Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 20, 2018

“The Rise of the Leninist Right”? A commentary on a Berkeley professor’s nonsense

Filed under: Academia,conservatism — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Cihan Tuğal

Global Dialog is the magazine of the International Sociological Association, a professional society founded by UNESCO in 1949 that appears to be a safe space for Marxists, given that Immanuel Wallerstein and Michael Burawoy have served as presidents. Burawoy is currently the editor of Global Dialog that appears for all practical purposes to be a Marxist journal, with the latest issue devoted in part to an examination of Trumpism.

One of the articles was titled “The Rise of the Leninist Right”, a rather odd formulation. It was written by Cihan Tuğal, a Berkeley professor who has written some useful articles on Turkey in the NLR. This article, however, was not that useful. It was downright ridiculous.

Tuğal argues that “American right-wing populism is Leninism under democratic conditions.” Proof of that supposedly lies in Steve Bannon saying “I’m a Leninist. Lenin […] wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” The source of this quote is an article by the rightwing asshole Ronald Radosh who claims that Bannon told him this at a cocktail party they were at in 2013. Three years later, Radosh emailed Bannon to confirm that this was what he said and the lout told him that he could not recall it.

In some ways, this is all besides the point because it fails to use the term “Leninist” scientifically. Leninism is not being against the “establishment”. It is a tendency associated with the Bolshevik Party in Czarist Russia committed to socialist revolution. Steve Bannon has about as much to do with Leninism as Adolf Hitler had to do with socialism, no matter what he called his party. You’d think that someone belonging to a high-falutin’ academic association would know better. Maybe not.

Additionally, this rise of a “Leninist” right can be explained by the failure of the left to craft a “populist” message to Trump voters (presumably):

The left can no longer convincingly speak in a populist tone. It doesn’t know how. In any case, most of its ideologues don’t want to. In order to understand the meagerness of populist overtones within the American left, we need to look at the pre-history of our era’s anti-populism.

I trace this devolution, paradoxically, to what seemed on paper to be the most democratic revolt of the 20th century: 1968 (as it was experienced in the West). Alongside its anti-capitalism, 1968 was a revolt against the statist and bureaucratic excesses of Stalinism, social democracy, and the New Deal. Although justified in many regards, the anti-bureaucratic mood of that moment ultimately led many to draw wrong lessons from the downfall of statism and the victory of (neo)liberalism. 1968 was a necessary mistake. The right recovered from it. The left did not.

The two major inheritors of 1968 in the West – the liberal-left and autonomist/anarchist movements – developed an incurable suspicion not only of organization, ideology, and leadership, but also of speaking in the name of majorities, “the people.” All such talk (and politics) came to be branded “totalizing” and totalitarian (by the far left) or “irresponsible” and useless (by the liberal left). Except in Southern Europe (where left populism returned to the scene, but without class, ideological, and organizational anchors) and Latin America, the right occupied the emergent gap.

Defeated on paper, the libertarian spirit of 1968 fueled neoliberalism’s anti-statism. But the more poisonous result was the subsequent split of leftists, between post-modernist nihilism and left-liberalism.

In 1997, Tuğal graduated from Bosphorus University in Istanbul, just 3 years after my wife did. This means that he was probably born 8 years after the events that took place in 1968. I try to put myself in his shoes. Would I have written so self-assuredly about events in 1937, 8 years before I was born? Certainly not. I have trouble enough making sense out of what took place in 1968 and I was deeply immersed in it.

To get to the point, the good sociology professor does not have a clue about what why the right emerged in the post-1960s period. To start with, the autonomist/anarchist left was not a “major inheritor” of 1968. Instead, it was the “Leninist” left that drew all the wrong lessons from the nature of the period and how to reach the people. Yes, the left made mistakes but it nothing to do with “anti-statism”. Instead, the thousands of revolutionaries who formed “vanguard parties” in the 70s and 80s operated in a self-imposed subculture in which the iconography of the Russian or Chinese revolutions was fetishized. The hammer and sickle adorned the newspapers of the period and a language was developed that smacked of an in-group mentality characteristic of sects at best and cults at the most extreme. Been there, done that.

I have tried to explain in dozens of articles about how the groups that emerged out of Trotskyism became an obstacle to the growth of the left. It artificially imposed a glass ceiling on our influence. Max Elbaum had a similar analysis about the Maoist left in “Revolution in the Air”. If the 25,000 or so self-described revolutionary socialists in 1975 or so had come together in a non-sectarian framework and adopted a program similar to the one that Lenin advocated for the Russian left, we’d perhaps have an organization of 100,000 today. To give you an idea of what the Bolsheviks advocated, just consider the draft program that Lenin proposed to his comrades:

1) an eight-hour working day; 2) prohibition of night-work and prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age; 3) uninterrupted rest periods, for every worker, of no less than 36 hours a week; 4) extension of factory legislation and the Factory Inspectorate to all branches of industry and agriculture, to government factories, to artisan establishments, and to handicraftsmen working at home; election, by the workers, of assistant inspectors having the same rights as the inspectors; 5) establishment of factory and rural courts for all branches of industry and agriculture, with judges elected from the employers and the workers in equal numbers; etc.

For us, a program might have taken up questions of socialized medicine, free higher education, a minimum wage of $15, an overhaul of the electoral system that made it easier for a radical party to get on the ballot and that put an end to big money control of the elections, etc. None of this is particularly “radical” and even sounds like the kind of issues that Bernie Sanders stands for. However, unless they are raised by a working-class party, they will never take on the sharp edge that is as necessary to move forward politically as a machete is for clearing a path through the jungle. For radicals, the key to social change is in the streets, not in the voting booth. A nation-wide party with a voice to express such demands could have put the ruling class on the defensive. Our failure to build such a party can be explained by the ideological hegemony of “Leninism” 50  years ago. We have no excuse today.

Besides his failure to understand the extreme left’s problems in the post-60s period, Tuğal raises a bunch of the by-now familiar complaints about “identity politics” that are associated with left-liberalism, the other culprit that supposedly helped the ultra-right’s rapid growth. He writes:

Over three decades, inclusion increased in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation — but the table itself shrank. So yes, Black and Latino men and women, even Muslims, got prominent positions at institutions they could previously hardly dream of; but the Black and Latino prison population in the US increased, as did the number of Muslims bombed, embargoed and starved by the United States.

Left-liberalism spoke to (more ordinary) minorities through targeted welfare programs; but since Democratic leaders shied away from taking from the big sharks, it could only do this by further victimizing the whites pushed away from a shrinking table. Downgraded whites came to be perceived as a bunch of racists, “a basket of deplorables”; people we can no longer talk to (a reality produced by the project itself).

This might sound familiar if you’ve read Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed. It is a well-trodden analysis that turns affirmative action into some kind of con game to placate Blacks, Latinos, and women so that they don’t go after the “big sharks”. Michaels and Reed have been banging away at this for decades but during the 2016 elections and continuing through Trump’s inauguration, it became omnipresent as figures such as Mark Lilla and Mark Penn scolded fellow Democrats for adapting to Black Lives Matter, etc.

