Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 29, 2005

Today’s dissidentvoice.org has an interesting article by Mike Whitney that makes the case that the coup in Kyrgyzstan was orchestrated by the USA. Relying heavily on a secret report purportedly written by the US Ambassador to Krygyzstan Stephen M. Young (http://fairuse.1accesshost.com/news4/kabar1.html), the scenario seems identical to that which took place in Yugoslavia and elsewhere.

It should be added, however, that the report has certain formulations that make me question its authenticity. For example, it says:

“In this regard, the embassys Democratic commission, Soros Foundations, Eurasia Foundation in Bishkek in cooperation with USAID have been organizing politically active groups of voters in order to inspire riots against pro-president candidates.”

This just sounds a little bit lurid to my ears but let’s take it at face value for the time being.

Young writes:

“We have set up and opened financing for an independent printing office — the Media Support center — and AKIpress news agency to interpret impartially the course of the elections and minimize state mass media propaganda impact. We also render financial support to promising non-governmental tele- and radio companies.”

By the looks of it, the USA has gotten exactly what it wants, the assumption of power by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who Young describes as “the most acceptable candidate in the aspect of fruitful development of relations between the USA and Kyrgyzstan.”

Now, one shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this has much to do about resisting privatization–one of the main grievances against Milosevic who was painted as a Stalinist dinosaur in the West–since the fallen head of state was eminently disposed to capitalist property relations. The FT reported in May,1993:

“Mr Lloyd Bentsen, US treasury secretary, yesterday praised Kyrgyzstan for ‘a bold and courageous reform programme that should be a model for all states of the former Soviet Union’, writes George Graham in Washington. Mr Bentsen spoke after meeting Kyrgyzstan’s President Askar Akayev, who was in Washington for talks with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

“Kyrgyzstan is the first country to qualify for the IMF’s new financing facility to help the economies of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union make the leap from communism to capitalism.”

The July 2002 FT also reports that the Akayev family is no slouch when it comes to feeding at the US trough:

“Askar Akayev, the Kyrgyzstan president, has publicly admitted that a member of his family is involved in a million-dollar business at his country’s US-run airbase.

“The admission by the president, whose regime is crucial to the US’s strategic presence in the region, threatens to spark discontent and will intensify opposition calls for his resignation.

“In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Akayev conceded that his son-in-law, Adil Toigonbayev, sells jet fuel to Manas airbase, outside the capital Bishkek. Some 2,000 soldiers from eight countries – the majority from the US – have set up a hub there for flights into nearby Afghanistan.”

Speaking of these bases, one would get the impression that a “pro-Russian” politician like Akayev might have regarded the bases as a violation of national sovereignty on a par with Guantanamo in Cuba. It is useful to remember how Akayev viewed these bases. The FT reported in July, 2002:

Western forces should remain in Kyrgyzstan for “many years”, said the country’s president, Askar Akayev, in the first indication that the west’s presence in the republics of ex-Soviet central Asia may prove to be long-term.

Some 2,000 troops from eight countries – half coming from the US -have been based at Manas international airport outside the capital, Bishkek, since the beginning of the year. The airport serves as a hub for operations in Afghanistan, which is near Kyrgyzstan but does not share its border.

Paul O’Neill, the US treasury secretary, thanked Kyrgyzstan for its contribution to the war against terrorism during a visit this week and said that the base contributed to the country’s economy.

Of course, Putin himself was charitably disposed to the bases as the Daily Telegraph reported in September, 2001:

President Putin’s offer of support for the expected American air strikes against Afghanistan marks a revolution in his leadership and in Kremlin policy towards the former Soviet republics and the West.

He has never been one to defy public opinion or Russia’s truculent military top brass, at least not openly. But by blessing the deployment of US forces in Central Asia, Mr Putin has taken the most courageous decision of his 18 months in power.

Moscow has been outspoken in its sympathy for Washington in the aftermath of the suicide attacks but Mr Putin’s backing for plans to base US forces, even temporarily, in Russia’s own backyard is an extraordinary turnaround.

Less than a fortnight ago Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, one of Mr Putin’s closest associates, ruled out “even the hypothetical possibility of Nato military operations” in the former Soviet Union.

Now, however, the US will have a foothold in a region Russia regards as one of vital strategic importance.

With the example of Ukraine, Venezuela and Lebanon lingering in people’s minds, one might assume that the revolt pitted a privileged middle-class against a hated government viewed as inimical to its interests. But news reports indicate that the protesters had little to do with Kiev’s Orange Revolution yuppies. By all accounts, the revolt brewed in the largely Moslem and impoverished southern regions. Whatever differences exist between Putin and George W. Bush, who is represented as his deadliest of enemies by various leftwing voices on the Internet, they do share a common hostility to all forms of political Islam. The rhetoric used by Putin in his war in Chechnya differs little from the post 9/11 “war on terror” outlook of Washington.

In Uzbekistan, the US backed dictatorship is reported to torture Moslem prisoners shipped there by the CIA to avoid judicial oversight, while consigning its own dissidents to boiling oil as the need arises.

After China and Russia revived the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a security group including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Putin and Hu Jintao attended a summit in the Uzbek capital in June, 2004 with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president and another sworn enemy of Islamic radicalism. The meeting culminated with lucrative oil development deals with the dictator-torturer of Uzbekistan, which led the shrewd FT to comment: “Leaders such as Islam Karimov, Uzbek president, must be delighted that Mr Putin and Mr Hu are more concerned about oil and Islam than corruption or human rights.”

Meanwhile Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States Studies in Moscow, has said, “Unlike the recent events in Ukraine, there is no pro-Western or pro-Moscow side to this unrest in Kyrgyzstan.”

That might be true, but there certainly does seem to be an anti-Moslem side, a primary aspect of the New Crusades.

March 24, 2005

Solitary Fracture

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 24, 2005

Some months ago I received an invitation from Deniz Michael, a young film-maker, to watch a dvd of a movie he made called “Solitary Fracture.” Since his website (www.solitaryfracture.com) doesn’t really describe its content and since he stresses the novelty of the fact that there is only a single character in the film (Mike Peters, played by himself), I wasn’t that eager to watch it. For some reason, a film by a young man with only one character played by himself evoked student work at NYU or some other film school, where the emphasis is on being daring just for the sake of being daring.

Since I have been on vacation this week, I finally carved out some time to watch “Solitary Fracture” and am very impressed with his work. While watching it, I realized that you certainly can make an interesting work with basically one character. After all, most of “Cast Away” consists of Tom Hanks talking to himself while he struggles to survive.

With all proportions guarded, this is essentially how “Solitary Fracture” succeeds. It is the story of a young man cast adrift in capitalist America who fights his own kinds of battles to stay alive. With Tom Hanks it was the need to find water to drink and food for eat. For Mike Peters, it is the struggle to find a job and stay sane–a struggle that he eventually loses.

The film starts with Mike Peters losing his job as a stock broker and moves along inexorably into his futile search for a new job, mental breakdown and suicide. It is not a pretty tale but it is a deeply truthful one.

When Arthur Miller died last month I wrote:

As a salesman he [Willy Loman] is the critical link in the circulation of commodities. With nothing going for him except a smile and a willingness to put up with rejection, the salesman can climb his way to the top. Loman falls eventually because he is growing old and losing a step. In a climactic scene, when he discovers that his boss has no use for him any more, Willy cries out “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away…a man is not a piece of fruit.”

It is good to see that a young artist still takes themes such as this seriously. If you go to www.solitaryfracture.com, you will learn how to receive a copy of the film for next to nothing. Although it is a grim film, it is entirely captivating. It would also spark a good discussion in a college level economics or sociology class.

Good work, Deniz Michael…

March 23, 2005

Save the Green Planet

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:14 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 23, 2005

“Save the Green Planet” (Ji-gu-reul ji-kyeo-ra!) is a grand guignol comedy that evokes “Silence of the Lambs.” The kidnapping victim in this instance is a powerful Korean chemical factory owner who we first meet as he stumbles drunkenly out of his limousine in a basement garage only to encounter a young man and woman in what appears to be Halloween costumes fashioned after 1950s outer space movies and consisting of construction hard-hats with tiny rotating antennas, yellow rubber boots, silver-colored vinyl ponchos, etc.

