Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2006

Samir Amin’s “Beyond U.S. Hegemony”

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

(Third in a series of posts on “Does Socialism Have a Future?”)


Although world systems theorists are united in their opposition to capitalism and their preference for socialism, somehow the question of revolution tends to get lost in the shuffle. Furthermore, since the unit of analysis is the entire planet viewed from the geopolitical stratosphere rather than a specific country (why bother with such petty details), there is a tendency to use the discourse of hegemonic and subhegemonic nations/blocs rather than ruling class and ruled. Finally, the emphasis is on redressing imbalances between hegemons and subhegemons rather than figuring out ways to eliminate these categories entirely. While nobody would deny the Third World a larger slice of the pie, isn’t the job of socialists to think past such a schema?

Perhaps the most extreme form of this tendency was Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient”, the last book that this great dependency theorist wrote. It argued that finally after 300 years or so, China would emerge as a new hegemon and take the place of the United States, which leads me to wonder, as the old Peggy Lee song put it, “Is that all there is?”

In some ways, this approach overlaps with what Hugo Chavez has dubbed an “axis of good,” referring quite rightly to the alliance between Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. For many, this might be extended to all those countries in Latin America that have remained willing to collaborate with the “axis of good”, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile. But why stop there? If the goal is to unite all those countries or blocs that can potentially be recruited to a global alliance that rejects the extreme violence and predation associated with the bogus “war on terror,” why not look toward India, Russia and China, countries that while clearly committed to capitalist growth appear less crazed?

That in essence is the argument found in Samir Amin’s “Beyond U.S. Hegemony: Assessing the Prospects for a Multiplural World.” As opposed to the hegemonic bloc constituted by the U.S. and Great Britain, Amin explains in his introduction that “other hegemonic blocs are possible”, a formulation that obviously owes something to “another world is possible” but dispensing with its ambitiousness. According to Amin, “Such alternative blocs will not necessarily be called upon to make a radical break with the requirements of capitalism, but they may very well force capitalism to adapt to certain demands that do not conform to its peculiar logic.” Not quite the stuff easily translated into a slogan, but certainly well-meaning.

Perhaps sensing the possibility that his ideas might be confused with those put forward by Hardt and Negri, Amin takes pain to disassociate himself from the two theorists of Empire, who he dismisses as putting forward alternatives that “are limited to a few segments of triad societies and are always subject to the dominant capitalist logic.” I am not sure that there is that much of a difference between Amin and Hardt-Negri, based on the evidence of a July 13, 2006 Nation Magazine Michael Hardt article titled “From Imperialism to Empire”, where he writes:

The internal dynamic of Empire is analogous to a collaboration between a monarch and a group of aristocrats. The monarch in most cases today is the US government, but in some cases it’s the IMF or other powers that act monarchically. The aristocratic powers in this analogy include the other nation-states of various levels, the corporations, the supranational institutions and various nongovernmental organizations. This analogy helps, first, to draw attention to the hierarchies among these powers in the ruling structure and, second, highlights the fact that the monarch cannot act unilaterally, depending constantly on the aristocrats, among other things, to finance its wars and pay its debts. The Bush Administration thought it could dictate the terms of global order unilaterally, but it was a monarch who failed to gain the support of the aristocrats and was thus doomed to failure.

This analogy also helps us understand the progressive strategic role of some of the regional alliances of nation-states that have emerged in recent years. The aristocrats can in many ways, especially when they band together, dictate to the monarch the terms of the imperial arrangement. One of the most visible and successful operations of this sort was carried out by the so-called Group of 22, led by Brazil, which blocked the 2003 WTO meetings in Cancún. The recent coalition of Latin American states that blocked the FTAA is another example. Indeed, the “Bolivarian” strategy of the Venezuelan government seeks to capitalize on the election of progressive governments in so many countries in Latin America by forming partnerships from Uruguay and Argentina to Brazil and Bolivia, and perhaps in the future also with Ecuador or Mexico. Acting alone, of course, none of these nation-states has the power to confront the United States or the IMF and transform the imperial arrangement. Acting together, emphasizing their strategic interdependence, they clearly can.

Stepping back some distance from both Amin and Hardt-Negri, one can gain some perspective and evaluate their respective recommendations in some ways as a recasting of Cold War polarities. Back in the 1950s, the USSR was the counter-balance to the USA but today it is Amin’s “alternative hegemonic blocs” or Hardt-Negri’s “aristocrats”. At least during the Cold War, one might embrace the Soviet side as standing for a more advanced social system. But today, the substitute players have very little to offer other than the fact that they are not the United States. Amin, like Hardt-Negri, finds Europe much more amenable to his purposes but I am afraid that his Europe is an idealized version of the real thing, which is dripping in blood. As he puts it:

Since the French Revolution, the political cultures of France and continental Europe, though existing within a perfectly capitalist framework, have been considerably different from the one we have just described. [U.S. racism, inequality, etc.] Here, the values of liberty and equality have from the beginning been placed on an equal footing, and this has required social management of the conflict between the two, and state action to regulate the deployment of capitalism in that light. This different approach opens up the possibility – if social struggles make it necessary – of making a start on participatory democracy. By their very nature, such moves accentuate the conflict with the inherent tendencies of capital accumulation, since a majority of citizens may then oppose the minority of ‘property-owners’ who alone count as real active citizens under the exclusive logic of capitalism. The way is thus opened to a recognition of positive social rights, which the American liberal model ignores in principle on the grounds that they require active intervention by the legislative and executive, as opposed to mere political and civil liberties that require the state only to refrain from impeding their use.

With all due respect to Samir Amin, who has written ground-breaking studies of the accumulation of capital on a world scale and whose dedication to social justice is second to none, this is sheer nonsense. Anything that is good in Europe owes more to the presence of long standing Social Democratic and Communist parties rather than “political culture”. “Positive social rights,” such as they are, were won through struggle not through persuasion. For example, Sweden’s generous social legislation came into existence not because the Swedish bourgeoisie has a sense of noblesse oblige, but because the Swedish workers waged a bitter struggle culminating in a general strike in 1931 and then the election of a Socialist government. Prior to that point, workers were gunned down just as brutally as in the U.S.

Even more shocking is Amin’s contrast between a supposedly racist America and the more enlightened Europe:

The other formative elements of American political culture – slavery and its racist legacy, the Indian genocide and the contempt for other peoples that it expressed – are equally specific and have no parallel in Europe. Whether based on slavery or not, Europe‘s colonies (though often associated with massacres) remained outside its own continent.

I am not sure that all the Congolese men and women who had hands hacked off as punishment for not working hard to tap rubber enough would have appreciated this distinction. Furthermore, it is somewhat of a moot point since the entire continent was Caucasian to begin with. If we extend the concept of racism, however, to include the persecution of religious and ethnic groups that are considered less than human, the Europeans have even less to be proud of. Many scholars view the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland and the reign of terror and plunder that succeeded it to be a model for the conquest of the American Indian. Furthermore, when every last Jew was expelled from Great Britain and Spain in the early capitalist epoch, one can hardly fault a Jew for questioning the merits of the European “political culture.”

