Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 20, 2010

Alexander Cockburn, Marc Cooper, and Castro’s Cuba

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

Recent changes taking place in Cuba and statements regarding these changes made by retired head of state Fidel Castro have gotten a couple of journalists associated with the liberal Nation Magazine all hot and bothered.

One of them is Alexander Cockburn, whose column now appears only once a month—an obvious function of the magazine’s displeasure with Cockburn’s enmity toward their beloved occupant of the White House. Cockburn, now pushing 70, was at one time on the payroll of prestigious and well-paying print publications like the Wall Street Journal and House and Garden. Except for the once-a-month Nation job, his main outlet is through a syndicated distributor creators.com. They send his articles to the usual leftwing culprits (Truthout.org, etc.) but also to Chronicles, a magazine published by the Rockford Institute. This Rockford is not the Jim Rockford played by James Garner in the popular TV detective show of yore, but rather a paleoconservative think-tank that garnered Max Blumenthal’s attention recently:

Even though the Rockford Institute has been dubbed “xenophobic, racist, and nativist,” by its former New York branch director, Richard John Neuhaus;  even though Rockford’s current director, Thomas Fleming, is a leading anti-Semite and Holocaust revisionist; even though Rockford’s flagship publication, Chronicles, has served as a nest for white nationalists like Sam Francis; Cornyn — a moving force behind Republican immigration policy — accepted Rockford’s invitation to headline their conference.

One can only wonder if Cornyn had a chance to rub elbows with Alexander Cockburn at the event.

[Originally, this article stated that Cockburn’s main outlet besides The Nation and Counterpunch was Chronicles. I have modified the article after receiving a clarification from him. I will say this, however. I would never allow anything with my name appear in a racist, xenophobic publication like Chronicles. There really is no excuse for that.]

The other journalist is a fellow named Marc Cooper, who arguably might be described as a retired journalist since nobody, including the Nation Magazine, appears interested in publishing him nowadays. A quarter-century ago Cooper was an estimable figure, writing a first-rate piece on Pinochet’s Chile if memory serves me right. I never would have dreamed that he would have evolved into the dyspeptic, Albert Shanker-like figure he is today. Keeping Woody Allen’s wisecrack from Sleeper in mind, let’s hope that Cooper never gets his hands on a nuclear weapon.

Turning to Cockburn’s article first, Autumn of the Driveler, we learn that he takes great exception to a couple of recent offenses by the retired head of state. The first of these is Castro’s joining ranks with the 9/11 “truthers”:

Castro claimed that the Pentagon was hit by a rocket, not a plane, because no traces were found of its passengers. “Only a projectile could have created the geometrically round orifice created by the alleged airplane,” according to Fidel. “We were deceived as well as the rest of the planet’s inhabitants.” All nonsense of course.

Cockburn links this conspiracism with a more recent offense by Castro, namely giving credence to a book about the role of the Bilderbergs:

The 84-year-old former Cuban president published an article on August 18, spread across three of the eight pages of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, quoting in extenso from the Lithuanian-born writer Daniel Estulin’s ‘The Secrets of the Bilderberg Club,’ (2006) alleging the Bilderbergers control everything, which must mean that they pack a lot in to the three-day session the Club holds each year as its sole public activity. Of course they probably skype each other a lot too and rot out their brains plotting and planning on their cell phones.

It should be mentioned, by the way, that Castro’s age had been cited earlier in the article by Cockburn: “In both of these media Castro, now 84, has spouted a steady stream of drivel.” Now I would not want to advise such an acclaimed journalist to review an article he has written before publishing it, but it is probably not a good idea to make such a gaffe. It might give readers the impression that he is slipping—as they put it.

I should also add that Cockburn might want to tread a bit more lightly when it comes to conspiracy theory since his frequent contributions to the climate change debate amount to a conspiracy theory themself. He claims that scientists warning about climate change are basically part of a vast conspiracy by companies like General Electric who make things up in order to scare people into accepting nuclear power. Wow!

