Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2011

Matt Bai gung-ho against public sector unions

Filed under: financial crisis,media,workers — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

Matt Bai

Back in 1967 when I was working for the welfare department in Harlem and already becoming convinced of the analysis that would persuade me to join the Trotskyist movement, I went out on strike. The union was led by Judy Mage, who was married to Shane Mage at the time I believe. Even though I had learned how to read the newspaper of record with a jaundiced eye, I was still not prepared for the outright propaganda. The paper argued that our strike would hurt welfare mothers when in fact Judy Mage was a tribune fighting to preserve benefits.

If anything, the paper has become even more propagandistic over the years—a function no doubt of the declining power of labor. But it took some degree of chutzpah for them to print Matt Bai’s gargantuan (6600 words) puff piece on New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose attack on public service unions is as vicious as that being mounted in Wisconsin. Bai writes:

Like a stand-up comedian working out-of-the-way clubs, Chris Christie travels the townships and boroughs of New Jersey­, places like Hackettstown and Raritan and Scotch Plains, sharpening his riffs about the state’s public employees, whom he largely blames for plunging New Jersey into a fiscal death spiral. In one well-worn routine, for instance, the governor reminds his audiences that, until he passed a recent law that changed the system, most teachers in the state didn’t pay a dime for their health care coverage, the cost of which was borne by taxpayers.

And so, Christie goes on, forced to cut more than $1 billion in local aid in order to balance the budget, he asked the teachers not only to accept a pay freeze for a year but also to begin contributing 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health care. The dominant teachers’ union in the state responded by spending millions of dollars in television and radio ads to attack him.

“The argument you heard most vociferously from the teachers’ union,” Christie says, “was that this was the greatest assault on public education in the history of New Jersey.” Here the fleshy governor lumbers a few steps toward the audience and lowers his voice for effect. “Now, do you really think that your child is now stressed out and unable to learn because they know that their poor teacher has to pay 1½ percent of their salary for their health care benefits? Have any of your children come home — any of them — and said, ‘Mom.’ ” Pause. “ ‘Dad.’ ” Another pause. “ ‘Please. Stop the madness.’ ”

By this point the audience is starting to titter, but Christie remains steadfastly somber in his role as the beseeching student. “ ‘Just pay for my teacher’s health benefits,’ ” he pleads, “ ‘and I’ll get A’s, I swear. But I just cannot take the stress that’s being presented by a 1½ percent contribution to health benefits.’ ” As the crowd breaks into appreciative guffaws, Christie waits a theatrical moment, then slams his point home. “Now, you’re all laughing, right?” he says. “But this is the crap I have to hear.”

Acid monologues like this have made Christie, only a little more than a year into his governorship, one of the most intriguing political figures in America. Hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers linger on scenes from Christie’s town-hall meetings, like the one in which he takes apart a teacher for her histrionics. (“If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question.”) Newly elected governors — not just Republicans, Christie says, but also Democrats — call to seek his counsel on how to confront their own staggering budget deficits and intractable unions. At a recent gathering of Republican governors, Christie attracted a throng of supporters and journalists as he strode through the halls of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel like Bono at Davos.

Done regurgitating? Okay, then let’s proceed.

Bai is one of the more toxic figures associated with the N.Y. Times, competing with Tom Friedman, Bill Keller, Judith Miller, A.M. Rosenthal, and other venomous creatures who have made the paper required reading for those of us monitoring the talking points of the liberal wing of the class enemy.

Bai has his own style, however. Unlike a pompous toad such as the late A.M. Rosenthal, he tries to come across as a breezy, non-ideological observer of political horse races, the kind of guy who would make an ideal panelist on Bill Maher’s show.

On his website, he includes this bit of telling information on his bio page:

I grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, a nice little town just outside of Bridgeport, the city where both of my parents were born. Those who have ever driven through Bridgeport will understand how I came to care about politics and industrial decay. In fact, I’ve never lived more than a few miles from a housing project, which probably explains my skepticism toward both Darwinian social policy and the notion that expansive government can fix everything. I went to Tufts and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where the faculty generously awarded me the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.

So what is the point being made here? If there is “industrial decay” and what we can assume is a run-down housing project, the conclusion Bai draws is that “expansive government” cannot fix everything. Just the kind of guy who fits in perfectly with the Democratic Party nowadays–a party that he proffers advice to on a regular basis.

Bai made his first big splash in 2007 with a book titled “The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics”, a prime example of the advice referred to above. It is focused on the Netroots and big donors to the Democratic Party, evaluating their “effectiveness” without once questioning the politics of a party that was throwing most of its New Deal legacy overboard. In fact Bai sees his role much more as that of a consultant, even offering his advice to the Republicans from time to time. On his NY Times blog, Bai suggested to John McCain that Condoleezza Rice would be a good running-mate back in 2008:

Strategically speaking, there are enough reasons to think that Ms. Rice wouldn’t be a great fit. She is closely tied in the public mind to an unpopular administration (what better way for Democrats to lash John McCain to President Bush’s foreign policy?), and she has no experience with the economic issues on which McCain is most vulnerable. Her presence on the ticket might signal something nice about inclusion in Republican politics, but it probably wouldn’t enable Mr. McCain to attract more than a sliver of African American voters anyway. All that aside, though, the stories about Ms. Rice have officially opened speculation on what kind of running mate Mr. McCain will ultimately choose.

Okay, so you get the picture. This is a really shallow guy who has lived his entire life with the sole ambition to write such drivel. Whether he learned to polish it at the Columbia School of Journalism that includes the wretched Todd Gitlin as a faculty member is an open question.

Bai also saw Obama’s candidacy as a confirmation that we were living in a “post-racial” America. In an August 10 2008 NY Times magazine article titled “Post-Race”, he wrote:

For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.

”I’m the new black politics,” says Cornell Belcher, a 38-year-old pollster who is working for Obama. ”The people I work with are the new black politics. We don’t carry around that history. We see the world through post-civil-rights eyes. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but that’s just the way it is.

”I don’t want in any way to seem critical of the generation of leadership who fought so I could be sitting here,” Belcher told me when we met for breakfast at the Four Seasons in Georgetown one morning. He wears his hair in irreverent spikes and often favors tennis shoes with suit jackets. ”Barack Obama is the sum of their struggle. He’s the sum of their tears, their fights, their marching, their pain. This opportunity is the sum of that.

This prompted the sagacious Glen Ford to write:

Matt Bai’s Sunday Times article is based on the same fact-devoid theory of Black rightward political drift and a yawning age divide. Even before his national debut at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama joined Cory Booker, Artur Davis, and then Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (TN) – once George Bush’s favorite Black congressperson – as exhibits in an endless series of “New Black Politics” articles, each one a clone of the last. This is what Bai mistakenly calls “the generational transition that is reordering black politics.” It’s not about age at all – other than that the young are hungrier and more malleable than their elders, and thus better prospects to march under the corporate colors.

