Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2008

Magnolia Blossom

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:36 pm

This is the time of the year that I receive batches of DVD’s from PR firms on behalf of major Hollywood studios and distribution companies in anticipation of the December awards meeting of NYFCO (New York Film Critics Online). No batch was awaited more eagerly (at least by this NYFCO member) than those from Magnolia Pictures, the distribution arm of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment. Cuban (and Wagner as well) is committed to boldly innovative independent fiction and documentary movies and the current batch reflects Magnolia at its best. I can recommend all of these movies, some of which are now available from Netflix and will be so indicated with an asterisk.

My preferences are in this order:

1. Let the Right One In

A beautifully written, acted, filmed and directed Swedish movie that pairs two 12 year olds: Oskar who is bullied mercilessly by schoolmates, and Eli, a girl who has just moved in next door in their Stockholm suburb and who happens to be a vampire. Consider this movie to be a much more elegant and intelligent version of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, the TV show that effectively equated adolescent turmoil with demonic afflictions.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) first encounters Eli (Lina Leandersson) late at night as he sits in the snow-covered front yard of the dreary brick tenement they live in trying unsuccessfully to solve a Rubic’s cube. Despite his initial wariness toward his new neighbor (misfortunes at school have made him understandably defensive), he is impressed both by her ability to effortlessly solve the puzzle as well as her pretty but pallid face. The only thing he doesn’t like about her is her “funny smell” that he brings to her attention. Since she has been dead for generations, it is no surprise that she has a bit of an odor.

Despite being a vampire, Eli has the same desire for friendship that any 12 year old would have. (She explains to Oskar at one point that she has been 12 years old for centuries.) When Eli learns that Oskar has been the target of bullies, she urges him to hit back hard, which he does. At an outdoor skating rink, he delivers a well-placed blow with a stick to the side of the head of his worst tormentor.

By coincidence, this is the same stick that Eli’s manservant Hakan has used to push one of his victims into an ice-covered brook. Although their relationship is not delineated (much of the movie’s power resides in its susceptibility to multiple interpretations), this much is clear: his role in life is to kill complete strangers, drain their blood, and feed his mistress. In contrast to the batty, insect-devouring Renfield of the Dracula saga, Hakan has much more of the appearance and demeanor of a depressed accountant.

Although the movie’s climax features a deeply satisfying confrontation with Oskar’s bullies, it is much more about the bonding of two lonely 12 year olds. Speaking for myself, their experience mirrors my own. It is too bad that I did not have a vampire on my side back in the 1950s.

2. Man on Wire (*)

A documentary about Philippe Petite’s tightrope crossing between the roofs of the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. As daunting as the sheer physical task is the preparation for the feat, which involved the same kind of combination of guts, guile, and technical precision as a large-scale bank robbery. By comparison, the robberies in the “Oceans 11” movies seem almost pedestrian. Petite, now 60 years old, seems to fit in nicely with the youth rebellion of the period even though I never would have considered him in that light at the time. To frame Petite’s adventure historically, the director (James Marsh) shrewdly includes footage of antiwar demonstrators and Nixon’s infamous “I am not a crook” speech. Although I was not a witness to Petite’s WTC crossing, I did see him perform once on the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall, his normal gig. Arriving on a unicycle (just like Ben Linder’s, a kindred spirit), Petite juggled meat cleavers and other unlikely objects with the same kind of insouciance that is on display throughout this marvelous documentary.

3. Bigger, Stronger, Faster: the Side Effects of Being American (*)

A documentary that has the audacity to make the case for steroids in a period when its use or advocacy can only be compared to membership in the Communist Party in the 1950s. Directed by Chris Bell, a long-time user of and believer in steroids, the film owes much to the Michael Moore genre, with the short, heavily-muscled but paunchy Chris Bell taking the audience along with him on a whimsical tour of the world of steroids-one that starts with his own conventional Catholic family in upstate New York in the early 1980s. Along with his two brothers Mark and Mike, they became big fans of professional wrestling and used to spend hour after hour in their parent’s basement imitating the way that 3 to 400 pound athlete/actors body-slamming each other. Next they discovered body-building and were particularly inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger who made a speech during the height of the steroid witch-hunt defending the need for drug-free sports. It was later revealed by men who trained with him that he was on the juice the entire time he was coming up the ranks.

Unlike baseball players, the world of professional body-building and wrestling-the sports (loosely speaking) that the Bell brothers participated in-has not been subject to the same kind of close scrutiny and prosecution. The three brothers not only refused to stop using steroids, they even became advocates on its behalf. With his wry sense of humor and his sense of the hypocrisy of American double-standards with respect to chemical aids in all walks of life, Chris Bell is a very effective spokesman for a distinctly distaff viewpoint. Put succinctly, the movie demonstrates very effectively that steroids are harmless (the claims of ‘droid rage’ and steroid-induced cancer are unfounded) and that chemical aids are used in all sorts of activity, including playing the violin!

In an interview on a website that sells steroids and other chemical aids (where else), Chris Bell is asked what inspired him to make this movie. He answered:

I always had the idea to do a film on steroids. But I was searching for the core thought of the movie. What is this movie really about? Well, it’s about steroids. But you can’t just say ‘it’s about steroids,’ you have to come up with some clever hook to make the film work. So I’m thinking what is it really about? Then I saw Senator Joseph Biden speaking about steroids. He was pounding his fist on the table at a Congressional hearing saying that there’s something simply un-American about steroids! And I thought about it. I’m thinking about my brothers. I’m thinking that I used steroids; I’ve tried them before. Are we un-American? Are my brothers and I un-American? Or is there nothing more American than doing whatever it takes to be number one in our country? And that’s the core thought of the film.

Considering Biden’s place in the body politic today, I am not only inclined to applaud Chris Bell’s but ready to order some steroids myself. I could certainly use some bulking up.

4. Surfwise (*)

Another documentary with an offbeat take on sports and family life. It chronicles the life and times of Dorian Paskowitz, an 85 year old surfing enthusiast who began life as a Stanford-trained physicians but who gave it all up to live out of a tiny trailer with his wife and nine children (8 sons and one daughter) who traveled the world looking for the perfect wave.

Besides his love of surfing, he believed deeply in a vegetarian diet and uninhibited sex. He and his wife had intercourse in their tiny trailer while their children did everything they could to block out the moaning and the grunts. As the movie progresses, we learn that Dorian Paskowitz never had any doubts about whether this kind of family life was beneficial for his children. So sure he was of his mission in life for himself and his children that when one or another son decided that he was not cut out for surfing, they would get a beating for their insolence.

Despite the superficial resemblance to the hippies of the 1960s, Paskowitz was inspired more by biblical patriarchs than by Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey. He gave his sons names like Isaac and Moses rather than Moonbeam or Cougar. He also decided to have a large family because in his eyes the world needed more Jews after 6 million were killed during WWII.

By the time the children had reached their early 20s, they discovered that a vagabond life of surfing ill prepared them for life in corporate America. One by one they broke free of their tyrannical father and struggled to find themselves either through music, cooking, or painting. Some stayed with the world of professional surfing but still decided that they had no use for their controlling, self-righteous father. We learn that all the children eventually found a place for themselves in the world, largely as a result of lessons they learned on their own.

While watching this film, it occurred to me that I did not have it so bad after all with my own father who hardly ever spoke to me, a behavior typical of men whose sons were born when they were off fighting in Europe. He left me to my own devices rather than forcing me to live by his own values. Thank god.

5. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (*)

For those who read my blog article on Thompson shortly after his suicide, it should be clear that I was not one of his fans. That being said, I found myself riveted by this very well-done documentary directed by left-leaning Alex Gibney, who has “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” to his credit.

I was not persuaded of Thompson’s genius despite the movie’s assiduous attempt to make the case for him, largely through the narration of Tulane professor Douglas Brinkley, a friend of Thompson and his biographer. The movie also relies heavily on Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Apparently, according to Brinkley, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, and assorted figures in the Democratic Party, Thompson’s main contribution to American journalism was excoriating Richard Nixon as a villain and praising George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. If you get beneath Thompson’s rowdy exterior, you will find nothing more than what people like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin have been doing for years but with less pizzazz.

