Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 31, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

Filed under: China,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 3:06 pm

The first five minutes of the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” consists of a long tracking shot down the aisle of an immense Chinese factory as thousands of workers sit at long tables assembling goods of an indeterminate nature. Most wear company-color yellow shirts or jackets suggesting worker bees in some enormous hive, where one works until one dies. The scene will also remind you of the concluding moments of the documentary “In the Pit,” which consists of a lengthy aerial view of the mammoth elevated highway construction project in Mexico City. “Manufactured Landscapes” shares the Mexican film’s sense of awe over large-scale capitalist development projects but is mixed with dread over their ultimate impact on humanity and nature.

“Manufactured Landscapes” was inspired by the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who specializes in landscapes of the most sterile and industrialized places on earth, particularly in China where the government is on a forced march to “modernize”. The documentary follows Burtynsky and his crew around China, as we see some of the most dramatic examples of the hyper-growth that is attracting investor dollars from around the world. As a skilled artist (we see many examples of his work throughout the film), Burtynsky manages to draw out the beauty of vast piles of coal, rusting ships, construction projects, factory interiors, etc. But as becomes clear in his travels around China, he feels that the impact on the environment ultimately threatens the “modernization” project itself.

This is seen most dramatically in one village’s involvement in recycling computers shipped in from the West that are scavenged for their precious metals. Called “E-Waste,” the discarded parts have polluted streams and rivers nearby the recycling centers to the point that water has to be shipped in. On April 10, 2006, Salon Magazine reported:

A parade of trucks piled with worn-out computers and electronic equipment pulls away from container ships docked at the port of Taizhou in the Zhejiang Province of southeastern China. A short distance inland, the trucks dump their loads in what looks like an enormous parking lot. Pools of dark oily liquid seep from under the mounds of junked machinery. The equipment comes mostly from the United States, Europe and Japan.

For years, developed countries have been exporting tons of electronic waste to China for inexpensive, labor-intensive recycling and disposal. Since 2000, it’s been illegal to import electronic waste into China for this kind of environmentally unsound recycling. But tons of debris are smuggled in with legitimate imports, corruption is common among local officials, and China’s appetite for scrap is so enormous that the shipments just keep on coming.

In Taizhou’s outdoor workshops, people bang apart the computers and toss bits of metal into brick furnaces that look like chimneys. Split open, the electronics release a stew of toxic materials — among them beryllium, cadmium, lead, mercury and flame retardants — that can accumulate in human blood and disrupt the body’s hormonal balance. Exposed to heat or allowed to degrade, electronics’ plastics can break down into organic pollutants that cause a host of health problems, including cancer. Wearing no protective clothing, workers roast circuit boards in big, uncovered woklike pans to melt plastics and collect valuable metals. Other workers sluice open basins of acid over semiconductors to remove their gold, tossing the waste into nearby streams. Typical wages for this work are about $2 to $4 a day.

Edward Burtynsky first became inspired to capture such images after taking a wrong turn in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s when he happened upon a huge coal pit. He was so mesmerized by the sheer power of the vista, as ugly as it was, and shocked by the damage to nature, that he resolved to make photographing such scenes the focus of his career.

He is not the typical photographer. As a teenager, he worked in automobile assembly plants and gold mines in Northern Ontario. Although he refrains from editorializing in his photographs (as does this very fine documentary), it is very clear that he is appalled by this spectacle of “progress”. In one scene, he shows a neighborhood in Shanghai that has been razed in order to make way for spanking-new high rises, with the exception of one old house whose elderly female inhabitant refuses to move. The high rises were simply built around her. The million or so villagers who were about to lose their homes because of the construction of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam had no choice. The film shows them being paid by the government to demolish their homes to make way for the new reservoir that will be created by the dam.

On Burtynsky’s website, he puts forward his vision:

Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

“Manufactured Landscapes” was directed by Jennifer Baichwal and opens at the Film Forum in New York on June 20. Highly recommended.

Scenes from the film

May 28, 2007

The Most Important Fish in the Sea

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

With its putrid smell, bony flesh and rancid oily taste, the menhaden would seem the least likely candidate for “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” the title of H. Bruce Franklin’s brilliant new environmentalist study. But Franklin is not being ironic. The menhaden is the most important fish in the sea if you understand its ecological purpose.

While it is understandable that groups like Greenpeace would take up the cause of sea creatures at the top of the food chain, like the great whales or the bluefin tuna, Franklin understands that without the easily dismissed menhaden, those above it on the food chain do not stand a chance. This includes the human race as well, since the menhaden is particularly suited to cleaning up plankton-ridden waters. As one of the few marine specimens that thrive on microscopic plant life or phyloplanton, it is uniquely positioned to purify waters that have become virtual swamps as a result of the massive influx of nitrogen-based fertilizers from farms, lawns and golf courses. With much of the Gulf of Mexico having been turned into a vast dead zone by fertilizer run-off from the Mississippi River, there is a drastic need for the humble menhaden.

The villain in “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” is industrial fishing in general and a particularly odious company called Omega Protein, whose website informs us that they “market a variety of products derived from menhaden, an inedible fish found in abundant quantities in coastal waters off the U.S. mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.” It might be inedible to human beings, but fish love to eat them. Franklin explains that what makes them unappealing to human beings has an irresistible appeal to prized food fish, including the striped bass and the bluefish. Once the menhaden eat phytoplankton, they convert it into omega-3 fatty acids that all living creatures require but are available from only limited sources, such as flaxseed, soybeans and walnuts. Unfortunately, the striped bass and the bluefish cannot stroll into the local grocery store to pick up a bag of walnuts.

Reading Omega Protein’s website, one would get the impression that they are mainly in the health food business. “Omega Protein is the nation’s largest producer of Omega-3 fish oil, protein rich fish meal, and fish solubles.” What they don’t tell you is that most of what they produce ends up as chicken or pig feed. Chickens and pigs of course can flourish on other foodstuffs, but the striped bass and the bluefish cannot. Like most corporations, Omega has one and only one goal and that is to make a profit. The top stock holders could probably care less if the ocean was turned into a vast dead zone as long as they are prospering. As a symbol of the irrationality of the capitalist system and the looming environmental crisis that threatens all life, it is difficult to imagine a more cold-blooded and criminal outfit than Omega.

Omega was originally a subsidiary of the Zapata Corporation that was launched by George H.W Bush in 1953 as Zapata Oil. It sold off Omega in 2006 to Wilber L. Ross, a leveraged buyout expert. So it should be obvious where this outfit inherited its corporate ethics. If they could make money processing human flesh, they probably would.