When the startled businessman demands to know what they are up to, the young man, who is named Lee Byeong-gu (Ha-kyun Shin), announces that they are there to save the planet earth from him. Byeong-gu has convinced himself that the industrialist Kang Man-shik (Yun-shik Baek) is the leader of a conspiracy directed from the planet Andromeda to take over the earth. Only Byeong-gu and his girl-friend Sooni (Jeong-min Hwang), a homely professional tightrope walker hopelessly in love with him, have discovered the secret plan. It soon becomes clear that Sooni puts up with his delusions because she wants to placate him.

After subduing the powerfully built but still drunk businessman, the two kidnappers spirit him away to their mountain-top hideout. The first thing on the agenda is to cut off his hair since Byeong-gu has convinced himself that the space aliens can communicate to their mother-ship through their hair. Sooni’s reaction to her boyfriend’s bizarre revelations is always an open-mouthed “oh” followed by a wide smile. Desperate to retain his affections, she will believe anything he says or at least pretend that she does.

Although the film starts off on a rollicking comic note that suggests Scorcese’s “King of Comedy,” it soon becomes very dark as Byeong-gu submits the businessman through a series of “tests” to prove that he is really from outer space. They amount to the kinds of tortures used to extract confessions from witches or Jews in the middle ages.

Although your sympathies are with the kidnapping victim forced to put up with this ordeal, you still manage to empathize with Byeong-gu. We discover that his mother is in a long-term coma, the result of an industrial accident caused presumably by unsafe conditions in Kang Man-shik’s factory where she worked. His father was a coal miner who died in a cave-in. Beyong-gu is a perpetual victim himself of Korea’s cruel social and economic realities. In high school, he is stripped and beaten before his classmates after coming late to school. When he becomes a factory worker himself, he is treated to a new round of indignities until finally snapping.

Cinematically, “Save the Green Planet” is a tour de force mixing in slapstick comedy, animation, send-ups of 1950s science fiction movies and clever references to a wide variety of more recent films, including a hilarious homage to Kubrick’s “2001”.

Although you are initially convinced that the antihero is quite mad, the stunning apocalyptic conclusion of this 2003 film leaves open the possibility that sinister forces really are at work to destroy the planet. Whether they are being mounted by space aliens or by the capitalist class is left open.

“Save the Green Planet,” directed by Jun-Hwan Jeong, joins a number of other brilliant Korean films that I have seen over the past 3 years or so. It would appear that semiperipheral countries such as Korea, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey are in the forefront of film art today. With their combination of ready investment capital, the result of uneven economic development, and a cadre of politically and artistically inspired directors and screenwriters, these countries can teach Hollywood a lot.

This is especially true in light of a review of two recent books on the Hollywood film industry that appeared in the March 20, 2005 NY Times review. Tom Shone’s “Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer” and Edward Jay Epstein’s “The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood” both describe a Hollywood more interested in profits than art.

Of particular interest is Epstein’s discovery that studios “are not so much makers of movies as they are clearinghouses, collecting money from a hundred enterprises associated with any given film and then parceling it out to an army of participants and investors. Those Monday morning box-office figures we hear every week suddenly feel as phony and naïve as the Oscars.”

One can easily connect this decline with every other symptom of imperialist decline in the United States. As it progresses inexorably toward the same kind of dotage that finally met the British Empire, it would seem that the only thing that this country is good at is killing people–but only from a safe distance.

“Save the Green Planet” opens at NYC’s Film Forum on April 20.

March 22, 2005

Jared Diamond’s Collapse, part two

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 22, 2005

After completing Part 2 (“Past Societies”) of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” I am beginning to understand why his books have become best-sellers. They afford the same kind of middle-brow pleasure that you get on PBS television or the National Geographic magazine. When these outlets treat ancient civilizations, they love to feature a white expert in a pith helmet strolling around some ruins in the hinterlands. He can be seen holding up a skull or a pottery shard and musing about what made the Aztecs, etc. tick.

In fact there is a PBS press release about a series based on Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” that is still on the planning board:

“PBS and National Geographic Television & Film will bring author and scholar Jared Diamond’s sometimes controversial theories about the course of human civilization to the screen in, a new three-part television series produced exclusively for PBS. Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work offers a revealing look at the rise and fall of societies through the lens of geography, technology, biology and economics – forces symbolized by the power of guns, germs and steel.

“The production spans five continents and uses epic historical reenactments to illustrate Diamond’s theories, explaining why societies developed differently in different parts of the world – why some became conquerors and others the conquered.”

Of course, the National Geographic has been the preferred spyglass to view the exotic native for the longest time. In Catharine Lutz and Jane L. Collins’s “Reading National Geographic” one discovers that the magazine has stressed two themes since its founding in 1888: a faith in progress and a belief in social Darwinism. They also argue that the magazine “erased the colonizer” by removing images of Westerners from the photographs. Such erasure allows the Third World country to appear hermetically sealed while giving the impression that colonialism or imperialism has little to do with their downfall.

Since Diamond’s book deals mostly with the collapse of such countries and since part two (and part three, titled “Present Societies”) does not give a *single instance* of Europe acting in a predatory fashion in the Third World, one can well understand why National Geographic would be eager to produce a PBS series based on his first blockbuster, a book that by all accounts that anticipates his latest.

If “Collapse” fits neatly into PBS programming, it also resonates with another TV product that has had mass appeal in recent years. I speak of “Survivor,” which is not only obsessed with identifying “winners” and “losers” in the social Darwinian sense, but has a preference for pitting contestants against each other on remote tropical islands. In part two of “Collapse,” nearly every case study is involved with people living on such islands. What attracts Diamond to such places? It is not too hard to figure out. With islands, you can adopt a methodology that puts its emphasis on the resourcefulness of the isolated inhabitant rather than on global economic forces that brought the majority of humanity into contact with each other. In its essence, it has the same appeal as Robinson Crusoe had for neoclassical economics–it highlights the atomized economic actor. The clear implication of Diamond’s book is that the same kind of ingenuity that allowed Crusoe to create a replica of civilized English life on an isolated island is what was necessary in the past and today. He is wrong, of course.

After following Diamond through his odyssey across the Easter Islands, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, Greenland and Iceland, the main conclusion one reaches is to avoid such places no matter how clever you are.

For example, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands numbered no more than 5000 inhabitants at their peak. The Polynesians who settled there had already explored and built villages on virtually every other island in the Pacific. Pitcairn Island is only 2 ½ square miles and lacked the level ground necessary for agriculture. Henderson Island was covered mostly by limestone and had stunted forests. Diamond writes that the inhabitants survived in ways that struck him as a “mixture of ingenuous, desperate and pathetic.” Eventually soil erosion and deforestation led to civil war, hunger and eventual collapse.

It strikes me that the only lesson one can draw from such an obscure and atypical case study is that it is a mistake to live in such inhospitable conditions in the first place. Of course, there were other islands that were much more endowed with natural resources but that also collapsed. I speak of course of the Caribbean Islands that were a virtual Garden of Eden for its inhabitants. That Christopher Columbus and other such figures helped them to collapse is of not much interest to Jared Diamond, although he will take up the fate of 19th century Haiti in part three. Although I have not gotten to that chapter yet, I have a keen sense that he will get that story wrong as well.

There is one island that manages to “succeed” in Diamond’s terms. Although it does not make much sense to group it with the Easter Islands or with other extremely primitive cultures, Shogun Japan gets Diamond’s nod of approval because it did not succumb to the fate of the others under consideration.

