Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2009

Steven Rattner: capitalist pig of the month

Filed under: capitalist pig — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

In the current issue of Vanity Fair, there’s a fascinating article on Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger, the boss of the N.Y. Times who many blame, including author Mark Bowden, for causing the stock to decline from $50 in 2002 to $3.77 in February-less than the price of the Sunday paper as Bowden notes. It is now selling for $5.76 a share, hardly enough to inspire investor confidence. Rumors abound that the paper will be sold at a bargain rate, perhaps even to Rupert Murdoch-an archfiend in the eyes of Arthur Sulzberger, but not that much different politically. Bowden, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has exactly the background needed to write about the Times’s plummeting fortunes. Having written “Blackhawk Down” about the American military debacle in Mogadishu, he must certainly have a flair for how stupidity leads to disaster.

Despite my fascination with the N.Y. Times and the broader question of the “death of the newspaper”, my intention here is to shed some light on Steven Rattner, a character who gets a brief mention in the Bowden article:

His [Sulzberger] career progressed in prodigious and unearned leaps. He went from the Washington bureau, where he was close friends with Steve Rattner, Judith Miller, and a handful of other reporters, to New York, where he worked briefly as a very young assistant editor on the Metro desk, before moving on to stints in the advertising-and-production side of the paper, becoming deputy publisher in 1987.

Rattner? That name rang a bell. Wasn’t he the investment banker who Obama appointed czar of the auto industry? The very same guy who started out as a N.Y. Times reporter? Indeed he was:

A couple of months ago, Steven Rattner knew little about the U.S. auto industry.

But that didn’t prevent President Obama from recruiting him to solve one of the most vexing problems of the financial crisis — how to avert a catastrophic collapse of Chrysler and General Motors.

Rattner’s supporters argue that his diverse experiences — wealthy investment banker, prominent Democratic fundraiser, former New York Times foreign correspondent and fixture in upper-class Manhattan society — make him an ideal candidate to undertake such a daunting challenge.

(Washington Post, March 12)

Apparently, some of the soon-to-be-overhauled “decades-old practices” include the generous benefits won by the UAW when it was still had teeth. In an effort to help promote Rattner’s latest deal with UAW and Chrysler involving majority share ownership by the UAW as proof that we are living in some kind of new New Deal, the Times pretended today that the union still had the power to stand up to capital:

In the devastating slump that has forced one of Detroit’s automakers into bankruptcy and another to the edge of it, the United Automobile Workers union stands to become one of the industry’s few winners.

According to restructuring plans proposed this week, the union will have more than half the stock in Chrysler and a third of General Motors, meaning it will have tremendous influence, with the government, in determining the future of the companies.

Larry Christensen, a retired UAW member still suffering from the illusion that workers and bosses have opposing interests, had a different take on things in Labor Notes:

The media consensus is that union auto workers escaped the government-imposed restructuring of their industry basically unharmed, exchanging a few dings for control of the companies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Chrysler retirees-like me-were assured in 2007 that our retiree health care benefits, funded through the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Agreement trust, would last 80 years.

Now we lose all dental and vision coverage as of July 1, and an independent analyst says the VEBA, our entire health coverage, will last only six years.

We are supposed to be reassured by the fact that the VEBA will own 55 percent of the equity in Chrysler. But what good is owning a company after the value has been taken out? Chrysler’s former owner Daimler has already written its 20 percent stake in Chrysler down to zero on its own books.

There are questions, however, as to whether Steven Rattner can be an effective promoter of the ruling class agenda now that he has been revealed to be something of a crook:

Government officials are expanding their investigation of Quadrangle, the private-equity firm founded by the Obama administration’s lead auto negotiator, as new details emerge about an alleged kickback scheme involving the New York state pension fund.

On Wednesday, the New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. said he is working with the state’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, to determine whether the city’s pension funds were “intentionally misled or deceived” by Quadrangle’s failure to disclose the use of a middleman who has since been indicted, Hank Morris.

The development is the latest in a widening investigation by Cuomo’s office and the Securities and Exchange Commission. At the center of the two-year probe are millions of dollars in payments made by private-equity firms and hedge funds to middlemen known as placement agents who helped the firms win investments from New York state’s pension fund. The firms include District-based Carlyle Group and New York-based Quandrangle, co-founded in 2000 by Steven Rattner, who stepped away from the company in February to lead Obama’s auto industry task force.

(Washington Post, April 23)

Rattner’s Quandrangle private capital group is not the only one to be connected to Hank Morris. The Carlyle Group is under investigation as well. This powerful but secretive corporation has had people like George W. Bush and his old man on the board, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy’s brother Olivier. The irony will not be lost on class-conscious people that Quadrangle’s CEO was simultaneously plotting against UAW pensions while turning New York’s $122 billion pension fund into a criminal enterprise.

Not long after Rattner left the N.Y. Times to launch a career in investment banking, he wrote an article that effectively anticipated the economic trajectory that the American bourgeoisie would follow under Democrat and Republican alike. Like many other leading reporters at the newspaper of record, Rattner had a finely-honed sense of what benefited the ruling class he was now joining as a fledgling member:

The New York Times, May 1, 1983
Report Card on Thatcherism
By Steven Rattner

Steven Rattner, an investment banker, was formerly a Times correspondent in London.

IN the ”Black Country,” the tortured landscape between Birmingham and Wolverhampton that was once at the heart of Britain’s industrial prowess, the sense of industrial desolation is overpowering. Abandoned factories with broken windows stare blindly down the narrow streets. Hulking buildings, where complex metalwork was proudly fabricated for a hundred years, have been reduced to warehouses. The 19th-century canal system still dissects the area, but the water is fetid. Many local craftsmen are unemployed, and some middle-aged workers may never find jobs again.

Yet any assessment of the country’s economic state must take account of an astonishing paradox. Despite the shocks suffered by the economy since Mrs. Thatcher’s election in 1979 – unemployment up from 5 percent to 13.6 percent, manufacturing output, at its lowest point, down by more than 15 percent – the Prime Minister is widely popular in the nation at large. Although her standing has dipped from the peak it reached last summer, after the successful Falkland campaign, a recent poll found that her Conservative Government enjoys the support of 43 percent of the public, compared to 34 percent for the Labor Party and 22 percent for the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance. Mrs. Thatcher, in fact, may seek to exploit her popularity in an early vote. She need not call a national election for another year, but there is increasing speculation that she will call it for October or perhaps even June. And, in full awareness of the approaching political test, her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, has unveiled a budget for the new fiscal year that makes minimal concessions to those among the voters who have been hurt by the Thatcher policies. In all essential respects, the austerity program has been reaffirmed, without any adverse consequences for the Prime Minister’s popularity.

As should be obvious to anybody who has not drunk the “lesser evil” Kool Aid, Thatcherism was continued by her successors in New Labour and in the Democratic Party in the U.S. A turn toward high technology, financialization and fiscal austerity was just what the doctor ordered when it came to making Anglo-American imperialism competitive in a world that had fully recovered from WWII.

Just 3 years after Rattner had written in praise of Maggie Thatcher, he had become one of Wall Street’s “big swinging dicks”, as Michael Lewis put it in “Liar’s Poker”. He was singled out by his old employer as one of “The Street’s Well-Paid Upstarts” in a March 31, 1986 article so titled:

Since the go-go years of the 1960’s, Wall Street has increasingly become a young person’s game, and it has handsomely rewarded the best players. A number of developments, from the rapid growth of investment banking to the new eminence of the trading desks and the proliferation of new products and markets, have led the Street to hire more and more young men and women and shower them with dollars.

For 30-year-olds who are stars on Wall Street, ”making $250,000 would not be any surprise,” said John Gutfreund, chairman of Phibro-Salomon Inc. That is about double what they would have made five years ago, he added. Other investment bankers say that is the starting point, and that $750,000 is not unknown. As if that were not enough, they tend to marry money. ”The number of two-investment-banker families is high,” said Steven Rattner, a 33-year-old who runs the communications group at Morgan Stanley & Company and is engaged to Maureen White, an investment banker at the First Boston Corporation. Others marry lawyers whom they meet while working on deals.

The boom in investment banking has thus created a small but noticeable class of New Yorkers – self-made 30-year-olds who have more money than they know what to do with, in a city where most young professionals spend money they do not have.

”There isn’t anything I see in a store that I can’t buy,” said James Cramer, a 31-year-old retail broker at Goldman, Sachs & Company.

Well, one of the things that these guys learned that they could buy was politicians. Ten years after Rattner had crawled his way to the top, he had become a power broker in the two-party system. In a Daily News article dated April 17, 1997, we learn that “rich New Yorkers are bucking up pols”. Number one on the list was Bernard Schwartz, head of Loral Space and Communications, who gave $ 661,000, nearly all to Democrats, and enjoys close ties to the Clinton administration. Hedging their bets, Steven Rattner, who was at Lazard Freres at the time, and his wife Maureen White, gave $265,000 to both parties. After all, if you are going to promote Thatcher-style neoliberalism, there are arguments for investing in George W. Bush and Bill Clinton alike. Not to speak of Barack Obama.

April 29, 2009

The Beats

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Given the neoconservative slant of the Sunday New York Times book review section, it is of some note that “The Beats: a Graphic History,” edited by Paul Buhle, got what amounts to a rave review. As most of you probably know, Paul is one of the most unpopular figures in what Woody Allen once referred to as the world of Dysentery (the journal that resulted from a merger of Commentary and Dissent). The concluding paragraph:

This, perhaps, is the Beats’ true legacy: the impact they continue to have on people who encounter them for the first time, even if that impact isn’t literary. Discussions of “On the Road” tend to begin, “I was 17 when I first read it, and it made me . . .” in ways that discussions of “Ulysses” or “The Great Gatsby” do not. (They tend to end there as well, alas.) “The Beats” captures some of the wonder of that first encounter and places it in historical and political context. Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through their lives and art. They fit America’s romance with the outsider. That they were products of elite colleges – Harvard, Reed, Columbia, Swarthmore – and owed their visibility to non­outsider publications like Mademoiselle and this newspaper is a paradox “The Beats” chooses not to engage. They rocked.

The writers who contributed text to this graphic history were clearly touched by the beat experience personally. Harvey Pekar, who contributed the lion’s share, recounts his early exposure to the beats in his very fine memoir “The Quitter”. It is 1957, and he is entering Case Western Reserve University. This is how he describes the scene:


While the book understandably devotes the most space to the superstars of the beat generation-Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs-there are mini-biographies of more obscure figures like Robert Duncan, the openly gay poet who I had the good fortune to hear at Bard College in 1961. Duncan, who lived from 1919 to 1988, moved to New York at the age of 20 and hobnobbed with Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Sanders Russell, the editor of Experimental Review.