H. Bruce Franklin first found out about the menhaden plight on salt water fishing expeditions off the New Jersey coast and in Chesapeake Bay, where Omega still has the right to use industrial fishing techniques to catch millions of the endangered menhaden. Deprived of the menhaden, the local game fish were showing signs of malnutrition:

This first fish looked healthy and normal enough to me, though I wasn’t used to seeing stripers this small being kept (the minimum Chesapeake size was eighteen inches, compared to the New Jersey minimum then of twenty-four inches, and now of twenty-eight inches). But Joe pointed out a small, rather unremarkable lesion near the anus, something I would have missed. This rockfish was the healthiest-looking we caught, however, except for one. The next fish, with bright red open sores gnawing deep into its side and belly, gave me a taste of that revulsion Jim must have felt back in 1997. One after the other, we caught diseased rockfish, each with horrifying symptoms.

If Omega Corporation only considers the menhaden in terms of what Karl Marx called “exchange value”, the original inhabitants of the New World–being primitive communists–were far more tuned in to its “use value”. They understood that the menhaden and other fish had enormous value as fertilizer and taught the pilgrims to bury them near corn. The Narragansett Indians called them munnawhatteaûg, which meant “fertilizer” or “that which manures”.

Not only are the menhaden useful as fertilizer, their oil can be used in the same way that whale oil was used in the 1800s–as a lubricant and as fuel. Not surprisingly, this led to the same kind of industrialized fishing techniques that came close to wiping out the whale. The menhaden were also reduced to a relative handful as vast purse nets in offshore waters on the Atlantic Coast yielded billions of fish. When alarms were raised about their possible extinction, the 19th century versions of Julian Simon dismissed them as chicken-little stories as Franklin’s epigraph to chapter five (“The Death of Fish and the Birth of Ecology”) would indicate:

I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do-seriously affects the number of the fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case, to be useless.

–Thomas Henry Huxley, 1883

Considering the New York Times’s long-standing record of hewing closely to the agenda of corporate America, it is totally to be expected that they would repeat Huxley’s argument. When evidence began to mount in the early 1880s that the menhaden were being fished into extinction, the newspaper of record tried to get the commercial fishing industry off the hook:

It has been shown over and over again that man’s take of the sea fishes is utterly insignificant when the whole bulk of the fish is considered. Predaceous fish and birds, all the natural enemies of the fish, destroy more perhaps in a single hour than man captures in the year.

Although most of H. Bruce Franklin’s impressive scholarship is focused on the records of newspaper, magazine, industry associations and government agencies over the past 125 years or so, he does make one foray into popular culture that demonstrates this scholar’s eclectic and multifaceted approach (he has written on science fiction). He notes that a Simpson’s episode from 1997 very possibly alluded to the menhaden crisis. C. Montgomery Burns, the nuclear power plant owner that employs Homer Simpson and an all-round villain, launched a new business that sounds a lot like Omega. Trying to pull the wool over Homer’s daughter Lisa, a committed environmentalist and vegetarian, he has come up with something called “Li’l Lisa’s Patented Animal Slurry”, a high-protein feed for farm animals, insulation for low-income housing, a powerful explosive, and a top-notch engine coolant. When Lisa tells Burns that he is up to something evil, he responds, “I don’t understand. Pigs need food, engines need coolant, dynamiters need dynamite…and not a single sea creature was wasted.”

Considering H. Bruce Franklin’s long-time involvement with Herman Melville studies (he was the Program Director of the Melville Society in 1978 to 1979), his decision to write about the menhaden appears consistent with his own approach to Melville. Along with CLR James, Franklin is convinced that “Moby Dick” is a quintessential indictment of American capitalism. As one might expect, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” is constructed around a rigorous historical materialist methodology and a sure command of the economic data.

If this wasn’t enough to recommend this powerful and insightful book, there is also the beauty of the prose that takes on Melvillian dimensions on page after page, especially the opening paragraphs of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” which is very likely the most important book you will read this year:

First you see the birds—gulls and terns wheeling overhead, then swooping down to a wide expanse of water dimpled as though by large raindrops and glittering with silver streaks. The sea erupts with frothy splashes, some from the diving birds, others from foot-long fish with deeply forked tails frantically hurling themselves out of the water, only to fall back into their tightly packed school. More and more birds materialize as if from nowhere, and the air rings with their shrill screams. Boats too begin to converge on the scene: the boiling cloud of birds has told anglers everywhere within view that a school of menhaden, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands, is being ravaged by a school of bluefish.

Attacking from below and behind to slash the menhaden bodies with their powerful jaws, the razor-toothed blues are in a killing frenzy, gorging themselves with the severed backs and bellies of their prey, some killing even when they are too full to eat, some vomiting half-digested pieces so they can kill and eat again. Terns skim gracefully over the surface with their pointed bills down, dipping to pluck bits of flesh and entrails from the bloody swirls. Gulls plummet and flop heavily into the water, where a few splash about and squabble noisily over larger morsels. As some lift with their prizes, the squabbles turn aerial and a piece occasionally falls back into the water, starting a new round of shrieking skirmishes. Hovering high above the other birds, a male osprey scans for targets beneath the surface, then suddenly folds its gull-shaped wings and power-dives through the aerial tumult, extends its legs and raises its wings high over its head an instant before knifing into the water in a plume of spray, emerges in another plume, and laboriously flaps its four-foot wingspan as it slowly climbs and soars away with a writhing menhaden held headfirst in its talons. Beneath the blues, iridescent weakfish begin to circle, snapping at small lumps sinking from the carnage. Farther below, giant but toothless striped bass gobble tumbling heads and other chunks too big for the mouths of the weakfish. From time to time, bass muscle their way up through the blues, swallow whole menhaden alive, and propel themselves back down with their broom-like tails, leaving telltale swirls on the surface. On the mud below, crabs scuttle to scavenge on leftovers.

May 26, 2007

Alexander Cockburn’s “experts”

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

A modified version of Alexander Cockburn’s Nation Magazine article “The Greenhousers Strike Back, and Strike Out” has just shown up on Counterpunch. The main difference between the two articles is that Counterpunch version puts one degree of separation between our contrarian left journalist and the sleazy Frederick Seitz, who is to climatology as Judith Miller is to the subject of arms control in the Middle East.

Frederick Seitz, the Judith Miller of climatology, took money from RJ Reynolds

Patrick J. Michaels, another Cockburn expert, received money from big coal and mining

In the Nation Magazine piece, Cockburn invoked Seitz’s trashy name directly, while in the Counterpunch article, he allows one Fred Goldberg to do the dirty work. Goldberg, a Swedish scientist whose main area of expertise appears to be welding technology, accuses Bert Bolin, another Swedish scientist and former chairman of the IPCC, with suppressing counter-evidence on global warming. Cockburn cites Goldberg as follows:

Professor Fredrik Seitz, former chairman of the American Science Academy, wrote in the Wall Street Journal already the 12th of June 1996 about a major deception on global warming: “I have never before witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process than the events that led to this IPCC report.” He gave many examples of changes and redefinitions and finished by demanding that the IPCC process should be abandoned.

