Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2009

Greetings from Miami Beach

Filed under: Miami Beach — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

Miami Beach art deco

Here I am in sunny Miami Beach, Florida staying with my wife in the Clevelander Hotel until Sunday. She’s down here to give a paper at a political science conference at the Royal Palm Hotel and I am along for the ride.

In general, the unrepentant Marxist does not travel very much. Outside of trips to Nicaragua and East Africa with Tecnica and one to see my good friend Mark Jones in London before he died, I wouldn’t dream of staying in a hotel. I made an exception in this case because I really love the art deco architecture of South Beach, the section of Miami Beach that most hotels are located in, as well as having an affinity for the locale of two of me and my wife’s favorite TV shows: Miami Vice and Nip-Tuck.

The hotels are really strikingly beautiful to my eyes. They have the same pastel colors as the Necco candies of my youth as well as the Tums I now take in my old age to cool off chronic heartburn. They look good enough to eat. Yummy.

When Miami Vice was airing on NBC from 1984 to 1989, South Beach was in disrepair. The local bourgeoisie made the wise decision to turn the area into a tourist attraction by channeling funds into the remodeling and renovation of over 100 hotels in about a two square mile area. By contrast, the resort hotels of my youth in the Catskill Mountains of upstate NY went down the toilet. In both areas, the hotels were owned by Jews but in Florida they seemed more committed to diversity as the people hated by Walter Benn Michaels might put it.

The Clevelander Hotel is on Ocean Drive, which is a stone’s throw from the beach. If you walk along Ocean Drive, you will be accosted by the maitre de’s of all the restaurants on the ground floor of hotels like the Clevelander who try to thrust post card sized circulars in your hands advertising half-price deals on chicken fingers and Mojitos. The general effect is a cheapening of the restaurant as if you were being lured into a whorehouse in the Red Light district of Amsterdam.

Late last night we stopped in at an upscale version of one of the joints, a place called Proof that is close to the Royal Palm where my wife will be giving her paper on economic crisis, a topic perhaps relevant to the hustlers on Ocean Drive and the panhandlers we have run into as well. We were sitting there drinking high-priced martinis and sharing an even higher priced Caesar’s Salad when the ex-basketball player Dennis Rodman showed up with his entourage. They took a table about 15 feet from our own where Rodman, a colorful personality to say the least, held court.

It turns out that our good friend Michael Yates stayed briefly at a sublet a block from the Royal Palm some years ago when he began the first leg of a pilgrimage described in “Cheap Motels and Hot Plate”. He gave us some suggestions on a walking tour that will take up.

The Clevelander is a block from a mansion that was once occupied by Gianni Versace, the Italian designer who was murdered by Andrew Cunahan in 1997, a serial killer. The place is overdecorated, like the man’s silk shirts in my opinion. South Beach seems to draw such personalities like Versace and Dennis Rodman who had and has a reputation of promiscuity that exceeds Tiger Wood’s. Of course, in Rodman’s case this was not likely to lose him lucrative contracts with major corporations since he did everything he could to flout middle-class convention to start with.

All in all, I am enjoying myself thoroughly and will have more to report in the next day or so.

December 7, 2009

Among the Freudians

Filed under: Gay,psychology — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

This year I worked with a couple of people on a comic book memoir about my comic life that should be out in 2011, god willing.

That exercise has triggered a Proustian examination of key episodes facilitated more by Google than a Madeline dunked into a cup of tea. Pretty much all of my strange encounters will be covered in the memoir but one slipped my mind entirely. When I was 14, my parents shipped me off to summer camp for neurotic children. Yes, I know that sounds funny but that’s what it was. Just like there are summer camps for fat kids, Jewish kids, rightwing Christian fundamentalist kids, there are summer camps for neurotics. At least there was in 1959.

Around the time I turned 14, my mother became worried that I never smiled. I suppose if she asked me why, I could have told her that I was tired of being bullied by bigger kids in school and by the mindless materialism and conformity that I was growing disenchanted with. I still didn’t have a handle on my malaise, but reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg a year later would help me figure it out. And then a year later, when I turned 16, I went off to Bard College where I became acquainted with 400 other neurotic youth newly liberated by the school that Walter Winchell had called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”.