As for left-liberalism speaking to minorities through “targeted welfare programs”, I would say that the only thing that has been targeted is the minorities themselves. Let’s never forget that it was Bill Clinton who eviscerated the welfare system, not Nixon or Reagan.

As for being able to speak to Trump voters, it would be a big mistake to think that most of them could be won over to the “populist” message that Tuğal endorses. The evidence continues to mount that his hard-core followers were not factory workers but those excited by the idea of sticking it to Muslims, gays, Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and above all those factory workers who supposedly flocked to Trump. My friend Tony McKenna presented convincing evidence that these truly deplorable people tended to be shopkeepers, upper-level managers, self-employed professionals—the classic petty-bourgeois elements that have been a base for the ultra-right for the past 100 years or so. He wrote:

A similar statistic came out of a March 2016 NBC survey which showed that “only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more, and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites.” If one assumes that working class jobs tend to fall at the lower end of the economic spectrum, then one has to conclude that the vast majority of Trump supporters in the run-up to the 2016 election were simply not of the working class.

You’d think that a sociologist at a prestigious university like Berkeley would have a better grasp of the data, wouldn’t you?

The final section of Tuğal’s article, titled The American Right’s “21st-century Leninism”, is filled with confusion. He writes:

Starting with Andrew Breitbart himself, the founder of the “alt-right” media outlet, the right read the Frankfurt School; it made healthcare a big deal; and with the rise of Trump and Bannon, it promises jobs and infrastructure.

So Andrew Breitbart reading the Frankfurt School is meant to prove that the “Leninist” right was stealing the left’s thunder? Doesn’t Tuğal understand that Breitbart’s obsession with the Frankfurt School (or what he also called Cultural Marxism) was identical to that of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 69 young leftists in 2011? Breitbart.com is only interested in the Frankfurt School in the same way I am interested in what someone like Michel Chossudovsky or what LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review have to say. I am monitoring them. To get an idea of what Breitbart thinks of the Frankfurt School, get a load of this:

The [Frankfurt] Institute built up a cadre of cultural Marxists, including Max Horkheimer, Erick Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the Frankfurt School migrated to the United States. There its members set about poisoning American culture, based in Columbia University. Theodor Adorno promoted degenerate atonal music to induce mental illness, including necrophilia, on a large scale. He and Horkheimer also penetrated Hollywood, recognising the film industry’s power to influence mass culture. The American schools system was a prime target for successful subversion.

I love that business about Adorno promoting atonal music to promote mental illness. What a bunch of howling jackals at the magazine our president reads.

Also, what does Tuğal mean when he says that Breitbart made healthcare “a big deal”. To me, a big deal means you are promoting it, not trying to eviscerate it. How could he could have written such nonsense?

Maybe before Tuğal goes off half-cocked in the future, he should try to understand Lenin in context. That would be much better than writing in such superficial fashion about “Leninism”. I understand that crawling to the top of the academic mountaintop takes a great deal of perseverance and talent but once you reach the pinnacle, it is best to avoid resting on your laurels—especially when it comes to pontificating about a subject that he is clearly in over his head about. You might come tumbling down the mountain.

January 19, 2018

Morality Tales on the American Malaise: the Films of Rick Alverson

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 19, 2018

Each November and December NYFCO members like me receive dozens of DVD screeners from film studio publicists that are meant to help us decide on our yearly awards. In order to help me participate meaningfully in the deliberations, I prioritize the films that are likely to be finalists, namely the big-budget Hollywood films from Sony, Fox, et al. This has meant that the kinds of films I prefer to cover get left in the lurch, particularly those that are sent from Magnolia, a conscientious distributor of quality films for various art houses around the country. I invite you to visit their website, which for a modest $4.99 per month allows you to see some first-rate films like “Entertainment” that was included in the 2015 batch that I only got around to seeing recently. To get straight to the point, Rick Alverson, the director of this dark character study of a middle-aged comedian playing to tiny and indifferent audiences in forlorn Southern California towns, is a major talent that deserves far more attention than any of those forgettable Hollywood blockbusters that routinely get awarded. He is a 47-year old Richmond native who has his fingers on the pulse of a dying civilization and is not afraid to tell the truth even if it is one that might not soothe you like the typical Saturday night escapist fare. Indeed, the last two films made by Alverson might be understood as a morality tale on how comedy itself might be key to the malaise that has gripped America for decades and shows no sign of letting up.

What follows is a survey of all of four films that have been made by Alverson since 2010, all of which are available as VOD. Having seen them over the past week or so has left me feeling like I have been through the mill, just like the four men at their center. Despite having a different life experience than theirs, I can share the existential crisis that has overcome them all, against a backdrop of a country that Robinson Jeffers described in “Shine, Perishing Republic” as settling “in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire”.

Continue reading

January 17, 2018

Beuys; David Hockney at The Royal Academy

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

“Beuys” opens today at the Film Forum in New York. Like fellow German artist Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys was simultaneously one of the world’s most respected artists in the post-WWII period as well as a critic of the capitalist system.

In 2003, I wrote about a documentary titled “Gerhard Richter Painting” that can be seen on Amazon Video for $2.99 and that would be a good companion piece to the one on Beuys. When Richter crossed the border to West Germany to seek political asylum in 1961, he hooked up with a group of artists who described their work as a “Capitalist Realism” that repudiated the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism as well as the Socialist Realism of East Germany. Richter is on record as saying that “The best thing that could have happened to art was its divorce from government.” Since his paintings have sold for more than $30 million, it is understandable why his artwork has grown more abstract and less political. It is unlikely, for example, that any hedge fund billionaire would want to have portraits of Red Army Faction members on their living room wall.

Unlike Richter, Beuys always saw art as a much more overt instrument of political struggle against capitalism. It would have been the last thing one might have expected from someone who flew fighter planes for Hitler’s Luftwaffe during WWII. In 1940, the 19-year old joined the air force and served until being shot down over Crimea in 1944. The crash resulted in a disfigurement of his skull that was concealed by a trademark fedora that he began wearing as young artist out in the public.

After returning home after the war, he spent nearly a decade on a friend’s farm trying to overcome what sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder. The only respite from his depression was making hundreds of drawings and small sculptures, which eventually led to a career as an artist and a professorship at the Dusseldorf Art Academy in 1961. The press notes state:

One of his best-known works from this period is Sled (1969), which he called a “survival kit”: an elemental means of transport carrying a felt blanket, a lump of fat, and a flashlight. Sled alludes to Beuys’s oftrepeated story of crashing his warplane during a blizzard and being rescued by Tatar nomads, who treated his wounds with fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm. Whether true or not, the story is a powerful metaphor for the rebirth of both an individual and a nation after the horrors perpetrated by National Socialism.

In the 1970s, Beuys became a conceptual artist often using himself as the focus of what might also be described as performance art. The documentary has startling footage of “I Like America and America Likes Me”, a 1974 work that brought together the artist and a live coyote in an enclosed New York gallery space. Beuys, who is enclosed rather precariously in a cloth tarpaulin, allows the animal to bite off pieces from the costume, while holding it back rather gently with a cane. The piece called for overcoming the rift between humanity and the natural world, a need that would seem to apply in spades to the invasion of Central Park recently by coyotes and the panic it has engendered. I would have given anything to see what Beuys had to say about this trend, who dying in 1986 was spared the depravity of a Trump administration bent on turning the entire country into a combination strip mall and golf course.