Had somebody subordinate to Bert Bolin within IPCC made these changes it is reasonable to think that Bert Bolin himself would correct the errors. That he has not done is why I draw the conclusion that it must be Bert Bolin himself who is responsible for the changes and no subordinate person has dared interfere with his boss.

As much as I understand Alexander trying to put a bit of distance between himself and Seitz, we are obliged to provide some background on this shady character:

The first mention of Frederick Seitz in Lexis-Nexis is a November 12, 1980 article that informs us of his inclusion on a panel of scientists that will help President Reagan “strengthen programs in military, industrial and space technology as a means of reasserting American strategic and economic supremacy.” No doubt Reagan felt that Seitz’s involvement with a pro-nuclear group Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy recommended him highly. Throughout the 1980s, Seitz would write articles to the NY Times arguing that a Chernobyl could not happen here. The irony, of course, is that Cockburn now views alarm over global warming as a conspiracy to promote nuclear energy. When he wasn’t pumping for nuclear power, Seitz was making the case for SDI.

At the end of the 1990s, Seitz switched gears and began to take up the cause that global warming was a lie. Long before the ruling class began to wake up to the fact that global warming might threaten the ability of the capitalist system to reproduce itself, the bourgeois press was using Seitz as a cudgel against the environmentalists, just as Cockburn is doing today. An April 5, 1995 Washington Post editorial titled “And Now the Good News About the Environment” cites Seitz:

Despite success, many environmentalists are still “proclaiming emergencies that do not exist,” as Easterbrook writes. Health hazards are routinely sensationalized. The “crisis” of the moment is the “greenhouse effect”: the danger that temperatures will rise because carbon dioxide (a product of carbon fuel combustion) will trap heat in the atmosphere. As Easterbrook shows, the threat may be overstated. Carbon dioxide is a tiny part of air (350 parts per million). Small shifts may not matter; or temperature changes may stay within a range that might occur naturally. A new report from the George C. Marshall Institute — headed by Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Sciences — goes further; it dismisses chances of a major global warming as “inconsequential.”

Eventually it became difficult for Seitz to exploit his past affiliations with the National Academy of Sciences, especially when current members became upset with his use of stationary that to the casual eye looked like the Academy’s. The April 22, 1998 NY Times reported:

The National Academy of Sciences has taken the extraordinary step of disassociating itself from a statement and petition circulated by one of its former presidents that attack the scientific conclusions underlying international efforts to control emissions of industrial waste gases believed to cause global warming.

The petition, which its backers say has been signed by 15,000 scientists, calls for the Government to reject the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty imposing limits on emissions of gases like carbon dioxide that was negotiated by more than 150 countries in Kyoto, Japan, last December.

The petition was accompanied by what appeared to be the report of a scientific study concluding that emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, pose no climatic threat and instead amount to “a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution.” The article was attached to a letter by Dr. Frederick Seitz, a past president of the academy and president emeritus of Rockefeller University, urging people to sign the petition and calling attention to the article.

Many atmospheric scientists and ecologists who believe global warming to be a serious threat had expressed anger and alarm over the article because it was printed in a format and type face similar to that of the academy’s own journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In his letter, Dr. Seitz, a longtime skeptic on the question of global warming, also identified himself as a past academy president.

On Monday, citing “confusion” created by the petition and the unpublished article, the Council of the Academy, its governing board, disassociated itself from them and said in a statement that the petition “does not reflect the conclusion of expert reports of the academy.”

Of course, in Alexander’s contrarian universe, this might actually bolster Seitz’s credentials since his detractors are those typical fake scientists who use those phony computer models as part of a secret plot to pave the way for nuclear power.

Seitz was never one to pass up an opportunity to make a buck. Consulting fees for his “expert” advice on global warming was supplemented by payoffs from the tobacco industry that was anxious to find a scientist friendly to their cause. In the May 2006 Vanity Fair, Mark Hertsgaard reported:

Call him the $45 million man. That’s how much money Dr. Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, helped R. J. Reynolds Industries, Inc., give away to fund medical research in the 1970s and 1980s. The research avoided the central health issue facing Reynolds—”They didn’t want us looking at the health effects of cigarette smoking,” says Seitz, who is now 94—but it nevertheless served the tobacco industry’s purposes. Throughout those years, the industry frequently ran ads in newspapers and magazines citing its multi-million-dollar research program as proof of its commitment to science—and arguing that the evidence on the health effects of smoking was mixed.

In the 1990s, Seitz began arguing that the science behind global warming was likewise inconclusive and certainly didn’t warrant imposing mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. He made his case vocally, trashing the integrity of a 1995 I.P.C.C. report on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal, signing a letter to the Clinton administration accusing it of misrepresenting the science, and authoring a paper which said that global warming and ozone depletion were exaggerated threats devised by environmentalists and unscrupulous scientists pushing a political agenda. In that same paper, Seitz asserted that secondhand smoke posed no real health risks, an opinion he repeats in our interview. “I just can’t believe it’s that bad,” he says.

I should also mention that there is one other rogue that Alexander relies on to build his case against global warming, Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia. In a December 1995 Harper’s Magazine article titled “The Heat Is On: The Warming of the World’s Climate Sparks a Blaze of Denial,” Ross Gelbspan reports:

But while the skeptics portray themselves as besieged truth-seekers fending off irresponsible environmental doomsayers, their testimony in St. Paul and elsewhere revealed the source and scope of their funding for the first time. [Pat] Michaels has received more than $115,000 over the last four years from coal and energy interests. World Climate Review, a quarterly he founded that routinely debunks climate concerns, was funded by Western Fuels. Over the last six years, either alone or with colleagues, Balling has received more than $200,000 from coal and oil interests in Great Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. Balling (along with Sherwood Idso) has also taken money from Cyprus Minerals, a mining company that has been a major funder of People for the West-a militantly anti-environmental “Wise Use” group.

In the past Alexander Cockburn would have not made common cause with anybody connected to the Wise Use movement, just as Christopher Hitchens would have avoided lining up with the CIA or the State Department. Somebody more expert in the field of abnormal psychology might have an explanation for this peculiar evolution, but I will just stick with the facts.

What Marx meant by primitive accumulation

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 12:55 am

I plan to blog thousands of words over the summer about the “transition debate”, which involves principals including Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, Robert Brenner, Jim Blaut et al but just want to jump the gun on something that is fresh in my mind.