I was greatly amused by Cockburn’s discovery that “bits of Estulin’s book reverently quoted by Castro, who called Estulin honest and well informed, retread some of the doctrines of Lyndon LaRouche, one of the most lurid conspiracists in political history”. I guess that he must have forgotten that he has called upon Zbigniew Jaworowski, an expert in Larouche’s stable, to support his global warming denialism:

Alexander Cockburn in the 6/9/2007 Weekend edition of Counterpunch:

Take Warsaw-based Professor Zbigniew Jaworowski, famous for his critiques of ice-core data. He’s devastating on the IPCC rallying cry that CO2 is higher now than it has ever been over the past 650,000 years. In his 1997 paper in the Spring 21st Century Science and Technology, he demolishes this proposition. In particular, he’s very good on pointing out the enormous inaccuracies in the ice-core data and the ease with which a CO2 reading from any given year is contaminated by the CO2 from entirely different eras. He also points out that from 1985 on there’s been some highly suspect editing of the CO2 data, presumably to reinforce the case for the “unprecedented levels” of modern CO2. In fact, in numerous papers prior to 1985, there were plenty of instances of CO2 levels much higher than current CO2 measurements, some even six times higher. He also points out that it is highly unscientific to merge ice-core temperature measurements with modern temperature measurements.

Cockburn failed to identify Jaworowski’s professional qualifications. He is in fact not a climatologist but a professor at the Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection in Warsaw, Poland. He also fails to identify 21st Century Science and Technology as a publication of Lyndon Larouche’s bizarre ultrarightist cult that used to beat leftists up in the 1970s, provided snitches on the antinuclear movement to the Reagan administration, received paramilitary training from a KKK leader, blamed modern day capitalist ills on the Jews and Queen Elizabeth, etc.

Turning from the ridiculous to the ridiculouser, Marc Cooper’s blog has been churning out diatribes against the Cuban government with more regularity than the Cuban American National Foundation.

Most recently, Cooper has written a self-congratulatory article about what he (and Jeffrey Goldberg) regards as the arrival of capitalism to Cuba. While it contains the usual vitriol directed against the Evil Dictator, it does mark something of a departure for Cooper in that it is framed in Marxist theory, something that by the evidence looks like what the journalist picked up in a freshman poli sci class rather than from any reading of Karl Marx.

He writes:

Marx saw “socialism” as an economic stage superior to capitalism. He didn’t mean morally superior. Marx meant that socialism, a society of equality, could ONLY be built upon a fully developed and mature, indeed over-ripe, global capitalist system.

This, of course, is the sort of thing that social democrats of the Kautskyite stripe have been arguing forever. One doubts that Cooper ever read Kautsky in the original but absorbed this Menshevik platitude from a copy of Dissent Magazine years ago.

One hardly knows how to break this to Cooper, but this was not Marx’s view at all. In the late 1870s, he developed a keen interest in the struggles against Czarism that he regarded as a possible springboard for a renewed assault against capitalist privilege across the European continent. He carried out a correspondence with populist leaders in Russia who understood Plekhanov’s writings to be a true interpretation of what Marx had been writing. Plekhanov, whose influence on Kautsky was profound, believed that it was a mistake to struggle for socialism in such a backward country. The best that could be hoped for was a deepening of capitalist relations that could prepare the way for socialism. This meant that it was necessary to give critical support to the capitalist destruction of the rural communes, a precapitalist social formation in the countryside that the populists wanted to defend.

In an 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich, Marx wrote:

At the same time as the commune is bled dry and tortured, its land rendered barren and poor, the literary lackeys of the “new pillars of society” ironically depict the wounds inflicted on it as so many symptoms of its spontaneous decrepitude. They allege that it is dying a natural death and they would be doing a good job by shortening its agony. As far as this is concerned, it is no longer a matter of solving a problem; it is simply a matter of beating an enemy. To save the Russian commune, a Russian revolution is needed. For that matter, the government and the “new pillars of society” are doing their best to prepare the masses for just such a disaster. If revolution comes at the opportune moment, if it concentrates all its forces so as to allow the rural commune full scope, the latter will soon develop as an element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system.

