Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2004

A Thomas Frank book review

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:58 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 28, 2004

In today’s NY Times, Thomas Frank reviews a number of books that attempt to come to terms with the USA’s recent political evolution, especially around the question of “blue states” versus “red states.”


Frank has become a rather ubiquitous figure on the cable network news shows, holding forth on these themes. With the stunning success of his “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” he has become an expert on why people vote against their own class interests, to put it in Marxist terms.

Although Frank was once far more explicitly Marxist in his language and reasoning as editor and contributor to Baffler Magazine, he seems to have evolved in a more mainstream direction. In his exchange with Bill O’Reilly the other day, Frank referred to “we Democrats” or something like that. I guess that will get you more invites to Fox TV or CNN than referring to “we socialists.”

Frank’s review exhibits both his strengths and weaknesses. He is particularly strong as he takes apart the idiotic “The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America,” by John Sperling, Suzanne Helburn, Samuel George, John Morris and Carl Hunt. This book was promoted heavily in the newspapers with rather eye-catching graphics showing, for example, Michael Moore side-by-side with Mel Gibson. The former supposedly stood for Metro America, while the latter stood for Retro America. Frank sums up the book’s main argument as follows:

Here the goal is to blend together two of the worst big ideas of recent years — the new economy fantasy of the 1990’s and the red/blue thesis of the last few years — into a universal narrative that can simultaneously direct the electoral strategy of the Democratic Party and inform future scholarship. The essential cleavage in American life, the authors argue, is not between left and right or business class and working class; instead, it is a regional matter, a cultural divide between the states, polarized and unbridgeable. One America, to judge from the book’s illustrations, works with lovable robots and lives in ”vibrant” cities with ballet troupes, super-creative Frank Gehry buildings and quiet, tasteful religious ritual; the other relies on contemptible extraction industries (oil, gas and coal) and inhabits a world of white supremacy and monster truck shows and religious ceremonies in which beefy men in cheap clothes scream incomprehensibly at one another.

In other words, despite being written before the election, the book reinforces the stereotypes about the typical Bush voter. Liberals everywhere consoled themselves on November 3rd with the idea that the country was simply too stupid to vote for the obviously superior candidate. “The Great Divide” agrees with this self-flattering appraisal, but conjoins it with the equally stupid idea that red state voters are economically behind the curve as miners or farmers rather than web designers or financial analysts.

This week’s Village Voice has a cartoon that encapsulates this kind of elitism. You can see it at: http://www.villagevoice.com/sutton/ under the caption “Gap-Toothed, Missing Link Troglodytes Delighted by Presidential Election Outcome.” The cartoon depicts two obviously working-class men standing on an unemployment line saying things like, “Shee-yit, America shore is number one, ain’t we.”

Unfortunately, Frank seems to be operating under the mistaken impression that “class conflict…defined the [Democratic] party in the old days.”

This becomes more obvious in his look at Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown’s “Myths Of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed.” He writes:

Someone who understands the implication of this is Representative Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from the steel-producing 13th District of Ohio, and a liberal of the old school. In ”Myths of Free Trade” he describes the role that the false religion of unregulated free trade has had in reopening the class divide, and also what we might do about it. For him the word ”elite” refers not to someone who likes books, but to the industry lobbyists whose planes clogged National Airport and whose gifts inundated Capitol Hill during the debate over Nafta. Brown could easily have taken the anti-intellectual route to populism since, as he points out, virtually the entire pundit class, regardless of party, routinely supports free-trade agreements (and just as routinely depicts opponents as ”selling out the poor” or Luddites). The real battle he lays out is not between salt-of-the-earth folks and effete know-it-alls, or between tolerant Metro and screeching Retro: it is between all of us and the corporate power that today bombards labor and environment from the ideological heights of free trade.

If the real battle is between “all of us” and “corporate power,” then the question of Brown’s participation in the Democratic Party must be addressed. Like Dennis Kucinich and many other well-meaning Democrats, Brown serves merely as window-dressing. Their role in the Democratic Party is to provide a glimmer of hope that the party can once again be returned to the “focus on class conflict” that defined it in the past.

Considering the underlying structural economic changes that have caused the rightward shift of the Democratic Party, you have to consider this type of hope as utterly vain. The one thing that left-liberals like Thomas Frank fail to understand is that DLC type policies are driven by the exigencies of world capitalism rather than ideology. The ruling class in the USA opened up an attack on working people not because it had been seduced by Thomas Friedman columns but because German and Japanese big business had made inroads into its profits. Once this process began to unfold, ideologists stepped forward to rationalize it. Being determines consciousness, after all.