Richard, of Lenin’s Tomb fame, has been posting rather frequently on this question. This in fact is what prompted me to return to the subject once again. Today he has a post about 16th century Holland that asserts “the essential character of surplus-extraction in the Dutch economy was pre-capitalist commerce and ‘political’ extraction.”

1) This led me to comment:

One of the difficulties faced in defining 16th and 17th century Holland as non-capitalist or pre-capitalist is that it logically entails answering the question in positive terms. If it wasn’t capitalism, what was it? Keep in mind that Engels’s schema in “Origins of the Family” defines capitalism as immediately following feudalism. He didn’t come up with these stages on his own. They were shared by Marx. Was 16th and 17th century Holland “feudal”? If so, then the word has no use as a strict social science category.

2) Richard replied:

We may be in need of a new typology, because the phrase ‘transitional forms’ doesn’t seem to capture what happened, and nor does ‘absolutism’. But I think that we can at least say that commerce develops in a variety of modes of production, and its character is determined by what mode of production it is integrated into. Dutch commerce was integrated into and reliant on the dyamics of a European system that was still largely feudal, with the exception of England, so I think it can be characterised as pre-capitalist precisely as the Italian city-states were.

3) I then commented:

I don’t think it is necessary to come up with a new typology. Marx already summed this “transitional” stage up as primitive accumulation. The chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in Capital V. 1 is replete with references to slavery, trade monopolies like the East India Company. This is how capitalism began. It combined separation of the peasants from the means of production in Western Europe, slavery of Africans, forced labor in Latin America, colonial domination in Asia, etc.

4) Richard replied:

No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t cut it. First of all, he phrased it the “so-called primitive accumulation”.


At this stage I prepared a lengthy comment on primitive accumulation but it got lost in the process of re-clicking the comment link by accident. In general, I don’t think that the comments sections of blogs are useful for these kinds of exchanges. They don’t incorporate the typographical tools that listservs provide, nor are they organized by thread, so that it is difficult to keep track of things. In light of this, I am going to say a few words about primitive accumulation here rather than on his blog.

To start with, the “so-called” is a reference to bourgeois economists who preceded Marx. He characterized their views in chapter 26 of Capital (The Secret of Capital Accumulation) as follows:

This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone-by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential.

In other words, primitive accumulation in Adam Smith’s view was a kind of morality tale, like the one involving the ant and the grasshopper.

Marx retained the term primitive accumulation but gave it his own meaning:

The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.

There is nothing moral about this. It is accomplished through a combination of deceit, theft and superior class power. In chapter 31 (The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist), he explains the role of primitive accumulation in the earliest stages of the capitalist system:

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.

You’ll note that Marx does not equate primitive accumulation with the enclosure acts, or other measures that separated the British peasant from the means of production in the late middle ages. He refers to the colonies and the protectionist system, an aspect of the early stages of capitalism that Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood and Benno Teschke either ignore or regard as a kind of impediment to capitalist development. Did Marx view trading monopolies as impediments to capital accumulation? Obviously not:

The English East India Company, as is well known, obtained, besides the political rule in India, the exclusive monopoly of the tea-trade, as well as of the Chinese trade in general, and of the transport of goods to and from Europe. But the coasting trade of India and between the islands, as well as the internal trade of India, were the monopoly of the higher employés of the company. The monopolies of salt, opium, betel and other commodities, were inexhaustible mines of wealth.

He continues:

The colonial system ripened, like a hot-house, trade and navigation. The ‘societies Monopolia’ of Luther were powerful levers for concentration of capital. The colonies secured a market for the budding manufactures, and, through the monopoly of the market, an increased accumulation. The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital. Holland, which first fully developed the colonial system, in 1648 stood already in the acme of its commercial greatness.

Let me repeat for emphasis: “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.

In other words, the capitalist system was launched on the backs of looted, enslaved and murdered Indians and Blacks. These people don’t get much mention in Benno Teschke’s “1648”. Jim Blaut said this sort of thing was a function of Eurocentrism and I tend to agree with him.

I will have more to say about all this over the summer, but I want to conclude with a recommendation that comrades take a look at Michael Perelman’s “The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation”. It is a thorough debunking of the theories of Adam Smith and other more obscure political economists who held to the “original sin”, ant and grasshopper concept.

May 24, 2007

Ten Canoes

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:03 pm


In recent years there have been a growing number of films that focus on the lives of indigenous peoples and that are made from their point of view, including “The Fast Runner” and “The Story of the Weeping Camel”–about Inuit and Mongolian society respectively.

They are now joined by “Ten Canoes,” a film about the Yolngu aborigines of Australia’s northwestern Arnhem Land. “Ten Canoes” was the brainchild of David Gulpilil, a Yolngu actor who starred in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 “Walkabout,” “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” and a host of other films. After kicking around some ideas for an all-Yolngu film with director Rolf de Heer, a Dutchman who moved to Australia in 1959, they finally settled on a story inspired by the image of ten canoes that appeared in a photo taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson in the 1930s. Thomson worked in Arnhem Land when the indigenous people’s lives were still relatively untouched by capitalist property relations. His photos depicted daily life, like the creation of canoes, the preparing of food, rituals, etc. With the help of today’s Yolngu people, who only have memories of this life for the most part, “Ten Canoes” is an attempt to recreate that reality. Co-Director Peter Djigirr, who helped to write the script with other indigenous peoples, explained the importance of capturing their traditions on film:

We come from this land.

People, Balanda [a word for whites derived from Hollander, the first Europeans to come into contact with the Yolngu], always come, miners and that, and we always say no to them, no mining, because we don’t want to lose our culture. White man’s ways will just destroy us.

We have our law from long time ago, important law for everything, but all them white men come more and more and we can’t stay in that law. That law just dropping away.

If we go more further with losing our law then maybe white men can tell us, “Where’s your culture?…Nothing, you’re lost, all bad luck for you.”

The story of “Ten Canoes” has a shaggy dog quality. With narration by David Gulpilil, it is far more interested in depicting the “undramatic” diurnal existence of his people. The opening scenes, for example, depict a group of Yolngu men stripping bark from trees deep within the swamp, carrying them back to their village on their heads and preparing it to be turned into canoes. As they go about their chores, they joke with each other and gossip about village life.

We soon learn that the young and unmarried Dayindi (played by Jamie Gulpilil, David’s son) lusts after the youngest of the three wives of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal). When village elder Birrinbirrin (played by co-producer Richard Birrinbirrin, a Yolngu artist and conservator of indigenous culture) discovers this, he spins out a long tale that amounts to a film within the film about their ancestors from 10,000 years earlier who get involved with similar conflicts over women.