My loquacious mother was asking around about what to do with me, especially during the summer when vacationing Jews from New York flooded into our village, bringing their big-city sophistication up with them. We were rubes by comparison. One of these Jews was Kenny Gottlieb, an Amherst undergraduate who was working summers at the Olympic Hotel. Like thousands of other young men depicted in movies like “Dirty Dancing”, the summer earnings as camp counselors, waiters and busboys helped pay tuition and expenses at places like Amherst and Columbia. Kenny’s uncle was Sam Weiser, the owner of a famous occult bookstore in New York that has since moved to Maine. After I became a fledgling beatnik, I used to make pilgrimages to the bookstore to browse titles in Gnosticism, Kabbalah and other “hipster” religions.

Kenny was introduced to my mom by the people who ran the hotel, who were locals like us. Sizing up my situation, he recommended that I be shipped off to Camp Quakerbridge in Croton-on-Hudson that was run by a psychiatrist named Samuel Kahn whose sister owned the Olympic. So in the summer of 1959, I went to summer camp for the first time in my life. Instead of playing pinball machines, fishing for pickerel in nearby ponds or shooting off firecrackers with my hooligan pals, I was going off to be “cured”.

Most of the kids there were Jews like me and seemed to be suffering from the kind of emotional burdens associated with middle-class life as documented in the novels of Philip Roth. Whether they could be described as “neurosis” or not is open to debate but that did not seem to deter the counselors and social worker/therapists who were steeped in Freudian theory and camp director Samuel Kahn’s particular interpretations of the man he studied with.

A typical day might consist of playing softball from 9:30 to 11 followed by a session with “Mrs. Rabinowitz” (I can’t remember any of their names except Kahn’s) who explained to us kids what was wrong not only with us, but most of the human race. Using a blackboard, she went through terms like “ego”, “superego” and “id” to bring us up to speed. When she came to the Oedipal Complex, most of us had trouble wrapping our minds around that. The idea of having erotic feelings toward one’s mother seemed most improbable, especially when you had a look at some of them who came up to visit on weekends.

I didn’t take the lectures that seriously but was happy to get away from my father’s fruit store for the summer. I was expected to put in a few hours a day waiting on customers who asked in thick Yiddish accents “you got some nice tomatoes maybe?”

In early July, having spent about a month there, I wandered over to the main building where I spotted a group of the counselors and other staff members sitting around in a circle while the camp’s drama director walked up and down in the middle. For a few moments, he was talking about things that were troubling him that would not be of much interest to a 14 year old—like a sense of inadequacy, etc. You have to become an adult for such things to get you down, especially in bourgeois society. But what happened next was totally unexpected. The counselor began to sob uncontrollably about his problems, the tears falling down his face. I had never seen a grown man cry, an act that was particularly rare in the self-controlled masculine world of the 1950s.

A few days later, I received an even greater shock. Dr. Samuel Kahn wanted to meet with me, about what I had no idea. We sat on a bench near the main building and he presented a proposal to me. He thought that I would benefit from living with a couple in Croton-on-Hudson who would be able to “rescue” me from the misery my parents were inflicting on me. Although I was happy to be away from them for a summer, the idea of going to live with people who cried in public and whose lives revolved around discussing the superego was not my cup of tea. I called my mom that evening and demanded to be brought home. Since my father’s fruit store was doing a booming business that summer (the Catskills would collapse only 6 or 7 years later), they didn’t think twice about bringing me home to wait on customers.

Just out of curiosity, I did some investigation on “Samuel Kahn” and “Quakerbridge” on the Internet. This is what I came up with. The NY Times reported on December 28, 1981:

Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had studied with Freud, died Thursday at Westchester County Medical Center in White Plains. Dr. Kahn, who was a resident of Croton-on-Hudson, was 84 years old.

He was born in Atlanta and was a graduate of Emory University where he also received his medical degree. Dr. Kahn interned in various New York City hospitals and studied in Vienna.

He was a clinical psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and served as an associate professor at Long Island University. He was the founder and a director of the Quakerbridge School, a youth camp in Ossining, N. Y.