Not long after he began making explicitly political art and until his death, Beuys was a passionate supporter and member of the Green Party in Germany. He was part of the party’s leftwing and eventually became marginalized because the leadership feared that the German voter would not identify with someone as eccentric as Beuys. To connect his artwork with his political beliefs, he embarked on his most important project in 1982, the 7000 Oaks. This was an ambitious reforestation project that finally resulted in the planting of seven thousand trees throughout Germany, especially in areas destroyed by bombing during World War II.

The film was directed by Andres Veiel, a 58-year old whose works both in film and theater but generally with a political focus. Der Kick (The Kick), for example, was about the 2002 murder of a teenager by three neo-Nazi teenagers in East Germany, In a director’s statement in the press notes, he stated:

In the film, Beuys persistently and subversively deals with issues that continue to remain relevant 30 years after his death, like a radical democratization that doesn’t shy away from new banking and monetary systems, or equal opportunities in a world of increasing inequality. Beuys insisted on the possibility that the world can be changed based on the capabilities of each individual person: “Nothing needs to remain the way it is.”

Unquestionably, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter are the two most important living artists today. At 80 and 85 respectively, they can’t keep up the same pace as when they were younger but both are going strong. Evidence of Hockney’s continued vigor and relevance are two shows at the Royal Academy of Arts that are the subject of a documentary titled “David Hockney at The Royal Academy Of Arts: A Bigger Picture 2012 & 82 Portraits and One Still Life 2016” that according to the publicist will be in cinemas across United States of America, from January 23rd. In truth, the only theater where the film will be showing is in Cape Cod, Massachusetts—not a place where many of my readers live, I’m afraid. My advice, however, is to check the film distributor’s website to see if it will be screened in your city since it is quite a fascinating film about an artist as unlike stylistically from the two somber Germans indicated above.

The documentary could not be more elementary in cinematic terms, consisting of Hockney being interviewed by two different curators at the Royal Academy. The first show is made up of landscapes done by Hockney in Yorkshire, England, a place he left long ago to make a home in Los Angeles, a place featured in his most famous paintings. They are all intensely sensual and use color in a way that are reminiscent of Matisse. Grouped with Pop Art, they do not feature soup cans but instead swimming pools that expressed the languid and hedonistic character of Tinseltown. A “Bigger Splash” is typical:

Obviously, Yorkshire bears little resemblance to Southern California. Instead, it is the sort of place that inspired landscape artists like John Constable and Claude Monet. In the interview, Hockney stresses the importance of light and color that binds him to classic art of the 18th and 19th century. Since some of the landscapes were done on an iPad, they have the added interest of seeing how the technological envelope can be pressed, even when you are you entering your ninth decade. While Hockney does not offer the kind of analysis that an art historian would be capable of, the main benefit of this half of the film is the opportunity it affords to see some ravishingly beautiful work.

The 2016 portrait show has a bit of an irony. Hockney threw in a still-life with the intention of making sure that all of the three major genres would be covered at the Royal Academy: landscapes, portraits and one still-life.

The 82 portraits are all of people Hockney know personally and never took more than 3 days to complete. This is a major feat to be carried out by someone his age. As he points out in the interview, the only activities he carries out nowadays are painting and reading. As is the case with the landscapes, you can look forward to what amounts to a filmic version of one of those museum tours but led by the artist himself.

Worth mentioning is a book co-authored by Hockney and Martin Gaylord titled “A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen” that came out in December, 2017. A review in the NY Review of Books that was coupled with a look at a retrospective now showing at the Tate suggests that there are some affinities with Beuys, who also saw the emancipatory quality of art:

Equipped with the versatility to picture however he pleases, Hockney chooses to picture whatever pleases him. He celebrates his friends and lovers, their agreeable homes and gardens, and places and particulars (an ashtray, a lampshade) that snag his workmanlike curiosity and ask to be disassembled and customized pictorially. If Hockney has thus become a recorder of styles and mores, he has been so unsystematically. After what he now calls his “homosexual propaganda” pictures of the early 1960s, little about the work has seemed specifically political: his responses to the AIDS crisis, for instance, can only be inferred obliquely. This is not to say that Hockney is without ideas about his art’s human purposes. On the contrary, his recent book written with Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures, argues that approaches to picturing such as his own aim to emancipate our imaginations, which might otherwise fall back into a “prison,” a disengagement from the world through which we move, a blinkering that makes it “look duller.”

 

January 16, 2018

Félicité; The Insult

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:36 pm

Deriving its title from the main character, “Félicité” is about the joys and sorrows of Kinshasa from the viewpoint of the lead character who is a vocalist in a rough-around-the-edges but cookin’ band. The film begins with her performing before a well-lubricated audience in a nightclub that is even rougher around the edges. Among the people enjoying themselves, and in this case over-enjoying himself, is a drunken bear of a man named Tabu who becomes the fortyish, full-figured Félicité’s love interest after coming to repair her broken-down refrigerator that like everything else in this film looks second-hand. Half the people we see on the streets of Kinshasa look like they are taking part in the largest flea market in history.

Like one of Bertolt Brecht’s powerful female characters, Félicité is a woman who won’t take no for an answer. After waking up the next day from her gig, she receives a call from a local hospital informing her that her son has been severely injured in a motorcycle spill. Within moments after arriving at her son’s bedside, she learns that it will cost one million Congolese francs to save him from losing a leg if not his life. This is only $630 but for the singer, who relies mostly on tips to survive, it might as well be a million dollars.

Toward the end of the film, Tabu, who is tying one on with her convalescent son, begins his customary, over-the-top, alcohol-infused, extemporaneous philosophizing. Among the words that pour out of his mouth might as well serve as the film’s epigraph: “Those without money live in suffering”.

As with neo-realist films such as the classic “Bicycle Thieves” and the more recent Dardenne brothers jewel “Two Days, One Night”, “Félicité” is about a desperate search. In Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece, a man struggles to retrieve the bicycle that is his only way to earn a living posting up advertising flyers. In the Dardennes film, the lead female character—a factory worker—has to persuade fellow workers to sacrifice their yearly bonus in order to prevent her being laid off. The boss told them that they had to choose between her keeping a job and the bonus. Like her, Félicité is not too proud to beg even more so because the stakes are even higher.

In one of the most riveting scenes throughout the film, she maneuvers her way past the maid who meets her at the front gate of the home of one of Kinshasa’s bourgeoisie, almost like a running back breaking through for a ten yard gain. Once she gets into the house, she is met by the owner who looks down at her balefully and demands to know why she barged in. She tells him that unless he can help her raise the funds, her son will lose a leg or worse. Like any other of Kinshasa’s upper crust, this could bother him less. He only relents after a manservant repeatedly attempts to haul her out across the floor by her legs, only to see her stubbornly breaking his grip and begging for money once again. But not out of compassion but only to be rid of her, he turns over the cash in his pocket, warning her that if she ever shows up again, he will have her killed.