For those who will probably not find themselves motivated to read “Beyond U.S. Hegemony,” I can recommend a briefer exposition of his ideas in an article titled ” Beyond Liberal Globalization: A Better or Worse World?” that appeared originally in Monthly Review.

In the conclusion, Amin tries to make clear that his anti-imperialism is different from that of the old left:

In its time, the third Leninist then Maoist International formed global alliances which–in theory and to some extent in practice–responded to an analogous challenge formulated within the conditions and limitations of the time. It is not a question of producing a remake of this chapter of history, which is definitively closed. The new structure of the anti-imperialist struggles in the North and South have still to be invented almost from A to Z.

As I stated in my last article in this series, it is a mistake to try to dismiss the lessons of the socialist movement, which were gained through blood and sweat. To speak in terms of a chapter of history being closed might make sense if you are speaking of the USSR or Mao’s China. Since Samir Amin was at one time a Maoist himself, one wonders if this attempt to close the chapter might reflect his own anxiousness to put his own past behind him. For the rest of us, the Soviet Union was much more about its promise rather than its achievements, impressive as they were. Looking back at that experience and trying to extract some meaningful lesson from it is not an exercise in “ostalgie” but rather a determination not to excise a memory that can serve to guide future action, especially in a time of deepening capitalist criss.

December 28, 2006

Malachi Ritscher

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 8:22 pm

(An obituary written by Malachi Ritscher, who burned himself to death November 3rd on a Chicago expressway during morning rush-hour traffic to protest the war in Iraq. A handmade sign reading THOU SHALT NOT KILL was found by his remains.)

Painting by Malachi Ritscher

Chicago resident Malachi Ritscher passed away last (day of week), a (tragic, baffling, mundane) death at the age of (subtract 1954 from current year). He was the modern day version of a ‘renaissance man’, except instead of attaining success in several fields, he consistently failed, and didn’t really worry too much about it. For example, his boxing record in Golden Gloves. The eldest son of Richard C. Ritscher, a music educator, he collected and played many exotic instruments, without mastering any. Most recently, he had been playing a vintage Conn C-Melody saxophone that once belonged to free-spirit Hal Russell. Malachi was best known for his live concert recordings, mostly of local jazz groups who couldn’t afford expensive studios. His license plates said AKG C 414, after his favorite microphones. Upwards of fifty recordings were eventually released commercially, with some acclaim for their natural sound. His archive of live recordings he had documented exceeded 2000 shows. Mostly he was just a big fan.

Also he was a film photographer, with a picture of a peregrine falcon chick published in a local Audubon magazine, and related video footage shown on local television news. He wrote poetry that was not published, painted watercolors in a quirky naive style, and participated passionately in the anti-war and free speech movement. He was arrested at a protest on March 20, 2003 and spent the night in jail, then became a member of the pending class-action suit against the City of Chicago. Arrested again two years later, he successfully sued the City of Chicago for false arrest on 1st Amendment/free speech grounds. One of his proudest achievements was an ultra-searing hot sauce recipe, which he registered under the name ‘Undead Sauce – re-animate yourself!’ It was a blend of tropical peppers, which he grew indoors in 5-gallon buckets, and a few secret ingredients that gave it a unique flavor (pomegranate, pistachio, and cinnamon).

Born Mark David Ritscher in Dickinsen, North Dakota on January 13, 1954, he lived most of his life in the mid-west, ranging from small-town Madison, South Dakota to Chicago, where he moved in 1981, changing his first name to Malachi. As a child, he was intensely afraid of many things, especially heights; he spent the rest of his life trying to face his fears, without ever coming to terms with his fear of people. He dropped out of high school and married at the age of 17, a union that lasted almost 10 years. He became an ordained minister with the Missionaries of the New Truth in 1972, and had performed several weddings. He provided for his family with a variety of trade positions, eventually reaching Journeyman High-Voltage Technician status with the electric utility in Lincoln, Nebraska. He became a Licensed Stationary Engineer in 1987. He was a member of several unions throughout his career, including IBEW, IUOE, and SEIU. He was proud to be a dues-paying proletariat intellectual.

After getting divorced, he relocated to Chicago to work with friends in an art-rock band, which inevitably led to forming a trio called ‘wantnot’, recording and releasing a CD in 1990, with Malachi on bass and vocals, Mike Mansfield on guitar, and Janna Brooks on drums. The cover design received an award from the American Center for Design, which didn’t increase sales. He also designed skateboard decks, flyers, and t-shirts, with similar commercial results.

He was a collector of several things: books, records, meteorites, butterfly knives, keris, glass eyes, fossil tully monsters, microphones, medium-base lightbulbs, and instruments, especially snare drums. He was a man of strong contrasts, and fierce loyalties. There was a joy of life, which balanced a suspicious misanthropy. Endless pondering of existential gray areas could be interrupted by a totally spontaneous act: jumping in his car to drive downtown and participate in the Sears Tower stair-climb (2003). When he read Goethe’s words “Nowhere but in his own Montserrat will a man find happiness and peace”, his first thought was to find out where it is, and then book a flight there. He had memorized Pi to the 1101 decimal place, and would recite it at will. He could shave with a straight razor. He loved cinnamon rolls. He loved the smell of turpentine. He also loved motorcycles, which he wisely avoided. In the words of Stephen Wright, he was a ‘peripheral visionary’. His sense of humor was droll – he theorized that surprise and not tragedy was the most important element of comedy. His favorite joke was to walk into a room, sniff the air, and observe “it smells like snot in here”. His favorite word was ‘ominous’. His favorite two words were ‘Tahitian hiatus’. He always carried his passport with him.

He owned and maintained several web-sites: www.savagesound.com, www.unwinnablewar.net, www.killthepresident.net, www.warwhores.us; in addition he was preparing www.publicparkingparty.org, to promote protection of residents’ rights in Chicago.

A lover of literature, even more than music, he had always dreamed of being a writer. The handwritten manuscript of his ‘fictional autobiography’, titled “Farewell Tour”, was under consideration by publishers. It had a general theme of shared universal aloneness, and was controversial for seeming to endorse suicide after the age of fifty. His favorite classic authors were Proust and Shakespeare.

The metaphor for his life was winning the lottery, but losing the ticket. In the end, the loneliness was overwhelming. He was deeply appreciative for everything that had been given to him, but acutely aware that the greater the present, the higher the price. He was a member of Mensa, and Alcoholics Anonymous since 1990. For him, sobriety was virtually getting a second chance at life. He practiced a personal and private spirituality, seeking to connect across the illusion that separates us from each other. Reportedly, his last words were “rosebud… oops”.