The Aesopian moral of the story is that you are often better off making do with what you have. The general picture of Yolngu mores that emerges from the film is that strife is to be avoided at all costs. When one of Dayindi’s ancestors kills a man from another village in a jealous rage, the rival camps agree to a “payback”, which involves the killer dodging spears thrown by the aggrieved villagers. This “eye for an eye” ritual is understood by all Yolngus as a way of avoiding more costly wars.

Interestingly enough, the contemporary Yolngus who cooperated on the writing of the film had to be coaxed into including even this much conflict. Since it was represented as something that happened 10,000 years ago, it was more readily accepted.

Since the film is far more focused on daily life than on typical Western dramatic conflict, the rhythms of the film might seem slack. However, once you adjust to them, the film satisfies on other levels. It is an opportunity to see what life was like for indigenous peoples in Australia on their own terms. Compared to the daily horrors of capitalist society, they seem far more civilized.

“Ten Canoes” is scheduled to open at Cinema Village in New York on June 1. The film’s website is at http://www.tencanoes.com.au

May 23, 2007

Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 3:37 pm

Veteran Israeli leftist Reuven Kaminer wrote an interesting critique of Hannah Arendt recently. While reading it, I noticed a reference to her husband Heinrich Blücher and remembered that I had written about the two before as follows:

When I arrived at Bard College as a freshman in 1961, the worst excesses of the witch-hunt were already over. McCarthy had been repudiated and Kennedy was president. What had not come to an end was a very powerful anti-Marxist ideological consensus. Emblematic of that fact was the key role assigned to ex-OSS agent Heinrich Blücher, whose mandatory Common Course lectures at Bard were basically meant to indoctrinate students against Marxism.

Bard was one of a tiny constellation of American colleges back then which had pretensions of free thought. Along with Goddard, Antioch, Oberlin and the recently deceased Black Mountain College, Bard had a reputation for being bohemian and radical. Gossip columnist had tagged Bard as the “little Red whorehouse on the Hudson.” It was not Red.

Blücher’s lectures were steeped very heavily in the existentialist tradition, the postmodernism of its day. Because the USA was a much more reactionary place in 1961, there was very little need for anticommunist professors to even pay lip-service to Marx. Blücher basically regarded Marxism and fascism on the same level, as demented “essentialist” systems that would destroy individualism and freedom. The three key figures in this ideological offensive were Hannah Arendt, who was married to Blücher, Daniel Bell and Albert Camus.

Their arguments were heavily influenced by Heidegger and his prime influence, Nietzsche. Heidegger had been Arendt’s guru and lover. Arendt, who repudiated his anti-Semitism while never really disavowing the Nietzschean roots of the philosophy that had made collaboration with Hitler possible, was the towering figure in early 1960s liberal anticommunist consensus. Yale deconstructionist guru Paul De Man, who comes out of this same intellectual milieu, provoked a major scandal in the 1980s when it was revealed that he wrote for Nazi publications in occupied Belgium during WWII, a fact that legions of his deconstructionist and postmodernist acolytes worked overtime to rationalize.

In essence, 1950s existentialism and 1980s postmodernism can be explained as a rear guard action by Western intellectuals in imperialist nations to discredit the sole political force capable of eliminating the material basis for their privileges. As such, it is a reactionary ideology. (On Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list, Michael Hoover described postmodernism as being very “80s”. I would agree with him, but not on the century. It is 1880s, not 1980s.) The terms of the debate are very similar, but the terminology is different. Instead of “grand narratives” being the enemy, the 1950s thinkers railed against what they described as absolutist and essentialist tendencies in Western thought. Plato was identified as the father of this illegitimate child, but Hegel was really the arch-enemy. Hegel was blamed for Marx, who inspired Stalin to create a runaway, monstrous system. Nietzsche had his wrist slapped from time to time, but more often than not existentialist anti-Communists explained Nazism away as a mutant strain rather than the culmination of ideological currents in German society. Of course, neither Nazi Germany nor Stalin’s Russia could be blamed on 19th century existentialist thinkers or Ideas of any sort, but on the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.

Blücher was a powerful influence on me, both in what he had to say and in the kind of life he had led. A 5 foot, 4 inch barrelchested man, he chain smoked Camels and spoke with a deep German accent and could always be spotted in the coffee shop holding forth among admiring students. The main thing I learned from him was that ideas did matter and that defending them with passion was the most important thing in life.

I never knew much about his personal life except that he was married to Hannah Arendt and part of the German intellectual circle around Karl Jaspers and other Weimar figures. This morning I picked up David Laskin’s “Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals”, a book that is has been described as elevated gossip. That’s fine with me, since Vanity Fair and People magazines bore me and I like gossip just as much as the next person. Here’s Laskin’s portrait of Blücher, who comes across as a much more alive and charismatic figure than the postmodernist midgets of today:

Heinrich Blücher, the German gentile refugee with whom she fell in love in Paris in the spring of 1936 was emphatically not a jabbering, paralyzed intellectual, though he was certainly loud and fiercely engaged with ideas. Thirty-seven when they met at a public lecture (she was twenty-nine), the son of a laundress, a former Communist, twice married (in fact, still secretly married to his second wife), explosive in argument, self-taught, a compact but commanding physical presence, Blücher had come of age in the chaos of the German defeat in World War I and the upheavals of the Weimar Republic. Blücher lived life to the full in the heady bohemia of postwar Berlin. He participated in Communist demonstrations and street fighting in 1918 and 1919; he joined a Zionist youth organization, even though he was Protestant by birth; he befriended expressionist artists, filmmakers, and circus entertainers and mingled freely with them in cafés and clubs; he carried on numerous love affairs; and, whenever he had the money and time, he bought and devoured books. Blücher was every inch the self-made man, the man of the people, the outsider who thumbed his nose at received opinions as he beat a path to a higher, sturdier, strikingly original truth of his own manufacture. Alfred Kazin writes revealingly in his diary of his first impression of Blücher in New York:

[A]lways wound up, a bit rough in manner but intellectually “pure,” a prodigious autodidact and walking philosopher always trying to make up for his lack of university degree. . . . Blücher [sic] is an unstoppable mental creature, orates without stopping in his living room on any “great thinker” who has aroused his attention–from Heraclitus to Joachim of Floris… shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. . . . Heinrich is given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge. I am told that German Communists thought of Heinrich as their military expert.” But he is the kind of obsessively reflective, altogether human German I no longer expected to meet. My God, the Berlin he encountered in 1919 after the army! In the midst of revolution and counterrevolution, angry mobs all over the place, you could hear Wagner or Bach just by inserting a coin in a box standing on a street corner.