While most of the film is neo-realist, there are magical realist touches that are like saffron added to a hearty stew. We see dream-like sequences of Félicité walking into a river, perhaps to drown but perhaps to be renewed as if in a baptism. There are also performances by Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste that performs in the soundtrack and in visual set pieces that are almost like interludes to break the tension. Until recently, it was the only all-black symphony orchestra in the world. Music is also supplied by the Kasai Allstars, a band that also backs up Félicité in the nightclub. The Allstars is a 25-member collective that is made up of musicians throughout the Congo that often did not speak each others language. It was an expression of a sorely needed national unity.

The 45-year old director Alain Gomis was born to working-class parents—a Senegalese father and French mother–in Paris and raised there. He told the Financial Times that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing works by Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Murnau, Dreyer, and Vigo at a Paris arthouse. Sigh. I only wish we had more like him in the USA instead of people weaned on TV situation comedies.

“Félicité” showed up in New York City in October, 2017. Thanks to Amazon Video, you can now watch it for $4.99. What are you waiting for?

When I got word about a press screening for “The Insult” at the Cohen Media Group’s offices, I decided not to bother after discovering that the film was written and directed by Ziad Doueiri, whose last film “The Attack” struck me as Islamophobic even though Doueiri is Lebanese. In that film, a Palestinian surgeon living comfortably in Tel Aviv discovers that his wife is a suicide bomber even though she has been living the same kind of secular, comfortable life as him. I thought it was a bunch of hooey.

“The Insult” is a much better film but is still very problematic politically. It starts off in an apartment building in Beirut where a Christian Lebanese Phalangist Party supporter named Tony Hanna lives with his pregnant wife.

Construction workers are moving methodically down the street to fix violations to the building codes, including a gutter pipe from Hanna’s terrace that spills water onto the sidewalk below including on the head of Yasser Salameh, the Palestinian foreman of the crew doing the repairs. When he knocks on the door of Hanna’s apartment to inquire about making the necessary repair, he is told to get lost.

Following the instructions of his boss to fix all violations, Salameh bypasses Hanna and goes ahead to connect the gutter to a drain pipe on the side of the building where it can do no damage. When Hanna spots the work, he takes a hammer and destroys their work. Spotting this, Salameh calls him a “fucking prick”, thus making Hanna feel justified in not allowing anybody to touch the gutter until he gets an apology for this insult. Determined to satisfy the building codes, Salameh’s boss pleads with him to apologize, something that the generally mild-mannered Palestinian is willing to do.

Meeting outside the auto repair shop that Hanna runs, they begin to approach Hanna for what the boss hopes will be a peace treaty. But Salameh can’t help but notice that a TV set in the garage is playing a video of a Bachir Gemayel speech. Gemayel, who was the President of Lebanon in 1982, met with Ariel Sharon to plan out how to destroy the PLO. For this and other offenses against the Palestinians and Lebanon’s native Muslim population, Gemayel was assassinated by a bomb that year. In revenge for his assassination, the Phalangists worked with Sharon to kill Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Before Salameh has a chance to apologize, Hanna begins insulting him as a dirty Palestinian—echoing the inflammatory words heard from Gemayel on the TV. But when he says “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out”, Salameh cannot hold back any longer. He punches Hanna in the midsection, breaking two ribs.

From that point onward, “The Insult” becomes a courtroom drama as Hanna seeks damages from Salameh. An elderly Phalangist party leader serves as lawyer for the plaintiff while the defense is mounted by a young and attractive female supporter of Palestinian rights. In keeping with the somewhat heavy-handed plotting of the film, they are father and daughter.

A key scene involves Hanna’s lawyer showing a film to the judges that depicts the massacre of Christian villagers in Damour on January 20, 1976, where a six-year old Hanna was living with his parents. This attack that left 582 villagers dead was reason enough for Hanna to hate Palestinians. The audience is also likely to interpret this as an indication that there was brutality on all sides back then and that it was high time to reconcile. That’s probably what the largely liberal Jewish audience at Lincoln Plaza, where the film is currently showing, might think superimposing this schema on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

What is left out, however, is that the Damour massacre was in retaliation for an attack two days earlier that cost the lives of nearly three times as many Palestinians and Muslims in Karantina, a slum in East Beirut. Obviously such ethnic-based massacres are destructive no matter who carries them out but one really has to wonder if Palestinian and Muslim militias would have ever carried out such an attack if they had not been provoked.

In some ways, the film operates on the basis of the Hatfield-McCoy feuds, with Christian Lebanese and Palestinians failing to overcome past grievances. In an interview with The Middle East Institute that is chaired by Richard A. Clarke, who was George W. Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs, Doueiri explains why he made the film:

I always believed that Christians in the civil war never suffered, and that only us, Muslims, suffered. This was the myth I grew up with, but then I realized that Christians did suffer as much as we did. As an artist, it’s your moral duty to try to understand the other side, and that’s also where The Insult came from.

One can understand why this kind of Kumbaya film is being distributed by the Cohen Media Group, which also distributed Doueiri’s “The Attack”. This film company was launched by real estate magnate Charles S. Cohen, who also financed Quad Cinema, a very good venue for foreign films. In Cohen’s profile on the N.Y. Real Estate Board website, we learn that “He received the prestigious Israel Peace Medal in 2002 at a luncheon event in his honor that raised an all-time record $52.4 million for State of Israel Bonds.”

These peace medals don’t have much to do with peace. Instead they are awards usually given to big-time donors to Israel that typically are real estate magnates like Cohen. The ISO newspaper reported on a protest at their 2011 bash:

This year’s dinner awarded a “Peace Medal” to Denis Hughes, president of the New York state AFL-CIO. Hughes was director and chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank during the notorious “credit bubble” decade. It was chaired by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and head of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Appelbaum has long traded on his image as a “progressive” labor leader to attack growing international trade union support for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Recently, he has been at the forefront of a witch-hunt that banned supporters of Palestinian rights from meeting at the NYC LGBT Community Center.

My advice is to wait until the film shows up on HBO or Showtime. As fiction, it is a taut courtroom drama that will keep you spellbound even if the politics are rather specious.

January 15, 2018

Donald Trump, fascism, and steel industry realities

Filed under: Fascism,Trump — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

The old boss adopted fascist tactics in the Little Steel Strike. The new boss is from one of those “shit countries”.

Six days from now will mark the first year of Trump’s presidency. Given that we have had a year to evaluate his regime, there have been few attempts to grapple with its character. Since many Marxists have viewed Donald Trump as imposing neo-fascism on the USA, there have to be questions about how he has failed to impose any kind of serious repressive measures on the country. When I was first starting out as a radical in the 1960s, I was targeted as part of the Cointelpro program in an effort to either get me fired from my first programming job or perhaps so spooked that I would resign from the SWP. Can you imagine what would happen if the FBI pulled this kind of crap today? Of course, they don’t have time for that given the job they have investigating Trump’s Russian ties.