December 26, 2006

Learning Turkish

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

For most of the first semester of elementary Turkish I just completed, I felt like I was barely treading water and in over my head. Learning a new language at the age of 61 is tough enough as it is, but studying it at an Ivy League institution like Columbia University is even more daunting. Twice I came this close (picture a thumb 1/8th of an inch away from a forefinger) from dropping it, but just received my grade: an A-!

Learning a language in some ways is like rehearsing for a play. You have to memorize your lines. In my final exam, I remembered most of the words I was expected to use in an essay question about a father taking his daughter to the playground (a sandbox is a ‘kum havuzu’; a pail and shovel are ‘kova’ and ‘kurek’), but drew a blank when I tried to remember how to say ‘for 3 days’ (uc gundur).

My main problem is that my brain doesn’t work the way it did when I was the age of my classmates. It used to be like a camera, now it is like a sieve. Five days after I learn how to use a verb ending, the memory becomes faded. Oddly enough, the Spanish I learned in high school 46 years ago adheres better.

Despite the difficulties and despite my deep aversion to taking tests and being graded, I have found learning Turkish to be a deeply rewarding experience. Being finally able to converse with my wife’s friends and relatives in Istanbul and Izmir would make my trips there much more pleasurable. Since we would eventually like to have a summer place in Izmir, this makes learning the language a necessity.

Perhaps the main reason I stuck with the class was the teacher Etem Erol, who is without doubt one of the finest I have studied with ever. Erol brings an enormous amount of patience, enthusiasm and good humor to the subject that shows up even when the class is going through the most tedious of drills. Additionally, he is passionate about Turkish culture and history and leavens each class with comments about a wide range of topics, from the Kurdish question to Turkish cuisine. It is impossible to imagine a more qualified and more dedicated professor.

Since my understanding of Turkish culture and history are about as rudimentary as my understanding of the language, I treasured observations the professor made during the course of the semester. To begin with, I suppose that most people understand that the Turkish language is a relatively modern invention. After Mustafa Kemal led a successful revolution that led to the creation of the modern Turkish state in 1923, he instituted a number of reforms that were intended to modernize the country along the lines of certain Enlightenment ideals. One of them was to replace the Ottoman alphabet (a mixture of Arabic and Persian letters; words are read from right to left) with Roman letters. (There are additional letters in the Turkish alphabet that are distinguished by the presence of an accent or a symbol. For example, an i without the dot is pronounced “uh”; with it, it is pronounced more like the i in “in”.)

As is so often the case in revolutions, even bourgeois revolutions like the Kemalist, there are excesses. There was such a strong desire to modernize that nobody questioned the need to Westernize the alphabet. Erol speculates that with the addition of a few extra letters, the Ottoman alphabet would have sufficed. When he first began looking into studying the Ottoman language in Turkey, his Kemalist professors rebuked him for aspiring toward reactionary goals. He ended up studying it in Princeton University.

Apparently prejudices of this sort have cut both ways in Turkish history. When Turkish nationalism was gestating in the late 19th century, it adopted the Turk identity that had been viewed as crude and inferior by the Ottoman aristocracy. To call somebody a Turk in the 1700s was almost an insult. It was the identity of Eastern Anatolia, the homeland of semi-nomads and farmers. Erol surmises that much of the trouble with the national minorities in Turkey is a result of overcompensating for a sense of inferiority, to put it in psychological terms.

Despite the fact that the ethnic identity is rooted in the eastern part of the country, the language itself is very much the product of the urban centers of the West and the Janissary culture in particular. Janissaries were the European and Christian slaves of the Ottoman court who became generals and bureaucrats. This is just one more reminder that precapitalist slavery and chattel slavery were completely different phenomena.

Despite some often ham-fisted if not genocidal attempts to impose a monoculture on the Turkish people, there is something wonderfully diverse about the society, starting with the language which is not above borrowing from points east and west. A razor blade is a ‘gilet’, while the words for city have either a Turkish (‘kent’) or Arabic (‘sehir’) origin. Additionally, Turkish society itself is a mixture of European and Middle Eastern culture inasmuch as the country and the largest city literally overlap Europe and Asia. One can live in the Asian side of Istanbul and commute to the European side each day to go to work.

Although the West-East divide has provided a kind of creative tension for the entire history of the country, there are signs recently that the contradictions might eventually be resolved in favor of the East. If so, it will be hastened by the backwardness of Europeans and Christians who are stigmatizing anything Islamic nowadays, even if it is the generally tolerant religious party in power in Turkey whose economic philosophy owes more to Milton Friedman than the Koran. With the Pope warning against Turkey being admitted to the European Union on the basis of Crusade-era shibboleths, it is no wonder that the Turks are having second thoughts. There are solid economic considerations as well. If Turkey is admitted to the European Union, it might turn out to be a drain on the economy rather than a benefit. With Western European populations tending to be older and closer to retirement age, the younger Turkish work force might end up subsidizing their social security funds. Furthermore, with China, India and Russia on the upswing, Turkey might decide that its fortunes will be tied to this emerging bloc of capitalist nations as well.

December 25, 2006

Gabriel Kolko’s “After Socialism”

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

(Second in a series of posts on “Does Socialism Have a Future?”)

Gabriel Kolko’s “After Socialism” is a bitter diatribe against socialism drawn from ideas that were at one time much more fashionable among liberal intellectuals. In his acknowledgements, he singles out Bertrand Russell, Charles Peirce and Morris R. Cohen as writers who were “most congenial” when he began graduate work in the history of ideas and philosophy with an eye toward writing a Masters Thesis on progress. Cohen was at one time a major figure in American philosophy. From his roost at the City College of New York, he emphasized “the scientific method” and reason in a manner that while beyond reproach was unfortunately ignored by world history. Kolko, who first began kicking around the idea of an attack on socialism some 40 years ago, would pick up where Cohen left off and diagnose the problems of the socialist left as being rooted in a failure to be sufficiently reasonable.

Gabriel Kolko

Philosophy, however, is not the discipline that Kolko is most noted for. His reputation rests on a scholarly critique of American foreign policy associated with the “revisionist” trend that includes William Appleman Williams, Gar Alperovitz, Walter LeFeber, Howard Zinn and others. After reading his meretricious and cantankerous screed against socialism, one wishes that Kolko had stuck to what he knows best.

Like many critics of socialism in the academy, Kolko blames its failure on bad ideas. Oddly enough, his critique overlaps the one mounted by postmodernists in the 1970s and 80s who saw Marxism as sharing a susceptibility to imposing “grand narratives” on history. Going one step further, Kolko diagnoses the problem in terms of trying to theorize about society. Apparently, the 19th century was a time when all sorts of intellectuals tried to superimpose some kind of unified teleology on history under the influence of Hegel and other ambitious philosophers intoxicated by theory. The result of this bad thinking was bad social engineering once its proponents achieved any kind of political power. Kolko writes:

The nineteenth century produced many thinkers who believed in the idea of inevitable social progress and perfectibility, and their ideas have been the dominant influence on most social thought since then. Social theorists imagined few, if any, limits on reformers’ aspirations and pretensions or their ability to recast human institutions to fulfill their desires. Whatever their disagreements, both conservative and radical social concepts were consummately ambitious and shared grandiose, universalistic objectives. As each school articulated its notions of the foundations of the historical and social experiences, they created ideologies that ignored many dimensions of history. Both in substance and method, the dominant assumptions and pretensions of social ideas were, to varying degrees, both comprehensive and optimistic. They always emphasized their understanding rather than their ignorance, and their unifying premise was that increasing insight, even certainty for many schools of thought, lay within human grasp.