In another letter to N.K. Mikhailovsky, the leading theorist of Russian Populism, Marx explicitly disavows himself from any kind of unilinear theory of history that would require societies to go through stages, like a larva turning into a butterfly. Referring to Capital, a work that supposedly gave its imprimatur to this kind of schematicism, Marx wrote:

In the chapter on primitive accumulation, my sole aim is to trace the path by which the capitalist economic order in western Europe emerged out of the womb of the feudal economic order. Hence it follows the movement which divorced the producer from his means of production, transforming the former into a wage-earner (a proletarian, in the modern sense of the word) and the latter into capital. In this history, “every revolution marks an era which serves as a lever in the advancement of the capitalist class in the process of its formation. But the basis of the evolution is the expropriation of the tiller of the soil”. At the end of the chapter, I deal with the historical tendency of accumulation and I assert that its last word is the transformation of capitalist property into social property. I supply no proof of this at that point for the good reason that this assertion itself is nothing but the succinct summary of prolonged developments previously presented in the chapters on capitalist production.

Now, what application to Russia could my critic draw from my historical outline? Only this: if Russia tries to become a capitalist nation, in imitation of the nations of western Europe, and in recent years she has taken a great deal of pains in this respect, she will not succeed without first having transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once brought into the lap of the capitalist regime, she will be subject to its inexorable laws, like other profane nations. That is all. But this is too much for my critic. He absolutely must needs metamorphose my outline of the genesis of capitalism in western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course, fatally imposed upon all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed, in order to arrive finally at that economic formation which insures with the greatest amount of productive power of social labor the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. He does me too much honor and too much shame at the same time. Let us take one example. In different passages of Capital, I have made allusion to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome.

Originally, they were free peasants tilling, every man for himself, their own piece of land. In the course of Roman history, they were expropriated. The same movement which separated them from their means of production and of subsistence, implied not only the formation of large landed properties but also the formation of large monetary capitals. Thus, one fine day, there were on the one hand free men stripped of everything save their labor power, and on the other, for exploiting this labor, the holders of all acquired wealth. What happened? The Roman proletarian became not a wage-earning worker, but an indolent mob, more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern lands of the United States; and by their side was unfolded not a capitalist but a slave mode of production. Hence, strikingly analogical events, occurring, however, in different historical environments, led to entirely dissimilar results.

By studying each of these evolutions separately, and then comparing them, one will easily find the key to these phenomena, but one will never succeed with the master-key of a historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.

Now, of course, the notion that it was a mistake to overthrow capitalism in Cuba or anywhere else for that matter until the capitalist system has “ripened” to the extent that it is safe to go on to the next stage of socialism is just a demonstration that some erstwhile radicals have gotten very cozy with their place in capitalist society. People like Christopher Hitchens and Marc Cooper enjoy the emoluments their capitalist employers hand out to them. From the heights of the posts they occupy as esteemed journalists and professors, they snarl at anybody who has the temerity to break with the system. The implication is that people in places like Haiti have to have the patience to endure capitalism for another century until things get rotten-ripe enough for them to rise up against the system.

Until now, and arguably for the foreseeable future, socialist Cuba will be a beacon to all those fighting for a better world, as the differences between capitalist Haiti and socialist Cuba make clear. Here is what Paul Farmer had to say on the subject in a July 10, 2000 New Yorker Magazine profile:

Leaving Haiti, Farmer didn’t stare down through the airplane window at that brown and barren third of an island. “It bothers me even to look at it,” he explained, glancing out. “It can’t support eight million people, and there they are. There they are, kidnapped from West Africa.”

But when we descended toward Havana he gazed out the window intently, making exclamations: “Only ninety miles from Haiti, and look! Trees! Crops! It’s all so verdant. At the height of the dry season! The same ecology as Haiti’s, and look!”

