Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2008

In Defense of Marxism gets Spiked

Filed under: Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

The In Defense of Marxism website (IDOM) is associated with a small Trotskyist sect in Great Britain that was led by Ted Grant until his death 2 years ago. It is now led by Alan Woods who has done some good work in publicizing and defending the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, even if there is some sectarian baggage that goes along with it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Grant-Woods tendency was its rather serious engagement with science, especially manifested in the two leaders’ book “Reason in Revolt: Marxism and Modern Science”. That legacy has been tarnished by the appearance of a 2-part article on global warming by one Brian J. Baker. Baker’s article is filled with the usual global warming skepticism found at places like Spiked and in Alexander Cockburn’s recent articles. It should be mentioned that IDOM has never published anything like this in the past. Only last December they were saying things like this:

The impact of climate change, says the report, will vary regionally but in an overall view it points out that even with temperatures rising only 3C there will be an important increase of mortality from heat waves, floods and droughts; reduced agricultural production in low latitude areas with important negative impact on smallholders, subsistence farmers and fishermen; 30% of the world species will be at risk of extinction and hundreds of millions of people will be exposed to increased water stress.

Those less able to adapt to these new circumstances will receive the heaviest blow. These are the poor of the world and it will matter very little whether they live in Burkina or in the United States of America, as the working class and poor of New Orleans learnt during and after Katrina.

Now we learn from Brian J. Baker that global warming is a capitalist plot against the working class:

“We are all going to fry,” a sentiment endorsed from the ex-public schoolboys from Eton, to the lofty heights of Rupert Murdoch and George Soros from the media and financial world. And at the same time are joined by various left and pseudo-socialist organisations the world over.

So what is it that unites such disparate class interests? A common understanding that industrialisation has destroyed the planet? But then the Victorian gentry had a disparaging attitude to the common men of trade. “Tradesmen’s Entrance” was always around the back. And we have always seen the religious fundamentalists parading along Oxford Street telling us to “Prepare to meet thy doom.”

Fred Weston prefaces Baker’s article by stating that it “is not the job of the Marxist.com Editorial board to develop a ‘line’ on climate change.” Maybe that is so, but it does strike me as a bit odd to see two so sharply opposed articles on global warming within a few months. He adds that he invites “any of our readers, comrades and supporters, especially the more scientifically qualified, to contribute to this debate with their opinions both for and against.” Well, that’s very generous of him, but until his website actually includes a place for comments or letters, the invitation seems pretty hollow.

Turning to Baker’s piece, we note that it shares Alexander Cockburn’s conspiracy theory approach to the problem. Global warming is a capitalist plot to step up the use of nuclear power and to deepen the exploitation of working people, especially in the Third World. If Cockburn’s favorite bogeyman is Al Gore, Baker is at least to be credited for inventing a new bogeyman, or bogeywoman to be exact:

As we shall see Anthropogenic Global Warming was an obscure scientific curiosity that was elevated by two factors to become the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today. The first was that Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party wished to seek vengeance on the NUM for the crippling defeat inflicted on them by the miners’ strike in 1972 and 1974. So, early in her global warming campaign – and at her personal instigation – the UK’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research was established, and the science and engineering research councils were encouraged to place priority in funding climate-related research. This cost nothing because the UK’s total research budget was not increased; indeed, it fell because of cuts elsewhere. It also enabled Thatcher to propose the building of new nuclear power stations as an alternative to the “dirty, polluting” coal fired stations and thus destroy the political base of the miners as producers of necessary energy. We thus find it ironic that Greenpeace demonstrators can protest at power station plants and pitheads labelling the workers “climate criminals”. How far has consciousness travelled.

Let’s be clear. Thatcher was not bent on destroying Great Britain’s coal industry because it was “dirty” and “polluting”. She was mainly interested in profits. Coal was not profitable. Whether it was “dirty” or not was besides the point. The Globe and Mail (Canada) reported on October 23, 1992:

Because the industry is under government stewardship, its contraction has been far slower, more costly and more politically fraught than it should have been. With the exception of Germany and Spain, most European countries have wound down their coal production and switched to cheaper fuels. In England and Wales, by contrast, 78 per cent of electricity is still generated by coal-burning plants. Coal has kept that share because the British government supports the industry with subsidies of $2.4- billion a year – or about $50,000 per worker – while at the same time compelling electrical utilities to buy British coal at inflated prices.

Furthermore, Thatcher’s “environmentalism” was like Gore’s, all glitter and no substance. As an astute politician, she understood that lip-service must be paid to green issues as the May 10, 1989 NY Times noted: “Prime Minister Thatcher is a clever enough politician to try to keep the Green wave from washing away her support,” especially since West Germany’s Green Party had “grabbed a governing role in West Berlin and in the state of Hesse and may hold the balance of power in the next national election.”

After Baker is done with Thatcher, he lets some other members of the global warming conspiracy have it. He tells us that at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Gavin Strong, the Assistant General Secretary of the UN, said, “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?” Now, that’s quite a statement coming from a UN official. I could find no evidence that he ever said such a thing except for Baker’s claim that he did on IDOM and in a comment on the London Telegraph.

A search on Lexis-Nexis for anything related to “Gavin Strong” and climate turned up nothing. I have written IDOM for a source and have not heard back from them yet. Frankly, I am not optimistic that anything is forthcoming since Brian J. Baker is not very scrupulous when it comes to these matters. After the rather odd attribution to Strong, we have his assurance that Christine Stewart, the Canadian Environment Minister, once said in reference to global warming: “Who cares if the science is phony, the collateral benefits are the main aim.”

Again, there is no citation for this, but apparently she was quoted as saying this in a meeting with the editorial board of the Calgary Herald on December 14, 1998 as was subsequently reported in the pages of the newspaper. Since the article is not available on Lexis-Nexis, all we have to go on is this quote attributed to her. Maybe she said this, maybe she didn’t. All we know is that the quote has gotten what the Deejays call “heavy rotation” on the rightwing of the Internet. If you google “Christine Stewart” and “phony”, you will find plenty of links, including one from Human Events, a publication that describes itself as “Leading the Conservative Movement since 1944”.

Stumbling along in his merry way, Baker next refers to “the previous French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who stated that the Kyoto Treaty was the finest vehicle for World Governance to date.” Our intrepid expert on climate must have meant Jacques Chirac who said the following in a speech to a UN conference on climate change on November 20, 2000:

For the first time, humanity is instituting a genuine instrument of global governance, one that should find a place within the World Environmental Organisation which France and the European Union would like to see established.

How this gets turned into a statement that “the Kyoto Treaty was the finest vehicle for World Governance to date” is beyond me. Maybe Baker was trying to invoke fears about Black Helicopters and all that. If that is the case, I am surprised he didn’t publish his piece on Counterpunch where there is great receptivity to that line of reasoning.

After he has finished making his rather dubious case that global warming is a capitalist plot to plunge the working class into poverty, Baker next turns to scientific matters, where things take a turn for the worse.