The most interesting part of the movie for me was the final fifteen minutes or so that dealt with Hunter Thompson’s long slow decline into booze and drugs that coincided with and grew out of an inability to write anything of substance. We learn that as he became more and more of a celebrity, he was incapable of adopting the fly-on-the-wall perspective that serves many of the best journalists. Instead of the politician being the topic of interest when Thompson was on the beat, the story became Thompson himself. Apparently he was incapable of returning to a more authentic existence and spent 20 years or so basically wasting his time in his Aspen, Colorado retreat. The only mystery is why he didn’t blow his brains out earlier.

6. Timecrimes

A Spanish movie that tells the story of a man who is accidentally sent back into the past through a time machine and is forced to relive some painful experiences during a 24 hour period. The subject matter is related to “Groundhog Day” but the style is much more akin to Luis Buñuel. The movie suffers from underdeveloped characters but the intricate plot has the same appeal as an Escher painting. Definitely worth a viewing. Apparently David Cronenberg is working on his own version of “Timecrimes” and this too will be worth looking for.

November 28, 2008

The Obama cult

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Recently I have noticed an interesting but disturbing phenomenon in New York City. On the streets, subways and buses, you can see people still wearing Barack Obama buttons even though the election is long over. I wonder to myself whether these buttons express an inchoate political/psychological yearning. In some ways it reminds me of how people wore pictures of the fifteen year old guru Maharaj-ji, who counted former 60s radical Rennie Davis as one of his main followers.

When I spoke to a fellow radical in my department at Columbia University about my concerns, his eyes lit up and he said:

I know exactly what you mean. There’s this guy in my health club who wears an ‘Obama Knows’ t-shirt. The other day I went up to him and asked him, “Knows what?” He really couldn’t answer me.

At some point I will ask one of these Obama button wearers the same kind of question. What’s up with the Obama button? What are you trying to say? I once asked someone wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt the same kind of question. Trust me; they did not decide to wear the t-shirt after reading “Socialism and Man in Cuba”.

Apparently novelist and social commentator Joan Didion has had the same kinds of qualms as me. In the latest issue of New York Review, she has an article that was adapted from comments she made at “What Happens Now: The 2008 Election,” a November 10 symposium sponsored by the journal that generally hews to DP centrism. She writes in part:

Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.

Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.

Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.

I couldn’t count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people’s babies dressed in Obama gear.

I couldn’t count the number of times I heard the words “transformational” or “inspirational,” or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade’s war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see. It became increasingly clear that we were gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism-by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions-“convenient” because such redefinition makes those questions seem easier to answer, “dangerous” because this was a time when the nation was least prepared to afford easy answers.

Some who were troubled by this redefinition referred to those who remained untroubled by a code phrase. This phrase, which referred back to a previous encounter with militant idealism, the one that ended at the Jonestown encampment in Guyana in 1978, was “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Lest anybody assume that Didion is some kind of neoconservative, her leftist credentials are pretty well-established. She never gave an inch to the Democratic Party’s backhanded support for the war in Iraq and treated their 2004 convention with the contempt it deserved in an October 21, 2004 N.Y. Review article:

Senator Joseph Biden, also in The New Republic, believed his vote for the war to have been “just,” but had “never imagined” the lack of wisdom with which the war would be pursued. “I am not embarrassed by my assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed the sort of arsenal that made him a clear and present danger,” Leon Wieseltier declared in the same New Republic. The cadences surged: “And so I was persuaded,” “Prudence and conscience brought me to the same conclusion,” “But I was deceived.” As for the collective “we” that represented the magazine’s editors, they could see “in retrospect” that there might have been “warning signs,” to which “we should have paid more attention.” “At the time,” however, “there seemed good reason not to,” and, in any case (the larger framework again), “if our strategic rationale for war has collapsed, our moral one has not.”

It is understandable why a cult around Obama is being formed. I imagine that for most people who wear his image, politics mean nothing except voting every 2 years or so. Although I vote as well, I cannot escape the feeling that pulling a lever is a bit like pressing the “Close” button in elevators whose doors only close after a predetermined amount of seconds (sometimes it feels like minutes) have elapsed. The close button serves merely to allow the impatient passenger to feel like his action is making a difference. Same thing with voting basically.

So if voting is merely a psychological mechanism, no wonder that the voter will be open up to all sorts of ways of feeling a connection to the men and women in power. Since they are not in a position to put a bathtub full of cash at their doorstep, as a George Soros or a Bill Gates can, the next best thing might be to offer up a kind of prayer: “Please President Obama, don’t end Social Security. Don’t attack Iran”. Wearing a picture of your savior on you coat jacket would serve in these circumstances to make your prayers more effective. One imagines that this might be the big difference between the Bush presidency and Obama’s. For the average person, praying to Bush eventually came to be seen as a waste of time.

November 26, 2008

Tim Unwise

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

Tim Wise: opposed to Albanian folk music and tofu

Over on alternet.org, a website occupying a place on the political spectrum a bit to the left of Huffington Post, there’s an article that has been generating a bit of controversy. Titled rather provocatively “Enough of ‘Barbituate’ Left Cynicism, Obama Is a Victory over White Supremacy,” it is a reproach to those reprobates like me, Alexander Cockburn, Paul Street and others who tend to regard the Obama presidency as Bill Clinton’s 3rd term.

When crossposted to the pro-Obama Portside mailing list, it even rankled some people who had actually rung doorbells for Obama. If Wise’s intention was to win people to his point of view, he really needs to brush up on his people skills. The politics of course is a lost cause.

The bulk of Wise’s article is a kind of throwback to 1950s B movies like “My Son John” that has some kid looking like Wally Cleaver getting sucked into a secret commie cell and getting transformed into a robotic true believer after the fashion of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. For some reason, Wise has chosen to personify these kinds of it-came-from-outer-space Rooskies as pro-Albanian Marxists:

But despite being interesting, these folks also managed, at least for me, to demonstrate one of the key problems with the left in the U.S. Namely, for the sake of ideological purity few within the professional left expressed any joy about life, or any emotion whatsoever that wasn’t rooted in negativity. They were like the political equivalent of quaaludes: guaranteed to bring you down from whatever partly optimistic place you might find yourself from time to time.

This was never so evident as the day I hopped into a car with one of the Stalinoids (a member of something called the Albanian Liberation League, which viewed the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha as a worker’s paradise), and headed downtown for a rally to protest Contra aid. Once in the car, I asked about the music playing from his stereo. What was it? I wanted to know. He quickly explained that it was Albanian folk music, and the only music he listened to. I made some joke about how strange it was to be living in one of the greatest musical towns on Earth and yet to restrict oneself to a single genre of music (especially that favored by Albanian sheepherders), to which my revolutionary friend responded with a grunt and a scowl. Of course, because Comrade Stalin never much liked jazz.

And if it is not bad enough that they listen to the music favored by Albanian sheepherders, they are into health food as well:

In the case of the latter, one most often notices an almost permanent scowl, a dour and depressing affect devoid of happiness, unable to appreciate life until the state is smashed altogether and everyone is subsisting on a diet of wheatgrass, bean curd and tempeh.

First of all I want to assure comrade Wise that it is not necessary for the state to be smashed in order to subsist on such a diet. Now I can’t advise anybody to mess with wheatgrass, which tastes just like it sounds, but tofu and tempeh are really quite nice when combined with the right sauce. More to the point, I strongly urge everyone to give quinoa a shot. This health food store staple has only recently entered my cupboards lately and it is really quite wonderful. I especially recommend it with sautéed green pepper, ginger, garlic, carrots and onions. Yummy!