Barack Obama does pose a dire threat to the coherence of Black politics, but not for Matt Bai’s reasons. Obama’s presidential bid is inseparable from the ongoing corporate money-and-media campaign to confuse and destabilize the Black polity – an offensive begun in earnest in 2002. Obama, a prescient and uncannily talented opportunist, understood which way the corporate wind was blowing at least a decade earlier, and methodically readied himself for the role of his life.

To the extent that African Americans expect more from Obama than they got from Bill Clinton, they will be devastatingly disappointed. His candidacy has at least temporarily caused Black folks to behave en masse as if there are no issues at stake in the election other than an Obama victory. It is altogether unclear how long this spell-like effect will last. The short-term prospects for rebuilding a coherent Black politics, are uncertain. But one thing we do know: the formation of a near-unanimous Black bloc for Obama – of which he is absolutely unworthy – is stunning evidence that the Black imperative to solidarity is undiminished. Unfortunately, the wrong guy is the beneficiary – but in a sense, that’s beside the point. Black people are not working themselves into an election year frenzy just to commit political suicide by disbanding as a bloc, no matter what Matt Bai and his ilk say.

Bai also came to the attention of Matt Taibbi, since the similarities of their names and the fact that they both are journalists (Bai even put in a stint at Rolling Stone at one point) led people to confuse the two, something Taibbi was anxious to clear up:

Bai is one of those guys — there are hundreds of them in this business — who poses as a wonky, Democrat-leaning “centrist” pundit and then makes a career out of drubbing “unrealistic” liberals and progressives with cartoonish Jane Fonda and Hugo Chavez caricatures. This career path is so well-worn in our business, it’s like a Great Silk Road of pseudoleft punditry. First step: graduate Harvard or Columbia, buy some clothes at Urban Outfitters, shore up your socially liberal cred by marching in a gay rights rally or something, then get a job at some place like the American Prospect. Then once you’re in, spend a few years writing wonky editorials gently chiding Jane Fonda liberals for failing to grasp the obvious wisdom of the WTC or whatever Bob Rubin/Pete Peterson Foundation deficit-reduction horseshit the Democratic Party chiefs happen to be pimping at the time. Once you’ve got that down, you just sit tight and wait for the New York Times or the Washington Post to call. It won’t be long.

Read full article by Matt Taibbi here

February 27, 2011

Qaddafi and the Monthly Review

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

MRZine appears to be the latest entrant in the anti-anti-Qaddafi current on the left. The use of the term “anti-anti” is appropriate since the grounds for being “pro”-Qaddafi nowadays are so tenuous.

I have found the term “anti-anti” useful over the years. I first heard it in Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Scoundrel Time” when she referred to the anti-anti-fascist left. It also pretty much describes people like Marc Cooper, David Corn and Michael Bérubé who wrote article after article red-baiting the anti-war movement while including pro forma statements from time to time about how wicked the invasion of Iraq was. As anti-anti-war activists, there was not much to distinguish them from all-out supporters of the war like Christopher Hitchens.

In the case of the left, we have pro-forma statements about Qaddafi that serve to establish the bona fides of the author. For example, the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL) editorialized: “the Libyan government has ushered in neoliberal reforms that have stripped social programs and subsidies for the poor and increasingly turned over the country’s oil wealth to foreign corporations.” But what one hand giveth, the same hand taketh away. In the same article they state: “Protesters have hoisted Libya’s first national flag, that of the exploitative, U.S.-backed monarch King Idris (1951-1969) over the areas they have seized. Some in the Libyan exile community consciously call for the return of the Idris monarchy, but it is unclear how deeply this sentiment runs among those in revolt.”

Don’t you love that little business about “it is unclear how deeply”? The authors must have learned that from reading Time Magazine where it is often deployed on behalf of assertions like “It is unclear how deeply Noam Chomsky endorses the holocaust denial sentiments of the book whose author he defended.”

We should add in the case of MRZine that it is difficult to ascertain upon whose behalf editor Yoshie Furuhashi is speaking since the website functions pretty much as her personal blog. We know that her effusions for the Iranian clerical dictatorship was enough to prompt an outraged letter from dozens of Iranian leftists in exile and Barbara Epstein’s resignation from the magazine’s editorial board. My impression is that MR chief and éminence grise John Bellamy Foster is too preoccupied with his professional pursuits to pay much attention. It is more likely that John Mage endorses this nonsense although being too savvy to write his own apologetics for Ahmadinejad under his own name.

Like the PSL, Furuhashi ensures her readers that she is not for Qaddafi in the first sentence of her article: “As everyone knows, Muammar Gaddafi is an authoritarian dictator.” Once this disclaimer is out of the way (reminiscent of those that appear at the end of anti-depressant commercials—”continued use might lead to your head exploding”), she can then roll up her sleeves and make the case implicitly that a color revolution is underway.

Mostly this is done by dredging up every tarnished figure who is angling to lead the people’s struggle. In doing so, she shows a dedication to the cause that far exceeds the PSL comrades who could only turn up the supposedly royalist flag flying at Benghazi rallies:

As the fate of Libya was being discussed by the powers represented in the NATO and the UN Security Council yesterday, among those most fervently calling for no-fly zones were Libya’s own UN ambassadors turned defectors, Abdurrahman Mohammed Shalgham and Ibrahim Dabbashi, making the same demand as the National Conference of Libyan Opposition (NCLO), an umbrella group of major Libyan exile organizations including the Libyan Constitutional Union (led by the so-called “Crown Prince” of Libya) and the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL, a tool of the CIA and Saudi Arabia during the Cold War).

Wow, scary stuff.

Not surprisingly, she aligns herself with “Latin American socialists” rather than obscure formations like the dregs of the Healyite movement in Britain or the vanishingly tiny PSL in the USA. After all, who can take exception to MRZine when it is on the side of the people referred to in the link for Latin American socialists below?

Thus it fell to a few good Latin American socialists to do what they could to argue the case of Libya and defend its right to self-determination — that is, the right of the Libyan people, those who are for, against, or indifferent to the soon-to-be former Libyan regime, to sort out their own affairs, free from NATO or any other foreign troops — in the court of world public opinion.

As it turns out, the link is to a google search on Ortega + Castro + Chavez + Morales. For Ortega, it is a bit more than defending the right for self-determination. On the president’s website, he issued a statement that said Qaddafi is “waging a great battle, seeking dialogue but defending the integrity of the nation.” Perhaps this has something to do with Libya forgiving Nicaragua’s 200 million dollar debt last week but I will forgo using the weaselly “it is unclear”.

I have already discussed Fidel Castro’s errant thinking on Libya in another post but want to turn my attention now to Hugo Chavez, one of those “Latin American socialists” that Comrade Furuhashi uses as a cudgel against leftists having a bit too much enthusiasm for the anti-Qaddafi revolt.

Nicholas Kozloff reports on what is much more than a marriage of convenience apparently:

WikiLeaks cables lay bare the tight diplomatic and political alliance between Qaddafi and Chávez.  In 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas wrote Washington about an African-South American summit held on the Venezuelan island of Margarita.  Chávez had called the meeting in an effort to highlight the historic unity between long-oppressed continents, though such public relations efforts were severely undermined by the roster of participants which included autocrats like Qaddafi and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.  According to U.S. diplomats, Chávez and Qaddafi congratulated each other on their “revolutions” during the ceremonies.  From there, the rhetoric got more and more ridiculous.  “The meeting with Gaddafi,” U.S. diplomats wrote, “provided the opportunity for rhetorical assaults on capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.”