As is the case with many global warming skeptics, Baker’s ploy is to look back at previous periods in history in order to show that there is no basis for alarm even if one of the periods in question dates 600 million years ago:

But in looking at the periods prior to the modern era, for example the Phanerozoic (the term is Greek for visible life) period that occurred 600 million years prior to the present era, CO2 levels 18 times higher than the present era are found but unfortunately this was the greatest period of the expansion of life on earth.

It is really difficult to figure out what this has to do with the situation we face today, but not so for Baker who finds the “expansion of life” 600 million years ago reason enough to plow ahead with the production of greenhouse gases. He assures us:

To believe as Dr Jim Hansen does that 385 ppm of CO2 represents a tipping point towards the extinction of life on earth shows nothing more than his ignorance of the entire history of the earth.

It is difficult to make any sense out of this statement. It is as if Baker sees the threat to life as CO2 displacing oxygen. Of course, if somebody drained the oxygen out of your apartment and replaced it with CO2, you’d become extinct as well, specifically by suffocation. But the real issue is not suffocation, but the loss of home and livelihood due to calamitous changes in sea levels, rainfall, intensity of storms, etc. This is something that apparently does not concern Baker, although it did get a rise out of Weston who muses:

If sea levels are going to rise, we will have to move millions, hundreds of millions of people across national boundaries to more inhabitable zones. Can capitalism plan for such a scenario? It cannot.

I have news for comrade Weston. When it comes to moving hundreds of millions of people across national boundaries, I doubt that socialism will be of much use either. Humanity has never faced such a challenge and there is no reason to entertain the idea that it can rise to the occasion. Our best bet is to reduce the threat to the best of our ability. Publishing tripe like Baker’s does not help things, needless to day.

After his brief visit to a period 600 million years in the past, Baker comes closer to home—the so-called Medieval Warming Period (WMP) that constitutes a key talking point for global warming skeptics. If temperatures rose from AD1000 to AD1300 in the absence of greenhouse emissions, then perhaps it is “bad science” to single out the burning of carbon-based fuels today as the culprit. Baker points to the research of U. of Michigan scientist Shaopeng Huang as his trump card:

Those wanting to “get rid of” the MWP run into the problem that it shows up strongly in the data. Shortly after Deming’s article appeared, a group led by Shaopeng Huang of the University of Michigan completed a major analysis of over 6,000 borehole records from every continent around the world. Their study went back 20,000 years.

I generally shy away from the more technical aspects of climate science and prefer to take my cues from professional scientists, including my fellow employees at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory but I for one would be cautious about including Shaopeng Huang in the skeptic’s camp in light of the following:

As global climate changes, atmosphere warming and ocean warming make frequent headlines. But less well known is that the lands are warming too. Based on world-wide meteorological and borehole temperature records, my recent study shows that the 20th century global warming had deposited about 1022 Joules of thermal energy into the continental landmasses. I show that if the observed global warming trend over the past 35 years were to continue over the rest of the 21st century, the continents would gain additional thermal energy more than five folds the amount they acquired over the 20th century. Even if the global surface temperature would stabilize at the current state throughout the rest of the 21st century, the continental landmasses will continue to acquire heat from the atmosphere. At this stage of global climate change, stopping atmosphere warming is not sufficient to stop the lithosphere warming. An overall 0.7 K cooling at the global ground surface over the 21st century is required to avoid further heating of the continents.

The extraordinary 20th century warming is an evidence of anthropogenic forcing in the recent global climate change. Human activities including industrialization and urbanization not only increase greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere which affect the radiation balance of the climate system, but also change the thermal environment at the surface and subsurface. Over the past decade, tremendous efforts have been devoted to improve our understanding of the anthropogenic effects on the atmospheric temperature change. In comparison, little has been done in understanding the human impacts on the subsurface temperature and their environmental consequences.

As part of the industrialization and modernization process, the population of the world is increasingly concentrated in urbanized environment. In the United States, nearly eighty percent of the population lives in the urban areas. Urbanization alters the thermal properties of the land, changes the energy budget at the ground surface, changes the surrounding atmospheric circulation characteristics, and introduces a great amount of anthropogenic waste heat into the urban climate system.

This is from the page titled Shaopeng’s Research Interests on the scientist’s website. If his research into the Medieval Warming Period is supposed to encourage us to go full-blast ahead with the creation of greenhouse gases, his website does not reflect this at all.

April 26, 2008

Operation Filmmaker

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Muthana Mohmed (r) was “rescued” by Liev Schreiber (l)
in the same way that Iraq was rescued by George W. Bush

“Operation Filmmaker” is at once a searing indictment of colonialism in Iraq and the phony do-goodism of Hollywood, all revolving around the interaction between Muthana Mohmed, a twenty-five-year-old Baghdad film student, and his various “rescuers” in the film industry. At the conclusion of Nina Davenport’s excellent documentary, you don’t know who is more disgusting–the military men who have ruined Iraq or the film executives who have turned Muhtana into a psychologically and economically dependent tragicomic figure.

Shortly after the war in Iraq began, MTV interviewed Muthana in Baghdad about how an errant American bomb had just leveled the only film school in the country, thus destroying his dream of being a director. After listening to the interview, American actor and director Liev Schreiber decided to “rescue” him from Iraq and make him an intern on the latest film he was directing in Prague: “Everything Is Illuminated”. Muthana came to Prague with dreams of learning the craft of filmmaking, but his job was to be a “gopher”, bringing coffee to the cast, cleaning Schreiber’s shoes and preparing vegan snacks for one of the producers. Preparing the snacks is a real production, involving the exact combination of nuts and dried fruits. Muthana is told that if the combination was not correct, there would be hell to pay.

As a typical Hollywood Jewish liberal, Schreiber is almost as insufferable as Stephen Spielberg. When he finally sits down with Muthana–a Shi’ite–he is disconcerted to discover that George W. Bush is his hero for having liberated his people. As Schreiber and producer Peter Saraf–another Jewish liberal–continue to hear Muthana praise Bush, the relationship cools visibly even though they pledge in good liberal fashion not to hold that against him.

Saraf, the producer of a film on Nelson Mandela and the execrable “Little Miss Sunshine”, is particularly annoying. As Muthana’s internship is coming to an end, he lectures him about the need to “set something up”. The fact that he hasn’t made contacts in the U.S. or Great Britain tells Saraf that he doesn’t have much of a future in the film industry where hustle is all-important. Although Muthana always wears a smile on his face during these encounters, you can almost read his thoughts: “I would like to kill this mother-fucker”.

Despite being a Shi’ite, Muthana is not the least bit religious. He likes to drink and screw around with the women on the set. The film also interviews his friends back in Baghdad who are just as secular-minded as him. The steady deterioration there has led one of them to conclude that all religions are “fucked”.

Just as Muthana’s visa is about to expire, he keeps getting extensions. Word from Iraq is that things are just too dangerous for him to come home. Even with the visa, he is still not sure he can make it in the West since film jobs are relatively hard to come by, even with his high visibility as an Iraqi struggling to make it. After his gig with Schreiber is up, he gets another low-level job on the movie “Doom”, a zombie b-movie starring the ex-wrestler Dwaye “The Rock” Johnson. Muthana confides to Nina Davenport that the script is horrible and is further distressed by the site of actors made up to look like their flesh has been eaten. It reminds him too much of the footage he watches each night on Al Jazeera.