An American who finds anything good to say about Cuba under Castro runs the risk of being labelled a Communist stooge, and Farmer is fond of Cuba. But not for ideological reasons. He says he distrusts all ideologies, including his own. “It’s an ‘ology,’ after all,” he wrote to me once, about liberation theology. “And all ologies fail us at some point.” Cuba was a great relief to me. Paved roads and old American cars, instead of litters on the gwo wout ia. Cuba had food rationing and allotments of coffee adulterated with ground peas, but no starvation, no enforced malnutrition. I noticed groups of prostitutes on one main road, and housing projects in need of repair and paint, like most buildings in the city. But I still had in mind the howling slums of Port-au-Prince, and Cuba looked lovely to me. What looked loveliest to Farmer was its public-health statistics.

Many things affect a public’s health, of course-nutrition and transportation, crime and housing, pest control and sanitation, as well as medicine. In Cuba, life expectancies are among the highest in the world. Diseases endemic to Haiti, such as malaria, dengue fever, t.b., and AIDS, are rare. Cuba was training medical students gratis from all over Latin America, and exporting doctors gratis- nearly a thousand to Haiti, two en route just now to Zanmi Lasante. In the midst of the hard times that came when the Soviet Union dissolved, the government actually increased its spending on health care. By American standards, Cuban doctors lack equipment, and are very poorly paid, but they are generally well trained. At the moment, Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other country in the world-more than twice as many as the United States. “I can sleep here,” Farmer said when we got to our hotel. “Everyone here has a doctor.”

Farmer gave two talks at the conference, one on Haiti, the other on “the noxious synergy” between H.I.V. and t.b.-an active case of one often makes a latent case of the other active, too. He worked on a grant proposal to get anti-retroviral medicines for Cange, and at the conference met a woman who could help. She was in charge of the United Nations’ project on AIDS in the Caribbean. He lobbied her over several days. Finally, she said, “O.K., let’s make it happen.” (“Can I give you a kiss?” Farmer asked. “Can I give you two?”) And an old friend, Dr. Jorge Perez, arranged a private meeting between Farmer and the Secretary of Cuba’s Council of State, Dr. José Miyar Barruecos. Farmer asked him if he could send two youths from Cange to Cuban medical school. “Of course,” the Secretary replied.

Again and again during our stay, Farmer marvelled at the warmth with which the Cubans received him. What did I think accounted for this?

I said I imagined they liked his connection to Harvard, his published attacks on American foreign policy in Latin America, his admiration of Cuban medicine.

I looked up and found his pale-blue eyes fixed on me. “I think it’s because of Haiti,” he declared. “I think it’s because I serve the poor.”


  1. Twenty-five years ago, Cooper was a lot better than what he degenerated into. He led a solidarity grouping of a couple dozen people to Nicaragua in 1983 in which I participated.

    He didn’t hate the Cuban Revolution back then as he obviously does today. Indeed, he wrote what remains a decent journalistic account of Cuba in the early 1980s which can be read:

    June 1-7, 1984, Vol. 6, No. 27
    Cuba at 25
    A Reporter’s Sketchbook
    by Marc Cooper

    Marc Cooper wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to make the transition from mavericky leftist to curmudgeonly to ex-leftist. It’s an all-too-common evolution of some types.

    It came as no surprise when Cooper blocked individuals with other views from participating on his blog. Such types who denounce Cuba for the limits placed there on opponent groupings cannot stand to permit people with other viewpoints on his very own blog, here in the heartland of the “free world”.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — September 20, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  2. Cooper is also notorious for his diatribes against Chavez, frequently recycling erroneous information generated by the anti-Castro Cuban community and other US right wingers. I think that he got a position in the journalism program at USC, and my suspicion has always been that he has, either consciously or subconsciously, accepted the position of a purportedly leftist critic of leftists as a requirement for getting it. Apparently, he controls his blog much in the same way that Al Giordano does at Narco News.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 20, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

  3. All this may be true but what about the half a million workers the Cuban bureaucracy is laying off…or did the workers agree to fire themselves? Seem’s like China is a lot nearer than the movie said it was (and not Mao’s China but Deng’s).