Bizarrely, Chávez declared “What Simon Bolívar [the Great Liberator of South American independence against the Spanish] is to the Venezuelan people, Gaddafi is to the Libyan people.”  Qaddafi then praised Chávez for “having driven out the colonialists,” just as he had driven out those in Libya. “We share the same destiny, the same battle in the same trench against a common enemy, and we will conquer,” Qaddafi said.  As if these exchanges were not preposterous enough, Chávez then took advantage of the occasion to award Qaddafi the “Orden del Libertador,” Venezuela’s highest civilian decoration, and presented the Libyan leader with a replica of Simon Bolívar’s sword.

Now it should be clearly understood that there is nothing wrong with forming alliances with Zimbabwe, Iran or Libya. Countries that are trying to develop a foreign policy independent of imperialism will by necessity adopt a kind of socialist realpolitik. When the government of Mexico made the streets run red with the blood of student protesters in 1968, it was understandable why Cuba remained silent. When Cuba had few friends in Latin America, Mexico’s PRI had a shred enough of remaining nationalism to stand up to the OAS and trade with Cuba. Furthermore, Cuba was in its rights to maintain diplomatic relations with Spain when Franco was dictator. Beggars cannot be choosers.

What is not acceptable is elevating despots like Mugabe, Qaddafi and Ahmadinejad into revolutionaries even though they have had confrontations with imperialism. We are not trying to build an anti-imperialist movement. Our goal instead is to build a socialist movement, which is alone capable of ridding the world of capitalism. In the final analysis, imperialism is the latest stage of capitalism and not some new economic system.

Finally, to look for simon-pure working class revolution in the Arab world in which elements like the National Conference of Libyan Opposition are not “players” is a sure sign that you do not understand how revolutions unfold. In many ways, these struggles from Libya to Egypt to Tunisia are like the revolution that put Kerensky into power. Despite Kerensky’s willingness to continue WWI and to deny peasants their land, the Bolsheviks defended his government against Kornilov and saw it as an advance against Czarism. Sadly, most of the ultraleft attacks on the mass movement in Libya can be read as an implicit endorsement of Qaddafi. When MRZine tells us that Ortega has the right understanding of what is going on Libya, what other conclusion can be drawn?

Lenin warned against seeing revolutions as some kind of pure proletarian struggle for power in which all the good guys line up against all the bad ones. After the Easter Rebellion of 1916, Lenin took on Leon Trotsky and Karl Radek who were concerned about the presence of “bourgeois” forces in the Irish struggle. Lenin replied:

On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled “Their Song is Over” and signed with the initials K.R. [Karl Radek]. It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing more nor less than a “putsch”, for, as the author argued, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing…”

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

February 25, 2011

Even the Rain

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

“Even the Rain” is a deeply radical but flawed film now playing at the Angelica in New York that is still worth seeing.

It is about how the Spanish production company working on a film about Christopher Columbus replicated his colonialist expedition in Cochabamba, Bolivia during the water rebellion of 2000. Like the foreign water company in search of profits, they picked the site because extras could be hired for $2 per day. With a dedication to Howard Zinn and a script written by Paul Laverty, who has written screenplays for Ken Loach in the past, the film would seem to have all the right intentions.

The film’s strong points surely outweigh its flaws. The acting is first-rate, starting with Gael García Bernal as the director Sebastian. Bernal played Che Guevara in “Motorcycle Diaries” and you can’t help but make the connections between Che’s ill-fated Bolivian guerrilla struggle and the Quechuan extras that Sebastian empathizes with. Sebastian finds himself in a running battle with Costa (Luis Tosar), his producer, who is concerned only with the bottom line rather than the needs of the extras.

One of the extras is Daniel, who is cast as Hatuey, the Indian who led a rebellion against Columbus. He is played Juan Carlos Aduviri, a Bolivian Aymara who teaches screenwriting in El Alto. Aduviri’s performance is reason enough to see the movie, he is brilliant. As Hatuey, Daniel has this dialog with a Spanish priest who is offering the soon-to-be-burned leader eternal salvation in the movie within a movie:

Priest: Become a Christian and you will go to heaven. Refuse and you will go to hell.

Hatuey: Are there good Christians in heaven?

Priest (smiling): Yes, my son.

Hatuey: Then, I choose hell.

Another powerful scene has the film crew sitting around a dining table discussing the ethics of hiring Bolivians for $2 per day. The actor playing Bartolomé De Las Casas, the Dominican priest who took up the cause of the indigenous people, argues that they are like Columbus’s crew, once again exploiting the innocent. The actor playing Columbus, a well-known actor with a serious drinking problem as well as a bitter cynic, derides De Las Casas, arguing correctly that the priest advocated that African slaves be used to mine gold rather than the Indians. His point, however, was not so much to condemn De Las Casas as to rationalize their own abuse of the extras.

Midway through the filming, Daniel becomes one of the leaders of the water rebellion, much to the dismay of Costa, the producer. If Daniel is jailed, the filming will not be able to go on. This becomes the central dramatic tension, as well as an opportunity for screenwriter Laverty to make some basic political points.

Now for the criticisms.

While I understand Laverty’s need to situate the film in Cochabamba, I could not help but feel that this made no sense at all, even if it was based on the availability of cheap labor. Bolivia is a totally land-locked nation. How in the world can you make a movie about Columbus’s expedition to the island of Hispañola when there is no nearby ocean? In one scene, we see a replica of one of Columbus’s ships in a warehouse. At that point I became obsessed with the question of what they planned to do with it. I kept thinking of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”, a story about a vicious rubber baron who dragoons Indians into hauling a steamship into the mountains of Peru in order to reach an inland river that has access to rubber trees. In many ways, Herzog’s movie is even more emblematic of the ties between European film companies and colonialism since members of the crew were seriously injured during filming.

The other problem is transformation that Costa goes through in the film’s conclusion that essentially has him risking his life on behalf of an extra who has been seriously wounded during the water protests. There is simply too abrupt a shift in his character to be believable. One day he is ripping off his extras and on the next he is a latter-day De Las Casas.

Despite these problems, this is a film that political people will enjoy. That means you obviously.

February 24, 2011

Qaddafi and the left

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

On February 4th, when I first wrote about the Egyptian revolution, I pointed out how some elements of the left might be suckered into viewing it as an American-inspired “color revolution” since the April 6th Youth Movement had taken funds from the USA and had attended workshops led by Peter Ackerman, a venture capitalist who operates an NGO that has sponsored reactionary student movements in Venezuela and elsewhere.