Just one step ahead of the immigration cops and the bill collectors, he relies on friends and associates for legal help and for hand-outs. His relationship with Nina Davenport becomes particularly strained since he sees her as exploiting him for the purpose of her documentary. He demands cash payments from her and when she refuses, he keeps her latest tape hostage.

As the film concludes, Davenport is heard saying: “I always hoped that there would be a good ending with my collaboration with Muthana, but more and more I was looking for an exit strategy.”

“Operation Filmmaker” will have its American theatrical premiere on June 4th at the IFC Center in New York City. It will also open on June 10th at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island, on June 13th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and on June 20th at the Brattle Theatre in Boston, with other national dates to follow throughout the summer and into the fall.

Very highly recommended.

Official film website

April 25, 2008

Without the King

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York, Michael Skolnik’s documentary “Without the King” is a study of Swaziland, the poorest country on the African continent and the last absolute monarchy on earth. It has a lot in common with another monarchy in Africa–Ethiopia–whose ruler also lived in opulence while his subjects suffered in abject misery.

Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati III, who has fourteen wives each with their own palace, owns a fleet of Mercedes Benzes, wears designer clothing and sends his 22 children abroad for schooling, including his eldest daughter Princess Sikhayiso, aka Pashu. Along with her father, Pashu dominates Skolnik’s penetrating examination of the wages of greed. She is utterly oblivious to the plight of her fellow Swazis, who have the lowest life expectancy in the world (31 years) and suffer from the highest incidence of AIDS (42.6%). Sounding like the typical airhead that show up on reality shows on the cable networks in the U.S., Pashu portrays being King as hard work: “You have to listen to people all the time, any time of day or night.”

Princess Pashu

As the film progresses, we learn that the King might listen to all sorts of people, but not the poor who make up 99 percent of the population. Skolnik allows a number of them, including one activist who is forced to cover his face for self-preservation, to make their case against the monarchy. Although paying high taxes (relative to their meager income), they get nothing back in return from the government. Villagers have no access to running water and are forced to drink from stagnant ponds. While any government should be in the forefront of the fight against AIDS in the face of such abysmal statistics, King Mswati has neither promoted safe sex nor has he provided the kind of medical care that is needed for its victims. In the course of the film, we learn that he inherited a Swiss bank account totaling billions of dollars from his father. Since the total population of Swaziland is only 1.1 million (the country is about the size of New Jersey), that bank account can go a long way to reducing the misery of his people.

Towards the end of the film, the reality of life in Swaziland begins to sink in on Princess Pashu. Even though she participates (barebreasted) in a ritual dance of 75,000 virgins for the benefit of her father, she eventually feels disgusted by the whole thing, especially her father picking two teenaged brides out of the procession. She spits out, “They were younger than me.” Her alienation deepens when she visits an orphanage for children whose parents died of AIDS. Her disillusionment has reached the point where she openly entertains the possibility of, if not the need for, revolution.

Swaziland is embedded between South Africa and Mozambique. I strongly suspect that its continuing existence as a feudal society can be explained by the failure of the revolutionary process to reach a natural conclusion in the bordering countries. Mozambique was torn apart by apartheid South Africa-backed terrorist counter-revolutionaries (RENAMO) and post-apartheid South Africa has not challenged the property relations that keep the overwhelming Black majority impoverished. This is not to speak of President Thabo Mbeki’s failure to adequately address his own country’s AIDS crisis. Such a political environment is not conducive to change in Swaziland, although the fearless and dedicated activists in Skolnik’s documentary remain undaunted. For them, it is a choice of dying in struggle or dying from poverty.

While it is understandable that “Without the King” could not immerse itself in Swazi history, there are lessons to be learned about why the country’s ruling class chooses to emphasize tradition. Indeed, in interviews with the King and with Pashu (before she begins to wise up), there are constant references to “Swazi ways”. While the British were working overtime to impose forced labor on the population, they never forcibly assimilated the Swazis into British culture. Men were permitted to wear animal skins and carry spears as long as they didn’t challenge white capitalist exploitation.

The residue of feudal culture persisted into the 1960s when the country gained its independence as a monarchy. In these turbulent times, the elite felt threatened by the South African liberation movement to its West and forged an alliance with white settlers and multinational business interests. Both the King and the settlers were suspicious of slogans like “one man, one vote”. As you watch the modern day activists marching rhymically-almost dancelike-in the streets against the Swazi monarchy, you will be reminded of the ANC toyi toyi.

April 24, 2008

Over-accumulation, over-production, under-consumption

Filed under: economics,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

(This was posted to the Introduction to Marxism class on yahoo.)

The other day Steve Palmer made some interesting observations on Marxmail about the confusion between these terms in response to the following in Patrick Bond’s post on Henryk Grossman:

I think John Bellamy Foster has got it right in his current MR article; and in a seminar at Univ of Sydney Dept of Poli Econ last Monday, he also endorsed “overaccumulation”, which I see as distinct from the traditional MR position from Sweezy, i.e., “underconsumption”.

Palmer wrote in reply:

I’m surprised by your comments about the Foster article – he’s continually talking about problems of demand absorbing ‘surplus’, which is pure Monopoly Capital. The word ‘overaccumulation’ appears, but this appears to be, for Foster, a synonym for ‘overproduction of surplus’ (with its ambiguity of whether he’s talking about use-values or values) in relation to demand, not an overaccumulation of capital in relation to profitability. This is underlined when, after criticizing the idea of re-regulating finance, he advances the Sweezy of ‘solution’ of expanded state expenditure and radical redistribution of incomes – which, as he notes, was endorsed by Joseph Kennedy as a reform to help him hang onto his fortune! – ‘to stabilize the economy’, ie to prop up capitalism. For Grossmanites, such as Mattick, these would be seriously destabilizing. Radical income re-distribution means away from profits, reducing them.

I came across the same confusion just today. I received an interesting private communication from Ali K. that compared 2 articles. One was by Shawn Hattingh that Ali described as incorporating a “doomsday scenario”. The other appeared in the Weekly Worker, the newspaper of a small propaganda group in Great Britain called the Communist Party of Great Britain (no connection with traditional Kremlin parties). It was written by Bill Jeffries, a contributor to the website Permanent Revolution about which I know very little except that many of their articles appear fairly intelligent in sharp distinction to their origins as a “Split in the League for the Fifth International”. My tendency would be to regard any such formation as having more in common with Groucho than Karl.

Bill Jeffries’s article was in response to Hillel Ticktin’s own “doomsday scenario” article that I posted to Marxmail and PEN-L the other day. Ticktin’s article , also appearing in the Weekly Worker, claimed that there currently is a depression.

Titled “Financial crash or slowdown?”, Jeffries’s article made points such as the following: “In the great depression, every major industrial power slumped. In the present crisis, every major industrial power is still growing – and some of them are growing very fast.”