Duncan’s connection with an earlier generation of rebels strengthens my conviction that there has always been a bohemian movement in the U.S., going back at least to Thoreau, Whitman and Melville who were the beats of their day. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg shipped out in the merchant marines in the 1940s, Melville sought Experience on a whaling vessel. Clearly, the one thing that keeps this movement going is the utterly soulless and mammon-worshipping character of American capitalism. In 1944, Duncan had the guts to write an essay titled “The Homosexual in History”, something that I will try to track down in the next few weeks or so. It deserves to be online.

Duncan was brought to Bard by Robert Kelly, a 500 pound poet who began teaching at Bard the same year I was a freshman: 1961. Kelly also brought up a guy named Leroi Jones, who there’s a chapter on as well. Jones, of course, became known as Amiri Baraka. At Bard, he read from a work in progress called “The System of Dante’s Inferno”. Despite the somewhat academic sounding title, the work was an excoriating examination of racism in Newark, New Jersey. It was my very first exposure to Black militancy and a far cry from the Kumbaya sentiments of the nascent civil rights movement.

Kelly, Jones and Duncan’s works were all represented in Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry 1945-1960”, an anthology that was indispensable to fledgling beats like me. Allen’s book made clear, just as it is made clear in Buhle’s “The Beats” despite the title, that the new poetry movement was a river consisting of three separate streams: the Black Mountain College poets, which included Robert Duncan and others who taught there like Robert Creeley and Charles Olsen (who also have chapters in “The Beats”); the New York School, which included Allen Ginsberg most notably; and the San Francisco Renaissance writers.

For reasons peculiar to the history of San Francisco, its new poets tended to be the most radical. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is still going strong at the age of 90, was an anarchist as was Kenneth Rexroth, who also spent time as a labor organizer in the 1930s. In 1940, he wrote “In What Hour”, a poem that mixed contemplation of nature with angry responses to Sacco and Vanzetti.

When I first learned about the beats, I did not have much of a clue that they were political. All I cared about was the fact that I was not alone in being alienated by the “system”, something that I equated more with conformity than capitalism itself. I had no idea at the time that the middle-class values that were suffocating me in my rural village in the Catskill Mountains were linked to commodity production. It would take the Vietnam War to wake me up to that fact.

In fact, just around the time I was ready to join the beat generation, I was also ready to join the Young Americans for Freedom, the rightwing student group founded by William F. Buckley. When JFK ran against Nixon in 1960, I decided to support Nixon because all of my classmates were for JFK. I hated them for being more popular than me, for having family lives less crazy than my own, and for having enough money to buy a new Buick or Cadillac nearly every year. I developed my paper-thin conservative beliefs out of a sour grapes mentality. Of course, as soon as I got to Bard College one year later, I was laughed out of my dorm until I switched to liberalism. There’s nothing like peer pressure from people you respect to make you reevaluate superficially held opinions.

Weird as my mixture of bohemianism and rightwing politics might sound, this is not that different from what my hero Jack Kerouac exhibited. As Harvey Pekar points out in his account of Kerouac’s life, “as his life seemed to settle down, Kerouac increasingly insisted that he had always been a political right-winger.”

But the beat generation affinity has always stayed with me, even today as I write as an unrepentant Marxist.

I watched Steve Allen interview Jack Kerouac in 1959

As a miserable 14 year old in 1959, I first began to learn about the beats on television and in Time Magazine, a publication that my parents subscribed to and my only source of information about dissidents in America, even when the coverage was hostile. On September 7, 1959 the magazine reported on the West Coast scene, opening with a predictably jaded paragraph:

Those unwashed minstrels of the West, the beatniks of San Francisco’s North Beach and Los Angeles’ Venice West, make much of their loud vows of poverty. To be poor, yak the shirtless ones as they sit scratching in store-front espresso halls, is to be holy, man, holy. But last week, the mendicants of marijuana and mad verse were in the somewhat embarrassing position of monks whose liqueur sells too well. Tourists were snapping up their stuff like Chinese back-scratchers, and the beatniks were starting to rake in the dough.

That didn’t interest me half as much as the excerpt from the poem “Bomb” by  a 28 year old Gregory Corso that was included in the article:

O Bomb I love you

I want to kiss your clank eat your boom
You are a paean an acme of scream . . .
O resound thy tanky knees
BOOM ye skies arid BOOM ye suns
BOOM BOOM ye moons ye stars BOOM
nights ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM
BOOM BOOM ye winds ye clouds ye rams
go BANG ye lakes ye oceans BING
Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM
Ubangi BANG orangoutang
BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon
the tail the fin the wing.

The entire poem can be read at http://www.litkicks.com/Texts/Bomb.html, with its ingenious typography in the shape of a mushroom cloud. I could not say whether I understood the poem completely, but every time I recalled the words “Ubangi BANG orangoutang”, a smile broke out across my face. I wanted to be part of any scene whose poets were writing lines like this.

About a year after I read this article, I became friends with a woman named Laura whose father was a golf-playing Republican who didn’t like me at all. Despite my William F. Buckley politics, all he saw was Gregory Corso when I stepped into his house. Like me, Laura was pretty alienated by the scene in high school and was beginning to identify with the Beats.

One morning, as we were on our way to school in the yellow bus that picked us up each morning at 7am, she pointed to a girl about our age walking toward school on the side of the road. It was unusual to see somebody walking to school back in those days, but even more unusual were the Roman sandals she was wearing. “Look at those sandals,” Laura said. “They are really cool”. She explained to me that the girl had been living in Manhattan but had been sent to live with her grandparents, who owned a bungalow colony in this mostly Jewish resort area. The Roman sandals were a dead give away that she had been recruited to the new bohemian movement that strove for a more authentic look that evoked workers and peasants: blue denim shirts, sandals, peasant blouses, etc. were signs that you rejected late-model Cadillacs, conformity and everything that was rotten about American society. As Allen Ginsberg put it:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

Now if you planned to go out “starving hysterical naked”, who would want to do so dressed like an Amherst College fraternity member?

If you want to understand what the beats were about, and why they had the power to change the lives of young people like me, Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar, “The Beats” is indispensable reading. While the artwork is of the highest quality throughout, there is one artist who deserves special mention and that is Summer McClinton, a young woman who is described as “a modern-day beatnik chick” in the contributors’ section. Rather than describe her work, I will let one drawing from the Philip Lamantia chapter speak for itself:


April 28, 2009

Umberto D.

Filed under: Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

While at home today nursing a head cold, I happened upon “Umberto D.”, the 1952 neo-realist movie directed by Vittorio De Sica that I knew only by reputation, on the IFC cable channel. I don’t know if IFC scheduled the movie because we are living in a neo-neo-realist period in some respects, but the similarities with 2009 realities were striking.

Umberto D. is Umberto Domenico Ferrari, an elderly pensioner who had worked at the Ministry of Public Works. We meet him and his pet dog Flike at a protest of pensioners who cannot live on their government allotment. After it is broken up by the cops, we follow him back to his furnished room where he is confronted by his landlady who gives him an ultimatum. Unless he pays the back rent, she will evict him. She is looking for any excuse to get rid of him, since she plans to convert two rooms, including his, into a formal dining room.

Besides Flike, Umberto D.’s only friend in the world is the maid Maria, who tends to all his needs save for financial. She is on even shakier grounds than him. She has just become pregnant and will lose her job once the landlady finds out.

De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini defied film convention by refusing to sentimentalize Umberto D. He is has a pinched, desiccated personality that one might associate with a retired civil servant. (He is played by Carlo Battisti, a non-professional with a college teaching background.) Indeed, the character he most resembles is Kanji Watanabe, the elderly civil servant in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (To Live), which also came out in 1952. (Kurosawa, like De Sica, was closely identified with the political left.) After Watanabe learns he has cancer, he decides to spend his last months on earth devoted to helping others. Umberto D., facing eviction and homelessness, is also put to the test. But because of his impoverished status, he can only think in terms of his own survival and that of his pet dog. In the climax of this powerful neo-realist tale, a desperate Umberto D. is forced to seek new owners for Flike as he plans out his suicide.

Such desperation is not limited to post-WWII Italy apparently. Today’s Alternet reports that The Soaring Rate of Abandoned Animals Is the Latest Sign of a Deep Economic Crisis.

Beginning last year and well into 2009, a disturbing media trend emerged, as local news outlets across the country began reporting different versions of the same sad tale: Dogs, cats and other animals were being found abandoned inside and outside of shuttered homes, the “silent victims,” apparently, of the foreclosure crisis.

There were the three dogs found dead in Arkansas that had been locked inside pet carriers without food or water; the “emaciated” German shepherd left chained to a tree in the backyard of an abandoned home in Arizona (he was later euthanized); the starving pit bull in Stockton, Calif., discovered in the wreckage of a ruined house, whose owners had “trashed their home before a bank foreclosed on it.” (One Animal Protective League officer in Cleveland calls this “part of the revenge process: They leave these animals to defecate in the house to destroy the furniture and to urinate on everything to make it difficult for the mortgage company to clean up.”)

As more and more Americans have lost their homes to the wave of foreclosures that has swept the nation, a shocking portion of them, whether due to an inability or an unwillingess to find homes for their animals after being rendered homeless themselves, have simply left their pets behind.

“This has really become an epidemic,” Allie Phillips, director of Public Policy at the American Humane Association told the Detroit News earlier this month. According to her estimates, with some 8,000 houses going into foreclosure every day, from 15,000 to 26,000 more animals are in danger of losing their homes daily.

Not all pets have been left to fend for themselves, of course. After all, most states consider it a crime abandon animals (although such anti-cruelty laws are not strictly enforced). But an untold number have been given up because the owners had no other choice.

The Detroit News tells the story of a woman who came in with her son to give up a 9-year-old purebred Yorkshire terrier after losing their home. “They were just bawling, but they had no place to live,” said Kayla Allen, director of the Michigan Animal Rescue League in Pontiac.

While I would not want to accuse director Kelly Reichardt of plagiarism, it must be said that “Wendy and Lucy”, her own fine contribution to neo-realism, has a plot that is strikingly similar to “Umberto D.”. In Reichardt’s film, Wendy is a young woman living out of her car trying to make to Alaska in search of work, while her only companion is a dog named Lucy. In both De Sica’s “Umberto D.” and her own movie, one of the climactic scenes is a visit to the dog pound to find the lost pet.

After having seen both movies, I can only say that Kelly Reichardt’s does not suffer by comparison. Both “Umberto D.” and “Wendy and Lucy” are available from Netflix and well worth watching in tandem.

And as is increasingly the case nowadays, you can watch “Umberto D.” on youtube in 10 parts.

April 24, 2009

Guns, Germs, Steel on PBS

Filed under: indigenous,racism — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

PBS Series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”

Posted to the Marxism mailing list in 3 parts during July 2005

Part 1

Despite having dozed off for ten minutes toward the end of the first installment of the PBS series based on Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I feel that I have a pretty good handle on what it was trying to establish–namely, the idea that the development of agriculture is a sine qua non for civilization.