    Don’t get me wrong; I’ll side with Castro any day of the week (against Cooper, Sam Farber, the ISO, etc.) when it comes to jailing or even shooting pro-capitalist counter-revolutionaries, but when it comes to using capitalist measures against the workers, that’s when and where I get off the bus. It hits too close to home…for me, anyway.

    Comment by Roy Rollin — September 20, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

  4. I plan to write something about the economic changes being proposed, but that’s a topic for another post.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 20, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

  5. Re: the proposed changes, my (armchair) analysis of the situation is that the regime is facing serious economic difficulties (hardly the fault of the Cuban state in many respects) which are leading admirers of the “Chinese approach” (e.g. Raul Castro) to pursue a similar path.

    Comment by T — September 20, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  6. It looks like the Castro ‘faction’ is opening up the private sector to undercut the black market that is funneling wealth into corrupt factions of the government. Here is Esteban Morales on the situation, before being excommunicated for airing dirty laundry.

    When one hears stories of commercial Cuban airlines packed with black-market imports, and just a few passengers, then it’s obvious that corrupt faction in the Cuban government are amassing the kinds of wealth that could destabilize the political structure of the country.

    I don’t think there is much daylight in opinion between the Castro brothers.

    Comment by purple — September 21, 2010 @ 4:16 am

  7. People who are interested may look into the recent firing of Rogelio Acevedo, who fought alongside Castro.

    Comment by purple — September 21, 2010 @ 4:25 am

  8. What a dishonest piece of junk this article is. It quotes both Cockburn and Cooper completely out of context and is anything but a manifestation of good faith. More importantly, it completely avoids what is actually happening in Cuba, a subject that Louis does not know how to address. Cockburn is a towering genius compared to Proyect, a dogmatic hack. Cooper, I see on Amazon, has written three books which I believe is three more than Proyect. He’s hardly retired. He continues to be a major figure in Los Angeles journalism and directs one of the most vibrant J-School programs in the country as USC.

    Good grief, Louis. You are one nasty and dishonest piece of work.

    Comment by Steven — September 21, 2010 @ 5:18 am

  9. Yeah a towering genius, except for his indulgence in flat earth climate change denialism. As for writing three books, well I think Ann Coulter has written even more then that, so she must be smarter then Marc Cooper! Good grief you make some lousy arguments Steven.

    Comment by SGuy — September 21, 2010 @ 8:19 am

  10. “I think Ann Coulter has written even more then that, so she must be smarter then Marc Cooper! Good grief you make some lousy arguments Steven.”

    I think Steven’s point was about accomplishments, using books published as an example. Smartness does not accomplishments make, although it helps….mostly.

    Capitalism rewards individual accomplishments. Communism retards it. As history has shown over and over again, self-interest and freedom to pursue it are powerful human motivators that are near impossible to beat out of a people, thou some ideologies keep trying. The definition of insanity is….

    Comment by Jim R — September 21, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  11. Jim R. is one of Cooper’s regulars. Just goes to show you who is attracted to his brand of “radical” politics.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 21, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  12. “Even Communist Cuba has got with the programme that we need to cut the budget deficit and actually get spending under control. We’ve got comrade Castro on the same page as the the rest of us.” – David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, September 15th

    Cameron, of course, is a an absolute troll. But he may actually be right about his (albeit quite limited) affinity with Castro on this particular question of cuts and spending. Despite their obvious differences, both governments are squeezing the working-class due to the international capitalist crisis.

    Comment by T — September 21, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  13. Well actually Louis, if you follow Marc’s blog comments, you will find Jim R is one of two conservatives commenting on Marc’s blog, and is roundly excoriated and criticized by the huge majority, including Marc, Marc’s liberal leftist blog. I don’t believe he has ever agreed or had one positive thing to say about me.