Hattingh’s article originally appeared on MRZine last January and is titled “Obama, Clinton, and McCain Won’t Save the American Economy”.  In making the case that a “full-blown economic meltdown is set to occur in the US”, Hattingh points to the role of “over-accumulation”:

The origins of this potential economic meltdown can be traced back to the global capitalist crisis, caused by an over-accumulation of capital, which initially erupted in the 1970s.1

Since I have been reading a lot of Henryk Grossman lately, I was curious to follow up on Hattingh’s citation which was from an article by Walden Bello, who I had not previously associated with Grossman’s crisis theory. Just to recapitulate, Grossman views “over-accumulation” as the primary factor in capitalist crisis. But it really has little to do with Bello’s use of the word, which is the same as John Bellamy Foster’s.

Titled “Capitalism in an Apocalyptic Mood ” (clearly a nod in the direction of doomsday), the article uses the terms overproduction and overaccumulation interchangeably:

The Specter of Overproduction

It is not surprising that the G 7 report sounded very much like the post-mortems of the Asian financial crisis and the dot.com bubble. One chieftain of a financial corporation chief writing in the Financial Times captured the basic problem running through these speculative manias, perhaps unwittingly, when he claimed that “there has been an increasing disconnection between the real and financial economies in the past few years. The real economy has grown…but nothing like that of the financial economy, which grew even more rapidly-until it imploded.” What his statement does not tell us is that the disconnect between the real and the financial is not accidental, that the financial economy expanded precisely to make up for the stagnation of the real economy.

This growing gap between the financial and the real cannot be comprehensively understood without referring to the crisis of overaccumulation that overtook the center economies in the late seventies and 1980’s, a phenomenon that is also referred to as overproduction or overcapacity.

They really are two distinct phenomena as should be clear from Grossman’s extensive rebuttal of Rosa Luxemburg. To start with, overproduction is just another way to describe underconsumption. If there are too many commodities being produced, a crisis will ensue. Luxemburg’s underconsumptionist theory was tied to the idea that capitalism needed to expand into non-capitalist areas of the planet in order to find a market for excess commodities. It is clear that Luxemburg has influenced Bello’s economic thinking:

As Rosa Luxemburg long ago pointed out in her classic The Accumulation of Capital, capital needs to constantly integrate precapitalist societies to the capitalist system to shore up the fall in the rate of profit. In the last two decades, the most spectacular case of incorporating a precapitalist society into the global capitalist system was China, which became both the world’s second biggest exporter and the primary destination of foreign investment.

This is not Grossman’s theory at all. For Grossman, it is the productive capacity of capitalism itself that is at the heart of the problem. By continuing to replace living labor with dead labor (machinery), it reduces the capacity for generating surplus value. There might be counter-tendencies that allow the capitalist system to escape a crisis based on the over-accumulation of capital, but sooner or later the grim reaper will come knocking on the door.

April 22, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

Time constraints prevented me from attending a press screening for Jessica Yu’s documentary “Protagonist” last November but I finally got around to ordering it from Netflix last week. I strongly recommend this fascinating study of four extremely driven men whose interviews make up virtually the entire film, with the exception of some stock footage and home movies. By allowing them to basically tell their life story (and carefully including only what is most riveting), Yu reconfirms something that I have long believed, namely that the lives of real people are far more interesting than the fiction cooked up by Hollywood studios.

From left to right: Joe Loya, Mark Pierpont, Hans-Joachim Klein, Mark Salzman

Wu interviews these four subjects whose stories overlap in significant ways:

Hans-Joachim Klein: Klein was the son of a German cop with Nazi sympathies and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a concentration camp. He was radicalized during the Vietnam War and eventually joined the Revolutionary Cells (RZ), an offshoot of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. He joined Carlos the Jackal in the 1975 kidnapping of eleven OPEC ministers that led to the death of three innocent bystanders and nearly his own death by a bullet in the stomach.

Mark Pierpont: Pierpont came from a strict Christian family in New Jersey. Around the same time he decided to become a missionary, he discovered that he was gay. Most of his career in the ministry involved going to gay bars and handing out tracts intended to save souls. He eventually got married and fathered the son, believing that he had “cured” himself of homosexuality.

Joe Loya: Like Pierpont, this Mexican-American also came from a strict Christian household. After his mother died, his father’s grief turned into rage against his sons who were beaten to the point of breaking their bones on a regular basis. One day, Joe stabs his father in the neck after a particularly bad beating, which gives him a feeling of liberation. To sustain that exhilarating feeling, he soon begins a career as a bank robber. He compares the feeling of control he experiences with a gun in his hand to that of Nietzsche’s Superman.

Mark Salzman: As the smallest boy in his high school class, he was the target of bullies. After seeing the television show “Kung Fu”, he was struck like Paul on the road to Damascus and devoted his life to the martial arts. His commitment to the nonviolent Eastern Philosophy that underpinned Kung Fu was tested when he discovered that his instructor was a sadist.

The film is structured like a Greek tragedy with each of the men experiencing a catharsis as they discover that their life’s mission was based on a lie. For Klein, it was what he saw at Entebbe that made him renounce terrorism. When the airplane hijackers segregated passengers on the basis of whether they were Jewish or not, Klein could not help but think about how his mother had been treated. He soon became a police informant and began identifying terrorist cells throughout Europe. This did not help him escape prosecution and he would be sentenced to 9 years in prison for the OPEC kidnapping.

Jessica Yu got the idea for “Protagonist” in 2003 when she was approached with the idea of making a documentary about Euripides, the ancient Greek playwright. From Euripides, she got the idea of making a movie about her anti-heroes. Like the characters in one of his tragedies, her subjects are all guilty of “hubris” (the Greek word for pride) that inevitably leads to disaster. Unlike a Euripides tragedy, however, all of her subjects step back from the precipice and arrive at a deeper understanding of life.

“Protagonist” does retain some of Euripides’s powerful speeches that are spoken by puppets who serve as a kind of Greek chorus in the movie as it moves through the different passages of the characters’ lives. It is a testament to Yu’s skills as both director and writer that your attention remains riveted even though there is no action as such in the film. As the four men sit in their chairs recounting their experiences, your mind fills in the images of some truly mind-boggling incidents just as it would as if you were reading a novel. The puppets are also called upon to reenact some of these incidents, including Joe Loya’s stabbing of his father.

Yu directing her puppeteers

Euripides was the most modern of Greek dramatists, both in terms of chronology and his ability to speak to the modern condition. Yu’s puppets quote most frequently from “The Bacche”, a play about the arrival of the god Dionysus. Although I can’t be sure if the puppets repeated these words from Euripides’s last play, they surely convey the sense of the drama in Jessica Yu’s exceptional documentary:

Unbridled tongues and lawless folly
come to an end only in disaster.
A peaceful life of wisdom
maintains tranquillity.
It keeps the home united.
Though gods live in the sky,
from far away in heaven
they gaze upon the deeds of men.
But being clever isn’t wisdom.
And thinking deeply about things
isn’t suitable for mortal men.
Our life is brief-that’s why
the man who chases greatness
fails to grasp what’s near at hand.
That’s what madmen do,
men who’ve lost their wits.
That’s what I believe.