The show centered on comparisons between Papuan New Guinea and places like ancient Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, classical Greece and the Mayan Kingdom. Where you have corn, wheat, rice, etc, you have written languages, pyramids and great art. Where there is hunting and gathering, you get none of this. Despite Diamond’s clear admiration for the people of New Guinea’s resourcefulness, you get the sense that he is trying to explain why they are such losers.

He starts out by stating that “Guns, Germs and Steel” was written to understand why there are winners and losers in world history. This was prompted by an encounter with a Papuan named Yali who asked why the Westerners had so much “cargo”–a term they use for commodities. It originated in the cargo cult, which viewed things such as evaporated milk (and even the containers they came in) as gifts from the gods.

For Diamond, the big breakthrough occurred in the so-called Fertile Crescent, an area ranging from Southeastern Turkey to Western Iran. Looking at the ruins of a 12,000 year old town in this region, Diamond points to the existence of a rudimentary grain silo and declares that this is where it all started. The implication is that you get computer networking, Cruise missiles and MTV all from this initial start in raising crops from a fixed settlement.

He points to evidence that a formerly hunting and gathering group learned how to plant wheat seeds for future crops–thus eliminating the need for a nomadic existence. Once you have a stable settlement, it becomes possible to create housing of a more permanent nature, etc.

You can find a scholarly presentation of this in a Science Magazine article titled Location, Location, Location: The First Farmers that Diamond wrote in November 1997:

In short, einkorn [a kind of wheat] domestication in the Karacada mountains exemplifies the enormous head start that western Eurasian societies gained from Fertile Crescent biogeography. For history’s broad patterns, as for real estate investment, location is almost everything. Plant and animal domestication was prerequisite to the growth of large, dense, sedentary human populations, in which the food-producing activities of part of the population yielded storable food surpluses to feed non-food-producing parts of the population. Hence, food production triggered the emergence of kings, bureaucrats, scribes, professional soldiers, and metal-workers and other full-time craftspeople. Literacy, metallurgy, stratified societies, advanced weapons, and empires rested on food production. In addition, smallpox and the other crowd epidemic diseases of Eurasia could evolve only in those dense, sedentary human populations living in close contact with domesticated animals, whose own pathogens evolved into those specialized pathogens afflicting us. Thus, a long straight line runs through world history, from those first domesticates at the Karacada mountains and elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, to the “guns, germs, and steel” by which European colonists in modern times destroyed so many native societies of other continents.

It is understandable why “Guns, Germs and Steel” might have been appeared as a breath of fresh air when it first appeared, since it dispenses with ideas of racial superiority. The Europeans overran the Lakota not because they were racially superior but because they had happened upon agriculture through the contingencies of history.

The other thing that has some appeal for radicals is Diamond’s seeming affinity for historical materialism. The notion of agricultural societies superseding more primitive (but communal) societies is obviously laid out in Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Engels writes:

Horticulture, probably unknown to Asiatic barbarians of the lower stage, was being practiced by them in the middle stage at the latest, as the forerunner of agriculture. In the climate of the Turanian plateau, pastoral life is impossible without supplies of fodder for the long and severe winter. Here, therefore, it was essential that land should be put under grass and corn cultivated. The same is true of the steppes north of the Black Sea. But when once corn had been grown for the cattle, it also soon became food for men. The cultivated land still remained tribal property; at first it was allotted to the gens, later by the gens to the household communities and finally to individuals for use. The users may have had certain rights of possession, but nothing more.

Diamond, who roots for the Papuans as if they were a losing team, sounds like Engels when he mourns for the more egalitarian but less technologically advanced Zulus:

We have seen examples of this courage quite recently in Africa. The Zulus a few years ago and the Nubians a few months ago — both of them tribes in which gentile institutions have not yet died out — did what no European army can do. Armed only with lances and spears, without firearms, under a hail of bullets from the breech-loaders of the English infantry – acknowledged the best in the world at fighting in close order — they advanced right up to the bayonets and more than once threw the lines into disorder and even broke them, in spite of the enormous inequality of weapons and in spite of the fact that they have no military service and know nothing of drill. Their powers of endurance and performance are shown by the complaint of the English that a Kaffir travels farther and faster in twenty-four hours than a horse. His smallest muscle stands out hard and firm like whipcord, says an English painter.

Of course, Diamond departs from Engels on the all-important question, which is how to recover the egalitarian and democratic essence of hunting and gathering societies while maintaining the scientific and technical breakthroughs of all societies that succeeded them.

Part 2

I am all caught up on the PBS “Guns, Germs and Steel” series. This post will deal with part 2 and I will get around to saying something about part 3, the conclusion, when time permits.

Part 2 tries to explain why it was so easy for Pizarro and the conquistadores to subdue the Incas. For Diamond, this is a function of geography mainly. Because the Eurasian landmass was more horizontal than vertical, it was possible for advances in agriculture to fuel subsequent breakthroughs such as the production of guns and steel. When societies operate on the same basic climactic and seasonal basis, farming innovations can be transmitted along the same axis. For example, when wheat growing and sheep rearing were introduced in the Fertile Crescent, it was relatively easy for these practices to diffuse into Europe or into China since they all share the same growing seasons, etc. Once you get this kind of agriculture established, everything else supposedly falls into place.

The Americas were skinny and tall by comparison. Any agricultural breakthrough was difficult to export since there was so much difference between the climate and seasons of Mexico and Peru supposedly. This was not just a problem for agriculture. It was also a problem for other advances, such as writing. With such a great distance between Guatemala and Peru, Mayan advances in writing never made it south. This leads Diamond to conclude that the Incas would be at a disadvantage in a military confrontation with Spain–leaving aside the European superiority in arms. The Spaniards had written down military handbooks on how conquests should be organized in places like Mexico, which were made available to other expeditions. Without knowledge of writing, the Incas could not respond in kind defensively.

The Americas also lacked herd animals of the kind that Europeans had been raising for millennia. Since pigs, cows, etc. were the source of common diseases such as smallpox, measles, etc, a resistance to infection could take place over generations. When the Incas, who had never developed such immunity, were exposed to the Europeans, they began dieing in great numbers. Some historians estimate that 90 percent of the indigenous people in the Americas died of such illnesses, making the job of conquest all the more easy for the Europeans.

In addition, the Europeans had developed guns and steel, which they used for rapiers. With such weapons at their disposal, and with the added advantage that riding horseback would give them, it was no wonder that several hundred of Pizarro’s men could vanquish thousands of Incan warriors.

There is not much to quibble with in Diamond’s analysis such as it is. By stressing the contingencies that allowed the Europeans to enjoy a vast military superiority, Diamond can drive home the point that racial superiority had nothing to do with the Spanish victories. Of course, what is missing from Diamond’s narrative is any understanding of what it will take to redeem these historic crimes against humanity.

I would only add a couple of observations that help us make better sense of what took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.

To start with, we should be cognizant that there is a temporal as well as a spatial distinction between the Americas and Eurasia that favored the latter’s one-sided domination. As Jim Blaut points out in “Colonizer’s Model of the World,” the Americas were settled fairly late in the game, no earlier than 30,000 BC. The earliest migrations preceded the agricultural revolution, which took place roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in Eurasia. Blaut, citing Stuart J. Fiedel’s “Prehistory of the Americas”, puts the same developments as 4,000 years later in the Americas. Despite the substantial time differences, there is every possibility that the Americans would have made up the difference culturally. But the European invasions forestalled all that.

If anything, Blaut is even more emphatic than Diamond in emphasizing the role of germs. He believes that the Spanish military superiority would have evaporated eventually as the new technology of horses, steel and guns diffused into the native population, just as it always does. Just look at how the Iraqis are figuring out new ways to blow up HUMV’s using lasers presumably ordered over the Internet.

Finally, Henry Kamen has some interesting things to say about the much-vaunted conquistadores in his recently published and highly acclaimed “Empire: How Spain Became a World Power: 1492-1763” that were viewed as sacrilege in Spain. They amount to a demythologizing.

In a nutshell, Kamen argues that “Spanish military success was made possible only by the help of the native Americans.” The assistance came in two varieties, one humble and one less so, but both were essential. Indians carried out such duties as carrying baggage, searching for food and water, tending animals, delivering messages, etc. In Diamond’s dramatization of the march of Pizarro on the seat of the Incan monarchy, this was left out entirely. The Spaniards are depicted as totally on their own.

Additionally, the Incas fought amongst themselves, with the Inca Huascar aligning himself with Pizarro. A witness to the successful battle depicted in the PBS episode stated, “If the Incas had not favoured the Spaniards, it would have been impossible to win this kingdom.”

As proof of what would happen when the Incas learned to stiffen their resolve and compensate for Spanish superiority in arms and technology, Huascar’s brother Manco raised an army of 50,000 that surrounded Cusco, where two hundred Spaniards were holed up. In other words, you had the same relationship of forces that obtained in the initial Spanish victory. This time things did not go so well for the conquistadores. The siege of Cusco lasted over a year, from March 1536 to April 1537. Eventually, the Spaniards counter-attacked but Kamen states that without Indian support, they would have failed.

Ultimately, it was germs rather than guns or steel that led to the fall of the Aztecs and the Inca.

Part 3

The concluding episode of the PBS production of “Guns, Germs and Steel” focuses on the colonization of the African continent, expanding on a number of the themes introduced in episode 2, which dealt with the Spanish conquest of Latin America.

It focuses on the efforts of the Dutch settlers to expand from their base at the southern tip of the continent northwards into more tropical areas, where the colonization efforts fall victim to climate and disease.

Diamond believes that the settlers underestimated the difficulties facing them since the southern tip of South Africa was far more like native Europe than what would face them later on. As they moved closer to the equator, they discovered that both they and their herd animals would fall sick to diseases they had no resistance to. In other words, the tables were being turned on the colonizers. In Latin America, disease felled the native peoples while in Africa it was the invaders who succumbed to disease–malaria specifically.

Diamond makes the case that indigenous peoples and their animals had developed a resistance to malaria over generations, just as Europeans had strengthened their immune systems against smallpox, measles, etc. African cattle had adapted as well. Both native people and their domesticated animals had also benefited from geography. They had learned to live in higher elevations where mosquitoes were less prevalent. Also, in the absence of intense agriculture as practiced in Eurasia, settlements were smaller and tended to be located away from rivers and lakes. The Europeans, by contrast, settled around rivers and lakes since this is traditionally how towns and cities get established in order to take advantage of water supplies and for trade. But this is exactly where the mosquito was prevalent.

The other major threat to the colonizers was the fierce Zulus who ruled over an extensive kingdom like the Incas. Unlike in Peru, the Zulus were able to mount a significant resistance to outside incursion. This is dramatized in the PBS show as something akin to old cowboy and Indian movies. The Dutch settlers are sitting around a campfire and out of nowhere come these howling savages bent on destruction.