Kazin added more recently: Blücher was a fantastic talker with a hypnotic style, although you were not always sure what he said.” The German novelist Hermann Broch also remarked on Blücher’s unstoppable flow of oratory brilliance. “After Hannah had gone to bed Heinrich gave me a lecture until three in the morning,” Broch wrote his wife during a visit to Arendt and Blücher. “I did not interrupt his lecture at all. He doesn’t let himself be interrupted. It was probably the most enjoyable evening that I have had for months. The thinking of this man is of an uncorruptible clarity such as one finds only in geniuses. He really is a genius in this uncorruptibility.”

Arendt fell into intense, consuming conversation with Blücher in the cafes and cramped apartments of refugee Paris and then fell in love with him. “[F]or both of them intellectual argument was part and parcel of passion,” writes Young-Bruehl. In a sense their relationship was a never-ending conversation–an intellectual duet that sustained the two of them in a state of perpetual excitement and discovery. “They had a self-absorbed relationship,” recalls Kazin. “They were always talking, talking, talking.” Theirs was a heated, impassioned conversation, but also “a passion,” as Arendt’s friend Anne Weil put it. “It was a great love affair,” says Jerome Kohn–and evidently an intensely erotic love affair when it began, even though Arendt was not an especially physical person. A year after they met, Arendt wrote Blücher that because of him, “I … finally know what happiness is.. . . It still seems to me unbelievable, that I could achieve both–a great love, and a sense of identity with my own person. And yet I achieved the one only since I have the other.”

Part of Blücher’s appeal for Arendt was that he was not a conventional intellectual: the roughness, the bluster, the vehement rawness of his arguments aroused her in every sense. The fact that Blücher had some experience in the world, that he had tested and honed his political beliefs in the trenches of World War I and the streets of Berlin, gave him a charismatic authority that no one else in her circle possessed. Arendt, who had studied with Heidegger and Jaspers, who had secured a doctorate from the university at Heidelberg for her dissertation on the concept of love in Saint Augustine, absorbed everything she could from this self-taught dynamo, whom she began calling “Monsieur.” He was, as a friend put it, not only her husband and friend but “the last of her teachers.” They became intellectual partners-.—not equals, for Blücher lacked her discipline, refinement, and rigorous classical training, and though he spoke brilliantly he could not write. Yet in their own unevenly matched Way they were collaborators. Arendt once wrote that “in marriage, it is not always easy to tell the partners’ thoughts apart,” and that’s how it was with her and Blücher. When she published her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in 1951, she dedicated it to Blücher and warmly acknowledged the critical role he had played in her writing. Their friend Kurt Blumenfeld notes that the book reflects “the unwritten political philosophy of the person to whom it is dedicated,” a view Arendt totally endorsed.

May 22, 2007

Haleh Esfandiari

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iran — louisproyect @ 4:56 pm


Haleh Esfandiari

From the May 22, 2007 N.Y. Times:

The Islamic Republic of Iran yesterday accused a prominent American academic it imprisoned two weeks ago of conspiring to foment a velvet revolution there.

A statement from the Intelligence Ministry that was reported on state television said that Haleh Esfandiari and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., along with similar institutions like the Soros Foundation, had been trying to establish a network that would work “against the sovereignty of the country.”

“This is an American-designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country,” the statement said.

Ms. Esfandiari, 67, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, went to Iran five months ago on one of her twice-annual visits to her ailing 93-year-old mother. She was prevented from leaving the country last December, then jailed in the notorious Evin prison on May 8…

“I think a very small percentage of Iran’s political elite actually believe the country’s national security is enhanced by imprisoning a 67-year-old grandmother,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who follows Iranian issues. “What is undeniably clear is that the government in Tehran has only increased the ranks of those in Washington who argue that this regime in Iran is too cruel to be engaged.”

Indeed, there has been an outpouring of criticism from American academics ranging from Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the American Association of University Professors, which issued a statement on Monday calling on Iran to respect academic freedom and release Ms. Esfandiari.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America issued a similar statement and its past president, Professor Juan Cole at the University of Michigan, announced on his widely read blog, Informed Comment, on Friday that he would not attend a Tehran conference organized by French academics in June. He also called for public protests.

“They risk returning Iran to the kind of intellectual and cultural isolation that it suffered in the Khomeini period,” Mr. Cole said in an interview.

Isn’t it remarkable that the N.Y. Times would cite Noam Chomsky and Juan Cole, two leading critics of American foreign policy? A cursory search of the newspaper’s archives produces no such call upon Chomsky as a moral authority in at least the past year. More often than not, you will find something like this written by the cruise-missile leftist Paul Berman a few months after the death of Pierre Vidal-Naquet:

In the late 1970s, Vidal-Naquet noticed that a preposterous new theory had arisen in France — a theory that Nazi crimes against the Jews were largely a hoax concocted by Zionist conspirators. Vidal-Naquet also noticed that, in the face of this theory, some mainstream journalists and intellectuals in France, not knowing how to react, instinctively accorded the theory a degree of respect, deserving of an evenhanded debate. A literature professor named Robert Faurisson championed the theory, and the American linguist Noam Chomsky, then at the height of his intellectual prestige in France, composed a statement, which ran as the preface to Faurisson’s book, describing Faurisson as a liberal and defending him against the charge of anti-Semitism.

The purpose of invoking Noam Chomsky and Juan Cole should be clear. It is meant to undermine leftist opposition to war with Iran. If these two principled scholars can line up on the same side as the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Soros Foundation, two outfits that are for regime change, what should the average Nation Magazine reader think? If there isn’t a case for war against Iran, then at least there might be reasons not to get too worked up protesting it.

Ironically, the same tactic that Berman used–unfairly–against Chomsky was also used against the Iranian government for genuine holocaust denial. If you go to Zundelsite.org, the website commemorating the infamous neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, you will be able to read this communication:

Dr Jawad Sharbaf, Managing Director, Neda Institute of Political Sciences (Teheran)
To Professor Robert Faurisson, December 19, 2005

Dear Professor Faurisson

I take this opportunity to express Neda Institute of Scientific-Political Research and Studies’ deep sorrow to you and all revisionists regarding the UN resolution on “Holocaust Day” [of November 1, 2005]. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s recent remarks doubting the “Holocaust” have created a favourable situation for revisionism. Our assumption for the time being is that the President will undoubtedly do his best if you make contact and request assistance for organising an international conference on revisionism. Should you require any help in this regard, please do not hesitate to contact me.

With the best of good wishes, Dr Jawad Sharbaf, Managing Director, Neda Institute

The overture to Faurisson and the arrest of Haleh Esfandiari have a kind of tin-eared anti-imperialism in common. They create a sense of being under siege by the West that helps to undermine the class struggle. If the West is sending spies like Haleh Esfandiari or likening Ahmadinejad to Adolph Hitler–a rhetoric that is reminiscent of the overtures to war with Saddam Hussein–then it is “counter-revolutionary” to oppose the Iranian government.