Official Film Website

Joe Loya Website

April 19, 2008

Why Obama would likely lose to McCain

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 12:46 pm

From today’s NY Times:

NY Times, April 19, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Road Map to Defeat

So what are the Democrats doing? The Clintons are running around with flamethrowers, gleefully trying to incinerate the prospects of the party’s leading candidate, Barack Obama. As Bill Clinton put it last month: “If a politician doesn’t want to get beat up, he shouldn’t run for office.”

Senator Obama, for his part, seems to have lost sight of the unifying message that proved so compelling early in his campaign and has stumbled into weird cultural predicaments that have caused some people to rethink his candidacy.

While some of those predicaments raise legitimate concerns (his former pastor, his comments in San Francisco) and some do not (stupid questions about wearing a flag pin), he has allowed them to fester unnecessarily. The way for a candidate to eventually change the subject is to offer policy prescriptions so creative and compelling that they generate excitement among the electorate and can’t be ignored by the press.

Voters want more from Senator Obama. He’s given a series of wonderful speeches, but he has to add more meat to those rhetorical bones. He needs to be clear about where he wants to lead this country and how he plans to do it. That’s how a candidate defines himself or herself.

Instead, Mr. Obama is allowing the Clintons and the news media to craft a damaging persona of him as some kind of weak-kneed brother from another planet, out of touch with mainstream America, and perhaps a loser.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/19/opinion/19herbert.html

I would agree with everything that Bob Herbert is saying, but would add that he is wrong to think that Obama is somehow holding back on some kind of message that will stir working people and the poor into electoral action. Obama, like the Democrats who preceded him in recent elections (Carter, Mondale, Clinton, Gore, Kerry) are not really Democrats–at least in the way that the party is understood in the pages of the Nation Magazine or among good liberals like Bob Herbert. They are Eisenhower Republicans. The Republican Party morphed into the hard right and the Democrats filled the political vacuum left by the ditching of the Nelson Rockefeller wing. With the Democrats moving to the center, there has been no political expression at the highest level for even the sort of tepid welfare state egalitarianism found in LBJ’s “Great Society” type programs.

To run on New Deal type politics would require a confrontation with the big money that rules the DP. There is about as much interest in restructuring the American economy as there is in removing US military bases from around the world. Even when the fat cat donors, like George Soros, make New Deal type utterances in the editorial pages, they lack the spine to drive them forward which would require genuine militancy at the grass roots level.

Furthermore, one of the reasons that they make sure to not promise any ambitious New Deal type programs is that this would raise the expectations of working people who might decide to take matters into their own hands if they are frustrated at the polls.

When asked by the cretinous George Stephanopolous how he would “use” a former President, Obama answered:

Well, you know, I think that having the advice and counsel of all former presidents is important. I’m probably more likely to ask advice of the current president’s father than president himself because I think that when you look back at George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy, it was a wise foreign policy.

And how we executed the Gulf War, how we managed the transition out of the Cold War, I think, is an example of how we can get bipartisan agreement. I don’t think the Democrats have a monopoly on good ideas. I think that there are a lot of thoughtful Republicans out there.

It is exactly this kind of evenhandedness that keeps losing elections for the Democrats. With all proportions guarded, fascism became victorious in the 1930s because the Social Democrats fought with one hand tied behind their back. And, if the economy continues to weaken, there certainly will be 1930s type polarizations once again. If that is the case, the workers need a political party that will not only fight with both hands but to the finish.

April 18, 2008

Who is Bill Ayers?

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm


If you listen to rightwing talk radio, you’ve probably heard Bill Ayers’s name before. WABC AM, a prime outlet for Limbaugh and company, has been burning up the dial recently over this ex-Weatherman who is supposedly in bed with Barack Obama. The Ayers quote that they keep using over and over again comes from a September 11, 2001 NY Times profile that begins:

“I don’t regret setting bombs,” Bill Ayers said. “I feel we didn’t do enough.”

They keep harping on the September 11 date as if Ayers was in cahoots with Mohammad Atta. Any fool would know that the first newspaper reports on September 11 appeared the day after. It was just a coincidence that Ayers’s profile appeared the same day as the 9/11 attacks. They also make a big thing about Ayers stating that “we didn’t do enough”, when in fact he was almost certainly referring to their failure to end the war.

Ayers tries to explain what he really meant on his blog:

Regrets. I’m often quoted saying that I have “no regrets.” This is not true. For anyone paying attention-and I try to stay wide-awake to the world around me all/ways-life brings misgivings, doubts, uncertainty, loss, regret. I’m sometimes asked if I regret anything I did to oppose the war in Viet Nam, and I say “no, I don’t regret anything I did to try to stop the slaughter of millions of human beings by my own government.” Sometimes I add, “I don’t think I did enough.” This is then elided: he has no regrets for setting bombs and thinks there should be more bombings.

Obama told the idiot George Stephanopolous that he was only 8 years old when the Weathermen were setting off bombs. For the benefit of many of my readers, who were not even a gleam in their father’s eye back in the early 70s, a word or two of introduction is in order.

The Weathermen started out as a faction of SDS. At the 1969 convention, there was a 3 way split. The “Worker-Student Alliance” (WSA) was led by the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and basically promoted a kind of “serve the people” missionary-like strategy which involved students getting jobs in factories and preaching to the workers. The WSA was opposed by the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which was divided into RYM1 and RYM2. RYM1 was led by Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn and other SDS leaders who had become deeply frustrated by the inability of the student movement to end the war.

After RYM1 morphed into the Weathermen, the 200 or so members adopted a neo-Narodnik strategy and went underground. Unlike the original Narodniks, the Weathermen never assassinated government officials. They only set off bombs at government buildings. When they weren’t setting off bombs, they were imbibing huge amounts of psychedelic drugs and having orgies. Generally speaking, the Weathermen not only reflected the excesses of the 1960s but strove to embody them.

Like the WSA, RYM2 adopted Maoist politics, but supported Black and Latino nationalism, which PLP regarded as “dividing the working class” in the style of the CPUSA–a party that its leaders had emerged from in the 1950s. RYM2 was a genuine “New Left” tendency as opposed to PLP/WSA’s ambitions to resurrect “Third Period” Stalinism.

RYM2 eventually spawned a number of “Marxist-Leninist” formations whose history was documented by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air“. All of the groups that originated in RYM2 are now defunct, except for the Revolutionary Communist Party, a sect-cult around Bob Avakian who was a RYM2 leader.

While everybody should repudiate the “violence baiting” of Barack Obama, there is a separate question of more direct concern to the radical movement and that involves the legacy of the Weathermen. It would be a big mistake to romanticize them since their politics did a lot to undermine the radical movement in the 1970s. The capitalist class can always replace the bricks that a Weathermen bomb destroyed, but it had a much harder job dislodging radical ideas from a student or young worker. By making an amalgam between the radical movement and the Weathermen, it sought to drive a wedge between us and ordinary American workers who had the social power to end the war and the capitalist system itself eventually.