This is not the first time that Diamond, the pious anti-racist, has succumbed to stereotyping. If he had taken the trouble to look a little further into the Zulu history, he would have discovered that the violence was completely understandable since the nation had been driven from their former homes by Portuguese slave traders.

Recent scholarship, discussed by John Reader in “Africa: a Portrait of the Continent” reveals that Shaka, king of the Zulus, and his people fled Delagoa Bay­on the Southern coast of Mozambique–in the 1820s after more than 60,000 natives had been kidnapped and sent to pick cotton, tobacco or sugar in the Americas. A missionary by the name of Stephen Kay noted in his August 1828 journal:

He [Shaka] was originally established near Delagoa Bay, from whence he was driven about twelve years ago, by some great convulsion there. The impetus he received appears to have gradually forced him westwards [sic] as far as Natal, where he at length seated himself with a very powerful body of adherents.

Other peoples fleeing the slavers naturally became part of the Zulu kingdom, which was organized around Spartan military discipline for good reasons obviously. When Dutch and British settlers began to make their presence felt in South Africa, the Zulu naturally felt squeezed between two hostile forces.

Shaka, who had the reputation of being ruthlessly hostile toward other black Africans, was actually blamed for slave-raids carried out by whites. In one such incident, white businessmen and a missionary, whose daughter would marry colonizer David Livingstone, presented a false picture of fending off a supposedly fierce group of Mantatees. Traditionally, white accounts represent the Mantatees as a menacing force of 100,000 but more recent scholarship puts their numbers at around 2000. In reality, the whites had organized a massacre of the Mantatees and sold the survivors as slaves for the export trade or as indentured servants for the local economy. In the 1820s, labor was as in short supply in white-controlled Africa as it was in the American South. Reader reports that local settlers complained that it was “utterly impossible to procure men or boys or even Hottentots to herd.” This dimension is utterly lacking in Diamond’s account.

The show ends with about as much of a political prescription from Diamond as can be found anywhere. Until the publication of “Collapse,” he has studiously stayed above the fray when it comes to the question of how the victims of colonialism can finally enjoy equality with those who colonized them.

This would appear to revolve around the question of overcoming malaria, which is diminishing Africa’s pool of able-bodied working people. Diamond explains that with the final victory of the colonizers, new cities were established at rivers and lakes, which enabled malaria to ravage the native population formerly protected in the traditional highland habitats. The question of how their once reliable immune system would now fail them is not dealt with by Diamond, nor does he deal with the question of AIDS, a disease that seems far more devastating economically than malaria.

He interviews an obviously concerned female physician in the children’s ward of a Lusaka, Zambia hospital, who assures him that Zambia needs to wipe out this scourge for real progress to be made. Then, in a totally improbable leap of logic, the show draws upon old footage from Malaysia and Singapore earlier in the 20th century, when ambitious anti-malaria campaigns were mounted. This is followed immediately by shots of downtown skyscrapers, bustling street traffic and late-model cars. So Diamond’s solution for poverty is to eradicate disease. With all due respect to Diamond, whose heart is probably in the right place, this is ridiculous.

In reality, poverty is the cause and disease is the effect­not the other way around. This is especially the case with malaria. Fortunately, we didn’t get a lecture from Diamond about the need to bombard Africa with DDT, the current fad among bourgeois development economists, but he doesn’t seem to have a clue about how this illness is connected to one’s economic situation. Fundamentally, eliminating malaria means eliminating the conditions that breed the mosquitoes that carry it. This means getting rid of standing water in swamps, dirt roads, garbage dumps, etc. Anybody who has visited Zambia, as I have, can tell you that the country can barely pay off its debts to the IMF, let alone embark on an ambitious mosquito eradication program.

For an analysis rooted in economics, one must turn to Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who maintains an AIDS clinic in Haiti and who has written extensively about the ties between poverty and disease. In his “Infections and Inequalities,” he writes:

When we think of “tropical diseases,” for instance, malaria comes quickly to mind. But not too long ago, malaria was a significant problem far from the tropics. Although there is imperfect overlap between malaria as currently defined and the malaria of the mid-nineteenth century, some medical historians agree with contemporary assessments that this illness “was the most important disease in the United States at that time.” In the Ohio River Valley, according to Daniel Drake’s 1850 study, thousands died in seasonal epidemics. A million-odd soldiers were afflicted with malaria during the U.S. Civil War. During the second decade of the twentieth century, when the population of twelve southern states was about twenty-five million, the region saw an estimated one million cases of malaria per year. Malaria’s decline in this country was “due only in small part to measures aimed directly against it, but more to agricultural development and to other factors some of which are still not clear.”

One responsible factor that is clear enough, if little discussed in the literature, is the reduction of poverty, including the development of improved housing, land drainage, mosquito repellents, nets, and electric fans–­all of which have been (and remain) beyond the reach of those most at risk for malaria. In fact, many “tropical” diseases predominantly afflict the poor; the groups at risk for these diseases are often bounded more by socioeconomic status than by latitude. In Haiti, for example, my patients with malaria are almost exclusively those living in poverty. None have electricity; none take prophylaxis; many have lost kin to malaria. This aspect of disease emergence is thus obscured by an uncritical use of the term “tropical medicine,” which implies a geographic rather than a social topography.

Jim Blaut on Jared Diamond

Filed under: indigenous,racism — louisproyect @ 4:31 pm

(This article was included in Jim Blaut’s “8 Eurocentric Historians”)

The Geographical Review, July 1, 1999
Environmentalism and Eurocentrism: a review essay

by James Michael Blaut

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

The essential argument is very clear and simple. Almost all of history after the Ice Ages happened in the temperate midlatitudes of Eurasia. The natural environment of this large region is better for human progress than are the tropical environments of the world, and the other temperate (or midlatitude) regions — South Africa, Australia, and midlatitude North and South America — could not be central for human progress because they are much smaller than Eurasia and are isolated from it and from each other. Although many civilizations arose and flourished in temperate Eurasia, only two were ultimately crucial, because of their especially favorable environments: China and Europe. Finally: Some 500 years ago China’s environment proved itself to be inferior to Europe’s in several crucial ways. Therefore Europe in the end was triumphant.

Diamond distinguishes between the “ultimate factors” that explain “the broadest patterns of history” and the “proximate factors,” which are effects of the “ultimate factors” and explain short-term and local historical processes. (p. 87). The “ultimate” factors are environmental. The most important of these “ultimate” factors are the natural conditions that led to the rise of food production. Those world regions that became agricultural very early gained a permanent advantage in history. The “ultimate” causes led, in much later times, to regional variations in technology, social organization, and health; these, then, were the “proximate” causes of modern history. More than half of Guns, Germs, and Steel is devoted to elucidating the “ultimate” causes, explaining why differing environments led to differing rates in the acquisition of agriculture, and explaining how the resulting differences largely determined the “fate” (his word) of different peoples.

The “ultimate” causes are three primordial environmental facts: the shapes of the continents, the distribution of domesticable wild plants and animals, and the geographical barriers inhibiting the diffusion of domesticates. The first and most basic cause is the shape of the continents: their “axes.” A continental landmass with an “east-west axis” supposedly is more favorable for the rise of agriculture than a continent with a “north- south axis.”[3] Diamond divides the inhabited world into three continents (he uses the word “continent” rather broadly[4]): Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas. Eurasia has an east-west axis; the other two have north-south axes. This has had “enormous, sometimes tragic consequences” for human history (p. 176). Africa and the Americas were unable to progress throughout most of history because their “axes” are north-south, not east-west.

But Diamond is not really talking about axes; mostly he is making a rather subtle argument about the climatic advantages that (in his view) midlatitude regions have over tropical regions. The world’s largest continuous zone of “temperate” climates lies in a belt stretching across Eurasia from southern Europe in the west to China in the east. Rather persistently neglecting the fact that much of this zone is inhospitable desert and high mountains, Diamond describes this east-west-trending midlatitude zone of Eurasia as the world region that possessed the very best environment for the invention and development of agriculture and, consequently, for historical dynamism.

Why would one expect the origins and early development of agriculture to take place in the midlatitude belt of Eurasia? Diamond notes, correctly, that there are thought to have been several more or less independent centers of origin, and only two lie in the temperate belt of Eurasia: China and the Near East (his “Fertile Crescent”). Diamond needs — for his central argument about environmental causes in history — to show that these two midlatitude Eurasian centers were earlier and more important than tropical centers (New Guinea, Ethiopia, West Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Mesoamerica, the Andes…) And he needs, further, to show that the Fertile Crescent was the earliest and most important center because this region’s environment led, by diffusion westward, to the rise of Western civilization. (Indeed, at various places in Guns, Germs, and Steel the traditional Eurocentric message is conveyed that the Fertile Crescent and Mediterranean Europe are a single historical region; that history naturally moved westward.)

The priority of the Fertile Crescent, according to Diamond, resulted from its climate in relation to the distribution of cultivable grains (a second “ultimate factor”). First he eliminates tropical regions because tropical domesticates are mainly non-grain crops. He uses an old and discredited theory to claim that root crops and the like (yams, taro, etc.) are not nutritious and so could not have underlain important historical development. (Whatever deficiencies some of these staples may have had were amply compensated for by eating more of them, along with supplementary foods[5].) He dismisses tropical grains. Maize, he says, is less nutritious than the main Fertile Crescent grain domesticates, wheat and barley (apparently confusing moisture content and nutritiousness), and since early domesticated varieties of maize had small cobs and kernels, it would follow (he thinks) that maize took much longer than other grains did to become fully domesticated. Rice is simply declared to have been domesticated in midlatitude China, not tropical Asia. Sorghum is ignored. The agricultural revolution occurred in the Fertile Crescent earlier than in China because the former has a Mediterranean climate. This proposition stands unsupported except for a very thin argument: Mediterranean climate, says diamond, favored the evolution of large-seeded grains. (Again maize, rice, and large-seeded varieties of sorghum are dismissed, along with grains that have smaller seeds but are also used in various places as staples.) Diamond concedes that very old dates have been obtained for agricultural origins in China and tropical New Guinea: respectively 7500 and 7000 BC, as against 8500 BC for the Fertile Crescent. Apparently because the Chinese center does not enjoy a Mediterranean climate, and the New Guinea center is tropical, neither (he argues) would be as old as the Fertile Crescent. Here he ignores the fact that vastly more research has been done in the Near East than in China, New Guinea, and various other ancient centers of domestication; and the fact that preservation conditions are much worse in the humid tropics than in the arid Near East. Thus, overall, the argument that the Fertile Crescent was somehow “fated” to be the first center of farming and therefore of civilization, is unconvincing — yet it is a central pillar of Diamond’s theory.