November 17, 2004

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on November 17, 2004

Encompassing elements of Patrick O’Brian’s first and final novels, Peter Weir’s exciting but reactionary “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” might strike one as the dialectical opposite of Herman Melville’s sea-going tales. Melville’s anti-authoritarianism and sympathy for workers and indigenous peoples is turned on its head. In Weir’s film, the sailors and the native peoples recede into the background, while the officers and their reactionary values are basked in a kind of halo. This is all the more surprising given Weir’s history as a critic of the military-imperial ethos in “Gallipoli.”

Starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, “Master and Commander” takes place mostly on the waters and islands of the Atlantic and Pacific as he pursues a much larger and better armed French warship in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars. The film begins with a surprise attack on Aubrey’s ship and concludes with his revenge. Since this period is so remote from 20th century WWII and Cold War semiotics, it by no means can serve as a facile propaganda piece for Anglo-American imperialism. Indeed, O’Brian’s “The Far Side of the World” pitted Aubrey against American warships during the war of 1812. By substituting the French for the Yankees, Weir makes the film more commercially viable although by no means more relevant to a modern audience’s thirst for easily recognizable villains. Indeed, after Aubrey’s ship is nearly blown to bits in the opening scene, he confides to his fellow officers that the French were more skillful than they were, as if discussing a football match on the following Monday morning.

In the climax of the film, Aubrey rouses his men with the cry, “Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to grow up singing the ‘Marseillaise’?” Oddly enough, this evokes the climactic scene in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” when the British monarch also leads his troops into battle against a far larger French army:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

You might recall that military historian and plagiarist Stephen Ambrose wrote a book titled “Band of Brothers” that like all his books puts forward an old-fashioned defense of martial values. Ambrose served as a consultant for Stephen Spielberg on “Saving Private Ryan.” In addition, Spielberg directed a TV movie based on “Band of Brothers.” The affinity between O’Brian, Ambrose and Spielberg should be obvious. In contrast to Melville in the 19th century, who lashed out at military injustice in “Billy Budd,” and Joseph Heller, whose “Catch 22” made WWII look like the hellish madness that it was, they seek to restore war-making to the glory it once enjoyed.

War-making of course requires blind obedience. In “Master and Commander,” the midshipman Hollum (Lee Ingleby) has lost the respect of his men, who view his youthful sensitivity as a weakness. When one of the crew jostles Hollum as he passes by him on deck, Aubrey has the man whipped in full view of the rest of the crew. Aubrey correctly observes that it is necessary to use corporal punishment as a way of maintaining discipline since the rank-and-file have little sense of Britain’s imperial calling. What brought them into battle during the reign of Henry V and the Napoleonic wars was cold cash, just as is the case in Iraq today.

A character like Hollum showed up in “Saving Private Ryan.” Corporal Upham, a translator, is not like the rest of the soldiers. He is a not a killing-machine, but a hesitant intellectual. When he is swept up in a hand-to-hand battle between a fellow soldier and a Nazi, he is reduced to a fearful puddle of tears and an object of contempt in the audience’s eyes. Clearly, he is not made of the same mettle as those who took snapshots at Abu Ghraib or who put a bullet into a helpless, wounded Iraqi insurgent.

In contrast to Aubrey, the ship’s doctor is a man of breeding and sensitivity, but far more useful in the scheme of things than the feckless Hollum. Whatever his reservations about Aubrey’s crusade, he knows how to stitch a wound (the film includes gruesome but realistic scenes of on-board surgery.) Played by Paul Bettany, Dr. Stephen Maturin is not afraid to raise criticisms of his friend and commanding officer’s relentless, Ahab-like drive to track down and destroy the French warship. Ultimately, however, it is Aubrey’s bullheadedness that prevails.

Of some interest is Maturin’s avocation for collecting plants and animals during stopovers on the remote Pacific islands, where indigenous peoples are depicted as grinning, gift-bearing bumpkins out of 1950s National Geographic magazine.

His passion appears totally intellectual in nature, but the real record of such naval officers in the rise of the British Empire was far more mercenary. Richard Drayton’s “Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World” tells the story of how science served as a handmaiden to mammon during the voyages of a notorious captain not unlike Jack Aubrey:

“The voyages of Bligh on the Bounty in 1787 and on the Providence and Assistant of 1791-3 aimed at bringing new food and economic crops to the botanic gardens of St. Vincent and Jamaica. According to Banks, this project had been planned by Pitt himself. Its particular target, breadfruit, long the object of planters’ requests and Society of Arts premiums, was meant to provide food for the slaves, supplementing plaintains and cassava, and replacing the flour which American independence now made foreign.”