When I was a new member in 1968, one of the big questions I had to deal with was Nazism. Coming from a Jewish family that raised money for Israel through Hadassah, I was fairly close to the holocaust chronologically and psychologically. In my little village in upstate NY, it was not uncommon to see men and women come into my father’s fruit store with tattoos on the arm from their time in concentration camps. We used to call them the “refugees”.

Part of becoming a Marxist involved rejecting Zionism. But additionally, it involved trying to understand how and why Hitler came to power. Among the books that helped me to clarify my thinking was Daniel Guerin’s “Fascism and Big Business”, a Pathfinder book that can be read on Libcom apparently in defiance of the cult’s white-shoe attorneys. At the core of Guerin’s analysis was the argument that Nazism was backed by heavy industry against the class interests of the Fertigindustrie (finished goods industry), particularly the electrical goods and chemical industries. He writes:

After the war the antagonism was particularly violent between the two groups-Stinnes and Thyssen, magnates of heavy industry, versus Rathenau, president of the powerful AEG (the General Electric Association). The Fertigindustrie rose up against the overlordship of heavy industry, which forced it to pay cartel prices for the raw materials it needed. Rathenau publicly denounced the dictatorship of the great metal and mining industries: just as medieval nobles had scoffed at the German Emperor and divided Germany into Grand Duchies, the magnates of heavy industry were dividing Germany into economic duchies “where they think only of coal, iron, and steel, and neglect, or rather absorb, the other industries.”

During the 2016 primaries and throughout the first year of Trump’s presidency, I have read countless articles about how much of a “fascist” he is but virtually nothing along the lines of Guerin’s analysis. It would seem that ruling class opposition to Trump is mostly of an ideological character rather than anything so material as the forces at work in Weimar Germany. Has there been any serious investigation of what Silicon Valley, big pharma, the financial sector, real estate, the defense industries, et al hope to gain from Trump’s policies other than deregulation and tax cuts? The richest man in the USA owns a newspaper that has been eviscerating Trump for the past two years at least. Does Jeff Bezos have anything in common with the Thyssens?

Missing from the analysis today is the fundamental difference between the USA of 2018 and the Weimar Republic, namely the role of heavy industry. In the 20s and 30s, heavy industry was the lynchpin of capitalist economies and within this sector steel was particularly critical. Thyssen steel needed fascism to subdue the working class because the very survival of his firm was dictated by the law of value as Guerin explained:

The chiefs of steel and mining enterprises are noted for their authoritarian attitude, their “tough boss” psychology. Their will to power is explained by the vast scope of their enterprises and the dominant role they play in the economy and in the state. But the explanation must also be sought in what Marx calls “the organic composition” of the capital invested in their enterprises: the ratio of “fixed capital” (invested in plant, raw materials, etc.) to variable capital (i.e., wages)  Big business finances fascism is much higher in heavy than in light industry. The result is that the limits within which production is profitable are especially narrow in heavy industry. Whenever the steelmasters are unable to run their works at a sufficiently high percentage of capacity, the “fixed charges” (interest, depreciation) on their plants are distributed over an insufficiently large quantity of products, and profits are impaired. When a strike breaks out, the least stoppage of production means losses mounting into the millions. If the economic crisis sharpens they are unable to cut their fixed costs, and can only reduce their wage bill; brutal wage cuts are for them an imperious necessity.

In the 1930s, American steel companies were very much in the same mold as evident from their violent attacks on the attempts to organize workers during the Little Steel strike. In an article in the July 2012 edition of Labor History titled “Chicago and the Little Steel strike”, Michael Dennis described the fascist-like conditions in Weirton, Ohio—a big steel-producing city:

According to journalist Benjamin Stolberg, the steeltown of Weirton, Ohio constituted ‘a little fascist principality’ untouched by federal law, a company town ‘patrolled by notorious killers who keep the plants in a state of terror’. Eugene Grace, the president of Bethlehem Steel, was a ‘black reactionary’. He was a perfect complement to Republic Steel president Tom Girdler, since he ‘combine[d] the big industrialist and the congenital small-time vigilante’. In the isolated, predominantly immigrant, working-class communities of the steel district, Grace and his counterparts exercised nearly implacable authority. Invoking the imagery of the Spanish Civil War, Stolberg described Grace as ‘the General Franco of Little Steel, busily engaged in whipping up big industry to support a national vigilante movement’. As for Republic Steel’s notoriously anti-union Tom Girdler, he was ‘an open fascist, to whom Roosevelt, Miss Perkins, John Lewis are “Communists”’.

So what ever happened to Republic Steel? It is now owned by Grupo Simec, based in Guadalajara, Mexico. It still maintains plants in the USA but with a total work force of only 2,000 workers.

The steel industry ain’t what it used to be. China is now the top steel producer in the world, followed by Japan and India. Of the top ten steel companies in the world, only one American company–U.S. Steel–makes the grade and it comes in number 8 and employs only half the number of workers as India’s Tata Steel, ranked number 7.

Furthermore, we have been a major importer of steel and steel mill products since the 1960s according to Wikipedia. It states: “In 2014, the US exported 11 million tons of steel products, and imported 39 million tons. Net imports were 17 percent of consumption. As of 2012, the largest sources of net steel imports to the US were, in descending order, the European Union, Brazil, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.”

One of the signs that Trump would adopt a nationalistic trade policy based on protectionism was the appointment of Wilbur Ross to Secretary of Commerce. Ross would seem to be a perfect fit for Trump’s “America First” outlook since he is credited with saving thousands of jobs in the Rust Belt, particularly in steel. His approach is to buy distressed companies and make them profitable again, saving jobs in the process. Part of his strategy is to lobby for tariffs that would protect companies like LTV (Ling-Temco-Vought) that he bought at fire sale prices in 2002 and that had carried out a merger with Republic Steel in 1984.

Leo Gerard, the USW president, was pleased with the appointment: “With Wilbur it’s been almost 15 years now, and those mills are [still] running and some of them are the most productive in North America.”

Somehow it escaped Gerard’s attention that after taking over LTV, Ross fired half the workers. His “rescue” was the same kind as Trump’s of Carrier, which also sustained a heavy loss of jobs to stay in the USA. Since Ross bought LTV in bankruptcy court, he was able to shed $7.5 billion in pension funds to the government.

The story of LTV and Wilbur Ross is a microcosm of the American class struggle—or the lack thereof. You have labor bureaucrats like Leo Gerard making common cause with a scumbag like Ross in the same way that UAW president Dennis Williams has gone along with deals that led to a two-tiered pay system and reduced benefits so as to “save jobs”. If there was a labor movement instead of what we have now, both Obama and Trump would have been put on the defensive.

The problem, of course, is that the bosses can exercise leverage on the workers by threatening to pick up and move to another country. The threat of runaway shops is what helped Trump get elected even if his solution a la Ross is to make an offer that workers can’t refuse.

Global competition puts pressures on workers everywhere to accept less. This is what “globalization” has accomplished. It cheapens the price of labor and commodities simultaneously. Indian steel mills supply commodities at a price far below those of their competitors in more advanced capitalist countries. Ross cashed in on globalization in 2005 himself: He sold his steel company to an Indian company Lakshmi Mittal for $4.5 billion in 2005, making 12 ½ times on his initial investment.