The third of the “ultimate” factors” that go far toward explaining “the broadest patterns of history” is diffusion. Diamond invokes diffusion in arguments that need it: when he wants to demonstrate that the spread of some domesticate, or some technological trait, or some idea, was rapid and consequential. He neglects diffusion when it is convenient to do so: when he wants to emphasize the supposed isolation of some region (like Australia) and the consequences of that isolation. As regards the rise and development of food production, Diamond’s central point is that the relative similarity of the environments within Eurasia’s temperate belt accounts in large part for the putatively rapid diffusion of food production throughout this region as contrasted with the rest of the world. He seems not to notice that the agriculturally productive regions within this temperate belt are quite isolated from one another, separated by deserts and high mountains. Contrary to Diamond’s theory, north-south diffusion, which generally meant diffusion between temperate and tropical regions or between temperate regions separated by a zone of humid tropics, was as important as east-west diffusion.

Diamond argues that agricultural traits will have difficulty diffusing southward and northward between midlatitude Eurasia and the African and Asian tropics because this requires movement between regions that are ecologically very different. Hence it must follow that midlatitude crops will tend not to grow very well in humid tropical regions, and vice versa for tropical crops, because they are accustomed to different temperature and rainfall regimes and either need seasonal changes in day- length if they are midlatitude domesticates or, conversely, cannot tolerate such changes in day-length if they are low- latitude domesticates. This argument is used by Diamond mainly to support two of his theories. One is the theory that tropical regions of the Eastern Hemisphere tended to develop later, and more slowly, than temperate Eurasia. The other is the theory that temperate regions of the Eastern Hemisphere that lie south of the tropics, notably Australia and the Cape region of South Africa, did not acquire agriculture largely because tropical regions kept them isolated from the Eurasian centers of domestication. But the effect of the north-south “barriers” cannot have been that important. The essence of domestication is the changing of crops, by selection and other means, to make them more suitable for the human inhabitants of a region. Always this involves some changes to adapt to different planting conditions. There are, indeed, true ecological limits. But the range of potential adaptation is very wide. Most tropical regions with distinct dry and wet seasons are potentially suited for most of the major cereals grown in temperate Eurasia. Day-length is important for some crops, notably wheat, but in most cases adaptations could, and did, remove even this limitation. After all, in early times some kinds of wheat were grown as far south as Ethiopia; rice was grown in both tropical and warm midlatitude climates; sorghum, first domesticated in Sudanic Africa, spread to midlatitude regions of Asia. In the Western Hemisphere, maize was grown by Native Americans all the way from Peru to Canada. Most tropical root and tuber crops had problems spreading to regions that were cold or seasonally dry, but many of these crops, too, adapted quite nicely: think of the potato. Diamond’s error here is to treat natural determinants of plant ecology as somehow determinants of human ecology. That is not good science

Diffusion is also stressed by Diamond as having been a significant factor in early world history, and some of his points are valid. But when, in various arguments, he posits natural environmental barriers as causes of non-diffusion, or of slow diffusion, he makes numerous mistakes. Some of these (as in the matter of north-south crop movements, just discussed) are factual errors about the environment. Other errors are grounded in a serious failure to understand how culture influences diffusion.[6] Two examples deserve to be mentioned.

“[What] cries out for an explanation is the failure of food production to appear, until modern times, in some ecologically very suitable areas” (p. 93). All of these areas are midlatitude regions that are separated from midlatitude Eurasia by some intervening environment. Diamond devotes a lot of attention to two such areas: the Cape of Good Hope and Australia. Why did these two regions remain non-agricultural for so long? In both cases, the sought-after explanation is supposed to be a combination of barriers to diffusion and local environmental obstacles, notably relative absence of potential domesticates. Cultural factors are ignored. The Cape of Good Hope is a zone of Mediterranean climate. What “cries out for an explanation” here is the fact that this area, according to Diamond, had the ecological potential to be a productive food-producing region, but remained a region of pastoralism until Europeans arrived. Bantu-speaking agricultural peoples spread southward into South Africa but, according to Diamond, they stopped precisely at the edge of the Mediterranean climatic region. This region was occupied by the Khoi people who were pastoralists. Why did the Bantu- speakers, who had invaded Khoi lands farther north, not do so in the Cape region and then plant crops there? Why did the Khoi not adopt agriculture themselves? Diamond denies, rightly, that the this had to do with any failure of intellect; the causes, he argues, were matters of environment and diffusion. The crops grown by the Bantu- speakers, here the Xhosa, were tropical, and, according to Diamond, could not cope with the winter-wet climate of the Cape region. So the Xhosa did not spread food production to the Cape because of its Mediterranean climate. The Khoi, for their part, did not adopt agriculture because Mediterranean crops that had been domesticated north of tropical Africa could not diffuse from North Africa through the region of tropical environment and agriculture to the Cape; and because the Cape region did not have wild species suitable for domestication. But the Khoi probably did not adopt Xhosa agriculture for quite different reasons. Almost all of the area in South Africa that the Khoi occupied before the Europeans arrived is just too dry to support rain-fed agriculture. The Khoi could have farmed in a few seasonally wet riverside areas. They must have known about the Xhosa techniques of farming (some of them lived among the Xhosa). But they chose to remain pastoralists. This had nothing to do with non-diffusion of Mediterranean crops, absence of domesticable plants, and non-adaptability of tropical crops. The decision to retain a pastoral way of life was an ecologically and culturally sound decision. (Actually, the zone of Mediterranean environment, with enough rainfall for cropping, is a quite small belt along the southernmost coast, a region too small to bear the weight of argument that Diamond places on it.)

Australia also “cries out for explanation.” Why did Native Australians not adopt agriculture during the thousands of years that neighboring peoples to the north, in and around New Guinea, were farming? Again we are told that the explanation is a matter of environment and location. Diamond accepts the common view of cultural ecologists that the hunting-gathering-fishing economy employed by Native Australians was productive enough to give them a reasonable level of living so long as they kept their population in check, which they did. (It is likely also that their way of life helped them to fend off efforts by non-Australians to penetrate Australia.) Why then, should they give up this mode of subsistence and adopt agriculture? Diamond simply assumes that they would have done so had it not been for environmental barriers. Of course, parts of Australia are moist enough to support farming. But these regions, says Diamond, did not become agricultural because of their isolation from farming peoples outside of Australia. The logic here is murky. Diamond notes that Macassarese traded with Australians in the northwest, near modern Darwin, but he believes that the Macassarese (famous sailors) could not have sailed to the Cape York Peninsula, where tropical crops could have been grown. Moreover, Cape York Peninsula is separated from New Guinea by the narrow Torres Strait, with several stepping- stone islands nearly connecting the two landmasses. Why did not the Australians around Cape York adopt the agriculture practiced by New Guineans? Again: isolation. Diamond finds barriers to (north-south) diffusion that just did not exist. Probably Australians chose not to adopt agriculture because they managed quite well without it…

The “ultimate” environmental factors or forces, which caused agricultural societies to arise in some places and not others, continued to shape cultural evolution thereafter, according to Diamond. He discusses the evolution of writing, sociopolitical complexity, and technology, devoting most attention (unsurprisingly) to technology. Here is his summary of the argument about technological evolution after the Neolithic:

[Three] factors — time of onset of food production, barriers to diffusion, and human population size — led straightforwardly to the observed intercontinental differences in the development of technology. Eurasia…is the world’s largest landmass, encompassing the largest number of competing societies. It was also the landmass with the two centers where food production began the earliest: the Fertile Crescent and China. Its east-west major axis permitted many inventions adopted in one part of Eurasia to spread relatively rapidly to societies at similar latitudes and climates elsewhere in Eurasia…It lacks the severe ecological barriers transecting the major axes of the Americas and Africa. Thus, geographic and ecological barriers to diffusion of technology were less severe in Eurasia than in other continents. Thanks to all these factors, Eurasia was the continent on which technology started its post-Pleistocene acceleration earliest and resulted in the greatest local accumulation of technologies. (pp. 261-62)

Diamond asks: what would lead to the piling up of the most inventions in certain areas, among certain groups, and hence to steady technological development in those areas? The broad answer is given in the passage quoted above. But we have seen that the “axes” are irrelevant, and the supposed “geographic…barriers to diffusion of technology” do not exist — or rather: the barriers that chop up midlatitude Eurasia into separate agricultural regions are at least as significant as those between midlatitude Eurasia and tropical lands to the south. What, then, is left of Diamond’s explanation? Not very much. Diamond supplies a brief and standard description (not an explanation) of the way in which technology developed after Sumer and the way non-agricultural innovations spread westward to Europe and evolved in China. In this description he fails to mention the fact that diffusion eastward and southward from the Near East via the Indian Ocean, and southward from China via the South China Sea, was as important, and as easy, as diffusion westward…

The second thesis is a cracker-barrel theory about the things that supposedly lead to invention and innovation. In essence: the larger the population and the larger the number of so-called competing societies, the more inventions and innovations there will be. Therefore, since Eurasia is geographically the largest landmass, it will have the largest number of inventions and innovations. And they will diffuse through Eurasia’s temperate belt more rapidly than they would in nasty tropical climates. Diamond uses roughly the same form of argument when he discusses the diffusion of writing and sociopolitical complexity from the Near East westward to Europe.

Diamond’s argument proceeds inexorably, deterministically, to the conclusion that Europe and China were fated to be the winners in the worldwide historical competition because of their environmental advantages. History centers itself on temperate Eurasia, and the two regions of Eurasia that have the best environmental conditions for agriculture — for the origins of agriculture, and thereafter for food production — are Europe and China. Diamond accepts the probability that an independent agricultural revolution occurred in China. Thereafter China’s favorable environment led to a development, paralleling Europe’s. Moreover, “the history of China offers the key to the history of all of Asia” (p.324). Diamond states as fact some extremely uncertain, in part quite dubious, hypotheses to argue that an agricultural revolution in central China led to the spread of farming peoples southward, displacing hunter-gatherer peoples in island Southeast Asia; thus to show that there was here a north-south axis that had to favor temperate China at the expense of tropical Southeast Asia (and islands beyond). But it is by no means certain that farming is older in China than in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. Moreover, rice may have been domesticated in India or Southeast Asia, not China, and may be as old as staple crops first domesticated in China. (See Glover and Higham 1996.) Diamond deploys data from historical linguistics to argue that Austronesian culture, and apparently also people, spread southward into the tropics from mainland China, via Taiwan. Indeed, there is not much doubt that Austronesian languages originated somewhere in the coastal region stretching from (tropical) South China down to Vietnam and Thailand — but not necessarily from a hearth in midlatitude China. In sum, Diamond argues that China always had priority and centrality in all of eastern Eurasia, and history elsewhere in that region mainly reflects diffusions and migrations from a temperate-China core. This is mostly speculation, but Diamond’s theory requires that it be true.