In the indispensable “Iran on the Brink” by Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian, the authors make this observation about the furor created by the “revisionist” conference in Iran:

The rulers of the Islamic Republic see this situation as an opportunity to galvanise patriotic support for the regime and clamp down on all social and political opposition as treason. It is the Republic’s oldest trick. Thus in the latter part of 2005, Ahmadinejad used threats from the West to increase the general militarisation of Iran. One of his Pasdaran fellows, the current Commander Yahya Rahim Safavi, had already at the time of the 2003 Iraq invasion announced that the American war to dominate Islamic culture made Pasdaran’s cultural mission a top defence priority. Now the Pasdaran has taken full advantage of the heightened tension, and while their worst apprehensions have thus far not been fulfilled, Ahmadinejad has indeed used his power to step up repression. Journalism, Internet traffic, philosophers and student activists have been among the victims of attacks, carried out under the pretext of thwarting Western schemes for infiltration. And the West is indeed assisting.

In the coming months, there will be increased pressure to isolate Iran and to soften public opinion for a war. We have no way to influence the thinking of people such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is determined at all costs to maintain mullah/bazaari rule through a combination of repression and demagogic “anti-imperialist” posturing.

For those of us who are committed to socialism and non-intervention, it is more necessary than ever to maintain an independent class position. Our credibility as critics of U.S. foreign policy will be lost if we are seen as apologists for the boneheaded blunders of Iran’s clerics and their political servants.

May 20, 2007

Which Alexander Cockburn should we believe?

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:08 pm

Manmade global warming theory is fed by pseudo quantitative prediction from climate-careerists working primarily off the big, mega-computer General Circulation Models, which include the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Department of Commerce’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab.

Alexander Cockburn, “Who Are the Merchants of Fear”, Nation Magazine, May 18, 2007

* * * * *

From chapter three of “The Fate of the Forest” by Alexander Cockburn and Susanna Hecht:


Combustion of petroleum products in the First World provides most of the carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and chlorofluorocarbons going into the atmosphere, but Third World energy use and deforestation contribute to the ever-increasing amounts. One index of the changing situation is the rising curve of complaints from satellite photo-analysts that they are unable to get decent dry-season shots of the Amazon anymore, because of the great clouds of smoke and particulates hanging over large parts of the forest. The reasons for this pall are quite clear when one examines the numbers of fires and the consequent contributions of particulates and ‘greenhouse’ gases. Compton Tucker and his colleagues at the Goddard Space Flight Center have monitored the numbers of fires during the burning period of July through September 1987 in a quadrant from 6.5 to 15.5 degrees latitude and 55 to 67 ‘ degrees west longitude, an area that includes Rondonia and western Mato Grosso; i.e., that of the most severe burning on the Amazon flank. What they have shown is that more than 8,000 fires burn each day during the burning season. Factoring in the average duration of fires, Tucker’s group arrived at a total of 240,000 fires over the season. On the average each fire belches out some 4,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide, 750 metric tons of carbon monoxide and more than 25 metric tons of methane. By the end of the burning season more than 10 million metric tons of particulates have darkened the sky.

May 19, 2007

Six Days

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 3:49 pm

The subtitle of “Six Days,” a documentary that opened yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York, is “June 1967: The War that Changed the Middle East.” Directed by Israeli émigré Ilan Ziv, it generally follows the formula of PBS Frontline shows or the History Channel. Striving for a neutral approach that avoids any hint of editorializing until the final 20 minutes, it concludes with a devastating look at the impact of Israel’s blitzkrieg victory in 1967–leaving no doubt about the director’s progressive intentions.

Ziv was the founder of Icarus Films in New York City, which later merged with First Run, another like-minded distribution company. Over the years I have reviewed a number of their excellent films, including most recently “The Angry Monk,” a film about Tibet that debunks the “spiritualist” hype associated with the Dalai Lama. Ziv stepped down from Icarus in 1980 in order to devote himself full-time to documentary film making. To give you a sense of where he is coming from politically, he made “Shrine Under Siege” in 1985, an attack on Jewish and Christian fundamentalist efforts to destroy the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest shrine, and to build a new Jewish temple in its place.

By June 1967, I had become radicalized by the war in Vietnam and was rethinking everything I had believed in the past, including Israel’s progressive reputation. Ziv’s film is an excellent reminder of why so many young Jews began to break with Zionism. It makes absolutely clear that despite Zionist propaganda Israel was the dominant power in the Middle East capable of reducing its neighbors to rubble.

The picture that emerges from “Six Days” is duplicity across the board. Egypt deceived its own people into believing that Arab nationalism was an irresistible force, while the Israeli government represented itself as a weak, besieged mini-state. Ironically, Nasser’s foolish boasting gave Israel a propaganda edge since any preemptive strike against its enemies would be regarded, especially in the liberal press, as necessary.

The war emerged out of a growing conflict between Israel and Syria, which had been involved in a number of border skirmishes that year. Nasser decided to put pressure on Israel by deploying tens of thousands of soldiers into the Sinai desert. He was under strong pressure from the USSR not to attack, however. Nasser also decided to stop Israeli ships from entering the Straits of Tiran, an act that Israel exploited as a causa belli.

Despite the image that Israel shrewdly cultivated as a victim, the army licked its chops at the opportunity to launch an attack on its enemies–Egypt, Jordan and Syria–under the direction of newly appointed Minister of Defense, the one-eyed Moshe Dayan.

On June 5th, 188 Israel jets flew under the radar at 7:45AM into Egypt and Syria and destroyed their entire air forces. Without air protection, their armies were defenseless. As discipline began to break down under a relentless Israeli air assault, thousands of Egyptian soldiers–mostly peasant reservists–began to run pell-mell from the Sinai desert back to their country. It was obvious that despite Nasser’s revolutionary nationalist ambitions, the country was hampered by underdevelopment. Until a country achieves a certain technological and educational threshold, it will remain vulnerable in war against a more developed enemy like Israel.

In one of the more grizzly scenes in “Six Days”, we see the charred bodies and vehicles of the fleeing Egyptians who were the same kind of victims of a “turkey shoot” that Iraqis became in the first Gulf War. While this immense catastrophe was taking place, Egyptian radio was broadcasting reports about the glorious victories taking place against the Zionist enemy. Once the bloodied remnants of the Egyptian army began to filter back into their villages, word got out about the terrible defeat and Nasser was forced to admit the truth in a tearful speech to his nation. He then resigned.

Shortly after he resigned, the Egyptian masses flooded into the streets carrying banners urging that he remain as President, which he did. Within a year or so, both he and Lev Eshkol, the Israeli Prime Minister, were dead of heart attacks.