Fortunately, most of the left has figured out how to see the big picture in Egypt and not be led astray by this kind of puppet-master conspiracy-mongering. Even Stephen Gowans, a blogger who has more or less made this line of inquiry a specialty, had the good sense to write this:

Unquestionably, [Gene] Sharp, the ex-cop, Ghonim, and the US government too, played a role in the Tahrir Square uprising, some remotely and indirectly, others more directly. But they alone weren’t the only ones who played a part. So too did Mubarak and his policies and the corruption of his son Gamal, as did Egypt’s military, the Muslim Brotherhood, food prices, the privatization of Egypt’s publically owned enterprises, bloggers, Israel, unemployment, Saudi Arabia, the police, millions of ordinary Egyptians, the media and a vast array of other events, people, relations and systems.

However, some forces on the left have adopted an entirely different attitude toward events in Libya. While not exactly having the temerity to endorse Qaddafi without reservations (who could, at this point?), they tend to focus more on what they perceive as threats to the “Libyan revolution” from a combination of external threats such as NATO and an internal fifth column.

While it is no longer much of a factor in the British left or internationally, the Workers Revolutionary Party that was formerly led by the late Gerry Healy and included Vanessa Redgrave in its ranks, put forward arguments that encapsulate this line of reasoning. While the News Line article is filled with vitriol against Qaddafi, it still sees him as the last hope against a Greater Evil: imperialism.

In fact, the aim of the right wing is to put Libya and its oil at the disposal of imperialism, and impose an Islamic state or states in place of the secular Libyan state – whatever the imperialist powers wish.

They have already proclaimed the Islamic Emirate of Benghazi, and declared that Gadaffi is an enemy of God and that it is the religious duty of every Libyan to rise up and kill him and his sons.

We urge the working class of the world to oppose the imperialist intervention into Libya that is being made, and the greater, possibly military intervention to come into the affairs of the Libyan people.

We urge the Libyan masses and youth to take their stand alongside Colonel Gadaffi to defend the gains of the Libyan revolution, and to develop it.

This can only be done by the defeat of the current rebellion and a major national discussion about the introduction of workers control and management of the Libyan economy and society, as well as the introduction of the political organs for exercising that political control and management.

Further, the Libyan workers must take their place as a leader of the revolutionary wave that is sweeping through North Africa.

This can only win through the establishment of the United Socialist States of North Africa.

It should be mentioned that when Gerry Healy was running the WRP, he was totally devoted to Qaddafi’s “revolution”. Some of this had to do with getting funding for his cult apparently, as this article reveals:

Convinced that he would soon be standing at head of a revolutionary government in Britain, Healy sought to build the international connections that would provide both the ‘resources’ for the struggle for power and also the alliances necessary to sustain the resulting socialist regime. A WRP delegation was reportedly sent to Libya in April 1976 to request money for a new printing press for the News Line, and Healy himself apparently visited in August 1977 in search of further financial assistance from the Libyan regime.4 Not surprisingly, adulatory articles about Colonel Gaddafi were one of the notable innovations of the new paper.

While there are almost no connections between Gerry Healy and Fidel Castro except for the fact that Healy split with the Fourth International over its support for the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban leader does appear to share some of News Line’s views. In a statement on Libya, Castro prefers to suspend judgment on Qaddafi until the “truth” is known:

One can agree with Gaddafi or not. The world has been invaded with all kinds of news, especially using the mass media. One has to wait the necessary length of time in order to learn precisely what is the truth and what are lies, or a mixture of events of every kind that, in the midst of chaos, were produced in Libya.

But he is sure that the Libyan despot has a solid anti-imperialist record:

The Libyan Revolution took place in the month of September of the year 1969. Its main leader was Muammar al-Gaddafi, a soldier of Bedouin origin who, in his early years, was inspired by the ideas of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Without any doubt, many of his decisions are associated with the changes that were produced when, as in Egypt, a weak and corrupt monarchy was overthrown in Libya.

As such, Castro’s main worry is that the West will invade Libya pursuing the same kinds of goals that led it to go to war with Egypt after the Suez Canal was invaded:

For me, what is absolutely clear is that the government of the United States is not in the least worried about peace in Libya and it will not hesitate in giving NATO the order to invade that rich country, perhaps in a matter of hours or a few short days.

One cannot escape the feeling that Fidel Castro is living in the past. At one time Libya was on the front lines in the struggle against imperialism, but as the British playwright once said: “That was in another country and besides the wench is dead”.

Even the WRP News Line article was forced to take into account newer realities:

The British ruling class from the 2004 meeting between Blair and Gadaffi in a tent in the desert, where he cooed sweet nothings into Gadaffi’s ear, in order to win big oil contracts, had been treating Gadaffi like a long-lost cousin.

However, it must be said about Gadaffi’s turn towards the UK – after all Blair is the Butcher of Iraq – that it resulted in an accommodation with BP and British imperialism, which enriched a section of the Libyan apparatus, and encouraged the neglect of the interests of the Libyan youth in particular.

Well, to say the least.

Back in 2006 the New Yorker Magazine ran a long article on Libya by Andrew Solomon titled Circle of Fire that really gives you a flavor of the changes taking place.

[Prime Minister Ghanem] Dr. Shukri, as he is called by those close to him and by those who pretend to be close to him–he has a Ph.D. in international relations from the Fletcher School, at Tufts–has a certain portly grandeur. With a neat mustache and a well-tailored suit, he exuded an effortless cosmopolitanism that seemed more conducive to facilitating Libya’s reentry into the world than to winning over the hard-line elements at home. When I arrived, he was sitting on a gilded sofa in a room furnished with Arabic reimaginings of Louis XVI furniture, before many trays of pastries and glasses of the inevitable mint tea. In the Libyan empire of obliquity, his clarity was refreshing, and his teasing irony seemed to acknowledge the absurdity of Libyan doubletalk.

I mentioned that many of his colleagues saw no need to hasten the pace of reform. This was clearly not his view. “Sometimes you have to be hard on those you love,” he said. “You wake your sleeping child so that he can get to school. Being a little harsh, not seeking too much popularity, is a better way.” He spoke of the need for pro-business measures that would reduce bureaucratic impediments and rampant corruption. “The corruption is tied to shortages, inefficiency, and unemployment,” the Prime Minister said. “Cutting red tape–there is resistance to it. There is some resistance in good faith and some in bad faith.”

Nor was he inclined to defer to the regime’s egalitarian rhetoric. “Those who can excel should get more–having a few rich people can build a whole country,” he said. Qaddafi’s “Green Book” decreed that people should be “partners, not wage workers,” but it is not easy to make everyone a partner, the Prime Minister observed. “People don’t want to find jobs. They want the government to find them jobs. It’s not viable.”

In reality, the Libyan economy has both satisfied Shukri Ghanem’s expectations while not creating jobs. Unemployment is at 30 percent and has hit youth particularly hard, a factor in the uprisings throughout the Arab world.

Despite allowing British oil companies in, Libya still had an image problem. When it sought outside help, it looked to figures with knowhow on imperialist machinations. After all, they had a lifetime of experience, as politico.com reports:

One of the more unlikely figures to have advised a firm which has worked to burnish Libya’s image and grow its economy is not registered with the Justice Department. Prominent neoconservative Richard Perle, the former Reagan-era Defense Department official and George W. Bush-era chairman of the Defense Policy Board, traveled to Libya twice in 2006 to meet with Qadhafi, and afterward briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on his visits, according to documents released by a Libyan opposition group in 2009.