Dr. Kahn was the author of more than 30 books of psychotherapy, of which the most recent was ”Practical Child Guidance and Mental Hygiene.” Among others were ”How and Why We Laugh,” ”Anxieties, Phobias and Fears,”, ”Master Your Mind!” and ”Thanks for a Better Memory.”

He is survived by his wife, Karen; two daughters, Dr. Janice Kahn of Island Park, L. I., and Susannah of Ossining, N. Y.; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Of even greater interest was a website called http://quakerbridgecamp.com/ (now defunct) that has a bunch of the good Doctor’s musings. The first one that caught my eye was called “Acting Out” – Homosexuality and Bisexuality, a talk he gave exactly 52 years ago to this day. He explains:

A passive homosexual is one who can be made into an active homosexual by special circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances he prefers heterosexuality, but supposing he would get drunk and be locked up in a room with a homosexual, he would have homosexual relations. When the drinks wear off, he again prefers heterosexuality. The largest numbers of homosexuals are the passive unconscious homosexuals. These don’t know that they are homosexuals and they are the ones who get mentally sick. The way to find out whether one is a passive unconscious homosexual is to interpret the dreams. Many times these dreams are symbolic so that the individual himself cannot interpret the dreams and hence, may not recognize his homosexuality or the kind it is. Once in awhile a passive unconscious homosexual may have an overt homosexual dream. This may happen, but it is not so common. These dreams may or may not be remembered. The exact situation may happen to females.

The first time I got an inkling how stupid this was from the comedians Jack Burns and Avery Shreiber who did a skit called “The Conventioneer and the Cabdriver” around this time on television. Burns played the conventioneer as a thick-necked Rotarian from someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska who was in NY for a convention. Shreiber, the cabby, was taking him to his hotel and answering his anxious questions about the visit. Somehow, the conversation turned to ballet dancers that the Rotarian heard thrived in New York. He told the cabby that if any of them ever got smart with him, he’d punch them out. Everybody understood how stupid he sounded, even if the reference to gays was only veiled. 10 years later, with the Stonewall rebellion, most intelligent people in the U.S. would have nothing to do with the prejudices of the conventioneer played by Burns or by Dr. Samuel. As backward as American society can seem sometimes, I have to remind myself from time to time that we are making progress.

December 6, 2009

The Myth of Mondragon

Filed under: economics,workers — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

On October 27th, the United Steelworkers and Mondragon Internacional, the worldwide network of cooperatives based in Basque territory, announced a new alliance:

PITTSBURGH – The United Steelworkers (USW) and MONDRAGON Internacional, S.A. today announced a framework agreement for collaboration in establishing MONDRAGON cooperatives in the manufacturing sector within the United States and Canada.  The USW and MONDRAGON will work to establish manufacturing cooperatives that adapt collective bargaining principles to the MONDRAGON worker ownership model of “one worker, one vote.”

“We see today’s agreement as a historic first step towards making union co-ops a viable business model that can create good jobs, empower workers, and support communities in the United States and Canada,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard.  “Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants.  We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”

Josu Ugarte, President of MONDGRAGON Internacional added: “What we are announcing today represents a historic first – combining the world’s largest industrial worker cooperative with one of the world’s most progressive and forward-thinking manufacturing unions to work together so that our combined know-how and complimentary visions can transform manufacturing practices in North America.”

This has led some sectors of the left in the U.S. to view this as a major step forward. Carl Davidson, an SDS leader in the 60s who has moved in a social democratic direction in recent years, wrote:

…the USW initiative, and the potential clout behind it, puts the Mondragon vision on wider terrain. An integrated chain of worker-owned enterprises that might promote a green restructuring of the U.S. economy, for instance, would not only be a powerful force in its own right. It would also have a ripple effect, likely to spur other government and private efforts to both supplement and compete with it.

In These Times, a leading social democratic periodical, was also hopeful:

The USW/Mondragon alliance might represent a third alternative. While Mondragon coops are for-profit enterprises, they are committed to principles beyond the bottom line.

They are accountable to their workers and the communities in which they operate, not just to the dictates of the market. Mondragon has a financing wing and, like many major U.S. unions, the USW has considerable capital reserves. To the extent that they can bankroll their own projects, they can free themselves from Wall Street and its total focus on profit.