Taking a cue from Don Quixote, Wise next takes up his lance and attacks an opponent that exists only in his mind:

Now, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory these barbiturate leftists are back in full effect, lecturing the rest of us about how naive we are for having any confidence whatsoever in him, or for voting at all, since “the Democrats and Republicans are all the same,” and he supports FISA and the war with Afghanistan, and all kinds of other messed up policies just like many on the right.

If you can get past the clumsy, run-on sentences, you are struck by his tendency to put words in his opponents’ mouths like “the Democrats and Republicans are all the same.” Carl Davidson is also very good at inventing crude formulations that supposedly appear in publications of the anti-Obama left like:

‘You’re deluded!’ You’re Obamaniacs! ‘You’re wrong!’ ‘Obama is a capitalist!’ ‘Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid! Obama is the more dangerous warmonger because he’s the new ‘Uncle Tom’ Black face of imperialism!’

Well, if you ever catch me writing this kind of garbage, you have permission to chop off my typing fingers. Contrary to Wise, the point I and others have made is that the Democrats and Republicans are not the same. The liberal supporters of Obama are quite right when they point out that the Republicans appoint rightwing fanatics like Anthony Scalia to the Supreme Court. It is up to the Democrats to appoint judges like Stephen Breyer who have the same kind of centrist, pro-corporate orientation as the politician who nominated him. If the 2-party system was not able to offer voters this kind of choice, it would break down immediately. The purpose of a Stephen Breyer or any of a number of liberal congressmen like Dennis Kucinich is to maintain the illusion that it is worth voting for Democrats. Like the shills in a 3-card Monte game who are allowed to win every so often, they serve to keep the suckers in play. Considering the con job that Barack Obama is currently running on the American people, an army of shills will be required to keep them from raising the kind of hell that any politician will run from in fear, whether he is Black or white; male or female. For in the final analysis, bourgeois politics is ultimately about keeping the Citibanks and AIG’s on top of the heap and the working class on the bottom despite empty rhetoric about “hope” and “change”.

November 22, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 9:21 pm

One week after seeing the irony-drenched, terminally depressed and postmodernist “Synecdoche, New York” at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, I returned to the scene of the crime and watched the altogether marvelous Bollywoodish “Slumdog Millionaire”. An entire book could be written by a film scholar about the differences between the two films and the two cultures they express.

Charlie Kaufman’s solipsistic exercise perfectly mirrors an American society that is politically, spiritually, and artistically exhausted. In the final scenes, Synecdoche’s playwright-director Caden Cotard, now very old and close to death, walks unsteadily across a cityscape strewn with dead bodies that looks like the aftermath of a terrible war. Danny Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan end their film with the entirely Indian cast doing a rapturous song and dance in one of the gritty rail-yards that figure so prominently in their film. The dancers are brimming with life and joy, feelings altogether absent in the typical Hollywood movie since the 1950s perhaps.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is a reference to the main character Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young cell phone help-desk technician who has become a contestant on the Mumbai version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, the dreadful British quiz show that has spread virally to the U.S. and elsewhere. As was the case with the show it was based on, the Mumbai version includes a smarmy host named Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) who belittles Jamal every opportunity he gets. As a denizen of Mumbai’s vast slums (a slumdog in local parlance), Jamal is used to being abused and humiliated but rising above his meager circumstances.

And rise he does. He keeps coming back week after week, poised to win the grand prize of 20 million rupees. Since Jamal appears to be poorly educated, the host begins to become suspicious. For example, how could he possibly know the name of the composer of an obscure song?

As it turns out, he only knows the answers because they have an accidental connection to turning points in his troubled life. For example, he knows the composer of the song because he was asked to sing it when he was a tot living in captivity under the brutal tutelage of Mumbai’s version of Oliver Twist’s Fagin, who sent his wards out each day to beg. Just before Jamal is about to turn in a performance of the song that will supposedly earn him riches, his brother-also a ward of the cruel master-rescues him from a fate that another boy had met. When that boy’s performance was deemed adequate for the streets, he was blinded to help garner sympathy and alms.

The movie crosscuts between scenes in the television studio as Jamal ponders over the answer to each successively more difficult question and flashbacks to his childhood as he and his older brother Salim struggle for survival on Mumbai’s streets. The only other person that Jamal has an emotional connection to, other than his brother, is Latika, a girl who like them is homeless. From the minute Jamal saw Latika in the pouring rain and invited her into the hovel that he was sharing with his brother, he has always loved her. When he decides to enter the contest, it is with the hope that his celebrity might attract the attention of Latika who he has not seen in years.

As should be obvious from the plot, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a very old-fashioned rags-to-riches love story. Indeed, as should be clear from the screenplay’s similarities to “Oliver Twist”, there is something positively Dickensian about Jamal’s story. In the same way that class distinctions in Victorian England forced a sensitive novelist to take up the plight of the poor, so were the makers of “Slumdog Millionaire” inspired to expose the brutality of life in the slums of Mumbai, a point of view that can not be found in Thomas Friedman’s gushing over the benefits of globalization in India. Indeed, what distinguishes “Slumdog Millionaire” from conventional Bollywood efforts is its determination to call attention to the realities of slum conditions in India. In doing so, they have much more in common with some of the more critical-minded Indian movies like Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” a film also about children being forced to become beggars, and Shonali Bose’s “Amu,” which takes up the question of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Like the main character in “Amu“, the three children in “Slumdog Millionaire” also lost their parents as a result of anti-Moslem violence.

Although I usually focus on the politics of a movie, I am obligated to say a word or two about “Slumdog Millionaire” as a pure cinematic experience. Suffice it to say that Danny Boyle is one of the more innovative directors on the scene today, having both the Scottish junkie chronicle “Trainspotting” and the zombie classic “28 Days” to his credit. The movie is a feast for the eyes and has a sound track that features some Indian/techno music that kicks ass. While there might be some other movie waiting in the wings between now and the annual NYFCO awards meeting that has earned the same kind of accolades as “Slumdog Millionaire”, I rather doubt that anything will displace it as movie of the year in my eyes.

November 20, 2008

Marxists for Obama: a bumpy road ahead

Filed under: Obama,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

Carl Davidson: has his work cut out for him

The pro-Obama, self-described Marxist left has a tough job on its hands. Well before taking office, Obama has made it painfully obvious that his administration will be in effect Clinton’s third term. With Mrs. Clinton about to assume the office of Secretary of State, a perfect symbol of the kind of bellicose foreign policy that the dovish President-elect campaigned against, one wonders whether the primary was just some kind of elaborate deception foisted on a gullible public yearning for change.

Perhaps nobody with Marxist credentials after a fashion is better qualified to serve as a spin doctor for the incoming Obama administration than Carl Davidson, the 65 year old 1960s SDS leader and editor of the Guardian newspaper, a New Left weekly newspaper that morphed into a Maoist publication around the same time that the shards of SDS were launching the New Communist Movement. The New Communist Movement, embodied in sects like Bob Avakian’s RCP, styled itself after the CPUSA before it became “revisionist”. In keeping with their neo-Stalinist ambitions, such groups became past masters at lying through their teeth and opportunist politics, including a turn toward the Democratic Party. In realigning with the 150 year old party of racism and imperialist war, they came full circle. If SDS had resolved to go “part of the way with LBJ”, many of its veterans who came to embrace the DP were now ready to go all the way with Obama.

In a prolix article titled “The Bumpy Road Ahead: New Tasks of the Left Following Obama’s Victory” that was posted to Portside, a mailing list moderated by the Eurocommunist Committees of Correspondence, Davidson uses every trick he learned in the neo-Stalinist milieu to shore up support for Obama and discredit his opponents on the left who are stigmatized as “ultraleft” for their opposition to the “war on terror”, Wall Street bailouts, Zionism and other disgusting policies about to be carried out by the Democrats.