Finally we come to Europe. Most of the argument of Guns, Germs, and Steel is devoted to proving the primacy throughout history of midlatitude Eurasia, and within this region of Europe (supposed heir to the Fertile Crescent) and China. If the argument stopped there, we would have a sort of Eurasia-centrism, not Eurocentrism. But Diamond’s purpose is to explain “the broadest patterns of history,” and so he must answer this final question: Why did Europe, not Eurasia as a whole, or Europe and China in tandem, rise to become the dominant force in the world? Diamond’s answer is, predictably: the natural environment. The “ultimate” causes of Europe’s rise, relative to China, are a set of qualities that Europe’s environment possesses and China’s environment lacks, or China’s possesses but in lesser degree. The “ultimate” environmental causes then produce the “proximate” causes — which are cultural:

[The] proximate factors behind Europe’s rise [are] its development of a merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its Graeco-Judeo-Christian tradition of empirical inquiry (p. 410).

This is, of course, utterly conventional Eurocentric history. There is now a huge literature that systematically questions each of these economic, political, and intellectual explanations for the rise of Europe, much of this literature consisting of Eurocentric arguments of one sort attacking Eurocentric arguments of some other sort — yet Diamond ignores all this scholarship and simply announces that these (and a few other cultural things) are the true “proximate” causes of the rise of Europe. Evidently he views the matter as settled. The problem, for him, is to find the underlying environmental causes.

Topography is the key; or more precisely topographic relief and the shape of the coastline.

Europe has a highly indented coastline, with five large peninsulas that approach islands in their isolation…China’s coastline is much smoother…Europe is carved up…by high mountains (the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians, and Norwegian border mountains), while China’s mountains east of the Tibetan Plateau are much less formidable barriers (p.414).

These somewhat inaccurate observations about physical geography lead into one of the truly classical arguments of Eurocentric world history: the theory of Oriental despotism.[9] This is the belief that the so-called “Oriental” civilizations — essentially China, India, and the Islamic Middle East — have always been despotic; that Europeans alone understand and enjoy true freedom; that Europe alone, therefore, has had the historical basis for intellectual innovation and social progress. Diamond invokes a pair of well-known environmentalistic theories, adding nothing new to them, about how physical geography is the main reason why Europe, not China, acquired the cultural attributes that gave it ultimate hegemony: “a merchant class, capitalism…patent protection for inventions…failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation,” and the rest. Here is how it works: China is not broken up topographically into isolated regions, because it does not have high mountains like the Alps and does not have a coastline sufficiently articulated to isolate nearby coastal regions from one another. This explains the fact that China became unified culturally and politically 2,000 years ago. Europe, on the other hand, could not be unified culturally and politically because of its indented coastline (its “capes and bays,” in the traditional theory) and because of its sharply differentiated topographic relief (its “many separate geographical cores” in the traditional theory). Europe therefore developed into a mosaic of separate cultures and states. China’s geographically determined unity led it to become a single state, an empire; and an empire must, by nature, be despotic. Why? Because a person cannot leave one state and emigrate to another to avoid oppression, since there is only the one state, the Chinese empire. Hence there is continued oppression of the populace and centralized manipulation of the economy. So: no freedom, little development of individualism, little incentive to invent and innovate (taxation, political control, etc.), no development of free markets, and no development of a polity resembling the modern democratic nation-state. These “harmful effects of unity” (p. 413) led China to, in essence, stagnate after the 14th or 15th century. Europe, by comparison, continued to forge ahead. Hence Europe triumphed.

The geography is wrong and so is the history. Southern Europe has the requisite “capes and bays” and separate “geographic cores.” But the historical processes that Diamond is discussing here pertain to the last five or six hundred years of history, and most of the major developments during this period, those that are relevant to his argument, occurred mainly in northern and western Europe, which is flat: the North European Plain from France to Russia; the extension of that plain across France almost to the Spanish border; southern England. Even Central Europe is not really isolated from northern and western Europe. There are no serious coastline indentations between Bordeaux and Bremen. If we look at the distribution of population throughout this region, there is no isolation and not very much development of cores. The crystallization of northern Europe’s tiny feudal polities into modern states occurred for reasons that had little to do with topographic differentiation; the boundaries of most of these states do not reflect topographic barriers and most of their cultural cores are not ecological cores. The idea that the pattern of multiple states somehow favored democracy is (in my view) a Eurocentric myth: each of these states was as despotic as — indeed, usually much more despotic than– China, and emigration from one polity to another was not substantial enough to have had any effect on the development of democracy. Further: what Diamond calls Europe’s “competing” states often were warring states; probably China was more peaceful during most centuries than Europe was, and an environment of peace surely is more conducive to development than one of war. And finally, Diamond’s view of Chinese society is based on outdated European beliefs. China did not stagnate in the late Middle Ages: Chinese development continued without interruption, and Europe did not outdo China in technology, in the development of market institutions, and indeed in the ordinary person’s standard of living, until the later 18th century. In short, the idea that China’s topography led to China’s achievement of a unified society and polity, and that this unity somehow led to despotism and stagnation, is simply not supported by the facts.

Diffusion is also supposed by Diamond to have played a large role in the triumph of Europe over China. Throughout Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond argues that geographical barriers to diffusion are one of the main reasons why some societies failed to progress. But China, he argues, had fewer barriers to diffusion than Europe had. Shouldn’t China, therefore, have progressed more rapidly than barrier-ridden Europe? How does he get around this contradiction? First, he introduces a tortuous theory to the effect that, not only is too little diffusion a hindrance to development, but so, too, is too much diffusion. Like the second of the Three Bears, Europe had just the right balance between too little differentiation and too much, and this, mysteriously, led to more intense diffusion of innovations in Europe than in China. Second, he claims — another traditional argument — that Europe’s lack of political unity somehow favored the diffusion of innovations, whereas it certainly did the opposite. Political boundaries are barriers to human movement; also, they frequently correlate with linguistic boundaries and thus can be barriers to communication. The third argument is largely an implicit one, though clearly evident nonetheless. Diamond claims that social and technological development moved steadily westward from the Fertile Crescent to Europe. He states (incorrectly) that writing, invented in the Fertile Crescent, was merely a tool of the ancient despotic bureaucracies until the alphabet diffused westward to Greece, where, he says (again incorrectly), the Greeks added the vowels and thereby transformed it into an instrument of creative writing: of innovation, abstract thought, poetry, and the rest. In essence: an argument that intellectual progress diffused westward and became consequential when writing reached Europe. This must be the basis for his argument that “the Graeco-Judeo-Christian tradition of empirical inquiry” is one of the reasons why Europe triumphed. Yet throughout Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond insists (rightly) that all peoples are equally creative, equally rational. This is a contradiction but not really a historical problem, since “empirical inquiry” was not invented by Europeans and was as highly developed in China, and other civilizations, as in Europe.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is influential in part because its Eurocentric arguments seem, to the general reader, to be so compellingly “scientific.” Diamond is a natural scientist (a bio-ecologist), and essentially all of the reasons he gives for the historical supremacy of Eurasia and, within Eurasia, of Europe, are taken from natural science. I suppose environmental determinism has always had this scientistic cachet. I dispute Diamond’s argument not because he tries to use scientific data and scientific reasoning to solve the problems of human history. That is laudable. But he claims to produce reliable, scientific answers to these problems when in fact he does not have such answers, and he resolutely ignores the findings of social science while advancing old and discredited theories of environmental determinism. That is bad science.


1 In this paper I use “environmentalism” as shorthand for both “environmental determinism” and “environmental possibilism.”…

2 See Ritter (1865), Montesquieu (1949), Herder, (1968).

3 Compare Ritter (1865), pp. 46 et seq. (section of his Comparative Geography entitled “The Position of the Continents and its Influence on the Course of History”).

4 See Lewis and Wigen 1997.

5 As Jack Harlan (1995, 130) points out, “One can more or less live on potatoes if one eats enough of them.”

6 I discuss this issue in Blaut (1987).

7 Diamond agrees… that lack of immunity to Old World diseases… was an important factor in the conquest.

8 See Giblin (1990), Turshen (1987), Blench (1993).

9 Diamond does not call his theory “Oriental despotism,” but that is what it is… [See] theory in Blaut (1993).


Blaut, J. 1993. The Colonizer’s Model of the World.

_____, 1987. Diffusionism. Anns. Ass. Am. Geogs. 10:30-47. Blench, R. 1993. Ethnographic and Linguistic Evidence for the Prehistory of African Ruminant Livestock… In Shaw. Collins,

K., and D. Roberts, eds. 1988. Capacity for Work in the Tropics.

Giblin, J. 1990. Trypanosomiasis Control in African History. J. African History 31:59-80.

Glover, I., and C. Higham, C. 1996. New Evidence for Rice Cultivation in S., SE., and E. Asia. In The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia.

Harlan, J. 1995. The Living Fields.

Shaw, T., et al., eds. 1993. The Archaeology of Africa.

Turshen, M. 1987. Population Growth and the Deterioration of Health:… Tanzania… In African Population…

[Some notes and references deleted.]

Savage Minds on the Jared Diamond affair

Filed under: anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm

Vengeance is Hers: Rhonda Shearer on Jared Diamond’s ‘Factual Collapse’

by Rex on April 22nd, 2009

Rhonda Shearer, a cofounder of the Arts Science Research Lab and widow of Stephen Jay Gould recently released a long report on ASRL’s website Stinky Journalism.org entitled Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: New Yorker Mag’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue… Tribal Members Angry, Want Justice. I have more than a passing interest in this case because I served as a fact-checker for the New Yorker on the piece, have written my own response to the piece, and have been in contact with Shearer as she has been working on her response. But this story is far more that just something I am personally interested in—it has already been reported on by the Huffington Post and Forbes shows. Most news coverage will focus on the more spectacular aspects of the case: Diamond publishes a piece in the New Yorker depicting a tribal fight in Papua New Guinea, Shearer produces documentation that his accounts are untrue, and the Papua New Guineans involve sue Diamond for US$10 million.