We learn that Japan avoided deforestation by introducing “silviculture” (tree plantations) in the 1600s. Specifically:

“Those measures began already in the 1600s with Japan’s development of a detailed body of scientific knowledge about silviculture. Foresters employed both by the government and by private merchants observed, experimented, and published their findings in an outpouring of silvicultural journals and manuals, exemplified by the first of Japan’s great silvicultural treatises, the Nogyo zensho of 1697 by Miyazaki Antei. There, you will find instructions for how best to gather, extract, dry, store, and prepare seeds; how to prepare a seedbed by cleaning, fertilizing, pulverizing) and stirring it; how to soak seeds before sowing them; how to protect sown seeds by spreading straw over them; how to weed the seedbed; how to transplant and space seedlings; how to replace failed seedlings over the next four years; how to thin out the resulting saplings; and how to trim branches the growing trunk in order that it yield a log of the desired shape. As alternative to thus growing trees from seed, some tree species were grown by planting cuttings or shoots, and others by the technique known as coppicing (leaving live stumps or roots in the ground to sprout).”

Without betraying any understanding of the underlying *ecological* problem, Diamond allows that silviculture and what is commonly known as old-growth forests have nothing in common. “While the mantle superficially resembles a primeval forest, in fact most of Japan’s accessible original forests were cut by 300 years ago and became replaced with regrowth forest and plantations as tightly micromanaged as those of Germany and Tikopia [a tiny, isolated, tropical island that also replaced its original trees with cultivated ones–also to Diamond’s satisfaction.]”

It is disturbing that somebody on the board of World Wildlife Fund can regard the replacement of original forests with tree plantations as a success. Is he not aware that the Pacific Northwest and the Amazon and Borneo rainforests are all being chopped down right now and replaced with plantation trees, if at all? However, with the disappearance of the original trees, you get the disappearance of the animals who nest in them or who rely on them for food. This also threatens the extinction of herbs that have medicinal values. The loss of old-growth forests ultimately undermines the survival of all humanity, even if it is of immediate economic benefit in supplying plywood for suburban housing, etc.

Apparently Diamond has no problem serving on the same board with two top Morgan Chase executives, a company deeply implicated in wasteful exploitation of old-growth forests. This is a bank that has provided critical financing for Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), an outfit responsible for destroying a large area of Indonesia’s rainforest. According to the Rainforest Action Network, another Morgan Chase client BlueLinx, (America’s largest building products distributor) “is smuggling legally disputed, undocumented timber out of Indonesia’s critically endangered rainforests and flooding the U.S. marketplace with artificially cheap lauan plywood.”

Well, if they run out of indigenous trees, I suppose that they can replace them with fast-growing pine or something else like that. Not much for an orangutan there, but maybe they can be sent off to zoos for their own protection.

Thrown in with the mostly hapless islands in part two of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” are the Mayans and Anasazis who inhabited the Yucatan peninsula and the territory that became New Mexico respectively. These peoples have figured heavily in debates about the “ecological Indian” and are dragged in to demonstrate that indigenous peoples squandered natural resources just as wantonly as the multinational corporations operating in Indonesia today.

Perhaps the most outrageous exponent of this point of view is Shepherd Krech, a Brown professor who wrote “The Ecological Indian: Myth and History” to show that indigenous people were fond of driving bison off of cliffs, hunting saber-tooth tigers to extinction, etc.

Diamond showed his sympathy for this trend with the publication of “The Third Chimpanzee” in 1993. This exercise in sociobiology (an updated version of the 19th century social Darwinism) includes a chapter titled “The Golden Age That Never Was” containing the same sorts of observations found in Krech’s work. Diamond has many other interesting things to say about any number of subjects. He argues that since animals have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the May 22, 1991 Independent that this lesson must have been lost on Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol and other homosexual artists. Diamond also believes that sexual jealousy is an important cause of war: ”It was the seduction (abduction, rape) by Paris of Menelaus’s wife Helen that provoked the Trojan War”. In light of the fact that the Iliad also claims that gods and goddesses took part in the fighting, Wilkie wonders how reliable a guide to history it is.

For Diamond, the yardstick to measure Mayan and Anasazi failure is basically the same as that for Japanese success: the extent of deforestation. Referring to the ancient Mayan city Copan, whose ruins are in present-day Honduras, he writes:

“By the year A.D. 650, people started to occupy the hill slopes, but those hill sites were cultivated only for about a century. The percentage of Copan’s total population that was in the hills, rather than in the valleys, reached a maximum of 41%, then declined until the population again became concentrated in the valley pockets. What caused that pullback of population from the hills? Excavation of the foundations of buildings in the valley floor showed that they became covered with sediment during the 8th century, meaning that the hill slopes were getting eroded and probably also leached of nutrients. Those acidic infertile hill soils were being carried down into the valley and blanketing the more fertile valley soils, where they would have reduced agricultural yields. This ancient quick abandonment of hillsides coincides with modern Maya experience that fields in the hills have low fertility and that their soils become rapidly exhausted.

“The reason for that erosion of the hillsides is clear: the forests that formerly covered them and protected their soils were being cut down. Dated pollen samples show that the pine forests originally covering the upper elevations of the hill slopes were eventually all cleared. Calculation suggests that most of those felled pine trees were being burned for fuel, while the rest were used for construction or for making plaster.”

In other words, deforestation was as big a problem in 7th century Honduras as it is in the 21st century when multinational corporations are stripping the forests for timber exports to the industrialized countries.

Missing entirely from Diamond’s discussion is any consideration of what *drove* the stripping of pine trees. We know that in the 21st century that it is the profit drive that explains such activity. Multinationals come to places like Honduras because they know that the government will help them throw peasants off the land and guarantee low taxes and a non-union environment. But in static, feudal 7th century Mayan, what is the source of such super-exploitation of natural resources? The answer is population growth:

“During that time the human population was growing, but there was not yet occupation of the hills. Hence that increased population must have been accommodated by intensifying production in the bottomland pockets by some combination of shorter fallow periods, double-cropping, and possibly some irrigation.”

Just to drive the point home, Diamond writes that the problem was one of “population growth outstripping available resources: a dilemma similar to the one foreseen by Thomas Malthus in 1798 and being played out today in Rwanda (Chapter 10), Haiti (Chapter 11), and elsewhere.” He quotes archaeologist David Webster: “Too many farmers grew too many crops on too much of the landscape.”

To begin with in replying to Diamond, it should be understood that Mayan collapse has to be put into some kind of historical context. Even those who agree with Diamond’s skewed analysis have to concede that the collapse was preceded by ten centuries of economic and social viability, marked as it was by feudal oppression. As Mayan scholar Robert Sharer wrote me a couple of weeks ago, every society might strive for such longevity regardless of the ultimate outcome. By contrast, the USA has been existence for less than 250 years but it is already threatening to destroy itself and the rest of the planet.

To start with, the Mayan territory was inimical to agriculture. It is a testimony to their ingenuity that they made it so productive for one thousand years. While Sharer believes that it was based on slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation, scholars adduced by Diamond claim that Mayan population density could have only been allowed through more advanced–and more risky–technology including irrigation and hill slope terracing. Of course, it is highly speculative to estimate population density from over one thousand years ago, but taking Diamond at face value, there is still no question that the underlying soil fertility was poor at best.

Although Mayan society had endured drought over its thousand year history, there is evidence that the most severe drought coincides with the collapse. Although Diamond acknowledges that such droughts occurred, he thinks that they were only critical insofar as they coincided with “too many people” in a confined space.

What is missing from Diamond’s analysis, however, is the *cause* of drought. One would think that an environmentalist would want to address this question. To discover the answer, you have to turn elsewhere. In particular, the work of anthropologist Brian Fagan is most instructive. In a series of books on ancient societies, he focuses on the role of El Niño-Southern California (ENSO) events in their collapse.

In his latest, titled “The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization,” Fagan points to the research done by climatologist David Hodell. By examining titanium traces in the waters off of Venezuela (a very precise way to measure droughts), Hodell concluded that a major ENSO event coincided with Mayan collapse. Archaeologist Dick Gill studied Swedish tree rings and came to similar conclusions.