After reminding us of what a breakthrough it was to have a Black president (an observation that will likely begin to wear thin after a year or so of DP misrule), Davidson attempts to explain Obama’s presidency in class terms:

The Obama team at the top is comprised of global capital’s representatives in the U.S. as well as U.S. multinational capitalists, and these two overlap but are not the same. It is a faction of imperialism, and there is no need for us to prettify it, deny it or cover it up in any way. The important thing to see is that it is neither neoliberalism nor the old corporate liberalism. Obama is carving out a new niche for himself, a work in progress still within the bounds of capitalism, but a ‘high road’ industrial policy capitalism that is less state-centric and more market- based in its approach, more Green, more high tech, more third wave and participatory, less politics-as- consumerism and more ‘public citizen’ and education focused. In short, it’s capitalism for a multipolar world and the 21st century.

For those a bit puzzled by the reference to “third wave”, this is the very same buzzword coined by Alvin Toffler to describe a post-industrial society. The first wave was composed of small farms and the second is synonymous with the industrial revolution. Needless to say, this schema developed by a former editor of Fortune magazine has little to do with Marxism. Davidson, a computer consultant, became smitten with the idea a couple of decades ago and promoted it as part of a high-tech driven brand of market socialism called “cyRev”. I analyzed his theories in an article that can be read here. As an unrepentant Marxist, I felt quite put off by the kind of Silicon Valley boosterism that pervaded cyRev:

In our view of socialism, we affirm the entrepreneurial spirit, the motivating energy of the market and the right of individuals to become wealthy through the private ownership of the capital they have helped to create. At the same time, we fundamentally reorder priorities in how both property and capital is defined. While both personal property and capital may still be owned by individuals, we no longer see ownership as an absolute power. Property, especially productive property in the form of capital, is to be seen primarily as a social power relation that can be guided and regulated, just as other power relations are regulated for the common good of society. Incomes are also subject to progressive taxation.

Beyond the “third wave” nonsense, one has to wonder what use it is to speak of “neoliberalism” as some kind of bogey man. Terms such as “neoliberalism” and “globalization” do not have very much use in understanding the dynamics of the American economy or divisions within the bourgeoisie for that matter. For example, trade agreements such as NAFTA are generally understood to be symbols of neoliberalism but there is little likelihood that Obama will do anything to overturn them. Furthermore, in choosing Eric Holder as his Attorney General, Obama has shown indifference to imperialist crimes (a term I find more useful than neoliberalism or globalization) in Colombia, as WBAI reporter Mario Murillo points out:

In 2003, an Organization of American States report showed that Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia, Banadex, had helped divert weapons and ammunition, including thousands of AK-47s, from Nicaraguan government stocks to the AUC. The AUC – very often in collaboration with units of the U.S.-trained Armed Forces – is responsible for hundreds of massacres of primarily peasants throughout the Colombian countryside, including in the banana-growing region of Urabá, where it is believed that at least 4,000 people were killed. Their systematic use of violence resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of poor Colombians, a disproportionate amount of those people being black or indigenous.

In 2004, Holder helped negotiate an agreement with the Justice Department for Chiquita that involved the fruit company’s payment of “protection money” to the AUC, in direct violation of U.S. laws prohibiting this kind of transaction. In the agreement brokered by Holder, Chiquita officials pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a fine of $25 million, to be paid over a 5-year period. However, not one Chiquita official involved in the illegal transactions was forced to serve time for a crime that others have paid dearly for, mainly because they did not have the kind of legal backing that Holder’s team provided. Holder continues to represent Chiquita in the civil action, which grew out of this criminal case.

Trying in vain to cover his opportunist politics with a Marxist veneer, Davidson tries to explain the Obama “alliance” (i.e., Wall Street investment banks and the moveon.org member operating a computer from his bedroom) in terms of Gramscian “hegemonic blocs”:

What is a hegemonic bloc? Most power elites maintain their rule using more than armed force. They use a range of tools to maintain hegemony, or dominance, which are ‘softer,’ meaning they are political and cultural instruments as well as economic and military. They seek a social base in the population, and draw them into partnership and coalitions through intermediate civil institutions. Keeping this bloc together requires a degree of compromise and concession, even if it ultimately relies on force. The blocs are historic; they develop over time, are shaped by the times, and also have limited duration. When external and internal crises disrupt and lead them to stagnation, a new ‘counter-hegemonic’ bloc takes shape, with a different alignment of economic interests and social forces, to challenge it and take its place. These ideas were first developed by the Italian communist and labor leader, Antonio Gramsci, and taken up again in the 1960s by the German New Left leader, Rudi Dutschke. They are helpful, especially in nonrevolutionary conditions, in understanding both how our adversaries maintain their power, as well as the strategy and tactics needed to replace them, eventually by winning a new socialist and popular democratic order.

This, of course, is just a bunch of malarkey. For Gramsci, the goal was not to work within hegemonic blocs in alliance with the bourgeoisie, but to create counter-hegemonic blocs led by the working class and a (genuine) vanguard party. In a useful article on the relevance of Gramsci to today’s struggles that appeared in the journal Socialism and Democracy, Thomas J. Butko noted:

It is clear to Gramsci that the first stage in a war of position must involve the dissemination of new ideas by the counter-hegemonic bloc to intellectually, culturally, and morally prepare the ground for the revolutionary force and its ascent to hegemonic dominance. In this context, it is only by persuasively demonstrating to society at large that its conception of the world is inherently superior to those of the dominant powers that such a counter-hegemonic force can conquer civil society and eventually exert its political leadership.

In any case, for those who take their Gramsci seriously, the task today as it was in the 1920s is to challenge the dominant powers, as Butko puts it. If Davidson is intent on maneuvering within the hegemonic bloc, that of course is his privilege as long as he understands that this has nothing to do with Marxism.

In a section titled “The Bankruptcy of the Ultraleft”, Davidson castigates a wide range of opponents who refused to get on the Obama bandwagon, namely the “Trotskyist, anarchist and Maoist left.” (For obvious reasons, Davidson does not refer to Counterpunch or Znet since these outlets of opposition to Obama can not be dismissed to the margins of the left. Counterpunch gets something like 100,000 unique visits a day, hardly the stuff of the Spartacist League.)

As opposed to these wreckers and splitters, the ones who “got it right” in his words were the CCDS (Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, cc-ds.org, ) the Communist Party USA, cpusa.org, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO, freedomroad.org). He also puts in a good word for DSA “which at least saw the importance of defeating McCain and backing Obama, even though they only managed to put out a rather wimpy pro-forma statement without once mentioning race.”

He is also peeved at “the sixty or more Indymedia sites, and you hardly see anything useful said besides macho bluster and shit-talk against the few pro-voting-for-Obama postings put up.” All of these ultraleftists were content to bark at a “united Black communist” and “the best elements of labor”:

‘You’re deluded!’ You’re Obamaniacs! ‘You’re wrong!’ ‘Obama is a capitalist!’ ‘Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid! Obama is the more dangerous warmonger because he’s the new ‘Uncle Tom’ Black face of imperialism!’

Of course, for this kind of harangue to have any effect, you must make sure to put words in the mouths of your adversary. As somebody who has written a fair amount against Obama, including an article on his economic advisers that has been read by nearly 18,000 people to date, I don’t traffic in crude reductionisms like “Obama is a capitalist”. My main problem with Obama in fact is that he does not even operate as a Democratic Party liberal. Here is a snippet from the aforementioned article:

Another adviser with a particular interest in health care is David Cutler, a Harvard economist who was also an adviser to Bill Clinton-surprise, surprise. Cutler wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 asserting that “The rising cost … of health care has been the source of a lot of saber rattling in the media and the public square, without anyone seriously analyzing the benefits gained.”

Anxious to show the good side of rising costs, Cutler and a group of other economists defend the idea that a powerful and profitable medical industry can serve as an engine of economic growth in the USA as the wretched Gina Kolata reported in the August 22, 2006 NY Times.