What is happening now is a race to the bottom. Trump is incapable of reversing this trend since it is not susceptible to policy solutions. It is tantamount to King Canute commanding the tide to stop. We are in the throes of capitalism’s decay. I think Trotsky was misguided in the way he went about building a Fourth International but each time I return to his writings, I remained impressed by his ability to size up the political conditions of his epoch in a work like the Transitional Program.

The Thyssens and the Krupps backed Hitler because in the 1920s the steel industry was constrained by national boundaries. They competed with the USA and Great Britain, who faced the same constraints. Today’s world is much different. The danger we face is not a fascist strong state that puts both the bosses and the workers into a straight-jacket but the utter freedom of neoliberalism that allows the steel, auto, and chemical industries, et al to pick up and move overseas as well as the freedom of the Washington Post to excoriate Donald Trump for being a racist. But as long as Jeff Bezos can sell Chinese manufactured goods in the USA, why would he go so far as to rock the underlying economic boat that contains both the Koch Brothers and the liberal-leaning bourgeoisie, the modern-day equivalent of the Fertigindustrie. That is the world we are living in now and we’d better get used to it, as long as we don’t lose sight of the need to transform that world.

January 14, 2018

Trolling with the Fisher King

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

Paul Pines’s “Trolling with the Fisher King: Reimagining the Wound” is a work of staggering erudition and deep spiritual insights. This twilight memoir incorporates a lifetime of engagement with a wide variety of thought and deeds. Terrence’s words kept occurring to me as I read it: “I am human, and I think nothing that is human is alien to me.” Paul (I will use his first name since he is a friend as well as a writer under purview) weaves together many elements from sports fishing to quantum mechanics as if the performance by a master conductor.

The legend of Parsifal, and particularly the version known as Parzival written by Wolfram von Eschenbach over 700 years ago, informs this book. The eponymous Fisher King is Anfortas, who was charged with the duty of preserving the Holy Grail. Known also as the wounded king for a wound in his groin that defied a cure, he became a symbol of the damaged psyche of a humanity taking many forms for Paul, including the post-traumatic stress of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

As just one example of Paul’s expansive reach, he starts with a meditation on this ancient tale and then connects it with the 1991 film “The Fisher King” starring Jeff Bridges as a radio shock jock who has become suicidally despondent after one of his on-air comments leads to a listener killing himself. One night, he is rescued from suicide himself by a homeless man played by Robin Williams who is on a deluded mission to discover the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail, sometimes conflated with the Holy Chalice that Christ drank from at the Last Supper, is supposed to provide happiness. As a psychotherapist (a day job for Paul that clearly reinforces his writing unlike Wallace Stevens working for an insurance company), this Arthurian tale is something that obviously resonates with Paul and that serves as a leitmotif throughout the memoir. Like the various knights who come to cure Anfortas of his incurable wound, Paul  has spent a lifetime working, if not to provide happiness, to at least convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness—as Freud once put it.

Paul’s approach to psychotherapy is influenced by Carl Jung, whose theory of the collective unconscious meshes with Paul’s life-long fascination with the Parsifal tale. King Arthur’s court is a virtual treasure-chest of archetypal themes that can be the foundation for poems written in any age, from the 13th century to the twenty-first. Discussing some of his patients, he finds the fisher king a useful periscope into their subconscious.

One patient named Perry complains about feeling empty. Nothing seems to last. Nothing of value. Since Perry is a real estate broker, one can certainly understand how such feelings can overcome him especially when he goes to a workshop led by a famous motivational speaker who asks the gathering how they would see themselves at the height of their success and what they would do with their money. In the age of Donald Trump, one can understand how any person in the field endowed with a soul would feel empty. Listening to Perry made Paul reflect “I hear Parzival suddenly aware that he exists in a Wasteland”.

Hovering over the entire book is the presence of Charles Olson, the dean of Black Mountain College and the founder of the new poetry associated with the school, including Robert Creeley and Paul Blackburn. When I was a freshman at Bard in 1961, I became obsessed with their work and those of the other streams that converged in the mighty river known as the New American Poetry. In addition to the Black Mountain poets, there was the San Francisco Renaissance led by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beats championed by Allen Ginsberg. All of them were collected in Donald Allen’s book of the same name that could be spotted on many bookshelves in Bard College dorm rooms next to Albert Camus’s “The Rebel” and James Frazier’s “The Golden Bough”.

The connection to Olson is made through his landmark poem “The Kingfishers”, whose first two sections are included in the appendix to “Trolling the Fisher King”. The first line is referred to throughout the book, serving once again as a kind of leitmotif as in Wagner’s “Parsifal”: What does not change/is the will to change. Did Charles Olson have the psychotherapeutic search for happiness in mind when he wrote these words? We do know that he, like Paul, was influenced by Jung. After reading Jung and Carl Kerenyi’s “Essays on a Science of Mythology”, Olson became convinced that mythology could become a science and was not dissuaded by Robert Creeley describing the phrase “science of mythology” in a letter to Olson as “crap”.

I suppose Olson is as important to Paul as Leon Trotsky was to me when I was developing intellectually as a young man. There certainly was enough of an affinity for Olson when I was young to have made him number one for me as well. When I went out to San Francisco in the summer of 1965, my intention was to be a poet not a revolutionary politician and programmer. It was best for me and the world that if noting else the war in Vietnam put an end to my literary aspirations (pretensions, really) since it would have taken me 10,000 years to become half the writer Paul Pines is. It is no exaggeration to say that if he is not the sole surviving practitioner of the New American Poetry, he certainly is the best.

Besides the shared affinity for Charles Olson, Paul’s book is filled with lovely recollections of a life spent as a sports fisherman. As someone who enjoyed ecstatic moments fishing in Sullivan County’s freshwater ponds and the Neversink River that flowed through it when I was young, I was returned to those days by reading Paul’s recollections:

In my Fisher King dream I’m using my childhood rig. Not the earliest one, a stick with a line and a hook, but a small fiberglass rod and spool reel. In those days I dug up night crawlers for bait in a section of Prospect Park where the earth was always damp. I later learned to handle a spinning reel, set the drag and cast and drop lures attached to a float. It was the middle rig I used in my dream, the one on which I hooked crappies (small sunfish) in Prospect Park Lake at the end of Harry S. Truman’s second term.

Just a few years after Paul was trolling Prospect Park, I was fishing alongside my father at Silver Lake in Woodridge, New York for what we called “sunnies”, another name for crappies, as well as bigger fish like the ferocious pickerel. I will never forget the day that my father took me to his secret worm-gathering cache, which was on the side of the road leaving Woodridge toward the Neversink River. He brought along a shovel and I toddled after him. Into a copse of trees, he began digging and quickly discovered pay dirt. He picked up a clump of very moist and very dark loam that was suffused with night-crawlers. He smiled and said, “We will fish with this”. For me, that was a Holy Grail of happiness that occurred only that once. It was too bad that his own Anfortas type psychic wounds suffered in the Battle of the Bulge prevented us from ever bonding like this again.

“Trolling with the Fisher King” can be purchased online from Chiron Publications.