Like a shark tasting blood, the Israel army plunged deeper into Jordan and Syria after disposing of the Egyptians. It seized the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Arab-controlled half of Jerusalem. Thus, the latest stage of the Palestinian problem was created as well as a sense of loss and betrayal among Muslims worldwide. To this day, the Jewish control of sacred sites in Jerusalem are a lingering affront to Arabs and Muslims everywhere and was no doubt one of the grievances that led to the terrorist attacks on September 11th.

If there is one criticism to be made of an otherwise excellent film, it is that it fails to provide sufficient historical context to the Six Day War. A viewer would be left with the impression that Arab nationalism led to an unprovoked war, with Nasser the counterpart of his Zionist foes.

In reality, Nasser’s decision to confront the Israelis came only after a prolonged series of provocations by Israel. In 1964, Israel began diverting water from the Jordan River in a move that anticipated future resource grabs by the Zionist state. In retaliation, the Arabs created a dam that would have diverted water back into Jordan and Syria. A year later, the Israelis blew it up.

A year later, Israel launched a military expedition into Jordan with the intention of taking a reprisal against a mine that had killed 3 of their soldiers in the West Bank. It led to the death of at least 50 Jordanian soldiers in a typically lopsided exchange and prompted LBJ to write a memo to Walt Rostow stating “retaliation is not the point in this case. This 3000-man raid with tanks and planes was out of all proportion to the provocation and was aimed at the wrong target”

Among the most interesting of a rafter of interesting interviewees in “Six Days” is one Abudullah Schleifer, an American Jew who converted to Islam. He looks and sounds like Allen Ginsberg in his youth. Schleifer lived in an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall and recounts how the Israeli army destroyed the Arab homes around the wall shortly after seizing Jerusalem. He states that the city lost its spiritual uniqueness at that point and became what amounted to a Zionist theme park (my words, not his.)

The defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 was the next to final act of the inexorable decline and fall of bourgeois nationalism in the Middle East. With the invasion of Iraq, new forces have come into play that demonstrates a new resilience. With Hizbollah’s ability to withstand an IDF invasion last year and the now four-year old Sunni resistance against its benefactors in Great Britain and the USA, the Arab masses are finally beginning to raise new hopes that the region will be able to rid itself of colonialism. With Israel soldiers being forced to retreat back within their borders, perhaps we can expect the Americans and British to follow suit before long.

May 18, 2007

Creationist “science”

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 4:03 pm

More than anything, the debate offered Republicans voters, and the nation, a chance to see the cast of candidates side by side for the first time. The debate was at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, with Nancy Reagan sitting in the audience.

There were revealing moments that went past the well-rehearsed lines by all the candidates. Three of the candidates — Mr. Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado — raised their hands to signal that they did not believe in evolution.

NY Times, May 4, 2007

Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism.

Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism”, 1933

Last night I attended a terrifically enlightening and entertaining lecture titled “What do Creationists Believe About Human Evolution” at the Museum of Natural History by Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

It gave me a chance to hook up with Marxmailer Mike Friedman who is working on a PhD in evolutionary biology at City University in New York out of the Molecular Systematics Laboratory at the Museum. His thesis involves a study of the Coral Snake and its non-venomous relatives from the standpoint of “co-evolution“.

I first met Mike about 20 years ago when we were both involved with Nicaragua Solidarity in New York. He had left the Trotskyist movement in order to enjoy a more productive personal and political life, as had I and thousands of other ex-Trotskyists.

Although I had a superficial understanding of creationist “science”, the talk really gave me a much better idea of what it was about and how important it was for people like Eugenie Scott to challenge it. As she put it, if they were simply about propounding theology, nobody would really care. But when they try to represent themselves as doing science, they must be answered.

Scott began by explaining that the creationists harp on what they regard as inconsistencies in evolutionary theory. If there are contradictions or seeming lapses in Darwinism, then it is regarded as false. From this, they draw the conclusion that their own beliefs are true. As soon as I heard this, I turned to Mike and said that this is exactly how 911 conspiracy theorists operate.

Within the creationist camp, there are two broad categories. There is “creationist science”, which tends to a strictly literal interpretation based on Scripture. There is also a subset within creationist science called intelligent design that tries to represent itself as more amenable to evolutionary theory and data without letting go of the basic creationist schema.

This schema pivots around the belief that God created everything at once that has ever existed, from dinosaurs to homo sapiens, including–most conveniently– fossil remains. Closely related to this belief is a denial that all living creatures have a common ancestor in ocean-based single cell organisms. Instead of an evolutionary tree, they posit something structured much more like a lawn in which the different blades of grass amount to “kinds”. God created these kinds within seven days, as described in Genesis. Once the kinds were created, there could be natural selection within them–thus the differentiation between bison, antelopes and cows which are all part of the same kind. Yes, I know. It is a perfectly ridiculous idea but millions of Americans believe it. It should be added that man and chimpanzee are not members of the same kind, even though their genetic makeup is much closer than that of bison, antelopes and cows. Unlike the film character “Morgan”, the creationists have no identification with the noble primates. For myself, I sometimes have the feeling that the world would be better off if it was ruled by the orangutan or the bonobo chimpanzee.

The notion of kinds is key to explaining how all of God’s creatures could have fit on Noah’s Ark, a Biblical legend that occupies the same kind of central role in creationist science that E = mc2 occupies in nuclear physics. It would be a big problem for scientists to explain how two of every animal in the world could have fit on the ark, but if you narrow that down to kinds, there’s no problem.

The preoccupation with kinds has led to a subdiscipline within creationist science, namely baraminology. This neologism comes from Hebrew: bara, created, and min, kind. Perhaps some of you are aware of a flap that took place in June 2004 when an article defending intelligent design appeared in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer reviewed scientific journal. Von Sternberg was the editor of that issue and an employee of the Smithsonian Institute. Publication of the article was considered a coup by the creationists, but led to calls for Von Sternberg’s firing by genuine scientists. Defended by the imbecile former Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, Von Sternberg claimed religious persecution. If you look at his CV, you will see why it is so necessary for Scott and others to challenge him. Unlike Santorum and the boneheaded candidates who denied evolution at the Republican debate, he has a PhD in Biology.

I strongly recommend a visit to the website of the National Center for Science Education. It is a tremendous resource for the struggle against what Trotsky described as “cultural excrement”.

Back in 1960, when I was in high school, the drama club mounted a production of “Inherit the Wind”, a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee that was written only five years earlier. It dramatized the famous Scopes Trial, which pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was defending John Scopes, a high school teacher who had defied a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching in Tennessee public schools of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Since the Bush administration is trying to turn the clock back to the 1890s, when McKinley was seizing Cuba and the Philippines, it is no surprise that it is also looking benignly on the creationism of the period as well. When I think about this, I am inspired to repeat Diderot’s observation that “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”–substituting president for king of course.

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