It is not worth correcting all the errors in Davidson’s interminable article, so I will just conclude with some comments on a dichotomy he draws between “revolutionary” and “non-revolutionary” conditions:

If the question of the day was immediate working-class mass action on seizing power from the capitalist class, for reform vs. revolution, socialism or capitalism NOW, they might have had a point. But it’s not. Even with the financial crisis, it’s not even close. Besides getting troops out of this or that country, they don’t even have a package of demands or structural reforms worthy of the name being put forward. Worse of all, they don’t think any distinction between revolutionary and non-revolutionary conditions is all that important. What that means, in turn, is that it’s almost impossible for them, as groups and as a trend, to correct their course.

This is really a timeworn argument going back to Eduard Bernstein. During the late 19th century, under conditions of a long imperialist expansion, socialists began to feel that revolution was a far-off ideal whose arrival in the distant future would be commemorated each year at banquets. In the meantime, efforts would be directed toward achieving ameliorative reforms such as the kind that fell under the rubric of “sewer socialism” in the U.S. Of course, whatever else one would say about our socialist forefathers and mothers from 125 years ago, they at least put their energies into building socialist institutions of a counter-hegemonic nature rather than ringing doorbells for a bourgeois politician.

But more to the point, it is entirely possible that we are entering a period that will have much more in common with the one that preceded WWI or WWII as capitalism entered a period of intractable contradictions. With daily reminders of 1929 in the mainstream press, it is incumbent on those who still take their Marxism seriously to begin constructing a counter-hegemonic bloc that can finally put an end to the system that exploits the working class and threatens the future of the planet.

November 19, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:50 pm

Out of a need to fulfill my obligations to New York Film Critics Online, whose membership is made up mostly of professionals like Rex Reed paid to sit through Hollywood garbage 2 or 3 times a week, I am making an effort to see a few mainstream movies between now and December 11th, the date of our annual awards meeting.

As it turns out, what I consider mainstream is pretty exotic by society’s norms. With that in mind, my first dip into commercial Hollywood film was Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” a word-play on Schenectady, a dreary city in upstate New York where the main character Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is director of a local theater. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which one thing relates to another symbolically. In Kaufman’s film, synecdoches take the form of visual puns, typically involving images of decay or peril. As Cotard is entering middle age (just like Kaufman who recently turned 50), he is preoccupied with failing health and the brutal fact of his eventual death.

In one unpleasant scene among countless others, he examines his bloody turds inside the toilet bowl–a synecdoche for his looming mortality. Kaufman, who is evidently going through some kind of deeply painful midlife crisis, made this movie as a kind of self-directed psychotherapy. He would have been better off taking prozac in this critic’s opinion since the main reaction I had to the movie was akin to listening to an aging relative’s complaints about their hemorrhoids or rheumatism.

Kaufman’s solipsistic approach to art and the human condition is best expressed in a comic exchange (yes, this is a comedy) between Cotard and two young actors that he has cast in the role of Willy and Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. When the subject of the discrepancy between their youth and the age of the characters they are playing comes up, Cotard tells them that they too will one day be as old as Willy and Linda and face sickness and death. Thus, an Arthur Miller play written as an indictment of the capitalist system that crushed one of its true believers underfoot is turned into an existentialist treatise on Death. Since his earliest professional credits involved writing comedy for SNL type shows like Fox TV’s “The Edge” and “The Dana Carvey Show” on ABC, it is not surprising that he would reflect their apolitically “hip” approach.

Driven almost obsessively to supply clever visual gags, Kaufman cannot help but subvert his intentions to force his audience to look at the painful realities of old age and death. In one typical scene, he is attending the funeral of his father, who has died of cancer. As a 3 foot long coffin is being hoisted into the grave, someone asks Cotard why it is so small. He replies that the cancer ate most of his father away and that was all that remained. The audience at the screening remained silent during this exchange, except for a small group of young people sitting to my left who giggled hysterically at this and other painfully unfunny moments as if they came to the theater loaded on weed. I surmised that they were SNL fans.

I am not sure whether other critics have made a point of this, but it was clear to me that Hoffman was reprising the character he played in “The Savages“, another dark comedy about the harsh realities of aging and death. In that movie, he played a theater professor in Buffalo who was as much of an underachiever as Caden Cotard. With his sister, another underachiever, they were forced to deal with putting their cranky, senile father into a nursing home. Unlike “Synecdoche, New York”, “The Savages” was mainly about taking the hard existential facts of life seriously while the jokes helped us endure a dramatic ordeal. In Kaufman’s movie, the priorities are just the opposite. He is going for laughs and using aging and death as the set-up.

I sat through “Synecdoche, New York” partly out of an effort to try to understand the sensibility of a highly regarded young director (he is 50, but I am 63) who has the reputation of pushing the envelope. I also found myself, despite my negative reaction to the manic visual punning and overall morbidity of the subject matter, somewhat entertained by the dream-like character of many of the scenes, especially those that occurred toward the end of the film, when Cotard is directing a mammoth play about his life and death funded by a McArthur foundation grant. (The sister in “The Savages” is always writing off to such foundations to get funding for her amateurish plays.)

The staging for this play within a movie involves Kafkaesque touches in which the lines between reality and art are shifting, like a penthouse terrace that overlooks the stage at one moment and a real city street in another. These dreamlike moments are of course Kaufman’s stock-in-trade, done to much greater effect in ” Being John Malkovich”, a movie that he wrote but did not direct and that at least understands that it-like the Seinfeld television show-was about nothing.

November 18, 2008

Bill Warren’s folly

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

(Posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list)

Where Bill Warren came from (image courtesy of The Cedar Lounge Revolution)

As should be obvious by now, much of the material that I have been forwarding is connected to major debates within Marxism, such as underconsumption/overaccumulation, dependency theory/Brenner critique, etc. This was not my original intention, but I have become persuaded that this is a good way to approach the material. Keep in mind that much of Marx and Lenin’s writings specifically arose in the context of a debate. I would also say that much of my training in Marxism, except for the occasional classes organized by the theory-bereft SWP, took place through my exposure to debates in the party.

Although the late Bill Warren is a pretty obscure figure today, he generated a lot of attention in the early 1970s when he wrote a 66 page article in the September-October 1973 New Review titled “Imperialism and Capitalist Industrialization” that argued that imperialism was dying out in the 3rd world under the impact of local industrial development. In other words, capitalism was basically playing a progressive role in places like Brazil, India, Nigeria, etc. The end result of this development would be something approximating Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” thesis.

As counter-intuitive as all this seems, there have always been bits and pieces of the Marxist classics that people like Warren could have appealed to. For example, Karl Marx wrote “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” in the preface to V. 1 of Capital (1867 German Edition). Nearly 50 years later Leon Trotsky would write in “Third International After Lenin”:

In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and constantly aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships. Thereby it brings about their rapprochment and equalizes the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this main process, it would be impossible to conceive of the levelling out, first, of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialization of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain.

Since Warren’s article is so long, it would not be useful for me to forward the entire item. However, I will include some key passages from it as well as some rejoinders that appeared in the New Left Review. For those of you who have a particular interest in the topic, contact me offlist and I will be happy to send you the entire article(s).

Before proceeding, I would like to sketch out the political and historical context in which Warren’s ideas were put forward. To start with, Warren was a member of British and Irish Communist Organization (B&ICO, often referred to simply as BICO), a split from the Irish Communist Group in 1965 that adhered to various aspects of Stalinist and Maoist orthodoxy with some rather odd innovations, the most controversial of which was opposition to the Northern Irish Catholic struggle. They argued from a workerist perspective that was reminiscent of the CPUSA’s hostility to Malcolm X in the early 1960s.

In my view, it is no accident that both Warren and Robert Brenner were hostile to dependency theory, the only thing separating them ideologically was Warren’s going whole hog in favor of capitalism. Both were convinced that capitalism would be diffused from the more advanced countries to the less advanced ones, a view that owes much to the Communist Party’s intellectual traditions. In Warren’s case, you are dealing with a rather unmediated acceptance of Stalin-era stagism. With Brenner, you are getting an analysis that is heavily in debt to the Communist Party Historians Group that included such highly respected figures as Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson. No matter how brilliant their scholarship, all of them was wedded to the idea that history proceeds through stages. Since Dobb was a primary influence on Robert Brenner, it is easy to understand why he would have such a strong reaction against a figure like Andre Gunder Frank who was so deeply influenced by Fidel Castro’s crypto-Trotskyist call for socialist revolution throughout Latin America even though conditions might not have ripened (in other words, an industrial proletariat had not been formed yet.) I say this despite the fact that Brenner has professed sympathy for Trotsky’s ideas in his NLR article. Politics is complicated, after all.