    Why Marc has not kicked me and my views out of his blog home for roundly criticizing his and his blog commenters liberal leftist views, especially since we are into another election cycle and I know he does not appreciate my right side ‘propaganda’, is a real tribute to his patience regardless what Walter Lippmann said above. He has kick out a very few that have, very personally, shit on his carpet.

    Comment by Jim R — September 21, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  14. Jim R is right. I’m a pretty regular reader of Marc’s and I came here through the link in his comments section. This is nothing but garbage by Proyect. Cooper is clearly on the left and has been there his entire life. He is quite critical of dogmatists and knee jerkers like Proyect. And FROM THE LEFT he has criticized both Castro and Chavez — that’s when he is not excoriating the right and often the same liberals that Louis hates. This entire diatribe by Louis is conscious and deceitful distortion of Cooper’s work and of the point he made in his post.He was not cheerleading capitalim. Hardly. He was lamenting the plight of hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers who will now be abandoned into the market place by an undemocratic regime that operates in the name of socialism while screwing over its own people. You can disagree, Louis. But man up and take on the argument of defending the layoff of a million workers and stop slandering the messenger. Just looked you up in the dictionary and you’re a pretty handsome fellow. Found you listed under “slimeball.”

    Comment by Rodney — September 21, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

  15. Cooper is clearly on the left and has been there his entire life.

    It depends on how you define the left. Cooper is a liberal, not a radical. He might have been a radical decades ago but now he is a ranting anti-Communist.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 21, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

  16. I invite people to read Cockburn’s article over at Counterpunch. If Castro has been engaging in the sort of embarrassing public pronouncements described by Cockburn, it is truly sad. Cockburn wrote that piece as someone who has been supportive of the Cuban Revolution for many years, and, as far as I know, has never embraced the privatization schemes promoted by others as a way to salvage some accomplishments of the revolution.

    To attack Cockburn for his admittedly odd statements in regard to other issues is an evasion. I agree with what Proyect says about Cooper, though, he was never a leftist, and can be counted upon to decry the human rights atrocities that will invariably occur after the fact if leaders like Chavez and Morales are violently deposed. You can always count on liberals like them to arrive just in time to assuage their guilty consciences.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 21, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

  17. I was just giving Cockburn a dose of his own medicine.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 21, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

  18. Cooper is like David Horowitz, except he still claims to be of the left. just claiming it doesn’t make it, though.

    Cockburn is another matter. allow him his veer-offs; he’s on-target much of the time, when others aren’t. he’s an excellent writer who’s still on our side. argue it out.

    my biggest criticism of counterpunch isn’t the attempt at left-right alliance, which is cockburn’s line, it’s the infiltration of some really mushy liberal pieces, hand-wringing over obama. i guess that’s a sign of the death of the left (a platypus in-joke – or is platypus itself the in-joke?)

    Comment by jp — September 21, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

  19. Pointing out the hypocrisy of Cockburn is hardly a diversion.

    Comment by SGuy — September 21, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

  20. I should mention, btw, that Cockburn sent me mail claiming that his stuff ends up in Chronicles because he is syndicated through something called Creators that also sends it to other, more left-oriented outlets. I told him that I would never allow anything with my name on it appear in Chronicles even if they were willing to pay me $10,000 per article. He had no use for my advice.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 21, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  21. To add in response to jp, considering how far off base he is on one of the most important issues of our time I don’t know how you can say he’s on our side. If it were just a case of him having questions then yeah I could overlook but he’s delved in to the depths of denialist insanity. He’s the perfect example of the saying ‘You can’t reason someone out of position they haven’t reasoned themselves in to’.

    Comment by SGuy — September 21, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  22. When I looked at this article in today’s NY Times with great alarm, I found it difficult to understand how Cockburn could stick to his positions:

    NY Times September 20, 2010
    Extreme Heat Bleaches Coral, and Threat Is Seen

    This year’s extreme heat is putting the world’s coral reefs under such severe stress that scientists fear widespread die-offs, endangering not only the richest ecosystems in the ocean but also fisheries that feed millions of people.