 

January 12, 2018

Bitter Money; Pow Wow

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 12, 2018

Later this month, Lincoln Plaza Cinema will be shutting down not because it could not sell tickets for its middle-of-the-road art movies but because Milstein Properties decided not to renew its lease. Milstein claims that after major construction repairs to the high-rise above the screening rooms in the basement are complete, the space will be reserved for another theater. It is likely that it will not be owned by Dan and Toby Talbot, the husband-and-wife team who founded Lincoln Plaza in 1981.

Dan Talbot, who died last month at the age of 91, was a vanguard figure in New York’s arthouse cinema. He founded the New Yorker theater on the Upper West Side in 1960 and it soon became a shrine to revivals of classic films like “Citizen Kane” or the latest Kurosawa or Fellini. After graduating NYU, his first gig in the film business was writing reviews for The Progressive, a pacifist magazine based in Wisconsin.

This is by no means a scientific finding but Googling “Louis Proyect” and “Lincoln Plaza” returns 879 links, nearly all to my reviews. At the top of the list is my article on “Lifta”, an Israeli film that broaches the possibility of reconciliation between Zionists and their Palestinian victims. I had never considered this before but my colleague in NYFCO Jordan Hoffman saw the theater as catering to the sensibilities of elderly liberal Jews on the Upper West Side in a Village Voice article about the closing of the theater:

The concession stand sells popcorn and Milk Duds, but also smoked salmon sandwiches. This is the neighborhood of Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass and the JCC Manhattan and a block ceremonially named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. This Christmas, the neighborhood Jews, ordained as they are to go to the movies and then hit a Szechuan Palace after, included Lincoln Plaza in their ritual for the last time. A final congregation at the Ciné-gogue. It’s a Shanda [shame].

It is unlikely that anything like the New Yorker or Lincoln Plaza will ever be launched on the Upper West Side again because real estate has become prohibitively expensive in Manhattan. In an article on the closing of Lincoln Plaza in the New Yorker magazine, film critic Richard Brody said that new theaters will likely be found downtown where real estate is still relatively affordable. But even there, the prospects are guarded as evidenced by the closing of Landmark Sunshine at 139 East Houston St. this month, which was sold for $31.5 million to East End Capital and K Property Group, who will presumably turn it into condos up above and a CVS or health club on the street level. With the proliferation of health clubs in NY and the demise of arthouses like Lincoln Plaza, we will end up with 6-pack bellies galore and plunging literacy.

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January 9, 2018

There’s no business like presidential show business

Filed under: Donald Trump — louisproyect @ 1:12 am

January 7, 2018

The role of Iran’s water crisis in the recent protests

Filed under: Ecology,Iran,water — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

On January 2nd, an NY Times article about the protests in Iran included a couple of paragraphs that caught my eye:

For decades, those living in Iran’s provincial towns and villages were regarded as the backbone of the country’s Islamic regime. They tended to be conservative, averse to change and pious followers of the sober Islamic lifestyle promoted by the state.

In less than a decade, all that has changed. A 14-year drought has emptied villages, with residents moving to nearby cities where they often struggle to find jobs. Access to satellite television and, more important, the mobile internet has widened their world.

In a nutshell, these are exactly the sort of social/ecological contradictions that helped to pave the way for the Syrian revolution as I pointed out in an article titled “Syria, Water and the Fall from Eden”, where I quoted a high-level government official:

There is no more rain, but there are more and more people. We forget that we are living in the desert here and that more than a quarter of the Syrian population now lives in Damascus. We have no water anymore and our Barada River cries. In the plain, in the Ghuta, it’s the same thing: there used to be five large springs there that fed the crops. They have all dried up.

–Nizar Hussein, agricultural engineer, Barada & Awaj River Authority, Damascus, Syria

In going through 16 years of articles on Lexis-Nexis about the drought in Iran, I came across a Financial Times article dated August 21, 2014 that cited a high-level government official who was just as terror-stricken:

Thousands of villages rely on water tankers for supplies, according to local media, while businessmen complain shortages are a daily hazard in factories around Tehran. At least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces will have to be evacuated over the next 20 years unless the problem is addressed, according to a water official who declined to be named.

The situation may be even worse than that, says Issa Kalantari, a reform-minded agriculture minister in the 1990s. “Iran, with 7,000 years of history, will not be liveable in 20 years’ time if the rapid and exponential destruction of groundwater resources continues,” he warns, adding that the shortages pose a bigger threat to Iran than its nuclear crisis, Israel or the US.

It is important to understand that the migration of countryside people to the cities of Syria and Iran was not exclusively made up of people like the Joad family in “Grapes of Wrath”. It did not just include farmers but those tied into the agrarian economy as well– such as farm equipment vendors and their workers, shopkeepers, professionals and the like. When the farm is the hub of a wheel, the spokes will certainly be affected when it is removed.

Most dramatically, Iran has suffered the loss of major sources of water in the last few decades that were as much of a cultural landmark as they were economically critical. It would be somewhat analogous to the Rio Grande river drying up in the USA (a not far-fetched comparison in light of this article.)

On September 18, 2001, the NY Times reported that Lake Hamoun, Iran’s largest body of fresh water and one of the largest in the world, had turned into a desert. The drought was to blame but so was the geopolitical conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which controlled a major dam on the Hirmand River that fed Lake Hamoun. Despite a 30-year-old agreement that allowed some water to flow even in dry years, the Taliban cut off the supply. After the Taliban were ousted, the American-supported regime had just as little interest in cooperation with Iran for obvious reasons. As I pointed out in my review of Müşerref Yetim’s “Negotiating International Water Rights: Resource Conflict in Turkey, Syria and Iraq”, this is not uncommon:

Competition for Euphrates and Tigris water has reverberated in domestic politics, especially in Iraq and Turkey. Following the March 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, Iraq began to step up suppression of the Kurdish movement in the north. This prompted Syria to undermine Saddam Hussein by reducing the Euphrates flow. In effect, the conflicts between states in the Middle East over strategic goals almost inevitably spills over into the conflicts over water.

Lake Urmia, another key water resource, was also deeply impacted but in this instance, drought was conjoined with government mismanagement to create an environmental disaster as the Guardian reported on September 6, 2011. This time it was not an Afghan dam that was drying up a lake but the 36 dams within Iran built on rivers flowing into Lake Urmia. Since Urmia was a salt lake, the ecological impact would be catastrophic for farms surrounding it. When salt lakes go dry, the salt diffuses into the surrounding terrain and will kill crops such as almond and garlic found near Lake Urmia. It is also necessary to understand that its loss would be a major loss to the Azeri people who lived in the region. This video shows a protest held in September 2011 about the pending loss of the lake.

One other example should give you an idea of the gravity of the situation. Zayanderud is a river whose name means “life-giving waters”. In the FT article referenced above, you discover that it has flowed through Isfahan for more than 1,000 years from its source in the Zagros Mountains to the vast wetlands of Gavkhooni south of Isfahan. But the FT now described it as “a vast, gravelly beach, a dead stretch of sun-baked land that winds through the heart of Isfahan”. A man quoted in the article has the exact profile of those who were raising hell a few days ago:

“No water in this river means I had to leave my farmlands in the town of Varzaneh and work for the Isfahan municipality for 15,000 tomans [$5.6] per day,” says Afshin as he cuts weeds on the riverbed.