80 percent of Bill Warren’s article consists of empirical data meant to prove that capitalist industrialization was proceeding apace in the underdeveloped countries, thus rendering obsolete A.G. Frank’s notion that capitalism produces the “development of underdevelopment”. Additionally, Warren argues that Lenin’s theories were becoming obsolete as the differences between India, for example, and Great Britain were diminishing.

Warren’s article begins:

Current Marxist views of the relationship of imperialism to the non-socialist underdeveloped countries are that the prospects of independent economic development or independent industrialization in such countries are nil or negligible (unless they take a socialist option); and that the characteristics of backwardness, underdevelopment and dependence [1] which prevent such development are the necessary results of imperialist domination. Despite the state of controversy in which the theory of imperialism currently finds itself, these conclusions were generally accepted by all participants in a recent symposium on imperialism. [2] It will, on the contrary, be the burden of this article that empirical observations suggest that the prospects for successful capitalist economic development (implying industrialization) of a significant number of major underdeveloped countries are quite good; that substantial progress in capitalist industrialization has already been achieved; that the period since the Second World War has been marked by a major upsurge in capitalist social relations and productive forces (especially industrialization) in the Third World; that in so far as there are obstacles to this development, they originate not in current imperialist-Third World relationships, but almost entirely from the internal contradictions of the Third World itself; that the imperialist countries’ policies and their overall impact on the Third World actually favour its industrialization; and that the ties of dependence binding the Third World to the imperialist countries have been, and are being, markedly loosened, with the consequence that the distribution of power within the capitalist world is becoming less uneven.

To support his argument that the 3rd world is becoming industrialized, Warren supplies many statistical tables. The first one he deploys is perhaps the most useful in at least understanding why he came to the conclusion that things were “improving”:

I should mention that I heard exactly the same type of arguments back in 1973 but not from a Marxist. When I worked at the First National Bank of Boston, I had a very likable manager who had graduated from Harvard and embraced liberal orthodoxies. When I used to argue that capitalism was destroying the 3rd world (this was when I was young and impetuous), he frequently held up Brazil as a success and an exception that disproved my Marxist dogma.

If you go back and look at newspaper reports of the time, there were plenty of articles that supported my boss and Bill Warren who refers to Brazil frequently in his article, stating in one footnote that “Brazil ranks seventh among capitalist countries in commercial vehicle production and has nearly double the output of Italy in this important capital goods sector.”

Indeed, one 1971 N.Y. Times article sounds like it could have been written a couple of years ago when Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) were being widely discussed as a new economic bloc that would rival the traditional imperialist powers–just substitute “Lula” for “military government” and “progressive” for “conservative”:

There are holes in Brazil’s current economic boom-vast, blank areas where millions of people live on the edge of subsistence-and the military government has undertaken to fill them in its own conservative way.

Two Government projects are designed to give more of Brazil’s current industrial prosperity to the working poor at the bottom of urban society and to transform the medieval structure of the Northeast, a semiarid area where about 15 million people live in deadly poverty.

Of course these hopes were dashed as soon as the next major world economic crisis ensued, just as surely as they are being dashed in the BRICS countries today. That, after all, is how capitalism works. It is a system of expansion and contraction. If it only expanded, then Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin probably would have found careers as philosophy professor and lawyer instead of revolutionists.

The text that accompanies the table seen above should suffice to define Bill Warren’s basic argument:

Despite statements and predictions to the contrary, the underdeveloped world, considered as a whole, has made considerable progress in industrialization in the post-war period. Already, by the 1950s, the Third World accounted for a higher proportion of the world’s manufacturing output than it did pre-war. Whereas in 1937 the developed capitalist countries accounted for about nine times the manufacturing output of Latin America, Africa and Asia, by 1959 the ratio had been reduced to seven to one. Moreover, this tendency for manufacturing output to grow faster in the underdeveloped world than in the developed capitalist world continued into the 1960s-with Third World manufacturing output growing at about 7 per cent per annum between 1960 and 1968 while that in the advanced capitalist world grew at about 6 per cent. This was despite the fact that during the 1960s industrial growth in the developed capitalist world has been exceptionally high by historical standards, overall GNP growth easily exceeding the famous OECD Growth Target for the 1960s of 50 per cent over the decade.

It may be argued that this apparent success is attributable to the high statistical growth rates associated with very small industrial bases and is therefore delusive, or, alternatively, that in terms of output per head the record of the underdeveloped countries compared with the developed capitalist countries is rather poor. However, inspection of the figures for individual countries over a longish period shows the ability of many underdeveloped countries to maintain faster rates of growth of manufacturing output than the already industrialized economies (table iii). Moreover, the really unique feature of the post-war industrialization advance in the Third World taken as a whole, is its sustained momentum over a period longer than any previously recorded. Thirdly, this industrialization has been (and is) taking place in a period when neither war nor world depression have acted to ‘cut off’ the ThirdWorld from the advanced capitalist countries-and yet it is this cutting-off that Gunder Frank considers crucial in explaining such industrial progress as has been made (in partial exception to his ‘developing underdevelopment’ and ‘increasing polarization’ theses.)

Certainly, the growth of manufacturing output per head in the underdeveloped countries does lag behind that of the imperialist world, in part because of the unprecedented post-war rates of population growth in the former. But to take the growth of manufacturing output per head as a basis of comparison is to apply an extremely demanding criterion of performance. Similarly, the same point applies to the growth of total output per head. Clearly, from the point of view of living standards, per capita growth rates are the most relevant criterion. However, from the perspectives of the distribution of world industrial power and the growth of the market (which are more relevant to the problem at hand) total, rather than per capita, growth rates are the central issue.

One of the first responses to Warren’s article came from Philip McMichael, James Petras and Robert Rhodes in the May/June 1974 issue of NLR. (It should be mentioned that Petras had weighed in against Andre Gunder Frank beforehand, thus proving that you can’t automatically amalgamate Warren and the Brenner critique just on the basis that they both are opposed to dependency theory.)

Their article titled “Imperialism and the Contradictions of Development” zeroes in on Warren’s fixation on growth for growth’s sake:

Warren argues from his Table III (Annual Average Rates of Growth of Manufacturing for Selected Countries) that the ‘unique feature of the post-war industrialization advance in the Third World taken as a whole, is its sustained momentum over a period longer than any previously recorded’. But time series data reveal a cyclical pattern of industrial expansion interrupted by crises. For example, growth conditions in Brazil alternated between a boom in the 1950s, stagnation in the early and mid-1960s, and boom again in the late 1960s. To average out growth conditions is to conceal the specific problems of industrial expansion in the Third World. Warren also ignores the phenomenon of ‘internal colonialism’-by citing industrial growth apart from overall growth, he fails to establish the size of the sector affected and its relationship to and impact upon the Third World economy. In Latin America for instance, the overall growth rate between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s was low, yet industry expanded. To exclude these various conditions of industrial expansion allows Warren to project quite unqualified and optimistic assertions, devoid of any direct recognition of the contradictions accompanying this phenomenon.

Warren claims from his observations of absolute growth rates that there has been a significant ‘redistribution of world industrial power’. To measure distribution of world industrial power by ‘growth rates’ of industry, which include economies starting from the barest minimum of industrial production and cover a generation, is delightful simplicity. The volume of production, the level of technology, the research capabilities, the allocation of resources, the development of education and the use of manpower, are equally or more relevant to measuring the historic capacity of a country to become a significant industrial power. Warren wishes to prove a ‘redistribution’ of industrial power, but can only scrape up a one per cent difference in the industrial growth rate between the imperial centres and the Third World: a very slender reed upon which to hang such a weighty claim!