Studying the evidence of Mayan ruins from this period, archaeologist Peter Harrison discovered evidence of cannibalism–a sure sign of a society driven to desperation. Another group of indigenous peoples, the Anasazi, whose social structures were similar to the Mayans, have also been connected to cannibalism. In their case, the findings have taken on a sensational aspect, especially when they are divorced from the climatological and economic circumstances that may explain them. In other words, cannibalism is not seen in the same terms as what happened to the Donner party, but rather as an expression of what Diamond termed “The Golden Age That Never Was.”

The scholar most identified with this topic is Christy Turner II whose study “Man Corn” tries to explain Anasazi cannibalism as an early form of totalitarian control:

“Terrorizing, mutilating, and murdering might be evolutionarily useful behaviors when directed against unrelated competitors. And what better way to amplify opponents’ fear than to reduce victims to the subhuman level of cooked meat, especially when they include infants and children from whom no power or prestige could be derived but whose consumption would surely further terrorize, demean, and insult their helpless parents or community? … The benefits would be threefold: community control, control of reproductive behavior (that is, dominating access to women), and food. From the standpoint of sociobiology, then, cannibalism could well represent useful behavior done by well-adjusted, normal adults acting out their ultimate, evolutionarily channelled behavior. On the other hand, one can easily look upon violence and cannibalism as socially pathological.”

Once again we find sociobiology trumping more useful forms of analysis based on objective economic factors. If you reduce humanity to being a “Third Chimpanzee” or “Naked Ape,” naturally you will look for genetic dispositions to violence and subjugation instead of extreme distress brought on by climate or other socio-economic factors.

At least Diamond does not resort to such essentialist nonsense when trying to understand Anasazi collapse. Once again the main culprit is deforestation and unwise farming practices, but exacerbated by a drought that just seems to come and go with the seasons.

Once again you have to turn to Brian Fagan for a more satisfactory explanation of why such a devastating drought occurred. He states that the same ENSO events that struck the Yucatan peninsula also struck the American southwest. When crops failed and water disappeared, cannibalism did occur–although the exact extent is difficult to establish.

For the environmentalist, El Niño is obviously an important factor, especially with the rise of global warming. Although it is impossible to quantify exactly the effect of global warming on the frequency and intensity of El Niños, it seems fairly clear that they are becoming stronger and more common. The January 20, 1996 New Scientist reports:

“El Niño, ‘the little boy’, has just thrown his longest recorded tantrum, and is probably gearing up to throw even longer ones, according to two American climatologists. They have also produced the strongest indication yet that human interference in the global climate is to blame.

“El Nino events, characterised by a warming in the eastern tropical Pacific, are driven by a combination of waning trade winds and a reversal of surface ocean currents. They produce violent storms in the eastern Pacific, and can even cause severe drought in East Africa.

“The latest El Nino, which ended in June 1995, lasted for five years, making it the longest over the past century. Kevin Trenberth and Timothy Hoar of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, suggest that it is the longest in about 2000 years.”

Since modern science has conclusively demonstrated a link between greenhouse gases and global warming, one might think that Jared Diamond would be particularly vigilant about energy companies, the number one malefactor. However, in an interview with Salon Magazine (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2005/01/08/jared_diamond/index1.html), Diamond practically falls over himself praising Chevron for its environmental sensitivity. This is earned by their supposed commitment to avoiding spills, etc. What Diamond does not seem to grasp is how the problem of global warming is tied up intrinsically with the nature of industrial capitalism. In this sense, he is in much more of a state of denial than any high priest of the Mayan period. If one is grounded in modern science and can understand that severe climate change might be a function of CO2 emissions rather than the wrath of the gods, then one has an obligation to take a clear stand against the capitalist system. That is something that Diamond is unwilling to do and the political reasons for this will become clearer as my critique of “Collapse” progresses.

March 14, 2005

Carl Davidson, continued

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:14 pm

Carl Davidson writes:
Louis, you sort of slide over the main point. Of course the Trotskyists ‘supported’ the defeat of Germany, et al. I’m not claiming they didn’t. There’s no ‘bald-faced lie’ here. But they also supported the defeat at the same time of the bourgeoisie in every country, the defeat of all imperialists in the inter-imperialist war, including ours. You couch this in terms of ‘revolutionary mobilization to do the job.’ I’m not quite sure quite what this is supposed to mean, since the Civil War analogy doesn’t really hold, but it usually meant, in the language of the time, something like ‘overthrow the bosses government, install a workers and farmers government,’ and then conduct the war of a difference class basis from there.

The only defeat that Trotskyists ever urged with respect to Roosevelt was at the hands of the American working class, not the Wehrmacht. I must say that you are rather adept at characterizing the position of the SWP even if falsely. But you must learn to cite what the SWP actually *said*. Your analysis of the Trotskyist position on WWII is utterly bereft of any direct citations. Instead of foggy declarations about “the language of the time,” you would be well-advised to read what Trotsky or other people wrote. This is especially important in light of the fact that your attack on Trotskyism was simultaneously a defense of Stalin. You even put the words “Stalin’s crimes” in quotes, a sign of the Stalin worship that the Progressive Labor Party infected SDS with and that people like you and Bob Avakian eventually succumbed to. I guess your intention was to show Peking that you were even more anxious to turn back the clock to the mid-1930s than your rivals in PLP.

Rather than putting words into our mouths, you might want to consult what the Trotskyists were actually saying. As should be obvious from what I have been writing on the Internet for the past 13 years or so, I am a critic of the organizational model of the Fourth International. Despite that, I remain sympathetic to what Trotsky wrote about fascism, Stalinism, etc. Here’s what Ernest Mandel has to say about WWII. Mandel, in my opinion, was the deepest thinker that this movement produced in the post-WWII period:

Or movement was inoculated against nationalism in imperialist countries, against the idea of supporting imperialist war efforts in any form whatsoever. That was a good education, and I do not propose to revise that tradition. But what it left out of account were elements of the much more complex Leninist position in the First World War. It is simply not true that Lenin’s position then can be reduced to the formula: “This is a reactionary imperialist war. We have nothing to do with it.” Lenin’s position was much more sophisticated. He said: “There are at least two wars, and we want to introduce a third one.” (The third one was the proletarian civil war against the bourgeoisie which in actual fact came out of the war in Russia.)

Lenin fought a determined struggle against sectarian currents inside the internationalist tendency who did not recognise the distinction between these two wars. He pointed out: “There is an inter-imperialist war. With that war we have nothing to do. But there are also wars of national uprising by oppressed nationalities. The Irish uprising is 100 per cent justified. Even if German imperialism tries to profit from it, even if leaders of the national movement link up with German submarines, this does not change the just nature of the Irish war of independence against British imperialism. The same thing is true for the national movement in the colonies and the semi-colonies, the Indian movement, the Turkish movement, the Persian movement.” And he added: “The same thing is true for the oppressed nationalities in Russia and Austro-Hungary. The Polish national movement is a just movement, the Czech national movement is a just movement. A movement by any oppressed nationality against the imperialist oppressor is a just movement. And the fact that the leadership of these movements could betray by linking these movements politically and organizationally to imperialism is a reason to denounce these leaders, not a reason to condemn these movements.”

Now if we look at the problem of World War II from that more dialectical, more correct Leninist point of view, we have to say that it was a very complicated business indeed. I would say, at the risk of putting it a bit too strongly, that the Second World War was in reality a combination of five different wars. That may seem an outrageous proposition at first sight, but I think closer examination will bear it out.

First, there was an inter-imperialist war, a war between the Nazi, Italian, and Japanese imperialists on the one hand, and the Anglo-American-French imperialists on the other hand. That was a reactionary war, a war between different groups of imperialist powers. We had nothing to do with that war, we were totally against it.

Second, there was a just war of self-defence by the people of China, an oppressed semi-colonial country, against Japanese imperialism. At no moment was Chiang Kai-shek’s alliance with American imperialism a justification for any revolutionary to change their judgement on the nature of the Chinese war. It was a war of national liberation against a robber gang, the Japanese imperialists, who wanted to enslave the Chinese people. Trotsky was absolutely clear and unambiguous on this. That war of independence started before the Second World War, in 1937; in a certain sense, it started in 1931 with the Japanese Manchurian adventure. It became intertwined with the Second World War, but it remained a separate and autonomous ingredient of it.