In today’s Counterpunch, there’s an article by Dave Lindorff that gets the Weathermen wrong. He writes:

While many in the anti-war movement condemned the actions of the Weather Underground, I would argue that they, like the militant Black Panthers, performed an invaluable role by sending a loud, clear message to the nation’s ruling elite that if they continued the war, things would get worse at home.

Their actions made the peaceful mass protests against the Indochina War far more potent, because they forced the ruling elite in the US to have to ponder what would happen if those masses turned to the same kind of violent measures against them.

There is no evidence that the “ruling elite” feared the spread of Weathermen tactics. They knew that the frustrated young radicals had almost no support on the college campuses or high schools. Furthermore, people who demonstrated against the war were not likely to risk prison sentences. Indeed, examination of the historical record will show that the SDS’ers who became Weathermen had turned their back on antiwar organizing by 1967 at least. It was their retreat from mass demonstrations in fact that prepared the way for Narodnik tactics. Political isolation from the mass movement almost guarantees that you will be looking for short-cuts, like setting off bombs.

The late Fred Halstead, who led the SWP’s antiwar activity, once characterized the Weathermen as young people who never lost their ties to the bourgeoisie no matter how outrageous they behaved. If you think of them as children throwing a tantrum, it makes perfect sense. Instead of holding their breath until they turn blue, they set off bombs instead. If daddy didn’t stop bombing the Vietnamese, they’d drive him nuts. That was the real logic of Weathermen bomb-throwing, not socialist revolution.

If your goal is to pressure daddy into changing his ways, then it is likely that you will think up ways to persuade him that you are a good boy or girl when tantrums don’t work. Becoming a good boy or girl in the U.S. of course means becoming a pillar of your community and becoming active in the Democratic Party. Despite Ayers’s claims on his blog that he still “against imperialism”, he has found a home in the party that is totally committed to ruling the world on behalf of American corporations.

The NY Times reported that in 1995 State Senator Alice Palmer “introduced her chosen successor, Barack Obama, to a few of the district’s influential liberals at the home of two well known figures on the local left: William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.” In other words, Ayers and Dohrn were involved with the Democratic Party at a fairly high level. Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, served as an adviser to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the son of the former Mayor who unleashed the cops on peaceful demonstrators in 1968.

Dr. Quentin Young, a prominent Chicago physician, told the NY Times about his initial encounter with Obama at Ayers and Dohrn’s home:

“When I first met Barack Obama, he was giving a standard, innocuous little talk in the living room of those two legends-in-their-own-minds, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn,” Warren [Maria Warren, another liberal] wrote on her blog in 2005. “They were launching him – introducing him to the Hyde Park community as the best thing since sliced bread.”

Warren’s blog entry apparently was what led to rightwing efforts to link Obama to the notorious “bomb thrower” when in fact Warren considered Obama and the former Weathermen as too tame by even her own liberal standards. Such is the grotesque character of American politics that an utterly conventional tête-à-tête among utterly conventional middle-class liberals can become transformed into the second coming of the Smolny Institute.

April 17, 2008

The Prophet Grossman

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

(This was posted originally to the online Introduction to Marxism class at yahoo.)

In the final chapter of Henryk Grossman’s “The Law of Accumulation and Downfall of the Capitalist System“, there is a section titled “An Inductive verification” that is simply amazing for its almost prophetic insights into the stock market crash of 1929. Grossman was responding to exactly the same kind of “irrational exuberance” that was being projected in the business press and bourgeois economics in the roaring `20s. Keep your eyes peeled for my highlighting.

An inductive verification

I have proposed two sorts of argument: i) that the valorisation of capital is the driving force of capitalism and governs all the movements of the capitalist mechanism – its expansions and contractions. Initially production is expanded because, in the early stages of accumulation, profit grows.

Afterwards accumulation comes to a standstill because, at a more advanced stage of accumulation, and due to the very process of accumulation, profit necessarily declines. ii) Apart from trying to explain the oscillations of the business cycle I have tried to define the law of motion of capitalism – its secular trend – or, in Marx’s words, the general tendency of capitalist accumulation. I have shown how the course of capital accumulation is punctuated by an absolute overaccumulation which is released, from time to time, in the form of periodic crises and which is progressively intensified through the fluctuations of the economic cycle from one crisis to the next. At an advanced stage of accumulation it reaches a state of capital saturation where the overaccumulated capital faces a shortage of investment possibilities and finds it more difficult to surmount this saturation. The capitalist mechanism approaches its final catastrophe with the inexorability of a natural process. The superfluous and idle capital can ward off the complete collapse of profitability only through the export of capital or through employment on the stock exchange.

To take up this latter aspect. Hilferding devotes a whole chapter to speculation and the stock exchange (1981, Chapter 8). All we learn from it is that speculation is unproductive, that it is a pure gamble, that the mood of the stock exchange is determined by the big speculators, and banalities of this sort. Because Hilferding denies the overaccumulation of capital he removes any basis for understanding the essential function of speculation and the exchange. In his exposition the stock exchange is a market for the circulation of titles of ownership, divorced from and rendered independent of the circulation of the actual goods. Its function is to mobilise capital. Through the conversion of industrial capital into fictitious capital on the exchange, the individual capitalist always has the option open to withdraw his capital in the form of money whenever he likes. Finally the mobilisation of capital in the form of shares, or the creation of fictitious capital, opens the possibility of capitalising dividends. According to Hilferding speculation is necessary to capitalism for all these reasons.

In all this there is no reference to the function of speculation in the movement of the business cycle. I have already pointed out that superfluous capital looks for spheres of profitable investment. With no chance in production, capital is either exported or switched to speculation. Thus in the depression of 1925-6 money poured into the stock exchange. Once the situation improved at the end of 1926 and the start of 1927 credits were displaced from the exchange into production.

The relationship between the banks and speculation which is discernible in the specific phases of the business cycle is also reflected in minor fluctuations within any given year. In periods when the banks can employ their resources elsewhere the exchange is subdued; it becomes brisk only when those resources are again released. Speculation is a means of balancing the shortage of valorisation in productive activity by gains that flow from the losses made on the exchange by the mass of smaller capitalists. In this sense it is a power mechanism in the concentration of money capital.

Let us take the present economic situation of the USA as an example of these movements. Despite the optimism of many bourgeois writers who think that the Americans have succeeded in solving the problem of crises and creating economic stability, there are enough signs to suggest that America is fast approaching a state of overaccumulation. A report dated June 1926 notes that

Since the War the capital formation process has advanced with extreme rapidity. Capital is now looking for investment outlets, and due to its overflow, it can only find these at declining rates of interest. Naturally this has meant an increase of all … real estate values … Furious speculation in the real estate is one result. (Wirtschaftsdienst, 1926,1, p. 792)

The basic characteristic of the economic year 1927 is that industry and commerce have watched their production fall, their sales decline and their profits contract. Reduced sales and lower production release a portion of the capital which flows into the banks in the form of deposits. The banks attract industrial profits for which there are no openings in industry and commerce. At the end of 1927 the holdings of the member banks of the US Federal Reserve System were $1.7 billion more than a year earlier. This constitutes a rise of 8 per cent against the 5 per cent considered normal.