The idea of human overreach has a very ancient history. In a Greek myth, Dedalus presents his son Icarus with a set of wings but warns him not to fly too high. When Icarus foolishly decides to ignore him, the sun melts the wax that holds the feathers together and he falls to his death. In another cautionary tale involving hubris, Prometheus is punished for stealing the secret of fire from the gods and donating it to the human race. To punish him, the gods decree that his liver would be devoured by harpies over and over for no less than 30,000 years. Considering the enormous pain visited on countries that attempt experiments in socialism, ranging from the USSR to Allende’s Chile (it should be mentioned that Kolko hates revolution and electoral politics alike when it comes to achieving socialist goals), one can certainly understand the relevance of Greek mythology, part and parcel of a society that valued strict regimentation, up to and including slavery.

Marx had an entirely different attitude toward Prometheus. His doctoral dissertation in philosophy, devoted to a comparison of Democritus and Epicurus, saw Prometheus’s challenge to the gods as exemplary, particularly insofar as it elevated “human self-consciousness as the highest divinity,” a phrase that no doubt would make Kolko tear his hair out. In the preface to his dissertation, Marx quotes Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Bound”:

Be sure of this, I would not change my state
Of evil fortune for your servitude.
Better to be the servant of this rock
Than to be faithful boy to Father Zeus.

For Kolko, the search for immutable laws of history that might yield a path to social progress was as foolhardy as Icarus’s flight toward the sun or Prometheus’s theft of fire. “System-building” of Marxian, Comtean or Spencerian varieties would only lead its proponents to crash to the ground, dragging innocent people down with them.

Marxism was far more dangerous than its rivals since it had the uncanny ability to attract working people who were clearly open to any kind of theory that entailed the liquidation of the class that exploited it mercilessly. One can hardly blame them. In a chapter titled “The legacies of socialism: theory”, Kolko demonstrates a woeful unfamiliarity with Marx’s methodology (a term that far better describes his achievements than “theory”). Supposedly Marx was fixated on economic crisis, when war has had a far more galvanizing effect on the working class:

It is a fact that the working class finally became radicalized and a force for fundamental change, but almost wholly in connection with wars, when its leaders could no longer deceive many of them. While workers should, and indeed do, have a proclivity for certain assumptions and modes of action, Marx turned highly contingent possibilities into inevitable necessities and sacrificed the nuances which would have made his system of thought more relevant and durable. What workers have in fact done in the historical process, and their crucial significance as historical actors, played no part in Marx’s theory – he was purely wrong. But the readiness of the working class to act under certain circumstances is a fact, one difficult to predict in advance but nonetheless of decisive importance. The working class’s role in history is scarcely irrelevant because Marx got it all wrong, but there is no innate proletarian impulse to revolt at the time and place of a radicalized bourgeoisie’s – which includes Marx and most theorists who lionized him – choosing. Its potential is often aborted and distorted, but that it will act – given the appropriate circumstances – is a reality of which we cannot make too much, or too little. Why it behaves as it does, with social stasis being the outcome most of the time, and the parameters of its possible behavior, is a crucial and complex question that Marx simplified inordinately.

This passage is filled with so much nonsense that one hardly knows where to begin. To start with, it is simply beyond comprehension that Kolko would draw a distinction between economic crisis and war, as if WWI and WWII were not driven by fundamental contradictions in the capitalist economy. Indeed, it is axiomatic to Marxism that war is the system’s way of resolving crisis. As Rosa Luxemburg put it in “The Junius Pamphlet“:

The growth of capitalism, spreading out rapidly over a reconstituted Europe after the war period of the sixties and seventies, particularly after the long period of depression that followed the inflation and the panic of the year 1873, reaching an unnatural zenith in the prosperity of the nineties opened up a new period of storm and danger among the nations of Europe. They were competing in their expansion toward the non-capitalist countries and zones of the world.

Obscure Polish Jew

In keeping with the intemperate tone that pervades “After Socialism,” Kolko describes Luxemburg as a “hitherto obscure Polish Jew” who achieved some fame attacking Eduard Bernstein on the instigation of

an ambitious, doctrinaire local party newspaper editor and millionaire adventurer, Alexander Israel Helphand (whose pseudonym was ‘Parvus’ and in 1917 worked with the German government to spirit Lenin from Switzerland to Russia), and then August Bebel, the SPD’s Marxist leader. Consummately ambitious herself, she played with radical abstractions–a type of intellectual who has been the bane of the socialist movement since its inception.

If Kolko were not Jewish himself, one might say that this smacks of anti-Semitism. Who knows, maybe Kolko was influenced by Borat.

This portrait of Rosa Luxemburg is so grotesque that one wonders if it was drawn from the palette of anti-Communist literature. It is of course just as mean-spirited as Kolko’s portrayal of socialist professors, who allegedly seek to maintain power on campus in the way that Stalin sought to maintain power in the USSR. As he puts it, “whenever ideas involve bureaucracies, tenure and jobs, the consequences will always be threatening to truly creative freedom of thought”–no doubt as exemplified by his own reinterpretations of Morris R. Cohen.

In chapter four, Kolko addresses “the role and limits of social theories”. It basically warns against what postmodernists call “meta-narratives”:

No grand theory of any sort, religious or secular, has survived the ravages of human experience in an immensely complicated world which has undermined all highly structured propositions regarding the future of societies. Logical analyses of them have been even more devastating. Theories, and the assumptions they embody, rarely accord with social realities and they become in most instances articles of faith in which experience ceases to be a criterion for judging their relevance and truth. But we live in a profoundly troubled era which requires a great deal of intellectual innovation and originality appropriate for our contemporary social and human crises, and this demands that we discard most, perhaps all of the existing paradigms and conventions which are so fixed in the ideas of all ideological persuasions.

In reflecting a bit more deeply on this assertion, one might see similarities not just with postmodernism but with earlier attempts to discredit grand theories. When I was an undergraduate at Bard College in 1961, Heinrich Blucher would lecture us about the dangers of 19th century theorizing. Blucher was married to Hannah Arendt who incorporated such ideas in her “Origins of Totalitarianism.” They could also be found in Camus’s writings, especially “The Myth of Sisyphus”. All that was evil in the current century can be blamed on 19th century system-building. From Hegel you get Marx and from Marx it is just one small step to Stalin’s concentration camps. What I got out of these brainwashing sessions was a need to stay away from grand theories, and especially the Commies who espoused them–even though none could be found at Bard College back then, despite Walter Winchell’s characterization of the school as the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson.”