Third, there was a just war of national defence of the Soviet Union, a workers state, against an imperialist power. The fact that the Soviet leadership allied itself not only in a military way – which was absolutely justified – but also politically with the Western imperialists in no way changed the just nature of that war. The war of the Soviet workers and peasants, of the Soviet peoples and the Soviet state, to defend the Soviet Union against German imperialism was a just war from any Marxist-Leninist point of view. In that war we were 100 per cent for the victory of one camp, without any reservations or question marks. We were for absolute victory of the Soviet people against the murderous robbers of German imperialism.

Fourth, there was a just war of national liberation of the oppressed colonial peoples of Africa and Asia (in Latin America there was no such war), launched by the masses against British and French imperialism, sometimes against Japanese imperialism, and sometimes against both in succession, one after the other. Again, these were absolutely justified wars of national liberation, regardless of the particular character of the imperialist power. We were just as much for the victory of the Indian people’s uprising against British imperialism, and the small beginnings of the uprising in Ceylon, as we were in favour of the victory of the Burmese, Indochinese, and Indonesian guerrillas against Japanese, French, and Dutch imperialism successively. In the Philippines the situation was even more complex. I do not want to go into all the details, but the basic point is that all these wars of national liberation were just wars, regardless of the nature of their political leadership. You do not have to place any political confidence in or give any political support to the leaders of a particular struggle in order to recognise the justness of that struggle. When a strike is led by treacherous trade union bureaucrats you do not put any trust in them – but nor do you stop supporting the strike.

Now I come to the fifth war, which is the most complex. I would not say that it was going on in the whole of Europe occupied by Nazi imperialism, but more especially in two countries, Yugoslavia and Greece, to a great extent in Poland, and incipiently in France and Italy. That was a war of liberation by the oppressed workers, peasants, and urban petty bourgeoisie against the German Nazi imperialists and their stooges. To deny the autonomous nature of that war means saying in reality that the workers and peasants of Western Europe had no right to fight against those who were enslaving them at that moment unless their minds were set clearly against bringing in other enslavers in place of the existing ones. That is an unacceptable position.

It is true that if the leadership of that mass resistance remained in the hands of bourgeois nationalists, of Stalinists or social democrats, it could eventually be sold out to the Western imperialists. It was the duty of the revolutionaries to prevent this from happening by trying to oust these fakers from the leadership of the movement. But it was impossible to prevent such a betrayal by abstaining from participating in that movement.

What lay behind that fifth war? It was the inhuman conditions which existed in the occupied countries. How can anyone doubt that? How can anyone tell us that the real reason for the uprising was some ideological framework – such as the chauvinism of the French people or of the CP leadership? Such an explanation is nonsense. People did not fight because they were chauvinists. People were fighting because they were hungry, because they were over-exploited, because there were mass deportations of slave labour to Germany, because there was mass slaughter, because there were concentration camps, because there was no right to strike, because unions were banned, because communists, socialists and trade unionists were being put in prison.

That’s why people were rising, and not because they were chauvinists. They were often chauvinists too, but that was not the main reason. The main reason was their inhuman material living conditions, their social, political, and national oppression, which was so intolerable that it pushed millions onto the road of struggle. And you have to answer the question: was it a just struggle, or was it wrong to rise against this over-exploitation and oppression? Who can seriously argue that the working class of Western or Eastern Europe should have abstained or remained passive towards the horrors of Nazi oppression and Nazi occupation? That position is indefensible.

So the only correct position was to say that there was a fifth war which was also an autonomous aspect of what was going on between 1939 and 1945. The correct revolutionary Marxist position (I say this with a certain apologetic tendency, because it was the one defended from the beginning by the Belgian Trotskyists against what I would call both the right wing and the ultra-left wing of the European Trotskyist movement at that time) should have been as follows: to support fully all mass struggles and uprisings, whether armed or unarmed, against Nazi imperialism in occupied Europe, in order to fight to transform them into a victorious socialist revolution – that is, to fight to oust from the leadership of the struggles those who were linking them up with the Western imperialists, and who wanted in reality to maintain capitalism at the end of the war, as in fact happened.

full: http://www.geocities.com/youth4sa/mandel-ww2.html

Carl Davidson continues:
Anything like that was never in the cards in the US in that period, and you should know it a well as anyone. The closest to it was Randolph’s threatened ‘Double V’ march–victory against fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home. Only Randolph was calling for the victory of the US bourgeoise in Europe and Asia, correctly arguing that intergrating the Army and opposing segregation everywhere would strengthen the position of the US, especially in the colonial world, where the allies where up against the Japanese call for ‘a united front of the darker races under the leadership of Japan.’ Opposing Randolph, along with supporting the no strike pledge, the goverment crackdown on the SWP, and and the incarceration of the Japanese in camps, are to the everlasting shame of the CPUSA and all came back to haunt them, all point I believe I made in my 1970s writings, if not in this pamphlet, then in others. Harry Haywood certainly made it in his book, ‘Black Bolshevik.’

I have no idea what points you made in your 1970s writings and lack the patience or the free time to review them. All I know is that somebody who puts the words “Stalin’s crimes” in scare quotes needs to rethink the merit of standing on such writings. They are about as solid as a 3 dollar suitcase.

Carl Davidson continues:
I know SWP members took part in the US military, and never claimed they didn’t; they also submitted to the draft in the Vietnam war. Their line was always to carry out your duties as a soldier as best as you could to avoid a courts-martial and to continue doing SWP revolutionary propaganda work among the GIs. In the case of the Fort Hood 3 in the 1960, this had a positive impact. But I still stand by our SDS line of opposition to the draft as well as working in the Army.

I wasn’t aware that SDS worked in the army. I thought you guys were focused on developing a counter-culture.

Carl Davidson continues:
As for Kerry, I never endorsed him or even called him an antiwar candidate. I said he represented another faction of imperialism. I did urge people to register to vote, organized them to do so in large numbers, and to vote to defeat Bush. We left it up to them to decide whether to vote Kerry, Nader or Cobb, knowing, of course, that almost all would vote for Kerry and only a handful for any third party option that might be there. But we brought them to the polls nonetheless. In the process, we build our own organizations that belong to us, not the Democrats. If you can’t tell the difference between that and a reform Democrat line prettifying or kissing Kerry’s butt, then that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?

In his autobiography, CP leader Steve Nelson explained how Browder perfected the tactic now being employed by people such as you and Ted Glick:

“The fact that the Party [CP] continued to run its own candidates during the early New Deal may give the wrong impression of our attitude toward the Democratic Party. We supported pro-New Deal candidates and ran our own people largely for propaganda purposes….

“Earl Browder’s campaign that same year [1936] demonstrates how we ran our own candidates but still supported the New Deal. His motto and the whole tone of his campaign was ‘Defeat Landon [the Republican] at All Costs.’ In this way he sought to give critical support to FDR. We wanted to work with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and to achieve a certain amount of legitimacy as a party of the Left. We held a rally for Browder in the Wilkes-Barre [Pennsylvania] armory, which held over three thousand people, and the place was jammed. Many in the audience were rank and file Democrats. We didn’t get their votes on election day, but that’s not what counted to us. They were coming to recognize us as friends.”

Carl Davidson continues:
As for Gus Hall and the ‘peoples party,’ goodness, that’s a blast from the past. He used it as a ‘left’ cover to continue the main effort of working to reform the Democrats. I don’t care what name the replacement for the Democratic party has, but I’m working to build something new from the ground up, a broad nonpartisan alliance to defeat the right. So far, at least here in Chicago, we’re actually making some progress.

As for not having the same views I had in the 1960-70s, I can only quote Muhhamed Ali to the effect that ‘anyone who thinks the same at 50 as they did at 20 has wasted 30 years of their life.’