The retrogression in industry and commerce contrasts sharply with the overabundance of cheap credit money.

The discount policy of the Federal Reserve Board has to be seen in this context. It is not that capital flows into Europe because rates of interest are higher. On the contrary US rates of interest have been cut in order to promote an outflow of capital. The financial expert Dr Halfeld reports that there were two reasons why in August 1927 the US banks of issue reduced the discount rate from 4 per cent to 3.5 per cent. Firstly to create an outflow of gold to Europe which is short of capital and, secondly, to revive domestic business. Yet this discount policy failed. Despite the substantial outflow of gold, US interest rates continued to remain low in the open market and vast sums of money were directed into speculation. The depressed state of industry is reflected by an expansion of speculative loans and speculative driving up of share prices. According to estimates of the US department of commerce, in 1927 the USA invested $1 .648 billion of new capital abroad. While this was partly matched by a reverse flow of $919m, the greater part of this money flowed straight into the New York stock exchange for speculation. Advances by New York banks by way of brokers’ loans on the stock exchange totalled $4.282 billion at the start of May – 46 per cent higher than in the previous year. On the other side, disbursements to industry and commerce remained low up to the middle of February. Towards the end of March there was a massive outflow of capital from the country, including large-scale buying up of foreign securities.

As a countervailing measure, the federal reserve banks decided on a discount policy which was the reverse of the one followed late in 1927. All twelve banks raised the discount rate from 3.5 per cent to 4 per cent. In April 1928 the Chicago and Boston bankers increased the rate a second time to 4.5 per cent and several banks followed suit. The discount rate thus returned to a level not seen by American money markets since early 1924. The results of the new discount policy appear to have been a complete failure if we go by the staggering bout of speculation on the New York stock exchange in the last week of March 1928. In fact despite the measures taken by the clearing house association against further extension of speculative credits, the flood of speculation reached a feverish pitch by August.

The fever of speculation is only a measure of the shortage of productive investment outlets. Dr Flemming is therefore quite right in saying that loans to foreign countries offer one way of eliminating difficulties since income from production cannot be redeployed on the domestic market. Not higher profits abroad, but a shortage of investment outlets at home is the basic underlying cause of capital exports.

Today America is doing its best to avert the coming crash – already foreshadowed in the panic selling on the stock exchange of December 1928 – by forcing up the volume of exports. The recent Copper Exporters Incorporated has been followed by the formation of the Steel Export Association of America, a joint export organisation of the two major American concerns – US Steel Corporation and Bethlehem Steel. When these efforts are matched by a similar drive by the Germans and the British, the crisis will only be intensified.

April 16, 2008

MRZine and polling the Iranians

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

An article posted on MRZine has unleashed a flurry of angry responses from Iranian leftists. Titled “What Do Iranians Think of Their Own Government?“, it originally appeared on the website of WorldPublicOpinion.org, a polling outfit. It begins:

Iranians largely express satisfaction with their government. Two out of three say that Iran is generally going in the right direction, though a plurality is dissatisfied with the Iranian economy. Half say they trust the government to do what is right most of the time, while another quarter say they trust it at least some of the time. Two-thirds express satisfaction with Iran’s relations with the world as a whole. Large majorities approve of how President Ahmadinejad is handling his job at home and his dealings with other countries, though this support is considerably lower among more educated and higher-income Iranians.

Since the article appears without any introduction by MRZine, the reader is not quite sure what to make of it. It is open to multiple interpretations. If it is meant to refute war propaganda about Iran needing to be “liberated”, it might have some value in the sense that Central America activists in the 1980s often pointed out how fair and democratic Nicaraguan elections were. How could Nicaragua be a communist dictatorship when pro-US parties were running openly against the Sandinistas?

The other interpretation is not so benign. It might indicate that the ostensible popularity of Ahmadinejad is an invitation for the Western left to throw its support behind the Islamic Republic. After all, how can it be so popular, especially among the poor, if it is not fostering an egalitarian economic program?

MRZine editor Yoshie Furuhashi posted an introduction to this article on the popular Lenin’s Tomb blog, where her musings on Iran have appeared on a fairly regular basis. She states:

Contrary to what much of the Western media, leftist as well as capitalist, would have us believe, the Iranian government apparently enjoys a high level of popular support, according to the latest World Public Opinion poll, which also clarifies the class base of support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Would-be regime changers ought to take a hint and stop the economic sanctions, covert actions, “democracy assistance,” media propaganda, and other measures against Iran, all of which only undermine the Iranian people’s attempts to further democratize their government and make it truly reflect the will of the people. The Iranian government, in turn, should take a deep breath and lighten up: the best defense against imperialism is the deepening of democracy, including industrial democracy, and improvement of the economic lot of working people, not the My Uncle Napoleon syndrome.

When reading this paragraph, I felt tempted to say something along the lines of what my wonderful Turkish teacher says when I hand in a paper riddled with grammatical and spelling errors: “What beautiful mistakes. It gives us a great opportunity to deepen our understanding.”

To begin with, it is simply not the case that the Western media portrays Ahmadinejad as unpopular. The Guardian, a bastion of sophisticated Islamophobia, had this to say in June, 2006:

The popularity of Iran’s controversial leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is surging almost a year after he unexpectedly won a closely contested presidential election, Iranian officials and western diplomats said yesterday.

Attributing his success to his populist style and fortnightly meet-the-people tours of the country, the sources said that as matters stood, Mr Ahmadinejad was the clear favourite to win a second term in 2009. The perception that the president was standing up to the US on the nuclear issue was also boosting his standing.

“He’s more popular now than a year ago. He’s on the rise,” said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a professor of political science at Tehran University. “I guess he has a 70% approval rating right now. He portrays himself as a simple man doing an honest job. He’s comfortable communicating with ordinary people.”

Even the 6/21/2006 Wall Street Journal wrote about what it saw as Ahmadinejad’s popularity:

Mr. Ahmadinejad is emerging as an Iranian version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez: a pugnacious politician, buoyed by oil money, whose anti-elite message and defiance of the West is causing his popularity to soar. Mr. Ahmadinejad isn’t nearly as powerful as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But his policies, which interrupt Iran’s tentative stabs at economic liberalization, have helped him wield more influence than many thought possible for an Iranian president.

I must add that I found out about this article by happenstance. I stumbled across it on Yoshie’s blog. Clearly, the purpose of her quoting the WSJ was to help bolster the case that the Iranian president and Hugo Chavez were two political leaders worthy of emulation. Elsewhere, Yoshie has written: “You’d never know that by listening to most liberals and leftists, but Iran’s economy is structurally more socialistic than Venezuela’s.” So maybe even Hugo Chavez could learn something from studying Iran. I just hope that he doesn’t begin to jail and torture strikers.

Since Yoshie takes strenuous exception to those socialists who refuse to back Ahmadinejad (except in a confrontation with the U.S. over matters such as the right to develop nuclear energy, for example), she can’t help but describe them as “regime changers”:

Would-be regime changers ought to take a hint and stop the economic sanctions, covert actions, “democracy assistance,” media propaganda, and other measures against Iran, all of which only undermine the Iranian people’s attempts to further democratize their government and make it truly reflect the will of the people.

