mode of production:

In presenting this study, I hope to achieve two related objectives: to provide a new basis for the economics of art, and to develop a coherent theory of economic exceptionalism in general using art as a lens through which exceptionalism can be understood. This book also contains the first ever account of a Marxist theory of art’s economic exceptionalism, developing the argument that art is exceptional specifically to the capitalist mode of production. Art’s economic exceptionalism – that is to say, art’s anomalous, incomplete and paradoxical commodification – explains art’s incorporation into capitalism as the very basis of art’s independence from capitalism, because it shows that art has not been fully transformed by the capitalist mode of production.

This sounds more reasonable than the rigidly Brenner/Dobb framework defined at the beginning of the introduction but I will defer judgement until getting my hands on “Art and Value”. I should add that Beech is an artist himself and involved with the Freee [not a typo] Art Project that incorporates his socialist values.

I think that Beech is right to identify the transition to capitalism as key to understanding the role of the artist but I would approach it from a different angle. Under feudalism, the artist was funded by the church or the court. This includes both composers and artists who were expected to write Masses and paint Nativities to earn their keep. Secular works were also permitted but only under the strict guidelines put down by the aristocrat they worked for.

The bourgeois revolution allows them to go off on their own. Composers made independent livings as suppliers of symphonies, chamber music and operas to the various institutions now benefiting from subsidies by the manufacturers rather than the landed gentry or church.

For most of the 19th century until the early 20th century, they had about the same social weight as providers of high culture. What eventually allowed artists to achieve considerable fortunes was the emergence of the museum/gallery/auction world that capitalized on the catapulting of artists into the stratosphere. When he died, Picasso was worth $500 million while his contemporary Claude Debussy died in debt. Leaving behind a score like “La Mer” that could be purchased for very little, relatively speaking, the composer was not entitled to royalties once the work fell out of copyright. Unless you can draw people to pay for a concert ticket, that score will not generate revenue. In a museum, art will also generate revenue but not accrue to the living artist who made it. His or her interest in having it on display is to escalate his profile in the art market and hence his or her income.

Part of the difficulty in assigning a specific social role to the artist of any sort including painters, composers, novelists, etc. is that they occupy a middle position in class society—the so-called petty bourgeoisie. Occupying the same position as a guild artisan of the Middle Ages, they enjoy the possibility of becoming as wealthy as any capitalist. Unlike the more traditional petty-bourgeoisie such as doctors, lawyers, farmers, etc., the painter or sculptor has limitless horizons even if 99 percent of those in the business will likely make little more than a factory worker—if they are lucky.

The United States is in an odd position today with the petty-bourgeoisie constituting a major swath of the population even if supposedly the growth of capitalist property relations would force them into the working class. Fortunately for the left, the artists, rap musicians, professional athletes, novelists, poets, college professors, and fashion designers are on our side. It is the farmer, lawyer, doctor and shopkeeper we have to contend with and many of them constitute the base of the Republican Party.


October 10, 2018

The commodification of art examined in 3 documentaries

Filed under: art,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 1:05 pm


The three documentaries considered chronologically in this review deal with various aspects of the commodification of art. Opened on October 19that the Quad Cinema in New York, “The Price of Everything”, an HBO documentary directed by Nathaniel Kahn, explains why paintings by the old masters are now auctioned off routinely for fifty million dollars and up. Now available on Youtube for $2.99 and worth every penny is “Art Bastard”, a tribute to artist Robert Cenedella who turned his back on the auction houses and posh galleries that are held up to scrutiny in the first film. Finally, there is the 2009 “Art of the Steal”, directed by Don Argott and now available on YouTube for free, chronicles the liquidation of the Barnes Foundation collection by the unscrupulous museum potentates, foundations and politicians in Philadelphia that its founder Albert C. Barnes loathed. That the documentary can be seen for free probably reflects the eagerness for its makers to get the broadest exposure.

I strongly advise seeing the three films in tandem since put together they will give you a keen sense of the cultural decay of late capitalism that puts a price tag on everything. Essentially, the commodification of art is just as injurious to the body politic as fracking, a profit-seeking assault on the environment that was fostered by Governor Ed Rendell, who also led the assault on the Barnes Foundation when he was mayor of Philadelphia. All the people you hear from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the first film and the smooth operators who paved the way for the destruction of Barnes’s legacy are exactly those you would hear bemoaning Donald Trump on MSNBC. At least Donald Trump doesn’t have their fake patrician pretensions.

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