Daniel Bell: another enemy of grand theories

In the 1950s, this was drummed to your head wherever you went to school. If it wasn’t the trendy pop existentialism of a Camus or Hannah Arendt’s warnings against utopian schemas, it was Daniel Bell in “The End of Ideology“:

But the seed of the corruption was the hubris of the “possessed.” Generous of impulse, it sought the end of injustice, but in the single vision the dogmatism grew hard and the moral sense cynical, so that, when reality proved the vision false, all that was left was the hardness, or the despair.

The lesson to be drawn is this. Overly ambitious schemas to restructure society based on a grand theory will only backfire. The only recourse to people of good will who hate injustice and seek a better world is to remain free of political groups that have such overweening ambitions. In other words, you have to oppose capitalism–a system that Kolko clearly rejects–but you cannot posit a systemic overhaul. Despite the fact that capitalism itself involves an all-encompassing set of assumptions about the way that society operates and what kind of historical goals must be pursued, people on the left are doomed to failure if they also begin to think in such terms.

Kolko in effect recommends a political approach that puts conditions on itself in the face of a task that demands exactly what he forbids. He is for revolutionizing society, but is opposed to the creation of a revolutionary theory. He puts it this way:

What is crucial is the sufficient transformation of those essentially capitalist institutions and precedents -those material or ideological forces that led to atavism, conflict, and war -that traditional socialists failed to alter when in a position to affect history. The term “socialism” itself is scarcely sacrosanct and warrants being replaced wherever a better definition is articulated.

However, there is absolutely nothing in “After Socialism” that points in the way toward such a “transformation”. For a work that is driven by a kind of hatred toward capitalism and every serious attempt in the past 150 years or so to redress the ills it creates, there is not the slightest hint as to what should be done. If one is not allowed to construct socialist parties, then what kind of party does Kolko advocate?

In the final analysis, one gets the sense that Kolko is not only opposed to people coming together under the banner of sweeping theories such as socialism, but getting together at all. Except for a one sentence reference to the Green Parties that emerged to “expand the scope of a political dialogue in a very partial but nonetheless positive manner,” there is no indication that Kolko has any use for radical politics in any form, socialist or otherwise. The 1960s were a disaster in his eyes:

On the whole, when one adds together the secular adventurist revolutionary notions, the Christian-pacifist cult of innocence, uncritical Third World-ism – the belief that most movements in the developing nations are somehow automatically radical – and synthetic, eclectic varieties of wish-fulfillment that thrived from about 1960 to 1975, little of permanent value emerged from the so-called New Left experience.

Although I will have more to say on this topic in later posts, my outlook is exactly the opposite of Kolko’s. Rather than trying to discredit socialism (or the New Left for that matter) as bad seeds planted in the 19th century that have sprouted monstrously misshapen growths in the 20th and 21st centuries, I believe that this history is our history and must be absorbed for its positive lessons as well as pruned of weeds. This legacy is not so much the creation of intellectuals as Kolko puts it, but much more the collective memory of the working class in struggle. Without working class resistance, it is doubtful that Karl Marx or Frederic Engels would have ever developed their “grand theories”. It is exactly this working class memory that Kolko would extirpate in the name of the “scientific method” and reason.

December 23, 2006

Does socialism have a future?

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm

When Fidel Castro was stricken with what appears to be a terminal illness, it prompted many commentators to muse about the imminent collapse of Cuban socialism. This is a theme that finds new ways of expression based on periodic upheavals both within and outside Cuba. After the Soviet Union evaporated in the early 1990s, pundits wrote countless words about how Cuba would be next. But socialism finds ways to keep rolling along on the island, just like the American jalopies that the inventive Cubans find ways to keep on the road with chewing gum and baling wire. In every respect, socialism has the appearance of being out of sync with a world that is either openly capitalist or that like China wraps private property relations in a thin tissue of socialist rhetoric.

With its frenzied obsession with technical innovation, joined at the hip to planned obsolescence, the capitalist system puts novelty on a throne. Spalding Gray, the brilliant performance artist and writer who threw himself off the Staten Island ferry after battling bad health and depression for a number of years, had a wonderful story about visiting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He said that despite being the butt of jokes about its backwardness, he found something alluring about the country. He noted that on Soviet warships captains still communicated acoustically with the men in the engine room through a pipe that ran through the ship’s innards. He found something more human about that process.

Are socialists condemned to be followers of kitschy symbols of the past? Are those of us in the West who became socialists in the 1960s and still retain such beliefs the equivalent of the aging East Europeans who traffic in Ostalgie, a term coined for those foolish souls who think that something was lost when East Germany was swallowed up by its more aggressive and wealthy cousin to the West?

The war in Iraq has now lasted longer than World War Two and is rapidly approaching the Vietnam War in longevity, a conflict that radicalized tens of thousands of youths, including me. Since the U.S. was waging a war against “Communism,” it was inevitable that those of us who were called upon to kill or be killed would begin to ask what that system was all about. If nothing else, the heroism of the Vietnamese people led us to investigate the ideas that they supposedly held dear. For a small minority, the ideas actually made sense. In the West, especially during the “cool” and disaffected 1950s, no idea seemed worth dying for.

There is no such phenomenon at work in the war in Iraq, despite the obvious dedication of the Sunni fighters and Sadr’s militias at times to rid their country of occupiers. Although it is very difficult to get word about the beliefs that motivated fighters in a place like Fallujah, we can assume that socialism was not part of the mix. The fighting spirit of the Iraqi resistance, the elan of the Hezbollah, and the irrepressible militancy of the Iranian government has engendered a certain sense of camaraderie on the Marxist Left in the West. If socialism has few adherents in the Middle East, should we throw in our lot with those who have the muscle to stop the imperialists in their tracks?

Furthermore, to make ourselves attractive to them, perhaps it might make sense to downplay our stubborn emphasis on class, especially since Islam purports to unite owner and employer on the basis of faith. It was probably symptomatic of such barely concealed desires that Counterpunch ran an interview with Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah in which he says, “You will witness how our people have embraced Chávez and Ernesto Che Guevara. Nearly in every house, you will come across posters of Che or Chávez.” A red-faced Counterpunch had to admit some days later that the interview was a fraud.

In Latin America, there have been expressions of sympathy for Che Guevara that are genuine and which would seem to indicate a revival of interest in the socialist project. Evo Morales, the newly elected President of Bolivia, told interviewers that “I’m not only a follower of Chávez, but a follower of Castro and a follower of Che.” However, in the next breath he added, “This does not mean I am going to implement their programmes here because Bolivia is not Cuba.” This would seem to mean that Cuba serves more as an inspiration than an actual model to be followed for the new Latin American left.