The idea of worker-owned companies has come to the fore recently in other contexts. Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a Love Story” featured two cooperatives in the U.S., a California bakery and a Wisconsin robotics manufacturer. And about a decade ago, there was attention paid to the “recovered” factories in Argentina that had become the focus of Naomi Klein’s documentary “The Take“. Since neither Moore nor Klein are Marxists, it does not come as a surprise that cooperatives are viewed as an alternative to the “failed” state socialisms of the past.

My first encounter with Mondragon occurred in the early 90s on the Progressive Economists Network mailing list (PEN-L) when a professor at a Catholic university harped on its role in the transition to socialism in countries like the U.S. Consistent with market socialism schemas that were popular at the time, Mondragon-style cooperatives were seen as liberated territory that would diffuse out into the rest of the economy until it had become totally transformed. Somehow I failed to see how the capitalist ruling class would allow such a process to unfold peacefully.

But a reading of Sharryn Kasmir’s “The Myth of Mondragon” persuaded me that this development would have never been seen as a threat to begin with. The Mondragon collectives are the 7th largest company in Spain and have never been the target of subversion. In fact, in 1965 the fascist regime in Spain awarded Father Arizmendi, the founder of Mondragon, with the Gold Medal for Merit in Work.

It turns out that worker-owned businesses have not exactly been anathema to fascist regimes. Indeed, Kasmir makes the case that if political parties and trade unions had been legal under Franco, “political energies never would have been channeled into so unlikely a project as cooperativism”.

And it was not just Spain. While the Italian fascists were initially hostile to co-ops, they got the green light from Mussolini after agreeing to purge Socialists and Communists. In 1927 there were 7,131 co-ops and by 1942 the number had swelled to 14,576. Somehow the fascist state did not fear that these “alternative” modes of production threatened the economic system.

Indeed, Mussolini pointed to the co-ops as examples of his corporatist ideals. Kasmir explains this anomaly in terms of how they “embodied worker participation, nonconflictual relations between labor and management, and the withering away of class identifications.”

For Carl Davidson, Father Arizmendi’s ideas on cooperatives flowed from a “deep study of Catholic social theory as well as the works of Karl Marx and the English cooperativist Robert Owen.” Now it should be acknowledged at the outset that Karl Marx did view the experiments of Robert Owens as praiseworthy. In the 1864 Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, he referred to them as follows:

We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.

Accepting momentarily that Arizmendi was partially inspired by such an example, it is still necessary to assess the role of “Catholic social theory” alluded to by Davidson. It turns out that this was largely a product of the priest’s membership in Catholic Action. While Arizmedi was a staunch opponent of Franco during the Spanish Civil War, he was just as much of an opponent of class struggle. He saw the war as a tragedy and hoped to find a way to achieve class peace in his homeland, especially in the Basque country, a traditional bastion of worker and nationalist militancy.

Joxe Aruzmendi, Arizmendi’s biographer, characterized the priest’s views as follows:

At the root of the class struggle can be found the myth of revolution, faith in violence, etc., that in the opinion of Arizmendiaretta characterize the twentieth century, and that he summarily rejects. The question of the class struggle is phrased, for Arizmendiaretta, as the question of how to overcome it, urgently.

While the Mondragon cooperatives were taking shape, leftwing politics in Basque country proceeded on a separate track. The ETA (this was before the group evolved in a Narodnik direction) sought to combine socialist and national liberation struggles and the trade union movement conducted illegal strikes that challenged the corporatist status quo. All the while, the Mondragonites were focusing on the immediate objectives of selling their products, delivering social services to their members and generally avoiding the class struggle.

While the Mondragon cooperatives have been successful in terms of business objectives, they are not exactly harbingers of a classless society. Despite the fact that everybody is an “owner”, the blue-collar workers on the assembly line do not feel that they have that much of a stake in the company. Kasmir conducted  poll of workers at Mayc, a private company in Mondragon, and at Fagor Clima, a co-op of comparable size that turned out similar products.

In answer to the question “In your job, do you feel that you are working as if the firm is yours?”, manual workers at Mayc replied 75 percent in the negative as opposed to 78 percent at Fagor. When asked whether they felt “part of the firm”, 33 percent of the Mayc manual workers said no but Fagor workers were even more alienated. Fully half said they did not. Meanwhile, those in more skilled or management positions tended to be happier in both places.