    From Thailand to Texas, corals are reacting to the heat stress by bleaching, or shedding their color and going into survival mode. Many have already died, and more are expected to do so in coming months. Computer forecasts of water temperature suggest that corals in the Caribbean may undergo drastic bleaching in the next few weeks.

    What is unfolding this year is only the second known global bleaching of coral reefs. Scientists are holding out hope that this year will not be as bad, over all, as 1998, the hottest year in the historical record, when an estimated 16 percent of the world’s shallow-water reefs died. But in some places, including Thailand, the situation is looking worse than in 1998.

    Scientists say the trouble with the reefs is linked to climate change. For years they have warned that corals, highly sensitive to excess heat, would serve as an early indicator of the ecological distress on the planet caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases.

    “I am significantly depressed by the whole situation,” said Clive Wilkinson, director of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, an organization in Australia that is tracking this year’s disaster.

    According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first eight months of 2010 matched 1998 as the hottest January to August period on record. High ocean temperatures are taxing the organisms most sensitive to them, the shallow-water corals that create some of the world’s most vibrant and colorful seascapes.

    Coral reefs occupy a tiny fraction of the ocean, but they harbor perhaps a quarter of all marine species, including a profusion of fish. Often called the rain forests of the sea, they are the foundation not only of important fishing industries but also of tourist economies worth billions.

    Drastic die-offs of coral were seen for the first time in 1983 in the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean, during a large-scale weather event known as El Niño. During an El Niño, warm waters normally confined to the western Pacific flow to the east; 2010 is also an El Niño year.

    Serious regional bleaching has occurred intermittently since the 1983 disaster. It is clear that natural weather variability plays a role in overheating the reefs, but scientists say it cannot, by itself, explain what has become a recurring phenomenon.

    “It is a lot easier for oceans to heat up above the corals’ thresholds for bleaching when climate change is warming the baseline temperatures,” said C. Mark Eakin, who runs a program called Coral Reef Watch for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “If you get an event like El Niño or you just get a hot summer, it’s going to be on top of the warmest temperatures we’ve ever seen.”

    Coral reefs are made up of millions of tiny animals, called polyps, that form symbiotic relationships with algae. The polyps essentially act as farmers, supplying the algae with nutrients and a place to live. The algae in turn capture sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars that feed the coral polyps.

    The captive algae give reefs their brilliant colors. Many reef fish sport fantastical colors and patterns themselves, as though dressing to match their surroundings.

    Coral bleaching occurs when high heat and bright sunshine cause the metabolism of the algae to speed out of control, and they start creating toxins. The polyps essentially recoil. “The algae are spat out,” Dr. Wilkinson said.

    The corals look white afterward, as though they have been bleached. If temperatures drop, the corals’ few remaining algae can reproduce and help the polyps recover. But corals are vulnerable to disease in their denuded condition, and if the heat stress continues, the corals starve to death.

    Even on dead reefs, new coral polyps will often take hold, though the overall ecology of the reef may be permanently altered. The worst case is that a reef dies and never recovers.

    In dozens of small island nations and on some coasts of Indonesia and the Philippines, people rely heavily on reef fish for food. When corals die, the fish are not immediately doomed, but if the coral polyps do not recover, the reef can eventually collapse, scientists say, leaving the fishery far less productive.

    Research shows that is already happening in parts of the Caribbean, though people there are not as dependent on fishing as those living on Pacific islands.

    It will be months before this year’s toll is known for sure. But scientists tracking the fate of corals say they have already seen widespread bleaching in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, with corals in Thailand, parts of Indonesia and some smaller island nations being hit especially hard earlier this year.

    Temperatures have since cooled in the western Pacific, and the immediate crisis has passed there, even as it accelerates in places like the Caribbean, where the waters are still warming. Serious bleaching has been seen recently in the Flower Garden Banks, a marine sanctuary off the Texas-Louisiana border.