In Venezuela itself, socialism is openly defended as a kind of official ideology but it is a ‘sui generis’ twenty-first century socialism that is open to varying interpretations, it would seem. For the ultra-orthodox Trotskyists of the In Defense of Marxism Web site, Hugo Chávez is a standard-bearer of their own particular ideas about socialist revolution, even if he is not aware of that himself. By the same token, Chávez is claimed by Joseph Stiglitz as a practitioner of his own version of New Deal economics. Oddly enough, in a world that puts dog-eat-dog competition on a pedestal, it is both socialism and the New Deal that seem like relics from a bygone era.

Tariq Ali, the well-known British Marxist, goes one step further and synthesizes socialism and the New Deal. In an interview with Doug Henwood on the New York Pacifica station, here’s how it plays out:

Tariq Ali: So the reforms which he has pushed through of using the oil money to create… You know people in the states sometimes get shocked when I say this but look he is very radical in attacking imperialism and all that but the internal reforms which are taking place in Venezuela today are a combination of Roosevelt’s New Deal and social democratic reforms which were pushed through in every European country after the Second World War. [Presumably, Ali is referring to Western Europe.]

Doug Henwood: So this is what he means by 21st century socialism?

Tariq Ali: Yeah, that’s what he means. It is left social democratic reforms. And he has said that to me a number of times that we are not living in an epoch of proletarian revolution. It is just crazy to think you can just jump over everything and do that.

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to examine some of these questions in greater depth. Is socialism a worthwhile theory that can only lead to chaos and disaster if it is implemented anytime in the foreseeable future — a “crazy” ambition, in Tariq Ali’s words? Is the best thing we can hope for a realignment of world superpowers that would put China and Russia in a stronger position to resist US savagery? Is there some other economic system in between capitalism and socialism that can combine the dynamism of the former system and the egalitarianism of the latter? These are questions that should matter to every thinking person on the planet.

December 20, 2006

After the elections

Filed under: antiwar,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Nation Magazine, November 27, 2006
It’s Over for Bush

The year 2006 will long be remembered as the Great Retribution–or perhaps the Deliverance Election. George W. Bush’s presidency is toast. Bush’s potential to further harm the Republic has been greatly reduced. Most Americans stopped believing anything he said a good while back. This was their opportunity to tell him to his face. And they did, with such force and breadth that maybe even he and his cronies heard them.

Much credit goes to the voters and the Democratic Party. Not many off-year elections move history in a fundamental way, but this one did. Americans have elected an opposition that can now check the Administration’s destructive policies and investigate its actions at home and abroad, while at the same time putting forth policies that begin to reverse the damage of the past six years. African-American and Latino voters were crucial to the Democratic victory, with a significantly higher percentage of Latinos than in the last midterms voting against the Bush agenda.



NY Times, December 20, 2006
President Wants to Increase Size of Armed Forces

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 — President Bush said Tuesday that the United States should expand the size of its armed forces, acknowledging that the military had been strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and would need to grow to cope with what he suggested would be a long battle against Islamic extremism.


The president’s statements were applauded by leading members of Congress who specialize in military affairs. Loren Dealy, spokeswoman for Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, said that Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, who will become chairman of the panel in the new Congress, said after Mr. Bush spoke that “Mr. Skelton has long supported the idea of increasing the end strength in both the Army and the Marine Corps.”

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday night: “I am pleased President Bush has finally recognized the need to increase the overall size of our military. I have been calling for such an expansion for several years.” But Mr. Reed, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, warned that the battle over troop numbers was not over.

“Now that the president is asking for an increase, he needs to follow through and put the money in the budget to pay for these soldiers,” Mr. Reed said. “It is imperative that this administration step up and honestly budget for the long-term commitment they have made in Iraq. If the president doesn’t put forward a plan to pay for this in his annual budget request then this announcement is meaningless.”

December 15, 2006


Filed under: Film,zionism — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get through my Netflix dvd of Stephen Spielberg’s “Munich”. I put it on knowing full well that I would find the politics reprehensible. I didn’t count on it being even worse as a movie.

For the first hour or so, it was the standard Arabs from Mars fare, not as bad as a Bruce Willis movie but pretty bad all the same. Black September bursts into the Olympics dormitory of the Israeli athletes and takes them hostage, gunning down several in the process. It is cinematically akin to the opening scene of a science fiction movie when a flying saucer fires its death ray at an earthling with a white flag.

Spielberg departs from the standard black-and-white narrative by making the Israeli hit squad fairly creepy themselves. So instead of black-and-white, you get black-and-gray. I guess that’s what happens when you work with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, the gay, self-described socialist and Columbia University graduate who wrote the groundbreaking “Angels in America.”

From the attacks on Munich by the Zionist ultraright, you’d think that the screenplay had used Norman Finkelstein as a consultant, but Kushner described his outlook this way in an interview with the liberal Shalom Center:

But my criticism of Israel has always been accompanied by declarations of unconditional support of Israel’s right to exist, and I believe that the global community has a responsibility to defend that right. I have written and spoken of my love for Israel.

For about an hour or so Israeli Mossad agents set off bombs in the beds and telephones of Palestinian activists. After each attack, as they sit around a table celebrating, somebody always expresses a tinge of doubt. It is of some interest that in “Vengeance,” the book upon which Kushner’s screenplay is based, the agents show absolutely no remorse.

At one point, the Israeli gang ends up in a safe house that a subcontractor spook has lined up for them. This character is a Frenchman named Louis (ugh!) who mouths anarchist verbiage about being opposed to all governments, an excuse he makes for taking money from anybody–including Zionist killers. When Louis and his girl-friend make their initial contact with the main Israeli character Avner (Eric Bana–he should stick to costume dramas), they all smoke pot while Avner dishes out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the names and addresses of Palestinians who are to be terminated. The girl-friend proceeds to give a brief lecture on Marxist dialectics that sounds like a cheap Godard parody.

In the safe house, the Israelis wake up in the middle of the night to discover that a bunch of Palestinian terrorists have been assigned there as well. As a literary device, I prefer a coincidence like Queequeg crawling into Ishmael’s bed in Moby Dick. The two groups draw their guns on each other in a manner that has become a cliché by now. You’ve seen it in Tarentino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and a hundred other films by now. It was first used in John Woo’s films and should have been retired a long time ago, along with cowboys riding off into the sunset and Nazi officers saying “Ve haf a way of making you talk.”

Despite their Israeli accents, the Mossad agents convince the Palestinians that they are German ultraleft terrorists. Out on the safe house balcony, Avner speaks with the leader of the Palestinians who tells him that they are fighting to regain their land. It is the first time in the film that the Other is heard from. Not one minute into his monologue, the Palestinian states that Germans like Avner are supporting terrorism because of the guilt they feel over WWII. At that point, it became clear to me that Kushner was not interested in developing realistic characters but in using sock puppets that could articulate his own conflicted views on the Middle East.

Bad film. Bad politics.

UPDATE: I should mention that my good friend Dennis Perrin has an entirely different take on the film.