Perle traveled to Libya as a paid adviser to the Monitor Group, a prestigious Boston-based consulting firm with close ties to leading professors at the Harvard Business School. The firm named Perle a senior adviser in 2006.

The Monitor Group described Perle’s travel to Libya and the recruitment of several other prominent thinkers and former officials to burnish Libya’s and Qadhafi’s image in a series of documents obtained and released by a Libyan opposition group, the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition, in 2009.

The Monitor Group did not return phone calls left at its Boston offices Monday. But Monitor describes, in a series of documents published by the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition in 2009, an “action plan” to “introduce and bring to Libya a meticulously selected group of independent and objective experts” who would be invited to Libya, meet senior officials, hold lectures, attend workshops, and write articles that would more positively portray Libya and its controversial ruler.

A 2007 Monitor memo named among the prominent figures it had recruited to travel to Libya and meet with Qadhafi “as part of the Project to Enhance the Profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi” Perle, historian Francis Fukuyama, Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, famous Nixon interviewer David Frost, and MIT media lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, the brother of former deputy secretary of state and director of national intelligence John Negroponte.

With such talents working to prettify Libya’s image, one doubts that Qaddafi has much need for the unpaid services of the WRP or Fidel Castro.

February 23, 2011

Governor Scott Walker gets punked

Filed under: Wisconsin — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

Read accompanying article



February 22, 2011


Filed under: financial crisis,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm

February 21, 2011

Gene Sharp’s goal: liberty in a world of market imperatives

Filed under: Cold War,Egypt,ussr,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

For obvious reasons, the New York Times has hyped the role of Gene Sharp and his co-thinkers in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. By placing much more emphasis on the struggle against “dictatorship”, all sorts of delicate questions about class relations get deemphasized. By making the struggle one against a Ben Ali or a Mubarak rather than the capitalist system, the newspaper of record hopes to steer things in the direction of Corey Aquino “People’s Power” rather than the kind of social transformation that would leave American corporations on the outside looking in, like a bunch of hungry buzzards.

Michael Barker has written eloquently about the dangers of a Philippines type outcome that people like Gene Sharp, a life-long anti-Communist, would hail. Since events are moving rapidly in Egypt toward a class-versus-class showdown, it seems likely in any event that the Sharpies will have anything much to say. The working class understands that market imperatives can constitute just as much of a dictatorship as Mubarak or Ben Ali. As Ellen Meiksins Wood once put it:

To understand the market as imperative, we have to understand not just how people have been able to respond to the capitalist market but how they have been forced to do so. Capitalism doesn’t just allow people to avail themselves of the market in the pursuit of profit. It forces them to enter the market for the most basic conditions of survival and self-reproduction—and that applies to both workers and capitalists.

That force can be excruciating in countries like Egypt.

In any case, it is worth saying a thing or two about their role of Gene Sharp and company in “color revolutions”, understanding of course that red is the only color in the spectrum that is strictly off-limits.

On February 13th, the Times reported that Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old Egyptian civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, and his fellow activists began reading about nonviolent struggles and “were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp.” The article makes clear that flirtation with leftist themes is not unheard of in these circles, despite Sharp’s hatred of anything connected with communism:

The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist—after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

“The Academy of Change [an émigré group in Qatar] is sort of like Karl Marx, and we are like Lenin,” said Basem Fathy, another organizer who sometimes works with the April 6 Youth Movement and is also the project director at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, which receives grants from the United States and focuses on human rights and election-monitoring. During the protesters’ occupation of Tahrir Square, he said, he used his connections to raise about $5,100 from Egyptian businessmen to buy blankets and tents.

The Times followed up with another article three days later that included references to the three figures who have been at the center of controversy around such interventions. There is obviously Gene Sharp himself, the guru of the movement. The article also quotes Stephen Zunes who shares many of Sharp’s views and who has joined forces with Peter Ackerman, another Sharp disciple, who founded the International Institute of Nonviolent Conflict, upon whose advisory board he sits. Ackerman took classes with Sharp as a graduate student in the 1970s. Since Sharp, now in his 80s, is not really in any position to influence events on the ground, he has ceded leadership to his disciple who runs Rockfort Capital Partners, a private equity firm. Ackerman is almost certainly a billionaire. One has to wonder how much currency Sharp’s ideas would have abroad without the venture capitalist’s fiscal support.

In keeping with the flirtation with the left in the earlier NYT article, we read that:

Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty — in the 1950s, he wrote for a publication called “Peace News” and he once worked as personal secretary to A. J. Muste, a noted labor union activist and pacifist — but he insists that he outgrew his own early pacifism and describes himself as “trans-partisan.”

The Muste connection is interesting. In the 1930s, Muste was the leader of a group called the Workers Party that spearheaded major labor struggles. In James P. Cannon’s “History of American Trotskyism” there is a useful discussion of Muste’s importance. When Cannon found his own Trotskyist group growing closer to Muste’s, he broached the subject of a fusion that Muste was agreeable to. The Trotskyists were at that time doing what is called “entryism” in Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party. When they were expelled, they united with Muste as the Socialist Workers Party, reflecting each group’s antecedents.

Eventually Muste abandoned Marxism and became a Christian pacifist. As a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Muste became critical in the formation of the Vietnam antiwar coalitions that would challenge the imperialist war-makers. One crucial difference between Muste and Sharp was their chosen arena of struggle. Muste targeted his own government while Sharp saw his role as providing leadership to struggles elsewhere, particularly in the Soviet bloc countries. During the Korean War Sharp spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector. He also took part in some civil rights protests but from the 1960s onwards his emphasis has been on providing consultation to people in other countries.

Zunes mocks the idea of the elderly Gene Sharp fomenting uprisings in other countries:

“He is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action,” said Stephen Zunes, an expert in that field at the University of San Francisco. “Some of these exaggerated stories of him going around the world and starting revolutions and leading mobs, what a joke. He’s much more into doing the research and the theoretical work than he is in disseminating it.”

That might be true, but if you look at Peter Ackerman’s International Center on Nonviolent Conflict as an extension of Sharp’s empire of peaceful resistance, there is no question about a division of labor. Sharp provided the ideas, Ackerman the money and bodies.

The article takes up Peter Ackerman’s role:

When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr. Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to “protest disrobing” to “disclosing identities of secret agents.”

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said that some activists translated excerpts of Mr. Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of “attacking weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.

Peter Ackerman, a onetime student of Mr. Sharp who founded the nonviolence center and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that “ideas have power.”

If you read the study guide for “Bringing Down a Dictator”, a documentary that Ackerman executive produced, you will find a most interesting discussion point:

The United States government gave over $25 million dollars in aid to Otpor and other opposition groups during the movement against Milosevic. Some of these groups declared themselves to be anti-American. What is the purpose of the US funding of anti-American groups overseas?