Drayton explains that the British were in a race with the French over who would succeed in mass producing breadfruit. In February 1787, the British Secretary of War wrote:

“it seems past a doubt that the Rima or Breadfruit tree is arrived in the French West Indies. Indeed the cargo of South Sea & Oriental plants must be very considerable…It must therefore be acknowledged the French are beforehand with us, Monsieur Céré seems to have been the immediate active Instrument on this occasion, having I presume authority from the French government to use his discretion..”

This rivalry over slaves and the means of keeping them fed had much more to do with the naval wars depicted in O’Brian’s novels than whether children grew up singing the ‘Marseillaise.’

November 10, 2004

The Motorcycle Diaries

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 10, 2004

Although Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” has serious flaws, it is well worth seeing. It is especially recommended for those who are only familiar with Che Guevara through the mystique so well expressed by the ubiquitous t-shirts.

In January 1952, the 24 year old Che Guevara, who had just graduated medical school, mounted a beat-up Norton motorcycle with his good friend Alberto Granado, a fellow Argentine and biochemist, with the intention of traveling the length of Latin America. The journal Che kept during this trip was published in 1995 as “The Motorcycle Diaries: a Journey Around South America”. This beautifully written miniature might strike one as a leftwing version of “On the Road.” Kerouac’s wanderlust novel was an attempt to connect with ordinary people in the United States who are seen as more genuine. Che’s journal is written in the same spirit, but is deeply imbued with the social conscience that would propel him a few years later into the ranks of the Cuban revolutionary struggle. With the deep class divide of Latin America, it would have been difficult for a sensitive young man like Che to see things as Kerouac did. “On the Road” was a book in flight from the sterility of post-WWII affluence. “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a rite of passage on the way to an all-consuming political commitment that would eventually cost Che his life.

To start with the good things, Salles is a poet with a camera. In a very real sense, the main character in his film is the Latin American countryside. The pampas of Argentina, the mountains of Chile and the Incan ruins of Peru are presented in all their splendor. Salles has a filmic affinity for the open road. In my review of Salles’s first film “Central Station,” I described it as a “‘road movie’ that takes a bitter old woman and a child deep into Brazil’s countryside, and into the recesses of their own hearts. Through a series of mishaps, the two find the journey much more daunting than they first expected. They learn to rely on each other’s emotional support and street smarts.” In many ways, “The Motorcycle Diaries” is simply a continuation of the preoccupations found in Salles’s “Central Station”, with Che and Alberto Granado cast in a similar relationship.

Although “The Motorcycle Diaries” includes well-chosen excerpts from Che’s journal, they are regrettably far too brief to convey the power of his prose. Although Salles clearly understands that an audience does not go to a movie to be read to, we hope that some will be motivated to read the book. The discrepancy between word and image is most keenly felt in the scene where Che and Alberto stroll about silently in the Machu Picchu ruins of Peru. In the film, the two men seem interested in the ruins as relics, but for the historical Che, they had much more interest as a symbol of the Latin American tragedy:

“But the site which archaeologically and touristically outweighs all others in the region is Machu Picchu. In the local language this means ‘old mountain’, a name in no way connected with the place which sheltered the last survivors of a free people within its walls. Bingham, the archaeologist who discovered the ruins, thought that rather than a last refuge against the invaders, this was where the dominant Quechua race originally came from and a holy place for them. It was only later, during the Spanish Conquest, that it also became a refuge for the defeated forces. At a cursory glance, several things suggest the American archaeologist was right. In Ollantaytambo, for instance, the most important defence constructions look away from Machu Picchu, even though the slope behind is not steep enough for the defenders to feel secure against attack from there, which suggests they felt they had their backs covered in that direction. Another indication is their obvious concern to keep the site hidden from outsiders, even after all resistance had been crushed.”

It is also disappointing that Salles chose to overemphasize incidents that occurred on the trip for the sake of meeting what he must have assumed would be conventional audience expectations. For example, in one extended scene that takes place in a provincial Chilean city, Che and Alberto are literally chased out of town on their motorcycle by an angry mob of Chilean men after an inebriated Che makes a pass at one of their wives on the dance floor of the local pub. It can best be described as an art movie version of the sort of fraternity humor found in “Animal House.” In the book, they are chased out of the pub, but leave without incident the next day. The entire episode takes up two paragraphs.

Instead of devoting precious film resources on what is really an atypical moment in this trip, it would have been far more interesting to see Che and Alberto in extended conversations with the people they meet on the trip. For example, when they meet a Chilean miner and his wife on the road, few words are exchanged. Had I been the screenwriter of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” I would have chosen to amplify this moment at the expense of the pub scene even at the risk of boring those members of the audience with a short attention-span.