December 14, 2006

Days of Glory (Indìgenes)

Filed under: Africa,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

With an Algerian director and North African lead actors, “Days of Glory” (Indìgenes) tells the story of four soldiers in the colonial African Army during WWII who fight to liberate France from Nazi occupation and to secure their own rights against racist French officers. While this is sufficient reason to see the film, it has the additional distinction of being one of the finest war movies in recent years. With a budget that is a less than a quarter than that of “Saving Private Ryan,” it is many times more powerful. Indeed, the final scene of “Days of Glory” is a virtual reprise of Spielberg’s film with the four principal characters fighting heroically against a far larger German force, but with much more dramatic impact.

In some ways, “Days of Glory” is a very old-fashioned film in the mold of “A Walk in the Sun” or other WWII classics. You take a cross-section of men, put them in the crucible of battle and allow them to react to a variety of challenges, both from the enemy and from within their own ranks. “Days of Glory” has a couple of antecedents that are worth mentioning. One is the similarly named “Glory”, which is about the American Civil War’s first all-Black regiment and the other is Senegalese Director Ousmane Sembene’s “Camp de Thiaroye,” a semi-autobiographical film about Black soldiers detained in a French prison camp during WWII after they protest racist treatment.

In Sembene’s masterpiece, a Senegalese soldier disguises himself as an American GI to gain entry into a segregated brothel, but is turned away after they discover he is African. It is entirely possible that “Days of Glory” director Rachid Bouchareb was inspired by this incident to create the character Messaoud Souni (Roschdy Zem), who dons an American uniform in the hopes that he will be seen as more than a “native” (indìgene). Like Sembene’s soldier, he discovers that white women are off-limits. After Messouad begins corresponding with a French woman with whom he spent a night, military censors intercept and destroy the love letters he sends to her.

Messaoud takes out his frustrations on Saïd Larbi (Jamel Debbouze), an illiterate Moroccan peasant who has joined the military out of economic necessity rather than a desire to “liberate France.” Soon after his training has begun, he is asked where he is from. His answer: “total poverty.” After Saïd becomes a manservant to their sergeant, Messaoud begins calling him Aïchaa girl’s name–in the barracks. He only stops after Yassir holds a knife to a throat and swears that he will kill him if he does so again.

Corporal Abdelkader Bellaïdi (Sami Bouajila) pulls Yassir away and warns Messaoud to stop provoking Yassir. Unlike Yassir, Abdelkader can read and write. In his spare moments, he reads military training manuals in the hope of gaining the proficiency he needs to be promoted to sergeant, his only ambition in life. In the press notes, director Rachid Bouchareb states that Abdelkader “is inspired by characters such as Ben Bella, who fought in WWII, was disillusioned and became a nationalist.”

Joining the three men above in the film’s climactic battle with the Germans is Yassir Allaoui (Samy Nacèri), a Berber peasant who has joined the military in order to avoid forced labor imposed by the French colonizers. He has almost no interest in “liberating France” and sees the war mainly as an opportunity to make a petty profit as he removes watches, rings and wallets from dead Nazi soldiers. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Yassir and a fellow Berber enter a cathedral in a French town they have just liberated. After Yassir begins to loot the donation box, his comrade, who has been standing in awe of religious iconography on the walls, urges him to stop because it is “a sin.”

In distinction to the standard patriotic Hollywood fare, “Days of Glory” treats WWII as a job for these men and nothing more. No matter how many times they talk about “liberating France,” you understand that they are far more interested in proving to their masters that they are not mere indìgenes and deserve full equality. Shooting Nazis is not that much different than putting out forest fires or any other dangerous job that requires a strong back and physical courage. In one key scene, just as the four principals are about to enter a French village in Alsace where they will confront the Nazis, a German plane showers them with leaflets. It addresses them as Muslims and promises them freedom if they defect to the other side. As Yassir studies the leaflet with obvious interest, he is upbraided by Corporal Abdelkader who reminds him that they are there to fight Germans. The beauty of this film is that it depicts a man like Yassir as a genuine hero, even though his devotion to patriotic abstractions is understandably limited.

“Days of Glory” has inspired a grass roots movement against French attempts to betray the Africans who laid down their lives to liberate their country. In the early 1960s, after decolonization was completed, France then decided to freeze the pensions of veterans of the African Army. In 1996, a Senegalese ex-Staff Sergeant, Amadou Diop, sued the French government. After serving in the army from 1937 to 1959, he was dismissed after Senegal became independent and only received a third of the pension he was entitled to. In 2001, the Council of State ruled in his favor posthumously but in 2003 the French government put a new freeze on the pensions. Despite homages to colonial troops made by Jacques Chirac in 2004, the question of “frozen” pensions has not been resolved, a matter that the film addresses in an onscreen postscript.

In a departure from standard film release practices, the Weinstein Company has scheduled press screenings even though the film is now being shown at the Angelika Theatre in New York City on a “trial basis”. If this is a bid to get a wider audience for this noteworthy film, I can only do my part by urging everybody who reads this review in the New York area to see this landmark film. It is a masterpiece.

December 12, 2006

Danny Hoch

Filed under: african-american,comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

At first blush, Danny Hoch–a New York Jew–seems to be the American Ali G. In the 1999 feature film “Whiteboyz”, which he co-wrote with Marc Levin, he plays a rural Iowan who dreams of being a gangsta rapper. A year later, “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop” appeared. Based on past Hoch performances on stage and television, he once again portrays a Black rapper wannabe as well as a number of other characters drawn from the streets of New York and rural poverty-stricken areas like the one depicted in “Whiteboyz”.

However, Hoch is no clown. His main interest is not in making people laugh (although he can be very funny), but in making them think about race and class, the fault-lines of American society exposed by Hurricane Katrina. He is in the performance art tradition of Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo, two other New Yorkers who have portrayed down-and-out characters on stage. And like these two, he is constantly being tempted by Hollywood to go mainstream. And unlike them, he has had the inner resources to resist such temptations.

A scene from “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop” illustrates this struggle to maintain his integrity as well as reflecting his sensitivity to racial oppression. On view at youtube.com and other venues, it shows how Hoch decided to challenge racism on the Seinfeld show, even if it jeopardized his chances of “making it.” After the Michael Richards outburst, the clip began to draw a lot of attention on the Internet. I first became aware of it after Doug Henwood–always alert to the vicissitudes of our age–forwarded a link to his LBO mailing list subscribers.

On the strength of his HBO appearances, Hoch was flown out to Hollywood to appear on a Seinfeld episode as “Ramon”, a Latino locker-room attendant who becomes obsessed with Seinfeld and keeps trying to hang out with him. After Hoch challenges the racist premises of the plot once too often, Seinfeld and his producers send him packing.

In another clash with entertainment industry big-shots, Hoch portrays M.C. Enuff, a Black rapper who is a guest on a fictionalized version of the Letterman show. Demonstrating both an affinity with hardcore’s frequent anti-establishment ethos and simultaneously his disgust with its misogyny and materialism, the Enuff character is played by Hoch as a bundle of contradictions. He simultaneously wants to kiss and bite the hand that feeds him.