While I doubt that Otpor could be considered anti-American, whoever was shrewd enough to write the study guide surely understands the role of people like Stephen Zunes and the importance of funding groups like the April Sixth Movement in Egypt that was trying to overthrow America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, next to the Israelis. People like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are simply too stupid to understand America’s long-term interests in the Middle East. A Mubarak, like a Ferdinand Marcos, presents serious problems to social stability. He had to be replaced even as he was being supported. It is this kind of contradiction that far-sighted people in the ruling class have come to understand, perhaps a function of having read Karl Marx as undergraduates.

Like George Soros, Peter Ackerman is very far-sighted. While Soros sees the wisdom of putting Christian Parenti on the payroll of Open Society, Ackerman chooses Zunes. If you want some credibility on the left, these types of cooptation are essential.

Not content to include Zunes’s dismissal of charges that Sharp is running some kind of private spook network, the article makes the point a second time:

In 2008, Iran featured Mr. Sharp, along with Senator John McCain of Arizona and the Democratic financier George Soros, in an animated propaganda video that accused Mr. Sharp of being the C.I.A. agent “in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries,” an assertion his fellow scholars find ludicrous.

But if you see Ackerman as the instrument of Sharp’s ideas, the idea is not so ludicrous. As I mentioned in an earlier article on the venture capitalist, Ackerman was the former director of Freedom House, a group that was also run at one time by James Woolsey, former director of the CIA.

The New York Times articles on Gene Sharp prompted me to take a fresh look at Peter Ackerman, to see what the rat has been up to. Apparently, his main interest in life, besides making money, is running or serving on the boards of outfits like Freedom House. Sourcewatch  has a very good dossier on Ackerman.

There we learn that Ackerman now sits on the board of Spirit of America, a group that is “dedicated to spreading US influence worldwide, with a particular emphasis on covert cyber-intelligence measures”. In 2005 Trish Schuh wrote an article for Counterpunch that explored its role in the Middle East:

Another Spirit of America governor is Lt General Mike DeLong, Deputy Commander, US Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. DeLong manages a budget of $8.2 billion and “conceived and implemented the Global War on Terrorism, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.” As top Deputy to former General Tommy Franks, DeLong’s listed expertise at places such as the Army War College, the Department of Defense and the Amphibious Warfare School included Artillery, military intelligence, coup détats, supporting democracy.

Ackerman is also on the advisory board of the Cato Institute’s Project on Social Security Choice. Not surprisingly, they claim that “allowing younger workers to privately invest their Social Security taxes through individual accounts will improve Social Security’s rate of return.”

But what difference does it make if their individual accounts at Goldman-Sachs or Merrill-Lynch go up in flames during the next stock market crash? There will always be jobs for the elderly as greeters at Walmart. And if they are unhappy with their fate, they can always vote for the candidate of their choice at the next election even if both candidates favor keeping Social Security as a shell game run by the rich. After all, it could be worse. You might be in a country like Egypt with fraudulent elections. It is much better, isn’t it, to give people a choice? That’s what Gene Sharp and Peter Ackerman have always been about, endeavoring to allow people full liberty in a world of market imperatives.

February 19, 2011

Workers of the world unite

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

Hat tip Kasama Project

February 17, 2011

Zero Bridge

Filed under: Film,Kashmir — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

Watch Trailer

Opening yesterday at the Film Forum in New York, “Zero Bridge” is a neorealist film about two young people in Srinagar, Kashmir struggling for independence and self-realization. Filmed on location, there are obvious references to this capital city of the Indian-controlled section of the country as being in a war zone, but this is not a political film in the obvious sense. It is instead a deeply personal story about what it means to be trapped in a society where the weight of tradition bears down heavily on the shoulders of the young. In that sense it is universal.

Dilawar is a 17 year old Muslim boy who we meet in the opening scene of “Zero Bridge” on the very bridge in Srinagar from whence the movie derives its title. It is a kind of exit ramp for people trying to escape economic privation and civil war. Dilawar is there to meet a low-level criminal who will take him on as an apprentice pickpocket. While standing on the bridge, an Indian soldier demands to see his identity papers and to warn him that no loitering is allowed. The soldier explains that terrorists consider the bridge a tempting target and he risks being shot if he ignores warnings that are posted on the bridge.

Eventually his acquaintance shows up on a motor scooter and the two drive off looking for people to rip off. Their first victim is Bani, a young Hindu woman whose pocketbook Dilawar deftly lifts while she is not looking. Later when Dilawar and his partner bicker over how to divide up the loot, an Indian soldier overhears them and takes them off to jail.

Lacking a record, Dilawar is released to his uncle who brings him home. In essence, Dilawar is exchanging one jail for another since the uncle sees the youth as a domestic servant. He has also put him to work as his apprentice in his small-scale masonry business, but senses that the uncommonly bright young man is not cut out for construction work.

His intelligence has no outlet unfortunately in a place like Srinagar. About the best thing he can do with it is prepare his friends’ math homework for money, just one step up from pick-pocketing.

Director Tariq Tapa, the 29 year old son of a Kashmiri Muslim father and a Jewish-American mother, states that Charles Dickens is one of his major influences artistically. Surely, the plot coincidences so key to Dickens’ fiction must have persuaded to introduce Dilawar to Bani through sheer happenstance. When Dilawar brings his clients’ homework to her shipping office (a kind of uniquely Kashmiri blend of UPS and the post office) to be mailed to their school, they develop a bond before long. She is struck by his combination of native intelligence and a brusqueness that she perceives as a defense mechanism. We can interpret this as a consequence of their religious differences, even though this does not come out in the dialog. The film is filled with such implicit and nuanced character interaction, a sign of a mature film-maker despite this being Tapa’s very first film.

Both Dilawar and Bani struggle with the narrow outlooks of their family. In Dilawar’s case, his uncle Ali (played by Ali Muhammed Dar, a full-time carpenter and mason from Srinigar) sees him almost exclusively as an economic unit that can be exploited in his business. If Dilawar leaves his uncle’s home, that is a loss of revenue and little else. Once again, if we think in terms of Charles Dickens, the ties to Oliver Twist cannot be missed. Bani (Taniya Khan, a computer science student from Srinagar who has never acted before, like everyone else in the cast) appears to be more independent than Dilawar since she has a steady job but her family would never allow her to marry someone like Dilawar for all the obvious reasons.

Dilawar is played by Mohammad Emran Tapa, the director’s cousin. The press notes give you a flavor of the DIY approach of the director that eventually convinced him that his cousin was right for the role:

That night, my cousin Imran and I were playing chess when I suddenly knew that he was Dilawar. I didn’t want to just come right out and ask him to do it, so I began to test him in little ways. I began inviting him into the acting workshops I was holding and examined how he did with the other (first-time) actors. He did very well, really bringing his own personal history to the role and enhancing what I had written. So I offered him the lead part. I handed him a blank 500-page notebook and told him to fill it with Dilawar’s thoughts, as if they were his own. That helped him get into character, and it kept him occupied while I continued pre-production.