Finally, the movie really fails to succeed in conveying Che’s character. In the film, he comes across as a passive and diffident sideline observer. The real Che, as is obvious in his journal and in Jon Lee Anderson’s very good if politically tainted biography, is far more assertive and voluble. Throughout his entire life, Che challenged cultural and political conventions. He was brash, outspoken and even confrontational. This side of his personality is totally absent in Salles’s film. Someday a screenwriter will rise to the occasion and come up with a film play that is faithful to one of the 20th century’s great humanitarians and revolutionaries. In the meantime, Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” can be acknowledged as a modest, decent and positive contribution toward understanding that larger-than-life personality.

November 3, 2004

Letter to Nicholas Kristof

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on November 3, 2004

Dear Nicholas Kristof,

Although your op-ed piece was filed before the final tally, it was shrewd enough to implicitly anticipate Kerry’s defeat. You write:

“One of the Republican Party’s major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires. Democrats are still effective on bread-and-butter issues like health care, but they come across in much of America as arrogant and out of touch the moment the discussion shifts to values.”

In trying to explain the Democratic Party’s tin ear on such populist concerns, you draw upon Thomas Frank who also seemed to anticipate Kerry’s defeat:

“One problem is the yuppification of the Democratic Party. Thomas Frank, author of the best political book of the year, “What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” says that Democratic leaders have been so eager to win over suburban professionals that they have lost touch with blue-collar America.”

For reasons that are unfathomable to me, you offer up two of the unlikeliest RX’s for the DP’s current malaise: “Bill Clinton intuitively understood the challenge, and John Edwards seems to as well, perhaps because of their own working-class origins. But the party as a whole is mostly in denial.” I don’t think that going to McDonalds or being the son of a mill worker is exactly what is needed to turn the Democratic Party around. The first step led to nothing but heart surgery, while the second seemed to be of zero value in lining up the votes of Southerners. Perhaps if Clinton and Edwards had a record of challenging big corporations rather than feeding at their trough, their party’s reputation would be better among those people they presume to speak for.

Finally, your solution involves more frequent church attendance, a solution that would be lost on an apostate ex-Jew like me, even if I were a Democrat and had a gun:

“To appeal to middle America, Democratic leaders don’t need to carry guns to church services and shoot grizzlies on the way. But a starting point would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.”

Let’s start at the top and review your observations.

To begin with, the Democrats have not been effective on bread-and-butter issues like health care. When George Bush challenged John Kerry to provide a single instance of health care legislation during his entire Senate career, Kerry was stopped dead in his tracks. Although Bush was obviously resorting to demagogy, the sad fact is that Kerry and *all of the leading Democrats* have failed to respond to the crisis. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health care plan was a Byzantine attempt to drive the American people into HMO stockades, while Kerry’s plan was far friendlier to corporations, who would benefit from subsidies, than it was to the average citizen. Perhaps if the Democrats had adopted a Canadian style single-payer plan, it would have resonated more with those benighted red state voters. But then again, the Democratic Party depends heavily on HMO contributions, doesn’t it?

This leads us to the overarching problem. The underlying assumption of your article and Thomas Frank’s book is that the Democrats are somehow being punished by losing office. During the run-up to November 2nd, I kept hearing references to the need to punish George W. Bush. Frankly, I don’t think that returning to private life within the context of millionaire privileges is that much of a punishment. After Bill Clinton defeated Bush the elder, he seemed rather unfazed by being driven from the White House. To my way of thinking, people such as Saddam Hussein are being punished. Of course, someday our own war criminals will face justice.

If the choice is between maintaining the profits of HMO’s and winning an election, I am quite sure that the Democrats would opt for the former. Since most of them have some sort of background as corporate lawyers or entrepreneurs, their class origins and loyalties would ensure that they follow their marching orders. Of course, if a stray Democrat ever decided to march to the tune of a different drummer, they’d get taught a proper lesson as Howard Dean discovered.

All that being said, your article does not seem all that interested in figuring out ways to square the circle and make the Democratic Party more responsive to the economic needs of the working class. The idea that Democrats can win more elections by “talking about faith” seems utterly preposterous to me, if you’ll excuse me for being blunt. In the final analysis, the Republicans have not been successful because they have talked about faith, but because they have catered to the backwardness of Christian fundamentalists. This is something that has to be confronted head-on or else American society will continue to sink into medieval torpor. That will take a lot more backbone than any Democrat can muster, I’m afraid.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

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