A loss of this river meant that about two million people who depend on agriculture have lost their income, according to Mostafa Hajjeh-Foroush, head of the agriculture committee of the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce. “If this situation continues they should think of changing jobs,” he adds.

Despite the FT’s obvious neoliberal bias, its analysis of how this came about is quite accurate. Under Ahmadinejad, profits generated through the sale of oil helped to prop up a water distribution system that was unsustainable. As a rentier state, Iran’s economy was based on handouts rather than the production of manufactured goods. Ahmadinejad targeted the farmers as a primary source of support without regard to the broader consequences for the nation. Cheap oil and subsidies made the massive use of pumps feasible just as was the case in Syria. As groundwater became more and more diverted into growing water-hungry crops like melons for the export market, the mostly urban population had to pay the piper. According to the UN, groundwater extraction nearly quadrupled between the 1970s and the year 2000 while the number of wells rose fivefold.

To give you an idea of how irrational such practices can become, the Trend News Agency reported on November 7, 2017 that Iran continues to prioritize the agri-export sector even as increased production yields fewer revenues. Last year exports increased by 15 percent but their value fell by 9 percent.

Watermelon was an exception to the norm. It registered an 18 percent and 33 percent growth in terms of volume and value respectively. This is a water-consuming commodity par excellence and as its name implies is mostly water. Some economists in Iran argue that Iran is actually exporting water in a period of drought.

As the drought and the misuse of water resources began to take its toll on society, Ahmadinejad came up with a novel excuse. In 2012, he made a speech claiming that the drought was “partly intentional, as a result of the enemy destroying the clouds moving towards our country”. Supposedly Europe was using high tech equipment to drain the clouds of raindrops. As might be expected, Global Research found this plausible. To bolster its case, the conspiracist website informed its readers:

Hollywood just released a film on Weather Modification gone mad titled, ‘Geostorm’ right after the worst hurricane season in a century. The film is about a network of satellites designed to control the global climate landscape. The plot of the film is that the satellites turns on Planet Earth with the intention to destroy everything in it by causing catastrophic weather conditions including hurricanes and earthquakes.

“Geostorm” earned a 13% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic opining that a Sharknado or two could have livened things up.

Not to be outdone by Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai-Nejad from the city of Isfahan that lost its legendary life-giving waters blamed the drought on—who else—impious women. In a sermon, he offered this version of why the lakes and rivers were running dry: “They have brought me pictures that shows women by the side of the dry Zayanderud river. These actions will ensure the upper stream of the river will become dry too. Believe me it is true. You may ask yourself why European countries with so much crime and sin have so much rainfall … God punishes the believer, for remaining silent and letting girls take pictures by the river as if they were in European countries.”

Although the Ayatollah might be dismissed as Iran’s version of the idiot living in the White House, he reflects a deep structural problem in the political system that militates against a solution to these deeply entrenched policies that are typical of the short-term mindset of rentier states. With the revenues generated by oil exports, it is likely that the elites will not pay much attention to the overall need for a sustainable economy but to seek out technical solutions, the most recent of which is the use of desalination plants.

Ahmadinejad, the conspiracy theorist, initiated something called the Caspian Project that envisioned a vast network of pipelines that pumped desalinated water to the major cities. This was met with skepticism by the nation’s water and environmental experts who warned that the infrastructure necessary for such a system would cripple fragile agricultural communities and ruin ecosystems, especially near the desalination plants. These massive operations separate the salt from the incoming water and funnel the brine byproduct back into the ocean. In so doing, it has caused irreparable damage to marine life. In effect, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are also heavy financing requirements that are just as onerous as those involved in building nuclear power plants. If Iran is in a race to build a society that has a future, it is probably a big mistake to use technologies so wedded to the past.

There is only one scholarly article that deals with these intractable problems, which fortunately can be read online. Titled “Iran’s Socio-economic Drought: Challenges of a Water-Bankrupt Nation”,  it reviews the main causes of the crisis in terms geared to a mainstream audience. The section on the role of agriculture is worth quoting in its entirety:

The agricultural sector uses up to 92 percent of Iran’s water. Due to having an oil-based economy, Iran has overlooked the economic efficiency of its agricultural sector in its modern history.10 The desire for increased agricultural productivity has encouraged an expansion of cultivated areas and infrastructure across the country. However, this sector is not yet industrialized and is suffering from outdated farming technologies and practices leading to very low efficiency in irrigation and production.

The agricultural sector in Iran is economically inefficient and its contribution to gross domestic product has decreased over time. Irrigated agriculture is the dominant practice, while the economic return on water use in this sector is significantly low, and crop patterns across the country are inappropriate and incompatible with water availability conditions in most areas. Recently, concerns about the embodied water content of produced and exported crops have increased, but business still continues as usual as interest in crop choice by farmers is mostly correlated with crop market prices and their traditional crop choices in the area.

The claimed interest in improving the living conditions of farmers is inconsistent with their relative income, which has decreased over time due to increasing water scarcity and decreasing productivity. Forced migration from rural to urban areas has been observed in some parts of the country where farming is no longer possible. However, agriculture continues to play a major role in the country, providing employment to more than 20 percent of the population. This role will remain significant as long as alternative job opportunities are unavailable in other sectors such as services and industry. The recent turmoil in Syria underscores that a loss of jobs in the agricultural sector can cause mass migration, creating national security threats and serious tensions.

While I would agree with the general analysis presented above, I would not call the protests a “national security threat”. If anything I have confidence in the ability of ordinary working people to solve the nation’s problems once they overthrow the Maserati-driving elites and their clerical allies and begin to build a society based on the common good rather than personal gain. Iran has long-standing revolutionary traditions that will acquit the country well as the state lurches unsteadily into an approaching storm that will pose very sharp class contradictions.

January 5, 2018

Trumping Democracy

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Trump — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, January 5, 2018

Available from Cinema Libre Studios, “Trumping Democracy” provides the key to understanding how we have ended up with the most unpopular president in history. Despite the tsunami of reports about Russia meddling with the 2016 elections, this gripping documentary makes the case that it was instead the result of a combination of Robert Mercer’s funding and the computer-based Psyops his Cambridge Analytica firm exploited. This one-two punch produced a president that Gary Cohn described, according to Michael Wolff’s new bombshell book, Fire and Fury, as a “An idiot surrounded by clowns.”

Including the director Thomas Huchon, “Trumping Democracy” was the product of a creative team that despite (or, perhaps because of) its French provenance has a sharper focus on our national calamity than MSNBC, CNN and all the other usual suspects. Huchon’s last documentary “Conspi Hunter” was based on a bogus conspiracy theory about the CIA inventing the AID virus in order to subvert Cuba. He released the film online in order to show how quickly and easily conspiracy theories can go viral on the Internet. Given the role of Breitbart News and Infowars in the Trump campaign, it was logical that Huchon would make his latest film a kind of follow-up to “Conspi Hunter”.

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