In your case, the pattern seems to be the classic transformation of an ultraleftist into a reformist.

Reply to Carl Davidson on WWII

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:01 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 14, 2005

(Carl Davidson was a leader of the new left in the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with other SDS’ers and Guardian newspaper figures–he was associated with both–Davidson discovered “Marxism-Leninism” in the mid 1970s, which meant Maoist ultraleftist party-building experiments of the sort described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air.” For the Maoists, a large part of the CPUSA traditions remained valid, especially those that figured heavily during the period when Stalin was dictating policies. This meant accepting the party line on WWII, which tended to blur class distinctions between trade unions and the black community on one side and the American ruling class on the other. Supposedly the war was being fought to defend democracy rather than Anglo-American imperialist interests. Davidson defends this perspective in a comment on “Unrepentant Marxist,” a blog I maintain that consists exclusively of longer posts made originally on Marxmail. He also defends backing John Kerry in the last election. Davidson nowadays is affiliated with the Committees of Correspondence, a group that I belonged to briefly until I discovered how committed they were to working in the DP. My reply to Davidson follows his comments, which appear under my original blog entry titled “Left in form, right in essence,” a reference to a pamphlet written by Davidson in his Maoist phase. It can be read at: http://unrepentant.blogspot.com/2004_09_01_unrepentant_archive.html.)

Carl Davidson:
I just now came across these comments you made a while back. While there are surely a number of things in that old pamphlet I would put differently today, Louis, I’m curious about what you find so offensive as to call that particular quote a ‘disgusting smear.’

Didn’t the Trotskyists take a ‘revolutionary defeatist’ line toward the US government in WW2?

Didn’t they oppose the Allied offensive against Hitler, when it finally came, by calling for the revolutionary defeat of both sides, which had no basis in any real revolutionary leadership on the ground, especially in fascist Germany?

Didn’t they also call for the political overthrow of the CPSU in the Soviet Union during WW2?

Didn’t they also oppose Mao’s effort to work with those elements of the Chinese bourgeoisie, mainly in the KMT, who were also willing to fight Japan in WW2?

If any of this isn’t true historically, I’m willing to be corrected. I wouldn’t call WW2 a ‘peoples war.’ To a certain extent it was, but it was much more complex than that. It was at least four wars at once: an anti-colonial war by China and others against fascist Japan, Italy and Germany; a war of self-defense by the USSR against fascist Germany; an inter-imperialist war between the bourgeois democratic bloc and the fascist bloc of great powers; and a popular resistance to the fascists in the countries occupied by them.

But I’m very clear on which side was basically a just cause and which was unjust, which I would have wanted to see defeated and which side do the the defeating, which army I would have joined and which I would have opposed.

All these forces together made up the ‘united and popular front against fascism,’ with all its strengths and weaknesses that, when all is said and done, brought about the demise of the Third Reich and it allies. And the fact remains that the Trotskyists of the time opposes this particular united front with another supposedly more revolutionary version that existed only in their revolutionary imagination and pamphlets.

Would you have tried to mount mass antiwar protests against the D-Day Invasion of Normandy at the time? That’s what ‘revolutionary defeatism’ would mean in practice in WW2, wouldn’t it?

I know these are uncomfortable questions for those who want to defend every major policy of Trotskyism, since the idea that it was right for all countries to be ‘defencist’ against fascism and to join together to crush Hitler is now nearly hegemonic across the board.

But just because a situation is uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean you call and apparant statement of the facts a ‘digusting smear’ and just leave it at that, does it?

I should also say that I wouldn’t use any of this to attack Nader-Camejo. I supported their right to run and told those clamoring for them to get off the ballot to lighten up, because whatever differences we had in this election, the Nader-Camejo forces and other Greens are our longer term allies.

But I also read Camejo’s ‘Avocado Statement.’ It basically calls for aiming the main blow at the Democratic Party these days, since the Dems are the main ‘social prop’ of the Republicans, and if that means the GOP and the right get stronger, so be it. We’ll deal with them later, after we clean up the debris. I think that piece of it is a bit ultraleft, don’t you?

Perhaps you think it’s just fine. But my diagreement with Camejo is over tactics, not objectives. I don’t think the Dems can be reformed. I want a breakup of the Dems too, and replaced with a people’s party. But I want to find a way to do it that strengthens the progressive forces and not the far right. But that’s another discussion…

Carl Davidson, Chicago


Just to recapitulate, this is the quote from Davidson that I found disgusting:

“The Trotskyists believe they are the only authentic practitioners of the policy of the united front. Yet in practice, they have opposed full implementation, either from rightist or ‘leftist’ positions. The most apparent example of this role was the Trotskyist attitude toward World War 2, in which they took a ‘defeatist’ position towards the capitalist governments fighting the fascists, called for the ‘revolutionary’ overthrow of the Soviet government and opposed the united front with the national bourgeoisie in the colonial countries invaded by the fascists. The fact that the Trotskyist line led them inevitably to these positions substantiated the charge that they objectively served the interests of the fascists.”

Carl, this is just a bald-faced lie. The Trotskyists *supported* the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. They argued–quite rightly–that the imperialists would not fight resolutely and that it would require a revolutionary mobilization to do the job. Their position was analogous to Radical Republicans during the Civil War who were sharply critical of any temporizing by Lincoln and big business interests, but fought in the union army to crush the confederacy.

SWP members served in the military or in the merchant marines. One of them, Sol Dollinger, was a friend of mine and a subscriber to Marxmail until his death. His wife Genora Johnson Dollinger was a leader of the Flint auto workers woman’s auxiliary during the sit-down strikes. Sol was on a boat that was torpedoed on the way to Murmansk. He spent 6 months in a Soviet hospital recovering from his wounds.

Sol, like all other SWP members, talked politics with their fellow soldiers or sailors. They stressed the imperialist nature of the war, especially in the Pacific, but never sought to undermine the war effort. In other words, they behaved in exactly the opposite manner as SWP members who were drafted in the 1960s and 70s. Those SWP members sought to emulate the spirit of *resistance* that manifested itself in the “Bring Us Home” movement immediately after WWII, when troops stationed in the far east protested moves to involve them in the war against Mao’s Red Army.

With respect to the ostensible examples you offer of SWP “defeatism”, they are both unduly hypothetical and ridiculous. You write, “Would you have tried to mount mass antiwar protests against the D-Day Invasion of Normandy at the time? That’s what ‘revolutionary defeatism’ would mean in practice in WW2, wouldn’t it?”

Actually, the SWP would never have organized such a protest but it surely did support A. Philip Randolph’s proposed March on Washington, which demanded equal rights for African-Americans. It also opposed the No Strike Pledge forced upon the trade union movement by the CPUSA. The SWP believed that a war against fascism abroad should not encourage the “democratic” ruling class at home to exploit working people above and beyond what takes place normally.

Finally, on the question of the Democratic Party. You assert that you are in favor of a “people’s party.” Carl, you should realize that Gus Hall always favored the construction of a “people’s party,” even when the CPUSA backed LBJ to the hilt. This kind of lip service is essential to maintaining some kind of credibility in the radical movement. It is understandable that somebody who had spent a lifetime taking marching orders from the Kremlin would develop a finely honed ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth. It is singularly depressing, however, to see a 1960s fire-breathing radical like yourself end up in the same position today as the Gus Hall of the 1960s. When you use Marxist jargon to back a slug like John Kerry, you deserve to get nailed on the Internet along with Ted Glick and other opponents of independent political action.

You and other apologists for John Kerry led the radical movement into a *defeat*. It would be better for you to come to terms with your own failure rather than to scold people like Peter Camejo or myself. If the 1960s was about anything, it was about the need to build a radical movement from the bottom up. In order to do so, we need honesty and principles of the kind that marked the left before it became tainted with Stalinism. Our exemplar should be Eugene V. Debs rather than Gus Hall. Remember what Debs said: “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”

March 11, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:57 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 11, 2005

After Mustafa, aka “Schizo,” is expelled from his Kazakhstan high school for fighting, his mother takes him to the local doctor who decides that the fifteen year old is suffering from “deviations” and prescribes unidentified medication that the boy takes in his characteristically affectless manner.