Hoch plays Flip in “Whiteboyz,” a film that is based on an expanded version of a character he played in “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop.” He lives in a fantasy world of drug-dealing, shootings and rapping that is totally at odds with the native culture of his white, Corn Belt town. Khalid, his one Black friend is bemused by his fantasies, especially since he is far wealthier and college bound. The plot revolves around Flip’s abortive attempts to turn his fantasies into reality, culminating in a trip to a Chicago ghetto to buy a load of cocaine from a vicious dealer. The film is obviously an attempt to exploit Hoch’s HBO reputation, but like most products coming out of Hollywood loses something in the process. It is still worth watching.

While the Hoch white rapper conveys images of Ali G and Eminem, I believe that the cultural roots lie deeper. In a very real sense, Hoch’s obsession with Black culture is a throwback to the 1950s when the beat generation was looking for any kind of escape from mainstream corporate America, even if it was in the culture of the most oppressed sector of the population. It is obvious that Hoch’s engagement with this identity has a sharper edge than those reflected in earlier forays into Blackness since it is also a critique of the lust for fame and material success found almost universally among aspiring rappers. It is a ploy basically to utilize the status of Outsider to gain access to the Inside. As M.C. Enuff puts it to Letterman, once you have spent a vacation on a Caribbean island, who wants to go back to the hood.

In “On the Road,” as Sal Paradise (a central character based on author Jack Kerouac) walks through a Black neighborhood, he finds himself “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough. . . . I wished I were . . . anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.” Later on, he says “All my life I’d had white ambitions,” and finds himself “wishing I could exchange worlds with the . . . Negroes of America.”

In 1957, Norman Mailer wrote an article titled “The White Negro” for Dissent Magazine, a journal edited by Irving Howe, a former Trotskyist. Mailer himself had demonstrated some familiarity with Trotskyist politics based on the evidence of “Deer Park,” a novel that like much of Mailer I find unreadable. His nonfiction I have always found more compelling, even when I am not convinced by his ideas. I do remember reading “The White Negro” in 1960, just around the same time I read Kerouac’s “On the Road.” While I never found myself wanting to imitate Blacks, I agreed with Kerouac and Mailer that their world appeared more authentic.

Perhaps the fascination Black culture, especially rap music, has for white youths is not that different than what I saw in the early 1960s: an escape from alienation, phoniness and conformity.

NY Times, October 10, 1999

Straining to Live Black

By Danny Hoch

I WAS born in 1970, and was lucky enough to be growing up in New York City during hip-hop’s childhood. Although I was reared in a nominally Jewish single-parent household in Queens, I grew up writing graffiti on trains, b-boying (breakdancing) and rapping.

I say this not to prove how ”down” I am, but to point out that in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, before white mainstream America discovered that hip-hop was interesting (marketable), everyone in my neighborhood from grade school to high school was consumed with hip-hop culture, no matter what color they were or which language they spoke at home.

But when New York City police officers caught us writing graffiti or doing drugs, they arrested my black and Latino friends and told me and the young Indian and Russian thugs who were my friends to go home. Eventually, I was arrested, too. And while calling my mother from the station house, the arresting officer, who was Latino, asked me and my Italian-American friend why we didn’t leave this stuff to the blacks and Latinos — using more colorful language, of course. A 13-year-old in New York City, I found the distinctions he was making incomprehensible.

One might perceive this cross-cultural confusion as New York-specific, but now it can easily be found everywhere. In the film ”Whiteboys,” which opened on Friday, I play an Iowa teen-ager named Flip, who, like most of the world, gets all his images of African-Americans from television. Flip, who calls himself ”Flip-Dogg,” is unhappy because he’s white and lives in the rural Midwest rather than in the ”exciting” ghettos he sees on MTV.

Flip, whose family is on food stamps, looks at his favorite rap videos and sees black teen-agers in $1,000 suits living what seems to be the good life: reveling in the projects alongside their Mercedes-Benzes, surrounded by bikini-clad women, drinking champagne and toting briefcases full of cash. He sees material power in the hands of a population that wields virtually no political, corporate or media power at all in America. When he looks at white people on television, they all seem to be ruling-class, status-quo bores.

Then he looks in the mirror and wonders, ”Where do I fit?”

Read full article above

Danny Hoch website


December 8, 2006

In the Pit

Filed under: Film,workers — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

A couple of nights ago I went to a press screening for “In the Pit” (En el hoyo), a Mexican documentary by Juan Carlos Rulfo (son of a famous novelist) that will open soon in New York. Since it was focused on construction workers involved with a massive new elevated highway in Mexico City, I came with expectations that the film would be about class conflict and labor struggles. After the first 10 minutes or so, I began to feel a sense of disappointment after discovering that “In the Pit” had more in common with PBS documentaries on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge or Hoover Dam than it did with the labor movement. But after making some adjustments, I can recommend the film without qualifications for its formal elegance and for its willingness to give a voice to ordinary workers.

Rulfo described his goals in this film in a recent interview:

My latest film is about the city, called “In the Pit” (En el hoyo). This film is my second long feature documentary film and is based on the time I spent with a few construction workers who were building the biggest bridge of the city, with a fantastic landscape and background. I focused on the peculiar language they use, like slang plus the popular songs and… words with a “double sense.” But what I liked about this experience is the chance to work with people that are not easy to get along with. At the same time there was a beauty about them as well as a powerful attitude, representing something special. [They didn’t choose an obvious way in which] to talk about their misery, or the injustice they live [with] in their working conditions. I [tried] to be near them in their every day life, including the risks they took and [all of] the absurdity. [These are] things that could [seem] unimportant in a dramatic film, but become meaningful in this kind of film. The main idea is based on a Mexican legend, which says that in order for a bridge to be safe, and never [collapse], the devil asks or demands a soul. That is the price of safety.

The documentary alternates between showing the men (and one woman who monitors traffic to the construction site) at their work and allowing them to hold forth on their hopes and dreams as well as their frustrations. Politics enters into the mix exclusively on the basis of comments like “there are no good presidents anywhere in the world.” Much of the film is taken up with the men cursing each other out good-naturedly or whistling at women on the street below them. Indeed, the machismo becomes somewhat disturbing at one point when one of the workers confesses to having spent time in jail for beating his wife.

The film, however, does not really pursue social or psychological questions in any great depth. We do learn that one of the workers sees the dirty and dangerous job he is now doing as a big step up from working in the fields for $5 per day. The camera crew has followed him back to his farming village where his mother describes what it was like to work in the fields with a baby on her back, a livelihood that has left her with scarred lungs.

But mostly the film is about the act of working: men using jack-hammers to break rock or organizing steel rods into huge bundles in order to reinforce pillars. An endless procession of enormous trucks carry blocks of concrete that support the new highway. The final seven minutes of the film consists of a breathtaking panoramic sweep along the entire 10 mile length of the new highway accompanied by a techno score that pervades the film.

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