Specifically, the growth of the proportion of industry to GDP is in part accounted for by the low-productive nature of non-manufacturing sectors in the Third World; and in the imperialist countries the expansion of highly mechanized agricultural production and skilled services account for a greater proportion of GDP. Very different conclusions would have been suggested if Warren had acknowledged these critical realities of contemporary capitalism.

In the same issue of NLR, there was also a rebuttal by Arghiri Emmanuel titled “Myths of Development versus Myths of Underdevelopment”. Emmanuel was a dependency theorist committed to the theory of “unequal exchange” shared by Samir Amin.

Emmanuel accused Warren of cherry-picking his data, especially through its failure to address the largely agrarian composition of 3rd world countries that indicated their failure to evolve toward 1st world conditions, where farm labor and the peasantry are insignificant. One particular table spoke volumes:

Also of particular interest is how Emmanuel challenge’s Bill Warren’s rosy-hued view of the role of oil in the 3rd world. Keep in mind that the early 70s were marked by a petroleum boom quite similar to that of recent years and led to illusions at the time that Saudi Arabia would rival the U.S., just as there have been illusions until recently that Russia would become a major world power as well.

It may well be that the recent oil upheaval will help to demystify these matters. We can now see that the increase in the price of oil, and the fantastic profits made from it, will be largely illusory-manifested in mere alterations in book-entries in banks in Zürich, London and New York-for lack of adequate structures for the absorption, and so for the consumption, of commodities and services that could be imported by the oil-producing countries. These ‘structures of reception’ are, quite simply, domestic incomes, and in particular adequate wage-levels, since, even if it is a question of importing capital-goods, the latter will eventually lead to an increase in the production of consumer-goods, and under the free-enterprise system no entrepreneur is going to invest ‘upstream’ of a branch when he has not already available, ‘downstream’, an outlet for the corresponding final product.

Thus, the rise in the price of oil will very probably remain formal, costing nothing to the consumer countries as a whole, and bringing no profit to the producing countries. The latter will continue to receive, in real values, only the cost of production, some 10 or 20 cents per barrel, plus a very small additional part of the price, realized in the form of armaments, or of a few tankers and perhaps also some refineries installed here and there. The rest of the price they will never receive, for lack of capacity to consume it. In other words, these countries, after having been for a long time too poor to be able to sell their oil at a normal price, when at last they have the opportunity to unite and, nominally, dictate this price, turn out to be too poor to be able to ensure that they are paid it in real terms.

Furthermore, the fact that the cost of production of oil in the Middle East continues to be between 10 and 20 cents a barrel today renders present prices very vulnerable. The least weakening of the Arab ‘united front’ will lead to their rapid collapse. The only force that could consolidate these prices durably would be an increase in the actual cost of extraction. Let us imagine that the recent price-increases had been preceded by a wave of strikes in the Middle East which had resulted in a very substantial increase in wages. Let us further imagine that, as a consequence, there had followed a rapid economic development of these countries, and intense urbanizations so that the price of a square metre of land in Saudi Arabia or Iraq had risen to the level of California or Texas; and that, as a result of all this, the real cost of extraction had risen from 10 cents to 10 dollars a barrel. It is clear that nobody, in those circumstances, would have vociferated about ‘blackmail’.

For this is the logic of capitalism: you can easily make the rest of the world pay for your wages and your consumption as previously established, that is, the prices of your factors of production, whatever these may be. You cannot, without problems and conflicts, make the rest of the world pay a price based on an exchange of equal quantities of such factors.

November 17, 2008

Early Days of the Nation Magazine

Filed under: liberalism,racism,workers — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

E.L. Godkin

(Swans – November 17, 2008) For people trying to understand the bankruptcy of American liberalism, there is probably no better place to start than The Nation magazine. I first began subscribing to The Nation in the 1980s when Reagan was in the White House. As a general rule of thumb, the magazine is more readable when a Reagan or a Bush is president. During the Clinton presidency, The Nation directed most of its fire at “threats” to his presidency from the likes of Newt Gingrich rather than seeing the war on the poor as a joint Democrat-Republican project.

In 2003, after seeing one too many attack on the radical wing of the antiwar movement in the pages of The Nation, I decided to write a rebuttal to what I described as its “tainted liberalism.” My research revealed that from the very beginning, the magazine was hostile to the kinds of grassroots radical movements celebrated in Howard Zinn’s history — especially under the stewardship of the founding publisher and editor E.L. Godkin. In 1978, an unstinting biography of Godkin written by William M. Armstrong appeared but The Nation understandably decided not to review it. After having read Armstrong’s book, I have a much better handle on where the magazine came from.

Like the demented uncle or aunt kept secluded in a Victorian attic, The Nation has kept mum about E.L. Godkin. The last time an article about the founder appeared in its pages was back on July 22, 1950. Written by Columbia University historian Allan Nevins, “E.L. Godkin: Victorian Liberal” is a mixture of fact and fancy. It is notable for its patronizing attitude toward black Americans, a trait strongly identified with The Nation’s tepid brand of abolitionism in the 1860s.

For Nevins, among the tasks confronting Godkin in 1865 was how to deal with “four million ignorant, destitute Negroes.” Along with fellow founding board members including Frederick Law Olmstead (the architect of Central Park), they gathered money to launch a new magazine with the “bewildered black man at heart.” While Nevins was critical of Godkin’s “denunciation” of trade unions seeking an eight-hour day, he was still considered more “truly liberal” than other followers of John Stuart Mill and the Manchester school. Specifically he “desired Washington to do more for the education, economic betterment, and political training of the Negro.” Reading Nevins, one cannot suppress the feeling that he is talking about convicts in need of training programs to help prepare them for life outside of prison.

Read in full

November 16, 2008

The Myth of the New Deal

Filed under: economics,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 5:49 pm

Today one of the sharper subscribers on Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list, who goes only by the initial B., wrote:

Just for giggles I set up Google to email me a news article every time it contained the words ‘obama,” “fdr,” and “new deal” in the same piece.

The result is that I have seen a flurry of articles in my inbox everyday — many from mainstream outlets like TIME, Newsweek, NYT, LA Times, Forbes, etc. — all contrasting Obama’s moment to FDR’s moment.

One of Obama’s keywords — “Hope” — certainly seems to be the mantra du jour. This has started a new cycle of blog wars revisiting the New Deal and how effective it really was, a topic that has drawn in many prominent left-bloggers, including Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. (Jon Stewart stupidly gave an uncritical forum on The Daily Show to the anti-FDR, anti-Krugman blogger Amity Shlaes. Boo!)

Obama wrote a book called _The Audacity of Hope_, but as Paul Krugman (basically) said, when it comes to Obama, we should _Hope for Audacity_.

Krugman’s stance is that where FDR failed, it was not because he was too interventionist, but because he was too cautious. When I saw Naomi Klein speak recently, even she asked people to push, push, push, Obama hard to the left. NY Mag has called for a new WPA: http://nymag.com/arts/architecture/features/52169/

On a personal note, a relative of mine who is an upper echelon-type exec at G.E. has decided to apply via change.gov to, as he put it, “work for Obama.” I was more than shocked to see this. “We do our part.”


I too have been intrigued by the Obama/FDR comparisons to the point where I am seriously considering writing a leftwing critique of the New Deal, if one has not been written already. After spending a fair amount of time in the Columbia library and in Jstor, a database of scholarly journals, it appears that none has been written. About the most substantive item is Ronald Radosh’s “The Myth of the New Deal”, an article that appears in the 1972 collection “A New History of Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State”. At the time Radosh was a Marxist scholar who along with his comrades David Horowitz and Eugene Genovese had not defected to the right.

I have scanned in Radosh’s article and posted it on the Marxmail website.  I have not had time to vet it completely, but in the course of reading it hurriedly while proofreading the scanned copy I found nothing totally objectionable.