Director Guka Omarova is from Kazakhstan herself as is most of the nonprofessional cast, including Olzhas Nussuppaev who plays Schizo. Nussuppaev was discovered in a local orphanage. Despite his humble circumstances, he is the great-grandchild of a famous Kazakh writer jailed by Stalin in 1937.

Filmed on location in this newly “liberated” Soviet republic, it is an unstinting view of poverty and degradation. Since the former Soviet Union has adopted many of the characteristics of a Third World country, it is no surprise that a young director like Omarova would draw upon neorealist traditions to depict the struggle of young Schizo to stay afloat economically and spiritually. With its laconic style, deadpan humor and unconcealed hatred for class injustice, it will also remind you of the work of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki.

Schizo has a job with his mom’s boyfriend recruiting barefisted fighters for illegal bouts run by local gangsters. Most of them are drawn from the ranks of unemployed coal miners who shape up each morning outside an abandoned pit. After one of them receives a terrible beating and lies dying on the locker room floor, he calls Schizo to his side and with his last breath directs him to bring the earnings to his girlfriend Zina (Olga Landina, a professional actor) and their young son Sanzhik (played by Kanagat Nurtay, also from a local orphanage).

Although he remains inexpressive, Schizo begins to fall in love with the widow who eventually returns her love. In the hovel she calls home, the two seek happiness with very low expectations about their future. She daydreams about moving to China where “there’s lots of money.” He lives for the moment, recruiting new fighters for the illegal game, including his uncle Jaken (Bakhytbek Baymukhanbetov.)

Jaken is a true product of the new Kazakhstan, making a living stealing electrical cable and drinking vodka at all times of the day. When Schizo observes Jaken and his partners stripping cable from nearby towers, he asks whether they risk electrocution. Not to worry, his uncle reassures him, there hasn’t been power in the area for many months. Although Jaken is getting old and has been weakened by chronic alcoholism, Schizo thinks that he has a good shot at winning the gangster chieftain’s Mercedes-Benz as a top prize. When Jaken was younger, he once fought off a dozen cops.

Although Jaken’s opponent outweighs him by at least fifty pounds and begins the match by throwing him about the ring, Jaken’s kickboxing skills finally prevail. Jaken and Schizo sell the gangster’s car immediately and Schizo returns to Zina with his share of the earnings. Eventually, the gangsters demand the return of the prize money even if it has been won fairly. The film’s climax revolves around Schizo’s struggle to hold on to the money.

In a very real sense, the Kazakh landscape functions as a major character in the film. Although desolate and foreboding, it has an otherworldly beauty that serves to accentuate the desperate struggle of the main characters to survive. Filmed on location near Lake Kapchagay, which is only 60 kilometers from Alma-Alta, one gets the sense of a natural terrain that has lost its ability to sustain life. One also gets the sense that the main characters will struggle on despite having that knowledge themselves. Ironically, Alma-Alta was where Leon Trotsky lived in internal exile in 1928. Stalin must have decided–quite accurately from the feeling conveyed by the film–that Alma-Alta was beyond the pale.

In the production notes for “Schizo,” director Omarova explains how she got the idea for the film:

“A few years ago in a cafe in Almaty [Alma-Alta] I happened upon a man seriously beaten up by life. He asked for permission to sit at my table. I was going to leave, so I nodded. On his tray he had a cup of tea, some sandwiches and a bottle of vodka. He asked me in Kazakh if I wanted to drink some vodka with him. I didn’t want to, so I got up to leave. All of a sudden he got in a bustle, drank the first shot and began to tell his life story. He said that he was a boxer who took part in illegal fights. He didn’t look like an operator. Swollen knuckles and mangled nose modestly completed his quite homely appearance. He was 23 year old. There was despair and exhaustion in his eyes. He told me that he was from the south where the cool Kazakh guys live. They were always flush and knew how to come out clean. But he was a different case. His mother and sisters stayed back in his village. It was the beginning of the 90’s and in Kazakhstan there was no work… absolutely none. Actually, there was the newly gained Independence, which to begin with was no small thing. But people like him, the millions, they needed work. And they were leaving for the big cities to find work. He looked in my eyes and I felt guilty. I hadn’t known anything about them, but at that moment I understood one thing… they never move back home. That’s how the story about boxing was born.”

full: http://www.picturethisent.com/pressroom/schizo/index.html

Although “Schizo” supposedly depicts the ruinous state of Kazakhstan in the early 1990s, it would be a mistake to think that things have changed that much for the better in the intervening years. Despite economic growth fueled by oil exports, the revenues have not filtered down to the masses. The country is much more like Nigeria than Venezuela in the way that private wealth and the public interest interact. Kazakhstan is ranked 78th in the world in terms of Human Development Indicators, according to the UN’s 2004 report. For comparison’s sake, Belarus is number 62 and Romania is number 69.

In addition to social inequality, Kazakhstan is also plagued by environmental despoliation. When Soviet planners decided to turn the Aral Sea into a water source for cotton production, they condemned Kazakhstan to suffer the consequences. Water diverted from Kazakhstan’s rivers to irrigate thirsty cotton fields produced unanticipated results. When the Aral Sea began to dry up, salt sand and dust from the exposed sea bottom blew across the region, causing intense respiratory problems. Pesticides and fertilizers used to feed for cotton production seeped into water and irrigation channels, poisoning food and drinking water. This led to the highest death and infant mortality rates in all the former Soviet Union. Almost all pregnant women are anemic.

Although “Schizo” does not refer specifically to any of these problems, it at least has the merit of looking at the country’s true conditions without flinching or applying cosmetics. That is all one can ask from a film nowadays. “Schizo” premieres in New York City on March 18th and in Los Angeles on March 25th. It is well worth seeing.

March 1, 2005

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, part one

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 1, 2005

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” is currently listed at #7 on Amazon.com. It is of some interest that such a book has become a best-seller since it explicitly addresses the question of whether the USA might eventually fail, just as Rome or other empires did in the past. Paul Kennedy’s 1989 “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” was another such book. While Kennedy’s doom-and-gloom scenario revolved around the relationship between economic and military power, Diamond’s focus is on ecology. In either case, the interest in such books is certainly driven by the perception of the American public that all is not well. It is hard to imagine such books becoming best sellers, or for that matter written, in the immediate post-WWII period. Things are obviously changing.

To a large extent, we can assume that people are buying “Collapse” because it is in many ways a follow-up to his best-selling “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Although I have not read this book, I am fairly confident that my late cyber-friend Jim Blaut had an accurate assessment of it in “Eight Eurocentric Historians” (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/diamond.htm.)

From all appearances, “Collapse” is an extension of ideas put forward in “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which in my view can be described as environmental determinism. As Jim Blaut puts it:

“Environment molds history,” says Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (p. 352). Everything important that has happened to humans since the Paleolithic is due to environmental influences. More precisely: all of the important differences between human societies, all of the differences that led some societies to prosper and progress and others to fail, are due to the nature of each society’s local environment and to its geographical location. History as a whole reflects these environmental differences and forces. Culture is largely irrelevant: the environment explains all of the main tendencies of history; cultural factors affect the minor details. Diamond proceeds systematically through the main phases of history in all parts of the world and tries to show, with detailed arguments, how each phase, in each major region, is explainable largely by environmental forces. The final outcome of these environmentally caused processes is the rise and dominance of Europe.

Diamond’s methodology is a challenge to ecosocialists for obvious reasons. On the surface, Diamond’s approach seems similar to John Bellamy Foster’s “The Vulnerable Planet” or Mike Davis’s “Ecology of Fear.” It would also appear that Diamond might be on the side of the angels for at least warning humanity that the clock is ticking even if a satisfactory answer to the question of what is to be done is lacking.