Now it doesn’t help things to refer to people such as myself as being in favor of “regime change” since everybody knows that the term is associated with George W. Bush: “And that’s why two administrations — mine and President Clinton’s — have stated that regime change in Iraq is the only certain means of removing a great danger to our nation.”

It is what veterans of the Trotskyist movement call “making an amalgam”. Another example in Yoshie’s introduction is this: “Contrary to what much of the Western media, leftist as well as capitalist, would have us believe, the Iranian government apparently enjoys a high level of popular support…” This is the sort of thing that the CPUSA perfected in the late 1930s and usually reads something like this: “Contrary to what the capitalist press and the Trotskyites say…” In my opinion, this kind of amalgam-making should be avoided like the plague.

Finally, Yoshie gives some friendly advice to the Islamic Republic:

The Iranian government, in turn, should take a deep breath and lighten up: the best defense against imperialism is the deepening of democracy, including industrial democracy, and improvement of the economic lot of working people, not the My Uncle Napoleon syndrome.

When I read this, I wondered out loud where I had read something like this before. Proffering this kind of advice is not the sort of thing I would do, especially to a government 3000 miles away that is not accustomed to reading Lenin’s Tomb or Lenin, for that matter. Then, I slapped my forehead and cried out: “Oh, I know where”. I read it in the Nation Magazine all the time:

The trade debate is a challenge for Obama. For all Clinton’s talk, her record of past support for free trade with China makes her vulnerable in Pennsylvania and Indiana. But to exploit that vulnerability, Obama must be more than a critic of Clinton or even NAFTA.

Of course, the idea of counseling politicians in this fashion has a long tradition. Machiavelli wrote an entire book about it. I still feel that Gramsci had the best idea on how to make Machiavelli relevant. He argued that the revolutionary party is the “modern prince” and, as such, can serve as a vehicle to promote the hegemony of the working class and ultimately its seizure of power. That seems a lot more attractive than sifting through poll numbers that bolster the reputation of a politician whose main claim to fame in the 1980s was beating up socialists on Tehran’s campuses.

April 15, 2008

Battle for Haditha

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

Since so much water has passed under the bridge, I asked for a review copy of Nick Broomfield’s “The Battle for Haditha” (scheduled to open at the Film Forum in N.Y. on May 7; it can be downloaded from BitTorrent as well apparently) without realizing that the title was ironic. I entirely forgot that there was no “battle” there, as there had been in neighboring Fallujah, but only a massacre of civilians that was called Iraq’s My Lai.

On the morning of November 19, 2005, an IED attack on a Marine convoy in Haditha left 2 soldiers wounded and a third sliced in half. Immediately afterwards, the marines stopped a taxi cab in the vicinity and shot the driver and 4 young unarmed passengers to death. One of the marines urinated on the head of one of his victims. Soon afterwards, the marines, who had been joined by reinforcements, went into three neighboring houses and shot another 19 civilians to death. A long article in the 2006 issue of Vanity Fair by William Langewiesche, which seems to have had a strong influence on Broomfield’s film, states:

Many had been sleeping, and were woken by the land-mine blast. Some were shot down in their pajamas. The oldest man was 76. He was blind and decrepit, and sat in a wheelchair. His elderly wife was killed, too. The dead children ranged in age from 15 to 3.

At the time the massacre was just one more in a series of outrages that helped to consolidate opposition to the war. Representative John Murtha, a Marine veteran himself, gave a news conference in which he said, “Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” Frank D. Wuterich, the Marine staff sergeant in charge of the killings, sued Murtha for defamation.

Wuterich and four other marines were charged with murder after a report in Time Magazine put enough heat on the military to force it to take action. Even the top killer at the White House was forced to say: ”I am troubled by the initial news stories. I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment.”

Broomfield is not the first director to make a docudrama based on the Haditha massacre. Last year, Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” generated a lot of controversy through its all-out assault on the Marines, who are depicted as total sociopaths. I confess to having been able to sit through only 15 minutes of the movie since it was so amateurish and stupid. Not surprisingly, De Palma was lionized at Cannes, where his “political statement” captured the feelings of many film industry celebrities.

Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha” takes an entirely different tack on the events. Unlike De Palma, the movie-according to the press notes-makes the case that “The Marines too are victims, attacked, wounded, and forced to respond in the way they have been trained. But when events occur at great speed and under extreme stress, can Marines in the line of fire be accused of murder.”

In order to humanize the American soldiers, Broomfield takes several liberties in his fictional recreation of the events that are not borne out by the facts. To begin with, he introduces a couple of characters responsible for the placement of the bomb who are the mirror images of the Marines. If they hadn’t placed the bomb in the road nearby the houses where the innocent victims lived, none of the killings would have taken place.

The motif of innocent civilians being caught between the pincers of an occupying army and a bloodthirsty insurgency is very old. During the Vietnam War, liberal journalists and politicians always saw the peasant as a victim of two armed forces while only wanting to live in peace. Graham Greene encapsulated this way of thinking when he had the jaded British journalist hero of “The Quiet American” say: “In five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to the market on the long poles of wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on their buffaloes.”

An even more egregious error is Broomfield’s decision to have one of the marines leading a young girl, a sole survivor, out of the charnel house by her hand, an utterly bogus “redemptive” note that smacks of the kind of Hollywood liberalism that made Paul Haggis’s “Crash” so insufferable.

If I had the time and the money, I’d try to write a documentary on Iraq–one that is so desperately needed. Nearly every movie that has come out, either fictional or documentary, has been thin on historical context. Basically, there is no equivalent to Peter Davis’s masterpiece on the Vietnam War, the 1974 “Hearts and Minds” documentary that can now be seen on Youtube.

I would start with the country’s origins, which involved the heavy hand of British colonialism. What an amazing rogue’s gallery, from the well-known buccaneer T.E. Lawrence to the much less well-known Gertrude Bell who drew the map from the Ottoman carcass that would include modern-day Iraq. Bell was an “Orientalist” who spoke Arabic and was trained as an archaeologist at Oxford. You can read her journals (and letters) at Newcastle University, including this excerpt from 9/29/1919. You will note that British imperialism had a handle on “divide and conquer” that has been handed down to their American successors. My guess is that the Americans will eventually be forced to leave just as they were-and the sooner the better.

Egypt should be an object lesson to us of how not to do things. I said I thought India was a still more striking one (e.g. Mr Sifton’s remark that the real difficulty under the new scheme will be how to deal with a British officer who rightly comes up against a native minister; if he is to be broken, as would seem inevitable, he should at least be allowed to retire on his full pension – this is a fine example of the extreme difficulty of relinquishing hold once we have taken hold too tight.) Gen. Clayton agreed but said that the fact that Egypt is all of one piece increases the formidableness of the problem. If India were not so much divided, Hindus against Islam, native princes against Nationalists, it would be a much graver matter, indeed if India had the homogeneous population of Egypt, we could not hold on at all.

Youtube trailer for movie

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