    In Thailand, “there some signs of recovery in places,” said James True, a biologist at Prince of Songkla University. But in other spots, he said, corals were hit so hard that it was not clear young polyps would be available from nearby areas to repopulate dead reefs.

    “The concern we have now is that the bleaching is so widespread that potential source reefs upstream have been affected,” Dr. True said.

    Even in a hot year, of course, climate varies considerably from place to place. The water temperatures in the Florida Keys are only slightly above normal this year, and the beloved reefs of that region have so far escaped serious harm.

    Parts of the northern Caribbean, including the United States Virgin Islands, saw incipient bleaching this summer, but the tropical storms and hurricanes moving through the Atlantic have cooled the water there and may have saved some corals. Farther south, though, temperatures are still remarkably high, putting many Caribbean reefs at risk.

    Summer is only just beginning in the Southern Hemisphere, but water temperatures off Australia are also above normal, and some scientists are worried about the single most impressive reef on earth. The best hope now, Dr. Wilkinson said, is for mild tropical storms that would help to cool Australian waters.

    “If we get a poor monsoon season,” he said, “I think we’re in for a serious bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.”

    Comment by louisproyect — September 21, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

  23. yes, cockburn has a screw loose on climate change.i keep waiting for him to reveal that his denial has just been a joke to irritate the left. it’s correct for Louis et al to call him out on that, just as much of the climate change left needs calling out for supporting obama.

    Cockburn also wrote one the screwiest books on chess i’ve seen (and read)titled “Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death,” appearing in 1974 during the bobby fischer boom. it’s in my chess library and i treasure it as a freudian oddity.

    Comment by jp — September 22, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

  24. Obviously Cuba’s government is succumbing to global economic pressures. It had to happen. What’s amazing is that it has managed to hold onto what was acchieved by its population for as long as it has, in relative isolation for the first half of its existence, and in near complete isolation for the last half.

    Castro and his party have to be weighed on that scale, not on the usual scale of the libertarian crap that appears a few postings above, which as usual, fails to acknowledge the levels of backwardness every rebellion against capital has had to endure, and then attempt to supercede in an era of global encirclement. Any attempt at independence driven by the apologists of capital has not fared even as well as Cuba has, certainly not in the areas of public education or public health. So much for the libertarian clowns. If the evidence of Haiti isn’t evidence that crony capital is far more venal then are even the cronies of the Cuban party, then there’s just no talking to some people. Clearly objective facts play no part in their argument.

    As for Cockburn, whose inter personal or social skills very often border on the arrogant and nasty with anyone with no provocation, it’s hardly surprising he now can so handily dispose of Castro. It’s how he deals with lots of people one on one, and face it, Castro’s an easy target these days. One has to leave room for jackasses to kick lions.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — September 22, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

  25. Yes, but let’s get back to one of Cockburn’s major points:

    “And now Castro’s latest outing into political asininity has been to give an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg, of the Atlantic, allowing the man Castro cordially describes as “a great journalist” to cite Castro as saying that the Cuban economic model has been a disaster.”

    I couldn’t agree more with him on this point. What the hell was Castro thinking?

    Comment by dermokrat — September 24, 2010 @ 2:41 am

  26. Isn’t it obvious that Fidel Castro’s powers are slipping? My main objection to Cockburn is not pointing this out but the way he pointed it out. I decided to give him a taste of his own medicine.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 24, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  27. “Kautskyite”? “Menshevik platitude”? You seriously need to read Prospects of the Russian Revolution by Karl Kautsky as introduced by Lars Lih:

    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1002027 (intro)
    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1002036 (article)

    Comment by Jacob Richter — September 26, 2010 @ 8:47 am

  28. […] of the aging crack journalist, I had a bit of a row with him over a post I wrote on September 20th taking him to task for writing for Chronicles, a pretty rotten rightwing […]

    Pingback by Alexander Cockburn and the vicissitudes of old age « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 7, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

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