What I think is truly important about this case – beyond the obvious fact that Wemp deserves justice – is that it represents the fundamental ethical issue that anthropologists will have to face for decades to come. Anthropological collaboration with the army may directly impact more human lives, but collaboration is an old problem that we have talked about for a long time. The great ethical debate prior to HTS was the ‘Yanomami Scandal’ stirred up by Patrick Tierney, a debate that centered on anthropologists (and others) behaving badly in the field, and not being held to account by the powers that be in the metropole. Some people like Rob Borofsky want to fetishize this debate as the issue in anthropological ethics, since it involves what they imagine must be the paradigmatic anthropological situation: powerful white outsiders, (relatively) supine brown people.

read full article

April 22, 2009

New Yorker Magazine sued by slandered New Guineans

Filed under: anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm


Rhonda Shearer

Henep Isum Mandingo, pictured far right, is angry with Jared Diamond, renowned UCLA scientist, Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author– for telling “lies” about him. Isum was named and falsely charged by Diamond for committing criminal acts without the magazine’s famed fact checkers–or Diamond himself–ever confirming the allegations were true, or even if Isum was a real person. (credit: Michael Kigl, StinkyJournalism.org)


Rhonda Shearer, the widow of Stephen Jay Gould, is a prime mover in this legal action. She contacted me for information on Jared Diamond about a year ago when she was first getting her ducks lined up in a row and after she found my go-for-the-jugular-vein attack on Diamond. Go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/my_ecology.htm and look for articles on “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

After she referred me to the New Yorker article, I wrote this: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/11/03/jared-diamond-on-tribal-warfare-in-new-guinea/


New Guinea Tribe Sues The ‘New Yorker’ For $10 Million Dirk Smillie, 04.21.09, 9:18 PM ET

In an April 21, 2008, New Yorker story, “Vengeance Is Ours,” Pulitzer Prize-winning geography scholar Jared Diamond describes blood feuds that rage for decades among tribes in the Highlands of New Guinea. Diamond tells the story using a central protagonist: Daniel Wemp, member of the Handa clan, a blood-thirsty warrior bent on avenging his uncle’s death. That quest, writes Diamond, touched off six years of warfare leading to the slaughter of 47 people and the theft of 300 pigs.

Now Diamond’s protagonist is fighting Diamond. A two-page complaint filed in New York State Supreme Court on April 20 seeks $10 million from the New Yorker’s publisher, Advance Publications, claiming Diamond’s story falsely accused Wemp and fellow tribesman Isum Mandigo of “serious criminal activity” and “murder.”

Diamond is a best-selling author and winner of a National Science Medal and the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius award.” But Wemp has some academic backing of his own. Rhonda Roland Shearer, director of the New York City-based Art Science Research Lab, whose media ethics project, stinkyjournalism.org, will soon release a 40,000-word study on Diamond’s story.

Shearer dispatched researchers to New Guinea and interviewed 40 anthropologists to fact-check Diamond’s story with a fine-tooth comb. The result, as summed up by the report’s working title: “Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: The New Yorker’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue.”

New Yorker spokeswoman Alexa Cassanos said she could not comment on Wemp’s suit or Shearer’s study because she has seen neither, saying only, “We stand by the story.” Diamond did not immediately return calls to Forbes.

Complicating Wemp’s case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer’s researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.

But a Wemp friend and legal adviser, Mako John Kuwimb, explains: “When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment. Daniel’s stories were not serious narrative, and Daniel had no idea he was being interviewed for publication. He has never killed anyone or raped a woman. He certainly has never stolen a pig.”


From Rhonda Shearer’s Stinky Journalism website:


  • Daniel Wemp and Henep Isum file a summons and sue for 10 million dollars in Supreme Court of The State of New York–charge famed UCLA scientist, and best-selling author, Jared Diamond and Advance Publications (aka The New Yorker magazine and Times-Picayune newspaper) with defamation, April 20, 2009.
  • REVEALED: The New Yorker removed Diamond’s article from the open Internet last year after demand by Daniel Wemp’s lawyers (Lexis Nexis, EBSCO, Gale Group data bases also complied with the take-down. Only abstracts remain).
  • The New Yorker fact checkers never contacted any of the indigenous Papua New Guinea people named in Jared Diamond’s article as unrepentant killers, rapists and thieves, before publication.
  • Henep Isum is not paralyzed in a wheelchair with spinal injury, as Diamond claimed. He and Daniel Wemp, Diamond’s World Wildlife Fund driver in 2001-2002, and only source for The New Yorker’s revenge story in Papua New Guinea, as well as dozens of tribal members, police officials, deny Diamond’s entire tale about the bloody Ombal and Handa war, calling it “untrue.”
  • Expert linguist analysis and The New Yorker’s own admissions indicate the quotations attributed to Daniel Wemp, as spoken in 2001-2002, are fabrications

UPDATE: 4/22/09, 7:16am: This article includes excerpts from a forthcoming 40,000-word report (Real Tribes / Fake History: Errors, Failures of Method and the Consequences for Indigenous People in Papua New Guinea) that will be released in coming weeks. All interviews were recorded and were in English, the national languages of Papua New Guinea, unless noted. Research methods are detailed at bottom of this article. *

EXCLUSIVE : If Jared Diamond would have changed the names of people and tribes and simply said that he was unsure if the stories he heard were true, Daniel Wemp, his single source for his tale of Papua New Guinea (PNG) tribal revenge, would not be in the danger that Diamond and his publisher, The New Yorker magazine, placed him. This crisis was set in motion a year ago today, on April 21, 2008, with the publication in The New Yorker of the Pulitzer Prize winning author and renowned UCLA scientist’s article, “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?”

When Papua New Guinea researcher, Michael Kigl, working with StinkyJournalism, went to Daniel Wemp’s Nipa home in the Southern Highlands, PNG, July 2008, to ask him about The New Yorker article, he was shocked. Daniel Wemp had no idea that he, or people he mentioned to Diamond in random stories about tribal warfare back in 2001-2002, would be publicly named, and worse, erroneously linked to heinous crimes.

Despite Diamond’s claims, Daniel was no Handa tribal leader, nor was Henep Isum a violent leader of the Ombals. Isum isn’t even an Ombal tribesman but is a Henep (hence, his full name: Henep Isum Mandingo [tribal name, first name, last name]).

In addition to tracking down Daniel Wemp, we also found Henep Isum. When our researcher, Michael Kigl, first saw him, Isum was carrying a large bag of dirt over his shoulder. It turned out that Isum never had a spinal cord injury resulting in his being a wheelchair-bound paralytic, the result—or so Jared Diamond claimed—of an arrow attack by Daniel Wemp’s hired assassins.

read full story

The struggle at NYU continues

Filed under: Education,workers — louisproyect @ 12:55 pm

This is a follow-up to my write-up on the crisis in higher education panel discussion at the Left Forum 2009 that appears immediately below.

Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2009
Bush Gone, NYU Scrambles to Escape Anticipated NLRB Ruling
By Marc Bosquet

During a break from writing a column or blogging, you imagine that you’re going to return with a magisterial survey of all the events that transpired while you were away. Instead, of course, you are just plunged right back into the fray. Thirty interviews recorded but not edited; a dozen interviews promised but not done. Not to mention book reviews, self-indulgent columns about your offspring, and the never-ending fountain of administrator outrages demanding immediate attention: cancelled sabbaticals, slashed pay for faculty serving contingently, prison labor on campus, and pleas for federal money to erect more monuments to administrator vanity. I’ll get to all of these promises and topics in time. (Thanks to the intrepid John Protevi for the prison labor tip: more on that ASAP.)

While I was on the road, I heard from NYU students and faculty about the administration’s plan to restructure graduate education in response to the appointments of Liebman and Solis, which most observers feel will trigger a reversal of the absurd Brown decision, to which Liebman provided a scathing dissent. (That was the ruling that the Bush mob unapologetically used to overturn the landmark, unanimous, and bipartisan GSOC-UAW ruling that forced NYU to the table.)

Now NYU claims that all of their thuggery and intimidation – you know, like firing Joel Westheimer – was all a misunderstanding. They want grad students to join a union – just not the union they chose and built for themselves, GSOC-UAW. Instead, the administration wants to force them into the union of faculty serving contingently, ACT-UAW which, ironically, formed as a result of GSOC.

In future, NYU graduate-school officials have recently informed the community, grad students will be admitted either with funding or without, but teaching will not be part of their funding package. All teaching will be officially optional – though still conventionally expected in most fields. Interestingly, the new teaching-optional mentality contradicts the central argument made by NYU’s attorneys before the NLRB, that grad students couldn’t simultaneously be Yankees fans workers, because teaching was a necessary part of their education.

What will this plan mean in practice? Some students will teach less than now, especially if they are well off or in fields where grant money is available. And some will teach about the same but at an awkward time in the arc of their studies, in the sixth year and beyond.

It also seems likely that some students will teach more than the current standard, and quite a bit more than the upper tiers of future students. Some units will apparently be admitting more unfunded students who will have to “choose” to teach their way through as contingent labor. It seems pretty clear that this strategy is aimed toward undermining GSOC-UAW’s support with at least some entering students, and at the NLRB, though it’s far from certain that the “what we said last year was full of crap” strategy is going to win with Liebman at the helm.

The administration probably also hopes for a divide-and-conquer dividend with ACT-UAW. If they succeed in forcing doctoral students into the contingent faculty union, management may accomplish some dilution of purpose (since under the new plan some doctoral students will only enter that union for a couple of years, rather than the eight or so they’d belong to GSOC).

I spoke to GSOC’s Rana Jaleel and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein when I was in New York earlier this month and, later in my travels, with some other faculty and students who wish to remain uncredited. And I discussed the situation further with Andrew Ross over e-mail in the last 24 hours. Ross is the author of the just-released Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times, about which I will have a lot of nice things to say, when I can find time to say them.

My exchange with Ross follows.

Q. What do you know about the plans to restructure graduate education at NYU?

The plan was first proposed during the GSOC strike by a group of faculty – referred to as the Third Way at the time – who were trying to broker a clean exit strategy for the NYU administration from any obligation to deal with the union. It was not taken up then but it has emerged as the horse to back for NYU and other private universities as they contemplate another NLRB reversal. Basically, the plan is to offer full five-year fellowships with no built-in teaching obligations. TAships will therefore disappear, and graduate students will teach – there will be an expectation that they will do so – as adjuncts and will be classified as such.

Q. What sort of inequities could a plan like this produce?

It re-introduces a culture of informality into the workplace, where intimidation will undoubtedly flourish. Department chairs will need TA’s no matter what, and will lean on students to teach even though they may not want to. The plan is a recipe for intimidation in fact. It explicitly reverses the benign impact of the original GSOC contract which brought some formal rules about work into the classroom.

In addition, there will be a three-tier student body, those with family support will not teach much at all, and the gap between them and the more disadvantaged tier will be more visible. The plan also calls for the admission of unfunded students – as a third tier that will presumably be available to teach very cheaply at the drop of a hat.

International students will have an especially tough time, after the five year period, because of visa restrictions on their freedom to work.

Domestic students who, in their five years of funding, have not been bullied into teaching through the “moral authority” of their mentors, will then be eminently available in subsequent years to teach at adjunct rates that are far below those currently afforded to TA’s.

Q. Are there any other drawbacks? Will programs and admissions shrink?

In a time of fiscal retrenchment, full-fellowship packages will be more expensive, so we expect that the total number will be cut. Also, the administration is presenting the plan as a way to make NYU more competitive with its would-be peers. As more and more elite private colleges adopt this kind of graduate funding package (and if they want to avoid dealing with GA unions, they almost certainly will) then the gap between the privates and the publics will further widen.