Jared Diamond’s academic discipline is evolutionary biology. His early research consisted of studying animals, especially birds, in their natural habitat. More recently, he has turned his attention to primates, including homo sapiens. “The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal” and “Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality” predate “Guns, Germs and Steel.”

For an evolutionary biologist examining the rise and fall of civilizations great and small, temptations to adopt a kind of social Darwinism are inevitable. In the 19th century social Darwinism was used to justify the dominance of Europe over the colonial world in terms of the survival of the fittest. The White European was more fit than the Black African just as some species were fitter than others. In the 20th century, such explanations are obviously too racist for polite society. Instead, you get “value-free” explanations that account for the death of 90 percent of American Indians through germs rather than genocidal intentions. The rise of Europe should not be interpreted as a vindication of capitalism or Protestant values but merely as the dispassionate working out of the iron laws of environmentalism.

If Diamond is anxious to separate the ascendancy of the West from any sort of innate cultural superiority, he is just as anxious to debunk the notion of a Golden Age that existed before colonialism. In the 1992 “The Third Chimpanzee,” he has a chapter titled “The Golden Age That Never Was,” which according to a Washington Post article, “disposes of another myth: that until industrial societies started to rape the environment, our forebears were careful stewards of our world.” This theme is obviously amplified in “Collapse,” which depicts Mayans and other precapitalist societies as being as obtuse as the George W. Bush White House when it comes to environmental challenges.

Turning now to Part One of “Collapse,” we are presented with a depressing view of what the state of Montana has become in environmental terms. Diamond selects Montana for personal and methodological reasons. He has taken fly-fishing vacations there over the years and owns a home. Montana also serves as a microcosm of all societies faced with the prospects of success or failure. Since he cannot conceive of a different framework than that defined by geographical borders (he teaches geography as well as physiology at UCLA), Montana becomes a useful test case. Moreover, the focus is on Bitterroot Valley in Southwest Montana, an area that is favored by the super-rich like Charles Schwab who take private jets in for a weekend of hiking, fishing or golf as well as the blue collar workers who work 2 or 3 jobs just to subsist.

Beneath the pristine surface, Montana is a toxic dump. There are 20,000 abandoned mines in Montana and they all leach arsenic, cadmium, sulfuric acid and other poisonous byproducts into the rivers and streams. Diamond warns about becoming “indignant at mining companies” since the “moral issue is more complex.” Specifically, he cites an environmental consultant named David Stiller who wrote, “ASARCO [American Smelting and Refining Company, a giant mining and smelting company] can hardly be blamed [for not cleaning up an especially toxic mine that it owned.] American businesses exist to make money for their owners; it is the modus operandi of American capitalism.”

Diamond accepts the excuse of such “rich companies” that cleaning up after themselves is an “excessive” cost. Since a capitalist firm can be expected to do whatever is necessary to return a profit, it is up to the taxpayers to assume the financial burden. But since the taxpayers of Montana tend to be rugged individualists either of the big bourgeoisie type like Charles Schwab or loggers and ranchers who have often turned to the militias in their hatred of Big Government, not much can be expected from those quarters as well.

The prospects for water, forests and wildlife are just as daunting. This leads Diamond to practically throw up his hands in helplessness. He writes:

“We have previously seen in this chapter how Montana is experiencing many environmental problems that translate into economic problems. Application of these different values and goals that we have just seen illustrated would result in different approaches to these environmental problems, presumably associated with different probabilities of succeeding or failing at solving them. At present, there is honest and wide difference of opinion about the best approaches. We don’t know which approaches the citizens of Montana will ultimately choose, and we don’t know whether Montana’s problems will get better or worse.”

It is really too bad that in the 50 pages Diamond devotes to Montana, the American Indian does not enter the picture. It as if one decided to write about the environmental crisis facing Alaska and failed to mention the Inuit. This omission is particularly egregious since the Indians had a different relationship to nature than those who conquered them.

Since Jared Diamond is so anxious to show how precapitalist societies were just as negligent as their successors on environmental questions, you’d think he’d have at least mentioned how the Blackfoot and other indigenous peoples fared.

My own travels to Indian country in Montana and my readings in Blackfoot history provide a different perspective than that laid out by Jared Diamond. In a visit to the Blackfoot reservation in Browning a few years ago, I met Alfred Young Man, a professor in the Native American Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. (The Blackfoot people are divided by the US-Canadian border, although traditionally their territory extended from north of Alberta down into Missouri.) He was allowing native vegetation to return to the land allotted to him as a Blackfoot and hoped to raise bison at some point.

For somebody so anxious to look at Montana as an environmental microcosm, you’d think that Diamond would be interested to see how Alfred Young Man and his ancestors related to nature.

For George Catlin, the artist who chronicled the lives of the American Indian in paint and word, the contrast between the Blackfoot and the modern rulers of Montana could not be starker:

“The Blackfeet [sic] are, perhaps, the most powerful tribe of Indians on the Continent; and being sensible of their strength, have stubbornly resisted the Traders in their country, who have been gradually forming an acquaintance with them, and endeavouring to establish a permanent and profitable system of trade. Their country abounds in beaver and bison, and most of the fur-bearing animals of North America; and the American Fur Company, with an unconquerable spirit of trade and enterprize, has pushed its establishments into country; and the numerous parties of trappers are tracking up streams and rivers, rapidly destroying the beavers which dwell therein. The Blackfeet have repeatedly informed the Traders of the company, that if their men persisted in trapping beavers in their country, they should kill them whenever they met them. They have executed their threats in many instances, and the Company lose some fifteen or twenty men annually, who fall by the hands of these people, in defence of what they deem their property and their rights. Trinkets and whiskey, however, will soon spread their charms amongst as they have amongst other tribes; and white man’s voracity sweep the prairies and the streams of their wealth, to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean; leaving the Indians to inhabit, and at last to starve upon, a dreary and solitary waste.”

That dreary and solitary waste are words that exactly describe Jared Diamond’s Montana of today.

John C. Ewers’ “The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains” contains the most thorough examination of the role of the bison in Blackfoot society. Ewers was the first curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfoot reservation, which is in Browning. Later he served as Senior Ethnologist in the Smithsonian Institution.

Because the Blackfoot warriors held the upper hand until relatively late in the 19th century, the bison remained plentiful in their territory. In the first instance the animal provided excellent nutritional value. Practically every part was edible, including the brains, liver, kidneys, soft nose gristle and bone marrow. The meat itself was either roasted or boiled. Care was taken to prepare pemmican, a preserved dried meat, in advance of the long, harsh winter. Pemmican was made by taking layers of dried meat and separating them with back fat, wild peppermint and berries. The pemmican bags themselves were made of the skins of unborn bison calves and could themselves be eaten in lean times.

They also made their clothing from bison skins. Making use of steel knives obtained through the fur trade, the Blackfoot made beautiful, long-wearing, waterproof clothing. All of the horsegear was made from bison hides as well: including saddles, bridles and shoes for sore-footed horses. Arms were also made from rawhide, including the strong shields constructed from the bull’s neck. Warclubs were held together by thongs made of rawhide.

In addition to providing food and clothing, the Blackfoot transformed bison skins into lodging and furniture as well. Soft-dressed bison skins without the hair were used for lodges (tipis). The bison-hide covering for a lodge weighed about one hundred pounds. Each day when a village moved to a new hunting ground, the lodge covering was packed up and stowed in a travois that was also made of rawhide, along with the rawhide bedding.

While I am not prepared at this point to challenge what Jared Diamond has written about the Mayan or other peoples who allegedly destroyed the environmental basis for their own reproduction, I am prepared to say that the Blackfoot peoples have something to say about “recycling” in the deepest sense of the word. With their light footprint on the Plains and their skill at using every single fiber of nature’s bounty for food, lodging, transportation, etc., they certainly present an alternative to the current wasteful system.

In my view, socialism will synthesize the best of hunting-and-gathering societies and the technology that capitalism has fostered. As bleak as the picture Jared Diamond draws of Montana, it would seem that the only realistic solution is one that is rooted both in the primeval past and the revolutionary future.

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