The Basque Workers Council, a syndicate combining class and national demands, has been critical of Mondragon since it was formed. In their magazine, they charged the cooperatives with:

Becoming like any private firm, from the point of view of daily work, the cooperative member is exploited in his/her job in a capitalist firm by increased production, mobility, schedule changes, etc.

We don’t understand why the managers don’t present a proposal to lower the age of retirement in the cooperatives…Instead, they opted, just like owners of private firms, to achieve profitability by the same methods as capitalist firms: lay-offs, increasing productivity, temporary contracts, etc.

Not surprisingly, Mondragon has adapted to a “leaner and meaner” corporate culture that became the norm internationally under what has become known as neo-liberalism. In 1993, the Guardian reported that Mondragon, the “darling of Western universities’ sociology departments in the 1970s, has been radically restructured in preparation for the European Single Market.”

It stated that “increased salary differentials, advertising campaigns in Fortune and co-operate alliances with companies like Hotpoint have had many co-op workers wondering whether in the new Mondragon Cooperative Corporation some members are more equal than others.”

By 2001, many workers at Mondragon were not even on a par with the 50 percent of manual workers who told Sharryn Kasmir that they did not feel “part of the firm”. I am referring to the largely foreign contract workers who are not even part of the collective ownership.

The October 23, 2001 Guardian reported:

Under Mr Cancelo’s guidance the MCC [Mondragon Cooperative Corporation] members have learned to think like the shareholders of any other global business. In order to protect their own jobs from fluctuations in demand, 20% of the workforce are on part-time or short-term contracts and can easily be shed. Like all the co-op’s foreign employees and most Spanish workers outside the Basque country, the 148 staff at Maier UK – a Lichfield car parts company that MCC bought earlier this year – are not co-op members.

In conclusion, I must also take exception to Carl Davidson’s selective take on the United Steelworkers leadership:

The Mondragon initiative is not the first innovative project of the Steelworkers seeking wider allies. With the encouragement of International President Leo Gerard, following on the anti-WTO street battles in Seattle in the 1990s, the USW helped found the Blue-Green Alliance together with the Sierra Club and other environmentalists.  It has worked closely with Van Jones and ‘Green for All’s jobs initiatives and the union plays a major role in the ongoing annual ‘Good Jobs, Green Jobs’ conferences. Most recently, the USW was a major participant in the week-long series of events making the oppositional case at the G20 events in Pittsburgh.

While nobody would deny that Green initiatives are laudable, and even that something good might come out of an alliance with Mondragon in terms of job creation, it must be stated that the collapse of the American trade union movement is largely a function of the class collaborationist policies of people like the USW President Leo W. Gerard, even if he has learned the importance of attending G20 events or making appearances on MSNBC.

The central crisis facing American workers today is their reliance on the Democratic Party to defend their interests. The USW is just like every other powerful union. It raises money for and urges its members to vote for the lesser evil. The USW backed John Edwards in the 2008 primaries and then switched gears to back Obama. This of course was to be expected.

On September 16th Gerard informed Huffington Post readers:

The Obama administration fails to fawn over the affluent.

Instead, Obama talked of downtrodden workers in the former Jones & Laughlin Steel mill in Aliquippa. Bosses there fired a dozen workers shortly after the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935. The workers, mostly union organizers, challenged the dismissals all the way the U.S. Supreme Court, securing a landmark win that not only got them their jobs back, but also affirmed the constitutionality of the labor law that led to the burgeoning of union organizing, and the growth of America’s large, stable middle class.

I don’t know about fawning over the affluent, whatever that is supposed to mean, but the general consensus is that Obama’s economic policies are a continuation pretty much of the administration that preceded his. Bailouts for Wall Street and foreclosures for everybody else.

Just about everybody has begun to wake up to this, from liberal bloggers like Jane Hamsher to the Congressional Black Congress. The fact that a “progressive” trade union president and his ex-radical admirer can state otherwise is a sign of the problems in the trade union movement and on the left that must be sorted out once and for all.

December 2, 2009

The joke’s on us

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 12:47 am

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.