I also showed him “The 400 Blows” and “Il Posto”. He got very excited about being in a film like this. All he had ever seen before were Bollywood romances and Hollywood action movies; never movies about someone just like himself, movies with people who had never performed before. That’s when he began to see my point: that anyone can act, as long as the person is correctly cast, made to feel like a collaborator, and is given simple, specific directions to keep his performance as un-self-conscious and as physical as possible.

Tariq Tapa’s ability to recruit and direct a cast of non-professional actors is impressive, but even more so was his virtual one-man band filming on location. Armed with nothing but a digital camera, Tariq Tapa worked totally on his own. He filmed Dilawar with a hand-held camera since the herky-jerky effect conveyed his insecurities as a character. Scenes with Bani or the two together were done with the camera mounted on a tripod. Considering the difficulties of filming in a war zone and where crime is rampant (Dilawar’s pick-pocketing was consistent with a ruined economy offering few jobs for the young), it is a miracle not only that he could carry it off but make something so accomplished.

The press notes include two articles that serve to put Srinagar in context. One is an op-ed piece written by Arundhati Roy that appeared in the November 8, 2010 New York Times (Kashmir’s Fruits of Discord). Roy writes:

The atmosphere on the highway between Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, and my destination, the little apple town of Shopian in the south, was tense. Groups of soldiers were deployed along the highway, in the orchards, in the fields, on the rooftops and outside shops in the little market squares. Despite months of curfew, the “stone pelters” calling for “azadi” (freedom), inspired by the Palestinian intifada, were out again. Some stretches of the highway were covered with so many of these stones that you needed an S.U.V. to drive over them.

The other was written by Isabel Hilton for the New Yorker Magazine in March 11, 2002 (Between the Mountains) and fortunately is not behind a subscriber’s firewall. Hilton provides some necessary historical background:

When the French doctor François Bernier entered the Kashmir Valley for the first time, in 1665, he was astounded by what he found. “In truth,” he wrote, it “surpasses in beauty all that my warm imagination had anticipated. It is not indeed without reason that the Moghuls call Kachemire the terrestrial paradise of the Indies.” The valley, which is some ninety miles long and twenty miles across, is sumptuously fertile. Along its floor, there are walnut and almond trees, orchards of apricots and apples, vineyards, rice paddies, hemp and saffron fields. There are woods on the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains—sycamore, oak, pine, and cedar. The southern side is bounded by the Pir Panjal, not the highest mountain range in Asia but one of the most striking, rising abruptly from the valley floor. The northern boundary is formed by the Great Himalayas. At the heart of the valley lie Dal Lake and the graceful capital, Srinagar.

For Europeans, Kashmir became a locus of romantic dreams, inspiring writers like the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who didn’t even need to visit it to understand its charms. “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere,” he wrote in 1817, “with its roses the brightest that earth ever gave.” So seductive was this landlocked valley that, like a beautiful woman surrounded by jealous lovers, Kashmir attracted a succession of invaders, each eager to possess her.

The Moghuls established their control in the sixteenth century. Kashmir became the northern limit of their Indian empire as well as their pleasure ground, a place to wait out the summer heat of the plains. They built gardens in Srinagar, along the shores of Dal Lake, with cool and elegantly proportioned terraces—with fountains and roses and jasmine and rows of chinar trees. The Moghul rulers were followed by the Afghans and, later, by the Sikhs from the Punjab, who were driven out in the nineteenth century by the British, who then sold the valley, to the abiding shame of its residents, for seven and a half million rupees to the maharaja, Gulab Singh. Singh was the notoriously brutal Hindu ruler of Jammu, the region that lay to the south, beyond the Pir Panjal, on the edge of the plains of the Punjab.

Under Singh, the Kashmir Valley was conjoined in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. According to one calculation of the purchase, the ruler of the newly formed state had bought the people of Kashmir for approximately three rupees each, a sum he was to recover many times over through taxation. For the maharaja and his descendants and their visitors, the valley was a luxurious paradise; they enjoyed fishing and duck shooting, boating excursions on Dal Lake, picnics in the hills and the saffron fields, moonlit parties in the magnificent gardens. In the penetrating cold of the winters, the visitors, and the maharaja, left the valley to itself and returned to Jammu.

Despite the emphasis of “Zero Bridge” on the hard-scrabble side of Srinagar, director-screenwriter-cameraman-editor (!) Tariq Tapa captures the beauty that surrounds this gateway to the historical Silk Route. Putting in a pitch for my own brand of unrepentant Marxism, I can only state that one of the tasks of socialism is to recapture the original beauty of places like Afghanistan, Nepal, Kashmir and make them accessible to the non-colonizing tourist and economically secure for the indigenous populations.

“Zero Bridge”: highly recommended.

February 16, 2011

Imported from Detroit

Filed under: financial crisis,workers — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

One of the most widely-discussed commercials that premiered during the Super Bowl this year was for the Chrysler 200. It features Eminem, the misogynist white rapper from Detroit, in an effort to dramatize the slogan “Imported from Detroit”.

The ad does not shrink from showing images of urban decay that these words accompany:

What does this city know about luxury, huh? What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell you — more than most. You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.

Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for. Now, we’re from America, but this isn’t New York City or the Windy City or Sin City, and we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.

It also shows images from the Detroit’s storied past, including an identified mural that is unmistakably 1930s WPA type art, with muscular auto workers on the assembly line. It turns out that the mural Detroit Industrial was painted by Diego Rivera, a Mexican artist with well-known sympathies for Leon Trotsky. His wife Frida Kahlo, a great artist in her own right, had an affair with Trotsky when he lived in Coyoacán.

For a good overview on Rivera’s mural, I recommend the article Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry: What Was, Is and Will Be whose author is unidentified, although obviously something of an expert on left culture. He or she writes:

In 1933, during the Great Depression, Diego Rivera completed his monumental mural Detroit Industry in the central court of the Detroit Insitute of Arts. The commission was made possible due to a large donation from Edsel B. Ford, the son of Henry Ford and the President of Ford Motor Company.  The 27-panels of fresco capture a unified and optimistic vision of Detroit industrial life.  Created after a month of observing the inner workings of Ford’s River Rouge complex the mural tells a story of a meticulously organized and efficiently productive factory.  On the north wall assembly line employees of all races work together pushing, pulling, and building the various parts of motors and engines. On the south wall the plant workers continue welding and riveting bodies of automobiles in different states of completion. It is hard to image the sense of union and hope that Rivera expressed in these paintings coming out of the Detroit that we know today. In the over 75 years since the creation of Rivera’s mural Detroit has been through a tremendous amount of change. It went from being the golden automobile empire of America to being the host of deadly and damaging race riots to a city struggling with drug abuse to a ghost town of post-industrial collapse and crime and violence. Detroit is steeped in this history, yet its current identity does not end here. It also embodies a frontier-like spirit. With its artist’s collectives, activists and experimental architects Detroit feels like it is on the verge of becoming something exciting and new amidst all of the urban decay and ruins. There is no better time than at this transitional point in the city’s history to re-examine the mural that once embodied all the power and glory that is now lost and to trace it’s meaning from its inception in 1932 to its role today in contemporary Detroit.