It should be mentioned that Radosh admits to appropriating much of his analysis from G. William Domhoff’s “The Higher Circles: The Governing Class in America”. Domhoff is best known for another book “Who Rules America”. Like Radosh, he has bolted from the left but in a completely different direction. In a 2003 article titled “Which Side are We on” that appeared in the social democratic magazine “In These Times”, Domhoff advised the radical movement:

In trying to bring about egalitarian social change, however, it doesn’t make good political sense to frame this picture of economic concentration and class domination in terms of one social class against another. Defining the “opponents” as “the capitalists” or “the rich” is a strategic mistake.

Well, at least Domhoff still sees himself as part of the left unlike Radosh who mutated from a 60s radical into an apologist for the dictator Franco, Joe McCarthy and other sordid figures. One has to wonder if Radosh’s trajectory might have been anticipated through his choice of a co-editor for “A New History of Leviathan”, one Murray Rothbard who died in 1995 at the age of 69. The wiki on Rothbard reveals:

Murray Newton Rothbard (March 2, 1926 – January 7, 1995) was an American economist of the Austrian School who helped define modern libertarianism and founded a form of free-market anarchism he termed “anarcho-capitalism”. Rothbard took the Austrian School’s emphasis on spontaneous order and condemnation of central planning to an individualist anarchist conclusion.

An individualist anarchist of the Austrian School of economics, Rothbard associated with the Objectivists in his early thirties before allying with the New Left in the 1960s and eventually joining the radical caucus of the Libertarian Party.

Whatever Radosh’s future evolution, it certainly can be said that the major influence on the New Leviathan book was the “revisionist” historian’s movement that was part of the New Left. LBJ’s war in Vietnam led many young academics and activists to question the New Deal legacy since the war in Vietnam was largely being promoted as a liberal war conducted by a politician who not only came up through the ranks of the New Deal but who was trying to keep its legacy alive through the Great Society.

The other inspiration for the “revisionist” school was a group of historians associated with William Appleman Williams, a long-time faculty member of the University of Wisconsin where progressivist traditions remained strong. Progressivism as a movement predates FDR’s New Deal and was associated especially with the presidential bid of Robert LaFollette in 1924. The main historian of this political current was Charles Beard who can best be described as an economic determinist rather than a Marxist. As you probably are aware, Beard had no use for FDR and wrote a book that basically argued that the attack on Pearl Harbor was precipitated by American economic and military pressures on Japan. Besides Williams, Beard also had a strong influence on Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein who would eventually launch the aforementioned “In these Times”.

To a large extent the “revisionists” were taking on either implicitly or explicitly a leftwing current in the U.S. that had embraced FDR in more or less the same fashion that it embraces Obama today, namely the Communist Party. The New Left had come to the realization that both the Democrats and the Republicans were enemies of working people, a position that not only echoed that of the Progressives but of Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party.

With the collapse of the 1960s radicalization, it is not that surprising that the pendulum has swung back in the direction of the pro-Democratic Party left. While this was originally the turf of the Communist Party, it has broadened out to include a number of groups and individuals associated with the Maoist-influenced New Communist Movement of the 1970s. While it has roots in SDS and the New Left, the New Communist Movement made a turn toward supporting Democrats in the 1980s as history plied its dreary path. If there was a general absence of powerful insurgent movements in the trade unions and campus, it was understandable why some would be seduced by Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids which created the same kinds of illusions that the Obama campaign has generated now.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Radosh’s essay that can be read in full here:

Great Depression, labor unrest, massive unemployment, growing consciousness among the working classes, bitter hostility toward the multimillion-dollar corporations, failure of the reigning Republican Administration to quiet the brewing explosion-and then the New Deal. The social revolution, which many expected and others feared, failed to materialize. Why? Was it because the New Deal, in its own special way, was indeed a third American Revolution? From the perspective of the 1970s, with the stark realization that the United States had failed to deal with the race question, or to eradicate poverty, or even to begin to deal with the urban crisis, or to handle the general malaise and cultural poverty, or to adapt itself to the growing realization that revolutions abroad would have to be accepted and dealt with on their own terms, all of these events of the past ten years seemingly provided living evidence that a revolution had not occurred.

The new generation of New Left historians have asserted cogently that the New Deal instituted changes that only buttressed the corporate-capitalist order; that the vaunted Welfare State reforms hardly addressed themselves to the existing social needs of the 1930s, not to speak of working to end poverty, racism, and war. Historians Howard Zinn and Barton J. Bernstein have already written critical essays seeking to evaluate the New Deal from a radical perspective,1 and this essay shall not seek to repeat the critique advanced therein. The essence of their critical view has been best expressed by Bernstein:

The liberal reforms of the New Deal did not transform the American system; they conserved and protected American corporate capitalism, occasionally by absorbing parts of threatening programs. There was no significant redistribution of power in American society, only limited recognition of other organized groups. . . . The New Deal failed to solve the problem of depression, it failed to raise the impoverished, it failed to redistribute income, it failed to extend equality and generally countenanced racial discrimination and segregation.2

Once having presented this argument, however, the radical critic has in effect merely chastised the New Deal for what it failed to achieve. This does not work to answer the counterargument that Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Dealers wanted more, but were stopped short because of the power of the congressional conservative bloc and other impenetrable obstacles.

November 14, 2008

Creative Destruction

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

NY Times, November 14, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Bailout to Nowhere

Not so long ago, corporate giants with names like PanAm, ITT and  Montgomery Ward roamed the earth. They faded and were replaced by new  companies with names like Microsoft, Southwest Airlines and Target. The  U.S. became famous for this pattern of decay and new growth. Over time,  American government built a bigger safety net so workers could survive  the vicissitudes of this creative destruction – with unemployment  insurance and soon, one hopes, health care security. But the government  has generally not interfered in the dynamic process itself, which is the  source of the country’s prosperity.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/14/opinion/14brooks.html

Brooks is a long-time conservative ideologue who like William F.  Buckley’s son Christopher was very critical of the McCain campaign but  did not go all the way and vote for Obama.

“Creative destruction” refers to economist Joseph Schumpeter’s belief:

“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the  organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such  concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial  mutation-if I may use that biological term-that incessantly  revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly  destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of  Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what  capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live  in. . .”

full: http://transcriptions.english.ucsb.edu/archive/courses/liu/english25/materials/schumpeter.html

This appears to jibe with the attitude of Republican legislators’ toward  an automaker bailout:

NY Times, November 14, 2008
Chances Dwindle on Bailout Plan for Automakers

WASHINGTON – The prospects of a government rescue for the foundering  American automakers dwindled Thursday as Democratic Congressional  leaders conceded that they would face potentially insurmountable  Republican opposition during a lame-duck session next week.

At the same time, hope among many Democrats on Capitol Hill for an  aggressive economic stimulus measure all but evaporated. Democratic  leaders have been calling for a package that would include help for the  auto companies as well as new spending on public works projects, an  extension of jobless benefits, increased food stamps and aid to states  for rising Medicaid expenses.

But while Democrats said the stimulus measure would wait until  President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, some industry  experts fear that one of the Big Three automakers will collapse before  then, with potentially devastating consequences.

Despite hardening opposition at the White House and among Republicans on  Capitol Hill, the Democrats said they would press ahead with efforts to  provide $25 billion in emergency aid for the automakers. But they said  the bill would need to be approved first in the Senate, which some  Democrats said was highly unlikely.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/14/business/14auto.html

Hmmm. During the 1930s, there wasn’t much chance that Ford, GM and  Chrysler would go out of business, right? The pain was much greater in  the 1930s but the potential for an even greater collapse exists today.  Creative destruction rests on the premise that capitalist expansion is a  kind of perpetual motion machine. But what will replace GM if it goes  under? Something tells me that we need to use a different frame of  reference to understand today’s crisis rather than 1929. I am not sure  what it is. Perhaps that is a function of being in uncharted waters.

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