Q. Who will be doing the work currently done by graduate student teachers?

The same graduate students for the most part. This will not be lost on the NLRB. Simply because you change a job title doesn’t mean the work is any different, and if it’s the same folks teaching then the NLRB case is not much altered. What will change more is the role of chairs and DGS’s, they will become direct managers of teaching labor in all sorts of ways, reinforcing the Yeshiva claim that faculty are managerial positions. I’m actually concerned about how faculty in these administrative positions may be legally exposed to NLRB inquiries into unfair labor practices.

Q. What do you think motivates the administration?

It’s no secret that this is an effort to eliminate the union. This is openly discussed in deans’ meetings with chairs that I have attended. More hypocritical is the administration’s effort to portray it as a “victory for labor,” since the students in question will be “allowed” to join the adjunct union. No one in GSOC was consulted, and students continue to want their own union, as far as we can tell. More telling, no NYU administrator has ever contacted the adjunct union about this plan. No one has asked union officers how they feel about having student members who will clearly have preferential access to certain kinds of teaching. It remains legally questionable whether students will be able to join that union under these circumstances.

Q. Rana Jaleel of GSOC-UAW calls this an attempt by the administration to make an “end run” around the union. Do you agree? How do you think the union might react?

Rana is stating a fact, in my view, not an opinion. How the union reacts is not my call, of course, but I do think the administration is making many mistakes, and that this bungled effort to preempt the NLRB may well backfire on them.

Q. How would you contextualize this plan in connection with Take Back NYU and the occupations at the New School?

It’s too easy to see this as part of a continuum with the “anomalous wave” of worldwide student protest. I think it has more to do with NYU trying to close the books on the legacy of the 2005 strike.

Q. This isn’t a strategy that most other administrations can afford to adopt. Where do you think this will leave the movement to unionize grad employees at private schools?

It will be a great blow to the academic labor movement if GSOC gets snuffed out. The current generation of GSOC organizers is strong and resourceful. Even if they are absorbed into the adjunct union, that’s simply not an option at most private schools where there is no adjunct union.

April 21, 2009

Left Forum 2009 journal (Sunday)

Filed under: Academia,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

10-12am: Political Economy of Contemporary India

Unfortunately, I am going to have to be a bit sketchy here since I was relying on my Flip video camera recording for my report. At the outset I should state that the panel members are involved with a website called www.sanhati.com that is devoted to a critique of neoliberalism in Bengal.

The first two speakers used statistics-heavy Powerpoint presentations to demonstrate:

–India had not succeeded in developing large-scale industry based on heavy concentrations of workers.

–The peasantry was being forced into smaller and smaller plots, while the ranks of the landless were growing. Additionally, feudal social relations in the countryside were on the decline, including money-lending and sharecropping.

Neither speaker spent much time drawing political conclusions from the statistics except to say that capitalism was not developing in the manner orthodox Marxism would have predicted.

The next two speakers focused on class struggles in West Bengal which pit the poor peasants and their Maoist leaders against the CPI-M. I was shocked to hear some quotations from the party’s leader, which sounded more like Thomas Friedman than Karl Marx.

Amit Basole, who introduced himself to me before the talks began as a reader of my blog (his talk concentrated on class relations in the manufacturing sphere), has an impressive background. He received a PhD in neurobiology but then decided to study economics at the U. of Massachusetts to help him understand society and politics in his homeland. I urge you to check out his website, which includes the following biographical information:

There is an Indian aphorism, “he who has seen only India, has not India seen”. At the age of 23 when I first left India, I had seen nothing but India. Like many middle-class, city bred Indians, as I grew up I had become inured and insensitive to its problems. I came to America to become a scientist, to pursue a childhood dream. Being here for the past six years I have learnt much about India and about myself. While I started my PhD thinking that I would do research in Neuroscience as a career, most likely in the US, I am now certain that I would eventually like to work in India in a more socially conscious capacity.

Despite being involved in basic research for nearly eight years (see ‘academic background’ below), I have been increasingly interested in social causes. About three years ago I began volunteering in my spare time with the Association for India’s Development, a US-based non-profit that supports developmental projects carried out by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India. My volunteer experience with AID included coordinating two projects, one supporting an education program for underprivileged children in government-run remand homes in Maharashtra and the other project supporting the activities of a union of landless agricultural laborers in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India. Through this experience I have understood better (but only slightly) the inextricably intertwined processes of “modernization” and “development”. My decision to quit Neuroscience and start afresh in Economics stems from a desire to acquire a more systematic knowledge of the economics, the history and philosophy behind such massive changes that affect millions of people the world over. A fortuitous combination of events landed me in the Economics department at the University of Massachusetts, where I am currently in the middle of yet another PhD.

During the discussion period, I asked for some clarification on what the Maoist movement consists of in India today. I was especially interested in their views on the CPI-ML Liberation, a group that favors Marxmail with their very interesting newsletter on a fairly regular basis and which does not come across as standard Maoist fare in the Bob Avakian mold. I was told that they are not narrowly Maoist and have often paid tribute to Gramsci in their writings. They are also a sizable group, credited by some to have a membership of over 75,000. As one other audience member put it, they could swallow up a European left group at one sitting and still have room for another meal.


12-2pm Universities in (the) Crisis: Class Contradictions in Higher Education

As you might expect from the cutie pie title of this panel discussion, it was organized by Rethinking Marxism, the neo-Althusserian journal that is sponsoring its own conference later this year.  Despite my aversion to the often high-falutin’ approach of Rethinking Marxism, I found this session one of the best I attended all weekend.

As a graduate of Bard College and the New School, schools run by egomaniacal empire-builders; an employee of Columbia University for more than 18 years; and finally as a friend to a number of young struggling adjunct professors in New York, the question of class contradictions in higher education is of great interest to me.

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein and Rona Jaleel reported on the struggles they participated in at NYU as members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW). The villain in this story is the university’s president John Sexton, who appears to be an even bigger rogue than Leon Botstein and Bob Kerrey.

Sexton’s latest ploy to undermine the teaching assistants is to recategorize them as adjunct professors, which would provide marginally better wages and working conditions at the cost of undercutting the momentum they had built in struggling for recognition as TA’s. Sexton has a most peculiar idea about who adjuncts are, naming Spike Lee as a typical adjunct.

Sexton is also something of an amateur futurologist, positing New York City’s emergence as a focal point for ICE (Information, Culture, and Education) development rather than the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) that it is today. Of course, given the events of the past 6 months, the city might not have an alternative to get out of FIRE since it is going up in smoke all on its own.

Sexton is even more expansionist than the state of Israel, attempting to gobble up real estate near NYU and setting up satellite colleges across the globe, including one in Abu Dhabi that relies heavily on non-union labor. Go to http://fairlabornyu.wordpress.com/ for information about efforts on their behalf organized by the Coalition for Fair Labor.

Next to speak was Sarah Stookey, a most unlikely business administration professor at Central Connecticut State University who started out as a solidarity activist working in Nicaragua. Her website explains:

Sarah’s interest in studying business and management arose from almost a decade of helping to promote community-based economic development in Nicaragua. She also spent several years helping to create grassroots-managed lending programs in the Philippines and Zambia. Her current research is motivated by a desire to create organizations that respond to the needs of society broadly defined. This involves articulating and evaluating the economic and philosophical assumptions underlying the treatment of money in management theory and practice. She is also very interested in promoting community-based financial institutions such as credit unions.

Her talk was a fascination class analysis of who majors in business and why. It turns out that 22 percent of all college students are business majors since their goal is to get a job right out of the gate upon graduation that has health insurance. Most of them come from culturally impoverished working class or small shopkeeper families and have never read a newspaper, Karl Marx, or the world’s great literature. On the other hand, they have a better grasp of how the capitalist economy works than the average undergraduate since they are forced to cope with budgets, quarterly statements, etc. as part of their day job.

By contrast, the people in business school at places like Columbia University have plenty of culture but no understanding of how the real world works. That in Sarah’s opinion has a lot to do with the exotic hedge fund strategies that come out of such schools. These future MBA’s are also there to develop leadership skills that will enable them to lord it over the working class kids who are in the lower tier business schools.

The last speaker was David Kristjanson-Gural, an economics professor at Bucknell who organized the panel and who presented an analysis of the university system based on Marx’s value theory. He believes that the board of trustees extracts surplus value from the professors. The value they produce is supplemented by endowments and government grants for research, etc. During a financial crisis, this funding tends to dry up and forces the board to put pressure on the faculty to produce more value through larger class sizes, pay cuts, etc. All of this makes perfect sense, of course.

In the Q&A, I raised a question with David about the difference between a college like Bard that has quadrupled in size since I graduated and the average for-profit corporation. What were the laws of accumulation that dictated that a Bard College or a Columbia University or an NYU must expand? Since they are non-profits, they would not seem to be governed by the same economic laws. In responding to me, he mentioned the “mindset” of the board but that did not satisfy me. Surely there must be something else going on besides mindsets. This is something I want to explore more on my own.


3-5pm: The De-Stalinization of Chinese Marxism

This was a case of false labeling since the speakers, all Chinese, did not address “de-Stalinization” at all.

Wei Xiaoping gave a presentation blaming Engels for everything that has gone wrong in Marxism, using a manuscript of German Ideology with side-by-side entries by Marx and Engels. According to her, Engels introduced the whole notion of “historical materialism” that Marx never endorsed. It is a theory that starts with the existence of material relationships, out of which ideas and consciousness proceeds. I suppose this analysis implicitly blames Engels for Stalinism since he was past master at crude base-superstructure Marxism, except that it usually blames Engels for “dialectical materialism”, an even worse offense than “historical materialism”. While there is not much point in defending Engels here (he needs no defense), I only would have pointed out to the speaker that blaming Marxism’s failures on Engels’s intellectual misconceptions ends up putting us back into the idealist traditions that both Marx and Engels were trying to refute in German Ideology.

Wang Dong spoke about Chinese efforts to put together MEGA2, a volume of Marx and Engels’s writings that was supposedly more reliable than MEGA1. I’ll take her word for it, I guess.

Li Zizi was the most interesting speaker of the three, if only for demonstrating what official Marxism looks like in China today. Her talk was on Lenin and how he is viewed by scholars in China today. She said that the scholarly consensus held that the CCP was following in the path set down by Lenin with the N.E.P. I asked her what historical works scholars relied upon in order to make such a comparison since my readings convinced me that no two periods could be more unalike than the USSR in the 1920s and China today. She gave me a blank expression for a moment or two and said that they only went by what Lenin wrote.

As unimpressed as I was with these three presenters, I did take heart in the fact that they and so many other Chinese scholars remain committed to Marxism today as evidenced by the sheer numbers attending the Left Forum in New York City in 2009.

April 20, 2009

Doing nothing

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

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