The Detroit Industry mural was created in the monumental fresco style. In the same way that Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescos of 1305 speak to the power of catholism and the early renaissance, Rivera’s frescos speak to industrialization and man’s relationship to industrialized work. Considering that Rivera belonged to the Communist Party his homage to industralization in a capitalist country seems to expose a personal dichotomy. Yet Rivera maintained a marginal Marxist belief that technology would speed up the destruction of a capitalist society and in turn social inequality, “as portrayed by Rivera, machines were benevolent and triumphant, the redeeming engines of the utopian future” (Hamill 156). When Rivera arrived in Detroit to begin work on the murals the city was in a state of turmoil:

Rivera came to Detroit at the depth of the Great Depression in the spring of 1932. In most ways, things couldn’t have been worse. Half the autoworkers in the city were out of jobs. The banks were all closed, with the city printing its own worthless scrip just so people could pay bills. A month before Rivera’s arrival, the Ford Hunger March had taken place, when police shot dead four demonstrators at the Rouge River plant (Herron 679).

Rivera believed that the machines of recent technology would liberate man from the devastating forces of nature and social inequality (Anreus 206). His aim in depicting this idealized vision of industrialization and work was not to accurately document the current reality of Detroit industry but instead to inspire a hope and faith that Detroit would overcome its present dire situation.

One can imagine the clever copy-writers hired by Chrysler purposely including Rivera’s mural since as was the case when it was originally created it, like the ad it appears in, was meant to inspire a hope and faith that Detroit would overcome its present dire situation–a situation that the big 3 auto makers had a major role in.

In distinction to the period that Detroit was about to enter into when the mural was commissioned, the trade union movement is in no position today to challenge the malefactors of great wealth, as FDR dubbed them.

Although the Youtube clip shown below is for a movie that exists only in someone’s imagination (what they call a concept trailer), it is a pretty good depiction of Detroit realities in the late 1930s. I got a chuckle out of seeing Charlize Theron cast as the Trotskyist leader of the woman’s auxiliary Genora Johnson!

These struggles were from the heroic days of the UAW. Today, it is reduced not only in numbers but in class consciousness. Once a part of a fighting movement, now it is a hollowed-out shell good for lavishing its members money on candidates who return the favor by kicking them in the teeth.

After being owned briefly by private equity firm Cerberus from 2007 to 2008, 55 percent of Chrysler ownership went into the hands of the UAW. Or more specifically, the union’s retirement health fund. In exchange for assuming the risk of a troubled company, the UAW made a series of concessions. Most notably, all new hires would be paid $12 to $14 per hour, just one step up from Walmart or Home Depot and competitive with non-union companies in the South like Honda and Toyota.

The World Socialist Website had this to say on the agreement:

The UAW, which is being advised by the Wall Street investment firm Lazard, will gain seats on the auto companies’ boards of directors and will play a major role in restructuring and downsizing the firms, from product selection and ensuring “competitive labor rates” at key suppliers, to reviewing the company’s global production plans.

Once thousands of jobs are cut and the workers are stripped of what remains of the gains won in past struggles, the share value of Chrysler and GM will rise, guaranteeing vast profits for Wall Street and its junior partner, the UAW.

The UAW is seeking to ram through the new contract with Chrysler in a ratification vote today—less than 24 hours after workers were given the UAW’s list of contract “highlights.” Even what the UAW executives have chosen to include in their handout to the workers—as always, a dishonest and self-serving document designed to conceal more than it reveals—demonstrates that the UAW is a “union” in name only.

Everything workers have traditionally associated with a trade union—the right to strike, higher wages and benefits than non-union workers, shop floor protections, a chance to retire with a secure pension and health care benefits—has been jettisoned.

There will no longer be even the pretense of collective bargaining and contract guarantees. Instead, according to the contract summary, wage and benefit rates “will be based on Chrysler maintaining an all-in hourly labor cost comparable to its US competitors, including transplant automotive manufacturers.”

In other words, the UAW brass was carrying out the same agenda that the Governor of Wisconsin is carrying out against public workers unions. The fact that the company is mostly owned by the workers (whatever that means) should give ideologists of co-ops something to chew on.

The Chrysler ad is not getting fairly heavy play on television now, but without Eminem’s presence—only his voice-over.

The notion of an automobile renaissance in Detroit is rather far-fetched, if one thinks that workers will be part of it. Unlike Michael Moore’s misty-eyed nostalgia for the partnership that once existed between labor and capital under FDR, those days are gone forever. Barack Obama’s connivance in shafting the UAW rank-and-file should be evidence enough of that, even though probably nothing could shake Michael Moore out of his Democratic Party illusions.

Also of interest is the question of American manufacturing making a comeback, even if the workers are reduced to wage levels barely capable of keeping a roof over their heads. Is a new cycle of capital accumulation in store? Are we seeing a “creative destruction” in Schumpeterian terms that can lead to a new expansion of the means of production?

British Marxist economist Michael Roberts thinks not. On his blog he asserted that “US capitalism is no longer a progressive force in the development of productive forces.” He did not use the word progressive in the sense that it is used on Rachel Maddow’s show but in the Marxist sense:

But US capitalism has now got old and less and less progressive. The US capitalist economy now has more sectors of its economy that act as a parasite on the productive sectors of the economy, living off the value generated there. These parasitic sectors do not produce value but merely usurp or extract that value from the productive sectors, indeed to the point where they seem more profitable. These unproductive sectors include finance, real estate, insurance (called FIRE), wholesale merchanting, advertising and marketing and government. Many of them may be necessary to capitalism in lubricating the system with credit or providing a healthy and educated workforce. But they are at a cost to the productive sectors, like manufacturing, agriculture, mining, utilities, transport and communications.

His graphs are very instructive, including one that shows that “by 1937, the productive sectors of the US economy were predominant, contributing nearly 60% of annual output. The really parasitic parts of the economy (FIRE) were still little more than 10% of annual output.”

As it turns out, 1936 and 1937 were exactly the years in which the Flint Sit-Down strikes took place. It is not too hard to figure out that when manufacturing predominated in the U.S., the workers had much more leverage in wresting demands from the bosses. Closing down GM, Ford and Chrysler plants in the late 1930s were tantamount to small general strikes that could force the bosses to stand down. Today, a sit-down strike at the plant that churns out Chrysler 200s would likely lead to the UAW brass condemning the workers and very possibly persuading the bourgeois investors in the company to relocate it to Mexico or shut it down completely.

Leon Trotsky and Diego Rivera’s Marxism is “Fordist” in its conceptions. It posits a country that is heavily industrialized. In our “post-Fordist” world new thinking has to prevail. It is one thing for an advertising agency to con television viewers that the clock is being turned back in Detroit. It is much more likely that money will continue to flow toward places where the greatest return can be made. That, after all, is what the capitalist system is about, not raising up workers’ standard of living. The sooner that workers wake up to that reality, the closer we will be to transforming a system that is not only not progressive in the sense conveyed by Michael Roberts but that is a threat to our continued existence.

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